May 15th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Logs, Language, Fires and Flues Part Five (The Pole Vaulter and the Wasp)

(To recap: It's February 1995 and my decision to move to France with one wife, two cats, one horse and an enormous constipated puppy had caused a major disruption in the space-time continuum such that the improbable was now the mundane and the impossible a weekly event.  Now, with a chimney to clean and nowhere else to put the brush someone had to climb onto our three-storey high roof.)

But was our ladder long enough?

It wasn't. Not by a storey.

And the skylights were too small. Which left ... what?

We stood in the courtyard and surveyed the roofline. Was there another way? Perhaps via the outbuildings?

I could see what looked like a footstool balanced against the wall of the house where it met the ridge of the adjoining outbuilding roof. There was only about three or four feet of wall to the main roof's gutter at that point. If I placed the ladder up against the gable wall of the far outbuilding, I could walk along the L shaped ridge and use the footstool to climb onto the main roof.

Shelagh looked at the roof and then at me. It was not the prelude to a vote of confidence.

I tried to explain to her that this was the Sud, where roofs were dry and low-pitched and covered in householders. I'd read about it, I’d seen the pictures. It was one of the joys of owning an old canal-tiled roof where only gravity held the tiles in place - the need to spend the odd day sat on the roof, reshuffling tiles and replacing missing or broken tiles. It was a way of life. And if an eighty year-old paysan could do it - then why couldn't I?

I think Shelagh was on the verge of providing me with a detailed list, when I quickly changed the subject back to ladders. And as neither five extra men nor an ambulance were in obvious sight, the subject of my fitness for the task was quickly dropped.

So I propped the ladder up against the gable wall, Shelagh handed me the rods and brush, and up I went. At the top, I paused to test the ridge tiles with a few trial prods. Everything seemed in order. The ridge tiles were stable and I could feel no give as I tentatively edged myself off the ladder and crawled onto the roof.

I moved one limb at a time. Shifting my weight slowly from hand to knee, straddling the ridge, sliding the rods and brush ahead of me, feeling out the tiles for any sign of give.

I was not looking to win any prizes for speed or bravery. Even though the roof was dry and low-pitched, it was still a roof and the ground was still the ground.

How things change. When I was young I had no fear of heights. I'd swing from the tops of trees, oblivious to gravity, secure in the knowledge that if I fell, I was quick and agile enough to grab a passing branch.

I sometimes miss that single-perspective certainty of youth. If anyone then had told me to stop and didn't I realise how dangerous it was, I'd have replied, "of course I do." But the relevance of the question would have eluded me. I wasn't intending to fall so what was the point in asking? All I could envision was success.

But now, I had wisdom. And wisdom had commissioned imagination to produce a report on the dangers of walking on roofs. Apparently there were at least fifty ways to break a neck, more if you skimmed through the appendices.

That's when I saw the first wasp - something imagination had neglected to warn me about. It flew into a gap under one of the tiles in front of my left hand. I froze.

Another wasp appeared. And then another. Coming out from the tiles this time as well as going in.

I edged forward, holding my breath, trying to glide over the tiles without making any noise.

Crunch. A tile shifted under the weight of my hand and grated against its neighbour.

The next second there were wasps flying around my head and I was up and running. My fear of wasps pushing everything else aside, I made the elbow of the roof in under a second. I could feel the slight give in the ridge tiles, the scraping, crunchy sound they made as their edges rasped against each other. But what did that matter, I was being pursued by wasps!

I didn't stop at the elbow, I leant into the bend and jumped across the angle, momentum and fear carrying me across the entire forty yards of roof to the wall of the main house.

Wisdom had left me sometime between the third and fourth wasp. And taken all fifty ways of breaking my neck with it. Leaving me blinkered again, one goal in mind - to escape. I wouldn't have been surprised if I'd snapped a couple of rods together and pole-vaulted onto the main roof. I was in that determined a frame of mind.

"What are you doing?" shouted an incredulous Shelagh.

"What do you think I'm doing?" I shouted back. Wasn't it obvious? Anyone would have thought she'd never seen a man run across a roof, pursued by a cloud of killer wasp mutant hornets before.

"Wasps," I added.

"It's too early for wasps."

(next instalment: Why it's never too early or late for wasps)