Last month, Maggie’s house burned down.
“Have you got a few minutes to talk?” she said on the phone.
I’ve always got time to talk with Maggie, whatever I’m doing.
“There’s been a fire”, she said, “everything’s gone, Alec.”
I had a deep, grim, sinking feeling in my stomach, as I could begin to hear the shaking in her voice. Everything meant not just those things that can be replaced, but those that can’t, like family photographs, photos of Chris and Kerry at Winchester, where they were choristers in the cathedral, Phil’s grandfather’s war medals, bits and pieces left to Maggie by our mother. The cottage stands in some sizeable amount of ground in a rural area of West Sussex, with an orchard, grazing, and some sheep and chickens too. Maggie and Phil had been renovating and extending the cottage throughout the year, and as all the utilities and amenities had been turned off while building work was in progress, they had been living in the log cabin at the far side of the orchard, which Phil uses as a work office. What caused the fire is not completely established, but suspicion has fallen on an electrical fault, for electricity had been restored to part of the cottage by the builders a day or so before, and it was from the cabin, as Maggie was on the telephone to her friend Christine in Glasgow, that she saw an orange glow in the cottage across the orchard. By the time the fire tenders arrived and brought it under control, the cottage had been gutted, including the new kitchen in the extension, all the new windows, the new roof, the oak flooring that had been delivered and not yet laid. I haven’t asked what the damage estimates are, but the windows and timber alone I know run to five figures. The greatest relief is that no one was in the cottage when the fire started, and the dogs, Judy, Scholar and Morse were out in the field.
Hamish, the landlord of the pub a mile or so down the road, immediately gave them somewhere to live during the aftermath of the fire, and then friends in the village who were going abroad for a spell gave them their house keys and told them to use their house as long as they needed. They now have a place in the next village, which they moved in to on Christmas Eve, rented by the insurance company, close enough for Maggie to see to the livestock every day, and which they’ll live in while the rebuilding and refurbishing progresses, though that, they reckon, will be at least a year, as nothing now will happen until March.
Maggie might be my little sister, but she’s a resilient gal and knows how to make the best of things. Frances and I went across on New Year’s Day for dinner, stuffed goose for the carnivores, and Kerry had rustled up (is this the right word here?) for the vegetarians (me) a roulade with blue cheese, spinach, and something else which I forget (there was some whisky flowing which may have contributed to this temporary forgetfulness). Kerry had made mulled wine – or it was supposed to be mulled wine, but he’d run out of some of the spices so he threw in a bunch of fruit instead, making something that was an easy way to consume much alcohol without realizing it.
We played ‘Ingenuity’ later. I don’t know if you’ve encountered this before – I hadn’t – but it involves cards with anagram words on one side and clues on the other, and you have to guess as many words as possible in your turn of ninety seconds against the clock. Then you pick up letter tiles to make up other words, a bit like Scrabble, for more points. We played in teams, Frances and I, Graham and Mary, Maggie and Phil. Maggie warned us this game could break up families, and my word, when tactics involved taking tiles from other players to make up your own words, I began to believe it. ‘You bastard!’ she screamed as I picked a needed tile from her set. ‘You’re supposed to be my big brother!’ And in her turn, she vindictively raided our tiles just as I was homing in on a ten-letter game-winning word. Phil was no less treacherous when, with just forty points between us and our turn a possible winning turn, he started his deceitful tactics of ‘accidentally’ obscuring the anagram with his fingers so we couldn’t make it out, reading the clues unbelievably slowly in order to waste as much as possible of our ninety seconds on the egg-timer. But we still won, though how much the whisky and mulled fruity wine contributed to my abilities to recognize words is still something for pondering on.
We put the board games away, and, dusk having fallen, went to the pub. I hadn’t known that Hamish had a wooden leg. He had a slightly stiff gait, but only something you’d have thought of as a stiff ankle. One day I will get round to asking him where his leg went. Hamish is as close as it’s possible to get to an ideal pub landlord. He’s tall, affable, knows his customers, keeps good real ales, and has a sign on the wall warning what will happen to those who don’t have their mobile phones switched off. There is an open fire, no music boxes, no game boxes, just ancient pictures on the walls, and bits of farming and horse paraphernalia. This is ‘country’ country, so it’s wise not to say anything about hunting if you’re against it. I can’t remember what we talked about, but I do know that if we were in the cabinet, we’d have solved seven tenths of the problems faced by society today. Hamish kept a quiet surveying eye over everyone’s glasses. When my pint of Sussex had reached the bottom of the glass, there was a slight nod from Hamish to draw my attention and I saw that he had his elbow resting on the pump, a new pint proffered in one hand and an empty hand waiting for the empty glass. One of the things you don’t realize, as a town-dweller, is just how spectacular the night sky looks. We’d filed out of the Stag nearly an hour after closing time, close to midnight, since we guessed that even Hamish had to go to bed some time, and with no street lights for miles and miles, the sky was a huge black dome sprinkled with huge motionless constellations. To the south, Orion, then Auriga, and Gemini, and Perseus, over to the Great Bear in the north and a rush of stars coursing along the length of the milky way. Of all the things that would have you stop and think about who and what you are, and where you are in the universe, nothing has the power of the stillness of the vast and jeweled sky at night.