VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
by John Morrison
80: Running Repairs
It's Autumn in Milltown, the time of year when we get a wistful yearning for parkin, cinder toffee and Leonard Cohen songs. The weather is dire. The leaves haven't had the chance to flutter delicately to the ground; they've been ripped from their branches by savage winds and driving rain. The poet who wrote so blithely about a season of 'mellow fruitfulness' was out with his timing by about six months. He certainly can't have spent much time in the South Pennines.
We're pretty stoical about bad weather; those of us who came to live in Milltown knew what we were getting into. We weren't misled by the small print in the contract; there's no point in complaining. We listen to the news, and we know what's going on. Dry weather: global warming. Wet weather: global warming. Alternating wet and dry weather: global warming. Protracted periods of especially wet... or dry... or changeable weather: yes, that'll be global warming.
The rain lashes relentlessly against our little terraced houses: lifting roof slates, permeating badly-pointed facades and driving through cracks in rotten window frames. Like the probing jabs of a quick-handed boxer, the rain seeks out the weak spots in our defences. It mocks the half-arsed attempts of artless bodgers to make running repairs to their dilapidated homes in Hippy Street. Slapdash DIY that seems overly reliant on cardboard, sticky tape and string, with scrunched-up newspaper to staunch the gaps where the wind whistles straight through. If it wasn't for their intemperate drug intake, there are plenty of folk in Hippy Street who could have made the grade as Blue Peter presenters.
It's ironic: those who campaign most vehemently for the provision of local amenities are often the worst offenders in maintaining the fabric of their own homes. We can't deny that a recycling bin for old tarot cards would be very handy, but we don't need to look far into the future to see that what Hippy Street really needs is a little basic carpentry here and a lick of paint there.
These houses may have been built to withstand the worst of Pennine weather, but it takes only a few years of wilful neglect to make the local odd-job man shake his head, suck his teeth and retrieve a pencil from behind his ear. A few figures scribbled on the back of a fag packet are enough to convince cash-strapped householders that vital repairs will have to be postponed for yet another year.
Wounded Man is one householder who will be tossing and turning through many a sleepless winters night, listening for the tell-tales signs of imminent disaster: the creaking of floorboards, the insistent 'drip, drip, drip' of water from unlagged pipes and the last, asthmatic gasps from a geriatric central heating boiler. In those wee, small hours a man with an overactive imagination can almost hear the conspiratorial conversations of death watch beetles, as they draw lots to see which vital, load-bearing stanchion they'll chomp through next.
To take his mind off such depressing matters, Wounded Man decides to chop some wood. If the boiler's about to blow, best make contingency plans. He finds it immensely satisfying to transform an untidy heap of branches into a neat pile of split logs and a few baskets of kindling. It's a simple, repetitive, strangely absorbing task: the perfect antidote to life's more baffling complexities. Passers-by don't ask: "What the hell are you doing that for?" They instinctively understand a man's primeval need to bludgeon inanimate objects into submission. It's self-explanatory. Wounded Man doesn't need an instruction manual, or a telephone help-line, or an over-paid consultant to tell him what to do. He only needs to bend his back to get warmed twice over: first from the chopping, later from the fire.
He weighs the axe in his hands, finding it reassuringly heavy, and runs a cautious thumb along the blade. He spits on his palms (he doesn't know why, it's just part of the ritual), takes a swing and brings the axe down in a wide arc onto a fat log. 'Thwack': his bank manager's balding head is almost severed from his shoulders. 'Thwack': it rolls along the cobblestones and comes to rest in the gutter. With every frenzied blow Wounded Man runs through a rosta of retribution; with every week that goes by, the list seems to get longer. By the time he gets around to the bloke who short-changed him down at the wholefood shop, he's gasping for breath, his brow is glistening with sweat and a morning's work is done.
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