I don’t know the science behind it but there’s a period every year when, after a long spell of rain, a thunderstorm roars up like a gang of Hell’s Angels gatecrashing a party. At its worst it rips out trees, tears off roofs and hurls hailstones the size of golfballs that smash roof-tiles and dent the bodywork of cars. Generally though, the gang seems content with having a little barbecue – grilling the electrics in the house. So, naturally, soon after distant rumbling starts we are in the habit of unplugging the computer and ‘phone connections and crossing our fingers.
“Have you still got your old laptop?” I ask Jane.
I vaguely remember we were going to give it away but it’s got an English (QWERTY) keyboard so it’s a bit of a white elephant in France.
“Yes, I think so, but the battery’s dead. It still works on the mains, though,” she replies. “I was hanging on to it in case one of our French friends might want to learn English and typing at the same time…”
“So, no takers yet?”
“No, not yet, but it’s only been two years.”
I hesitate for a moment.
“Jane, I’ve been thinking…”
Jane tenses, as she usually does when she hears this phrase.
“I’ve been thinking about these electrical storms and not being able to use my Mac.”
“Well, while we’re waiting for this impoverished French anglophile reformed-technophobe to turn up and confide their secret ambition, I was wondering if I could use it for a bit – you know, during the thunderstorms. Of course, it would be simpler if I just used a pen and paper, but I can’t seem to read my own writing anymore…”
Jane puts on her positive, can-do face and says, “OK. It must be in the barn. Let’s go and find it now.”
“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” says Jane, with a sigh, as she teases a cobweb out of her hair.
Eventually we find the laptop, in a box labelled ‘Blanket’.
“You know what you were saying about needles in haystacks?” I say to Jane. “Recently, I thought I’d test out that cliché.”
“What?!” says Jane, who is a bit distracted as she finds another cobweb in her hair, this one with a spider in it.
“You know I mowed the field last week,” I continue, “and raked up all the cut grass and bracken into six enormous piles. Well, I had a bit of time on my hands so I thought I’d time how long it takes to find a needle in one of them – or even in each of them, so I could calculate the average time, to make it more scientific.”
“So what was the result?” asks Jane, combing her hair with her fingers, then examining her hand for more cobwebs or spiders.
“No luck, I’m afraid. I couldn’t find a needle to do the experiment with. I think the sewing equipment is somewhere here in the barn. It was like looking for a…”
“Well, at least it should be easier to find the mouse – I’ve noticed some droppings over in that corner.”
Finding the mouse doesn’t take much time at all – the fact it was in a box labelled ‘Toys for Radar’ (our cat) was a bit of a give-away. All we need now is a power cable – one with a British socket on one end and a French plug on the other. Nothing simpler in this barn. Unfortunately the cable is fifteen metres long. I plug it in to the socket and the cable is coiled and twisted around my feet. Radar comes downstairs with the intention of jumping on my lap – but he trips on the cable and walks away discouraged.
“With a cable this long I could type in the garden,” I say.
“Yes… but I thought you said you wanted to use it during thunderstorms so you don’t risk damaging your Mac. Are you thinking of sitting in the garden writing in the middle of a thunderstorm, or have I missed something?”
“You may have a point,” I concede warily, switching on the power to the laptop. There is a gentle whirring sound. Either Radar is having a dream or this machine has woken up and is yawning. Like a ghost from the past, Word 97 appears on the screen. The letters on the dusty keys are faint and the screen is a faded greenish-grey. It’s like meeting an elderly relative after many years of absence and finding they’re not quite as sharp as you remember.
“Hello Granny,” I say brightly. ‘Granny’ whirrs back at me – perhaps she has forgotten my name.
“Alex,” Jane calls from the kitchen area over the sound of the rumbling thunder. “If you’re not typing you could slip a slice of bread into that laptop – if the machine’s grilled by the lightning we might as well gets a snack out of it.”
The room is lit up as lightning crackles outside. Granny continues to whirr. So far, so good. Another crash of thunder.
“So, what are you going to write about?”
“I suppose I could try to guess what tomorrow will bring,” I reply. “Or do you think that’s tempting fate?”
The following day I’m six metres up a tree – sawing a branch that’s part-snapped – and I’m feeling nervous. It’s breezy and both the tree and the ladder I’m on are swaying and creaking. Jane appears at the upstairs window of the house at the top of the field – she’s calling me. She’s had a message – Lily is back from Bali and can’t find her house-key. That’s what she’s saying but it’s not what I’m hearing – there’s too much going on and now my attention is focused on an insect behind me – a large one, by the volume and deep bass tone. A hornet. I get the feeling it might be telling me I’m disturbing its home and that of its thousand, rather irritable cousins.
Jane’s still calling me, leaning further out of the window. What’s she saying? “Willy is back from ballet…”? What’s she talking about? I don’t know any Willy… I feel trapped inside a sticky bubble of apprehension and irritability. The spell is broken when the hornet gives me a warning tap on the back of the head and buzzes off and I realise that Jane is now standing underneath the branch that is more than half-way sawn through.
“Jane,” I shout, “it’s dangerous. You…”
Jane misinterprets my warning. She calls up with a sympathetic expression.
“You’re right – you shouldn’t be up so high. Don’t forget you’re not insured until after the end of the month.”
Cautiously I climb down the ladder. I catch Jane by the wrist and rush with her into the open. The branch groans. We both look up. The branch groans again… We watch, waiting… Suddenly it shrieks and the dense foliage hurtles through the air. The ladder is struck and sent like a bowling pin down the slope where it ends up tangled in the barbed wire fence.
“Is this how you’ve been doing the other branches?” asks Jane, tentatively.
Before I can answer I hear the drone of the hornet – he’s back and he’s brought company.
“Let’s go indoors,” I say. “Come on… quickly.”
I no longer know which is Lily’s spare key or even if I still have it – so I take all the keys I can find and drive to her house. Today she is looking her full 73 years. She has dreadful back-pain and can hardly walk. I try the keys in the door and, at last, one fits. Then I bring her heavy suitcase from the boot of the car to the living room. We’re old friends – we understand each other – Lily now just needs to be alone, but just as I’m walking off down the drive she leans out of the window and calls after me.
It seems that Mimi is stuck up a tree. I hear the words clearly but find them hard to believe. I search for a more plausible phrase. But no, Lily has just repeated it: “Mimi is stuck up a tree”.
Mimi is a semi-wild, very street-wise grandmother of a cat. She has chased off all the local tomcats and even hunting-dogs keep their distance. Mimi doesn’t get stuck anywhere. But the fact is, Mimi is up a tree – I can see her. She’s up so high that she looks quite small.
I find a ladder and eventually Mimi and I are face-to-face. I talk gently, reassuringly, as I gradually get myself in position to ease Mimi off the branch so I can carry her down. Slowly I reach out my hands. Mimi backs up and hisses. There is a sudden blur of movement and a rustle of leaves as Mimi launches herself through the air like a squirrel, landing in the next tree six feet away. My forearm stings. Four fine white lines in my skin are starting to ooze droplets of blood… I climb down the ladder.
“It’s OK Lily,” I call. “Mimi is just enjoying the view.”
When I get home Jane is sitting on the veranda with Radar dozing on her lap.
“Everything OK?” she asks sleepily. Then she notices my arm.
“What happened?” she says with a start.
“Oh, it’s only Mimi – she’s taken up tattooing, but she didn’t have her inks with her. This is just a preliminary sketch.”
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