Today was a fresh experience covered in soot. I awaited the appointed time in anticipation conjuring up images of what he might look like. I couldn't get too far away from the Laurel & Hardy film where our two bungling heroes end up covered in head to foot and bricks come raining down the chimney to land on poor Ollie's head. Just before he falls into a bath and comes out as a monkey. Complete with bowler hat. Hardly a good basis to picture reality with, but when the van – suitably black, arrived in the drive I felt a slight pang of disappointment. The sweep looked disappointingly normal. There was just no way you could tell what he was. There wasn't a black mark on his boiler suit.
I was a little worried on account of the fact that his van was blocking our neighbour's car in. Parking is possibly one of the greatest sources of conflict the world over. All the old territorial urges gradually started sneaking out as the neighbour decided to push the boundaries. At first, almost imperceptibly so that you doubted your sanity, the rear end of his VW seemed to be an inch or two further along the drive each morning. Then the morning finally arrived when there was no longer any turning space or concerns about your mental well-being. The neighbour was definitely staking his claim to land that no previous neighbour had tried to invade before. All of the previous neighbours had simply opened the gate and parked in their own parking space. This neighbour seemed to find opening the gate to be a chore. But God help you if you made the mistake of blocking him in.
So I said to the fresh scented chimney sweep who didn't even look remotely like Dick Van Dyke, 'do you think you could back your van in a bit further?' He sized up the situation immediately. 'Bit awkward is he?' he said, cocking his thumb at the black VW. I winced for fear that the neighbour might hear this. I nodded mutely. 'Have you ever tried telling him that old English suburb?' Suburb? Then I realised he meant proverb. I waited with interest. I've always quite liked proverbs and I wondered which one would relate to blocking your neighbour's car in with a van. 'Tell him to …' I winced again. The proverb seemed to consist of two syllables that meant 'go away'. I certainly hadn't realised that these two syllables were also considered to be an old English suburb. 'I think I'll let you tell him' I said.
He unpacked a coffin-like box from his van and carried various poles and brushes into the front room. The whirlwind man was not one to brook any nonsense so I cleared out of his way.
When I go back in there's a mound of soot piled on the hearth. With his industrial vacuum contraption it is soon gone and the room smells of chimney. He hands me a white invoice, his thumbprint sealed in one corner and the deal is done. He tells me he's done nine chimneys that day and I calculate that his day's work has earned him more than I get from one week's teaching. I don't even get to tell the students any old English suburbs but my head often feels like its weathered a storm of bricks.
Don't even think about asking me if I feel like a monkey. Pass me my bowler, would you?