When we first arrived in our new home, we had the chimneys swept professionally, which was fascinating to watch. A sweep turns a dirty job into an art form, understanding what is happening in the darkness beyond the fireplace purely by sound and feel. They also show great skill in containing the soot, leaving the room as clean as before he or she starts the job.
Once the sweep had done the initial clean, however, D decided that he would like to keep on top of it himself. Following the example set by his father when he was growing up, he armed himself with a set of drain rods and a brush head and had a go. An old sheet was sacrificed to the cause, with a hole cut into it to allow the brush to go through and, on the whole, he has done a good job ever since. He tapes the sheet to the brick fireplace and then off he goes, adding rods as he pushes the brush further and further up the chimney. Sometimes the tape holds and sometimes it doesn’t, so I usually act as a backup, holding the sheet in place to prevent the soot billowing forth into the room.
Recently, our very old boiler decided that, at the ripe old age of 30, it had had enough. It valiantly carried on as long as it could, leaking water over the garage floor as it worked, but it became obvious that the time had come to say goodbye. The heating engineer who had ostensibly come to service it broke the bad news to us and ceremoniously switched off the faithful machine, leaving us with no central heating and limited hot water from the equally geriatric cylinder in the airing cupboard. “I don’t know how you haven’t been ten feet underwater long ago”, he told me sombrely. “The cylinder is nearly as corroded as the boiler – they both have to go.” Reeling from the news – not to mention the potential cost of replacing the system – we faced a cold and bleak couple of weeks until the engineers could return with a new combi boiler which would replace both boiler and cylinder.
The cats were less than impressed. The first week wasn’t too bad – we lit a fire each evening, which they quite enjoyed and, if they felt a chill in the air during the day, they could always come and snuggle down on my knee while I worked, sharing our body heat to keep us all warm. However, week 2 was our week in Aberdeen so no fires, no humans to snuggle. We did our best for them, creating tunnels under the duvet in the bedroom, igloos out of their blankets on the sofas and opening cupboard and wardrobe doors to give them somewhere safe from draughts. According to our cat-sitter, they ate voraciously through the week in an attempt to lay in more fat stores and were otherwise very subdued.
We returned late Friday night, both suffering from colds and tired as usual from our long drive, to a cold, cold house and two cats who wanted us to know – in detail – just how traumatic their week had been. We all huddled together under the covers that night and, the next morning, we planned to light both open fires to try and warm the house through a little.
As the living room chimney hadn’t been swept for a while, D decided the next morning that he should give it a clean, especially if we were going to have fires lit all day. With his usual thoughtfulness, he gathered his tools and got started while I was still in bed, as I was still feeling ill. The first I knew of it, apart from the odd scuffling noise, was a heartfelt “Bugger!” carrying up the stairs. Dragging myself out of bed, I went to see what the problem was.
As D had worked, the tape holding the sheet at both sides had failed him, resulting in soot belching out in both directions out into the room. The fireplace, walls, floor and furniture were covered in black dust. When I lifted a leaflet that had been left on a chair, its shape was perfectly delineated, a clean rectangle surrounded by black. It also showed us how many cobwebs were on the walls, previously unseen and now leaving black tracks down the plaster-coloured walls. Fortunately, he had shut the door against the cats before he started, worried that they would try to “help” and be intent on climbing the chimney themselves. If he hadn’t, I am sure we would have had two black cats to go with the rest of the room and a series of black paw prints throughout the house as well. They did come to investigate as we cleaned up, although chiefly to demand why the fire wasn’t lit yet.
Two weeks later, we are still finding areas we missed during the clean-up. I suspect we will be finding soot for some time to come. And what of our heating, you ask? Are the cats cosy once more? That, as they say, is another story …