Crying seagulls make their daily pilgrimage inland, migrating birds murmur of murmuration, and the Virginia Creeper on the garden wall is turning red. I walk through the heavy dew in the morning, gathering small pieces of grass and grit on the soles of my bare feet. There are early blackberries in the wilder parts of the garden, huge and sharp and sweet. I persist in calling them ‘early’, close my eyes to the shortening days and darkening nights. For it is not autumn, not yet – strawberries still ripen in the wheelbarrow bed, bees hum and crickets sing, and butterflies linger on the purple buddlea flowers. Red Admirals, Painted Ladies, Peacocks, and others perhaps more proletarian, drink nectar and occasionally stretch out their splendid wings.
Call it late summer – the sun is shining, I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt and trying to ward a persistent wasp away from my left arm. They – tiny striped units of malevolence with a bone to pick with the world – are less welcome. But then, they eat aphids. I brush the wasp a third time from my forearm. We have been visited by scouting hornets this summer – the size of my pinky and with a buzz like a circular saw. When they are in the garden, I am not. (This is not, à la Clark Kent/ Superman, because I am secretly a hornet. I just hide until the coast is clear).
Later, I sit at the picnic bench, booted feet propped against a seat, eating an ice lolly. A visiting racing pigeon is regarding Tarn from the scaffolding with placid curiosity while she looks up and whines in frustration. Her long, twitching nose is like a compass point to the pigeon’s whereabouts. It has been here now for over a week – not injured, nor blown off course by any storm that we are aware of, but redirected somehow to our garden, where it keeps us company on the roof and asks for sunflower seeds. Tarn dreams of rooftop encounters.
We are reroofing and insulating one half of the house. I have become adept at balancing on an angle while brandishing an array of tools and materials and singing the only lines I know from ‘Up on the Roof’ (Robson and Jerome. Blame Mum). It is a job with many stages (to the best of my knowledge, the singing is optional).
When this old world starts getting you down…
Strip first the slates from the roof, in rows. It’s important to preserve the slates where possible. Two copper nails fix each slate in place – using a pair of pincers, pull these out, or lever against a small metal plate.
And people are just too much for you to take…
The nails are all handmade. I wonder how long it took to make the thousands needed for this roof alone. Mum and A suspect the last time the roof was done was in 1880, when the cottage was converted into a pub. In 140 years, the nails have turned dull and green, but the copper is still bright and true underneath. We’ll reuse them for other jobs.
Doo doobedoo, doobedeebydeedoo…
After the slates have been stripped off, the roof is vulnerable to rain. We keep a constant weather eye on the horizon. The weather has been erratic since St Swithun’s Day, or ‘St Switherin’s Day’ as Mum has dubbed it. Rain, shine and the threat of rain. At night we tuck the house in with a massive green tarpaulin and hope the weather will be kind.
On the roof’s the only place I kno-ow…
After the slates, we take off the sarking – the planks that crossed the rafters to support the slates. These boards will be denailed, sanded, waxed and used as bookshelves in the living room, among other things. They bristle with nails and are passed down gingerly.
Where you just have to wish to make it so…
We find treasures in the rooftops – no biscuit tins containing age-old secrets, but delicate wasp nests shaped like paper roses and honeycombs, tiny skeletons, blueish egg shells. We drink our cups of tea sitting beside the chimney tops, surveying the village from a pigeon’s-eye-view and waving to passing neighbours.
Let’s go! Up on the roof.
Today there is insulating to be done, and sterling board to put up, membrane to clad the roof with and battens to hold the tiles in place – all this before the roofer comes. There’s a lot yet to do.
So we call it late summer while the swallows gather thickly on the phone lines and we hope to ward off autumn for just a few weeks more.