Saturday, June 18, 2022

Plumbing the Depths

by Mary

We now return to our continuing series titled When Household Machinery Goes Rogue.

In Childe Harold's Pilgrimage Lord Byron refers to the hell of waters when they howl and hiss. I am here to tell subscribers it's not much fun either when your water supply goes missing on a Sunday night.

Last week we found ourselves in that interesting situation. The first company we contacted could not send someone immediately but we managed to find a plumber able to come out. She (yes, a lady plumber) arrived at Casa Maywrite accompanied by two young fellows who looked to be in their late teens and whom we deduced were her sons. We came to this conclusion because they called her mom. Let me pause here to point out that was yet another demonstration of our advanced deductive powers. We believe they were apprentices -- theirs was a family business -- because she explained everything to them in detail and answered questions as she went along. Not to mention they knew exactly what to bring her when she asked them to get some plumbing fiddly widget or other from their van.

By the end of their visit the drainage tap, gauge, and pressure switch had been replaced on the well's pressure tank situated behind the fridge under the stairs, there being nowhere else for either to be placed. This is, as I occasionally remark, an eccentric house.

A few hours after they left there was no water in the loo tank.

Next day brought a second plumber who was here about three and a half hours, during which he fixed the loo's lack of water (diagnosed as sand from the well choking its water inlet tube). Since he was here anyhow we asked him to change all the taps in the bathroom as well as replace the shower head, thus ticking off a couple of tasks on our jobs to get done list.

A few hours later we discovered there was no water in the loo tank or any of the taps. A second visit got water flowing, Alas, it was black and gritty, not a good sign. Even after running all the taps the problem kept coming back. And there still no water in the tank. However, hot water stayed clean, because the gritty sand had settled to the base of the water heater and we were getting hot water from the top. Just to keep things exciting, the heater began kettling. Lord Byron spoke true.

It was obvious the problem involved the well itself, meaning it would have to be pulled for examination. A couple of possibilities mooted in our discussions were shortening the water line in the well so as to keep the pump above the clart at its base or in the worst case scenario replacing the pump. We decided to do the latter as it was over a decade old and approaching the average time when it would become likely to give up the ghost. While at it we ordered a new pressure tank as well, given it was at least twenty years old and if it conked out another visit would be necessary.

The final act of the saga was the glorious day when two plumbers were here six hours on the Friday of the week in question. It was quite a sight to observe plumbing the well's depths involved laying over 120 feet of water line and accompanying wiring straight across our lawn, over the one next door, and a little way down the road. As it turned out, the pump had fallen into the mire on the well floor and had in technical plumbing jargon "gone bad". Mud had also choked the water lines. The pump was a sorry sight, moving one plumber to observe he had never seen anything like it.

After they left, we may not have had a chicken in a pot but we had water in every place it should be, not to mention the water heater had been drained and refilled, thus correcting the kettling. We are again considering taking wagers as to which piece of household machinery will be next to go rogue.

I would observe last week was very draining on us but then boots would be thrown. But as events unfolded I thought more than once of The Gas Man Cometh. A favourite Flanders and Swann song*, it relates a series of repairs required to correct the previous day's repair. As the duo so rightly remark, those repairs all made work for the working man to do.

* Audio at

Soldiering On

by Eric

Recently a friend emailed some jpgs of old toy advertisements he'd dug up on the Internet. I remembered seeing similar ads on the back covers of my Batman and Superman comics.

"100 toy soldiers made of durable plastic only $1.25!"

What a bargain! At that price a gradeschooler could afford to fight a full scale war and have change left over for licorice whips. The set included machine gunners, sharp shooters, infantry men, tanks, jeeps, battleships, bombers, jet planes, and more. There were even 8 WAVES and 8 WACS. Perhaps they were provided for members of the fairer sex who preferred armed combat to Betsy Wetsy dolls. To be honest, my friends and I would have had no problem employing bazooka men and rifle men but we wouldn't have had a clue what to do with WAVES and WACS.

More intriguing to me, having written about the Eastern Roman Empire, was the set of 132 Roman Soldiers for a mere $1.98. And you didn't need to worry about resettling them in the provinces and paying ruinous pensions when they retired either. "Two Complete Roman armies," bragged the ad. It was probably easier than manufacturing Persians, Goths, and the like. "Fight again the battles of the old Roman civil wars."

Well, that puzzled me. Did any kids, back in the day, actually play at Roman civil wars?

We played Cowboys and Indians, or Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. We argued about who should be Wyatt Earp or Doc Holiday. Were there really kids who wanted to play Julius Caesar or Pompey, or who met by the corner of the woods Saturday morning and said, "I've got a great idea. Today, let's pretend we're in Judea revolting against Roman taxation"? How would you pick which old Roman civil war anyway? There were so many of them.

If we had possessed the war sets I've mentioned we would have made sure our Roman infantry were accompanied by tanks. I suspect children are more creative than the adults who design toys for them.

I did not, in fact, own any of the sets in the ads my friend sent to me, but I know what con jobs those ads were because I once bought a bag of two hundred soldiers at the local Five & Dime. The figures were utterly flat and so light and flimsy it was almost impossible to get them to stay upright on their plastic stands let alone array them for battle.

Since the bag the soldiers came in was transparent I did realize they were flat but I didn't know they wouldn't stand up until I got home and called them to duty. I can imagine how disappointed the children who ordered those magnificent armies pictured in the comic books must have been.

Toy advertisers have been deceiving youngsters forever. My kids were taken in by the Saturday morning cartoon commercials. Those castles and forts that were made to look like sets from Hollywood blockbusters turned out to be shoddy, plastic trash that fell over the moment they came out of the boxes.

Maybe that's why my ultimate go-to "toy" was modeling clay. Not the skimpy bits of colored stuff you could buy at the Five & Dime though. My dad bought huge chunks of clay at the art store. The sort sculptors use. Pounds of it. You could do something with that much. You could create buildings that didn't fall over.

Clay soldiers will stand up to fight. True, it wasn't feasible to make hundreds of them but at least if you did want to stage a Roman sword fight, unlike with plastic soldiers, heads could roll.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Be Careful Where You Step

by Mary

As with all readers, bookcases have been a constant presence in my living spaces.

The first graced a Victorian terraced house, the attic of which became the bedroom I shared with my sister. Its furnishings included a tall, white-painted bookcase which for unfathomable reasons had at some point been sawn in half vertically and was therefore held together by its shelves. Its idiosyncratic construction went well with the attic's working gas light and the previous tenants' tartan wallpaper clashing in eye-watering fashion with a contemporary sofa covered in fabric patterned with angular yellow and orange shapes that would have gladdened the hearts of cubist painters.

Since the bookcase had no back, we could see its lower part blocked a small door in the wall. Naturally we opened it and found it disclosed a clear view of a concealed narrow space running down the street between our neighbours' attic walls and their eaves overhangs. What purpose it could have served remains a mystery to this day. Assuming neighbouring attics had similar little doors, the arrangement would certainly have been useful for leaving the premises unnoticed and in haste when an urgent need for departure presented itself, such as when the rent man came to call or a polite policeman appeared at the front door.

Such secret places and especially hidden rooms have long fascinated me, so I particularly enjoyed reading Allan Fea's Secret Chambers and Hiding Places last month. Published in the early 1900s, it describes a number of concealed hiding places utilised by, for example, priests during religious persecutions and fleeing royal personages and their supporters at times of civil unrest. Most of these concealed chambers, often situated behind fireplaces or wainscoting, were in great country houses and displayed impressive ingenuity in their construction. Lots of ideas here for authors who need a secret room for plot purposes!

As Mr Fea's book relates, the entrances to these secret rooms were to be found in a variety of locations, including under window-seats, behind cupboards (one mentioned swung backwards, shelves included, to reveal the hidden space), or concealed behind paintings or sliding panels. My favourite in the latter category formed the back of a -- you have guessed it! -- bookcase seemingly fixed to the wall. Disguised trap doors are also touched upon. Fine workmanship was displayed by a particularly ingenious mechanism, whereby a hidden space could only be opened by pulling up the head of what appeared to be a nail in the floor, thereby releasing a spring opening the trapdoor. I was particularly struck by a correspondent quoted in the book who revealed touching an unspecified part of the family shield displayed in the state-room of his castle caused said decoration to revolve and reveal a hidden staircase. Its oddly numbered steps were solid but, he reveals, treading on any of the others started concealed machinery that collapsed the staircase, precipitating unwary pursuers into a vault seventy feet or so below. A devilish device worthy of the lairs in which Fu Manchu lurked!

Constructing such concealed spaces was necessarily done in great secrecy but time marches on and nowadays there are Youtube tutorials on how to build them. However, the nearest I've been to a hidden space, or knowingly at least, was when I lived in a flat in Florida. It was a couple of weeks before I realised the shelved wall in a cupboard next to the front door could be moved. The space thus revealed held part of the air conditioning equipment and was just big enough to admit someone to work on it without ending up with bruised elbows. On the other hand, a couple I know once lived in an old house converted into flats. On my first visit, they pointed out the sash window of a room they noticed had no visible door inside the house. Even more peculiar, the top half of the window was slightly down. It may be they were pulling my leg, but recollecting that white bookcase makes me wonder...

Hiding places for people or objects swarm in fiction. Stolen gems, wills, and compromising correspondence are commonly hidden in them. Sometimes concealment is temporary but on occasion the person involved remains entombed by accident or design until death releases them from durance vile. Apart from the fictional examples mentioned, my meanderings through literary gardens have led me to drawers hidden *within* hidden drawers and objects concealed in locations as diverse as a sundial, wells, a watch or pudding, between paving stones, in the handle of a tennis racquet, and down a rabbit hole.

A reader may well find concealed rooms in works other than mysteries. The Sanctuary by E. F. Benson I consider among the more disturbing of hidden room tales. Though I knew the plot, it still gave me a touch of creeping heebie-jeebies when I reread it recently. Edward Bulwer-Litton offered his readers a trapdoor leading to a hidden room in a house with an evil reputation in The Haunted and the Haunters. Were a vote taken it's possible the most widely read locked room story would be Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost, where the hidden room is used to punish.

While writing An Empire For Ravens, we donned hard hats and big boots to construct an underground cistern, one column of which we fitted with a secret door turning on a pivot. This arrangement permitted our protagonist John and other characters access to a catacomb in Rome. Sounds somewhat unlikely, but oh, brabjous day! In passing Mr Fea mentions sections of massive stone columns in some ecclesiastical buildings and castles were capable of being rotated to reveal hidden spaces, thus showing our architectural invention was not as unlikely as it seems.

Interview with a Shadow Man

by Eric

It's mid-afternoon and the cafe in downtown Manhattan is brightly lit but the actor who goes by the name A. Mann is only a fleeting motion at the corner of my vision as he arrives for our interview and settles into a chair behind a pillar. He professes to feeling nervous about talking to me but I am the one who shivers as a sudden chill slithers down my spine.

If you've ever watched a horror movie or a thriller, you've seen A. "Shadow" Mann, though you won't find that name in any credits. He is the figure flashing past the open doorway, crossing the end of the hallway, lurking at the window. As often as not he is nothing more than a featureless shadow.

"As a child I used to startle people," says Mann, when I ask what led him to a movie career. "I'd walk up behind my mother and she'd jump. 'Oh, I didn't know you were there' she'd say. 'You move so quietly.' It was a talent I had. I liked making people jump. Movies gave me the chance to make a living at it."

His voice is not unusual. I remark upon that.

"Did you expect a Rod Serling voice, perhaps?" he says. "We do have something in common. When I appear in a movie, like Mr Serling, I tell movie goers without words that they are in a zone where things are out of the ordinary. In my case, a zone where people are likely to die horribly."

I lean back in my chair, attempting to see around the pillar, but Mann somehow contrives to remain just out of sight. "And you do this without words. Your parts never call for you to speak, do they?"

"No. Speaking would give away too much, too early. For quite a while I've been the world's highest paid silent actor."

"Do you take inspiration from the stars of the silent era?"

"Actually I study ballet dancers. What I do is all in the movement. You only see me for an instant. Gliding, creeping, lurching, scuttling, whatever is appropriate. I wish I could have seen the Russian dancer Nijinsky. There's hardly any film. I imagine he would have scuttled magnificently."

The disembodied voice is making me uneasy. What is he doing that I can't see? He might be contemplating the sort of wound a butter knife could inflict. For all I know he could be foaming at the mouth. Or a giant insect. I barely saw him arriving. I try to steady my voice. "You only appear for seconds at a time but your roles carry a huge responsibility."

"Yes. I'm the glimpse of evil and menace the audience sees first. It's up to me to capture the essence of the character in that instant when I race by. To instill a sense of dread. I lay the foundation that the actor or special effects crew builds on to portray the maniac or monster."

"Do you ever wish you had more screen time?"

"Not at all. That would ruin the effect. The horror the audience imagines after seeing my vague shape for a second is always far worse than what eventually appears fully fleshed out. Or partially fleshed out as the case may be."

Now I wonder if Mann's flesh is hanging in shreds or whether he is sporting scales instead. My voice starts shaking. "I've been told that you are the most in demand actor in Hollywood."

The statement is greeted with a soft laugh. Not in the least sinister. Not in the least. "Let's just say that I've played every kind of monster you can think of, human and otherwise, including most of the ones you've heard of. Actors like Robert Englund have been in plenty of films but I am, as they say, Legion."

Suddenly I must see him. I leap up and step around the pillar.

Mann is gone, as anyone who's ever seen a horror film knew he would be. I look around the room. No sign of him. Diners are eating and conversing unconcerned. Of course, they didn't notice the shadowy thing slinking in and out.

They have no idea of what they're up against.


Saturday, March 5, 2022

Lumpy Milk for the Cornflakes

by Mary

Dining by candlelight sounds romantic but not when there's been no power for almost a week.

Such was the case when the 1978 Good Friday Ice Storm descended upon central Illinois, bringing with it a meteorological smorgasbord of deep and drifting snow, high winds, and freezing rain that morphed into a couple of inches of ice. Flashes from exploding transformers and downed electric lines lit the night sky, suggesting Mother Nature was playing carelessly with fireworks. The governor declared a state of emergency covering two dozen counties, thus demonstrating it is indeed an IL wind that blows nobody any good.

There wasn't much in the fridge when the power went out that Easter. However, necessity being the mother of improvisation, the jug of milk, stored between the back and screen doors, did not sour. It did however freeze a little so it was a case of lumpy milk for the cornflakes. On the other hand, my pound of frozen bread dough started to thaw so I used it to bake a large cinnamon ring which became my contribution to a communal Easter Sunday meal of home-fried chicken organised by the family across the street. Children enjoyed sledging down the gentle slope in a hollow behind that house, reminding me of when my younger self attempted to slide down our house stairs on a tea tray. Need I mention this occurred when our parents were not at home?

But I digress. In some ways life reverted to earlier times, which is to say so quiet it was hardly worth winding the clocks. Had a lanky man wearing a stovepipe hat returned to walk the streets of Springfield as Vachel Lindsay imagined, the former president would surely be reminded of his time, for it was time to retire to bed when darkness overpowered the ability to write letters, read, or play board games by torch or candlelight. Radio and TV broadcasts disappeared. So had the nocturnal light glare above the city but between its lack and frigid temperatures, there an uncommonly fine display of stars each night. Layered clothing and blankets proved sufficient to keep relatively warm during the daytime at least, provided outer doors were not opened too often. People seemed drawn to talk to neighbours, checking on each other and sharing supplies. Perhaps it was due to the natural instinct to cluster together to face and cope with very difficult conditions. Only one family was forced to leave: a young couple with a new baby who departed, along with their freezer, to stay with friends who still had power.

Sunlight glinted on two or more inches of ice, painting everything such an innocent silver that was but a lie and a trap for the unwary, beyond the dangers of attempts to drive or walk in those conditions. Icicles several inches long and ice that had formed on canopies, gutters, and store facades developed the nasty habit of falling without warning -- in Chicago ice lumps weighing over twenty pounds were reported as dropping off the Sears Tower.

Closer to home, crews put in long hours to remove downed trees and broken branches from blocked roads, smashed vehicles, damaged roofs, and public spaces, erecting shoulder high wooden walls along miles of city streets. The sight of those tangled piles, branches clasped in a final embrace, remains a sad memory. My impression on moving to the city was how green and leafy it was, with great numbers of old trees lining its thoroughfares and gracing its parks. Thousands of snapped utility poles were replaced and power lines restrung, as the intermittent roar of chain saws competed with the metallic scraping of excavator buckets and snow ploughs' blades as they cleared thoroughfares and dug out parking lots.

Eventually, with main roads passable, I went to see friends in a nearby town. Returning home as darkness fell I observed a familiar glow on the horizon. Power had returned to the city.

Eye to Eye with a Goldfish

by Eric

Out here in the Pennsylvania mountains winter comes down like old age.

Everything creaks: the walls at night; the stairs as I carry another cup of coffee to the office; the snow under my feet when I venture out to check the gauge on the propane tank; my bones all the time. I'm not built for the cold. I came into the world weighing less than a bag of sugar after someone's baked a batch of Christmas cookies and I've never caught up. Chill doesn't have far to travel to reach my bones.

In February silence encases the world like the ice on the branches of the pines beyond the window. With the space heater off you can hear at long intervals trucks shifting gears on the highway a mile away. Nothing else. The birds hopping around the snow-covered porch roof looking for seeds in the gutters never sing. How do they survive, I wonder? Usually the heater needs to be on. Its breathy hum drowns out the silence, muffles the noises of the furnace, water heater, and well pump turning on and off. Existential sounds this time of year. Necessary as heartbeats. I find myself listening for them, anxiously. Not unlike those poor souls who can't help hearing the click-click of their artificial heart valves.

Waiting for the well pump to grind through its cycle and click off successfully is the worst. The water pipes running through the unheated crawlspace beneath the house are wrapped in insulation and heat tapes but have still frozen deep in the hole where they emerge from the ground. You only find out when the pump can't force water through the blocked pipe and the faucets go dry. I'm starting to feel too old to wedge myself through the cat-sized door in the foundation and creep across frozen earth, avoiding pipes and wiring, inhaling cobwebs, in sub-zero darkness and then praying the heat gun won't fail to do the job this time. Come to think of it, I've felt too old to do that roughly from the time I was able to walk.

The cold also makes it impossible to go to the store for weeks on end. This area doesn't get Buffaloed with blizzards but our house is separated from the state road by a stretch of hill that's rendered impassable by an inch of frozen snow or a glaze of ice. So even while we listen out for the household machinery we're keeping track of the groceries we stock up during the fall, hoping they last until a rare winter thaw or spring. Unless this is the year spring doesn't arrive. By mid February warm weather begins to seem like a myth. Luckily we're both connoisseurs of tinned cuisine. If Spam was good enough for the troops during World War II why should a couple of scribblers complain? Besides, Spam is pretty much fat and salt. What's not to like?

Looking on the bright side, we've never failed to get through a winter yet. And the season does have its icy charms. Does life offer a more glorious gift than a snow day for a school kid? Is there any place more magical than snowy woods on a moonlit night? And the goldfish in the ice of the cow pond where my friends and I skated as kids were magical. I remember them, flashes of orange and yellow like gems embedded in the blue under my skates. If you were willing to kneel and let the ice bite through your trousers you could see their bulging eyes goggling up at you. Freed from their bowls during the summer, now they were imprisoned again. We convinced ourselves that as soon as spring arrived the goldfish shook the frost off their scales and swam happily all summer. I've come to doubt that but it's a nice thought.

There's little doubt, though, that Casa Maywrite will eventually thaw out and its inhabitants will resume swimming, however creakily.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

A Home With a Hook

by Eric

When I was small my grandmother read me the story of Scuppers the Sailor Dog. The Little Golden book, written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Garth Williams, tells the story of a dog who wants to be in his boat on the sea. That’s the only place he feels at home. I still remember the book fondly. I suppose it appealed to an instinctual urge to have the sort of shelter we need, to be just where we want to be.

As kids we were always playing in one sort of shelter or another. There were places that were built for us. Every autumn, my grandfather would construct a hut out of corn shocks in the garden and he and my father put up a fancy tree house with siding and a porch in the big apple tree behind the barn. We spent a lot of time in these shelters but there were others we made for ourselves.

On rainy days my brother and I would push together every table and card table in the house and cover them with sheets to create tent-like mazes. I liked to crayon a control panel onto a cardboard box, take it into my bedroom closet, shut the door and pretend I was in a spaceship. There's an appeal to confined spaces when you're a child. Limited environments are easier to control.

Once my friends and I found three wooden doors discarded in the nettles at the edge of the scrubby patch of woods behind our homes. We cobbled the doors together with throw rugs and corrugated cardboard to make a clubhouse. It was good place to tell ghost stories when we were allowed to stay up late until fireflies flashed in the dark bushes all around. When we weren't in the mood for stories "Joe" would swipe his dad's Aqua Velva and a pack of matches and see how long he could hold a handful of flaming aftershave.

We didn't use the clubhouse for long. The first hard rain found gaps in our workmanship, dissolved the cardboard, and turned the rugs into a sodden slimy mass. It was unsalvageable. Joe suggested we burn the remains down but we decided to leave it too be engulfed by weeds, a monument to past ages when the summer had been young.

The most intriguing place of all was the subterranean cave an older friend made in his backyard, down a hill and behind bushes, out of sight of his house. He dug a hole, laid plywood over the top and covered the plywood with sod. A hinged trapdoor and ladder provided access. The hole seemed about ten feet deep. It probably wasn’t but I could stand up without hitting my head on the ceiling. We’d sit down there in the dirt with a flashlight and pretend we were cave explorers. Sometimes we’d turn the flashlight off and pretend we were cave explorers whose flashlight batteries had died. We’d imagine earthworms emerging from the walls in the darkness. Other times we’d take a snack with us and play at being miners trapped by a cave-in with nothing left to eat but a bag of Cheese Curls.

That wasn’t even the best part. There was also a tunnel which curved around from one wall to the adjacent wall. The passage was barely wide enough to crawl through. Rocks sticking up out of the soil bruised your knees. You could feel the severed ends of roots brushing at you. There weren’t any wood supports. It was an animal’s burrow. If you paused at the u-bend you might as well have been prematurely buried. You could almost feel the weight of the damp earth pressing in all around, squeezing the dark into a viscous blackness that lay right up against your eyes.

It was cozy down in the hole in a horrible sort of way. I imagine it was dangerous. We could have ended up in the local paper, stupid kids smothered under a ton of collapsed dirt, a sad lesson for others.

I suppose I was searching for my own version of Scuppers' boat where, when he retired to his bunk at the end of the day he could place his hat on the hook for his hat, his rope on the hook for his rope, and his spyglass on the hook for his spyglass. Maybe that’s what home is about – a hook for everything we need a hook for.