It was cold out in Canada, where we spent Christmas with my wife's sister's family. Only thirty miles from Toronto, but stark and snowy and stiff with frost. Every time I was sent outside by brother-in-law Keith to chop logs or take Harry the dog for a walk, I had to get into protective gear as if for a space walk. On my head I wore what I call my Russian hat, because I bought it to go to Russia years ago - one of those furry ones with flaps front and side, which you can tie under your chin if you want to. I noticed in Moscow that even when it was ten or twenty below, the Muscovites walked around with these hats on but the flaps hanging loose, not tied under the chin.
‘When do they tie them together under the chin?’ I asked our guide.
‘Only when it is very cold,’ he said.
It was very cold in Canada, but I still didn't tie the ear flaps down. If you do, you can't hear anything. Mark you, there wasn't much to hear in the Canadian countryside except the ghostly wailing of the freight trains which passed by, a quarter of a mile away - great long slow things drawn by three or four locomotives which have already vanished into the woods on one horizon before the end of the train has emerged from the woods on the other horizon.
‘And at night you can hear the sound of coyotes,’ Keith told me, ‘but you never see them, only hear them.’
(I never heard them either, but that didn't prevent me boasting about it when I got back.
‘At night in Canada you can hear the far-off sound of coyotes,’ I told a friend yesterday.
‘Coitus?’ he said, puzzled. )
I call it my Russian hat, but I looked inside it one day and found a maker's mark saying Made In China, which may explain why my head has never quite satisfactorily fitted into it. It's designed for a Chinese head shape, not mine. I think Chinese eyes may be lower than ours, too, as the fringe of the hat comes down low enough to obscure my vision and every time I put it on I get an irrational urge to have a haircut. I could have checked all this on the plane on the way back as I sat next to a Chinese girl who was on her way from Toronto to Galway. She was going to visit the family of a boyfriend of hers, and was very apprehensive about the trip, as she didn't know him that well and had never been to Ireland before.
‘I think people will stare at me,’ she said mournfully. ‘I fear I will be the only Oriental in Galway at Hogmanay.’
A remark worth crossing the Atlantic to hear. When we got back to Heathrow the weather was raw and damp - milder than Canada but still chilly - so the first thing I did when we got back home was light a fire in the sitting room grate. I put on a few small branches from the Christmas tree which we were dismantling, and there was a whoosh! and a sound of roaring up the chimney, and while I was still wondering what it meant, someone rang at the door and a neighbour said: ‘I suppose you know there are flames coming out of your chimney?’.
I hadn't seen a chimney on fire for years and years. It's scary, especially when it's yours, and there really are flames shooting out of the top of your house. I sent for the fire brigade, which I have never done in my life before, and they screwed rods together with nice old brass connections and shoved them up in the chimney and pumped water out of a bucket up the rods, and steamed the fire to death.
‘I remember once,’ said one of the firemen reflectively, ‘doing this job in a hotel which had a chimney on fire and it was so hot up the chimney that the rods vanished, and a pile of brass connections fell down the stack into the fireplace.’
The trouble with the chimney was that I hadn't had it cleaned often enough, and the wood fire deposits were still inflammable. What was truly alarming was that the smoke came not only out of the top of the chimney pot but also from halfway down the stack and from tiny cracks in the roof.
‘Bit of leakage in an old house,’ said a fireman. ‘You'll get all sorts of cracks appearing. I bet if we look in the loft it'll be full of smoke.’
We looked. It was. I've had a closer look at the house since then, and it seems I now have a choice between getting the chimney stack totally rebuilt, which is the expensive option, and the cheaper option, which is wearing my Russian hat indoors much more often.
The Oldie - Jan 2003