It’s strange how a song sometimes pops into your head and you promptly start singing something you don’t remember having ever heard. Yesterday, my ageing database dug a 1917 blockbuster entitled “Keep the home fires burning” out from the bottom of the sweet jar I fondly refer to as my memory. How it got there is still a mystery to me, and I’ll be in touch with my parents soon to ask them whether my grandparents listened to it (it’s either that, or I’m a reincarnation of Rosie the Riveter).
The song oozes with patriotism and terminally stiff British upper lips. It was aired on the radio as the Brits sent their lads off to both world wars, encouraging their families to keep calm, drink tea and carry on until their heroes returned from the battle front. It would merit some black and white film footage featuring a dashing young RAF pilot with a carefully waxed handlebar moustache, kissing his perfectly chignoned pin-up goodbye through the open train window. The girl dabs delicately at her eyes with a spotless lace hanky, then fiddles anxiously with the shiny buttons of his jacket, and cranes upwards for a last lingering kiss on her hero’s lips whispering “Now just you take care, old boy…I love you so much, Roderick…. I’ll tend the fire whilst you’re gone”. Our hero swallows hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down with the emotion as he utters a manly “Tally ho… it’s just toodle-pip for now, my darling” and slips a box of matches into her hand. The train whistle blows and….. damn it. Get back on track, M.M.
Anyway. When Ivor Novello and Lena Guilbert Ford wrote this song, I don’t think they imagined for even a fleeting second that nearly a hundred years later an Englishwoman would be singing it hysterically at the top of her voice, interspersed by bilingual effing and blinding as she battled with an egg box, a pile of soggy wood and a box of matches somewhere in a cold house in the South of France. Did they know just how frigging hard it is to keep a home fire burning?
P.F and I had always dreamt of a fireplace, with warm flames flickering inside it. I recklessly added a St Bernard to my request, so that I could prop myself up on something warm whilst I read in front of the fireplace. P.F drew the line at anything that big, so I got a Golden Retriever – I suppose I should be happy, as a Chihuahua wouldn’t have survived long with me lying on top of it.
We decided to bite the bullet this summer, after two winters of insufficient and excruciatingly expensive electric heating. We would install a wood fireplace insert in our humble abode and stop financing the French electricity board. We would heat our entire home that way. We would save money and be as snug as the proverbial bugs in a rug, curled up in front of the blazing hearth as the winter set in outside the house. We were optimistic. Little did I know how far I had underestimated the effort required: There was going to be a whole **** load of work involved. No pain, no flame.
First we had to buy the material. A huge silver caterpillar was ordered from King Merlin, houdinied into Albal, brought home, then stuffed up the chimney flue with much puffing and swearing. Hoisting a new chimney onto the roof as P.F and Bigfoot enthusiastically gallavanted 10 metres above ground level was a good test for my oh-so-British calm. The only fun bit was the thrilling surge of power when I realised that if I didn’t tell P.F who was walking below, he would chuck the old chimney on top of Gargamel as he walked underneath.
We found an insert in the local small ads. The white marble surround almost cost us number one child as well as the 100 euros when the seller, obviously one can short of a six-pack, pulled a gun on Bigfoot on our arrival in his garden because “he looked like a gypsy”.
After much dust, sweat, swearing, screaming, sulking and injured fingers, the great day arrived. It was done. Houston, we had fire. We pulled out the
Champagne and petit fours beer and pretzels, and admired the flames dancing within the beast’s innards.
Ever since, I have become a cavewoman. Keeping the home fire burning has become a primitive reflex, an obsession. I run through the house screaming to check on my baby, because if the thing goes out it’s a bugger to get started again. I know which newspapers burn best. We are eating more eggs, not because we like them but because egg boxes are part of my foolproof method to light a fire. I get the shopping done at high speed and try to jump the queue, waving my club at everyone and explaining that I have to get back to my cave and tend the fire before the damned thing goes out. I’m already blasé at the idea of running outside to get wood in the rain, and every time I clean out the drawer at the bottom of the stove I wonder how many guys working in crematoriums can face cleaning out more ashes when they get home.
Last night I picked up Little My from school and she said I smelled like a barbecue. Glancing down at my soot-stained clothing, I had to admit I was the only parent who looked like she’d just climbed out of a Welsh coal-pit. When P.F got home, he kissed me hello then absent-mindedly wiped a black stain off my cheek – I looked as if I’d spent my day as an extra in the film version of Zola’s “Germinal”.
So forget the RAF pilot and the pin-up at the station. I’ll settle for a sooty kiss from P.F. Even if it’s more a case of Bob the Builder than Roderick the RAF pilot, he is nevertheless my hero for courageously fighting the battle against the electricity bill. Now if you’ll just excuse me, it’s time to stoke the fire…..
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