Topic: A Cosy Evening by Sheila Armstrong

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Allan and I hadn’t been on our own farm in Manawahe for very long and were still feeling our way around. On this particular evening, we’d just come down from the shed and were relaxing on the sofa.

Allan put his arms around me.

“Thanks for your help, darling. I'd still be milking if you hadn't come and given me a hand. Those new heifers took a bit of persuading to go into the bail, not that I blame them. It must be scary for them having the cups put on for the first time. Still, it’s a nuisance when one’s tired.”

“Let's forget the farm, and have a cosy evening,” I smiled. “The children are asleep.”

After a quick meal, I suggested that we lit the open fire for a change.

“It’s so much friendlier than the electric heater.”

Allan went out to fetch some logs while I collected newspapers, crunching them in the grate. Then I searched in the shed for some kindling and found some wooden boxes to chop up.

“Lucky the Smiths left those old boxes before they handed over to us. You'd think they'd have used them for packing.”

“Pity they didn't leave us with a better herd... Sorry!” Allan added hastily. “Forget it.”

He put a match to the fire and it was soon blazing fiercely. We settled down on the sofa.

“This is cosy,” I whispered. “Why haven't we done this before?”

“Too tired, I guess,” Allan answered sleepily.

We soon dozed off in the delicious warmth.

The smell of burning woke me, and in a panic I shouted, “Hey! Wake up, Allan - smoke's coming through the chimney wall. Can't you smell it?”

Allan jumped up, still half asleep. The fire was burning merrily in the grate and also smouldering half-way up the wall. He put his hand out to touch it and rapidly snatched it back.

“Quick!” he yelled, as he dashed out to get the ladder. “Grab the hose.”

I turned on the hose, but it was frozen solid. No water! I dashed into the washhouse and threw the clothes I’d left soaking into the wash tub and filled the bucket from the tap.

Allan was resting the ladder against the side of the house, glad he'd finally decided to buy the longer one, and he climbed up on to the steeply-pitched roof.

I followed him and passed up the bucket of water, trying not to spill too much. It was hard to get a grip on the icy surface and Allan slithered around attempting to reach the chimney. Eventually he managed to grab hold of the brickwork and pour what was left of the water down the chimney. Smoke was belching out, and Allan was seized with a fit of coughing.

“Be careful! I shouted desperately. “Don't fall off the roof!” How could I possibly catch him if he did?

“More water!” he demanded, letting the bucket go with a clatter as it slid down the roof and bounced on to the ground.

I refilled the bucket, climbed the ladder and tried to reach Allan's outstretched hand. Too far!

He let go of the chimney and slid down to the gutter. By a miracle, it held his weight. Then came his laborious climb up again to the chimney, made even more slippery with the spilled water turning to ice.

“Get that rope from the shed,” Allan yelled. “You can throw one end up and then attach the bucket to the other. I'll fall if I have to climb down again.”

I threw the rope up to him and he attached it to the chimney, while I refilled the bucket and tied it to the other end. We repeated this a number of times, hauling it up and pouring it down the chimney. 

I dashed into the sitting room to see if the fire was out. The wall was still smouldering.

In our excitement and panic, the first priority had been to put out the fire. Our two children were fast asleep in bed. Should I wake them and take them out into the freezing night in case we couldn’t and the house burnt down?

I felt torn between Allan on the icy roof, waiting for me to hand up another bucket of water, and the children. What should I do?

Of course we’d manage to put out the fire, and it would only take up precious minutes to get the children out of bed. I ran to the wash house and filled up the bucket again.

“We'll need plenty more water.” I called up to Allan. “The fire isn't out yet and the wall is still glowing.”

This method worked reasonably well, so we repeated the manoeuvre a few more times.             Eventually I looked at the sitting room again. A sea of black water was seeping across the floor. I paddled to the fire place and felt the wall. Cool again.

Thankfully I told him, “Come down, Allan. The fire's out.”

He was reluctant to let go of the chimney, knowing how nearly he'd slipped off the roof before.

I watched fearfully, guiding his feet to the top of the ladder and helping him over the gutter, and held on to him firmly as we climbed down. His hands were so icy he could scarcely grip the ladder. He was shivering with cold and exhaustion as I dragged him into the house.

The children were still sleeping peacefully. Allan sank on to the sofa.

“I'll put the heater on and get your pyjamas. You're soaked to the skin.”

We still hadn’t got a functioning bath with hot water, so that was not an alternative. I brought him a large towel and gave him a good rub down.

“Now, sit down while I make a cup of tea.”

“What a mess,” he said, when he had a chance to look at the floor. “That'll take a bit of cleaning up.”

“Never mind!  At least we've still got a house and you're safe. I've never been so terrified in my life.  I felt sure you were going to fall off the roof.”

I snuggled up closer to him.

“I'll take a look at the chimney in the morning. Let's go to bed. I think the fire is well and truly out.”

Next morning, Allan was horrified when he examined the chimney. He found it had been lined with kerosene tins by the bush carpenter who'd built the house.  These had rusted through, exposing the wooden match-board lining, now well charred. The flames had licked through, catching the scrim and scorching the wall paper.

Another shock was in store when he looked at the remains of the box we'd used for kindling. No wonder the fire lit so quickly. The box had contained highly inflammable sodium.

“We'll have to get this chimney fixed and line this room, when we can afford it,” he told me glumly. “Meanwhile we'll have to forego any more cosy evenings in front of the log fire.”



About the writer: Sheila Armstrong has published two books of short stories, The Luck of the Draw and Travels with the Essex. She followed them with two historical novels about British Guiana, The Chill of the Tropics about British Guiana, and its sequel, Exodus from Demerara.

Greener Pastures is another novel, based on her early experiences of farming in the backblocks of New Zealand. My Two Grandmothers was written for her family.

‘A Cosy Evening’ was Sheila’s entry for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors (Bay of Plenty Region) with support from Tauranga Writers.


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