Tim Dowling: Did the chimney sweep spot human bones in the chimney? | life and style

A month ago, I tried unsuccessfully to hire a chimney sweep. Then I tried, unsuccessfully, to convince my wife to hire one.

“I emailed four companies,” I said. “Most don’t even answer.”

“It’s because you’re afraid of sweeps,” she said. “You have to get over it.” I turned to look out the window.

“They toil in the shadows,” I said.

“It’s your only job,” she said. “A thing.”

“A chimney sweep is supposed to bring good luck,” I said. “It stands to reason that he can hold it back as well.”

After I wrote about it, one of the swipes who turned me down emailed me saying that if he had known it was me he would have made an exception to his rule prohibiting work in Acton. He also said my column caused a stir in chimney cleaning circles and included a screenshot of someone calling me a helmet on the Chimney Sweeps Facebook forum.

“This is the worst possible outcome,” I said.

“You shouldn’t have written about the scans,” my wife said. “Now you will never have one.”

“Actually, I found one yesterday,” I said. “Random. But the soonest he can come is in a month.

“A month?” she says.

“It’s their busy time.”

A month later, lockdown looms, but the sweep is expected to arrive the day before it comes into effect. I receive an SMS confirming the appointment.

“He comes between 2 and 4 p.m.,” I tell my wife. “So prepare your fireplace-related questions for next.”

“I won’t be there,” she said.

“Where will you be?” I say calmly.

“Wiltshire,” she said.

The night before the sweep, I lay awake watching the US election results fail to materialize. I leave the TV on all day the next day and spend most of my time pacing in front of it.

In the afternoon, I get a text message saying that the scan will be coming in 23 minutes, with a link allowing me to follow its movements. The voting margin widens in Wisconsin, but narrows in Nevada. I walk to the window. A premature twilight falls and a kind of fog accumulates in the low points of the street. Thirty minutes pass. My phone is ringing.

“I’m stuck in traffic and bored,” says my wife.

“I’m waiting for the chimney sweep, but he’s not here,” I said.

“You can talk while you wait,” she said.

“You don’t understand,” I said. “I just checked the tracking app to see where it is.”

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“And it says he’s already here!” I say.

“Maybe it’s in the fireplace,” she said.

“I have to go,” I said.

As I walk through the front door, a white van pulls up. The chimney sweep apologizes for being late, saying he took the wrong way. He has all his equipment on a dark tablecloth spread out in the hall. I take her to see the wood stove in the kitchen.

“When was he last swept away? he said adjusting his gas mask.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It was here when we moved in.” He uses a phone on a stick to search for the fireplace.

“It’s not doubled,” he said. “And there’s something sticking out up there.”

“What?” I say, thinking: are they bones?

“I can’t get out of this,” he says. I’m thinking: human bones?

Assessing the layout of the flue and the stove, he gives advice: never, ever light a fire there. He walks over to the living room stove, kneels in front of it, and opens the door.

“How’s it going?” he said, nodding at the deafening television.

“Nothing really happened,” I said. “I’m worried.”

“This one looks good,” he said, picking up a brush. On television, the news anchor describes Donald Trump’s objection to the vote count as “intellectually incoherent”.

“Ha!” said the sweeper, starting his big vacuum cleaner. I listen to the reassuring noise, watching the numbers of the polls scroll by, while darkness spreads in the room.

Good luck is officially bestowed when you shake hands with a swipe, but in the end, we never even touch elbows.

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