Tim Dowling: I face my fears and hire a chimney sweep | life and style

II sit in my office cabin while the squirrel in front of me eats the last tomatoes of the summer. He’s sitting on the corner of the raised bed just across the window, with a look on his face that says, I thought you’d like to see this.

Behind the squirrel, a man wearing a hard hat is dismantling a lime tree with a chainsaw in the path along the garden wall. Between two cuts, my wife shouts to him about the possibility of coming to see a tree on our side of the wall.

It’s the back corner of the year, a traditional time to prepare for the coming winter. This year, I gave myself 30 full days to do nothing but see the damage of the summer: the rail that allows the trash can to slide into its housing, broken; the garden door window, cracked along its length after being slammed by strong winds; the downstairs toilet flush valve – buggered, again.

When the 30 days were up, I performed messy surgery on the sliding trash can drawer and replaced the faulty toilet mechanism for the second time this year. Clearly a more permanent solution is needed. On the other hand, the annual purchase of a £28 flush unit is perhaps a luxury I can afford.

An hour later, the tree man comes back to talk about our cherry tree. I step out of my office and nod.

“If I could, I would cut it off,” my wife says. “But he won’t leave me.”

“You would miss it when it was gone,” I said.

“No, I wouldn’t,” she says, in a tone that implies there’s a lot she wouldn’t miss.

The tree man offers a third way to save the marriage – crowning the tree to reduce its height, let in more light, and maintain its overall shape. But he can’t do it before December.

“December?” said my wife. “I want it done now, so I don’t have to rake the leaves.”

“We are extremely busy,” said the tree man. In fact, they’ve never been busier – with the possibility of a second lockdown looming, people are racing to get their immediate surroundings in order.

“Not him,” my wife said, pointing at me again.

“Toilet,” I say, raising my thumb, followed by my index finger. “Trash can.”

“It’s been like this since the summer,” said the tree man.

“I know,” I say. “Try asking a chimney sweep to call you back.”

“I can imagine,” said the tree man.

“Imagine not trying so hard,” my wife says.

The truth is, I’m a little afraid of chimney sweeps. The whole profession seems to me to be rooted in ancient superstitions. Their websites boast of the latest imaging equipment, but among their detailed services you’ll often find “an appearance at weddings for good luck.” Halfway in the dark, halfway in the light.

The last chimney sweep that came to the house was recommended by the man who installed the wood stove. I asked him to sweep a second chimney in the kitchen, where a much smaller stove had been installed by the previous owner.

“We don’t really use it,” I said, “but just in case.”

“I’m not going far from that,” he said, looking down.

“Why?” I said. “Is it cursed?”

He did not answer. In fact, he cleaned the other chimney and left without saying a word.

Chimney sweeps’ websites also have a magic way of making them appear nearby – “Local Acton chimney sweeps” – when in fact their mailing address is in Kent.

“So far I’ve had a dry response,” I told my wife that night. “From a man claiming I was out of his patch and recommending another sweep.”

“Yes?” said my wife.

“A sweep that, like the others, repels any attempt at contact,” I say.

“It’s their busy time,” she said.

“They’re all smiling in the wedding photos, but there’s something very dark at work here.”

“You’re just trying to make me do this, aren’t you?” she says.

“Of course,” I said. “I don’t even want to be there when they come.”

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