Tim Dowling: I’m facing my fears and booking a chimney sweep

I’m sitting in my office shed while the squirrel eats the last of the summer’s tomatoes in front of me. He’s sitting on the corner of the raised bed just the other side of the glass, with a look on his face that says: I thought you’d want to see this.

Beyond the squirrel, a man in a hard hat is using a chainsaw to dismantle a lime tree in the lane running along the garden wall. Between cuts, my wife shouts up at him about the possibility of coming round to look at a tree on our side of the wall.

It’s the back corner of the year, a traditional time to batten down for the coming winter. This year I allowed myself a full 30 days to do nothing but assess the summer damage: the rail that allows the bin to slide into its recess, snapped; the window in the garden door, cracked across its length after slamming shut in high winds; the downstairs toilet flush valve – buggered, again.

When the 30 days elapsed, I performed messy surgery on the bin’s sliding drawer, and replaced the toilet’s faulty mechanism for the second time this year. It’s clear a more permanent solution is required. On the other hand, the annual purchase of a £28 flush valve unit is possibly a luxury I can afford.

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

“If I could, I’d just cut it down,” my wife says. “But he won’t let me.”

“You’d miss it when it was gone,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

“Toilet,” I say, holding up a thumb, followed by a forefinger. “Bin.”

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

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

“I can imagine,” the tree man says.

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

The truth is, I’m a little bit frightened of chimney sweeps. The whole profession strikes me as being anchored in ancient superstitions. Their websites boast of the latest imaging equipment, but among their itemised services you will often find “appearance at weddings for good luck”. Halfway in shadow, halfway in light.

The last chimney sweep who 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 ain’t going nowhere near that,” he said, looking down.

“Why?” I said. “Is it cursed?”

He didn’t answer. In fact, he cleaned the other chimney and left without saying a word.

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

“So far I’ve had one curt reply,” I tell my wife that evening. “From a man claiming I was off his patch, and recommending a fellow sweep.”

“Yes?” my wife says.

“A sweep who, like the others, rebuffs any attempt at contact,” I say.

“It’s their busy time,” she says.

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

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

“Obviously,” I say. “I don’t even want to be here when they come.”