Cellars do not enjoy a particularly good press. There are too many stories of people being abducted and incarcerated, sometimes for years, in cunningly concealed cellars. An example is the extraordinary story of Natascha Kampusch who was abducted at the age of 10 and kept captive in Wolfgang Priklopil’s cellar for eight years.
Not many people know this, but I have a cellar. Cellars are not, after all, things you go around boasting about. My cellar has three rooms. The first one is reasonably warm since it houses the boiler. The second room, further from the boiler, is cooler and far more grotty. This is where things like flower vases, spare light bulbs and tools are kept. By the time you turn right into a third room you are in no doubt that you are underground. The brick walls are damp and gloomy. The floor, also brick, is permanently damp. This is the room where, when the house above had open fires in every room (and maids to clear the ashes!), coal used to be kept. The walls still carry telltale marks where coal and coke cascaded down when a manhole cover outside was lifted.
I have designs on this unpromising space; I want to turn it into a wobbly fish factory. Years ago I went on a one-day course where I learnt how to transform pieces of wood – the sort you find discarded in skips and washed up on beaches – into articulated fish. But to make them you need a band saw and other bits of equipment and a place where wood chippings and sawdust can happily congregate. The third room in my cellar, suitably damp proofed, would make an ideal venue.
I am under no illusions; damp proofing a cellar with plastic membranes and the proper cement/plaster is a specialist job. So, I called a couple of firms who do this sort of work and invited them to come and have a look and give me a quote.
The first person who came matched the stereotype; a middle aged man with a clipboard and a tape measure. I took him down into my cellar knowing that this was his sort of environment; a place that would allow his extensive knowledge of all things damp to flourish. Sure enough, he enthused about my cellar (‘don’t make them like this nowadays – too expensive to dig the hole.’) and waxed lyrical about the tanking process and different membranes. He left promising to put an estimate of the costs involved in the post.
The second person to come and look at my cellar was a complete surprise; a shapely young woman with long blonde hair. She was wearing a white (yes,white!) T-shirt, tight jeans and sunglasses. I can’t recall her shoes – but 3-inch high heels would not have been out of place. She looked as if she should be sauntering along the King’s Road blissfully unaware that cellars even existed. She was abnormally cheerful too and introduced herself as Jo.
Now, I know I shall be accused, quite deservedly, of being sexist, but somehow it didn’t seem quite proper to take this young woman down into my cellar. It crossed my mind to ask her whether she had ever heard of Susie Lampugh but, on second thoughts, I decided that might cause needless alarm. Suffice to say, after some hesitation, I led her down into my cellar feeling a mixture of apologetic and protective. Once down there, with her sunglasses now pushed up on top of her blonde hair, like a tiara, she was perfectly competent of course, describing different options and enthusing about an amazing plastic membrane that was, she claimed, unique to her company. However, despite exhibiting her undoubted expertise, my cellar and this immaculate young woman still seemed utterly incongruous.
Having loitered for as long as seemed decent, I left her to take some measurements and do some calculations. As I ascended the wooden stairs that come up from the cellar, it dawned on me that, in the circumstances, it would be essential to break a 40-year old habit. Let me explain. One switch, at the top of the cellar stairs, operates the lights for all three rooms. Switching off the lights, closing the door and bolting it on the outside, has become an unthinking, automatic reflex carried out hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of times previously. Should anyone be left down in the cellar they would instantly be plunged into total darkness and at the mercy of whoever throws the bolt (I know because my grandchildren sometimes do it to me!).
I realised that, with this delicious lady deep in my cellar, I must consciously reverse my normal routine and leave the lights on and the cellar door open! I still wonder what the consequences would have been if I’d absentmindedly switched off the lights and bolted the door. Thank goodness it’s possible, admittedly with a superhuman effort, to break the habits of a lifetime!