Updated: Oct 19, 2019
Magda finished what the rain had started, knocking down the soggy internal walls and removing what remained of the mud and straw ceiling. It’s surprising how space contracts once you lose the walls.
The open plan ruin-cum-barn didn’t look particularly huge any more, although the measurements confirmed that we could have fitted our previous house, top and bottom floors combined, inside this one room, with space to spare.
A wood burning stove is now the only thing protecting us from the unrelenting cold and damp. It feeds into our new chimney which, although working perfectly well, looks like something a builder who has never actually seen a chimney might come up with when tasked to build one. A bit like those old Bestiary drawings of elephants, where the never-seen-an-elephant artist has been given “big ears and long nose” as his instruction and has had to make it up from there. The chimney consists of square, hollow blocks piled up like idiot-proof Jenga, in good old Communist grey.
At some later point this utilitarian structure will be concealed behind a custom-made gigantic tiled stove, with hobs, ovens and – can’t wait for this bit – a double bed on top. Hot nights in guaranteed.
Currently, we all work, eat and sleep in the same communal space, like tourists trapped in a reality TV show about mediaeval peasantry. Sleeping requires lots of clothes, as the beds are a long way from the stove. Our two dogs sprawl on the floor, occasionally scuffling and woofing after mice, who jump bravely onto mousetraps in a lemming-like procession. Two night-loving rats and a pair of restless budgies complete the mediaeval menagerie. We have to rise at 6 – school here starts at 7am – but waking up in the dark with a frozen nose is more effective than any alarm clock.
The joys of communal living
Outside, the poor old building is now surrounded by dead wood, stone rubble, and junk jettisoned from the interior. As Magda observed, it rather spoils the otherwise pretty village, looking like a ramshackle barn in a small industrial estate. The garden itself could easily be mistaken for the local tip.
We live in this communal huddle for the simple reason that we have nowhere else to go. The upstairs section is being converted into five rooms, but the work is very stop-start. Our trusty Ukrainian builders began well, digging up the floor, building walls and heaving rubble from A to B, sometimes breaking into mournful song in sonorous tenor voices. But the guys turned out to be not-so trusty after they failed to turn up, two days running. Eventually tracking down their phone-shy foreman, we learned that they had returned to the Ukraine. Not unreasonable for Ukrainians, you might think, but a word in advance would have helped enormously.
We are currently awaiting their replacements who, if we are to believe the vague reports of the foreman, left Ukraine a week ago but have still not made landfall in Czechia. The intervening delights of Slovakia have clearly tempted them from the straight path.
Taking consolation in planning the rewiring and plumbing, we pointed out to the hugely moustachioed electrician that the sockets sparked when you unplugged anything, and that the electrics were in the habit of blowing. He shrugged and mumbled something that translates roughly as “of course they do”. Should we be worried about it? “That’s up to you”, he said, inscrutably.
One of the first things I did upon arrival in the village was to join the local volunteer firemen. It was a role inflicted on me by our well-meaning neighbours, Petr and Eva. They assured me I would need no particular skills other than the ability to sit in a private pub every Friday and drink beer. I felt up to the task, and duly joined.
All seemed well, and meeting once a week to pay 75p a pint for some of the best beer in the world, I felt we were doing our bit for the preservation of the village. But this turned out to be the last year in the 150-year history of the Bĕlý volunteer firemen. I didn’t see it coming at all – everyone seemed full of bonhomie and… well… of beer.
The firefighting season climaxed with a summer gathering in which village firemen teams competed with hoses and pumps, and entered into a three-a-side beer-swilling boat race with friendly gusto. In September the village’s new bell tower was formally inaugurated, with massed uniformed firemen, a priest, and a group of swordsmen who re-enacted the Battle of Bĕlý or some other non-existent historic event. There was music, food, more beer, and lots of that apparent goodwill.
Bĕlý firemen pump it up
But behind the scenes there were accusations of corruption, theft and other skulduggery. Sides were drawn, and the battle simmered, all away from my innocent gaze. It was only when Magda and I turned up for the annual general meeting supper and piss-up that we became aware of the severity of the fallout. We had been told to aim for 7pm, as by then the formal speeches and accounting part of the evening would be over.
It wasn’t. We took our seats sheepishly as the battle raged. The two opposing sides kicked verbal shit out of each other, most of the detail of what they were saying eluding my sub-basic grasp of the language; but the vitriol was clear enough. We ordered two glasses of beer. Then two more. Then it all seemed to calm down, and the first table load of simmering firemen was told it could go and feed itself in the restaurant (this being in a hotel owned by one of the Bĕlý Hasiči).
“Well, it all seemed to calm down in the end”, I said. Magda, Petr and Eva looked at me with grim faces.
“It calmed down in the end all right”, said Magda. “Because it was the end. That’s it. No more Bĕlý volunteer firemen.”
The older ones, accused of the skulduggery, had announced that they were joining forces with another village. The remainder in the accuser’s camp – plus those, like us, who were only in it for the beer – had neither the means nor the official Fire Brigade’s sanction to carry on.
I felt an unreasonable wave of guilt. It reminded me of the time when the wonderful German folk band Black Bush stayed with me in Buxton in 1997. During their visit, one of the members fell in love with my lodger, and 12 months later, after a 15-year career, the band was over.
This felt like that kiss of death again. 150 years of Bĕlý local firemen, scuppered by the arrival of me and Magda and the Buxton Curse.
But Petr and Eva pointed out that all was not lost. We could still all meet every Friday and drink beer. Besides, Petr added, with the wisdom of a long-time resident, this wasn’t the first time the Hasiči had shot itself down in flames, only to rise from the ashes with a few burns and a thirst for more beer.
One fire, two dogs, four cold humans