Mr. Curtis has come and gone. You’d like him. He’s not a big talker. That’s not surprising for someone who works alone most of the time. He’s a brick layer. There are lots of brick layers and stone masons in Victoria. What’s sets Mr. Curtis apart is his willingness to take on small jobs, the kind of jobs that go with Heritage homes. Most of the people I first contacted wanted to work on big contracts, building all the chimneys in a new condominium or putting up a stone wall eight feet high by two blocks long. That’s what they do now. The developers, that is. Before they build a single unit for someone to live in, they put up a large board with a picture of the condos-to-be, then they build a wall, station a guard at the gate and sell security to retirees terrified of all the violence in New York and Detroit. A contract for a wall that surrounds a city block is worth a lot of money. Fixing my wall is only worth four hundred dollars. That’s twenty-five dollars an hour for two eight hour days.
I called Mr. Curtis because I’d had a beefy man in a plaid jacket come to my door to tell me that my chimney’s were in imminent danger of snuffing out my life and the life of my loved ones. They could, he said, waving me out the door and onto the lawn, where he pointed at them accusingly, collapse at that very moment, come crashing through the roof and crush anyone below. My wife, for example. I don’t have a wife but even if I did, I’m not sure that his argument was one that might make me reach for my wallet. I can think of some days when I did have a wife that his bit of information would have made me nod with satisfaction, go back into the house and hope for an earthquake. There was only one solution this rather flabby man with soft hands declared and that was to give him twenty-five hundred dollars. Then his men would swarm aloft and save me and my loved ones from certain death.
I’d never given much thought to chimneys. They’re a bit like wives or husbands, something that’s always around, but not something one thinks about all that much until there’s a disaster of some sort. Chimneys are not what immediately springs to mind when starting a conversation. Although, I have had conversations in which I’ve told people that in Iceland there are no chimneys. That’s because the homes are heated with hot water from the volcanoes. It’s not quite true that no houses have chimneys. Some of the older homes have chimneys. They predate the large hot water pipeline that brings a river of hot water from the volcanoes into Reykjavik.
I chased the doom sayer from the door. I didn’t really believe him anymore than I believe those people who come by occasionally to hand out pamphlets declaring that the end of the world is near and that I should repent and contribute all my worldly goods to their cause. I never give them anything because if the end is really near, they have absolutely no need of worldly goods. If the end isn’t near, then I need my own worldly goods. However, the contradiction seems lost on them. Yet, over the next few days I found myself glancing up at the chimneys. When you have a two story house with a steep roof, it’s hard to tell whether your chimneys are secretely plotting to fall on you. At night I found myself calculating whether a chimney, if it toppled in my direction, would reach the bed.
There was, also, of course, the possibility of an earthquake. In Victoria we have earthquakes every day. Not that you’ll find it mentioned in the tourist brochures. The island is split with a fault line. The result is waking up occasionally and thinking someone has run into the house with a truck. Other times I wake up to hear the furniture jiggling. One gets used it. One gets used to just about anything. When I first came here if someone said the earth moved, I assumed they were referring to Hemingway. Now, I assume there has been a tremblor that I’ve slept through.
I don’t really believe the island is going to split apart and disappear beneath the waves. Even so, I don’t hang any pictures over the beds. Three years ago I went to an earthquake preparedness course put on by the university and since then I’ve been meaning to put in an emergency water and food supply.The course, which lasted three hours, could be summed up by saying don’t let anything fall on you, there won’t be any help from off the island for at least seventy-two hours and don’t flush your toilet because the tank holds the only water you’re likely to have available.
After fretting for a week, I called Mr. Curtis. He was very reassuring.
“No,” he said, “the chimney won’t fall down. But it does need to be repaired.” He didn’t have the time right then. Life is filled with contradictions. There is massive unemployment on the island yet trades people are harder to book an appointment with than heart surgeons. He would return as soon as he had time. And he did. That’s when I started belieiving in miracles.
He explained that he’d have to charge five hundred and twenty-five for the one chimney. He didn’t want to talk about the second or third chimneys. “We’ll see how this one goes,” he said. “Then we’ll decide about the others. The reason for the price is I’ll need my brother-in-law to build a platform on the roof so I can stand.”
I was going away but, as he said, he didn’t need me there to supervise. I suspect he was just as happy I was going to be three thousand miles away. And sure enough, when I returned, I could tell just by looking from the ground that the chimney had been rebuilt and restuccoed. He did the second chimney, heaving scaffolding up to the upstairs deck, then dismantling it and heaving it down. For that chimney he wanted three and a quarter. The third chimney, he said, didn’t need anything done with it. He’s a man that doesn’t have to make work for himself by doing unnecessary jobs.
I don’t look skyward anymore but I know the chimneys are there in a way I didn’t know before. Solid and dependable, with good mortar and good caps on them, secure against the winter wind and rain. I wonder, though, what we’re going to do when the Mr. Curtis’s aren’t around anymore.