Town Life: Victoria Summerley

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The Independent Online

Here in the great metropolis, we rely on different harbingers to mark the turn of the seasons. We have no gambolling lambs, no cider orchards blanketed in blossom, no brushwood sheaf in tiny leaf, or any of the other things Robert Browning or my colleague Brian Viner on the opposite page will describe to you. But despite the freezing temperatures and unseasonable snow, there are five infallible big-city signs that spring is on its way:

* You stop getting leaflets from local estate agents telling you Mrs X has just lost out on a house in your road and is desperate to buy another one and if you are considering selling, please contact them asap. (What they don't tell you, of course, is that Mrs X is a tight-fisted harridan who might by now be snugly ensconced at No 26 were it not for her insistence on offering £100,000 under the asking price.) You no longer get the leafletsbecause this is one of the busiest times of the year for agents - as they will tell you when they turn up late to give you a valuation. On the other hand, if your house fails to sell within six weeks, it's because the Easter weekend/May bank holiday/summer half term (delete as applicable) is "always notoriously slow".

* You go to Homebase, or B&Q, or whatever lights your barbecue, to buy a 99p packet of screws and come home with £200's worth of plants, garden furniture and horticultural necessities. This trip takes you two hours. One hour is spent queueing at Customer Information for change because you haven't got a pound coin for the trolley you need to carry all your impulse buys. The second hour is spent dithering in the garden centre section over whether to have bright pink and orange polyanthus (jolly but chavvy) or white (tasteful but boring). You walk quickly past the tempting lollipop bay trees because your sister-in-law has told you they're naff.

* You embark on the annual shopping trip to Ikea. Suddenly, in the bright vernal sunshine, your little nest looks drab and forlorn. Or that's what you tell yourself as you justify buying a vase called SNITS (I swear that's its name) and a duvet cover called BIBBI. Just for good measure, and as things are so cheap, you throw in a few candles and a storage box called FLAJ. Most of these items cost around two quid, so you're astonished when at the till you find your bank balance is about to be relieved of £127.42.

* The scaffolding starts coming down on all the loft extensions. Thanks to a secret agreement, which London's builders sign with their own blood, that loft extensions have to be built in the middle of winter, which ensures the maximum disruption in your household over Christmas and a huge hole in your roof just when the temperature drops to -5. Why? I have a theory. Having gone through the hell of the scaffolding, the skips and the endless cups of tea at the most miserable time of the year, not to mention gazing out through the rain at a patio littered with fag-ends and plaster dust for weeks on end, the prospect of getting rid of your builders becomes even more enticing. You are thus less likely to quibble over the bill and all the "extras", which by now will have added up to half of the original estimate.

* Never mind the call of the cuckoo, the sound of spring in the city is the tubercular cough of a lawnmower starting into action. The appearance of the grass-cutting male (and it usually is a male) follows a strict pattern, as formal as the mating dance of the great egret or the capercaillie. He is rarely, if ever, seen during the week and most often spotted on a Sunday afternoon, or occasionally on a Saturday afternoon. This is because Mrs Lawnmower has told her partner to "get out there and cut down that hayfield - we've got people coming for a barbecue in a couple of hours". The smell of fresh-cut grass will then waft across the neighbourhood for a few seconds before the stench of firelighters and burning charcoal, accompanied by choking smoke, fills your back garden.

In households which have advanced beyond stereotypical gender roles - like mine - super-efficient Mrs Lawnmower will cut the grass herself. I don't do the barbecue, though. Some rites of spring must remain sacrosanct.

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