Alex James: The Great Escape

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The Independent Online

Poor old Fred looks knackered. There's a lot for a sheep farmer to contend with at the moment. We lost a couple of roof panels on the big sheep barn during Hurricane Edith. (Hurricanes are named after dogs in Oxfordshire; Edith is the whippet up the road.) The fields are gurgling like wet sponges; the yard is a mud bath. It was snowing just now, the sideways kind, and then the sky cracked open wide, and, for the moment, the sun is broadcasting imperial calm from a perfect silver-blue sky.

But no respite for Fred. He's managed to get the tractor started, but the sheep are lambing left, right and centre, and that's the main reason he's so tired. It's very cosy in their barn. Two lambs born an hour ago are skipping around after their mother in pools of sunlight. It's a picture of tranquillity.

Friends dashed up from London for the afternoon on Saturday. It was gusty, grey and cold. I could see they thought they'd made a big mistake. The idea of spending a whole afternoon at someone's house is a terrifying thought in a city. I lit a fire. We spent the afternoon poking it. A roaring fire is such a comforting, homely affair. They didn't want to leave. As they were getting into the car, the sun did one of its appearing tricks and lit up the valley brilliant orange. It was just getting good.

I was woken up by the fire alarm this morning. I've been wondering if it worked. I've been boning up on cosmology and in bed last night I reached the part of the story where Edwin Hubble realises the universe is a billion times bigger than anyone had thought. It made me feel very hungry and I went downstairs for a midnight cheesy crumpet.

When the alarm woke us up at 6am, the house was thick with acrid smoke. I sprang out of bed and ran around looking for the fire, screaming: "Get the babies!" It was hard to tell where the smoke was coming from. I had come to my senses, but my brain was still booting up. It finally flickered to life and said, "Crumpets!" The grill was glowing red and had set fire to the shelf above it. It's hard to say how long it was from eyes-open to fire-blanket-flapping, probably less than 20 seconds. Another couple of minutes and the flames would have licked through the ceiling and God knows.

It was hard to put the thing out as it was. The chunky shelf had been toasted so dry that it refused to stop smouldering and reigniting, despite half a dozen stockpots full of water. I put the oven gloves on, wrenched the whole thing off the wall and hurled it in the fireplace.

It's such a horrible smell - overwhelmingly toxic and bitter. It took ages to find the keys that open the different window locks, but once the windows were thrown open, the stench was gone in an hour or so. The shelf is still burning in the grate. I've rarely fallen asleep feeling as clever as I did, with my head full of cosmological constants. I've never woken up and felt so stupid. It was a close squeak.

a.james@independent.co.uk

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