Written by Annie Caulfield


Busy Doing Nothing

Shh, Annie Caulfield is trying to write. No, really. Just as soon as she’s finished wondering why her French windows are called French windows. And why a large, furry thing has just scuttled across the terrace…

Head filled with distractions

Illustration by Claire Jones.

There’s an old Oxford Dictionary of Quotations chestnut about writers from American journalist Burton Rascoe: “What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of the window.”

I know. “He”? And I live with a male writer who would never dare refer to me in any ‘little woman wouldn’t understand’ fashion. But I’ve always hoped the window-staring thing was true. This week I might have proved it.

Because I had so much to do, I sat at the computer then stared out of the window. Not just any window; French windows. Someone could run through them at any moment and begin a bedroom farce. Do people still say French windows? I hear talk of patio doors but did the French window go off with Ben Travers into the glazing hereafter? Of course, now I also have to know why they’re French.

Were people less easily distracted before they could go online? Not necessarily. The moment I discover all I can about French windows, I look out through mine again and see a horrible thing. Then I know the day is doomed.

Oh, and by the way, the term French window seems to be interchangeable with French door but applies to the small-paned, wood-framed openings in an exterior wall. Whereas, a patio door is a sheet of glass, usually sliding onto the outside area…

So, outside my small-paned French windows I have a container garden. The plants form a barrier, defending what I have decided is my section of the terrace behind our flats. No one else has bothered to fence themselves in like this; perhaps it’s just that I have more time on my hands… No, I don’t. I have a sitcom pilot to write.

But, but… there, making its way across the terrace, it’s a small, fat, rat.

I give up on work and find the caretaker.

Rats, he says, are above his pay grade. Specialists have to be called. Meanwhile, not to worry: “Remember, they’re more scared of you than you are of them.”

I thank him for this, although it isn’t true. Otherwise, wouldn’t I see the rat on the other side of the French windows flapping at a rat caretaker?

The caretaker promises rat-catchers; I go back to work on the script. It seems disappointingly lifeless. All too easy to spurn writing and watch the two men in overalls laying black plastic boxes along the back wall.

“Traps,” the men tell me.

When the men are gone, I go out to inspect. One hole in the black plastic box. Is the rat beheaded in there, or just trapped until it starves to death, suffocates, has a stress-induced heart attack? What if I have to sit and watch the flailing tail of a dying rodent while trying to do something with a dying sitcom?

The next morning, the caretaker tells me, “You know what the rat-catchers were saying is really the only thing that works? Get a cat.”

My neighbours think I’m odd enough; I’m not giving them “with a cat” to add to the way they talk about me.

“There may be an art to finding the usefulness in window staring; a balance that has to be calculated every day. Tomorrow there may be no creative journey to follow in the tail of a rat. How will I know until I’ve followed?”

I try to work. I wonder what they’re called these days instead of rat-catchers? Pest Control it said on the van. I don’t like the incomplete implications of “control”. Eradication, annihilation, or pest extinction would be more reassuring.

I move sitcom characters through mud for a while, then I drift. The old profession of rat-catcher reminds me of a friend who lives in a historic Derbyshire village; what was it she told me about an eccentric job up there that has something to do with rats? I have to email her. Yes, there’s a man called a lengthsman. He goes through the village tidying the verges and reporting potholes. The village has had one since medieval times when the area was being decimated by bubonic plague. The lengthsman had to catch and burn any rats found in the thoroughfares. No, she doesn’t know if the lengthsman is a job unique to her village…

I Google lengthsman.

Well, well: lengthsmen are returning to rural areas. They clear verges, gutters and maintain village greens; the priority alert for plague rats seems to have died down.

A lengthsman. Something of the bedroom farce echoes in this job title. Or perhaps more Carry On film. There’s a cackle of Sid James’ laughter every time I type the word.

With great excitement I realise I may be typing it frequently.

The lead character in my sitcom knew everyone and everything because she worked part time in the village shop. This is why there was a stuck-mud feel to the drama. If my character is the newly appointed lengthswoman, thus moving around the village, doing various tasks while she gets to know everyone, there’s action, surprise, unwieldy comedy implements…

I know I’ll take advantage of all this, excusing myself from the desk within five minutes of trying to write the next difficult script.

“Remember the lengthsmen!” I’ll tell myself, as I skive and slither, free as a rat in a sewer.

There may be an art to finding the usefulness in window staring; a balance that has to be calculated every day. Tomorrow there may be no creative journey to follow in the tail of a rat. How will I know until I’ve followed? How will I know when I’ll just be jet-blasted into an oblivion of wasted time? Even in being distracted from work, there’s work. The best I can hope for is control of the pest. Something rat-catchers clearly resigned themselves to a long time ago.

Sadly, Annie died in November, 2016. Please consider donating to the Macmillan tribute fund set up by her sister Jo Caulfield in Annie’s name. https://macmillan.tributefunds.com/annie-caulfield

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Written by Annie Caulfield

Annie Caulfield is a dramatist, travel writer and broadcaster. Originally from Northern Ireland, she lives in London or a Spanish cave. www.anniecaulfield.com