Back in the olden days, long before I threw caution to the wind and became a penniless writer, I was the owner of a small wine cellar. My cellarmaster was a long-legged black beauty who, like many of the women I know, was a stroppy wench (that should trigger a few comments and turn my glasses into contact lenses)…
The cellar was located in the wash-house at the back of the house I was renting. Access was by an external door and, being located at the south-eastern corner of the house, temperatures gradually rose and fell with the seasons rather than changing abruptly during the day as they do in sunnier rooms.
It was never my intention to appoint a cellarmaster and, in fact, I never did. She simply moved in.
I suspected that I had a free-loader for some weeks, but couldn’t be sure. You know. Strange noises that logic tells you “you’re imagining things.” Perhaps a glimpse of something that might’ve been a ghostly apparition caught out of the corner of my eye. “No, no, old boy. Too much of the noble grape, what?”
Then came the moment of truth. One night, while the dinner guests were creating pandemonium in the dining room banging their cutlery on the table and chanting “Where’s my tea!?” I shot out to the cellar for another red hoping they wouldn’t bring down the roof (and the wrath of the landlord) while I was away.
Records told me which carton housed the noble nectar and I approached the rack of cartons lying on their side protecting their precious contents and keeping their corks moist. I must admit I was a bit distracted as I removed the strap which held the precious cartons in place in case of a bottler of an earthquake.
I was actually thinking of what I would write in my diary once I had chased the rabble off to their homes. Something like “Beware these guests. They’ll eat you out of house and home. They’ll empty the cupboards and fill the long-drop and then head off home singing old college songs fuelled by the contents of the wine cellar.” I never did get around to writing that diary entry so I can’t claim plagiarism when I saw a similar comment about me in a host’s visitors book some years later. Totally untrue, of course. (cough).
Anyway, having removed the seismic retraint, I opened the carton, grabbed the selected bottle and began withdrawing it from its nest only to find it snatched back. And something moved…
Well, I think it was snatched from my hand, but perhaps shock at seeing something move made me shove it back. There was frantic scrabbling of feet against cardboard as I shot out the door gibbering. I had met my fellow tenant. Though only a fraction of my size, she seemed enormous, with slavering jaws, menacing eyes, clacking mandibles – the works. Quite capable of biting off an arm and spitting out the gristle as she gnawed on it.
Back then I was well-familiar with Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” even though Peter Jackson hadn’t done his bit to make it popular – I’d graduated from comics to grown-up books a few years earlier. So I knew about orcs and trolls and other beasties that lurk in dark places crunching on the dried bones of their victims.
So it was easy to find a name for my squatter mate. Shelob. What a honey. And just my luck that she was a stroppy tunnel-web spider well-aware of her ability to scare the pants off wimps like me.
For several months, wine consumption dropped in that house, because every time I thought, “Right. This has got to be sorted. That’s my wine!” she would end up getting the better of me. She only needed to clatter her feet on the side of the carton and I’d be out of there faster than a popping champagne cork.
After a while, though, we reached a sort of truce. She could live rent-free and I would make plenty of noise opening a carton so that she had time to scuttle off and do spider things elsewhere. I think she liked to keep me on my toes though. She moved house quite often, living in carton B one week and carton D the next. I wonder how the postie managed to find her when delivering her power bills. Still, not my worry.
We had mobile phones in those days, so she wouldn’t have been hassling Telecom every time she moved house. Mine was a strappy black model that, had I fallen on it, would have impaled me with its aerial. It sat atop a rather large battery and the lights dimmed when I plugged the charger into the national grid. Still, the shoulder strap was strong and it wasn’t easily lost. On a windy day, I could use it as a doorstop, so it was probably one of the first multi-functional cellphones that have evolved into tiny pesky toys that badger you with texts, emails and let you surf the net. Try propping a door open with one of those wimpy things. Pity I looked a bit like Margaret Thatcher when I took it out for a walk and my friends used to shout at me from across the road “Don’t hit me with your handbag!”
Anyway, back to Shelob. Over time, we entered into a comfortable symbiotic relationship and I used to sleep soundly knowing that my cellar was safe. Any hapless burglar who broke in to steal my plonk while I was sawing logs wouldn’t live to see the light of day. If Shelob was feeling a bit grumpy, all that would be left would be an oily smudge on the floor of the wash-house. On a good day, she’d just fling the bones out the back door after she’d licked them clean.
Another benefit of Shelob’s unpaid tenancy was soon grasped. The procession of predating guests knocking on the front door grasping their throats and croaking about drought conditions soon slowed. I began by handing them the cellar records and keys and sending them out the back. As they opened the door I would nonchalantly sing out “Say hello to Shelob for me” which nicely fuelled their imagination. Thus primed any scratching noise as they ferreted about would cause them to emerge wide-eyed like a rat from a drainpipe, shoving the cellar records into my outstretched hand as they headed for the hills.
But then came that Puff The Magic Dragon day. I knew she’d left me. Her junk mail was piling up, and her bills started appearing in my letterbox with a note from the postie asking me to pass them on. She hadn’t even left me a note! (whimper)
For several weeks I hoped that she’d had to zoom off to visit a sick relative, or had headed north to nurse a friend who’d come out of hospital. I lay awake at night hoping to hear the clunk of the gate as she headed round the back with her luggage – handy having extra arms to carry all those bags.
Sniff. She never came back. I suppose she’d found a better position and the knowledge she’d gained while guarding my cellar probably helped her get her Master of Wine at varsity.
The other day, I was fossicking around in the garage, rummaging in one of the well-organised boxes where I keep gew-gaws, diddly-das, gim-cracks and fiddly-diddlies. These are the things that are the very backbone of a bloke’s garage. The odd-shaped things that might come in useful one day and, when Mum is on the rampage, the very same things that are the first to be hiffed out into the skip.
This particular box contains all the left-hand diddly-das that are useless without a right-hand gew-gaw, so it doesn’t get visited much and is rather dusty. While I was poking about, something moved…
I think she’s back.