I was gifted some time recently — two weeks between jobs — in which I thought I could get some of my own work done. Long-outstanding work. Important work. Naturally, I opted to fritter this time away with my new procrastination-enabler activity: groping around under my floor for junk from the 1900’s.
Some brief background: I live in a terraced house in south-west London, built in the early 1900’s. Like most houses of this design, a narrow cellar runs beneath the entrance hallway, originally used as a coal-chute. The joists for the ground floor rest on the top of the cellar wall, which leaves a series of shallow gaps where one can peer over the cellar wall to the space beneath the reception room floor, if one were so inclined. I was so inclined.
There is an ocean of crap under my floor. Not just any crap, but old crap. This is an important distinction. If it were simply half-bags of cement and copper-pipe offcuts left by builders, I’d have never bothered with it, but when I first flashed a torch in there I saw what looked to be (and what was) a very old tin of shoe polish. I had to have it. I now have approximately five thousand old tins of shoe polish which I’ve rescued from that filthy void, and if I pull out another one I’ll probably try to open a vein with its rusty rim, but that first sighting is what got me started.
Some things I’ve learned from the experience:
– You can never reach as far as you think you can
– Everything seems much bigger when viewed at eye-level
– Tetanus is almost certainly a fictional malady invented to frighten children into obedience, or at least its method of contraction is a falsehood, because if being cut by rusty metal were a genuine catalyst of the disease I’d be critically ill of not outright dead by now, which I’m clearly not, as I’m sitting here writing about it
– WW1-era Londoners were sick, violent, immoral, perverse, incredibly messy and apparently obsessed with keeping shoes at their shiniest
– Enough is enough only until you want to go back for more
The way I gain access to the trash-trove is: I kneel on the workbench or stand on a chair, reach up and over the wall with my face pressed into the brickwork, and blindly feel around for interesting things to pull out. I can’t see where I’m groping because the joists and the floorboards stop me getting my head into any kind of viewing position. I used gloves for a while, but I couldn’t feel a thing, so I now grope about barehanded, just like they did it back in the day. It’s a messy business. I mentioned about the cellar being a coal chute — apparently excess coal was dumped over the wall. I think I might have developed the black lung.
It hasn’t all been coal dust and shoe polish tins and razor blades. Did I mention there were razor blades? What don’t you want to find when you’re groping around blind with your bare hands? You guessed it: razor blades. But I have also found some pretty cool things. Here’s my top five (subjective) finds so far:
1. A time capsule in the form of an old lemonade bottle, containing a number of old tram tickets and a letter from the first owner of the house to the finder of the time capsule (me!)
2. A Colt .22 New Line revolver, in its pouch and in apparent working order (without bullets)
3. A small jar labelled “Special Black Female Corrective Pills” (with pills)
4. A very old framed picture postcard, presumably of the original owner and his wife
5. What appears to be a home-made opium pipe (without opium, dammit)
The time capsule got us all very excited. It’s dated 1908, addressed from our house, and says (paraphrased): “My name is George Herbert Cowell, the original owner of this house. I wonder when this letter will be found. Enclosed are a few Tramway tickets. We have just had our Tramways electrified.” All written in perfect cursive. I downloaded the image of the 1911 census form from the house, and loe and behold, it matched: George Herbert Cowell and family, all of them but Mrs Cowell employed by the Central Telegraph Office in Waterloo.
The gun was another high-point. When I pulled it out I had no idea what to expect as I tried to open the old zipper on the pouch with my bleeding, rust-speckled fingers. When I saw the butt of the gun shining through I thought it might be a fancy knife. When I pulled out a gun, I was stunned: it was tiny. I mean, really tiny. I later learned it was issued by Colt as competition for the Derringer, but on first sight I thought it was a cigarette lighter. The Colt New Line was made in 1877, a 7-shot rimfire revolver, and it fits very comfortably in the palm of my hand. Unfortunately, being a .22 means it falls under section 5 of the UK firearms act, which makes it a prohibited weapon. A bit of gun oil and a clean-up, you could slot some modern .22 cartridges into that puppy and, provided your hands weren’t too large, you could give someone a nasty sting. Good citizen that I am, I contacted the local chapter of the firearms squad, who are now holding it safe for me in their armory until I find someone to deactivate it. I couldn’t even sell it I wanted to, because no-one would be allowed to buy it – it falls into the same category as a Glock.
The corrective pills were, it turns out, an early form of the morning-after pill. Yes ladies, just one of these a day for about a month after your fun and games will take care of any unwanted “developments”. This may or may not be achieved by precipitating your own death, but that would probably be on account of all the lead you’ve been ingesting by taking these “special black” pills.
More details on this gripping adventure will follow, after I’ve caught some Z’s.