Ashley can recall even now, 45 years later, the heat of that afternoon. To call it ‘sultry’ would be an understatement: the temperature was overwhelming, unbearable almost. Making any kind of prolonged movement completely drained all energy and it was impossible to escape the humidity. As he walked back home along that familiar road in the suburbs, drips of sweat were running down Ashley’s face and his shirt was soaking wet. This was hardly British weather; in fact the town had not experienced heat and humidity of this ferocity for many years. The metal railway lines were expanding and buckling and even the tarmac on the roads was becoming tacky in places. There was not a hint of a breeze; no clouds in the sky and the few, wafer-thin shadows on the ground offered very little temporary solace from that stifling, burning, breathless heat.
The prospect of escaping from this inferno into the, comparably, cooler interior of the house was drawing nearer with every heavy step Ashley took. Goodness knows how his parents were coping, he thought, in their respective places of work. They had all travelled into the city centre that morning in his parents’ car before the ferocity of the heat had begun to bite; Ashley’s Father to go to his job in the bank and his Mother to her post in the Customs office. Later on, his Father would pick up his Mother and they would journey back together in the rush hour traffic. However, this was the school holidays so, with time hanging heavy, teenager Ashley had nosed around a few shops in town that day looking at records, books and clothes but finding nothing of particular interest and with the temperature soaring, he had taken the bus back to the nearest stop a few streets away and was now closing in on the family home.
The house itself displayed nothing particularly out of the ordinary by way of appearance when seen from the front; it was just one of many 1930s detached properties along that road. To the left of the front door, the lounge had a bay-window and there was another one above that for the front bedroom - which was Ashley’s - and a smaller window above the front door, this being in the smallest of the three bedrooms. To the left of the neat building was an insanely narrow sliver of fence, guarding the minute gap between Ashley’s parents’ house and that of Marjorie King’s property next door. Another few inches closer and the building would have been semi-detached! To the right, the gap was wider and it sported a solid, wooden, black side gate some six feet tall with a sturdy wooden surround, also painted black.
There was, though, one feature unique to this house which was not visible from the front: it had a rear upstairs balcony. At some point in the 1950s, one of the owners had extended the downstairs area by building a sizeable square extension beyond the kitchen and it was onto the flat roof of this that the balcony was located, access to which was gained from Ashley’s parents’ bedroom at the back of the house. The balcony was enclosed by vertical wooden struts about four feet high, topped with a wooden rail. Ashley loved that balcony; it afforded wonderful views, near and far, over the town and countryside beyond, plus it was a superb location at night for him to sit with his telescope gazing up into the night sky searching for the planets and other celestial bodies of interest.
Arriving at the house on that scorching day, Ashley reached out from the pavement to open the squat, wrought iron front gate and immediately withdrew his hand as the metalwork felt red hot. He had to jab quickly at the latch with his fingers and push the gate with his knee to avoid burning his hand and, as it swung open, he stepped onto the short driveway and, with a backward flick of his leg, jauntily shut the gate until it clanged satisfyingly back into place. Walking up the short drive to the front door he was just about ready to wilt as he reached inside his pocket for the latch key.
It was not there.
Some people might have tried to disguise that fact. As for Ashley, he stood like a statue for a moment on the outside doormat, frowning, sweat still cascading down him then, through a series of frantic searching movements, it would have been quite apparent to anybody who may have been passing by that he had lost something vital. The left-side trouser pocket was turned inside out, then the other one, then the back pocket followed by the clinging shirt pocket but it was all to no avail; nowhere about his person did he possess the key with which to enter the house. Ashley had obviously left it inside the locked house that morning.
What was Ashley to do? There was no spare key left with any neighbour and there were still many hours before his parents returned from work. He was desperately thirsty and beginning to feel a little hungry, as well as being badly in need of a change of clothes, if not a cooling shower. The thought of having to return into town by bus in order to track down one of his parents to retrieve the front door key and then make the whole journey in reverse, yet again, was simply too much to contemplate seriously. He just had to get into the house somehow.
Maybe there was a way, after all. Ashley knew that at this time of year his parents rarely bolted the door from their bedroom leading on to the balcony at the back of the house. People were much less security conscious about their houses in those days; indeed, a few householders at that time even maintained the old custom of leaving their front doors “on the latch” during daylight hours - a hark back to a more gentle time when almost everybody did likewise. In any case, Ashley suspected, his parents probably figured that if somebody had managed to enter the grounds and then somehow succeeded in scaling up to and over the balcony railing then they probably deserved to gain entry to the house for their efforts! Aside from all this, Ashley knew that his parents - each thinking the other had secured it - more than occasionally failed to lock the door leading from the kitchen onto the side passage. It was this possibility which crossed Ashley’s mind and he knew that if he could somehow negotiate the forbidding side gate he at least had a sporting chance of getting inside the house. Anyway, it was high summer and, with an expectation born of youthful naivete, Ashley felt that there must be a window or two open somewhere at the back of the property which might be of assistance if all else failed.
With a growing sense of excitement at the adventure before him, Ashley moved to his right, mopped the sweat from his brow with his shirt sleeve as best he could and stood before the side gate, scrutinising it. He tried the catch but, not unexpectedly, the gate was firmly bolted from the other side. If he were to obtain access to that door along the side of the house leading to the kitchen, or even to the back of the house, Ashley would have to climb up and over that somewhat forbidding looking gate.
He prospected a way of ascent. Feeling it might, after all, be a fairly simple matter of jumping up and catching hold of the top, he believed he could then scamble up the gate, using the catch as a foothold if necessary. Remembering a phrase he had recently learnt at school, he knew that “If it were done when ‘tis done, ‘twere well it were done quickly”, without a moment’s more hesitation Ashley crouched down then jumped, arms reaching up above him. He felt his hands connect with the top of the gate and he kicked out with his lanky legs, seeking to gain some height. The problem was his hands were sweating profusely and they were beginning to lose their grip. Then, Ashley’s foot found the catch on the gate and he tentatively transferred a little weight to it. Remarkably it held and, having gained a couple of vital seconds respite, one after the other Ashley repositioned his hands and scrambled up to balance precariously on the top of the gate.
Looking down the other side, sweat falling away from him, the drop to the concrete sideway appeared to be much further than six feet. However, Ashley knew all he had to do was to reverse the process so, clinging on for dear life with his left hand, he wiped his saturated right hand palm on his only slightly less soaked shirt, then repeated the process with his other hand before finally grasping the top of the gate as tightly as he could and lowering his body down the far side. He knew his feet could not be more than a few inches off the ground so, trusting to this, he let go of his grip and landed softly in the sideway. Mission accomplished; well, stage one anyway.
Feeling pleased with his achievement so far, it was only now that Ashley wondered if anybody had observed him clambouring over the side gate and, if so, whether they had recognised him as being one of the occupants of the house or - and here Ashley’s brow really furrowed - whether they thought he was a burglar. Perhaps even now somebody was telephoning the police to report an attempted break-in. Although it was only a few seconds since Ashley had dropped to the other side of the gate, he stood like a statue, listening for any police sirens. Then, just as suddenly, he said out loud to himself to himself “Don’t be ridiculous” and dismissed the matter from his mind. After all, he had done nothing wrong - he lived there.
The blazing summer sun had penetrated even this meagre passageway but, about to walk down it to try the side door, Ashley realised with some relief that, for the first time since he alighted from the bus, he was actually able to find a little shade. The high wall of the side of the house meant that there existed a slim triangle of shade along part of one side of the passageway and he knew that small area would be inexorably elongating as the sun began its almost imperceptible, gradual afternoon downward passage across the sky. Ashley felt the brickwork - which was of course warm to the touch - but he was in two minds whether or not just to try and rest in that shady, slowly lengthening patch, where it would hopefully become a little cooler. Then his hunger and thirst and the dampness of his clothes reminded him of his original aim; to gain entry.
He therefore approached his first objective, the side door which led into the kitchen. He tried the handle and pushed but, as he had feared from the start, the door was clearly locked, for it did not budge. Ashley noted with interest that, as he took his hand off the warm door handle, it remained in the downward position, another indication of what a scorcher of a day it was and how everything had clearly expanded in the warmth. Anyway, that route was obviously barred to him so he must now attempt to climb up to the balcony at the back and pray that the door leading from that to his parents’ bedroom was unbolted.
Moving round to the rear of the property, Ashley encountered once again the full force of the heat and humidity and he gazed squintingly up, trying to work out just how he might gain sufficient height to grasp hold of one of the wooden balcony struts from which he could then - he trusted - hoist himself over the rail. At first sight, there appeared no obvious way of reaching anything at that height but then Ashley remembered the drainpipe. He recalled his Father precariously balancing on a borrowed ladder painting this pipe a couple of years previously and, looking to his left, there it was, sprouting up from the concrete and branching off about eight feet high into two separate, smaller diameter pipes. Ashley reckoned that intersection was within touching distance of the extreme edge of the balcony and figured that if he could shin up the pipe and balance on the intersection, he would be able to reach over and gain purchase on one of the wooden balcony struts. From there it would, he hoped, be plain sailing.
How does one shin up a drainpipe? Ashley was not at all sure but he had seen it done on television programmes and it looked relatively simple. Tentatively touching the pipe, he was pleased to discover not only that he was just able to reach round behind it - thereby gaining an adequate potential handhold - but that where he would be gripping the pipe, on its far side right by the brickwork, it was mercifully out of the direct sun and therefore just about bearable to the touch.
Ashley prepared to ascend. He again rubbed his sweaty palms (on his trousers this time), reached around the pipe - his knuckles brushing against the brickwork - and interlocked his fingers. Pulling fiercely with his arms and pushing up with his feet, he was able to raise himself a few inches before reaching up with one hand, then the other to join it and then hoisting himself higher still. After about half a dozen of these repeated movements, Ashley took a short breather, dangling like a giant spider up on the pipe. Looking skywards, he could see the junction of the pipe he was aiming for - closer now - but he did not know how much more strength it would take to achieve it and, indeed, how much more strength he had left. Wiping his hands for the umpteenth time, he therefore launched forth again and, in a surprisingly short space of time, he had mercifully reached beyond the junction of the pipe and was heaving his body agonisingly up to that level. With shaking arms and aching muscles, he was able to relax a fraction as he raised his left foot up on to the pipe junction and carefully placed a little weight on it.
Sweat was again pouring from Ashley due to his exertions. It dripped off his nose and stingingly ran into his eyes. He tried to wipe his face on his upper arm without letting go of his grip, with but limited success. Blinking heavily, he could see the balcony on the same level as him now and knew that if he could obtain the right sort of purchase with his foot and reach out with his right hand, he would be able to grasp the balcony woodwork. Without further ado, Ashley went for it.
As his weight shifted across, all would have been well had that the wooden strut not been an original one, dating from when the balcony had been first erected. Unfortunately, despite being well painted now, unbeknown to Ashley that particular vertical strut - as with many others - had been left exposed to the elements whilst the property was in a state of disrepair some years before his parents moved there. In fact, that particular piece of wood was rotten to the core. When Ashley lunged at it and grasped it with his right hand, he felt it move slightly but by then he was committed. In the next second there was a soft crack and the wood had parted, Ashley desperately tried to regain his former position but, missing his foothold, he just had time to grab back wildly at the drainpipe, which he proceeded to plummet down at a frightening rate, landing awkwardly at its base. He was back where he had been a few minutes ago but this time with bleeding knuckles as they had rubbed against the brickwork on his rapid descent down the pipe.
Ashley was riddled with ire now. He had put every ounce of strength into climbing that pipe and attempting to gain a handhold on that balcony. He looked down at his painful, bleeding knuckles which began to smart all the more as his sweat dripped on to them. He suddenly felt the whole weight of what was obviously an impossible task to gain access to the house. In his incandescent anger, he kicked out first at the brickwork and then - yes - at a target: that stupid side door which had refused to open.
As his fierce blow connected with the door’s base, it began to wobble as the full force of his kick was dissipated around the woodwork. Then, to Ashley’s astonished eyes, still vibrating and with the energy of Ashley’s kick abating, the door gently opened, its handle clicked back to the horizontal position and Ashley was staring into the kitchen. That door had never, in fact, been locked; it had just swelled a little in the heat!
As Ashley let out an enormous puff of air by way of release and relief and stepped into the cool kitchen, he heard the approaching police siren.
© Richard Farquharson, Haddenham, Cambridgeshire August 2020