Sundays always drew to a close in the same way at Great Uncle Mole’s burrow. At least in the winter they did. Or perhaps I only remember them as so. After a late lunch and an interlude timed by a pipe and a crossword, we’d set off for a bracing walk, buffeted by Siberian winds, our snouts stinging with sleet or hail, and our poor paws numb and blue. Two hours later, sometimes three we were back in front of the fire, toasting crumpets and drinking hot cocoa. Afterwards, Uncle Ratty read to us from the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or Saki. Great Uncle Mole left us to it and went off to run his bath. We would not see him again until Monday morning.
But we heard him. First the gushing taps, then the music. His gramophone sat on a shelf just outside the bathroom door. As soon as the taps were turned off, we heard the scratch as the needle touched the record, and then – you never knew quite what: Bartok, Fats Waller, Scott Jopli. You could trace Great Uncle Mole’s wet pawprints on the wooden boards in the passage between the bathroom door and the gramophone.
Uncle Mole’s Sunday night bath was a sacred ritual. The preparations began earlier when one of us, scuttle in paw, was given the task of going deep into the labyrinthine tunnels of the nether burrow to the coal cellar. But after that, responsibility was handed over to Uncle Ratty who was the only one allowed near the boiler, a great cast iron thing that spat sparks when you opened its door.
As a small mole I was envious. Not that we didn’t have baths too, but they were a quick in and out so that the water would still be hot for the next in line. Great Uncle Mole had his all to himself.
Now that I am an older mole I have incorporated the ritual as my own. I anticipate it all Sunday, and in the evening I put some music on, sometimes Great Uncle Mole’s favourites. I find myself a book, turn the taps on full pelt and pour in generous doses of Epsom salts. Always. Or at least when the weather has become cooler as it is now. This is what I did last Sunday night.
But the bathwater was stoney cold.
One winter a similar disaster struck at Great Uncle Mole’s; not so much that the water was cold, but that there was no water at all. Turn the taps as far as they would go – not a droplet. Frozen pipes you might think, but no. The water that was not in the bath had composed itself into a middle-sized lake on the kitchen floor.
I had never seen a mole quite so out of sorts as Great Uncle Mole was then. He drooped in his dressing gown and slippers; clutched his spongebag as if it might provide spiritual solace. Uncle Ratty sat him in his armchair next to the fire and corralled me into a rescue operation with towels and buckets.
It was a while before we could get hold of a new tank. Uncle Ratty brought up his old copper samovar and for the next week or so we washed in the steaming pine-cone smokey water boiled up in it.
When I faced my stoney cold bath last Sunday night I could feel Great Uncle Mole’s desolation and rather wished I had Uncle Ratty nearby.
I shrank my requirements. I had no samovar but boiled a kettle, and then another. And I remembered my late Mama telling me how the sound of the kettle coming to the boil had soothed me to sleep. It still soothes me.
And is there anything as wonderful as a bath after being without hot water for a week?