If you felt cold last week let me tell you a story that might cheer you up. It may not improve the temperature but it could warm the cockles of your heart. If nothing else it always helps to know someone else was worse off. But first I have to take you back in time.
The winter of 1984 was not the most severe London has known but for me it was certainly the coldest. More than the temperature, the problem was our new home. Nisha and I had just bought a flat in Holland Park and we were inordinately proud of it. The drawing room had large bay windows which looked onto an 18th century church: 29 St James’s Gardens was meant to be our dream home. It was, except it was freezing.
I suppose there was so much to do on our first night neither of us noticed. Unpacking, putting-away, decorating and, of course, cleaning — and what a lot of cleaning there was — kept us busy. We didn’t notice the heating. The next day, however, was very different.
“It’s freezing!” were the words I awoke to. Nisha was standing by the bedroom windows furiously stuffing cotton wool between them. Wrapped in an old blanket with a muffler round her head she looked like a London vagabond. It was three in the morning. The date was December the 3rd.
“None of the windows closes properly.” Nisha sounded exasperated. “And the draft coming through is as cold as ice.” Sash windows look pretty but when they don’t meet perfectly they provide an ideal funnel for the outside air. And, believe me, it rushes through. With practically every window similarly maladjusted the flat felt like the inside of an icebox.
We spent the night stuffing socks, hankies, strips of paper, bits of sponge, in fact anything we could push or stretch into the right shape between the windows. But it either wasn’t sufficient or it would pop out.
Meanwhile, Nisha turned the heating to the maximum. However, new radiators often have airlocks and in our case it seemed they all did. So at best they became lukewarm.
“Damn,” Nisha shouted from the kitchen. Desperate to get the radiators going she had opened the boiler door to check if the pilot light was on. I don’t know how it happened but, instead, she extinguished it. And now it would not re-light.
On a cold winter night, with the windows not shutting, it doesn’t take a new flat long to become unbearable. But if anything our spirits fell faster. Soon my teeth were chattering. “Look, look,” I shouted. “There’s ice on the outside of that window.” “There’ll be ice inside pretty soon,” Nisha replied sombrely.
Finally I had a brain wave. “Let’s move to the kitchen. The heat from the stove will keep us warm.” And there we sat, like two characters in a Chekov play, huddled in our duvet. Nisha wore ski socks and gloves. I had on my overcoat.
I don’t think we slept and, frankly, never has the dawn looked sweeter. It wasn’t a bright day but the night was over.
I couldn’t wait for 9 o’clock to ring the plumber and builder. But when I did I discovered that neither works on a Sunday. Each time I tried I got through to their answering machines. They ignored my pleading messages or perhaps they were away for the weekend.
“We were better off in the other place.” Nisha sounded forlorn and heartbroken. “At least the heating worked and it was warm.”
Minutes later her anguish turned to anger. “It’s all your fault,” she erupted. “If you hadn’t wanted a fancy new home we could have bought one with functioning radiators and windows that fit properly. Now you’ve got this spanking new flat and nothing works!”
It was a miserable weekend. The cold was bad enough but the realisation that 29 St James’s Gardens had let us down was truly depressing.
Now, if you spent last week sitting on your hands to keep them warm, skipped your shower because the bathroom was too cold and went to bed with your socks on, think of the stories you can tell once this freezing spell is over. The best tales are not the brightest or most cheerful. Misery is far more riveting.
The moral of this story is simple. Schadenfreude is a sentiment we can all share. Happiness is divisive. And I’m told the worst of the cold is still to come!