The inspiration for this story came from a newspaper article in the Telegraph newspaper.The situation is real; the solution is from my imagination.
“I should have lied, when the council came round to measure the barn,” I told my friend Lucy, who was visiting us from America, “and then none of this would have happened, but now we have to pay a fine every year or else we’ll be sent to prison.”
“I can’t believe I am hearing this,” said Lucy’s husband, Martin. “You mean the council will fine you for having a building that’s the wrong size, but if you take it down they will send you to jail?”
“Yes, something like that. We built the barn a couple of years ago, to incubate the chicks, but George got the measurements wrong – you know how he is with his dyslexia. Anyway, it’s two feet longer and two feet wider than the planning permission – you’d think they’d have told us when we laid out the foundations, but no, they waited until the roof was on to come round and serve the notice and then it was too late.”
“Why can’t you just knock the building down and start again?” asked Lucy.
“Because of the bloody bats, that’s why,” said George, taking a swig of his wine. “The brown long eared bats moved in and the European Union won’t let us move them out without a licence. They’re protected or endangered or something. Anyway, they won’t give us a licence to move them, they won’t give us planning permission for a new shed for the bats, and they won’t let us tear down the existing barn, so every year the council people come round, with a big smirk on their faces and fine us for having an illegal building. It’s costing us a fortune and if it goes on much longer we’ll be ruined.”
George reached for the bottle and poured out more wine; if he continued drinking at this rate his liver and our marriage would also be ruined but I gritted my teeth and smiled at Lucy and Martin. They were only visiting us for two weeks, so there was no sense in burdening them with all our troubles.
“Why don’t you just fix the size of the building?” Martin asked.
“What do you mean? We’re not allowed to take it down,” I said.
“You don’t have to take it down; you just move each of the walls in by two feet and bingo, your barn is the right size.”
“How would we ever do that without the whole thing falling down?” asked George, “and we’d have to get builders in – the council would come round and fine us for disturbing the bats.”
“You could have a barn raising,” said Martin.
George and I looked blankly at him, wondering what he meant, and it was Kevin, our fifteen year old son who spoke up.
“Cool, do you mean one of those hillbilly events where everybody wears a straw hat and blue overalls and they build a barn in a day?”
Martin laughed and gave Kevin a thumbs up.
“Something like that, only you don’t have to wear overalls, or a hat, and I don’t imagine your neighbours are hillbillies.”
George snorted, no doubt at the idea of old Mrs Nash being taken for a hillbilly, but he stopped drinking and looked at Martin.
“How would it work then?” he asked.
“Well, you would need to ask all your neighbours to come and help one day, or better still, at night, as we’d be less likely to be seen-”
“That would be good for the bats, too,” said Kevin, “as they go out at night so you wouldn’t be disturbing them.”
“Right. So you have a team of people and you build a wall two feet in from one of the existing walls. Then you take off all the sidings and move them to the new wall and take down the old one. Do that for all four walls and presto, you have a smaller barn.”
George thought about this, twirling his wine glass around and around, the red merlot almost spilling onto the tablecloth, while Kevin bounced up and down with enthusiasm and I mentally reviewed the list of neighbours who we could count on, and more importantly, who would keep this secret.
“What do we tell the council?” George asked, “how do we account for the barn changing size?”
“You make it sound like it was their fault they got it wrong,” said Martin, “and with any luck you can sue them and get some of your money back. Tell them you got all confused with your dyslexia and you gave them the wrong plans, or tell them you used a bogus tape measure – heck, you can say it was one that I gave you, from Texas, and everybody knows that things are bigger in Texas. It won’t matter, the point is, by then the barn will meet the planning regulations, the bats will be back asleep and they’ll have no reason to fine you.”
And so it was decided. Martin took charge of the arrangements as if he were planning a military campaign. George made a list of who had the necessary tools we could borrow and I took photos of the barn from every angle, to be sure that we could make the new sides look just like the old. Lucy posed in all the photos, so that anybody watching would think we were just taking holiday pictures, and I took her to visit all the families we engaged to help us, using the pretext of showing my friend around the neighbourhood. Everybody we asked was more than willing to help, in fact they would do anything to get one over the council.
“What about old Mrs Nash,” I asked, nodding towards the house at the end of the field which belonged to our closest neighbour, “she’s the one who snitched on us in the first place.”
“I thought of that,” said Kevin, “I asked Jimmy to host a party on the night of the barn raising. You know how she hates noise and young people having fun, so if a bunch of us hang round at Jimmy’s place with the music on and pretend to drink and smoke she’ll be so busy spying on us that she won’t notice anything else.”
I had my doubts about how much pretend drinking and smoking would be going on, as opposed to the real thing, but I had to admit that it was a good idea for distracting Mrs. Nash, so I reluctantly agreed to let Kevin go to the party.
On the night of the barn raising, our friends turned up quietly, in ones or twos, some of them using the excuse of dropping their kids at Jimmy’s house to sneak up the back lane to our place, while others drove up and hid their cars behind the barn. George had assembled the tools during the week and they all got to work, following Martin’s plan. I had been doubtful about their being able to build and reposition four walls in one night, not to mention keep the roof from falling in, but after a couple of hours I had to admit that Martin had it all under control.
“Wow, I never thought this would work!” I said to Lucy, as we stacked the siding boards carefully in the right order on the ground, as George pulled them off the side.
“Martin loves big projects,” said Lucy, “and he especially loves fighting authority.”
Slowly the first new wall went up. As soon as Martin had tested that it was bearing the weight of the roof, some people began to remove the original, outer wall while another group started building the second new wall. Lucy and I passed the siding boards over to George, who positioned them back in the same order on the outside of the new wall. A few bats swooped down over our heads, no doubt curious as to what we were up to, but they soon flitted off into the night.
At midnight Sarah Stiles brought us all steaming mugs of hot chocolate and fresh rolls which we devoured like savages. She reported that Jimmy’s party was in full swing, with the kids gladly playing their part and their music at maximum volume. The local constable, one of George’s oldest friends, who knew what we were up to, had obliged by turning up in a squad car with the light flashing, and had given the kids a stern warning, while winking at Jimmy’s mother, who had seen Old Mrs. Nash’s curtain twitch. By then we had done the wall facing her house, so we were confident that we could get the rest of the job done without being seen.
I was surprised at how quickly we got into a rhythm, completing each wall in less and less time, and by the time the dawn began to break and the bats had returned to their relocated nests we were down to the cosmetic touches. Lucy transplanted the bushes that had grown around the base of the barn, while Sarah Stiles and Tommy Lewis painted new streaks of bat droppings on the walls, to coincide with the new position of the bat nests.
“Ugh, gross,” said Kevin, who had come back from the party reeking of beer, which he assured me was all from a spill, and that he had not been drinking, really. I sent him inside to change, but just as we were putting our tools away, and our neighbours were getting ready to leave he came rushing into the barn.
“She’s coming! Old Mrs. Nash! I can see her car at the gate!”
“Quick, everybody, hide the tools,” I said. “George, you take everybody round the back, and Martin, you and Lucy go out by the raspberries and look as if you are enjoying a stroll before breakfast.”
“We can’t let her come up here,” said George, “there’s still too much evidence, and she’ll report us to the council again.”
“I’ll stop her,” said Kevin and he ran off through the field, taking the short cut to the road.
I crept back to the house, put on my pyjamas and turned on the lights and the radio, popping some bread into the toaster so as to make it look like I had just got up, then I went outside carrying an armful of dirty washing just as old Mrs Nash drove up, in a great state of agitation.
“Oh, please, come quickly, it’s your boy,” she said, wringing her hands and pointing back down the lane.
“He fell out of a tree right in front of me and he’s lying in the lane clutching his leg and crying terribly. I didn’t want to move him in case I injured him, you know how they say about not moving people in case you hurt their backs, but it looks serious, so you had better come.”
I jumped into old Mrs Nash’s car, which smelled of cats and shoe leather, and she drove back down the lane at two miles an hour – her idea of going quickly – until we came upon Kevin, who was lying in the road, just at the bend by the big oak tree, clutching his leg and moaning.
“What happened?” I cried, jumping out of the car and rushing over to him.
“It’s my leg; I think it’s broken,” he moaned, “I heard a crack when I landed.”
“That’s what comes from climbing trees,” said Mrs Nash, who had come up beside me, but she must have got a whiff of Kevin for she stepped back. “You’re drunk, boy; no wonder!”
“We should call a doctor,” I said, wondering if it was safe to go back to the house, and whether Mrs. Nash would follow me, but Kevin moaned again.
“No, take me to the hospital, it will be faster.”
I was about to protest when I saw him wink at me, and he pointed to Mrs. Nash and her car, and only then did I realise what he was up to. It took some persuading for Mrs. Nash to allow Kevin into her car and even then we had to drive with all the windows open to blow away the smell of beer, so I hoped that the smell of cat would also be blown away. By the time we had carried Kevin into the emergency department it was mid morning, and I was sure that George and Martin would have finished the barn resizing, so I thanked Mrs. Nash for her trouble and invited her to come by later to see how Kevin was doing, but she gave one last sniff in his direction and said she would be on her way.
“Well that gets rid of the old baggage,” Kevin said, hopping off the bed. “Let’s call Dad and ask him to pick up us.”
By the time we got back home the neighbours had all gone and George and Martin were asleep on the couch, in front of the TV, while Lucy was cleaning up in the kitchen. We were all exhausted after the night’s work, so I was glad to just flop in a chair for the rest of the day.
Two days later George called the council and complained yet again about the fine, telling them that they had made a mistake measuring our barn, and that if they did not come out and re-do the assessment he would take the matter up with our Member of Parliament. It was not much of a threat but the council sent out another inspector to measure our barn and, to everybody’s surprise, it was found to be within the permitted size.
“I don’t know how that could have happened,” said the inspector, shuffling his papers and recalculating his figures. “It appears there has been a mistake.”
“I told you so,” said George rolling his eyes.
A week later, after Martin and Lucy had returned to America, we received an official letter from the council, apologising for the error and saying that the fines would be annulled, once the paperwork had all been sent to the finance department.
“You know what we do in America, after a barn-raising?” said Martin, when I called to tell them the good news, “we celebrate with a barn dance.”
“Just don’t disturb the bats,” said Lucy.