In the end, I threw my mobile phone into a sack of Chudley’s dog biscuits. It was the only way I could finish the book. The bag of Chudley’s was in a cupboard so it didn’t even matter that I hadn’t silenced the phone before I threw it in there. At most, all I could hear as I hammered away on the keys of my laptop was a faint beep every few minutes as everyone in the universe texted me to say how disgusted they were that I wasn’t answering.
Result: finished book. In one day. That’s all it took. Six months I’ve been labouring over this novel with my phone beeping beside me, like a baby sparrow with its needy little beak open. But in the space of one blissful day when my phone was inside a sack of dog biscuits I managed to get it done.
And with the book finished, I could turn my attention to all the matters I have only been able to half-deal with for so long. A person writing a book is not really a functioning person at all. It’s a person with half their head in another place. It’s a half person, a person paying half attention to everything and getting everything at least half wrong. Chief among the things I have got half wrong recently is the issue of the dormer windows.
You may remember I found a planning notice on the lamppost outside my flat announcing the installation of roof lights and dormer windows in the flat upstairs.
It turns out I imagined the words dormer windows. It only ever said roof lights. I banged on the neighbours’ door and they explained. No loft conversion was planned, only a vaulted ceiling. Would that be alright? The two brothers looked at me timidly. I had not helped my reputation with my chosen method of entering their home. When the older brother answered the door, my spaniel shot out of my flat into his and so I launched myself into his hallway and threw myself on top of her.
I looked up at him from the floor where I was lying on my stomach, a squirming spaniel beneath me, and said: ‘Hello, I’ve come to talk about your loft conversion.’
It went downhill from there, really. ‘We’re not planning a loft conversion. No, no dormer windows.’
This was all the fault of the council, I decided. I should have received a letter notifying me of the application and I didn’t, sparking my panic when I saw it on the lamppost with only a week to go before the end of the consultation period.
So I looked up the name of the officer dealing with the application on the lamppost and rang up to complain.
‘Welcome to Lambeth Council planning department. Please say the name of the person you wish to speak to.’
‘Russell Butchers,’ I said, very clearly.
‘Calling Renee Labuschagne. If this is incorrect, say no.’
‘Please say the name of the person you wish to speak to.’
‘Calling Rachel Wiltshire. If this is incorrect…’
‘Please say the name…’
‘Calling Renee Labuschagne…’
Eventually, I managed to get to the switchboard. They couldn’t find the elusive Butchers for a while, then he came on the line, a laid-back-sounding Aussie.
‘Can you tell me why you didn’t notify me of the plans to rip my roof apart, as you are legally required to do?’
‘It says here we did send you a letter. We sent two letters, in fact. To 34a.’
‘I’m at 34; 34a is the upstairs flat. The one who submitted the application.’
‘So, to sum up, you’ve consulted the people who put in the roof lights application, twice, on their own application, but you’ve not consulted the people who own the flat downstairs, who jointly own the roof and might not want it ripped apart?’
‘Yes. It would seem so. I can send you a letter out now.’
‘But the neighbour consultation period ends today.’
I told him I would email him my objections, which centred on the fact that a) I bore joint legal responsibility for the roof; b) installing vaulted ceilings would mean re-locating the water tank and disrupting my water supply; and c) my lease would have to be rewritten to make clear I could not take responsibility for anything roof-like that now went wrong.
He sighed. ‘That’s not really a matter for us. We just decide whether it’s allowed under planning rules.’
‘But I jointly own that roof.’
‘Ownership’s not really something we would look at.’
‘If I applied to put a hole in your roof would you look at it then?’
‘Not really. We don’t consider things like that.’
Of course they don’t. Silly me. I should have known.