There are many ways in which I am not a man about the house, but I am better with electricity, which I vaguely understand (does that sound dangerous to you?), and mopping, and some other forms of cleaning (windows are my downfall). But plumbing completely defeats me. The passage of water up and down and through the house, and the various items which use it, and the constituent parts of these items – all of them defeat me.
I know there is a tank in the loft, but its exact relationship to the rest of the house remains an enigma. So when a plumber calls (there is one in the village), or is called because there is a ‘problem’, it is a source of great relief. As well as panic. The first question is always ‘Where is the stopcock?’ You might as well ask me how aeroplanes fly – and actually, you might get a more sensible answer. I can never remember. Perhaps if I write here ‘behind the washing machine, and round behind the boiler, which means pulling the washing machine out’, I will have somewhere to look it up. Leaks and overflows alarm me, because I haven’t the faintest idea what to do with them. My next-door neighbour reasonably complained that he was being kept awake by a faulty overflow. Getting a plumber – the plumber – is not a quick business, because he is in colossal demand. My solution was to make sure the overflow was watering plants, not dripping noisily on to plastic (note that this is also about the only thing I know about gardening), and to heave a giant sigh of relief when it stopped, mercurially, its hyper-action.
But the impending celebrations surrounding my wife’s rite of passage to a new decade, which means Visitors, and a strain on the system, has predictably meant that anything that could go wrong with the plumbing, has. Classic sod’s law. And mercifully, the plumber came today. The tank no longer overflows. The loo does not leak. It flushes once, not twice, or independently as if operated by a phantom. And the stopcock itself is no longer dripping (as it transpired it was when it was found, after a protracted search).
Plumbers are a breed of their own. At the start of my teaching career, I taught a range of craft apprentices (that very phrase dates me) – carpenters and joiners, brickies, motor mechanics, plumbers, agricultural engineers, and others. I was told at the start that carpenters and joiners were awkward, and they were (perhaps there was some self-fulfilling prophecy involved), and that plumbers were invariably kind and generous, and no trouble at all, which also turned out to be true. I have no idea why this should be so.
Plumbers must get used to seeing your inner workings. They’re the ones who get to look under the cupboards, down the bends, round the corners, and of course, behind the washing machine. These are not necessarily the happiest places to look, and maybe that’s why nothing fazes them. They plunge in (as it were) with a cheery whistle. Their vocabulary – stopcocks and ballcocks and maybe flanges, I’m guessing in the latter case – is inherently comic. Pinter spotted this when he wrote his sketch ‘Trouble In The Works’, in which most of the parts which are mentioned are inherently funny to hear, and to say, and which draw (pun) on the language of plumbers.
So: I have a new ballcock. Thank heavens. Gaining access to it was not easy, and plumbers also have to be contortionists. But I think I speak for everyone when I say that parting with money for a plumber is the only transaction which can be completed without any degree of pain.