Yesterday afternoon, just when I thought it was safe to assume that any future electrical emergencies would be happening to my successor, the power went off yet again. Snugly nestled in my handbag, my credit card was already beginning to emit quiet little bleats of distress. No, Mummy, Mummy, not more! You haven’t even paid for the removers yet…
I ignored it, because I had to. Can’t manage without electricity for weeks, maybe months. Somewhere around £130 per half an hour, weekend rates. Maybe it will only turn out to be one half an hour…
Two hours later the electrician arrived. From his accent I guessed he was Polish, or maybe Latvian. I didn’t really feel I could ask, in the current climate.
Sorry, he said. Satnav sent me down big holey road, great bumps…
Oh my God, I said, knowing which one he meant (Satnav always sends people down big holey road, which is certain death to any vehicle smaller than a tank) – you didn’t go down it?
No. Only little way, then back.
And of course, it wasn’t going to be one half an hour, it was going to be an hour and a half.
He worked fast, trying to save me money, talking to himself non-stop all the while. I was impressed that he was talking to himself in English rather than Polish or Latvian – maybe for my benefit, or maybe just for practice.
I plug this in here, I plug this in there, I eliminay this, eliminay that… We switch on the kettle, see if this works. Turn on wash machine… Now tumble dry… Now telly…
I live mostly in silence. By this time we were surrounded by more noise than I felt I could bear…
Now toaster – see if it pop. Yes it pop.
Can I turn it off now?
No, not yet. Upstairs please.
For a moment I hesitated, thinking he might have some sort of ravishment in mind. However, the risk of his being overcome with lust for my ancient personage seemed vanishingly small; well worth taking to get the tumble drier, washing machine, television and pop-up toaster concerto turned off sooner rather than later.
Turn on iron, please. Show me plug sockets. In this room? In this room? Where is water cylinder please? By this time I was worn out.
Eventually he located the fault. As he unravelled from a hole behind the fridge and behind the panelling at the back of the kitchen cupboards more and more seedy, dreadful-looking wiring and an appallingly brown and perished-looking extension lead, the credit card in the handbag switched from quiet little bleats to high-pitched whimpering.
What is that? I asked.
I show. He unscrewed the cover the mottled brown plug, which had once belonged to the fridge. See this – big cable – very, very bad. See this – two wires from very big cable, wired into very small plug. Very bad. House burn down.
He told me a great deal, as he high-speed drilled things and twisted stuff, about the fire-damaged houses that were his speciality. He told me what melted PVC windows looked like, and how fire blew the glass out into strange, frosted patterns. Scary. But like the art, you know?
And the burnt wiring he said – cannot strip – he made imaginary cable-stripping motions with an invisible penknife – all – all – stick –
Exact! All melt together.
Where he had dragged out the fridge and the washing machine, I now noticed, was a deep, disgusting layer of wood-pellet cat litter, swollen-up cat biscuits, drifts of fur, little bouncy balls, screwed up bits of paper and broken glass. Anything that could lurk under a fridge or a washing-machine had been lurking, for the last three years. And it was going to need cleaning up. By me. Chaos was now truly come again, but having seen what all that old brown wiring looked like, I realised he might well have saved my life, or my buyer’s.
He was a nice young man. He told me he had a family to keep. I suddenly felt really sad that he – along with other foreign workers who had settled here, worked hard, felt they belonged – might now feel unwanted – which I was pretty sure had never been anyone’s intention. Were they afraid that they would be loaded onto boats and aeroplanes and summarily thrown out?
At the end of it all, sweaty and covered in cobwebs and quite probably prehistoric cat-wee (one of those ancient plugs had been suspiciously wet inside) he sat down to work out the charge, hampered by Rosie, who seemed to have taken a fancy to him – Hello, little Rosie-cat.
It was exactly as huge an amount of money as I had been envisaging. Credit card gave a sob of utter despair on being dragged out of the handbag – but somehow, in spite of everything, the electrician had cheered me up – a little.
On the way out he got a phone call. Pssst, where Stain? he asked me.
Staines? Not sure. Middlesex? Essex? Other side of London.
I get there in half an hour? It was eight o’clock by this time.
No, no. More like two.
Sorry mate – can’t do Stain from here.
A long time after he had gone I realised the iron was still blazing away upstairs, eating up my electricity. Then I opened the door of the washing machine and out fell a whole lot of water. Several cats were deluged, but at least the TV was working.
Better tune in, quick. Might have missed a disaster.