When is a drill not a drill?

My sister up in Stockport has a drill! Canadian brother-in-law informs me reprovingly. She put up all the new shelves in the garage.

Some of us don’t have several garages full of Northern clutter that we need to put up new shelves for. Some of us ladies have an instinctive aversion to drills, chainsaws, Stanley knives – in fact anything that makes a noise and goes round and round or that might accidentally kill, spear or amputate us. I have never met this competent Oop North sister-in-law once removed but have taken an instant dislike to her. I imagine her stiffly permed, sensible-shoed, twin-setted, impressively-bosomed and sounding a little like Les Dawson.

However, now I must buy a drill. The plastic planters I ordered for the garden have turned up not only twice the size they appeared on Amazon but with no drainage holes. Why have they no drainage holes? How many people are there who buy a plastic planter for anything other than planting plants in?

I look at drills on Amazon. What exactly is a hammer drill? Why would a drill need to hammer? Don’t you use a hammer to hammer? What is a drill bit? What is a chuck? What is a chuck key? And what is a torque setting? With a shudder I recall Ex’s longest ever Aspie-type monologue during which, for over an hour, he explained torque to me in minute detail with particular reference to helicopter blades. I thought torque – that dreaded substance – was safely confined to helicopter blades but no – apparently drills have it too.

I don’t want a drill, but I do want holes in my plastic planters. I decide to swallow my pride and phone Ex. Occasionally he will speak to me. I telephone and get My Replacement instead. Instantly flummoxed, my mind still running on DIY equipment, I make a mess of that too. Er, how are you? I ask, remembering that there’s an order of precedence and normal people enquire about one another before demanding advice about drill bits.

But that was wrong. She’s had cancer. It sounds like I’m eager to  hear the worst, though in fact we’ve known each other for a long time and I feel somewhat less animosity towards her than towards that paragon of a Northern sister-in-law. But it sounds wrong. Oh, you know, she says, sounding weak and croaky, So-so. Yes, that was wrong. Why did I phone without working out the conversation first? I can’t do spontaneous.

He’s not available just at the moment, she says. (I can almost hear her thinking, ‘Oh God, it’s another one, as if he wasn’t bad enough’.) He’s sharpening the chain-saw and if he stops…

Oh no, I say, please don’t interrupt him in the middle of his sharpening…

It’s just that if he stops in the middle he’ll have to start again from the beginning and then he’ll be…

Angry, I say.

Yes, she says. Someone has given him an apple orchard and he’s cutting it down.

Turns out the orchard is many acres of apple trees. The farmer is getting out of the apple business and has donated the many acres of apple trees, though not the many acres, to Ex provided he will cut them down. The work will apparently take five weeks and I can imagine Ex, well into his seventies now, out in the midday sun madly cutting down apple trees with the vim and vigour of a twenty year old. Do be careful, I say, when I finally get to speak to him. Is that fatal heart attack worth it for a lifetime of free firewood, I wonder. But Ex has a logic of his own, absolute and unfathomable.

I need a drill for drilling holes in plastic planters, I say. Can you tell me what sort to get?

He starts off then and half an hour later he’s still going, about the price of drills in Aldi  – Aldi? I thought they were a supermarket – as opposed to the price of drills in Tool Station or Screwfix. I need a step drill, apparently, which adjusts from 4mm up to 20mm. Will I need to make holes bigger than 20mm?

I have no idea what 20mm looks like? Frantically I reach for the tape measure. It’s in inches.

So a step drill – what is that exactly?

It’s a step drill, of course. It drills in steps.

So a step drill is an actual drill?

No, a step drill is a bit you put in a drill.

So why is a step drill called a drill and a drill called a drill too? (Now I can hear myself annoying him, just like I always did.)

And you need to set the torque to a low setting…

Torque! He’s lost me. Nothing more goes in.

Next day, in a DIY store that neither Screwfix nor Tool Station (which I have been unable to find on the industrial estate despite Ex and My Replacement’s detailed instructions) I am listening to a young man with a strange black earring in his ear, in the centre of which a hole so big you could thread a rope through it and lead him around. He is a strapping young man but I am careful not to appear to have noticed that. It wouldn’t be appropriate. I also try to avoid looking at his poor maimed ear, which is making me feel quite queasy.

He is disarmingly honest, this young man, if not a good salesman. Don’t buy one here, he says. The branded ones here are good, but expensive. You don’t want to be wasting your pension on a drill you’re only going to use once a year to drill holes in plastic pots.

(Pension? Rats!)

We do sell cheap ones, he says, but they’re rubbish. Never known anyone to keep one more than a few weeks before bringing them back and complaining. What you need is the lower range of one of the main brands like Silverline, Bosch or (something else) which you can get on Amazon or second-hand on Ebay. You don’t need a hammer drill just a battery-operated standard drill – starter DIY level. And you don’t need to worry about voltage or amps, whatever it say on the box.

It’s a miracle. I am understanding him!

A step drill is a bit, he says. Forget the drill word, it’s confusing. Think of it as just another bit.

Do I need more than one bit? Will I need to get one of those plastic kits full of bits?

No, he says. You just need the step bit and one smaller bit, to get the hole started. The step bit isn’t meant for starting holes, it’s for making them bigger, and we don’t sell those here in any case. Get one off Amazon.

So there it is. I’m not entirely stupid after all. It depends who’s doing the explaining.


Baby brother’s crying in his cot. I peer at him through the white-painted bars. His face is very red and one little arm in its knitted cardigan flails against the bars. He has thrown his little bear. Where is it this time? I get down on my hands and knees and crawls around in search of it. There, against the curtain-hem. How did he throw it that far? Must be very strong. But boys are strong. I brush the dust off the little bear. It’s blue, with rainbow stripes across the chest. Very soft, it feels. I push it back through the bars. A minute later it comes sailing out again.

I carry my satchel on my back, leading my brother by the hand. It’s his first day at Infants and he’s getting in a pickle with his coat, his own little satchel and his Mr Men lunchbox. Mum was too upset about saying goodbye so I ended up bringing him. I lean across to take the Mr Men lunchbox from him. He resists at first, but then lets go. He knows I’m trying to help.

And here we are on Brighton beach. I am fourteen. There is me, my little brother and my Mum, and the new brother or sister that’s inside Mum. Mum doesn’t want to know if it’s a boy or a girl as long as it’s fit and healthy. Dad isn’t with us. He doesn’t come with us to the beach because he lives with another lady now. Her name’s Janice. Dad refers to Mum’s new man, Darren, as her Squeeze. Darren’s the baby’s father, of course. Squeeze is a coarse sort of word.

Pick up your brother’s bucket and spade, would you, Carrie? He’s gone and left it down there and the tide’s coming in.

I am going on my first date, carrying my first grown-up handbag. It like it. It’s crocodile, see? Not real crocodile – crocodile skin pattern. I mean, you wouldn’t get a pink crocodile. I have all sorts of stuff in it – too much, probably. What do you need on a date? I have brought along some money, both change and notes, and my mobile phone. I have brought paper hankies in case of mascara smudges and for blotting the new lipstick, which I have also brought. I have brought a fold-up mirror, in case there isn’t one where we are going. I don’t know yet where we are going. I have brought a hairbrush and a comb, and a notebook and a pencil in case of… in case of… emergencies. Or whatever.

We are Christmas shopping. It’s our first Christmas together, so very romantic. Money is tight so I’ve made a list, allocating a certain amount to each person. It’s quite fun, finding stuff when you’re on a budget, but hard work. Have to shop around, literally. And all the time you’re lugging the stuff with you in those extra-deep Christmas bags with the silly string handles that cut into the palms of your hands.

Got room in one of those bags for the calendars, Cazza? They’re a bit awkward. Need my hands free.

I ease myself into the coffee-shop armchair, almost tearful in my gratitude for its cosy support but wondering if I will be able to get out of it without help in half an hour’s time. How embarrassing to have to call out to the waitress for a tow. The child weighs heavy in my womb. Going to be a big baby, Mum says. And overdue. Only by a few days, though. They say the first is often a bit late. My back hurts so. I want my body back.

How much longer?

I am packing the car for a visit to my brother and his wife. We need a bigger car really. Once you’ve got all the baby stuff in there – disposable nappies, wipes, plastic bags, spare Babygro, in fact two spare Babygros, toys, bottle, formula –not much room left. And that seat takes up so much space. Buggy folded and crammed into the back. Maybe if hubby gets that promotion we can get a bigger car. Hopefully before the next baby comes along.

We are walking in the woods. It’s a family outing. I am giving my little girl a piggy-back. She started to get tired half a mile back, started whingeing. All right now though. It’s one of those Forestry Commission places. Lovely, lovely day. The sun beats down through the leaves and dapples the path ahead of us. Top of my head is really quite hot with it. Should have brought a sunhat. They do say to protect the back of your neck. At least I thought to bring her sunhat.

Ibiza at last. Here we come, just him and me, finally empty-nesters. Two whole weeks of lying about by the pool reading dog-eared paperbacks. In theory. Sun-tan lotion, check. Cardigans, check. It can get chilly of an evening. Both our bathing gear, check. Insect-repellent, check. His asthma inhaler just in case, check. Passports, check…

Well, that’s the café visit accomplished. It gets harder and harder work, being out of doors with him. Don’t forget your stick. Huh? I said, Don’t forget your stick. My…? Stick! Your stick. It’s fallen under the table. Hang about, I think can reach it. Now, your coat. Coat! Left arm back. No, into the sleeve. You’ll need to bend it slightly. I said, bend it slightly! That’s it. Now, right arm back…

Damn, that’s the stick gone again.