Plumbing… it’s like the circulation in a human body. Mysterious pathways of piping, hidden from view, carrying the fluids of life, warmth and energy.
I’ve often thought about doing one of those three day plumbing courses designed for the layman. Not only would it save me a ton of money, but I’d be empowered. Washer on the kitchen tap gone? Not a problem. I’d handle the job in ten minutes flat.
But I haven’t got around to doing that course yet.
Two weeks ago, while staying at my father’s house, I’d pulled the loo handle too hard and the loo wouldn’t flush any more. I took the top off the cistern, fiddled around and thought I’d managed to mend the mechanism. But I was mistaken. The outside overflow pipe swung into action, gushing a Niagara of water. My ageing father, still master of the acerbic put-down, snarled at me: “You’re a banker, not a plumber!”
This morning, back in my own house, I am facing plumbing issues – once again. My wife has gone to see the doctor to discuss another round of IVF treatment, informing me that she’ll be fine on her own and that the best contribution I can make to marital harmony is to get the heating fixed. So I’m sitting at the kitchen table in Putney, catching up on emails and ringing my office in the City. I can hear the plumber walk from room to room overhead, doing mysterious things. The central heating pipes gurgle and burp as though the house had Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
The plumber entered the house an hour ago, depositing the standard plumber’s bag of tricks on the kitchen table. This struck me as a slight liberty; surely plumbers usually place their bag on the floor?
Trying to cover up my low self-esteem on the plumbing front, I mustered as much nonchalance as I could: “I’ve tried bleeding the radiators. No dice. But I’m sure you’ll sort it in no time.”
The plumber’s gaze had settled on a point six inches above my head. This was unnerving.
“Most people don’t have a clue what goes on under the surface in their house,” sighed the plumber. “I’m used to my clients expecting a magic button to be pushed.”
That was odd. Solicitors, counsellors and beauticians have clients, but plumbers? They have customers, not clients. Plumbers are tradesmen. Skilled tradesmen, to be sure. But they’re basically servants. This plumber was into serious re-branding.
“OK – I’ll leave you to it,” I said.
The plumber was looking six inches above my head again.
“Nice bag of tools you’ve got there,” I added. Damn. That sounded like innuendo, very lame at that. Actually, I just wanted that huge bag off my kitchen table.
“I have a few more tools that aren’t exactly…visible,” said the plumber.
“Really?” I said, intrigued.
The plumber took off her cloth cap. A mass of russet curls tumbled onto her shoulders.
“You’re not exactly what I was expecting!” I blurted, and immediately regretted my faux pas.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m used to it. My clients usually react like that the first time they meet me.”
An hour later, and this Pre-Raphaelite plumber, she of the flowing, curly, russet locks, is sitting at the kitchen table with me, the teapot between us.
The table starts to tremble. I jump. She grins at me, an amused glint in her eyes.
“Don’t be alarmed,” she says. “That’s just part of my diagnostic roster.”
She takes off her denim overalls, revealing a purple blouse and a lime green waistcoat. Her trousers are baggy, with a lilac and emerald print, gathered into elastic at her ankles above shocking pink trainers.
“Houses are complex organisms and everything is inter-related.” She pours herself another cup of tea. “Take the table, for instance. Something you’d ordinarily think of as an inanimate object. You were spooked when it started trembling. But a table is basically a collection of particles dancing around together. Those particles are capable of registering information at a quantum level. And they’re also capable of transmitting information.”
“Look, I’m not up on quantum mechanics and yes, I found the table moving just now pretty spooky. So how about we cut to the chase and you tell me what the problem is with the heating?”
“Well, I’ve checked your entire heating system, including the boiler. All the mechanical stuff is in order. But it’s not quite right yet. And the table trembling confirms my hunch. There’s something else at play.”
It doesn’t take a genius to work out what is at play. Her plan is to notch up more time and therefore her total bill.
“So now,” she says, “I have to tune into the house… and you.”
“Oh come on! Plumbers don’t tune into houses – or people. You’re having a laugh. Our bill is mounting up as we speak.”
“Alright – I’m unorthodox. But this is the way I work. And I get results.”
The flame-haired Oracle has knocked me off-balance. I need to reassert my authority.
“If you were a man I’d send you packing.” Finally, I’m talking like a man of substance.
“If you were a woman,” she says, “you might have realised by now… that I’m psychic.”
She wanders round the kitchen, striking tuning forks, producing pleasant quivering sounds. I contemplate my options. As a banker, I often have to cut my losses. If an investment performs badly, I’ll clear my position: ‘sell it on’, as we say in the business. No dithering, no regrets at any money lost. For a moment, I seriously consider clearing my position with this plumber, and dispatching her with her tuning forks to the nearest psychic fair. But I feel oddly indecisive. It’s as though my analytical brain is on hold. Like an aircraft stacked over Heathrow, I am in a holding pattern, circling over the house and its plumbing. Guided by a Pre-Raphaelite in hippy clothing as my air traffic controller.
With a triumphant clang of the tuning forks, the plumber tells me that there’s back pressure in the plumbing system – causing a blockage in the pipes.
“Which confirms what I can see in your aura,” she says. “In plumbing terms, you’re in reverse flow.”
“I’m employing you to fix my central heating, not to give me a psychic reading,” I snarl.
“This isn’t kooky stuff,” she retorts. “I’m making a diagnosis. And your house is reflecting what’s going on with the people who live in it.” She takes a long, cool look at me. “Do you feel constricted by your clothing?”
Somewhat floored by this question, I take a quick check. I’m wearing my City clothes, so that I’m ready to go into work when she’s finished her job. If she ever does finish it. I’m my usual dapper self, sporting a dark suit, white shirt and a conservatively-patterned tie. I don’t feel constricted. This is what I wear; it’s who I am. But suddenly, I realise that my braces are a bit tight. My unorthodox plumber comes to stand very close to me now; her auburn hair brushes my cheek; she is wearing a lilac scent. She speaks my thoughts before I can articulate them:
“Hmmm – looks like your braces are a bit tight – shall I help you adjust them? I love bright red braces,” she muses; “that colour tells me you’d like to have more fun and passion in your life.” Her last few words are drowned out by a gushing noise. It’s far louder than the Niagara sound of the overflow pipe at my father’s house a few weeks back. It sounds like it’s in my head.
And then the torrent bursts through the ceiling above the kitchen sink.
“Christ!– Do something!” I shout.
Oh God – the plumber is looking six inches above my head again. Far from leaping into action, she’s just sitting there.
“Just how badly do you want a child?” she asks.
“The bloody kitchen’s flooding! Lay off the kooky stuff and do your job!”
“I can’t do anything till you give me an answer.”
She’s got me cornered. I pull out a bucket and bowls from under the sink and try to catch some of the water, getting drenched in the process. I turn round to face her, taking a deep breath.
“I – my wife and I – want kids very much! How did you know? Oh yes, you’re psychic, good for you! Your psychic ability’s really sorted out the central heating, hasn’t it? We’ve achieved a lot this morning – burst pipes, aura readings, water damage… what am I gonna tell Sandie when she comes home? For the love of God will you help me sort this mess out?!”
“This house is full of stress,” she responds with perfect calm. “You two have left it till the last moment to try and conceive and now it’s a battle against time. You and your wife are at odds with each other and you’re in a war zone. You won’t conceive while you’re in this state.”
The torrent is like meltwater from the Himalayas. It swoops into the sink, churning itself into a whirlpool. But the sink cannot contain the sheer fury of the deluge, which plunges into the whirlpool, surging out again and cascading over the edge of the sink, hitting the floor with a joyous crash like a wave on a Hawaiian beach, carelessly inundating the Amtico flooring.
Oh boy, how I wish I’d taken that layman’s plumbing course.
The plumber coolly walks into the utility room. I follow her to see what she’s going to do. She turns the water off at the mains. I curse myself inwardly – why the hell hadn’t that occurred to me? The torrent subsides, then stops.
“Thank God!” I’ve broken into a sweat; I undo the top two buttons of my shirt. “Just out of interest – can I ask why you didn’t do that when the flood started?”
“The backflow in the pipes needed to clear,” she replies. “And the house needed to release all that tension between you and your wife. The burst pipe was the quickest, most efficient way for that to happen.”
The floor is awash with a couple of inches of water. The plumber hooks up a suction pipe to a pump which she produces from the back of her van, and the water is returned to the sink where it gurgles happily down the plughole. We take a mop and bucket each and the last of the puddles disappear as we work side by side.
I subside onto a chair in a daze while she deftly repairs the burst piping above my head.
The Pre-Raphaelite vision descends down her stepladder, the job finished. “I’ve got a good mate who can plaster your ceiling and make it look like new. Shall I give you his number?”
Her question hangs in the air as I consider how I’m going to explain all this to Sandie tonight. “You seem to be looking at something six inches above my head,” offers the plumber.
“Oh – I’m just tuning in,” I inform her. “Trying to work out who the hell you are.”
“And now that you’re tuned in – do you still think of plumbers as servants?”
I look at her quizzically.
“You read my mind on that one too, did you? OK, I surrender. I hereby let go of all prejudice. No, you’re not a servant – you are a…. Master Plumber.”
“And I’ve got a Master Plumber Certificate to prove it,” she says. She smiles, flicking her russet tresses over her shoulder as she packs away the equipment into that capacious bag. “And while you’re in surrender mode…” She’s looking at me from under her eyelashes. “I have some fine tuning to do.”
She advances towards me, clanging her damn tuning forks again.
“You’ll need to install a cock-hole cover in the kitchen sink.”
She puts down the tuning forks. She tucks her hand underneath my balls and cups them, with a gentle palpating action.
“Cock-hole covers, as we call them in the trade, are those thin metal discs with colander-type holes that stop the bits of food going down the sink pipe and blocking the U-turn. If you and your wife want to conceive, we don’t want any more blockages in pipes. Not in pipes, not anywhere. Not in the plumbing, nor indeed in any part of your body’s plumbing system.”
I’m putty in her hands – or my balls are. A delicious sensation is pulsing through them. I finally understand that I am indeed her client. Just as things are getting interesting, she removes her hand from my balls.
“Sports briefs are not the underwear for you,” states my exotic, multi-skilled temptress. “Buy some silk boxers; set those testicles free to make more sperm.”
She tinkles some Tibetan bells, picks up her plumber’s bag and makes for the door.
“All unblocked now,” she says. “Your aura’s in great shape and so is your sperm count. I’ll email you my invoice.”
My wife is amused to hear about the female plumber when she returns home. Sandie asks me whether I’d recommend the plumber to some friends of ours.
I can’t quite bring myself to meet my wife’s eye, so I look at a point six inches above her head.
“Oh yes,” I reply. “She’s unorthodox – but she’s definitely a safe pair of hands.”
Penny Macleod asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.