Adventures In Home Plumbing (part 4)

We have a What’sapp group for me, Mrs E & the younger, yet taller little E’s. This allows the elder two to continue to take the mickey out of their parents and brothers whilst still maintaining a safe distance of several hundred miles. This., for those of you with a psych-techno bent, is pretty much a distillation of why any technology actually exists these days, but in fear of going off on a tangent in the second sentence of this blog, let’s not.

Instead, let me share with a posting from #4 to the group, with the caption ‘DIY with Dad today’:IMG_0229

This struck me as particularly ungrateful, given that it was a result of putting up a noticeboard in #4’s bedroom. This exercise needed four holes to be drilled in about the right places. The picture above shows what happened on hole number 2. Hole number 3 was reasonably successful, but was followed by hole number 4, which was delivered with matching plaster crater. Fortunately the full recovery plan was fully invoked by the time Mrs E arrived home. Even more fortunately, Mrs E was away for the week, thereby allowing a certain amount of contingency, including time to dry the recovery paint.

I made the mistake of complaining that I was feeling a bit put out by all these challenges. At least I’d never put any of them in danger through these antics, had I? Within a couple of hours, #3 had posted the photo below, with the caption ‘Dad says we need to help out more with household chores’:

a10688221ebae305a96a5b6b6677e68f

In retrospect, balancing delicately on a 45 degree slope in sandals, with a 12 year old on your shoulders wielding a rusty pair of shears might have been seen as a bit irresponsible, but I don’t believe there were any lasting negative effects. He may have a recurring nightmare about giant barbers, I’ll have to ask.

Anyway, shortly after the apparent delivery of a top of the range noticeboard installation, I was invited to review the challenges of the downstairs cistern. Well, invited might have been the wrong word. As you might have gathered from parts 1-3 of these blogs, Mrs E is loath to invite me to do too much on the construction front, for fear of turning our house into a death trap. I think she fears that, in the style of Father Ted, that I might start off with a small dent to knock out:

father ted first

…then, a couple of hours later, end up with something like this:

father ted

To be fair, she has many years of watching, listening and learning on her side. But with the cistern, I really felt that the time was right to take matters in hand.

The challenge had been building up for some time. If someone needs to visit the bathroom in our house, they go downstairs. So, at the best of times, there’s a certain amount of through traffic. Coupled with a cistern that was taking about 15 minutes to fill up, there have been some fairly embarrassing situations, say at parties, where someone has, let’s say, left something available for display that they’d rather not be witnessed, with no means of hiding it. So they stand outside the door looking embarrassed and blocking the way, or just inside the door, frantically waiting a few minutes, flushing to no effect and then finding that the cistern needs to fill up again from scratch.

Being the householder, and given that the majority of throughput these days is teenage traffic, I think it’s very grounding for them to be thoroughly embarrassed now and again, but sometimes it impacts me or Mrs E, and then Action Must Be Taken. I think the trigger point came a few Sundays ago, when my friend G came round and decided he needed to perform an evacuation procedure ahead of our long run together. Twenty minutes later we were still waiting indoors avoiding eye contact, keener by the moment to experience the fresh air outside.

Naturally, I embarked on the ‘ getting the cistern fixed’ task, later that day, almost to the minute of the advertised DIY store closing time.

“Are you sure that’s wise?” said Mrs E, which was code for “Please don’t do that, you hopeless cretin”

“Yes, I know what I’m doing”, I replied, which was code for “I am blatantly lying to my own wife”

Water off, cistern drained – check. Remove all fittings, check. Disassemble all parts, ensuring that none are lost – check. Understand how the cistern fills up and valve assembly works – check. Find a solid piece of pesky limescale that had been blocking the valve – result!

Everything reassembled and fully working, all within a couple of hours. Water back on, and very very little left on the floor.

“My work here is done”, I called out gleefully, which was code for “I’m not actually going to make a fuss about you clearly not trusting me to carry out these complex practical tasks. But if you poured me a large drink and showered kisses on my upturned face, that might not go amiss”

“Really?” she replied, which was code for “I’m not entirely sure I’d put too much store in what you’ve said, never mind what you’ve just thought”.

As the next few hours wore on, the overall feeling of suspicion dissipated. At no point in the evening had I had to call out an emergency plumber. There were no evident leaks in the bathroom. At around midnight, it was time to go to bed. Mrs E deals with the dog, I deal with the hamster, and I decide to have a celebratory pee, having had a pretty good and disaster free day.

Which is how the evening would have ended, had I not actually made the mistake of flushing. I’d noticed a slight vibration in the earlier commissioning test stage of the process, and not thought much of it. This noise that we got now though was not really in ‘ignoring’ territory. In fact, it wasn’t really noise, as such. The whole house was vibrating, and the noise that was being made was like the foghorn from something slightly larger than the Titanic. It was pretty awesome, as it happened, it was like the entire house had forgotten to change out of a high gear on a particularly long hill climb.

I spent a while marvelling at the wonders of what a very small amount of water could do to create a house that was managing to announce itself to a three mile radius. All that money that we spend on early warning systems – the government could just employ me to install some small bathroom cisterns in strategic locations.

I wasn’t alone with my thoughts for long. I looked upstairs and there were various members of the family, framed in a similar way to that iconic Beatles picture, looking down amusedly at the hapless twit below.

beatles

“Sounds like you’ve fixed the toilet, then”, said #2.

You’ll be pleased to know that after some mercy dashes to Screwfix, where I was treated with undeserved patience on all of my three visits, a new fully working cistern was installed within 24 hours. I wasn’t even phased by having a conversation involving a ‘bottom entry system’, avoiding both eye contact and the prospect of turning into a Rik Mayall character.

“All fixed”, I said, when my wife got home on Monday evening.

“Right”, said she, perhaps extending the ‘igh’ bit of the word a bit unduly.

Flushed with success (really, these jokes are just writing themselves), and needing to prove myself a little further on the DIY front, I noticed that there were some headphones that needed fixing; the little bits that go in the ear had worked loose. Finding the tube of superglue, I got them all fixed within a couple of minutes. There’s another story to tell about how superglue doesn’t actually dry instantly, and that you should be in too much of a hurry to test the dryness…but that’s too painful to tell now.

Until next time, be careful with those sharp tools.

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Adventures in home plumbing (part 2)

After part one of this blog went up, I had a conversation with #4.

“I’ve just put a blog up. It’s about DIY disasters. I used to have loads of them, but you probably haven’t seen many, have you?”

He looked at me a bit like Clint Eastwood, in ‘A Fistful Of Dollars’, staring into the sun and with a cheroot burning smoke into his eyes.

“Have you forgotten that time in France when you had to change the light bulb?”, he said, eyes narrowing to tiny slits.

Well I had, and he obviously hadn’t, and it didn’t escape me that it was an experience that he’d rather wished he hadn’t had. And even thinking about it, never mind writing it down now, makes me wish I hadn’t either.

You don’t need to know the full background, but imagine, if you will, a family holiday in France. It’s raining, and my wife is out for a run, leaving me to entertain the four children. Imagine a room with a 30 foot ceiling, lit by a solitary and broken bulb, and therefore rendered a bit useless outside daylight hours. Then, for the sake of argument, imagine a ladder that would extend to about 20 feet, and with nothing in the room to lean it against. However, help is at hand, as there is a wooden balcony overlooking the room, at about the same height as the light. Opposite the balcony, on the other side of the light fitting, there’s a large beam. Naturally, anyone with a sense of DIY adventure would wedge the ladder between the balcony and beam, in order to gain access to the light.

“Isn’t that dangerous?” said one of the boys, watching their responsible parent struggling to get the ladder into position.

“Don’t you think we ought to wait for Mum to get back?” said another.

“Yes, ‘cos she’s a nurse”, said the youngest, putting logic where logic should go.

I was keen to complete the operation before my loved one returned. I reckon it was because there’s something about this DIY lark that’s like an alpha-male version of ‘Show & Tell’. In the evolution of the sexes, our male ancestors would return to the cave showing off their hunting trophies. Only two generations ago in my family, my Grandfather would come home with a joint of meat that he’d cut off an animal that he’d slaughtered himself. To be fair, he was a butcher, and that sort of behaviour might have been frowned upon if he hadn’t been, but there was something pretty impressive about someone who ate his meals without them ever really getting cold. So, as a non-meat eating, woolly liberal bloke, DIY fills the ‘impress your partner’ need quite nicely. My wife can do almost everything I can to a slightly better standard, but thus far, the domain of ‘hammer vs screw setting’ on the electric drill, or the correct way to remove an inner tube has not interested her in the slightest. So I can strut about the place having successfully fixed yet another bicycle puncture, and she’ll thank me by looking in some awe at my expertise with a tyre lever. Then, she’ll crush me like a small insect by saying something like ‘does it normally take two new inner tubes and two hours to fix a puncture’, and the moment has gone. But fleetingly, I am Fred Dibnah, Handy Andy and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, all rolled into one lovable 5’ 10”package:

builders
How I would imagine my wife sees me

Fleetingly is about right:

darwin
The likely reality of how my wife sees me

Anyway, back to the light bulb, and my enthusiasm for completing the job in hand before the return of my doting spouse.

“Don’t worry, boys”, I confidently said, “I’m going to rig up a safety harness”

And so it was, that, suspended 20 ft above a concrete floor, I crawled across a horizontal ladder, with #1 son gently playing out a length of rope, which was secured to me by two bungee hooks. You know, the sort of hooks that you use to secure a roofbox to a car. Incidentally, they were needed on our roofbox because on a previous holiday, after a 10 hour journey with three kids and a 4 week old baby, we’d arrived at our destination finding that all the coats, baby food and nappies were locked safely away in the roofbox, and the keys had been left at home. Fortunately, there was a DIY enthusiast on hand.

“What’s that noise?”, said one of the boys to his mother, as they huddled together inside a freezing cold house, with the baby breaking new sonic records.

“Oh, that’s Daddy with the power drill, trying to open the roof box”

“And what’s that noise?”

“Oh that’s daddy, he seems to have given up on the drill and moved on to the screwdriver and hammer technique”

“And what are those noises?”

“Well, darling, I think Daddy might have missed the screwdriver, hit his thumb, and fallen off the chair shortly afterwards”

So after that, bungee hooks were a must-have when packing for holidays. In fact, the only time we forgot them, we ended up strewing the entire family winter wardrobe across the A11. But that’s another story.

Anyway, those bungee hooks really are very adaptable, and, you’d hope, would take a reasonable weight, although, given that we were in a hurry, we didn’t feel the need to test. I got across to the light fitting, and removed the new bulb from my pocket. At that point I had whatever the opposite of a Eureka! moment is. You see, I’m not terribly keen on heights at the best of times, and I realised that in order to fit the bulb, I’d have to hold the fitting with my left hand, and take out the old one and replace it with my right hand. This, of course, necessitated kneeling on a shaky ladder, 20ft above a very hard surface, and being supported by the only one of the children who was still roughly interested in the rope in his hands. By now, I was sweating and shaking like, perhaps, a Bullingdon piglet.

Naturally, this was also the point at which my wife entered the room. Years later, we were to watch a TV detective series together, where an eager young cop was advised to ‘always look up at a crime scene’, and she instinctively did just that. Keenly, she asked what the f*** I might be doing. I suggested that now was not the time to engage in any sort of lengthy discussion, and that she might like to take herself and remaining children, who were now daring each other to stand under the ladder, away for the moment.

Somehow, and I can’t remember exactly how, I changed the bulb, put the old one back in my pocket, and crawled backwards along the ladder. Again, I’ve no idea how I managed to do this, and I must have also managed a 180 turn at the end to grab onto the balcony. I asked my young assistant to switch the light on, and to both of our surprise, it worked.

We quickly dismantled the ladder, ropes, bungees and wiped down the floor, which was lightly shining in the lamplight, where pools of my sweat had dripped down from the ladder. I called out to my wife and the rest of the kids, and switched the light with the same sort of panache that I imagine Dale Winton might put into switching on the Blackpool illuminations. I might even have said “Tadaah”. My wife didn’t really join in with the celebrations. I think she muttered two words under her breath, in the clever way that she has, so that the kids can’t hear her but I can. The first was two syllables and started with F. The second one began with the letter T and rhymed with ‘flat’. But really deep down, I still reckon she was quite proud of my DIY ways.

Until next time, when I’ll tell you about an evening of non-stick paint, stoned plumbers, and why you should never trust an electrician in a hurry.

Adventures in home plumbing (part one)

If you too, gentle reader, are of a certain age, you’ll look back on your early and wild years and have the occasional palpitation. What on earth was I doing, you’ll say to yourself, with that haircut? Why was I listening to, dancing to, or, worse yet, playing, that bloody awful music? Why on earth did I think it was a good idea to go ‘once across the optics’ in that pub?

I have most of the above regrets, and more, and some of them probably ought to feature on future blogs in a cathartic and catholic outpouring of guilt before I drift into the forgetfulness that will make me shake my head at the younger generation, what with their ridiculous beards, terribly derivative music and binge drinking….but in the meantime, the things that wake me up from a cold regretful sleep most often, are the dreadful memories of when DIY went wrong.

Like most blokes in their twenties, I guess I expected to be able to do most things, reasonably competently. This arrogance was partly based on seeing people who didn’t seem to have any real skills fleece me for what seemed like straightforward joining together of cables or pipes or bricks or plasterboard. So when the opportunity presented itself to sort out DIY type activities myself – well, how hard could it possibly be?

To set the scene, me and Mrs E got married in May 1990, and we were soon looking for our dream cottage. Personally I based the specification on the middle eight part of Fats Waller’s ‘My Very Good Friend’, and I pretty much skipped around from estate agent to estate agent singing along:

My very good friend the milkman says
That I’ve been losing too much sleep
He doesn’t like the hours I keep
He suggests that you should marry me.

My very good friend the mailman says
That it would make his burden less
If we could share the same address
And he suggests that you should marry me.

Then there’s a very friendly fellow,
Who prints all the latest real estate news,
And every day he sends me blueprints,
Of cottages with country views.

My very good friends and neighbours too
They’ve been watching little things I do
And they believe that I love you
So I suggest that you should marry me.

I genuinely did go round humming that tune, and this may have diverted my attention away from some of the Madchester nonsense that was flying around at the time, but I don’t think that was necessarily a bad thing in the long term. And so, eventually, a very friendly fellow sent on a blueprint of a cottage with a country view, which we decided was perfect. It was perfect in a hundred ways, and we looked forward to growing up a bit in the country. At which point the story would ideally have a quick and happy ending, had we not got to the point where we sold up, put everything into boxes, booked the removal lorry, and promptly got gazumped. Younger readers may not be familiar with this term, but in the early 90’s it was all the rage. You’d find a property, make an offer, have it accepted, stick the ‘sold’ sign up, get the solicitors to talk to each other briefly, then just as you’d loaded up the van, some toerag would come along, and offer a bit more money, and the deal was off. Remember this was very early on in our marriage, and I discovered quite quickly that the woman I had married had something of a temper on her, which she was able to accompany with the sort of language which would make a docker blush.

Anyway, we had to buy a house, pretty quickly, and so we had to tour several more friendly fellows, with properties for sale that were a bit less ‘country views’ and a bit more ‘available now’. I found something fairly quickly one lunch hour, and had to convince my foul-mouthed partner. (It took her about 18 months to calm down, and 25 years later, if you’re ever interested in provoking a real life Pavlovian response, just ask and I’ll write down the name of our original vendor. Read it out to her, and you’ll hear the c-word repeated at increased volume for several minutes.)

“It’s in the city, not the country. And it’s a bit of a mess, it’s had students living in it. And there’s no parking. But it’s empty, quite cheap, and I reckon I could do it up in a couple of months.”

I think I may have caught her off guard (she was on long nursing shifts, and was probably struggling with outbursts of Tourette’s syndrome), but she said yes. So we moved in, and the prospect of a few months of mild discomfort went into implementation mode. Except of course, it wasn’t going to be a couple of months after all. The whole place needed gutting. The roof had to come off. The ceilings came down, and when we didn’t think they needed to come down, they collapsed anyway. All the plaster had to come off the walls, and we had to rip out the kitchen, bathroom, heating and electrics. Every bit of cash we had went into rebuilding, and every bit of spare time we spent in very fetching boiler suits, filling skips up with crap, digging out floors, sealing walls, clearing up…you know the sort of thing. It kind of lost its novelty after the first week, and unfortunately we got to about 12 months in and we were about half way done. I can remember my wife coming home from a shift on Christmas day, seeing my legs sticking out from under the kitchen sink while trying to perform a very tricky plumbing manoeuvre, and bursting into tears. Try writing a comic verse about that one, Waller.

And all the time, things kept going wrong, and a pattern emerged that has stood me well for the following years, and is best described by the following graph:

DIY graph

Let us consider this graph with the example of a simple DIY task. It’s Sunday afternoon, all of your other weekend tasks are neatly ticked off and there is a brief window of opportunity before the evening’s first gin. Your wife mentions that it might be helpful to hang up the picture of the dog that she’s wanted on the wall for a couple of months now. Briefly, you might think it was a bit daft to need to be reminded of a what a dog on a walk looks like when it’s witnessed fully live at least twice a day, but in the interest of harmony, you decide not to go down that route. A spot on the wall not otherwise occupied by pictures of the dog on former walks is selected. You size up the situation and conclude that a hole must be drilled. This decision point takes us to stage one.

Out to the shed, and retrieve the necessary tools – drill, extension cable, masonry bit, pencil, rawlplug, screw, plus spare screw to replace the first one, which will be lost, and screwdriver. You enlist an unwilling young assistant to hold a dustpan underneath the drilling site. Starting to drill takes us to stage two of the delivery. Partway through the drilling procedure, the calamity happens. In drilling holes, this may be a massive amount of plaster flying off for no apparent reason. It might be hitting a comedy brick, made out of vulcanite, which causes the drill to glow red with heat, or it may be a completion of a hole, then a pushing in of the rawlplug, only to find that it won’t actually go all the way in, and is cleverly designed so it won’t come out either.

Whatever happens, there will be a calamity, and this is where you have a choice. Option one is to seek professional help, in the form of Someone Who Knows What They’re Doing, or Someone Who Can Sell You A Solution. This is an absolute must if you’ve screwed up a plumbing or electrical task. Unfortunately you didn’t think this through when you started your work on Sunday afternoon. Option two is to bodge. The art of bodging is particularly useful on a Sunday afternoon, especially if you are planning to reach the gin bottle before 10pm. So, returning to the task in hand, you choose another nearby spot to drill, and having successfully managed to get a fixing in place, survey the collateral damage. This is stage three. Getting to stage four, in which your enthusiasm for the task in hand drops yet lower, requires you to nip out to the shed again, locate the polyfilla, undergo what builders call the process of ‘making good’, sand down, find some paint to cover your tracks, put all your stuff away and clear up, swear your unwilling young assistant to secrecy, and hang the picture, thus also hiding the bodged calamity.

In part two of this blog I’ll give you some real life examples of slightly more significant DIY calamities, which still wake me up of a night. Until then, be careful out there with the hammer x