We’ve been having trouble with the boiler. And that’s not a euphemism

Hilary Fannin: In the domestic arena, boilers and their idiosyncrasies can represent the last frontier between sanity and full-blown delusion

Hilary Fannin: “The plumber told me about his life, which indeed is the stuff of a compelling memoir.” Photograph: Alan Betson

Hilary Fannin: “The plumber told me about his life, which indeed is the stuff of a compelling memoir.” Photograph: Alan Betson

 

 “I could write a book about my life,” the plumber said.

“Why don’t you?” I asked.

He didn’t hear me above the racket of the machine he’d just turned on, designed to make the radiators judder and vomit up their blocked contents.

We’ve been having trouble with the boiler. Unfortunately, that’s not a euphemism; we really have been having trouble with the boiler. Our boiler is one angry mother, hissing and spewing, then falling cold and silent despite our teary pleas. 

I have a theory that, in the domestic arena, boilers and their idiosyncrasies can represent the last frontier between sanity and full-blown delusion. 

It’s an age-and-stage thing: anxious friends speak to me of their elderly parents’ growing obsessions with the minutiae of their domestic lives

My deceased mother-in-law, an educated woman who could peel a quail egg and fly an aircraft, was, in her latter years, defeated by her boiler. So convinced was she of its incendiary capability and malevolent intent to blow up her house that she’d sit with the Golden Pages on her lap, methodically calling every plumber on the page. Refusing to believe each one’s optimistic professional diagnosis, she went on calling and calling. 

“How are you?” I’d ask her when her phone wasn’t engaged.

“Desperately worried about the boiler,” she’d reply.

Her anxiety did not abate and the boiler opened the sluice gates to all sorts of other tremendous worries. Finally defeated by her imagined foe, she chose to leave that house, finding happiness for a time in a beautiful care home where a cat napped on the lawn.

It’s an age-and-stage thing: anxious friends speak to me of their elderly parents’ growing obsessions with the minutiae of their domestic lives – gutters, immersions, sagging fascias, all ganging up like jittery corner boys.

Anyway, the man came to fix our boiler and began by flushing out all the radiators. I hung around the open outside drain for a while, cup of coffee in my hands. It was satisfying to watch the water bleed out of the rads, bloody and brown and rusty.

“They’re in some state,” he admonished. 

“Sorry,” I replied, remembering their sullen, dyspeptic refusal to cough up any heat.

The cat wandered over to see if there was anything worth toying with, a half-dead bee, maybe, or my fragile emotions. The plumber and I got talking about pets. He told me he’d walked his dog at dawn, a beloved and thoughtful dog who covered its own feeding bowl with a tea towel if it heard another dog bark on television. 

We talked, too, about family. He told me about his two children, now adult, whom he’d brought up alone after the untimely death of his wife. One is a doctor, the other an engineer.

“You must be very proud of them,” I said.

He hadn’t had much schooling himself, he said, but he’d managed an Inter Cert, then an apprenticeship.

Are you happy? I asked him, aware that it’s a question few want to answer 

I was only half-listening; I was thinking about something a friend had said recently, having returned from the funeral of someone very close to her. “We’re losing our tribe,” she’d said.

“I’m sorry that you lost your wife when you’re children were so young,” I said to the plumber as the radiators’ murky effluvium continued to empty into the drain.

Compelling memoir    

He told me then about his life, which indeed is the stuff of a compelling memoir. Born to a young mother he never knew, he was fostered by a woman he loved and who loved him, but who became ill.

One night, he recalled, the priest arrived unannounced, in a white van, and took him away from her. Sent to live and work on a farm with an aggressive, loveless family, he’d struggled to attend school over those years until, when he was 15, he asked the bus driver, a man who had observed the child’s hardships, how he could get to Dublin.

Astoundingly, the driver handed him a five-pound note, a fortune in the late 1960s. With the money, he found his way to Dublin, got lodgings and secured an apprenticeship. He’s now 60 years old and about to remarry.

“Did you ever find your birth mother?” I asked.

“Ah,” he smiled, “that’s another story.” Encouraged by his new partner, he’d begun a search, but too late. On the cusp of a reunion with her son, his mother had died.

“Are you happy?” I asked him, aware that it’s a question few want to answer. But maybe he didn’t hear me under the din of the machinery.

My coffee was cold. The water in the rads was beginning to run clear, the stagnant debris from another era flushed clean.

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