On (not) doing it yourself

Chaos Theory predicts that startling events may result from insignificant beginnings. I have read Structural Stability and Morphogenesis from start to finish, and nowhere is there a discussion on the bifurcational consequences of using a small screwdriver. Rene Thom may be an awesome mathematician, but he knows sod all about hinges.

It’s probably happened to most. There’s a hinge on a cupboard door that’s been wobbly for absolutely centuries, and eventually you get a screwdriver from the toolbox and tighten the screw. The same thing happens if you patch up that little hairline in the wall with Polyfilla, or touch up the paintwork when the finishing plaster is dry. The transformation is miraculous; no more squeak, the door opens and closes perfectly. So much elation from so little effort is addictive: so while you have the screwdriver in your hand, you begin to search all over the house for little loose screws to tighten up. It happened to me.

First the crockery cupboard, then the handmixer wall-bracket, then sliding shelves on Ali’s computer desk.

I became bold in success. Nothing was beyond my reach. Or my screwdriver. Or my paintbrush. This new, hitherto dormant vein of talent had become stirred into a pulsing flow, and in my vision, I had tackled the ultimate task, the transformation of Ali’s bedroom from a cosmological black hole, mysteriously sucking in all the detritus of the planet from the Woking area, into a mesmeric myriad of multicolored Michaelangelic splendor. (Several shades and textures of boyish blue and gray, but it amounts to the same thing. We artists are masters first of the imagination.)

I would design and plan the transformation, and execute it with total control. Start Monday, finish Thursday.

“The gods decreed otherwise.”

I prepared a cunning plan, a set of well-laid schemes un-derailable by either man or mouse. I even used my little palmtop organiser to set up a proper project plan with Gantt chart, PERT chart, tasks, inter-task dependencies, and resource calendar. I think the first inkling of the rudeness of reality came when I starting entering the resource calendar and I found that I was the only resource. Never mind, I am a Scot, and used to being the equivalent of a battalion of Englishmen.

First I had to strip off all the old wallpaper, ready for a quick surface preparation followed by the artistic bit. Unfortunately, removing the paper revealed the reason why the paper was there: Alasdair had previously attempted a re-decoration using wax crayon, removal of which needed several pounds of sugar soap, several pounds of elbow grease, and a similar weight of perspiration and disreputable language. Then there were the dart holes: dozens of them, all caused by the dartboard failing to be in the flight path at ETA. What were tiny punctures in wallpaper concealed larger, penny-sized damage areas underneath. And then there were the mysterious crescent-moon-shaped dents in the wall, about an inch to an inch and a half cusp to cusp. Alasdair denied all knowledge of these, even though they resembled, and in testing fitted, marks that might be made by a solid hockey puck from a slapshot. Quite a lot of slapshots. It took ages, each and every wall, every crack, every slightly untrue surface or settlement crack or frame surround; but everything eventually cleaned and ready, I set about re-plastering, first with filling plaster then with finishing plaster or filling compound, ready for the final session of sanding down to a smooth planar professional glass-like finish (it says on the box). I got the sander out. I got the paper out. I got the face mask and the goggles and the earplugs out, squared up to all four walls, and I gave it laldy (*).

That’s also what SWMBO gave me. It seems that I omitted to close the bedroom door or properly close the door of the linen cupboard outside, and enormous clouds of sanding dust filled the air and billowed out, covering stored sheets, towels, Ali’s school shirts, trousers, hockey tops, all the way downstairs on top of the TV, the telephone, the CD rack, the lounge carpet, and two washing baskets (did I mention it was washday?) She came rocketing upstairs and switched off the sander from the wall socket, then described in great detail what would happen to the sander and a bodily orifice if I didn’t get the mess sorted out post-haste and the consequential difficulty I would have in extracting it if I did anything like that again. As an experienced project manager, I took account of the new contingencies and amended my project plans to include the new tasks.

The ceiling should have been easier and less eventful (I ignore the giant poster of Wayne Gretzky stuck to the ceiling with two yards of black stick-tape). Relatively little preparation work apart from unhooking the smoke alarm and the light fittings. Ali had wanted everything to be black (it’s a definite stage in the development of small boys, and a gene has been identified controlling it), black walls, black ceiling, black carpet, all to match his new bedroom furniture (black desk, black computer desk, black bed, black duvet, black fitments), but I persuaded him that an element of contrast – not to mention illumination – was needed. So the ceiling was to be white with grey/blue walls to set off the black furniture. And I did a smart and rapid job of it. So smart and rapid that I was able to down paintbrush and overalls, and come downstairs for a large coffee and some toasted bagels.

By this time, Ali had come home from school, bounded upstairs and into the kitchen to raid the fridge, returning with a bowl of ice cream and a bowl of sugar puffs (yeuck). I let him finish them off then pulled rank.

“Ali, your hockey kit’s been washed and aired, get it packed away for tomorrow.”

“Aw, do I have to?” “Do it now, and that’s it done.”

Ali has two modes of action: total sullen unco-operativeness, or 130 decibel clattering stair-shaking stomping. Adopting Mode 2, he heaved his kitbag over his shoulder and clattered upstairs; and meanwhile, I stretched out to finish off the last toasted bagel and catch up with the latest in world events from the Guardian. Some minutes later, Ali came rocketing back downstairs. As he left the lounge and continued downstairs to get on to his bike before I thought of something else for him to do, I saw, with sudden horror, a series of white footprints stretching from one end of the lounge to the other.





<infinitesimal pause as realisation dawns…>




Too late. There is always one time in life when immediate obedience is the wrong response. He clattered back upstairs, aware of something awfully wrong, and getting his defence in first.

“I didn’t do anything!”

“Look at the floor Ali! [rising panic in my voice] What on earth have you done!”

“Why do I always get the blame for everything?”

“Look at the carpet! Look at your feet! There’s paint everywhere!”

Himself catching the sense of growing panic, he began to yell his denials even more strongly. Staring pointedly at the dripping white evidence on his shoes I asked him if he had ever heard the term ‘smoking gun’. He denied that too. I shot upstairs, following the trail all the way back up and into his bedroom. There, on the middle of the floor was his hockey bag, where he’d heaved it through the door for it to land directly on top of a 5 litre tin of white paint. I lifted it gingerly away, to find a three foot diameter slick of paint underneath, complete with tell-tale footprints leading away.

The bedroom carpet was no real problem – it was in the plan for replacement once the paintwork was complete anyway – but the lounge was a different matter. Recently laid, I’d happened to remark to Frances on writing the cheque that the cost of the lounge carpet was more than my first four years’ gross salary put together. That’s quite an encouragement to fast action, and I got every spot cleaned up from the lounge. The stair carpeting was a little trickier – how can a small boy get perfect footprints on the stair risers, for heaven’s sake?

I cleaned up the bedroom disaster too, leaving only the irremovable slick stain and the excuse to construct for Frances.

When troubles come they come not single spies, but in battalions. Having had to lift his carpet in order to sand and gloss the skirting, I realised this was a golden opportunity to fix those squeaky floorboards in the corner. Frustratingly, I could not find the hammer, and the flush of enthusiasm and determination still upon me, I picked up the car keys and took myself and Ali to the DIY store. The trouble with these places is that you keep getting ideas for Grand Plans every time you pass some interesting looking tool display or materials display, and in this case it was nails. Why nail down the floorboards with ordinary nails when you can use specially designed great big extra grip nails with gripping serrations on them? If you’re going to do a job, you might as well do it right. I bought the hammer. I bought a bag of nails. I bought a bag of nails with extra grip.

By the time I got back, Frances was home, but I was too fired up to stop for tea, and went upstairs to fix the floorboards. First, I stepped on the farthest away point, identified the supporting joist, and positioned and hammered home the first nail with a set of satisfyingly firm thuds.

CLANG clang CLANG clangity WHACK!

I stepped on the joist and, even more satisfyingly, the squeak from that end had gone. All that remained was to work my way along, re- nailing at each joist in turn. I positioned the second nail and banged it home. It went home too easily, and I quickly deduced that the wood on the underside of the floorboard had fractured, and I would have to nail on the other side of the floorboard instead. It too nailed too easily. No matter, I could live with a slight squeak and passed down to the next joist. Good. Nailed down really hard. Next joist, only two bangs needed to nail the edge of the board to the joist, clearly more fracture underneath, so a couple of extra nails to secure it too. Despite Frances calling on me to give it a rest and come downstairs for tea, I was too close to the end of the strip to make it worthwhile interrupting the workflow.

One ignores Frances’s imperatives at one’s peril. Her shouting had now become more insistent and voluble, and I thought it prudent to stop for a break. As I did so, it seemed to me that her shouting at me sounded less like an invitation to eat, and had transformed itself to something more to do with water pouring through the kitchen ceiling. At this point, the realisation began to dawn that my original diagnoses and reality formed two disjoint sets, which is the mathematical way of saying that the two views had absolutely nothing at all in common. This subsequent realisation was confirmed by the upward arterial spurt of a jet of brownish water from the floorboards. It seemed advisable to dash downstairs and face the (Water) Music.

Water was pouring into the kitchen from three points in the ceiling. It was also pouring along the fluorescent strip lighting. Though Frances immediately panicked, I remained perfectly calm. (Do not believe any alternative account about what happened next. At no time did I lose control of my temper when Frances said “for God’s sake ring a plumber” and reply “stop shouting at me, I can’t think when you’re yelling at me, I can’t remember the name of the bloody insurance company never mind the number”, nor did the ensuing conversation contain any phrases resembling “calm down Alex” or “how can I stay calm when there’s water flooding everywhere” or “don’t you talk to me like that I’m not the one who hammered through the bloody pipes” or “didn’t you hear me shouting to watch out for the central heating?” or “it’s the same emergency number Lindsay used when we were in Italy” or “how am I supposed to know what bloody number she phoned if I was in bloody Italy?” or “CALM DOWN ALEX” or “I am calmed down if you know so much about it you phone the bloody plumber I’m going to the pub” or …)

As it happens, we have an emergency insurance scheme that covers us for just this kind of situation. A call to a switchboard and a local plumber is dispatched without further charge. He was out within twenty minutes, and meantime I had persuaded Frances to recover her composure (remember, other accounts are not to be trusted in this) and we switched off the heating and drained the tanks. I also switched off the kitchen strip lighting and rigged up alternative lighting.

The plumber looked at the floorboards in that bemused fashion they have. I said sheepishly “I bet you get quite a few calls for this sort of problem.” “Sure do,” he nodded. “Usually on bank holidays. Right, you get the floorboards up and I’ll get my toolbag.” I grabbed one end of the first floorboard and started levering away with the claw hammer. Anxious to get them up as soon as possible, I had got my hands round one free end and was ready, back straight and knees bent, to give one almighty tug to pull the board up. Fortunately the plumber returned in time to stop me. “Hold on, not so fast,” he began, and as he spoke I realised the added catastrophe I was about to engineer. The nails, those extra special extra grip nails with serrated grip rings, inserted at just the textbook off-perpendicular angle for added grip, were also holding the pipes fast to the rising floorboard and I was about to wrench the whole lot up in one spectacular heave. Carefully, he inserted a bolster between the pipes and the boards and hammered the pipes free of the nails so that I could raise the boards safely. Looking in to the underfloor cavity, I could see that I had punctured not one pipe, not two pipes, but three pipes: the central heating, the hot water pipe, and the cold water pipe. It was the force of the cold water pipe that had spurted up through the floorboard on the last nail, picking up older sawdust and the like and resulting in the brownish fountain first observed. With such a panoply of perforated pipes to practise on I had enough to play the D minor Toccata & Fugue.

It didn’t take him long to fix it. I guess plumbers develop a wry sense of humor; he grinned at me and said “don’t worry, you’ll laugh about this later. Your wife won’t, but you will.”

I didn’t feel much like laughing then (nervous laughs don’t count), but sure enough he was right.

Frances didn’t waste much time. Every time she phoned anyone, or anyone phoned in, the conversation would be punctuated by “You’ll never guess what Alex did!” All her sisters, in Sheffield, Kirkcaldy, the Moray Firth, friends, the hockey club, the parish priest, all were told. Lindsay proved no better, and within minutes Joanna and Marie and every other post-adolescent girl in Surrey knew about it. I suggested it might be cheaper on the phone bill if they just put an ad in the News & Mail or took out a page on Ceefax.

I left the floorboards up to dry out for a day or two, and re-laid them. This time, as earnest of my successful intentions, I marked out the position of each nail and wrote on each board a big warning over points not to nail, then held the pipes gingerly from underneath so that any stray nail (and there would be none this time!) would hit my fingers before it hit the pipes. That done, the new bookshelves and software shelves were installed, followed by study desk, computer desk, printer, TV, and all the other bits and pieces that make up a boy’s bedroom. Having at last shown mastery and success over tasks involving craftsmanship and cunning, I discovered that Frances had prepared a list of other areas and jobs where my proven expertise could now be applied. Top of this list appears to be a phrase containing the words “re-design”, “total” and “kitchen”, though I have since attempted to affect total dyslexia.

(*) Laldy: n. (Scots) : Allegro con brio

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