Monday, March 26, 2007

The discomfort of strangers

Yesterday I had to make a hungover trip to B&Q, which is tortuous at the best of times. I nearly had a funny turn by the power tools. But I am glad I made the effort, as by 9 o'clock this morning I was shut in a council house bathroom with J the plumber as he smashed up a cast iron bath with a sledgehammer. Without my new ear defenders, I would have been in all sorts of trouble.

I sprang down the stairs when the doorbell rang, as we were expecting the new bath any minute. Instead there was an electrician, who was working in another council house round the corner. It was a water leak that had stuffed up the electrics, could J come and have a look?

Some to-ing and fro-ing and authorisations later we got in the van and drove round there. The woman who lived there showed us to a downstairs room round the back, saying the leak was there, as indeed it was, but coming through the ceiling, so we went up to the bathroom. And I have never seen anything like it. Ever. The bath was full of junk, unused and unusable, the sink was filthy, the toilet was unspeakable, and the smell made my stomach lurch. The leak was on the cold supply to the toilet. We needed to turn off the mains.

Which meant going into the kitchen, which was through the living room. My eyes just got wider and wider. It was like being in an episode of Life of Grime. J was amazing, the tenant was clearly distressed at having people in the house, but he didn't bat an eyelid, just started moving things to look for the stop tap. The electrician caught my eye, smiled wryly and went outside for a smoke. I very nearly joined him.

He couldn't find the stop tap. It was like looking for a needle in a very grim haystack. 'I'll do it live', said J (which is a last resort approach which involves getting really bloody wet) and we went out to the van for hosepipes and spanners.

Back up in the bathroom, he took up the carpet by the toilet. Suddenly needing not to be looking in that direction, I turned round to face the wall, and saw the primary school uniform sweatshirts hanging up on coathangers. I stood there very quietly and tried really, really hard not to cry. I think I must have changed colour because J put his tools down and and came and put his arms round me. It's all right, he said, they've got a roof over their heads, they've got heating, they've got enough to eat. Shit, there's enough food down there to keep them all going for months.

I guess he's right. And now they don't have a leaky toilet, and their electrics work. And you can't force people to clean their houses. And I'm sure they love their kids. And I don't know what the answer is, or even what the question is. But I have this knot in my stomach and this smell in my hair. The second I am about to deal with via a long hot bath in my clean white bathroom. The first will take longer to go away.


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Blogger Timbo said...

That's pretty rough. Still, it sounds like this plumbing lark is a bit of an eye-opener. But strange; I never considered that a job like that would lead you into people's lives in the same way that being a policeman or an ambulance worker does, but I suppose that if you're going into homes all day long then what do you expect? An example of me not thinking enough about something, as always.

11:49 pm  
Blogger Jo said...

I'm not sure I had considered it that way either, to be fair. It's a fascinating side effect, though - you can be as technically proficient as you like, but if you can't handle people, you're basically useless. Also, carry a change of clothes unless you want your knees to smell of someone else's piss for the rest of the day.

12:24 am  
Blogger Delboy's Daughter said...

ooooooohhhhh nasty.
Perspective giver eh?
I now suddenly feel slightly better about my inadaquacies (and bad spelling) in running a home, and being a loan parent of three.
Makes you feel funny huh.

11:00 am  
Blogger Jo said...

Yeah, normal inadequacies pale into insignificance. Seriously. If you can't smell your bathroom from the front door, you're doing fine.

11:45 pm  
Blogger Sabita said...

This is something that preys on my mind too... some of us are putting an awful lot of energy into helping overcome poverty in places way across the world when across our own fair city lives like that are being lived... You helped. At least you can take that with away with you - and keep once the whiff has faded...

9:03 pm  

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