PLUMBING PERILS

( 1992 Quentin Bristow)

The bathroom redevelopment proposal tabled by my wife underwent substantial modification before economic realism prevailed. Gone were the marble columns and sunken bath with atrium and retractable roof. Now it was just a question of tearing out the washbasin and associated plumbing, replacing the bath taps and shower, and putting in a new washbasin and vanity with sort of mini carriage lamps.

Fortunately the house is a bungalow with all the plumbing laid out to human view in the basement - well most of it that is. I had never really studied the plumbing arrangements before and when I finally did I was glad I hadn't - if you see what I mean, because the plumber who created this particular nightmare must have been day-dreaming while he did it.

I made discreet enquiries among local seniors with long memories as to who might have perpetrated this tubular enigma. The consensus seemed to be that this particular plumber had joined a Royalist brass band shortly after completing his contract and had met an untimely death in the war of 1812. One old gentleman said that his great grandfather heard a rumour that he had been struck down by a cannon ball while playing a trombone (made from assorted brass plumbing accessories) as they marched toward the enemy. This musical mis-adventure was later immortalised by Tchaikovsky in his 1812 overture which features cannon-fire rather prominently in the finale.

It was now all too clear that short of occult communication with this individual I would have to unravel the maze unaided, there was however a bright side. After a lengthy feasibility study it seemed that there might be a silver (or at any rate a copper) lining to this cloud because most of the miles of copper plumbing were totally redundant. Now it may be good practice to have redundant plumbing in Moon rockets, but in Earth houses? I don't think so. With any luck a tall I figured I would be able to salvage all I needed to complete the job with ease, while being able to enjoy a comfortable retirement from the proceeds of selling the rest, provided that is that it didn't unduly depress world copper prices.

I was determined to demonstrate the virtues of good advance planning in carrying out this project. The problem definition phase was complete - well, actually my wife had done that part, but she didn't frame it quite that way, it was more like: "...How much longer are we going to have to stand in the bath to wash our hands in a washbasin that's in semi-darkness and too close to everything?" The feasibility study was done - hack out ninety nine percent of the tubular enigma and "rationalise" it; replace the crusade vintage bath taps with a single lever control; install A modern "designer" washbasin with elegant pseudo-victorian taps and that would be that.

Things went according to plan most of the time. A vast amount of copper tubing was removed with no discernible effect on the domestic water supply, other than the occasional disgorging of lumps of solder into the bath, kitchen sink, or (soon to be removed) washbasin. Very similar to the results of a rinse-out following dental work ("....Rinse please and spit for me - thank you..." and you find yourself clutching a hissing funnel on the end of a rubber tube which has all the user-friendly attributes of a hostile cobra.)

Replacement of the bath taps however did not go according to plan. The new fixture required a square opening in the tiled wall separating the bath from the new vanity. It should be simple enough I thought, just drill a series of 1/4 inch holes around the periphery and chisel away the web between the holes. Well it turned out that the mason who built that wall had probably done his apprenticeship building the pyramids. It was made of some hitherto unknown and indestructible substance which made hardened steel armour plate look like aluminium foil by comparison.

I lost count of how many carbide tipped masonry drills emerged smoking and shapeless after progressing barely half an inch into the impenetrable barrier. Why for heavens sake would anyone build a four-inch thick wall of reinforced super-granite in the middle of a perfectly ordinary bathroom?

Eventually the holes were drilled and it but remained to chisel out the web that was left. Perhaps the material was brittle and would shatter easily, after all a lot of incredibly hard materials, like cast iron, will do that. In fact perhaps one good swift belt from a five-pound hammer would do the trick; so no pussy-footing around, make a pre-emptive strike. I delivered a blow which judging from the after-shocks, was at least magnitude 8.5 on the open ended bathroom scale.

The results spelt a message (which I could not read) in the form of an interesting pattern of cracks in the ceiling. If ever there was a case of a warning from above, this was it. I really didn't need a ceiling palmist to spell it out. "Cease and desist this power-play or your entire dwelling will be a heap of rubble with only one wall left standing." So it was back to plan "A" with the chisel, and eventually the opening was made.

The piece that came out is now being studied in a top-secret laboratory by tank- warfare specialists. I am told it could be the basis of the first truly impenetrable armour ever devised. I have mixed feelings about the outcome of that study, being patriotic is all very well but if it is successful - guess who will be looking for another house, or at least another bathroom wall.

Finally all the plumbing connections were made and it was time to turn on the main water tap in the basement for the last time, and that was the time the damn thing sheared off. It always had been too stiff but replacing a main water tap that you only use once in the blue moon had never been exactly at the top of my priority list - or even on it at all to be quite honest. Well it was now alright, so I phoned the water department.

It was winter and there was snow on the ground and it was very cold. They arrived in a van with a yellow flashing light and two fellows emerged muffled up to their chins and proceeded to don headphones with earmuffs which were connected to mine-detectors (the headphones not the earmuffs). As they moved around the front lawn, looking for the little metal coverplate over their buried stopcock which they would use to turn off the water supply, they looked like escaped circus bears going through some half remembered routine.

Unfortunately the presence of a van with a flashing light and two men scouring the place with mine-detectors created entirely the wrong impression with some of the neighbours. There were furtive glances from worried old ladies peeking round net curtains, and pretty soon I saw a station wagon across the road being discreetly loaded with suitcases, after which it pulled quietly out of the driveway and left.

When the coverplate was eventually located, the water people tried vainly to connect their long steel pole to the stopcock. It turned out that they had no record of when this one had been installed, which came as absolutely no surprise to me because there probably wasn't a water department as we know it, circa 1812.

The only solution was to dig down and replace the access tube or whatever it was. When a backhoe arrived escorted by a police car with flashing lights, the neighbourhood consternation/apprehension index rose about another twenty points and more suitcases were seen being loaded into cars, along with family portraits and favourite armchairs.

Eventually the job was done, leaving a large crater with earth and sod piled around the rim. The water was turned off, but because it was late, it was decided to leave things as they were and come back next day to finish up and give me back my lawn. They all drove off, van, backhoe and police car.

Later that evening there was a knock at the door and I recognised the owner of the station wagon from across the road who had left before the backhoe had arrived. He was a second World War veteran who had served in a bomb disposal squad. He surveyed the crater and debris with an expert eye and said " Your damn lucky it wasn't a bit bigger and a bit closer to the house".

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