16 MARCH 2002, Page 67

Low life

Expert advice

Jeremy Clarke

My sister's run off with the gas man, Left her husband and everything. I was introduced last week. Ron's father used to whip him with a stick, even whilst driving the car, he says, but thinks it hasn't done him any harm. Apart from sleeping with my sister, Ron says his main passions are cycling and drinking beer.

During our conversation, Ron discerned that all was not entirely well with me at the moment. My problem, basically, is that the course of true love has in my case failed to run true and I'm on tablets. What I needed, said Ron, apparently something of an expert in these matters, was to get out of the house and shag someone else. And to get my rehabilitation programme started, he suggested I work as his plumber's mate for a week or two.

Next morning I was standing on the corner at 8.30, waiting for him to pick me up in his van. As I waited, about 150 schoolgirls walked past me, I must have fallen in love with about 135 of them. Fourteenand 15-year-old girls, plus certain species of African antelope, must be God's greatest aesthetic triumph, in my opinion. Those bare bruised adolescent legs do it for me every time. And nobody, it seems, not even a politician, has such an instinctive understanding of the true lineaments of power as they have. You can see it in their absolute contempt for everyone else. A nubilocracy of 14and 15-year-old schoolgirls should be running the country in my opinion, especially as we are about to go to war with Saddam again. I'd certainly vote for them.

Our first job was for a Mrs Goodfellow, an elderly widow living in a bungalow on top of a bill. Mrs Goodfellow wore a luxuriant wig. She and her wig disappeared into the sitting room to watch Trisha, while Ron and I disconnected the gas boiler from her kitchen wall, put up the new one and reconnected the pipework.

Ron showed me how to sever a copper pipe with a C-shaped pipe-cutting gadget and told me to cut one of the pipes leading to the boiler. Though I cut it successfully, unfortunately we'd forgotten to shut off the gas supply and Mrs Goodfellow's small bungalow was instantly filled with pungent fumes. She came trotting out of the sittingroom, wig slightly awry, and said, 'I can smell gas!' After that, I was relegated to minor tasks such as making good the brickwork around the flue and sweeping up, though I spent a lot of time staring out of Mrs Goodfellow's kitchen window at the sky, which was extraordinarily turbulent and fantastical.

In the afternoon, Mrs Goodfellow's fancy man turned up wearing a carpark attendant's uniform, unbuttoned to the waist. He'd been in court all morning, testifying. A customer had punched him in the mouth, knocking out one of his back teeth, and had then reversed the car over his ankle. His dentist had also been in court testifying on his behalf. In spite of his dentist's evidence, plus that of three eyewitnesses, his assailant had been let off with a £250 fine for dangerous driving. Mrs Goodfellow's fancy man's elation at having just appeared in court hadn't been dampened in the least by the unexpectedly lenient verdict. He and Mrs Goodfellow withdrew to the sitting-room for the rest of the afternoon, closing the door behind them. We could hear them laughing together at first, then they were quiet, then we could hear them laughing again.

Ron was a dab hand with the solder, blowtorch and pipe-bender. So accomplished was he that he was able to offer me some man-to-man counselling while engaged in the tricky business of connecting a row of copper pipes to the new boiler. Most of his advice was based on the assumption that all women are fundamentally irrational. It was no good chasing them once they've gone, either. 'You've got to let them go, Jel,' he said. 'There's plenty more fish in the sea.' Some of his advice, such as 'Treat 'em mean, and keep 'em keen,' came in rhyming couplets.

The next time we saw Mrs Goodfellow and the carpark attendant, her wig was awry and his tunic was buttoned up wrongly. We were just packing up. 'All done, then?' said Mrs Goodfellow. We all stood and admired her lovely new boiler and Ron's expert pipework. Looks like it grew there, said Ron, handing her the bill, which broke down as follows: Cost of new boiler: £399. Cost of bits and bobs: £50. Mrs Goodfellow's bill: £1,500. Pre-tax profit for six hours work: £1,051. Wages for plumber's mate: £50 (the tight git).