20 AUGUST 1988, Page 46

Home life

Plumbing the depths

Alice Thomas Ellis

The sink is blocked and the dishwasher is overflowing. I suspect in some dim region of my mind that in some dim region where the plumbing occurs these events are not unconnected. I hate paddling on the kitchen floor, but even more do I detest peeping into the intricacies of the plumbing. It just ought to work. Like one's liver. I'm rather vague as to what it's for and I've got no idea where it is. I just hope it's quietly fulfilling its purpose.

The same goes for motor cars. Some people like fiddling in their interiors, but most of us want.them to work without hassle and get us to where we're going and back. And I don't like watches that don't work (I've got several of those) and most of all I don't like vacuum cleaners that don't work. I can never believe they couldn't do it if they tried. If they would just summon up some energy and will power they could easily suck up that dead moth with as much vigour as they were invented with. My past is littered with failed vacuum cleaners, and I often wish I hadn't given away my trusty Ewbank, which was a primitive sort of carpet sweep- er with no vulnerable engine, only mecha- nically operated rotating brushes. But then, of course, there's the rub. The more sophisticated the machinery the likelier it is to be afflicted by some arcane ailment, and only people with degrees in its manner of being will be able to fix it. Take the telephone. Sometimes it will work and sometimes it won't. Sometimes it rings and the person on the other end will say aggrievedly that they've been trying to get hold of us all day and where have we been, for God's sake? As there is always and invariably somebody in this house there is clearly here a failure in com- munication. It sounds to them as though it's ringing throughout the house, but here the silence is unbroken, except, of course, for the steady swish of water from the dishwasher. Only an expert in the ways of telephones can remedy this defect and often the experts have better fish to fry worse, more glamorous types of malfunc- tioning than a misplaced ring.

The same thing happened at the office last week when the electricity was cut off without warning. The telephones stopped ringing and all their little lights went out. This caused confusion on several levels, with some of us holding that the telephone was dependent on the electricity supply and some holding that it wasn't. I pointed out that back at the house, where every- thing else had gone silent and dark, the telephone was working as well as it ever was: not marvellously, but consenting spas- modically to relay messages from one person to another as it should in the nature of its constitution. I remembered old elec- tricity cuts when the gas boiler had ceased to work because it was dependent on electricity to prime the pump or spark the dynamo or do something that gas can't do by itself. I thought it must be something like that. All over the country people were ringing the office and getting indignant at hearing a perfectly healthy ringing tone and no human response. They assumed that everyone had gone insouciantly off on holiday, and banged down their handsets with a muttered `Tush'. This isn't good for the business image.

Now I'm going to get the mop and bucket and a lot of old newspapers and soak up the dish-water which has mostly gone under the fridge. I once had a vacuum cleaner that was supposed to suck up water: it didn't work. And then I'm not going to work for a week. I'm going away with a friend in a motor car away from all this nonsense. I'd feel safer if it was a horse and cart, but I'll simply keep my fingers crossed -- as useful a ploy as any when it comes to machinery.