A chilly realisation that the boiler has died
I have a theory that you're not really an adult until you've experienced boiler bereavement. There's denial ("It'll just be the pilot light, I just need to press this button a few times"), anger (as the landlord screens your frantic calls), bargaining (with a succession of plumbers you find in the Yellow Pages whose names all begin with AAAA), depression (no one will come out until next week) and finally acceptance (of call-out charges hovering around £200 per half hour or part thereof). Most importantly, there's the realisation that your home isn't the impregnable fortress you had complacently assumed it was.
My boiler died this week. It isn't my first broken boiler, but it's the first one I'm solely responsible for. I've been half expecting it – there's been some worrying business with the thermostat – but it hits me hard ... waking up to a suspicious chill, running the hot tap in vain, hoping I'm wrong. I try not to panic: first, I go down to the basement to stare at it, hoping for a miracle.
The boiler is gigantic and off-putting, with five enormous pipes emerging from its squat grey body at improbable angles. I open the front door, experimentally, and look for a pilot light button to press, but there's nothing, just a sort of rusty screw, and a butch-looking gauge. I'm lost. The thermostat, with its yellowing card of oblique instructions in my landlady's spiky handwriting, is bad enough. It whirrs and clicks ominously in the evenings. I give up and ring my landlady.
"What have you done to it?" she says, instantly on the offensive.
"Nothing!" I protest. "It just stopped working overnight, honestly."
There's a chilly pause. She has a knack of making me feel guilty when I haven't done anything wrong, which must be useful in her occupation. "Have you touched the thermostat?"
"No!" I lie, palms slightly sweaty.
Grudgingly, she agrees to try to arrange an engineer, but not today, and probably not tomorrow. I hang up feeling furiously impotent and cast around for a solution. I could call my neighbour. He's quite handy – he's fixed my Wi-Fi and put up shelves for me in the past – but he's also a total chancer. There will be some outlandish reason why I need to lend him a hundred quid and if I'm really unlucky, he'll show me his awful drawings of cars again.
Or maybe I should try to get it fixed myself? The thought fills me with gloom (they'll lie to me and take all my money, and my landlady will never pay me back), but at least I'll be taking charge of my own heating destiny. I text a friend to ask if she knows a reliable plumber. "Would you like John to come and have a look?" she texts back. John is her husband. "He's pretty good at that kind of thing."
"Thank you!" I text back, filled with relief. "That would be wonderful."
X is pretty good at this kind of thing too. One of the first things he ever did for me was fix my television and then, as now, I was filled with admiration for his nonchalant techno-brilliance. How do people know this stuff? He called earlier about a forgotten video game, and hearing the edge in my voice, asked what was wrong.
"The boiler's dead."
"Oh no, I'm sorry."
I could feel my composure slipping.
"And my landlady is being evil."
"If you need me ..."
"Thanks." I can't though, can I? It's up to me now.
Actually, it's up to John, who comes round a few hours later with his toolbox, and disappears downstairs, refusing cups of tea. After 20 anxious minutes, he shouts up to tell me to feel the radiator and, sure enough, it's warming, slowly. He comes back upstairs, wiping his hands on a piece of kitchen roll. "Oh, thank you so much, John – you're a lifesaver."
"No problem. I don't know how long it'll last though."
Which is exactly what I expected to hear.