Sunday, 2 May 2010

The Plumber

A Writer's Extreme Creativity Challenge: Write a story a day, in May. That's it:

#2 : The Plumber

I’m good at what I do, and if I turn up at your door you can guarantee two things.

Firstly, my fee, which is never less than double that of your regular, despised plumber, will need to be paid. Secondly, that unlike those poor men calling themselves plumbers, I will tame the occult network of copper and plastic that lurks beneath your floorboards, behind the wallpaper, in the cupboard under the stairs.

I got into the business of being a plumber nearly a decade ago, when the dot com bubble burst the property development boom was just getting started. The callout fee alone was huge, and the quality of DIY out there meant that once folks admitted defeat they would always need someone to bring order back to the chaos.

A grateful housewife, a cheque with an unexpected number of digits. That’s how I saw this job at first, and for a time that’s just how it was. Little did I realise the souls that have been crushed, the deals which true plumbers have to make to keep mankind safe in its cosy, infinite complacency, making the tea. Doing the washing up.

I experienced the true horror in the youthful, optimistic days of the new millennia. A small town comprehensive school was looking to retire its groundskeeper and all round handy man and replace him with a modern, managed service.

The mans name was Harry. He was slow and methodical, and realised that his time was past, he began the slow process of introducing my team to his building (three of us - me, Jimmy and Tom). In our arrogance, perhaps we imagined that we would have this all fixed up by the winter. No-one would have believed the vast and cool and unsympathetic maze of copper and lead stretching across the caverns and tunnels beneath that town.

Harry’s understanding of the system was scratched into the walls, onto the pipes and boilers using an array of bizarre signs and symbols. As he explained these to us, aided by a sacred grimoire he had constructed over the decades, we came to believe him utterly and irreversibly insane.

Tom was the first to go. After yet another long day tracking the routes of some of the heating through the walls of the school, we were sat in the damp sub basement, beneath stalactites forming from the century old brick ceiling.

“It knows we’re here” said Tom.

“you what?”

“It doesn’t like us. It’s the plastic pipes. It likes copper”.

We looked at Tom, but he just shook his head and got on with his cheese sandwich.

Over the following weeks, Tom became increasingly withdrawn, sometimes we wouldn’t see him for days on end. Then one day Harry came to talk to myself and Jimmy.

“You got to come with me. Your boy. He’s gone too deep this time... too far... if i’d known...”

We followed the mad old bastard down into the tunnels well beyond those areas that we’d mapped or which had anything to do with the school. Harry muttered that we were beneath the Town Hall.

We found Tom in a small chamber which must have been some kind of intersection - crisscrossing pipes of all thicknesses went into all four walls, ceilings and floor, though the destination of those going downwards was beyond my knowledge.

Tom was in the centre of the room, surrounded by a spiraling, esoteric web of bendy plastic pipes which he had grafted onto the bigger metal ones. He didn’t look up when we arrived.

Harry whispered “He’s trying to control the water”

“It’s a labyrinth” said Jimmy, looking at the design of the plastic pipe sculpture, formed of repeating concentric circles and interconnecting knots.

“You can’t do that - we never control, we guide and induce, bribe and persuade, but we can’t control it” whispered Harry, with a stressed edge in his voice.

I walked over to Tom and put my hand on his shoulder.

“Tom, are you ok?”

But Tom never had chance to answer. Harry had taken his wrench and begun attacking the points at which Tom’s construction was attached to the older system, tearing into it. I heard Jimmy shout as the room in an instant filled with steam and spray, boiling and freezing water. Harry ran off into the tunnels, pursuing some unseen pattern, turning bolts and taps, freeing the raging water from the system at strategic points.

Of what follows I remember little. Our long, painful, delirious struggle back to the surface, dragging, cajoling and bullying Tom through tunnels flooded and collapsing with hot water and steam. It seemed as though we must have been down there for days.

We never saw Harry again. Tom spent many months in hospital, raving like a mad person. His family blamed me, and I’ve not spoken to him since.

Jimmy was quiet afterwards, but decided to return to his IT career after declaring that if Star Trek had taught him anything it was that any sufficiently complex network of molecules could conceivably contain a consciousness.

He didn’t believe that the flow of bits and bytes had yet reached the same level of sentient malevolence that is found even in the simplest household plumbing.

Me, I realized that water cannot be controlled and our victories are only ever short term. It will pool around the weak spots, in your pitiful use of silicone sealant, gather its forces and wait. It will turn a pinhole into a raging torrent. When conditions are right it will become ice or steam to crack metal, dissolve wood and further break down attempts at control. Time is it’s ally, and its long term goals are beyond our mere human intelligence, but its patience can craft the grand canyon in stages imperceptible to us mortals.

Over the years I’ve reached an understanding with the water. I’ve made compromises, deals and negotiations. I am fluent in the elemental diplomacy required by the back boiler, the unpleasant negotiating tactics of the lead waste pipe. I can fix your pipes.

I don’t believe in false modesty, I’m the greatest plumber mankind has ever known, but at what cost? Only time will tell, but I have secrets I will take to the grave.

1 comment:

  1. I like this a lot! I laughed out loud when Harry said, "Your boy. He's gone too deep this time ..." Classic!