I arrived home from work yesterday to be informed by our houseguest that our next door neighbour had knocked on our door some hours earlier because a water pipe had burst in her home and, in the panic and confusion of cascading water and plasterboard, she was unable to locate the stop tap. I rushed around there – painfully aware that rushing no longer provided any sort of solution to her problems – to find the house locked and in darkness. She had clearly fled the scene some hours earlier, before her rescuing hero had crested the hill, wrench in hand, some eight hours too late. (Although, as I was unable to see water bubbling out of the chimney, I presumed she had found some way of turning it off herself before she left.) Her house has changed quite a lot over the years, as has ours, but I was fairly confident that, save for one of her previous plumbers being some kind of ‘escape room’ fanatic, I would have – had I been present when required – been able to locate the stopcock fairly readily and thus ensure that her kitchen ceiling had not, in the company of several thousand litres of water, become her kitchen floor. I was not.
Our own stopcock is exactly where I remembered it to be and I’m fairly certain that, in extremis, I would be able to turn it off somehow. (Although I did not attempt to verify this as the kitchen cupboard in which it resides is full of so many chemicals that I would have felt safe to reach in there only if wearing a full hazmat suit and the kind of mask that is issued to frontline NATO infantry in combat.) However, it turns out that in my neighbours extremis I was actually in absentia and she had had to call somebody from the neighbouring village who arrived to find that the bathroom floor had found its way through the kitchen ceiling and that the goldfish that had been so carefully nurtured in a bowl on the kitchen table, had enjoyed the most fleeting of moments of liberty before ascending to fishy-heaven on the receiving end of the 240 volts of electricity that had suddenly found itself at a loose end when the tide came in.
The fact is that when needed, I was at work and therefore in no position to whack my pants on over my trousers, don my cape and fly to the rescue of my helpless neighbour*. In retrospect, I was more helpless than she: at least she knew what was going on. I was in my usual state of cluelessness, made even worse by the knowledge that even if I had known what was going on, I would have remained clueless. My dad always taught me that knowledge did not automatically equate to competence, and I’m pretty certain that he didn’t consider himself to be acquainted with anybody less competent than me. (In his later years I would often push him round to the pub in his wheelchair and I have never witnessed anybody grip the armrests so tightly. By the time he had finished his allotted two pints, he was ready for home and eager for almost anybody else to push him there**.) I am seldom called upon to rescue people. I am what is known in rescuing circles as the very last resort, however, whatever my proficiency on the wheelchair pushing front, I’m pretty certain that my neighbour would have been perfectly happy to accept my basic level of tap-turning competency in the midst of the prevailing torrent, if only I had been available to demonstrate it. It is like riding a bike – tap turning – you never forget.
The relevant point, however, is nothing to do with my tap-turning acumen, but with the fact that I was both unavailable and unaware when I was, finally, called upon. Not my fault of course – things so seldom are – I was doing what all normal wage-earners do: drinking tea and gossiping about everybody else that I work with. My willingness to help, unlike my capacity to do so, was never in question: merely my availability.
I am left with mixed emotions: disappointment that I was unable to help, but relief that my ability to do so was not put to the test. I am not at all certain that I would want to feature on the insurance claim forms as the man who couldn’t turn the tap off. I would not like to give the assessor the opportunity to say ‘You called who? Well, you can’t possibly expect us to cover that!’ I enjoy a genial relationship with both of my neighbours, the thought of being held responsible for exacerbating the kind of domestic deluge that could have been halted by anybody other than Mr Bean with a monkey wrench, is not one that I wish to contemplate. Happily, I have been able to apologise for not being there when my neighbour needed me, and I’m pleased to report that it was much easier than having to apologise for wrecking her house…
*I think that I should probably point out here that an inability to find a stopcock in the midst of a crisis does not, in any way, constitute ‘helplessness’, any more than a pre-knowledge of said location equates to being a master-plumber.
**To be fair, I don’t think he ever told me that he had no faith in my wheelchair piloting skills, but, if I’m honest, I put that down to sheer terror.
“When the flood calls, you have no home, you have no walls.
In the thunder crash, you’re a thousand minds, within a flash.
Don’t be afraid to cry at what you see…” Here Comes the Flood – Peter Gabriel