I was half asleep, so I just turned over in bed and punched the pillow even though it hadn't done anything to me. I can be cruel like that sometimes. The pillow took it uncomplainingly, wimp that it is. Robin came in to the bedroom carrying a bowl of cereal.
"Did you hear a bang?" she chomped.
"Maybe," I said.
"I thought it came from the kitchen," she said, taking another mouthful of cereal. "I checked to see if it was my coffee exploding in the microwave and I opened the cupboards to see if any shelves had fallen down. But it wasn't any of those things."
There being no obvious signs of terrorist activity in any room in the house, we decided the bang had probably come from next door. Robin went to work and, in the fullness of time, I went for a shower.
About half way through my shower the fog of sleep began to lift from my brain and I recalled that about twenty years ago the immersion heater in my hot water tank exploded. It had said "Bang!" in much the same tone of voice as the bang that banged this morning. I wonder...
Showered, unshaven, dried and dressed, I looked in the cupboard where the hot water water tank lives.
Drip, drip, drip...
The floor was very wet, and getting wetter. Oh dear, where's the Yellow Pages?
I found a plumbing company with an intriguing advert. "We know how frustrating it can be when tradespeople don't turn up at the promised time. So if we don't arrive when we say we will, we'll do the job for free." That sounded promising. I rang the number and spoke to Dan.
"OK," he said. "I'll come and have a look at it."
I noticed he hadn't mentioned a time. "When exactly should I expect you?" I asked cunningly.
"Oh, in about 30 or 40 minutes or so," he said, seeing right through my ploy.
Exactly 35 minutes later there was a knock on the door.
"Hi, I'm Dan," said Dan, "and this is Felix."
Dan was young, small and super-model slim. He looked very much like Steve Marriott, the singer with Small Faces and Humble Pie. Felix was slightly bulkier and very, very black.
"Where are you from, Felix?" I asked him.
"I'm from Zimbabwe," he said, "and I am just 16 days old in New Zealand."
"Well, welcome to the country," I said and shook his hand.
He grinned broadly. "It's so cold here," he said. "But the people are nice and warm and that makes up for it."
Cold? Both Dan and I were sensibly dressed for the weather. We wore t-shirts, shorts and sandals and I suspect we both found the day a little sultry even for that minimal set of clothes. Felix wore a bulky woollen sweater over a heavy shirt, denim jeans, boots and thick socks. In moments of silence I could hear his teeth chattering.
I showed Dan the hot water tank. "Gosh, it's well lagged," he said. "Best lagging I've seen in years!" He pulled out pins and tore off sticky tape and removed untold layers. Then his face lit up like beacon. "Wow! Look at that! It's the second oldest tank I've ever seen. 1967. They built them to last in those days. Look; it's exactly forty years old!"
"Happy birthday," I said. "What's the oldest one you've seen?"
"1958," said Dan. He looked carefully around the tank. "The good news is that we can get the tank out without having to demolish the cupboard. You wouldn't believe how many times we have to tear cupboards apart. Far too many people put the tank in first and then build the cupboard snugly around it. Not a good idea.
"The bad news is, we've got to take the tank out of the cupboard. You need a new one. The old one's stuffed."
"What a way to spend your fortieth birthday," I said. "Getting ripped out and sent to the tip. Poor little thing. Oh well, let's do it." I wiped away a surreptitious tear.
Dan turned off the valve that controlled the water supply from the header tank. "How do I get down below here?" he asked. "I need to find the drainage tap so I can empty it."
"There's a very small crawl space," I said dubiously. "But it's really, really cramped."
"Oh that's OK," said Dan. "We only employ very small people. As long as it's larger than the glove compartment on a car, I can get in to it."
I took him downstairs and showed him the tiny cupboard with the removable back that gives access to the crawlspace. With a twist and a wriggle he was gone.
"If you find any hidden treasure, it's mine!" I said.
"Fair enough! Oh wow look at this. Your pipes are all copper. That's great. You just don't see that these days." He wriggled about a bit. "There's no drain tap here. The pipe leads outside. There must be a tap out there somewhere. Felix can you go and look outside?"
Felix and I went out exploring. I took Felix to the side of the house which I thought the crawl space led to. Sure enough there was a tap sticking out of the wall.
"Here it is,' said Felix.
"Great," said Dan's disembodied voice from behind the wall. "I'll come out."
He and Felix unscrewed the stopper from the front of the tap and turned the tap on. Hot water began to gush out and boil the weeds.
"I always wondered what that tap was for," I said.
"Right," said Dan. "We're off to Plumbing World to buy a new tank. See you in an hour or so."
An hour or so later the tank was fully drained. Dan and Felix arrived back, exactly on time.
"Here we are," said Dan, "bearing gifts."
"Gifts?" I asked. "Does that mean it's free then?"
"I spoke metaphorically," said Dan.
They took the fuse for the water heater out of the fuse box and then began disconnecting everything. It wasn't long before the tank came loose and they carried it downstairs, through the sliding door and out into the garden. They left it lying on the lawn. I went and had a look. The bottom of the tank was very corroded and flaky. I could peel strips off. It obviously wouldn't have been very much longer before the whole bottom gave way, dumping the entire contents of the tank onto the floor in one fell, foul swoop. I began to feel very lucky that I'd got away with only a slow drip from (probably) a small fracture in a welded seam, or maybe a tiny hole in the corroded bottom.
"How long do you think it's been leaking?" I asked Dan.
"Maybe a couple of weeks or so," he said. "Certainly not very long. I could see that water had soaked through when I was down in the crawl space, but there wasn't any real damage to see.
"You were lucky you caught it early. Some people don't notice until the rotten floorboards give way and the whole thing crashes down into the room below. That can be very messy, not to mention expensive."
"I told you not to mention expensive!"
They fitted the new tank very quickly and efficiently and let some water dribble in to test the seals. It all seemed watertight.
"All we need now," said Dan, "is an electrician to wire up the heater. I've rung several but either they're not answering the phone at all or they can't give me an appointment until the middle of next week. I presume you do want hot water before the middle of next week?"
"Yes please," I said, contemplating with horror a week of being unable to do the washing up or take a shower. Of course, Robin would love it washing the dishes is her job; and she resents time wasted in the shower when she could be doing more interesting things, like gardening. But I was not attracted to the idea.
"Bloody tradespeople!" said Dan. "You can never get one when you need one." He made a few more phone calls. "OK," he said, "we've tracked one of the elusive bastards down. He says he'll be here early in the afternoon, whatever that means. Felix and I are going off to our next job. When he arrives, give me a ring and I'll come straight back."
By about 2.45pm I was starting to get worried. It was no longer early in the afternoon. The afternoon was getting later (and older) by the second. Then a van drew up and Dan and Felix got out.
"The electrician's just sent me a text message," said Dan. "He'll be here at 3.00pm. So while we're waiting, I'll just start work on attaching the straps that will stop the tank falling over in an earthquake. I'll only fix up one end at the moment, just in case we need to swivel the tank for the electrician."
He carefully measured the length of strap required and cut exactly that length off a roll. It was an inch too short.
He tried again, with slightly more success. By now it was 3.15pm. No sign of the electrician. "Anything else you need me to look at while we're waiting?" offered Dan.
"Well you could have a look at the cistern on the loo. It fills up a bit too much and water runs out of the overflow pipe."
He took the lid off the cistern and peered at it. "I've never understood how these work," he said. He poked at it a bit and twirled the flushing handle. Nothing happened, apart from a couple of gurgles.
"Would you like me to flush it for you?" I asked.
"Yes please," he said, mildly embarrassed.
I gave the handle a little twiddle and water gushed like Niagara Falls. "It's all in the wrist action," I said. "And the suppleness of the follow through."
We watched the cistern fill up. Dan poked a thingie here and twisted a whatsit there. Then he turned the flushing handle again. Nothing happened so he tried one more time. It still didn't flush. I reached past him and twirled gently. Niagara Falls again.
"Call myself a plumber," said Dan, chuckling at his own misfortune. "I can't even flush a toilet. Perhaps it's time to hand in my cards."
"If it's any consolation," I said, "lots of people find this design hard to flush. My mother in law can't flush it, and her middle name is efficiency. Phyllis Efficiency Clarke. I really can't imagine what her parents were thinking of when they christened her that."
"I've adjusted it a bit," said Dan, peering into the cistern as it filled. "And now the water level is about an inch below the overflow pipe. That should fix it."
"Thanks," I said. I looked at my watch. "It's nearly quarter to four. In light of your advertised promise, do I get the job done free because the electrician's so late?"
"It doesn't filter down to subcontractors," explained Dan. "They're outside our control. Come to think of it, they're outside everyone's control."
The electrician arrived just after 4.00pm. He attached wires, put the fuse back, waved a voltmeter and said the happy word, "Perfect!".
He went away again and Dan finished fixing the earthquake straps. Then he opened the valve to the header tank and turned the heater on.
"There we are," he said, "all finished."
"Any idea what went bang?" I asked.
"No idea at all," he said. "It wasn't anything to do with the old tank. There was nothing dislodged, nothing obviously broken. Bit of a puzzle, really."
The next morning I lay lazily in bed, cuddling a cat, at peace with the world.