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In the Wet

Into every life a little dihydrogen monoxide must fall - but I seem to have had more than my fair share this month…

It started one Sunday morning when a huge fountain erupted without warning just outside my garden fence. It was about 15 feet tall and obviously under enormous pressure. I watched horrified, as hundreds (possibly thousands) of gallons of water poured all over my garden and ran off into the street below, carrying some of my garden with it. I rang the council. There was nobody there except a rather casual Sunday operator. "We’ve got an emergency further down the road," she said. "We didn’t have any choice. We had to open a valve to relieve the pressure."

"But I’m worried that all this water might be undermining my house, damaging the foundations."

"Oh no," she laughed. "Not a little drop of water like that."

As she spoke, the fountain lengthened by a good 10 feet as the pressure increased yet again, my fence buckled slightly under the strain and small rocks bounced in the jet stream. "Call back on Monday," said the operator and rang off.

On Monday morning I rang the council. The person I spoke to was most sympathetic. "I’ll transfer you to so-and-so. It’s his department."

So-and-so was sympathetic, but unhelpful. "It isn’t my responsibility. I’ll transfer you to such-and-such."

Such-and-such wasn’t interested. "I’ll put you through to thingy."

Thingy was out and had voice mail turned on. I left a message but nobody rang back so the next day I tried again. A completely different set of voices expressed an enormous desire to help and transferred me between several departments since they themselves, they explained earnestly, had no responsibilities in this area. Eventually I got a phone that just rang endlessly. After 10 minutes of listening to this I hung up and tried again.

A brand new round of the Pass the Robson game ensued with a whole new set of voices, none of whom had anything to do with water (or indeed any other council function that I could discern) but all of whom were unfailingly polite and sympathetic. They all assured me that of course the council would take responsibility for any damage caused, but it wasn’t their department, they didn’t know why I’d been put through to them, they weren’t sure who I should talk to but perhaps so-and-such might know. Would I like to be transferred?

Yes I would like to be transferred. I got cut off instead.

I decided to have a cup of coffee before trying to outwit the council again and I wandered off down the corridor towards the office coffee machine. I was surprised to find water dripping out of the ceiling, half a dozen tiles were missing from the ceiling, strategic buckets were in place and an air conditioning engineer was saying firmly "It isn’t the air conditioning. Not my responsibility."

As it happened, he was right. A washing machine in one of the flats above the office had got blocked and overflowed, flooding the flat and voiding itself all over our ceiling. But I couldn’t help regarding it as an omen.

Back to the telephone, and a whole new set of sympathetic council staff. I was expecting another game of telephone tag, but this time, rather to my surprise, I got hold of a no-nonsense engineer who summed up the situation in a flash. "Yes," he said, "that sounds as though there could have been some serious damage. I’m not surprised you are worried, I would be too. I’ll get an insurance assessor out there today and we’ll see what his report says." He took my details and rang off. Half an hour later the phone rang and the insurance assessor wanted to make an appointment to come round.

"Do you really need me to be there?" I asked. "All the damage, if there is any, is external. You won’t need to get inside the house. Why do I have to be there?"

"Well, I suppose so," he said reluctantly. "But have you got a dog? Can’t be having it with dogs. Not going on a property alone if there’s dogs."

"No dogs," I reassured him. "Only two cats who will insist that you stroke them and look at their bottoms."

"I like cats," he said.

The insurance assessor found lots of surface damage which had obviously been caused by a flood of semi-biblical proportions. However there was a lip around the foundations and that appeared to have diverted the bulk of the water around the house and across the garden rather than letting it underneath and so the foundations seemed unharmed. Indeed, he claimed they were in surprisingly good condition for a house as old as mine.

"The garden is saturated," he said. "But it should be OK once it has had a chance to dry out."

As these words left his lips, it started to rain…

Once I read a short story in which a man had the power to make it stop raining. Whenever it started he would say "Rain, rain go away. Come again another day." And the rain would go. The dénouement of the story was that one day all the rain he’d wished away for so long came back - all on the same day. That day has now arrived in New Zealand. Those few drops of rain that appeared just as the insurance assessor spoke have continued unabated. Some of New Zealand’s heaviest ever rainfall has been recorded over the last few weeks and large areas of the country have been flooded. Since I got a head start over everybody else in the street, my garden is now mostly liquid.

A notice arrived from the council. On 25th July 1998 the water supply would be cut off from 9.30am to 12.30pm for repairs to be made to the pipes. Huge bulldozers appeared and dumped half the road on the grass verge outside my house (I no longer have a grass verge. Good - it doesn’t have to be mowed). Miles of bright orange pipes vanished underground to the accompaniment of much foul language as it was discovered that these were metric pipes and those in situ were imperial and the two could not be joined together.

And still it rained, converting the bulldozed trenches into a foul quagmire. Men in yellow ponchos accumulated. I didn’t count, but I had the distinct impression that far more of them jumped down into the trenches than ever came out again. Mysterious blue mechanisms were stacked higgledy piggledy in next door’s garden.

At the appointed time I turned on a tap. Compressed air at enormous pressure hissed from the outlet, closely followed by enormous gobbets of mud.

The coffee had an interesting taste for the next few days and I will draw a veil over the state of my underwear after it was washed.

I have a friend who is an excitable speaker. As she becomes more enthusiastic in her conversation she has a tendency to spray spittle. Recently she managed the enormously impressive feat of spitting behind my glasses.

Given my current relationship to the liquid world, I wasn’t surprised.

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