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Alan Goes Screwing

Robin looked at the far wall of the newly decorated back room and frowned.

"Shelves," she said firmly.

"You think we should put shelves on the wall?" I asked.

"Shelves," she agreed.

It seemed like a good idea to me, and so we got in the car and drove to Bunnings, which is the largest hardware store for miles around. The instant we walked through the door, a Bunning clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful, approached us. He brandished the magic chisel Excalibur, and asked, "Can I help you?"

"Shelves?" asked Robin tentatively.

The Bunning put down his magic chisel, and pulled out a map of the warehouse which he scrutinized with a pale pink scroot that he removed from secret orifice.

"Take a left turn at Aisle nine," said the Bunning. "Then go straight on until you come to a traffic island. Take the third exit and go past a pub called The Hard Wear And Tare."

"I've heard of that pub," I said. "Rumour has it that they do a very nice draught turpentine, though their methylated spirit leaves a lot to be desired."

"So true,' said the Bunning, "but they do feature a paint stripper every Monday, Wednesday and Friday lunchtime."

"Shelves!" hinted Robin.

"Turn right after the pub," continued the Bunning, "and then immediately left through the concrete jungle. Pay no attention to the garden gnome with his trousers round his ankles who is the principle water feature. Turn left again onto Aisle nineteen; you can't miss it, there's a plumbing display on the corner with a special discount on a transparent toilet that has goldfish swimming in the tank. Join the dual carriageway on Aisle forty two and take exit twenty seven. It's signposted 'nut screws washer and bolts'. Turn left, left and left again and there you are."

"Where?" I asked.

"Shelves," said Robin, and off we went.

The shelving section of Bunnings proved to be remarkably bereft of shelves. There were cupboards which had shelves in them and there were shelves which had wardrobes wrapped around them. But the closest thing to shelves that you could attach to a wall were flimsy, plastic covered wire contraptions with large holes in them for things to fall through. Nothing seemed suitable for our purposes.

"Shelves," said Robin wistfully, and she shook her head.

"Never mind," I said. "Let's go and have a look at Mitre 10. I'm sure they'll have lots of shelves."

"Shelves!" Robin brightened immediately and we headed off to the car.

The door into Mitre 10 slid welcomingly open. A young man in a blue pullover picked his nose. It didn't quite fit, so he picked another one. Satisfied, he turned to us.


"Shelves?" asked Robin.

"Over here." The young man gestured vaguely to the right hand wall of the store and ambled off into the middle distance. We followed him into the shelf section. It wasn't far.

Shelves of every size and shape stood to attention against the wall. Brown support brackets festooned the racks on every side.

"I'll have ten of those," I said, pointing at the proudest shelves. "And thirty brackets. I think every shelf should have at least three brackets to support it."

"Good idea, squire," said the young man. "Nice and sturdy. But we've only got seven shelves in stock and eighteen brackets to go with them."

"OK – I'll take those. Can you order three more shelves and twelve more brackets?"

"No problem, squire. Anything else I can help you with?"

"Shelves," said Robin.

"Screws," I said.

"Walk this way."

Hunching our shoulders, we lurched companionably across to the other side of the store where I found a jar of ideal screws. There was only one problem – it cost $60. I sucked air through my teeth and shook my head sorrowfully.

"Have I got a deal for you!" said the young man, not in the least put out. "Take a look at this! It's just incredible! Seeing is believing! What a bargain!!!!!!!"

Pocketing all the exclamation marks that had fallen on to the floor, he led me round the corner to a special shelf labelled 'Screw Sale'. There sat an absolutely identical jar of ideal screws with a price tag of only $5.

I expressed bewilderment.

"No, I don't understand it either," said the young man. "They pulled all the sale screws on my day off. I have no idea what criteria they used. Probably a random number generator. We've got one of those on special as well. Want to buy it?"

"No thanks," I said. "I'm trying to give them up."

We took the shelves home and I measured the wall more carefully than I had in the past. Eight things immediately became clear to me, and I rang Mitre 10.

"That order I gave you for three shelves and twelve brackets," I said.


"Can you add two more shelves and six more brackets to it?"

"So that's five shelves and eighteen brackets in total?"

"Yes please."

"The brackets come in boxes of twenty." The voice sounded peeved.

"But I only need eighteen."

"Well I suppose we can put the extra pair into stock."

"Good idea," I said. "You'll be amazed at the wonderful flavour they'll add to your casseroles."

"You can pick the items up next week," said the voice, and it rang off.

I looked around thoughtfully. All I had to do now was screw thirty six brackets into the studs that were hiding behind the plasterboard and then attach twelve shelves to the brackets. Simple really.

First find your studs. I composed an advert – studs needed to satisfy a lady who wants shelves.

"Shelves," said Robin, deeply moved.

The advert failed to produce any studs. Only high technology could help me now. I invested in a stud finder – a gadget guaranteed to beep loudly and turn its green light red in the presence of studs. Such equipment, I am told, is de rigueur among builders apprentices, who are much given to boasting.

Beeping and flashing, I set to with a will. However a multitude of semi-random results soon forced me to the reluctant conclusion that while there may well be lots of virile studs concealed beneath the surface of my yellow wall, there was also a plethora of dweebs, dwarves, dwangs and similar builders jargon in there as well. Mapping this confusing array of timber was turning into a problem somewhat akin to finding my way through a twisty maze of passages, all alike. And, Murphy's Law being what it is, I just knew that as soon as I drilled a hole it would bypass every single solid block of wood and pierce itself deeply into insubstantial nothingness.

Walls are just like atoms. No matter how large and complex their internal structure, they nevertheless consist mostly of empty space. And just like atoms, the bits that make up the walls are in constant motion. When a solid particle is identified, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle guarantees that any attempt to drill into it is doomed to failure. As soon as you pick up a drill, the wood will move to one side. Your only hope is to take it by surprise. Mark the place carefully with your finger, distract the wood by singing a song (I'm a lumberjack and I'm OK) and drill straight into it. Put in a screw immediately to hold it firmly in place and prevent any further movement. Then clean up the blood from your drilled through finger.

Using this infallible technique, I soon had thirty six solidly anchored brackets each one checked against its neighbour with a tape measure and a spirit level. Nevertheless, despite such care and attention, one shelf exhibited a slight list to starboard. I suspect the house may have twisted slightly when I wasn't paying attention.

As I fitted the shelves side by side across the wall, I realised that the room was a most inconvenient size. The shelves were not quite long enough to run all the way across. There was a half inch gap between each pair.

It seemed to me that I had three choices. I could join the shelves together in the middle of the wall, leaving a quarter inch gap between each shelf and the two end walls; or I could put the shelves flush to the end walls and have a gap running up the middle of the wall. Or perhaps I could fill the gap running up the middle of the wall with a vertical support brace. I experimented – and found that two shelves standing on their edges filled the gap nicely and ran from floor to ceiling giving a most pleasing effect. I could easily anchor them in place by attaching small brass braces to the edges of the shelves and the upright, which would have the additional beneficial effect of firmly supporting the edges of the shelves. Without some such construction, the edges had a tendency to go boi-oi-oi-ng, with possibly fatal consequences for anything stored too close to them.

There was only one problem. I rang Mitre 10.

"I need two more shelves," I said.

A very patient man took my order. And lo! It was done.

"Shelves," squealed Robin with delight.

Thirty six brackets, each of which required six screws; three into the wall and three into the shelves. Twelve brass braces each of which required two screws. Two hundred and forty screws. That's a lot of screwing.

And it put a great big smile on Robin's face.

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