The New Pilot Jet
Mabel hated the phone. Hated its shrill alarm, feared entering its void. Today there was no choice.
The stool, which eased her back when peeling vegetables, was transferred to the hall table. On a sheet of paper, in block capitals, she wrote the plumber’s landline and mobile numbers together with: Glow Worm Flexicom.
Slowly she reached for the handset, lurking like a mole, remembering a time before arthritis when it had fitted her hand. Withdrew her hand and added the plumber’s name to her list.
The landline uttered an impatient, gruff recording. Mabel distrusted answerphones; they caught her out, forcing her to add phrases, laying bare her timidity. But the mobile’s silences were also difficult.
“Is that Mr McKenzie?”
Long pause. “Yah.”
“It’s Mrs Crisp. Parbold Close. You have -”
“My boiler - ”
“I don’t under -”
A deep sigh, intentionally audible. “Re-starting. Press coupla buttons. Simple. If that’s it I still charge full call-out.”
“I can pay.”
He would come at midday. Mabel, trembling slightly, felt disoriented on the stool in the hallway, close to the front door. The bungalow looked unfamiliar from this angle. A dust triangle on the carpet corner, beyond the vacuum cleaner. Had her husband, dead seven years, trembled after speaking to Mr McKenzie?
Cauliflower cheese to prepare but she sat on, sifting the meaning of re-starting. Her husband had understood. After his death Mr McKenzie had shown her. It was, as he had said, simple: press one button, twist the other clockwise and hold it there. That wasn’t the problem, she feared her own imagination. Flames and a flammable “thing” within her home; a wrecked house exposing a wall-papered bedroom to gaping neighbours; the television reporter implying “elderly residents” not up to it.
Sitting at the kitchen sink she cut green leaves from the cauliflower. Her mother had insisted they be eaten, that they were the most nutritious part. But the real reason had been economic, a thought that stabbed at her heart. Suppose something was dreadfully wrong with the boiler? That it needed replacing? Costing thousands. Would this be the final argument her daughter needed? Why spend money on the bungalow when, soon, they would all have to face up to…?
At least Mr McKenzie wasn’t young. When he’d first visited, twenty years ago, his blonde hair had reached his shoulders. Then he’d started to go bald and now he shaved what was left down to a layer of bristle. Quickly he established that re-starting wasn’t the answer; that the pilot jet needed replacing.
“I need to go to Plumb Centre,” he said. Heavily and abruptly he sat down on a kitchen chair in a way Mabel recognised. Mr McKenzie was tired.
“Can I brew you tea?” she asked, expecting him to say – as he had in the past – he hadn’t time for that. Now he nodded.
Spooning leaves into the teapot she realised he was watching. As she poured tea through the strainer into his cup he smiled. “My ma makes tea like that,” he said.
“My mother thought tea-bags were lazy. I didn’t often agree with her but for some reason I’ve never used them.”
As he sipped he inspected the kitchen. Observed, “You keep things neat here.”
“I need neatness the older I get.”
“The work’s not too much for you?” He sounded almost shy.
Mr McKenzie, shy? “It gets harder. But I keep going. Doing the work proves…” She didn’t finish but he appeared to understand. Then he was up and off in his van. Returning he held a small plastic bag that hardly seemed worth the effort. His face was alert; he had something on his mind.
“Mrs Crisp,” he said. He’d never used her name. “It’s rude, I know. Would you mind much telling me your age?”
It mattered to him. “I don’t mind. I’m eighty-one.”
As if she’d slapped his face! Completely unexpected! Quickly he turned away.
“Thanks very much,” he mumbled. “Just a thought.” Clumsily he crossed the kitchen to the utility room where the boiler was mounted. The jet was quickly installed. Inexplicably he charged her only for the standard call-out but didn’t explain.
The phone rang at four. A quick pang, then she recognised it was her daughter’s daily call. For once Mabel had something to say. “You use Mr McKenzie, don’t you? He was a little odd today.” She explained.
Her daughter laughed. “You know he lives quite near. A big house. Plumbers make money. But that hasn’t saved him from the gossip.”
“I hate gossip.”
“It explains his question. Six months ago his widowed mother broke her thigh. You know how bad thighs are. She didn’t respond too well and your Mr M and his brother-in-law – a solicitor – decided to put her into a residential home. It’s said they have powers of attorney, that they wanted to sell her house. Perhaps. But it was bad luck all round. The home proved dodgy, it’s since been closed. Mrs McKenzie caught an infection and, the long and short, she lost her leg. Carers costing a fortune now look after her at home and Mr McKenzie doesn’t chat as he used to.”
Mabel wished the stool was still in the hallway. “He’s not very likeable. But no one would wish him that burden. What age is his mother?”
Her daughter paused. “Sixty-seven.”
Now Mabel paused, long enough to worry her daughter: “Look mum. Mr McKenzie is not us. You do know - ”
“Mr McKenzie’s Mr McKenzie. I’m old but not stupid. It isn’t quite time yet but when it is I’ll be intelligent. I promise.”
“You know we love you,” her daughter said.
“Of course I do, my dear.”
Should I have said I loved her too? Mabel wondered. Does she expect that?