Friday, September 22, 2006

Kitchen cowboys

Picking up my Home Improvement Partner (who, in the course of the next four days, would go from being best my mate to a lost soul questioning its reason for existence) from the airport (on account of the shear mass of cordless power tools he had with him) meant that I had the chance to stop off at the Shop for some food to see us and the family through the next wee while in the absence of a kitchen.

Lots of positive, enthusiastic chat as we made trips to various trade outlets, B&Q in particular. Lots of sizing up, lots more talk. A big job for sure, but we’ll have it done by the end of tomorrow, leaving Wednesday for the carpentry. So we talked about it some more and then went on another tip to B&Q. And by the end of the day we had caught up and overdosed on coffee and it was time to eat some scraps of super-rare roast beef and a tray of loosely roasted root veg, followed by a plate of cheese and some thickly buttered crackers.
And then we set about joyfully assembling the poxy white Ikea carcasses, keeping track of the associated medley of shiny metal fittings, multi-sized screws and ill-fitting plastic caps. We were done in no time. Spirits were high, the sweet and nutty smoke of Golden Virginia filling the room, mixed with powdery dry plaster and chipboard dust. Homely. This was going to be a good couple of days.

The following morning, Day 2, feeling infinitely fresher than we would have been had we sat up screaming at each other in the midst of a 5am whisky frenzy as may well have happened back in the oh-so recent days when I was under the illusion that I could drink properly, began with some trips to one or two obscure trade outlets for some bits of plumbing and some shelving. We were gone for three hours, and within minutes of returning I was back on my way to B&Q for some electrical sockets, switches, backing boxes, ... It came together in the end and we rewarded ourselves with a slab of centre beef rib, almost black from ageing, stuffed with creamy white pearls of hard fat, cooked on a searing grill pan and served with a simply dressed salad of tomatoes fresh from the Wife’s all-day refuge at an allotment-loving friend’s house. Hot beef, the beefiest we had eaten; cold tomatoes, as ripe as they get. And afterwards the rest of the cheese served hot rolls and salty butter. Things were going well without the worktops.


It is now Wednesday, the last day allocated for this jolly fun exercise. Things have hardly moved for 24 hours now. Everything looks the same. And the sockets still have to be done before we even think about it. So once I’d got back from B&Q we set about working out how to proceed. Electricity is a dangerous entity. Several years of higher education in the physical sciences, being examined an a regular basis on your knowledge of the fundamental laws of nature and made to demonstrate your practical prowess in countless pointless desk-top experiments, is no preparation for the prospect of facing the ring-main of your own house armed with a so-called tester screwdriver and a roll of fucking insulating tape.

But you have to tell yourself that it is all imaginary, like the notion that rock climbing on a highly exposed cliff edge with a 30m drop is more dangerous than a 5m fall off a boulder; once you have gripped that bright red thick copper cable between your thumb and forefinger -- and it really takes you to grip that fucker, however long you spend flicking it slightly and as quickly as you can as if this will make a single iota of difference – you can get stuck into it with smug self confidence. And you might then get as far as successfully chipping and scraping out a spur or two for your appliances and changing a face plate.

But your euphoria will be short lived. Before you know it you will be deafened by the sound of steel-on-steel as you pound haplessly away at the diamond-like artex of your back-wall, the entire house shaking with each deadening blow and the primitive blunt implement making its way micrometer by bone-shuddering micrometer.

Day 4. It was obvious from the fucking outset that we were going to fuck the sink. It was a cunt of a job anyway, full as it was with its very tightly fitting pipes and edges, and we were essentially fucked before we even tooled up. The exchange of nervous jokes ensued, laughing about how we knew we were going to fuck it but that somehow by talking about it we would avert disaster – a bit like taking a bomb on every flight you go on based on the fact that it is infinitesimally unlikely that two bombs would be placed independently on the same plane.

So off we set cleverly marking our masking tape to allow for the ten-mill recess for the frame and to line it all up. And then the checking began, stopping and remeasuring every mark, pretending we knew what we were doing. Yes the sink is 93cm long, yes that means it will just fit into the units; aye, it’s still 93cm long. In the end we were just going through the motions, so confident we were that our numbers were correct. And then came the excitement of cutting the rectangular slab out of the single piece of worktop that it would take four weeks to replace, beginning with the fattest drill hole we could make at the four corners and a small adrenalin rush. Then the jigsaw, gnawing its way irreversibly through the gluey weetabix profile. And within a few minutes, out it popped and the moment arrived -- the moment we had both been dreading yet wanted to have over as soon as possible, a bit like the death of a parent.

We rushed the sink into its hole to end the suspense once and for all, and within three seconds we realized what had happened. An oversight of the largest proportions, the sink not in fact being a perfect rectangle after all but, rather, a rectangle with rounded edges. The process of acceptance was swift but proceeded in familiar stages: beginning with disbelief [that you could have done something so fucking stupid having just spent the whole day joking about doing precisely that], mutual embarrassment [as a result of there being nowhere to hide from the fact that you are both officially cowboys], self-delusion [that by focussing all your frustration you will somehow remedy the situation and redeem your personal worth], realisation [that your solution, despite being the best there was on offer and at the forefront of your abilities, isn’t actually good enough], disillusion [that you really shouldn’t be the ones doing this in the first place], and finally, introspection [why did it always have to happen this way?].

And then there was a slump. We were downed by it, leaning on the bastard like it was our heavyweight sparring partner. It was hard to pick up the tools afterwards because we were acutely aware that no matter what we did, no matter how hard we tried, we were utterly capable of doing something just as fuckwittish to the next job.

But on we went, screwing it all down, and we started to get back onto a roll come early evening as the prospect of running water and drainage loomed large. So I bathed the children and sat in front of the Jungle Book to the happy sound of “CUNTING FUCKING IKEA CUNTS” emanating from the laminated depths of a unit with two short legs haging out of it. And once bedtime had passed the momentum picked up again, and although it was getting on we knew we were heading for a couple of hours of firing on all cylinders to get the main structure finished and functional. A 45 degree wooden worktop support was a nice evening’s project for me, so I set about measuring the wood. A bubbling pot of tomato and porcini coking in beef fat in the background; the Wife due back shortly from her evening class to find the kids cleaned, dried and bedded down. My best mate talking optimistically about getting as far as hanging a couple of unit doors by bedtime.

But none of this picture of thirty-something bliss was to be. As I bumbled quasi-efficiently about measuring up my right-angle, HIP was attending to a routine job we had meant to do earlier but didn’t get round to: cutting a hole through the back of the units for the dishwasher outflow tube. I could see the twin copper pipe carrying mains and hot water to the rest of the house rattling a little as the serrated disk of his cordless wonderdrill nagged its way though the laminated cardboard, but I simultaneously dismissed my the nightmare thought that he was about to drill through the mains at this stage in the game. And then all I heard was the terrifying groan of “oh no”, followed rapidly by what I immediately recognized as the tinny sound of high-pressure-water-jet –spilling into brand new unit.

I spent perhaps a minute living between attempts to see the funny side of things and catching glimpses of the full implications were of what had just taken place. Everything had shattered at our feet in an instant. We stemmed the flow but I could see it in his eyes: he had been broken. The sink we were unfortunate with, as daft as cunts for sure. But we had channelled all our lost pride into cutting irregular polygons from black formica with scissors, and had been reasonably pleased with our repair job.

Bursting the cold water main, however, the one installed just the day before, while attending to the afterthought of some drainage pipe for the yet-to-be-purchased dishwasher – plumbed new depths of self loathing. And it had little to do with the fact that we were facing an evening without water, the night before I was due back in the Office having not washed for three days and stinking of what smelled like sweet bum-sweat.
Rather, it was the sinking although immediate realization that the job, as we had defined it, was over. And with silent self searching, and alcohol for those who were able, the self-ridicule began. It was so awful it had to be funny etc, but as we stood there in the sawdust and water we all knew the sparkle had gone. So we lived out the rest of the evening dining on an the somewhat unusual penne+sauce livened up by some toasted pine nuts and basil, and served with a truffle–dressed green salad and hot salty rosemary bread. Some ice cream and chocolate sauce to soothe the pain. And a night of solemn tool gathering and cleaning up. Laughing at ourselves in some desperate way. The trouble is that the worst was still to come.

It began that night with delusional exchanges about what HIP would do the following day before lugging his tools back to the airport. Making a jig for the doors to help us get the handles in the right places, for example, or even getting as far as hanging a couple, and maybe picking up a new chuck key for my drill while he was out at the shop getting stuff. Alas, I arrived home after a day of readjustment to an environment in which outbursts of FUCKING CUNTS PUT THE CUNTING HOLES IN THE WRONG FUCKING PLACE etc are not the normal teatime chat, to be told that there was one more minor disaster.

To say I wasn’t in the mood for the conversation would be to understate wildly the feelings going through my already tattered brain. But hear it out I did, and with it drained the last piece of optimism that was going to get me through the remainder of the project. He had marked, and then drilled, all the handles in the middle of the doors, rendering them useless and visually ridiculous. I almost broke down. I loathed him for his errors. I smoked a fat pipe and sat there in uncertain fear of whether my disturbed behaviour was real or put on for the benefit of a reaction. But I found myself feeling deep empathy for the man too as I pushed spoonfuls of beefy bolognaise into my disembodied mouth.

I mean, Jesus Christ. Not even the dubious celebration of going out with the bang of a burst main, just a drizzle of pathetic fuck-ups as the project peters out like the runny aftertracks of a monumental stool. Fuck. For we shared something this week. The project wracked us. And I have learned a lot in the last 5 days. For example, about how much I never want to entertain that baseless delusion that I would be just as happy in life humping blocks on a building site or planting trees in the highlands. It is utter shite. You can fucking shove it . In any case, the simmering irony behind all of this is that it turns out I don't actually need a kitchen to cook at all.

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