FOR THE last week there has been a hole at the centre of my being, a hole the exact size of pounds 673.00, which is what I paid a central heating engineer for some minor repairs. I'm not even sure what he did. He explained what he'd done and I pretended I knew what he was talking about. Then he showed me the bill, and I wrote out a cheque as enthusiastically as if he were throwing in the Mona Lisa for the same price. Then, when he was gone, I cried a little.

Usually my wife deals with tradesmen, while I hover in the background with my mouth hanging open. It's a good system. She has the enviable ability to wear her ignorance about central heating on her sleeve, and she regards people versed in it with suspicion, as if the whole concept of central heating were some kind of superstitious mumbo jumbo unworthy of her consideration.

I have no such gift, and I always make the mistake of acting as if I know how things work. If she's not home when a plumber calls I end up following him around like a puppy and nodding my head as he points out the shoddy work of plumbers past. Within minutes he knows I will pay any amount he cares to put down on paper.

My wife's wilful ignorance also makes her essential company on any DIY outing. Salesmen quickly recognise me as someone so anxious to appear knowledgable that he can be sold virtually anything, but she refuses to bow before expertise. I remember going with her to hire a wet saw, a machine about which neither she nor I knew the first thing. The man behind the counter asked in a patronising fashion what she wanted it for, and she told him it was none of his business. I stood silently at the back of the shop, trying to look like someone who might be prone to fits.

Perhaps her finest moment came eight years ago, on a trip to buy a loo roll holder for our new flat. In a local shop known for its cheeky chappy sales help, she asked for the cheapest sort and was directed to a display model which sold for pounds 7.99, below which hung another model which cost just pounds 5.49.

"What about this one?" she asked.

"You don't want that one, love," said the salesman.

"Yes I do." I suddenly became engrossed in the paint charts.

"Nah. It's for public loos."

"I'll have that one please."

"It's got a key so you can't steal the bog roll."


"So you'll lose the key."

"Don't be ridiculous. I'll take it."

We took it home, and I put it up. It actually came with two keys. We lost one key the next day, and the other the following week. Every time I looked at the permanently locked holder, with an empty cardboard core from 1991 still stuck on it, I remembered how proud I was of her that day. I never would have got out of the shop with it.