Katy Guest: The only thing boiling right now is my blood

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The Independent Online

Autumn: season of dodgy plumbing and hellish central heating failures, close bosom-friend of the elderly boiler engineer; conspiring with him how to load and distress with spanners the kitchen already knee-deep in cold and filthy washing up water.

There's something about switching the central heating back on each autumn, as the sky darkens and the nights become chill, that brings with it an atavistic sense of failure. Summer is over, the clocks have turned back, the smell of rotting leaves is in the air and life moves inexorably on. There's no fighting it. There's nothing but carbohydrates and I'm A Celebrity between now and the winter solstice. Admit defeat and turn up the thermostat.

It's depressing enough hearing the pilot light make its heavy little whoomph as another long winter officially begins. But the day when you switch on the heating and nothing happens at all, that's when the misery really starts.

There are some areas of life and business in which it is just conceded that nothing and nobody is ever going to work. Buses will never arrive at an hour resembling the one on the timetable. Anything ordered for urgent delivery by Christmas will not turn up until February. A transaction involving a call centre must always result in a nervous breakdown. Attempting to have a boiler fixed is one of these things.

You'd think that the world of boiler menders would come alive in autumn. All summer they'll have been unwanted and uncared for, stuck on their Caribbean islands miserably sorting and re-sorting their screwdrivers. Their cold little boiler-fixing hearts ought to light up when the temperature drops, and the phones start to ring in their mansions in Dartford and Cheam. But the bizarre truth is that if you call a boiler engineer at any time after 5pm on 30 September, he responds as if you had phoned him up and asked him to lend you his granny for a spot of wife-swapping.

"You want what?" they say, menacingly. "You were hoping somebody could come round when? What do you mean, you're at work during the day? What, every day?" You can only apologise, profusely, for bothering them, and break the old promise you made to yourself that you would never again get involved with British Gas.

Getting back with British Gas is like getting back with an old boyfriend. He abused you, he broke your heart and you saw the light – but somehow you know that one day you will be so lonely and in need of support that you will end up being dragged back in by his charming ways and his promises of a one-off fee that includes VAT and parts. Better the devil you know.

This is how I found myself crying into the phone last week, as yet another call centre lost my details and a grim-faced engineer stood in my kitchen in a puddle of cold water and my tears. Five days off work, two angry bosses and 10 freezing toes later, my boiler still didn't work. It was "only a 10-minute job" to fit the part. If only someone could have brought the right part.

And no, British Gas wouldn't give me back the £198 they had already taken from my account so I could cut my losses and start again. They "don't do" compensation. The last engineer, who "couldn't understand why this has been such a problem", told me I'd had the cowboys in here. "Yes," I sobbed. "It was your cowboys."

If only they'd apologised, it would have at least given me a lovely warm glow. Which is more than my boiler has been doing lately.

Ah, the romance of rail

Ten years ago, when I moved to London, visiting my parents in Derby was a miserable chore. Of course, Derby is charming and my folks are the finest in England. But the thought of shivering in St Pancras, with no shops or heating, was enough to send me scuttling back to the South Circular.

So mine will be a pint at the longest champagne bar in Europe when the new station opens fully – but I won't be going to Europe. There is nothing to beat hurtling north as London shrinks behind you and all the passengers visibly relax. By Leicester, they're often chatting and sharing mini-bottles of wine. Maybe now, arriving back in London will be just as fun as leaving it.

* Forgive my innate lack of romanticism about the furtherance of human understanding, but what exactly is the purpose of breeding a mouse that has no fear of cats? And how many mice got eaten before they decided it had worked?

Perhaps the scientists at the University of Tokyo are planning to extend this brilliant discovery and breed a tragic "super race" of humans who have no fear of being shot: they'd make excellent squaddies. Still, it doesn't sound nearly as cruel as the research at Queen's University, Belfast, which showed that prawns feel pain. They proved this by daubing the prawns' antennae with acid and watching as they writhed for "up to five minutes". Much as small boys research whether daddy long legs feel pain by pulling off all their legs one by one. It seems you can get a research grant for almost anything. Next the boffins will trough a lab full of doughnuts and announce that being fat is good for you. Oh...

k.guest@independent.co.uk

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