Tim Key: I have done something extraordinary. I have saved sewing machines


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The Independent Online

Today – for the first time in my life – I've done some plumbing. I'm 38 now – though I look closer to 36 – so I was beginning to think that this kind of thing would never happen to me. But an hour ago I was confronted by some rogue liquids and an exasperated neighbour and, as a result, I found myself squatting under my sink and literally fiddling with a washer. Plumbing.

I hadn't expected it. My big plan for today had been to watch sports on my sofa and maybe have a couple of baths. But at exactly 4pm my buzzer buzzed very loudly and very suddenly everything got turned upside down.

I knew from the tone of the buzzer that this wasn't going to be a particularly friendly visitor. Sure enough, stood at my door – his eyes wide, his trilby splashed with water – was none other than the man from the sewing machine shop. He sells his Singers right below me, so I already suspected his wet hat had something to do with me, and he was slapping his chest with his fists in a way you only really see from men whose sewing machine shops are being leaked into.

"Tim, there is water coming from my ceiling!"

He frog-marched me into the shop and pointed up at a leak and down at a rapidly filling bucket, and the more I looked in the direction of his index-finger and the more I listened to his words, the more it was clear he was suggesting this water was coming from my flat. He frog-marched me back out of the shop and made it very clear that some plumbing was needed my end, and fast. I frog-marched myself back into my flat and put the kettle on.

I wouldn't say I'm a born plumber, but I at least tried to adopt a plumber's stance. Hands on hips, I bowed my head and stared sadly at my sink. Then I squatted down and attempted to examine her guts. It was demoralising. I was out of my depth. Clueless. Water was chasing down the outside of a pipe, plopping on to the bottom of the cupboard, flowing down to the sewing machines. I blinked a tear and it rolled down my cheek and joined the reservoir. How do you plumb?

My father, of course, is one of the great plumbers. Tall, practical and bearded, my father is at his happiest, folded under a sink and tutting. He slings on an old Fred Perry and his little grey shorts and whispers the pipes back together and it is beautiful to watch. It's part of a wider skillset that differs from my own. We're talking about a man who built a treehouse, a shed, a video recorder and a very heavy sledge before he was 40. Nothing is beyond him. He'd happily take a washing machine apart and reassemble it; if me or my brother had any issues with our lungs or hearts, he'd open us up and take a look. Practical.

I shut my eyes and thought of my father, then opened them up again and wiggled the pipes. I laid my hands on them. I tightened something up. I waited. The tears stopped. I listened hard. The dripping had gone. I stuck my tongue out. I got to my feet. My jeans were wet with plumbing. I put my hands on my hips again. I was confused. I'd fixed it. Surprised, I waddled back down to the sewing machine shop.

"It's sorted," I said – still wiping myself on the kind of rag my old man would use in these situations. As I spoke, the bucket-dripping became less frequent. I tried to explain what I'd done. I threw in the word u-bend to put his mind at rest. He shook my hand.

I'm looking at it now, my hand. I feel 10 feet tall. The sport's back on the telly but I'm not watching it. I am looking at my hand. Transfixed. It is a hand that has plumbed. I form it into a fist. I mutter the word "plumbing" under my breath. I close my eyes. I think of my father.