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Monday, 18 August 2014

Dad's Thursday Helper

“Can I have a puff?” I begged.

I had been ‘helping’ my dad clean his dirty pipes, a regular Thursday afternoon job. He would scrape black burnt ash out of the bowls using a key-like gadget with barbs like a miniature medieval mace, and soak evil-smelling gunge from the stems by poking them through with fluffy white wires he called pipe-cleaners. Then it was time for nicer sounds and smells, wooden matchsticks that rattled in their flat green and red box with a picture of a swan on the top, a firework hiss and the smell of sulphur when he slid them out and struck one, and clouds of sweet St. Bruno smoke. He would pack a pipe bowl with tobacco from a black and white metal tin, put the stem between his teeth, suck a match flame into the bowl, and blow smoke from the side of his mouth with a popping ‘p’ sound, looking very self-satisfied. 

“Let me have a puff,” I asked again. He hesitated. I was only five.

“Oh all right,” he said reluctantly, and held the stem of the pipe near my mouth. I was immediately sick.

Thursday afternoon was my dad’s half day off, when the whole town seemed to close down, and my mother went out to grandma's and left him to his jobs, which I used to ‘help’ him with. We cleaned and brushed his boots and shoes, black ones and brown ones, with Cherry Blossom polish which came in a round metal tin with a bunch of cherries on the lid, and waterproofed the seams with Wren’s dubbin which bore a corresponding little bird on top. We pumped up his bicycle tyres, and mended punctures using bowls of water to see bubbles from the leaks, chalk to mark them, and puncture patches stuck to the inner tubes with stringy rubber solution. We polished the wheels and handlebars with rags and mustard coloured chrome cleaner, transforming them from a dirty grey to a silvery shine, and smeared them in vaseline to protect them from the weather, which seemed to be a magnet for yet more grime. We removed accumulations of oily grit from the chains by soaking them in trays of petrol, then disposed of by setting it alight. At one time my dad just tipped it on the garden, but had to end that practice after Grandpa had been for tea one day and, chewing his salad thoughtfully, had observed that “This lettuce tastes of petrol.” 

Some ‘jobs’ were more for fun than necessary. We had a model live-steam engine with dual pistons driving a flywheel, referred to as ‘the steam-boiler’. It had a small brass water tank heated by a methylated spirit burner that slid underneath. My dad loved to get it out from its oily cardboard box and fire it up on the back room table. Once the steam was up, it could be set in motion. The flywheel revolved at a fair old pace, puffing and rattling, spitting out a lethal mixture of hot oil and boiling water. It had a screeching whistle and a safety valve that blew like a railway engine when the pressure got too high. 

You had to make sure the pistons were always oiled and that the tank did not run out of water, and the spirit burner needed topping up frequently. The smell of hot emulsified oil mixed with methylated spirit is unforgettable. Once, we accidentally spilled methylated spirit on the table and it caught light. I watched fascinated as a lucent blue pool of flame spread slowly across the surface. My dad frantically flapped at the flame with his hands, looking panicky. 

We moved to another house, which brought a whole new set of Thursday afternoon jobs, sanding and painting skirting-boards and staining wooden floors around the edges of carpet squares, before fitted carpets became the norm. We painted the garden shed banana yellow, or perhaps it was a more solid yellow that faded. But there was still room for play-jobs. We found some bits of old lead piping in the shed. Dad melted them in a tin on the gas cooker in the kitchen, and then, holding it with just a pair of pliers, poured the molten metal into moulds made from empty toothpaste tins. It was actually called dentifrice rather than toothpaste, and came in the form of a hard, flat tablet wrapped in red cellophane in a round metal tin. You rubbed it with your wet toothbrush to form a lather. The empty tins were just right for moulding make-believe medals. It was probably a game my dad had played himself in his own childhood. After pouring the lead, he dropped the medals into a bowl of water, where they sizzled as they cooled down. ‘Gibbs’, the name of the toothpaste maker, embossed on the bottom of the tins, transferred perfectly on to the moulded metal medals. No one knew about lead poisoning then. 

The shed leaked, so we mended the roof. I sat up there with my dad, ‘helping’ him tack down new sheets of roofing felt. Then, we painted the felt with hot black tar. It must have been a thoroughly hazardous operation. The things my mother never saw when she left us to our jobs on Thursday afternoons! Again it involved the kitchen cooker. Dad heated the tar to boiling point in an old paint pot, and then, holding it with just a wooden cane through the handle, carried it bubbling and smouldering across the kitchen floor, across the garden, and up on to the shed roof by means of a rickety step ladder. There were splashes of black tar on the yellow paint for years. 

Despite all this, my mother regarded my dad as generally next to useless at practical things. Perhaps it was because she was always out and never knew about the wonderful things he could do with fire, lead, tar, methylated spirits and petrol. Maybe it was just as well that she was. 

More likely, she thought him useless because she was practically so much more capable. She did all the gardening and repairs around the house. She had a naturally constructive, creative imagination that had run through her family for generations. Her great grandfather had worked with steam engines on barges in the 1870s. One of her brothers was a plumber. Another was a self-taught mechanic. I watched the plumber dig down at my grandma’s house to connect a water-toilet to the new drains that had recently reached the village. And later, the mechanic effortlessly dismantled the broken back door lock of my mini-van, and altered the levers so it worked with the ignition key. Even my mother rescued me from a mini-van maintenance disaster with a pointed pair of kitchen scissors after I had stupidly twisted off the top a grease nipple. She could utilise tools in completely different ways to how they were originally intended. 

“Aren’t I lucky to have married such a practical wife” my dad always used to say.

I remember them once painting some gates together, one gate each. My mother got on quickly and efficiently with long smooth brush strokes whilst my dad stabbed awkwardly, making slow progress. She finished hers before he had done half, but he persisted dutifully. You had to look carefully to see that he was using an old brush, the stock clogged up with dried paint, stiff to the point of ineffectiveness, but did not seem to realise anything was wrong.

This kind of thing is pretty insidious. My dad, who made himself a cat’s whisker crystal radio when he was a boy, who taught both me and my brother to assemble Airfix aeroplanes and make things with Meccano, who preserved fences with creosote, who repaired punctured bicycle tyres, who helped maintain his firm’s cars and vans in the 1940s and 1950s, and who had the confidence to melt lead and tar on my mother’s kitchen cooker, and get away with it, gradually came to believe himself functionally incompetent in all matters practical. In fact, we all came to think that. 

After my dad retired he made some real howlers. One day, he decided to help around the house by cleaning the finger marks off the furniture with a mixture of vinegar and water, just like his mother used to do. Within minutes he had knocked over the vinegar water on to the carpet. “For goodness sake, get a bloody job,” my mother shouted.

My mother spent her last months explaining how to do all the household things she had always done for us all. My dad carefully wrote it down in a notebook, but it did not always help. Most memorably, he melted the plastic lid of the kettle which he had forgotten to fill with water before putting it on the gas ring. The next day, having bought a new lid, he did exactly the same again. “Well they always used to have metal lids,” he complained.

Perhaps his ineptitude was a vicious circle, a simple lack of practise leading to a lowering of confidence, or perhaps the early indications really were there in the pool of flaming methylated spirits creeping across the table, and the splashes of tar on the yellow shed.

I like to think I inherited my mother’s practical skills. I can do gardening, decorating, service the car, replace light switches, install software on the computer, put new taps on washbasins, mend toilet cistern float mechanisms and build hutches for guinea pigs, to mention but a few. My dad came one day to find me hammering a hole in the bedroom wall to fit a new electrical socket. The floorboards were up displaying my neat new wiring all ready to connect up. I showed him proudly what I was doing.

“Aren’t you lucky to have married such a practical wife,” he told me.

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