The Cheap Contractor

Issue 2/1986 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

From Kauan kukkineet omenapuut (‘Long-blossoming apple trees’, 1982). Introduction by Arto Seppälä 

The men who delivered the hot-water cylinder offered to do the installation as well. I asked how much it would be. They lolled about a bit, exchanged a few private looks, pretended to be thinking. Then one of them fired off a sum. It was three times the quotation I’d already had. They didn’t even look at the location. I told myself I wouldn’t even go to the end of the road with big-dealers like these.

The same evening I rang up ‘a little man’ and told him he could get started as soon as it suited him.

The cheap contractor turned up a couple of days later, driving an elderly van into the yard. I went out. He’d sat himself down in a garden chair near the white lilacs. The morning sun only partially reached there; so half his body was in shade, looking colder than the sunny half.

I said good morning. I don’t remember ever having seen a hand as massive as that. Otherwise too, he had a hefty northerner’s breadth and height.

I offered him a cigarette from my spare packet. He didn’t smoke. He said:

‘Right comical thing just now – nearly hit an old girl.’

‘What, in that van?’

‘Right. That side door’ll do, won’t it, to get the hoses down into the basement?’

‘Oh yes,’ I said.

The cheap contractor went to the van and opened the rear doors. I went over too. Inside there were oxygen and acetylene cylinders, a tool box, a calor gas bottle, a two-ring burner, a kettle, a saucepan and, on the free side – I couldn’t believe my eyes – a mattress, a blanket and even a sheet. It was a made-up bed.

I asked no questions. Tools were scattered everywhere, just as if three plumbers had gone on strike and downed tools wherever they happened to be.

He began to sort out the gas pipes, and I went to open the side door. My little detour inside the house was a thoughtful one. Would it have been better to give the job to the suppliers? But this was no big job, surface work entirely, apart from the bits through the floors. Naturally he could manage that, if he was any kind of plumber at all.

I showed him into the cellar where he could do the soldering and other ancillary work. For some reason he found it richly comical: he looked at it as if he were going to rent it, hummed and smirked.

He went out to the van and came back a moment later with the nozzles and the blowlamp in his hands.

‘Might as well get started,’ he said.

‘But what about the materials?’ I said. ‘The pipes, valves, and so on?’

‘Oh, you haven’t got them, then?’ he asked.

‘Well, no. I thought you … ‘

‘Say no more,’ he interrupted. ‘Wharra lark.’

He shot up the basement steps into the daylight and took the hoses with him. I went after him, wondering if he was all there. Outside, he was already grabbing the hoses and stuffing everything back into the van.

I went up close. He didn’t smell of drink. I reminded myself that I could still, while everything was at this early stage, cancel the job and thank him for coming. He couldn’t serve up a bill merely for lugging his gear about.

‘Now let’s see what we’re needing,’ he said in a very businesslike way, getting a pen and pad out of the driver’s seat.

I realised then that cancellation on my part was out of the question. From now on everything that was coming was unavoidable.

We went back in and weighed up the whole job and the details. The plumber was measuring, making notes and explaining the lay of the copper pipe; and he began to seem like a proper plumber again. He studied the hot-water cylinder a long time, not saying anything, and thinking.

‘Four hundred litres,’ I pointed out.

He circled the cylinder, located the inlets and the copper coils and sketched the position of the expansion tank on the wall. A good hour went on this, and then the list of requirements was complete.

‘I’ve got an account,’ he said. ‘Lucky you didn’t get all this stuff in advance. I can get it on discount.’

‘Fair do’s,’ I thought with satisfaction. ‘Everything’s going fine.’ I went along as the mate to get the parts. He seemed well-known at the supplier’s. We stocked the van with copper piping and a cardboard box of fittings: valves, connectors, capillary joints, mixers, the shower unit.

Driving back, the contractor snorted out a little laugh. I stared at him in astonishment, wondering what was up.

‘There’s life for you,’ he said. ‘Always something on the comical side.’ That was the moment, probably, when I began to think of him as ‘The Comic’. Back at the house he looked at his watch: the dial peered out of a thicket of black hair. It was afternoon already. .

‘No point in tackling anything more today,’ he said. ‘Be back tomorrow early.’

He was off. Boozing? I wondered. Overcome by a thirst? I carried the pipes and fittings down to the cellar. I sat down and studied them. I went over the day’s experiences in my mind and decided that, so far at any rate, nothing irreparable had occurred.

 

So the work got under way. I watched as The Comic filled a pipe with fine sand, softened it over a flame and bent it: as the heated part of the pipe cooled, it developed a peculiar rainbow effect.

During soldering I acted as plumber’s mate. I held the pipe straight while The Comic soldered the seams on the copper. His face was protected by the proper mask; mine had to be turned aside to protect my eyes from the glare and the sparks. The walls were lit up by the flashing flames.

I looked at his hands: they seemed too massive and ponderous even for this kind of rough work. A pen shrank to a matchstick in a fist like this.

Then there was a wrong measurement- discovered when fitting the piece. The Comic went silent at first, as if he couldn’t credit it, but then bellowed with laughter. He kept appealing to me with his eyes, as if he couldn’t believe I wasn’t joining in the fun. Calming down, he pointed to the pipes, gleaming with newness, and said:

‘What the hell – we’ll do it again. Got bags of stuff now.’

‘Yes, right,’ I thought. ‘Bags of stuff we’ve got.’ I looked in dismay at the piece of junk we’d produced: about three metres of pipe, the most expensive kind too, all copper by God.

New lengths were measured off. Now I too joined in the measuring, using all the expertise I could muster. The flame was applied. Pipes were bent. I held the pipe during the soldering. I was grave, slightly enraged; in the middle of soldering The Comic’s funny bone was tickled again – the job collapsed from the shaking of his fists.

‘Can’t help seeing the comical side,’ he said, clasping the extinguished blowlamp. ‘It gets me, all that.’

I went into the next room. I cursed silently. Would anything come of this job? All kinds of little men you get. I pressed my forehead against the cylinder metal. Its coolness perked me up a bit.

Seeing the blowlamp going again I went back to work. I held a pipe once more; the plumber worked on seriously. The part was completed, and it fitted.

I began to drill through the concrete partition wall, going under the cold water pipe. The Comic, for his part, was slogging away, and so sadly in earnest now, I felt compelled to go over and chat him up a bit, soothe him down.

‘How’ll it go,’ I asked, ‘when we put the unlagged hot-water pipe through the insulating sawdust in that ceiling …? Could there be a fire risk?’

‘How’s that then?’

‘Could it start a fire? You can’t even touch a pipe like that. The water’s eighty degrees centigrade when it comes off the coil.’

The Comic regarded me in amazement.

‘But that’s against nature.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Water can’t start a fire. No way.’

‘It certainly can in theory,’ I insisted. The Comic guffawed.

‘In all my days in this job, I never came across a theory like that,’ he said.

‘When it’s steam-hot it can,’ I asserted. ‘Through the metal.’

‘Against nature is against nature,’ said The Comic with a skilled contractor’s assurance – and departed to study the set-up in the sauna. I drilled away at the hole, cheesed off already with the job; and another one through to the sauna …; and two holes in the ceiling… But anyway the ceiling was thinner, three inches at the most, and you wouldn’t expect to find any reinforcing stones in that.

I realized that The Comic had disappeared. I came up out of the cellar and saw the van in the yard. The Comic was in the back of the van. He was frizzling sausages on the calor gas. He had a milk carton beside him, a tub of margarine, and a loaf still in its wrapping.

‘You ought to come into the kitchen to eat,’ I said. The Comic said nothing.

‘I’ll make coffee for two,’ I said.

I got into the van. The comic was sitting on the acetylene cylinder. I perched on the oxygen.

‘This’d do as a dormobile,’ I said. ‘Bunk and all.’

The Comic ate his hot sausage, munched his bread and gulped the milk from the carton. He didn’t seem interested. I tried another tack.

‘Your charges are quite reasonable.’

‘Not short of work.’

‘You could even hop it up slightly,’ I suggested, though I did know it was against my own best interest.

‘Got to keep on the job. Otherwise no freedom. Trapped at .home.’

‘So that’s why you do it?’

‘That’s about the size of it.’

‘Must spend your evenings and nights at home, though?’

‘Not regularly, not these summer days. Now and again. Anything for a laugh,’ The Comic replied.

‘So what then?’

‘Drive somewhere into the forest. Or I go to the bottom of the old disused gravel pit. A good spot, that. Never see any folks there. Can be on your own.’

Does he spend his nights in here? I wondered. In the company of gas cylinders and tools?

‘I’m an independent contractor,’ The Comic said and switched off the gas. I began to notice the scent of the lilac drifting into the van. I began to think how short our time was. I had a sudden onset of pity: what, I reflected, is a metre or so of ruined copper piping compared with the misery of man’s fate. I decided not to get worked up about it if it happened again.

I left The Comic to finish his lunch. I went down to the cellar but couldn’t bring myself to start work again in case the man in the van felt chivvied by the sound of me working. I went out again. I saw The Comic sprawled on the mattress in the back of the van, his hands under his head, his eyes meditatively open.

I went and sat on the garden chair. Some unusual bird was singing in our tree. I listened to it – couldn’t remember ever having heard it before. Nature has no conception of all that the human species has planned for it. If it knew, it wouldn’t be so cheerful. It’d go silent. I sat there until I saw The Comic coming from the van and going to the cellar.

I’d drilled through the wall by two o’clock. I went up to make some coffee. I laid the table as attractively as I knew how. I put a white cloth on, produced the best cups, the best spoons, glass plates for the coffee bread, and set out napkins. I made a pile of sandwiches with lots of cold meats on. I poured cream into a jug, which I placed on a little metal dish.

Then I went to invite The Comic up.

‘What’s your family like – large?’ I enquired at the table.

‘Got a son. A preacher. One of that chapel lot. A preacher.’

I asked no further. I gazed out past him. The chaffinches were hunting the insects in the larch branches. The insects are there at summer’s end, and still on the warm autumn days clouds of them swarm outside the windows. It’s like a grey veil.

 

We piped up into the house: we soldered the seams, the capillary joints and the connectors. The soldering didn’t always look neatly finished. Some of the seams looked like dripping candles. I made no comment.

For my evening task I drilled like a beaver through the concrete wall into the sauna; but in the morning there was not a sign of the plumber – nor the whole day. He came the following morning and, pulling on his overalls, explained pleasantly:

‘Had a right comical do the night before last. Went to the boozer and ended up in the next town with a woman.’

He’d brought along the expansion tank he’d had constructed: a clumping, slightly more than ten-litre tank with heavily reinforced corners.

The Comic began to connect up the sauna. More seams and connectors were soldered. Meanwhile I was drilling holes in the concrete to take the expansion tank. During the day the work on the sauna reached the point where the shower unit could be installed.

It turned out that the pipe for the overhead shower didn’t fit into the space provided for it. Fitting the hot and cold water taps, The Comic had forgotten to relate their height to the length of the overhead pipe; they’d been put four inches too high on the wall.

‘Blow me! You’d know there’d have to be something comical,’ he said. He sank onto the sauna stool; his massive fists pummelled his knees with delight. ‘Ah well, never mind. We’ll take a chunk out of the middle and solder the ends together.’

Silently I studied the shiny new fixture, soon to be truncated and soldered.

Had to be done, however. The Comic sawed the piece he’d measured out of the sprinkler pipe and, while he soldered, continued to shake the last bits of laughter out of himself.

Even I was being affected now as I held the pipe-ends in place: the seam couldn’t quite be got straight.

As the working days went by I’d been noting a change in myself. I noticed I’d begun to see the comical side of the setbacks. It was true: I was almost anticipating snags, visualising the Devil’s next trick for harrowing mankind.

There was something in The Comic that inspired almost a kind of awe. I reflected that this man endured life with all his raw physicality. He veered about like an over-large ship in a narrow channel, with something smashed after almost every swerve. The stern and keel were already pretty bashed about by doing and being; but the main hull still remained safe and sound. A heart of oak, and doubtless a lot more. I thought about The Comic’s recent sexual escapade; and wondered what he did if these flirtations didn’t quite work out.

‘See there,’ he boasted, when the pipe was in place. ‘Precise to the millimetre.’ The sprinkler pipe squeezed in exactly, tight fast to the ceiling.

‘Yes: to the millimetre,’ I said. ‘So when it expands with the heat of the sauna and the hot water, it’ll be forced out of place. Unless the soldered seam cracks completely.’

But The Comic eyed his efforts with a skilled contractor’s satisfaction. ‘This is OK. Let’s get the expansion tank up.’

The tank was fixed to the wall, and The Comic connected it to the cylinder with an old water pipe he’d got in the van.

‘Time to let the water in.’

I crept behind the cylinder. I opened the valve, and another one too which was behind it as a back-up. The water flushed into the cylinder. We had to wait a bit: a four-hundred-litre cylinder doesn’t fill up in a jiffy. The Comic climbed up to peep, as the excess was beginning to flow into the expansion tank.

‘Valves closed the minute I give the word.’

I crouched behind the cylinder with my hand on the valves, but no order came to close them. Then suddenly a bawl:

‘Close! Close!’

I closed the valves. I came out to look. I saw The Comic yanking soaking muck out of the pipe.

‘Blocked!’

‘You ought to have taken a dekko through the pipe,’ I said.

The pipe was stuffed with cotton waste. After reassembly and opening the valves, the expansion tank welled up immediately. I tightened the valves.

The Comic took off his overalls.

‘There we are. Lovely job.’

In the night I awoke to a crash. I got up and rushed down. The expansion tank’s brackets had failed, and the tank had crashed to the floor.

On our last day of work, in the afternoon, the Comic told me to turn on the mains. Tentatively, fearfully, I found the stopcock. I listened. No noise. I opened it further, turned it completely.

Then we tested the draincocks, checked the seams and the connectors. The Comic felt round everywhere to see if any water was seeping. Everything appeared to be OK.

I made coffee. There was a feeling of something attempted, something done. We lingered a long time at the table, going over the problems we’d met.

‘Let this happen, or that happen,’ I said, ‘it’s all finally one and the same happening. In itself it has no value system. Man has attached values of acceptance or rejection to the happening, but what happens has nothing to do with these. The happening is entirely cold, a feelingless phenomenon … ‘ My leisurely deepening awareness of this had had some sort of liberating effect on me. But The Comic laughed it off. I don’t know if he understood. For this kind of person it wasn’t even necessary; he was the thing itself.

I paid up. I dropped the notes onto his big tray-like hand. The plumber guffawed as his hand nonchalantly conveyed the money to the nearest pocket. He promised he’d drop in the next day to check there were no leaks.

In the evening the seam in the WC began to squirt. I turned off the mains. The Comic came round, took the bit to pieces, assembled and soldered it again. And left. For good, I thought.

Then the soldering on the top-floor capillary joint failed, and I saw at once it couldn’t be as easy to take that to pieces. A connector was leaking, too. I turned off the mains. I rang, couldn’t get The Comic. I asked the laconic woman at the other end to convey my message.

Two days went by. On the third day the by now well-known closed van drove into the yard. I waited, but no one got out. It gave me the creeps – it was as if the van had arrived there all by itself. I went out to see what was up. I opened the back doors of the van.

I saw The Comic sitting on the tool box. He was staring ahead without saying anything. The mattress and blanket were on the floor, as if he’d just got up from a bad dream.

Finally his head slowly came round and he looked at me.

‘My son’s killed himself,’ he said. I climbed into the van. I sat myself on the oxygen cylinder.

‘You mean the preacher?’

The man looked at his hands and kept turning them.

‘Yes, that’s the really comical part about it.’

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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