The boiler man called me at 2 o’clock, as promised. “It’s the boiler man here,” he said. “You’re next on my list.”
“Can you remember where I am?” I asked.
“At the end of the track,” he said. I preferred to say “lane.” The boiler man called things as he saw them.
I stood at the window waiting to catch a glimpse of his van. The December mist hadn’t lifted, and the day hadn’t got properly light. All the rooms in the house were cold, apart from the one where an electric heater clicked on a thermostat. Quiet pervaded, as though waiting for an arrival.
I wasn’t sure if I recognised the van’s blue and white livery when its sidelights came into view, although when he stopped in my driveway and opened the driver’s door, I recognised him. This man had kept my boiler running for over 20 years. I went downstairs, filled the kettle, and opened the front door before he knocked. The boiler man hadn’t changed since my last full service.
The leather trouser-belt around his waist resembled the tack of a plough horse. I reckoned it to be as long as he was tall, and a quarter-inch thick. His colossal stomach protruded like the boiler on a locomotive steam engine; smooth and solid in a black T-shirt. The boiler man’s stomach had never struck me as unhealthy—more a specimen of mechanical efficiency brought about through regular servicing.
I felt ashamed that my broken-down boiler hadn’t been serviced in four years and that I hadn’t kept in touch.
“I thought you were going to buy a new one,” he said, lifting the cover on my faulty appliance.
Four years ago, I’d said that I’d investigate a more modern version—something that would cut down my emissions, something with a leaner burn.
“My wife and I are going to separate and sell the house,” I said. “There didn’t appear to be much point.”
When I told the boiler man about my marriage, it seemed he didn’t need to be told what was wrong with my boiler. He stroked an internal pipe with an oily rag and inspected the rag for signs of abuse.
“Me and my wife’s ruby anniversary this year,” he said, folding his rag.
“Amazing things, boilers,” I said. “What other machine could work so hard for 20 years without fail?”
The boiler man laid an altar cloth beneath my inlet valves. “That’s the thing, isn’t it?” he said. “People will service their car but not their boiler.”
When he left me to fetch new parts from his van, I watched from the kitchen window as he selected small boxes from compartmentalised, shallow drawers. Everything in the boiler man’s life had its rightful place and usefulness.
I left a cup of tea next to the boiler man’s cloth and took the opportunity to escape upstairs.
“Hello!” he called up the stairs for me. I remembered that he wouldn’t be left alone. He was a large engine that ran smoothly when you stood next to it, admiring the wheels and pistons, but the minute you turned your back, it would begin to cough and splutter, and eventually stop working.
“Here’s your problem,” he said, holding up a short, black plastic probe with a glass “eye” on the tip. “Your photocell. The glass eye has shattered.”
He held up a new one. “For this boiler to work, it has to literally see the flame.”
He knelt before the boiler and rested his stomach on the tops of his legs. His head-torch shone like a halo into the bowels of the machine.
We both heard my wife moving about on the landing upstairs. In prior years, she would have come and said hello to the boiler man and the three of us would have discussed our respective children. He never left our home without knowing a little more about our offspring, and he wouldn’t leave until we knew more about his. We talked our children up, but no children had succeeded like the boiler man’s. His daughter was a senior policewoman who played cricket at county level. His son was in finance with a “crazy package.” As my wife didn’t come downstairs, we skipped the subject.
“I once came out to a boiler in this village,” he said, “I’ve never seen the like of.”
I moved closer. He gave away trade secrets in hushed tones.
“It was nothing but a steel drum on a square of breeze-blocks. The old boy must have made it himself. You threw in a bucket of kerosene and a lighted match.”
“I think I know who you mean,” I told him. “He flew bombers during the war.”
“He should have stuck to piloting,” the boiler man said.
By now, my boiler was roaring. The radiators were warming up.
“My boiler can see again,” I said.
“Modern boilers run on blue flames,” he said. “Exhaust-heat transfer.”
I shook my head in disbelief and followed him down to his van and watched him replace the unused parts in the compartmentalised drawers. There was room for everything in the boiler man’s life; no messy, overflowing, miscellaneous spaces.
“Give my regards to your wife,” he said.
“Thank you for everything you’ve done for us over the years,” I replied.
“You know where to find me,” he said.
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