In Praise of the Practical

We paid a flying visit to Ohakune last weekend, a one night stay as we hired a van to take up the last pieces of furniture we’ve given up trying to fit in the new place in Wellington. The house felt stuffy, probably because it was lunchtime on a warm day and we’re unused to arriving before the cool of the evening. We opened windows and doors to the sun to clear a musty aroma that I’ve never noticed before, even when we haven’t visited for months.

The kitchen cupboard smells funny, said Neil. I wandered over. It smelled more than funny; it smelled like something had died in there. I ran water through the drain and the waste disposal, chucked a small container of bicarb under the sink and left it while we got on with things. Despite fresh air flooding the house it didn’t go. I developed a headache.

The next morning there was no change. What to do? It’s hard enough getting a plumber at the best of times; two weeks before Christmas in a building boom the chances are close to zero. I phoned The Oracle for advice.

Whoever coined the saying that a Jack of all trades is Master of none hadn’t met Neville, our good friend and neighbour. He’s come to our rescue a few times since we bought the house: fixing a small leak whilst we were overseas that would have caused untold damage before we returned; working with a builder to plumbline the garage to confirm that it wasn’t falling down a bank and pulling the house with it. You know, the small things, the practical ones that Neil and I are useless at. He’s great company, and he’s a great handyman.

Put a lemon down it! I heard his wife, the lovely Estelle (also a good friend and hostess extraordinaire) shouting in the background as I explained our predicament. This I’d tried, but the odour seemed to be more underneath than above, not emanating from the mouth of the drain or waste disposal.

Well, the first thing I’d do is remove the trap… I interrupted him. I don’t like to be rude, but I can’t help laughing when someone says something funny. (In my defence, if he’d said u-bend I’d have known what he meant.) He laughed too; he knows us well. He offered to pop down and have a look. I hesitated for about three seconds – he’s in the middle of re-fitting a caravan (I refer you to my earlier ‘master’ comment) and I didn’t want to delay his work. But that smell was killing me.

Oh, that’s nasty, he said. I wonder if it’s something trapped under the cupboard. Neil and I have prior in this area. Years ago, giving up hope of removing the noxious aroma a little-used cabinet had developed, we lifted it to throw out, both reeling backwards as a miasma of decay assaulted our noses. The half-decomposed bird we found behind it must have thought it a great place to escape a cat, but then been unable to get out. (As an aside, we recently took the same cabinet, a cheap build-it-yourself thing I’d had for nearly forty years, to Second Treasures, the op-shop at the local dump.)

Neil became first mate and I stood around being useless as Neville, sprawled on the floor, unscrewed the toe-kick under the cupboard. It’s been there only a year, installed when we had the floor-covering replaced during recent renovations. Behind it was the old one, which wouldn’t budge, clearly fixed by more than the couple of screws we could see.

We could punch a hole in it, Neville suggested. I don’t care if you rip the thing apart as long as it gets rid of the smell, I replied. I was impressed at his ability to wield a power tool whilst lying on his stomach, sliding backwards on the smooth floor whenever he applied pressure. Perfect whorls whirled from the drill as it turned, soft curls of whatever fibreboard this was, a hard fabric that wasn’t giving in easily. Neville went home to fetch more tools and I put on my raincoat and ventured into the pouring rain to prune the roses (I wanted to get them done before we left). Twenty minutes later I dripped back in to check on progress. The toe-kick had a hole but there’s nothing there reported Neil. Now what?

Neville took the trap apart but the now-open drain offered only a vague whiff of unclean. Above the shelf in the middle of the cupboard it was still rank and offensive. I felt up into the gap behind the sink bowl, dislodging no more than a few spiders who scurried out, as unhappy as my husband, who disappeared to get the spider spray.

Neville followed my move. What’s this? Oh, there’s an overflow. (You can forgive his surprise – they aren’t always standard in New Zealand.) I wonder if… He unscrewed where it joined the waste, tugging it free. Oh! He pulled his head back. I think we’ve found it. He moved aside. I advanced until my nose was a few inches from the end of the pipe, when the stench hit the back of my throat and I gagged, jumping away as though smacked.

Maybe a plumber would have started with this! Neville laughed, eyeing the hole in the toe-kick and the pieces of drain scattered around the kitchen floor. Possibly. But it was a plumber who attached it in the first place, leaving a kink in which stagnant water had gathered, a kink now being removed by a Master. As he re-fixed it he recounted working for a large building company where union reps used to ensure that everyone was compensated for unsavoury working conditions and right now I’d be getting smell money.

He once asked how long it takes me to write a blog post. I couldn’t write like that if I sat down for weeks, he said, awe in his voice. Well, my dear friend, although I now admit I could probably remove the trap without any trouble, I wouldn’t have a clue about anything else.  

As we drove away we dropped off a nice bottle of wine to say thank you. Smell money, said Neil, with a much nicer smell. Neville smiled. I quite enjoy solving problems like that. I’m pretty sure it won’t be long before we find something else to challenge him.

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