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Alarming business

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on September 11, 2020 Published on September 11, 2020

Manjula Padmanabhan   -  MANJULA PADMANABHAN

In the middle of the afternoon, while I’m still recovering from My Life As A Raccoon, all the alarms in the house begin shrieking.

Our building has two types of alarm. The first is an irritating bleat that’s local to each separate home. The second is like a jet engine taking off inside your own head. That’s what happened this afternoon, around 4pm. We six residents of the building burst out our homes, crying, “Where’s the fire!?” But there wasn’t one. No burning toast, no flaming steaks. So I whip out my cellphone, like Bruce Willis saving the planet, and dial 911. Wheee! Never done it before!! In a perfectly calm and steady voice, I say, “Hi, I’m calling from...”

It’s just like in the movies. Six minutes later, with lights a-blazing and sirens wailing the fire truck arrives. A pair of huge young men, looking like astronauts in their mustard-yellow fire-suits, charge up and around the old building bearing axes and fire-retardant cylinders. And: Nothing. No fire. No smoke. BUT! Just before turning the alarm off to leave, one of the guys says, “By the way? Better call your plumber. There’s a massive sewage leak in the basement...”

Half an hour later, the landlord rushes into the house, looking pale and tense. He has his older brother, a plumbing engineer, in tow. Sure enough! The main sewer-line is ready to burst. Battle-stations! Flushing the toilet is forbidden. The water’s shut off. The landlord offers to pay for hotel accommodations, but I choose to remain on board. Why? Well, I have a deadline to meet and if I leave my room, I’ll never get it done. Two other residents make similar choices while the other three opt for the hotel.

The landlord says the water will be restored in the morning. But at 8am, there’s no sign of a fix. Instead there’s a team of men outside, checking the driveway for buried pipes. The landlord says, “Might be fixed by tonight.” Having met my deadline, however, I am becalmed. All I need to focus on now is toilet events: Shall I run to Ms Muriel’s house, where I can flush at will? Or remain on site and Just Do It, without flushing? I decide on the latter path, feeling yucky, but “relieved”.

At midday I wander out to survey the work. There’s a hole the size of two double-beds in the driveway. The sewerage engineers show me a giant plug of grease that was sucked out of the pipes. It got blocked because “people are throwing their face-masks in the toilet!” Fools! we agree, Nincompoops! Brigands! A couple of hours later, all smiles: The sewer line is fixed, bright new pipes installed.

“You can flush your toilet now!” says the landlord, smiling broadly. “Yes!” I say whilst also silently thanking the fire alarm. If it hadn’t begun screaming, for “no reason”, we’d all be flushed out of our homes by now.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Published on September 11, 2020
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