Margaret and I have a small summer cottage, on the shore of a small lake. It was built in the early 1950’s. This, more or less, is what happened out there one summer.
The casual visitor would probably not notice the trapdoor set into the kitchen floor of our summer house. It measures only three feet by two and a half but takes up a third of the floor. It is cunningly painted the same brownish-yellow colour as the rest of the floor. A revealing gap in this camouflage is the flat shiny handle set into the surface of the trapdoor. Twice a year it is necessary to lift the trapdoor, a task which I approach with an increasing sense of unease as the day approaches. My trepidation is greater in the spring than in the autumn.
I have to kneel to lift the trapdoor, which is heavy despite its size, and the metal handle cuts into my hand. A cold draught with the familiar odour of mouldy root cellar issues from the dark opening. I secure the trapdoor to a hook on the wall, using a thin metal chain. Now there is no turning back, I must descend into the darkness.
A faint ray of light from the kitchen window falls on the top rung of a short, steep wooden ladder, resting against the side of the cellar wall. I sit on the edge of the hole, legs dangling to reach the invisible rungs. Gradually I shift my weight onto the ladder, the upper half of my body still above the kitchen floor. I take a deep breath and slowly descend until my foot suddenly hits the floor with a dull splash. I crouch down to enter the hole and then make my way into the cellar, under the kitchen floorboards.
It is dark, only a weak trickle of light enters through a square ventilation hole high up in the cellar wall. It is covered in rusty wire netting, supposedly to keep the snakes and rats out. As I gradually get accustomed to the dark, I try to locate the light switch. It is in the darkest corner, hanging from a hook in the cellar roof like a sleeping bat. It sways slowly in the draught from the ventilation hole as I grope for the rubber-coated lamp. My knee connects with something wet, cold and hard. Instinctively I stand up and my head hits the wooden roof, just four feet above the floor. Finally I manage to grasp the swaying lamp and press the switch. A pale green light slowly fills the cellar, revealing an octopus-like collection of pipes, valves, pressure tank, electric motor, pressure gauge, pump casing and filter. This monster almost fills the cellar, which is about five square feet. The flickering light creates a pattern of red, black, blue and brass reflections against the white-painted brick walls. Coils of black cable lie on a grey two-foot high shelf, like thin snakes that have made this their winter home. This is our water pump.
Located deep in the bowels of the cottage, the pump provides us with water from a well drilled 300 feet down into granite rock bed. The water is plentiful and cold, sometimes with a distinct flavour of minerals and rust. We are dependent on the pump for survival, well aware that it has reached the venerable age of thirty-seven years old. It demands tender loving care, hence my regular descent into our black hole of Calcutta.
As spring days get longer and the danger of frost recedes, the dreaded question is inevitably raised by Margaret: “Isn’t it time to switch the water on soon?” Meaning, time for me to lift the trapdoor and descend into the black hole to get the darn pump started. Easier said than done. To get it running, the pump, “Ol’ Blue”, demands an extremely high level of multitasking in a very confined space, with a risk of me either drowning or being electrocuted. After twenty years of bi-annual decent into the cellar, I still fear the worst. Most years something does go wrong, but in the end I usually master Old Blue, and am still alive to tell the tale.
Instructions for starting the pump run to four pages, but I’ll keep it simple. The system comprises an electric motor, a pump and a pressure tank with a myriad of connecting pipes, valves and a pressure gauge. Before frost strikes in the autumn the pump system has to be emptied of water and filled with air. In the spring the pipes have to be reconnected, taps, outlets and valves closed and water-filled plastic container at the ready. Margaret’s task here is simple but vital. She activates the pump with a switch high up on the kitchen wall, which I cannot reach as I am hunched over the octopus in the black hole. Immediately, the electric motor whirrs into action, usually giving me a fright. The pump starts pumping air, which is potentially dangerous. So I have to swiftly fill it with water from the plastic container to prime the pump, while at the same time checking the pressure gauge to see how quickly the pressure is building up.
Simultaneously I gradually open two different valves, three feet apart. On these occasions I regret only having two arms. The water surges up and down in the pump, I close off the priming valve, slowly open the other two valves and with luck water flows into the pressure tank. When the tank is full, the motor and pump suddenly switch off and silence reigns, only broken by the thudding of my heart. My hands are shaking – I have survived again and we have water.
Of course things do not always go according to plan. One spring the pump unexpectedly started pumping air down into the 300 foot deep borehole, instead of pumping water up. The pump was working backwards. During the winter our fuse box and electricity meter had been replaced, and by mistake the technicians had reversed the phases of the electricity supply for the pump. They fixed the problem after a week or so.
The pump system has a built-in safety valve, which is activated if the pressure builds up without the valves being opened quickly enough. One very cold spring morning I was too slow opening the valves to the water container , so the safety valve kicked in. I got drenched to the skin, my rubber boots filled with water and I screamed “Switch off the pump” to avoid being electrocuted. Fortunately Margaret was still in position next to the pump switch and did just that. I survived. On another occasion the plastic priming container exploded. Again I was too slow regulating the flow of water from the pump, which involves gradually opening three different valves while simultaneously pouring water into the pump.
After thirty-seven years the pump is getting worn and tired. One summer our lives were dominated by problems with the pump, and visits by the pump technicians. The technician, Mike, paid four or five visits to the black hole over a period of a month or two. Mike is a rather taciturn man in overalls, getting on for fifty and with thick, longish, greying hair. He was not very tall but quite well-fed, with a weather-beaten face and marked eyebrows. He brought his female partner Joan along with him. At first we thought she was his assistant, but it transpired that she just came along for the ride. Joan was well-padded like Mike, with short, blonded hair and very talkative. Over the course of the summer we became well-acquainted with her life story, and her relation with Mike.
Their first visit was on a Friday afternoon. Problem was that the pump started as soon as the tap was opened: something was wrong with the pressure tank or the switches which start the pump. The pressure tank is a blue egg-shaped and pressurized metal container, with a rubber balloon-like membrane which holds the water. There is compressed air between the outer metal shell and the membrane.
“Too little air, could be leaking somewhere but I can’t see anything” said Mike after his first descent into the cellar. “I’ll just fill it up. You should do this once a year. Use a tyre gauge to check the pressure.”
Mike went to his truck to fetch an aged compressor with about thirty feet of ancient rubber tubing.
Joan: “Are you still dragging that old compressor around with you Mike?”
As we learned over the summer Joan excelled in running comments on Mike’s work and competence, but he seemed immune to her taunts.
Unruffled, he connected the compressor to an outlet in the kitchen and disappeared down the hole into the cellar. The compressor coughed into action like an old steam engine and Mike topped up the air in the system.
“That’ll do it. Make sure you test it every year. Nothing wrong with that. Rubber’s as good as new even after thirty-seven years” said Mike. “Wasn’t it leaking then?” asked Margaret. “Oh no, these old tanks are very reliable” was Mike’s parting message.
Their visit lasted about twenty minutes. During this short time Joan told us about her recent shoulder operation and rehabilitation process, described the place where she grew up, her dogs and how many brothers and sisters she had. Joan also told us that they were just off to do a bit of pike fishing for the weekend. She waved and shouted “Have a nice weekend” as they quickly drove off down the dirt road in a cloud of dust. Within an hour the pump was overworking again, as though Mike and Joan had never been near it.
On Monday Margaret called Mike the pump man again. “Sounds like you need a new pressure tank!” was his definite opinion. “You know, they don’t come in that size any more. I’ve never seen a small one like that before. Of course we have bigger ones – and they’re not very expensive. I’ll come over and fix it on Thursday. No problem.”
Come Thursday a cloud of dust heralds the arrival of our favourite pump technician Mike, with his travelling partner Joan. Mike carries his toolbox while Joan tags along behind, clutching a large cardboard box. Mike looks rather guilty and offers to skip the travel charge as compensation.
“This will sort out your problem – a brand new pressure tank.” said Mike
“Do you really know how to install all this stuff Mike?” asks Joan as she drops the carton on top of the steps up to the cottage, and starts dragging out an assortment of tubes and gaskets and other metal objects.
“Don´t worry. I can do this in my sleep”, says Mike nonchalantly
“You´re not too awake then” said Joan.
Mike ignored her and descended once again into the damp hole. After a minute or so he climbed out again, switched off the pump and announced: “You know, that old one really is past it. This will do the trick” he said as he lifted a shining white tank out of the carton and disappeared into the cellar again. Occasionally he shouted instructions to Joan, mainly parts he needed her to fetch. This usually took some time as she was busy relating her life story to us. “What do you need now, Mike?” To us: ”I don’t know how he would do this job without me.”
On this visit she told us her childhood memories and mentioned family acquaintances living nearby. We also found out that she does not like Indian food as this gives her indigestion. She gave us a detailed account of the problems with their draughty home in a cottage on a large estate and their longing for central heating, spiced with local history and complaints about the heavy work load at the pump company. She also commented on Mike’s ability as a pump technician, and then made a tour of our property.
“All done down here” was heard eventually from down below in the cellar. Mike appeared, looking pleased with himself – if a little wet. “This old blue one is definitely past it”, he proclaimed, holding it aloft for the rust-coloured water to dribble onto the kitchen floor. “Never thought you would fix it”, exclaimed Joan, almost serious. Mike just shook his head. “Don’t suppose you want to keep this as a souvenir?”, he said as he lifted the old pressure tank onto the back of his truck.
“By the way, your pump is leaking. Probably the gasket around the axle between the motor and the pump. There are no spare parts left for these old pumps any more, you know. Lundbergs who made them went bankrupt a few years ago.” Margaret: “Can we still use the pump even if it leaks?” Mike “No problem, just gets wet in the cellar. There is a drain isn’t there?” Margaret: “Can you do anything about it?” Mike: “I’ll check and call you next week. But I’m not too optimistic.” And off they went, leaving us confused and frustrated.
“You’d better check out the cellar right away,” said Margaret, even before the dust cloud from Mike’s truck dispersed. I pulled on my rubber boots and climbed down the ladder into the dark, not knowing what to expect. I switched on the lamp and saw first the new white pressure tank resting on the brick shelf, looking like a giant ants’ egg. Three inches of water covered the concrete floor. Mike was right, there is a drainage hole in the far corner of the cellar, behind the pump head. Sadly there was no visible movement of water towards the drain, probably because the floor sloped in the wrong direction. “Maybe the drainpipe is blocked up”, said Margaret, helpfully.
After rummaging around in the garden shed for a while I found a suitable implement – a two foot long iron bar. Kneeling in the cold water I pushed the iron bar into the drainpipe. It went in about one and a half feet and then hit a rock. As the water slowly seeped down from my jeans into my rubber boots, I contemplated two possible scenarios; the water gradually filling the cellar and shorting the motor, or digging up the drainpipe under the house foundations.
“Can you see where it’s leaking?” asked Margaret cheerfully. “No, but open the taps and we’ll see”, I replied without thinking. She opened the taps full blast and as the motor started to spin and the pump engaged, a fine stream of water sprayed over the whole cellar, me included. “I can see the leak, switch if off NOW”, I shouted. Mike was right, the pump was leaking by the gasket which seals the motor axle. The pump showered the cellar with a fine spray of water every time the motor started.
Monday morning, Margaret phoned Mike’s boss Joe and explained the situation. Joe: “I understand, but the problem is a replacement. Those gaskets are worth their weight in gold. No one has them anymore. We’ll have a hunt around and get back to you”. Joe agreed he would put it in for us – if we could find one.
After three days on the phone Margaret found a pump outfit who said they might have a gasket that fitted Ol’ Blue. It was a round trip of ninety miles. The workshop the yard was full of old pumps waiting to be mended or reconditioned. We felt straight away that this must be the right place. Our old pump would feel right at home here too.
Two customers standing in line at the counter were holding rusty old metal objects which probably made all the difference between water or no water for the summer. Behind the counter we had a good view of the workshop, where two elderly men with longish grey hair went about their work. They were in no hurry, sitting silently at a workbench or moving ancient pumps around on a truck. It had the atmosphere of a silent slow-motion film.
Finally it was our turn. Margaret, the only woman in this man’s world, gave all the details to the pump man. She could answer all his questions. He tried not to show that he was impressed. A replacement gasket ,which was not original but “close enough to stop the pump leaking”, was eventually dug out of the storeroom, a bargain at 1500 kronor.
Joe agreed he would come and install the gasket himself after the weekend. At last we felt that the end was in sight. Come Monday, who should turn up but our old friends Mike and Joan. No sign of Joe. They must have noticed the disappointment on our faces. Joan explained:” Joe only sent Mike because he is small enough to get down into the cellar hole. Joe is too big.” She didn’t seem very impressed with either of them. “Last week Mike and Joe went fishing in their rowing boat. I just couldn’t believe it. They both stood on the same side and almost tipped over! I had to shout to Joe to move over, or else they would have been in the drink” said Joan, with ill-concealed contempt.
“Well well, where did you find this?” asked Mike as he studied the new gasket, trying not to be impressed by Margaret’s contacts and initiative.
“He hasn’t done one of these before you know”, said Joan behind Mike’s back as he descended once more into the cellar. In his hand the tiny box containing the precious gasket.
This time Joan left Mike to get on with the job, preferring to gossip about his collection of old American cars and the exorbitant rent they paid for the barn where he stores them, their cruising memories and his inability to say no to people who needed help with cars and machines, in particular their landlord. After about half an hour a triumphant shout is heard from the depths of the cellar. “I’ve done it!” Margaret was not convinced, so told Mike sternly to stay down in the hole while she opened the taps. Mike didn’t argue. Margaret turned the taps on full blast. After a minute or so the motor started and the pump rattled into action, filling the pressure tank. Mike emerged from the cellar, broad smile on his face and thumbs up. No leaks and floor almost dry. His ordeal was over. Joan joined in the general celebration. They both looked very relieved.
Mike asked almost apologetically where Margaret had found the replacement gasket. “Do you think you could write it down”, he asked humbly. “You can take the box”, she said, and handed it over. He looked like a little boy getting a birthday present.
Paperwork done, bills paid – almost enough to pay for a new one – the pump works without leaking. The cellar has dried out. Sadly it does sound like a steam boat in the cellar, but we have had enough of Mike and Joan for one summer. Soon it will be time for me to revisit the black hole to switch off the pump for the winter, and forget about it until next spring.
At least this is what we thought, but the story doesn’t end there. After a couple of days the whole kitchen started shaking when the pump jumped into action. Jumped is the right word. A brief inspection down the hole revealed that the whole pump vibrated and shook when the motor switched on. The four bolts which held the base of the pump steady on the concrete floor were loose, and one almost rusted through. Margaret and I looked at each other and sighed – another call to Mike the pump man. We put it off for a day or two, but the vibrations just got worse. On the phone he was rather apologetic: “It might have happened when I changed the gasket on the pump axel. You know I had to dismantle the motor to get at the axel.” He agreed to come the next Thursday at 10.30.
We drove down to the cottage the evening before to be in time for our visitors. Just as well. At 9.30 there was a loud knocking at the door and there they were, Mike and Joan, smiling like old friends. Mike apologized for coming early but said he had lost our ‘phone number. Joan just smiled pleasantly, leaning on the doorpost. He was obviously in a hurry. Quick as a flash he climbed down into the cellar and, after listening briefly to the vibrations, he diagnosed the problem: “Pump head and motor are loose. Could have happened when I was here last time. Not to worry, it’s easy to fix. Just need to pick up a few things at the workshop. Bye for now!” And off they went. Joan didn’t have time to say a word, so they really were in a hurry. We just looked at each other, speechless, before returning to our breakfast.
An hour or so later they were back. “This will do the trick”, said Mike as he proudly held up a thick piece of corrugated rubber matting – not entirely new. He disappeared down into the hole again like a scared rabbit, leaving us with Joan’s charming company. A detailed report on her new trial position and the effect on her injured shoulders passed the time while Mike toiled away. The dull thud of metal against metal, loud sighs and the occasional swearword came from the cellar hole. “Done it!” came the shout from the kitchen, where Mike stood on the cellar ladder wiping the sweat from his brow, proudly holding aloft the rusty bolts which he had replaced. Mike had jammed the rubber mat between the concrete floor and the pump to absorb the vibrations. “You can fix this again yourselves”, said Mike, hauling up a handful of bolts of various dimensions from his pocket, “you can have all of these”. It felt as though he was handing over a bag of treasure.
With great relief on both sides we waved goodbye, watching their truck disappearing down the dirt road. The rest of the day we sat listening to the pump; it was very quiet. Fixed just in time to close down the system for the winter!
The pump don’t work ‘cos the vandals stole the handle. B Dylan