We came home from work and while I went into the toilet and pulled the light switch, Tigger filled the kettle and switched it on. The kettle came on and went off again; the toilet light didn’t even come on.
We tried other light switches and then appliances plugged into power points. None worked. We had to face it: all power was off in the flat.
The obvious thing to try was the light in the common hallway: it worked. The next obvious thing was to see whether our neighbours had power: they did.
Only our power was off.
This recalled a curious incident last Thursday. In almost identical circumstances, the power had gone off. The workmen were in the hallway and I went out and asked whether they had switched off the power for some reason. They denied that it had anything to do with them. So I had phoned Partners’ repairs line (Partners manage Islington’s council properties) and found myself in a queue. Then the power had come back on again by itself so, of course, I hung up the call. Could that incident and today’s be related?
I again rang Partners’ repairs line but before my turn came, the office closed for the day. This meant that I had to call the out-of-hours service. I do this with trepidation because whenever I have called them, I have received the distinct impression that they consider it their first priority to put you off and persuade you to call the daytime service instead.
“Our power has gone off,” I said. “Can you help?”
“Unplug every appliance you have; switch off all the switches on the control board; switch them back on and plug in your appliances one by one. When the power goes off again, the last appliance you plugged in will be the faulty one.”
I was unconvinced by this, but thought I ought at least to try so I rang off and followed the instructions. It made no difference. I rang again.
The woman said, in the tones of a head mistress berating a recalcitrant schoolboy, “I can send someone out but if the problem is your fault, you’ll have to pay the call-out fee which is very expensive because it’s out-of-hours.”
“I did as you said,” I replied, “and nothing works. The lights don’t come on, either.”
“The lights are on a different circuit,” she snapped but that at least seemed to convince her that the problem was a genuine one.
“I’ll send out an emergency electrician…”
“…but make sure you stay in. If you’re out when they call you’ll have to pay the call-out fee.”
Yes, right, I’ve lost all power, an electrician is coming to see to the problem and I’m going to bunk off to the pub, aren’t I? Give me a break…
So we settled down to wait. Our downstairs neighbour brought us some candles. Tigger went out for pizza and tea. Oh yes, and for matches to light the candles…
We ate the pizza, drank the tea, lit a candle and sat in the gloaming waiting for the electrician. Time passed. Tigger became bored and then remembered that she had a wind-up radio somewhere. We sat and listened to Mozart, periodically rewinding the radio and wondering whether the electrician would come and if so when.
We decided to wait until 9 pm and then phone the out-of-hours service to ask, ever so politely, whether they were sure that the electrician was coming. At 8:55 Tigger suggested I make the call and I picked up my mobile. It rang: it was the electrician. He wanted to confirm our postcode and it turned out that the helpline had given him the wrong one.
Provided with the correct postcode, the electrician arrived at last, a pleasant young man called Benoit. He checked the control panel and then looked at the bulb holder in the hall. Current was coming into the flat, so why was nothing working.
“There’s your problem,” he declared, pointing at the light fitting with his circuit tester.
“There’s a break in the neutral wire. Trouble is, it could be anywhere.”
“So there’s not a lot I can do tonight. We’ll have to wait until the morning and then the whole circuit will have to be checked.”
I told him about the previous incident and that I thought it might be connected with the work being done to replace the back staircase. Benoit bravely climbed down into the hole to take a look but said that he couldn’t see anything suspicious.
“Just one thing, though… I’ll take a look at this before I go.”
“This” was a black connecting box below the control panel. He began undoing the fastening screws.
“Ah!,” said he. “I think we’ve found the problem.”
He later told me that as he undid the screws he heard a sound like a bad contact arcing. He asked where the master switch was and I took him down into the basement to show him. With the current safely turned off, Benoit removed the cover from the connecting box and showed me that there was a loose contact. He carefully tightened it and went down into the basement again to turn the current back on.
Suddenly, the toilet light came on. Hurrah! “We have lights!” I shouted with relief.
Benoit tidied up, wrote his report and got me to sign it. Then he left, saying he had four more jobs to do and that he was on call all night. I said I hoped all his jobs were as easy as this one.
Sitting in near darkness, staring into the candle flame and sipping tea bought from the pub across the road, I had felt rather stressed and miserable. Now I was feeling cheerful and on top of the world again.
This reminded me of an incident some years ago when I was still working in the public library. The power supply had suddenly failed, taking the computer system with it, of course, and leaving us virtually helpless. We had sat around trying to think of any job we could possibly do that did not require either lights or computers. We were told the power would be off for a couple of hours.
A lady approached me and said somewhat dismissively “You English! You get upset when the power goes off for two hours. In my country the power had been off for 25 years.” She swept out and I was never able to find out which country she came from, though I am sure she was telling the truth. This evening, I realized she wasn’t far wrong: it took nothing more than a power failure to turn our lives upside down and make us feel almost as though we were facing the end of the world. All it took was a couple of twists of a screwdriver to restore normality to our world and make us feel happy again.
I’m sure there’s a lesson there somewhere.