Thursday, 2 December 2010

Turn On, Tune In, And Cop Out. (I Wish.)

Lightbulb moments are vastly over-rated. I've just had two of them and neither was enjoyable.

In the morning, Mr X phones to complain about his new council flat. Or, more specifically, about the lack of light bulbs in his new council flat. (I'm calling him Mr X because I'm too scared to risk naming him.)

Let's just say the conversation does not go well. My attempts to explain that he is expected to provide and fit his own light bulbs is interpreted as a combination of racism and discrimination; and then Mr X says that this is how he's been being treated ever since he arrived in the UK. From a previously war-torn part of Eastern Europe, which I'm also not willing to name.

Mr X is very het-up and becoming increasingly difficult to understand, so my asking him to repeat every other sentence really doesn't help. Eventually, he loses patience and starts yelling at me. Luckily the pitch isn't as ear-shattering as that which Miss Chambers can achieve, but what he says is much more worrying.

He's threatening to bomb the local housing office if he is not provided with light bulbs by the end of the day. I'd ignore it if he was one of the usual suspects, as they wouldn't have the faintest idea how to build a bomb - but Mr X seems an altogether different kettle of fish.

The detail he gives - not to mention the organisation of which he claims to be a member - makes his threat sound alarmingly credible, so now I am faced with a dilemma.

"Greg," I say. "I think I'm going to have to breach confidentiality again."

After I've explained why, Greg goes off on a rant about how refugees from war zones should be made to undergo counselling as part of the asylum process, so that they realise that they don't have to operate in the same way as may have become necessary in their homeland.

"Yeah, well - not helpful at this point," I say. "I don't think I'm likely to get Mr X any psychological help by this afternoon. I'll have to phone The Boss and get his permission to share the information instead."

"Huh. Good luck with that," says Greg. "Don't you remember what he was like about Mr Humphries? You got a right bollocking - just for giving a statement to the Police."

"Well, this time more people's lives might be on the line if I do nothing. So I haven't got any choice, have I?"

Honestly, imagine how cool it must be to have the sort of job where the biggest emergency you face is a collapsing bedstead. Not mentioning anyone's job in particular.

I pick up the phone and dial Andrew's number. There's no answer, so then I try his mobile - which goes straight to answer-phone. Brilliant. Mr X is probably assembling his bomb right this minute, while lots of unsuspecting housing officers sit calmly typing and drinking fruit tea.

I call Marie-Louise, who tells me that Andrew is in back-to-back meetings for the rest of the day, and has left his pager in the office. For God's sake - I give up. There's nothing for it but to make an executive decision, so I ring the Council and speak to the Head of Housing Services. Off the record, though I never really trust that anyone will honour that particular phrase.

After all that, it turns out that I needn't have worried. Or risked a bollocking. Apparently, Mr X phoned the Council and made the same threats, before he even called me. So the Police have been notified already, and the Housing Office is in the process of being evacuated.

All that's left for me to do is to try to extract a promise that someone from either the Police or the Council will let me know the outcome, but I don't have much faith that this will actually happen. Nor does Greg.

"They always bloody well forget about us," he says. "So I'm not leaving anything to chance."

He spends ages building a barricade in front of the door in case Mr X escapes the clutches of the Police and comes here to take his revenge. Joan knocks it down five minutes later when she comes in to ask for an up-to-date photo of The Boss for a newsletter. She says she didn't even notice it was there.

We're all so jumpy by now that no-one wants to answer the phone, in case it's Mr X again, so we decide to do it on a rota basis. Greg says he'll go first, Vicky's to go next,  and then it'll be my turn. And so on for the rest of the day - or that's the theory, anyway.

After Greg takes the first call - from Steve Ellington - the phone rings again.

"Your turn, Vicky," I say.

She shakes her head, and stray hairs go flying everywhere as usual.

"Count me out," she says. "I'm only a volunteer."

So it's my turn again. This time the caller's a lovely old lady called Mrs Worthington, who sounds very frail, but is scrupulously polite.

"So sorry to bother you, dear," she says. "But I don't know where else to turn."

"Don't worry about that," I say. "How can we help?"

"It's the lightbulbs in my flat."

For one insane moment, I imagine that Mr X has kidnapped Mrs Worthington and is holding her hostage until he is given a stock of lightbulbs, but then all becomes clear.

Mrs W tells me that she was widowed last year, very shortly after she and her late husband had exchanged their council house in the South East for a smaller one in Northwick - which has much higher ceilings.

As if the stress of bereavement and moving wasn't bad enough, she recently had a fall and is now barely able to walk, let alone climb on to a stool or use a ladder to reach the light-fittings.

"The last bulb went yesterday," she says. "And I don't know any of my neighbours, so I don't feel I can ask them for help. I don't like to bother people, and Fred and I were never blessed with any children."

"When you say 'the last bulb' - which room is it that has no lighting?" I say. Cooking by candlelight might be a bit hazardous, to say the least.

"Oh, all of them now, dear," she says. "That's why I had to phone you. I couldn't think who else to contact."

How desperately sad is that? When I finally get home - after checking behind me all the way to make sure Mr X isn't lurking in the shadows - I make a cup of tea, sit down and contemplate the height of our ceilings.

Then I climb onto a chair and try to reach the light fitting. It's miles away, so I try standing on the table, but I still can't reach the damned thing. Josh walks in and looks at me.

"What the hell are you doing, Mum?" he says.

"Trying to change a light bulb," I say. "By myself."

"You've got no chance of managing that. You're far too short. And anyway, this bulb's still working."

"That's not the point," I say. "I'm assessing the situation."

"Hopeless," is Josh's cruel verdict.

If he ever moves out, and then Max leaves me for James Bloody Blunt, I'll never see artificial light again.

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