3 March, 2013Issue 21.4Creative WritingFiction

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Gentlemen

Paul Sweeten

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Other day the toilet blocks and I have to use an accordion plunger to reset the system. The accordion plunger pumps harder than the standard bell and stores up air in its flange as you’re using it. After three plunges the U-bend gags and swallows up the overflow. No fuss, but that’s what the accordion does for your system. Some would’ve called a plumber before trying it. Some would’ve been that naive. But for a mere $18.99 they could’ve been back on that stall the very same hour, enjoying the sweet relief of money well spent.

Informing people of their naivety is a rewarding profession, has been for twenty-five years. Putting plumbers out of business, that’s been the job for me. Door to door, house to house. With that pitch alone I can sell twenty accordion plungers a day.

Tonight is the night of the Plumbies: the bathroom and plumbing industry awards. RexPlumb, my company, is nominated in seven categories including Cistern Design and Fastest Flush. As in previous years we’ll be up against Shower World, ShowerPower and Execuplumb, as well as a few upstarts with grand ambitions in the digital interface market. Best of luck to them.

The Civic Theatre is a dreary 60s redbrick covered with posters for upcoming pantomimes and the weekly spirit-channelling session led by Miriam Phoenix. There’s no mention of the Plumbies outside, but a crooked portable sign in the foyer points the way through to the auditorium under the words ‘Corporate Event’. As with previous years I’ve arrived late, things are already underway; I’m deliberately skipping the early categories relating to bathroom sinks at the expense of a good seat, as I’ve no interest in seeing Max Bouldron from Paradise Baths receive his ninth Plumby on the bounce, and even less interest in seeing his show-wife in her short dress collect the award for him.

I find Steve Bingham from the industry magazine smoking outside the line of fire doors leading out of the auditorium. He’s holding a copy of Waterworks and has an expensive-looking camera around his neck. “Night on the tiles?” he says. “Feeling flush?”

“Old jokes, Steve. Old jokes.”

“Up for anything tonight?”

“Seven. Best Nozzlehead, Best Plugless. I’m up for Cistern and Flush too but forget about those.”

“Shower World up for Cistern?”

“Of course they’re up for it. They’re a shoo’ for it. Three years on the spin and they’re winning with the same product. It’s what the board go for, all that power-saving crap. If that’s not a shoo’ for a Plumby then I don’t know what is.”

“They’re a shoo’ for Overall Design, I’ll tell you that much. It’s as good as fixed.”

“Politics,” I say. “It’s all politics.”

“You know the first year they won for Flush it should’ve been you up there.”

“I know it.”

“They were rewarding the overlooked design from the year previous. Sold thousands, wasn’t even nominated.”

“Doesn’t help me, does it?”

“No it doesn’t.”

The sound of muffled applause has us both fall silent and turn to face the doors for a second.

“Who are you wearing?” Steve says.

“This? Was my dad’s. Hired.”

“Your dad hired it?”

“Hired it, got married in it, never returned it.”

“Nice,” he says. “I like the what-do-you-call-it. The gorge.”

On the other side of the doors a speech is going on; the low din of the AV system takes turns with bursts of laughter which sound like the pre-recorded stuff they loop in sitcoms.

“You know, Steve, this is probably my last Plumbies. I can’t really face another year. It’s the same story, the same winners and losers. You know how many times I’ve been nominated in twenty-five years? You know how many times I’ve won? It’s not a happy ratio, Stevie, not happy at all. And you know that behind every award there’s something going on. Somebody knows somebody, another sees acrylic is floundering, someone else decides that the two-tier flush is an obscenity, and all on a whim. All arbitrary, that’s all it is. And people like you, people in the writing game, you report it like the gospel, like it’s the word of God telling you to go out and buy a self-lowering toilet seat for every room in your damn house.”

Steve stubs out his cigarette, then he rolls up his magazine and shoves it in his back pocket so he can gesticulate with both hands. “Listen,” he says. “I’ll tell you a secret. Really I shouldn’t, but seeing as it’s you. Tonight is your night. The one you’ve been waiting for. The one anybody waits for.”

“What do you mean?”

“They’re giving you the long haul.”

“They’re what?”

“The Service Award. Lifetime achievement.”

“They’re giving me the Service?”

“Five years overdue if you ask me.”

I give myself a moment. “I’m stunned. I don’t know what to say.”

“Don’t get too grateful,” he says. “You know what that that award means. Think of last year, or any year for that matter. Doug Thorn, Pete Mastiff, that fella with the showroom where someone crapped in the display toilet. Where are they now?”

“Retired.”

“Exactly. And that’s the silver bullet. That’s the biggest tragedy of it all. They screw you around and take a golden dump on your head when they’ve had enough of you. Except do you even know what a Plumby is made from, because it ain’t gold.”

“Marble?”

“It’s porcelain,” he says. “Just porcelain. At the end of it all you’re standing up there in a room full of people who never met you in their life, who are looking at you with pity, staring with blank expressions like they have no clue about what you do or why you even exist. It’s like you’re a fucking bidet.”

“But still, the Service Award. That’s something.”

“Better than this gig. You know they used to say about me that I’d take a colour photo and it would come out black and white.”

“Why did they say that?”

“Just my eye, I guess. My point of view.”

Steve congratulates me again, shakes my hand. He asks if he can take my picture for the magazine and we do one with me up against the fire doors next to a sign which says “Exit Only”. As the flash dazzles my eyes I enjoy the patter of applause still making waves behind me; they’ll be coming to my section soon. As I’m thinking about accepting the Plumby and what I might say, I watch Steve play with the dials on his camera. He walks around the foyer snapping nothing in particular, each time checking what he’s taken, then he fiddles the dials some more and takes another picture. I watch him go on like this for a minute or so before he slings the camera over his back and walks out of sight, following the arrowed sign for GENTLEMEN.

Paul Sweeten graduated in 2010 with an MSt in Creative Writing from Kellogg College, Oxford. His story “Horse Stance” is forthcoming in Flash: the International Short-Story Magazine. Paul is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.