Terry Prone's lockdown diary: Getting rattled by a steam cleaner

This week, Terry Prone delves deep on the secret life of Spads, spends a day with customer service about a rattling steam cleaner, and double-masks for a trip to the dentist
Terry Prone's lockdown diary: Getting rattled by a steam cleaner

A steam cleaner — not of the rattling variety —in action.

Day 143

Reading the book a friend sent about Spads: Special advisers to a minister. The Secret Life of Special Advisers by Peter Cardwell, who originates from Northern Ireland, suggests being a special adviser in the Houses of Parliament isn’t half as much fun as doing the same job here.

Not that it’s always fun. Some Spads are doomed from the start. A minister will pick a hack who’s been helpful to them, and make a Spad of them, thereby depriving themselves of the only pal they ever had among the political journalists, while pissing off the civil servants in their department who have been repeatedly rubbished by that journalist and now have to work with them. (Bit like partnership government.) 

Spads tend to start convinced they will make obstructive civil servants see the light or else: The Savonarola approach to relationship building. These Spads never watch Yes Minister to get some understanding of a) how much smarter is the average senior civil servant than is the average bear — or Spad — or b) how long is the grass within which those senior civil servants go to sit when determined not to expedite some cunning plan the civil servant doesn’t think is all that cunning. Instead, Spads do watch The Thick of It and get notions about throwing profane tantrums.

The best Spads have no long-term relationship with the minister and therefore are able to call them out when the latter is talking, or planning, crazy stuff. Most important of all, the best Spads have a happy home life: A wife/husband/partner and kids they like. Spads who don’t have that tend to be emotionally needy and therefore a drag on their minister and their colleagues alike. Which is a waste of a great opportunity, because being a Spad puts you at the centre of power and influence, gets you the best gossip, and allows you the illusion of writing history.

Day 144

The best part of Zoom meetings is being let in early if you know the host. In one of those pre-meeting chats before a company planning meeting, Aileen mentions her steam cleaner with such affection, I develop a case of envy.

Day 145

In the middle of Lidl, I encounter a steam cleaner. Twelve in one, it says, guaranteed for three years, Good Housekeeping recommended. I load it into my trolley and the minute I get home, assemble it, which is easy enough. As I lift it up, though, it rattles. 

I trace the rattle to the water tank, which has a kind of a flex in it. Nothing in the literature or website says this yoke is supposed to be where it is, rattling the way it is, so it seems wise to email the problem to the customer-service people of the maker. Ben comes back within minutes to say he’s sure it’s fine, but maybe I’d send him a picture. 

I do better, sending him a video of the rattling thing. This stuns him into silence and the next one I hear from is Jessica, who wants me to send proof of purchase. What? They think I nicked a box nearly as big as me from Lidl? However, since I bought the thing that very day, I actually, mirabile dictu, have proof of purchase, so, all docile, I send it to Jessica. 

That silences her, because it’s Charlotte who next surfaces, to ask for the model number. I send that off, too. Then they blizzard me with information about guarantees and the division of responsibilities between them and Lidl, about which I do not give a proverbial. JUST RATTLE THE GODDAM STEAMER AND TELL ME IF IT’S SAFE, I think. Like Jeremy Paxman only more pleasantly, I point out that my original question hasn’t been answered. Total silence. 

I go to bed and cry myself to sleep.

Day 146

First thing, Charlotte confirms “the rattling noise will be the pipe within the product that disperses water (this is nothing to worry about)”. I thank her and start steaming. When I’ve done the tiles, I attack the deep-fat fryer and finally the marshmallow-coated interior of the microwave. 

The latter is Sarah’s fault, because she encouraged me to microwave a chocolate tea cake and it exploded. Which may explain my anxiety about rattling things in steamers. If a chocolate tea cake can do that much damage, a steamer might take out the whole neighbourhood.

Day 147

Today feels like everybody I know hits high doh simultaneously. Emails, WhatsApps, texts flood in, all inviting me to join some angry point of view on Covid. One friend rings in a fury to explain why the zero-Covid guys shouldn’t be allowed on the airwaves. Another demands to know why the vitamin D story is not getting traction. 

Still another is livid at one of the Nphet guys who, she claims, has just said lockdown will continue until all HSE waiting lists have ended. I tell her taking alerts off one’s phone measurably improves one’s happiness level. This makes her even madder. I stop short of suggesting a steamer might help, too.

Day 148

Double-masked, I sit and give the other patient in the waiting room a quelling nod when he offers a civil greeting. Dammit, does he not know how many aerosols a civil greeting dispenses? About three minutes later, Margaret, the manager, bounces in the open door, arms flung wide, and demands “So what do you think?” the way she might ask for an opinion on a new disco outfit. 

She looks like she’s been eaten by a navy dress three times too big for her. Not to mention the Perspex above neck level. When I follow her into the dental surgery, Ultan, the dentist, looks even stranger, because he not only has a massive navy dress on him but is double-masked and is wearing a blue hairnet. I don’t laugh, because anybody who laughs at their dentist before he invades their mouth with a drill is not a strategic thinker. He does his complicated best for me, and as I slide off his chair afterwards, I ask how long it will be before I can eat or drink something hot. 

“Two weeks,” he says, turning away. It takes me a full 20 seconds to cop on that it’s a joke. That’s how institutionalized I am by Zoom. A lot of great things happen on Zoom, but muttered deadpan humour is not among them.

Day 149

At 6.15, it’s only beginning to turn to luminous dusk with a fat full moon asserting itself over Ireland’s eye. Seven swimmers are coming in out of the waves onto the sand, wrapping themselves up, rubbing each other’s arms, sharing something out of a flask. 

Hugging each other and one of them being welcomed by a tiny white dog with the fastest tail-wag in captivity. All happy. It’s still possible.

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