The cooker was a legal requirement. So many things are legal requirements in this country that it's impossible to keep track. Even so I was surprised when I got a call the other day from a number unknown to me. The man at the other end of the line inquired when the new cooker could be delivered. I hadn't ordered one.
What I had was a gas safety inspection only days earlier. The engineer, a slight but energetic woman in her late twenties, didn't waste much time on my flat. She bounced up step ladders to check mains valves and ripped out the plasterboard behind which the boiler was leading its rather uneventful life. It all took just a few minutes. She set the pressure a notch higher – to make sure the hot water's always hot – and stuck her head into the oven. When I demonstrated, after she had taken her head back out, that the flames of the grill won't stay on, she marked down my report, and that was that.
Next thing I knew was a new cooker waiting on my landing a week later, tall, white and still shrink-wrapped, its cardboard box in tatters around it. It's a mystery how the thing made it up the tightly wound stairs. For delivery and installation, rather ambitiously, a two-hour window had been scheduled. As the original gas inspection had been half an hour late, I anticipated a similar delay. But when I arrived home with a backpack full of work, the first part of the deal had already been done. Drilling and hammering in the flat upstairs indicated that the installation part would not be long in coming either. I propped open the door to my flat and started reading a paper.
Not much later, the gas engineer was back in my flat ripping the wrapping off the new cooker with one hand and the old cooker from its fittings in the kitchen wall with the other. It was a sight of focused frenzy much at odds with what one usually associates with those occupied in various trades of home maintenance and improvement in this country. Plumbers, builders and electricians are considered slow, careless and unreliable – unless they are foreign. A Polish plumber is apparently the best you can get.
That point was, somewhat obliquely, illustrated when the old cooker was picked up a few days later, by a gang of three migrants whose leader wore a yarmulke and curly bangs down his temples. My narrow mind places Jews into the high-tech industry of Tel Aviv or the fruit orchards of the occupied territories, but that's not the story. The story is that when I told him to grab the cooker and pull it out of the flat instead of delicately dancing with it as he did, he refused in accented English, saying he didn't want to damage the carpet.
The engineer in my flat was English, but before I could get too worried about this, my attention was diverted to the cooker. I had never heard of the brand and dismissed it outright. A Chinese manufacturer in European guise, with a name I was sure the vice president for marketing had chosen for sounding vaguely Dutch. To me it sounded pound shop. I wouldn't give it a second look if it came up as an option on my favorite e-commerce site. It turned out to be Slovenian, made in Europe, its purchase by the landlord an act of Continental patriotism.
The installation was finished before the allocated two hours were up. When I had been made familiar with the safety features of the new cooker – the flame on the hob stays on only when the regulator knob is held down for a good ten seconds after ignition and a wobbly sheet of aluminum has to be wedged between door and oven when the grill is on – the gas engineer asked for hand broom and dust pan and went on her knees to sweep up the Styrofoam beads scattered throughout the hallway.
I had just got back from a trip. The flat hadn't seen a vacuum in weeks. I told her not to worry. I'd take care of it on the weekend. "Aren't you supposed to leave a mess behind?" I asked. We argued back and forth playfully while she continued to clean, catching defiant foam fragments in mid-air. "We were told to do it, even if the customer insists otherwise." Even the best stereotypes are far from universally true.