In the midst of my money woes, the instructions for my new kettle prove a welcome diversion

Having moved into my new flat, I realise costs that have been hitherto hidden from me – water, gas, electricity, internet, the consequences of my folly – are now besieging me.

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Coming up to week two of life in the Hove-l. Yesterday I received my first water bill. I imagine quite a few of you know all about water bills, but I haven’t looked at one for 13 years. And I haven’t had to deal with one personally for 30. I looked at the three-figure sum and thought, “Blimey, I’ve only been here a week and a bit and look at that. Water is bloody expensive in Brighton.” I contemplated ringing up Southern Water and asking them what the hell they think they’re playing at, but I looked more closely at the rubric and noticed this is a sum that covers the next six months. I suppose I am going to have to get used to this kind of thing.

As I realise costs that have been hitherto hidden from me – water, gas, electricity, internet, the consequences of my folly – are now besieging me, a general terror descends: not the hideous anxiety of the past couple of months, but the specific fear of not having enough money. I think I could manage if I gave up drinking, but then I would die of boredom. Actually, giving up drinking wouldn’t make any real difference. I have a tax bill I can’t pay, an accountant’s bill that will come close to bankrupting me, and meanwhile I have to keep buying things for the flat if I want to keep the books off the floor and hang the clothes out to dry.

To the latter end, yesterday I went to the hardware shop and bought the Addis Slimline X-Wing Airer. Doesn’t that sound sexy? If I recall correctly, the X-Wing was the nippy fighting spaceship piloted by the goodies in Star Wars, but my X-Wing airer remains stubbornly non-airborne, which I concede is a desirable characteristic in a clothes horse. The term “clothes horse” now looks laughably old-fashioned when set against “X-Wing”. But what else have I got? A note on the packaging tells me that Addis has been going since 1780, but I am prepared to wager a sum of money I don’t have that the X-Wing airer was not the first name this particular product went under, while the nation was still reeling from the loss of the American colonies.

Then you have to buy a kettle. Actually, first you have to buy a kettle. I asked the shop to take it out of the box and they asked me if I wanted to keep the instruction leaflet, an idea I at first pooh-poohed, but then I remembered, in this very column many years ago, making much sport of the instructions that came with a John Lewis toaster. And lo, the leaflet for the Tower 1.7 Litre Jug Kettle does not disappoint.

Before I go on, I should say that I fully endorse the Tower 1.7 Litre Jug Kettle, and would go so far as to say it operates flawlessly. It is fast, and quiet, and was not expensive. It is, right now, one of my favourite things.

But the leaflet is a source of rich comedy. For a start, it’s not a leaflet, it’s a 16-page book. “Boil up to seven cups of water for friends or colleagues.” What about people you don’t know very well, like the man who’s come to fix the internet? Or people you secretly despise? The section “Before First Use” advises us, as point number one, to “remove the parts from the packaging”. It is a rare person who can, or who has tried to, use a kettle before taking it out of the box.

The “Important Safety Information” is not full of imbecilities, although I confess to being a bit baffled by “this appliance is for household use only”. Can’t you take it to the office? The operating theatre? Ach, never mind. It is a fine kettle and I love it.

In between cups of tea I get to know the neighbours. The no-smoking policy inside the building is terrifyingly unambiguous so the smokers congregate outside. I had been getting on with one young man and the woman in the ground-floor flat, to the extent that they let me mooch off their broadband while Virgin screwed up my internet for a week.

Last night, I was heading off to meet my youngest son for a drink but had time for a  chat. I’d been mildly intrigued by their household – the other evening it had been joined by a teenaged girl wearing the most striking leopard-print leggings – so I asked him: “What’s the set-up here, then? The woman who lives there, that’s your mum, right?”

The instant the words were out of my mouth I knew I had said the wrong thing; the wrongest thing I have said since I told Ian Curtis’s daughter that she smiled a lot more than her dad did.

“No, girlfriend.”

How does one recover from that? I said, well, he did look young, but I was basically babbling by then. I’m going to have to move out after all. Maybe wade off into the Channel and end it all. If anyone wants an Addis Slimline X-Wing Airer or an excellent kettle, write c/o this magazine. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 23 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic

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