7 September 2023
By Chin Chin
Are you a walrus? Or perhaps a carpenter? Or at the very least a Cheshire Cat? No? Unfair, isn’t it? Others have all the fun. Still, every now and then the opportunity arises to participate in the topsy-turvy world of Lewis Carroll and, when it does, you should enjoy it.
There I was strolling back along the pavement from the centre of Islington, croissants and a coffee in a bag attesting that they had been ethically made, when something struck me. No, no, don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a local villain trying to relieve me of my elevenses; nor yet some lunatic cyclist weaving through the pedestrians. In fact it was a smell, the strong unmistakable smell of a gas leak. Now my first instinct was to hurry away from it. I’ve seen those pictures of wartime bomb damage, of collapsing houses, of bodies on the pavement, and I didn’t want to be in the middle of anything like that. The answer was clearly to put yards, or even metres, between me and the possible explosion so if it all went “bang” I would be outside the danger zone.
But then as I moved away I began to see it from another perspective. Suppose it did all blow up and among the dead was a smattering of vulnerable people or people from racial minorities. How would it look that I, a white descendant of an imperialist race, had walked by and let it happen? After all, remember the parable of the good Samaritan and those who walked by on the other side. They have had a distinctly bad press for 2000 years. What would the local newspapers say about me? Would they dig up the fact that my great great great grandmother through successive maternal iterations had once had tea served to her by a slave? No, I could not risk that. Action would have to be taken. Still, I had better begin by making sure that I hadn’t made a mistake.
Taking my life in my hands I edged backwards towards the smell. Yes, it was still there and another member of the public had stopped too and was also sniffing. “Gas,” they said, “what should we do?” So we took down the address and agreed that each of us would report it when we got home. That isn’t a difficult thing to do. Anyone can find the emergency number by looking online.
To my surprise it was answered immediately by someone who took down the details and promised that it would be dealt with. Then they said that they had some advice to give me. I should turn off my gas immediately. I explained that that would be rather an odd thing to do as I lived half a mile from the leak.
“Nevertheless it is our advice” they said, “and whatever happens do not strike a match or expose a naked flame.”
“But how could that be a problem several roads away?” I asked.
“It is still our advice,” they replied. Naturally they were careful to identify my address and phone number. After all you would not want just anybody identifying a gas leak, would you? They might steal it or something. I did not imagine that I would hear from them again but it seems I underestimated them. Next morning I received a text asking me to mark their performance on the scale of 1 to 10 with a warning that I would be paying the charge for the call. Irritated I messaged back that I had only been a passerby, to receive by return:
“Whoops, something went wrong. Please reply to this message with a score of 10 (satisfied) or 1 (dissatisfied).“ I don’t think I shall reply.
Now one can of course understand what happened. There is a checklist which those answering emergency calls have to sign and it asks whether they gave the standard reply. Answer that with a “no” and there will have to be an enquiry. That sort of checklist is probably a good thing and if on occasion it results in the closing down of air traffic control, well, that is better than the alternative. Still, you do wonder if somewhere or other, perhaps outside the M25, there are groups of worthy citizens who, having reported a smell of gas in a public place, are sitting in their houses eating cold food and not daring to light their cigarettes:
“I know it sounds odd, dear, but the man said…”
As there is no reason for any engineer to call at their property, perhaps they will remain thus frozen for evermore. How neatly they would have fitted into Carroll’s books.