Our dinner together that Thursday was special. Not only was it my wife’s birthday, albeit celebrated two days late, but we both had lived to share the occasion. Her actual birthday had been lost during a hectic and horrible 24 hours earlier in the week.
We were still on our holiday in France. At around 5.30pm on the Monday the phone rang and by dint of some circuitous informatics our London house-sitter told us how water had been seen seeping from under the door of our flat and was now flooding the stairs. By its nature the ‘flat’ in the message had to refer to our first-floor pied-a-terre in Paris, and the door in question the ‘false’ one that gives on to the stairwell; this door was actually blocked off years ago when a grand flat was subdivided, the current entrance is now just down the corridor.
With further phoning and texting all became clear. Over the last few hours water had been coming from under our false door and a puddle, which was originally limited to the landing, was now covering the top three stairs. As part of her detective work, Rohan discovered that the friend who keeps a spare set of keys to the Paris flat was currently holidaying in Berlin.
We spoke throughout to the syndic, the man responsible for managing our block of flats. His line was uncompromising – unless we deal with the flood by first thing on Tuesday morning, he would have to break in and resolve it himself. His approach was characteristic. By and large syndics are seen as modern-day villains and are described variously as rude, uncaring, corrupt, incompetent, bullying and out to make as much money as possible.
By the early evening there were neither trains nor planes to Paris so if we were to avoid the dual risk of flood damage and syndic intervention, it was to be a six-and-a-half hour long car ride through the night. This is the the course we chose, and by 2.30am next day we arrived exhausted. On the journey we chatted endlessly about what we might find and what we might do. Our worst fears were that we would be greeted by furniture, carpets and our treasured 19th century oak parquet, all bobbing about on a lake. In the discussion there was a moment at midnight to wish Rohan a happy birthday.
We climbed up to the flat, and yes, there was a stream coming down the stairs, which by now, had reached the fourth step. But a close look suggested that the water might be seeping out from somewhere up the door frame – could it be that the water was somehow coming down from the apartment above?
In the flat, everything was bone dry save the floor and cupboards in the kitchen where drips were seen coming through the ceiling. The water was sponged up, buckets were put in place and the detective work started. Before we went to sleep we had worked out that our upstairs neighbour’s water was trickling down the wall behind the kitchen units, around a partition between the kitchen and the bathroom, along behind the bathroom tiles and finally down the door and onto the landing.
After four hours sleep, broken by bucket-emptying duties, it was up to face the syndic. Gruff, with a quiff, winkle-picking shoes and the modern equivalent of drain-pipe trousers, he fits the part. Our upstairs neighbour was away and, with no-one knowing either her, or her keys’ whereabouts, with the help of a locksmith he entered her flat. The source of the flood was found and the water stop-cock was turned off. The offending trickle stopped within minutes.
Within ten hours of our arrival, we were able to set off back on our journey to Brittany. Tired but relieved, we discussed what might have been and, as usual stopped every two hours or so for coffee and to swap driving duties. Then suddenly, during a quiet moment with me at the wheel and without warning, I fell asleep. Within seconds I was woken by Rohan shouting and the tyres roaring as we crossed the rumble strip and headed for a cement wall. We stopped with no damage done. Rohan took over for the last hour and I slumped silently into the passenger seat. After such a frightening moment and with hundreds of ‘hows?’ and ‘what ifs?’ whizzing though my mind, I was dumbstruck. For a good hour speaking was not an option.
It took until the next day to recover. What with the drive, the flood and the brush with mortality, Rohan’s birthday had been lost. So our delayed celebration over dinner on Thursday was particularly special and, as it turned out, so too was the food.