There was a sink overflowing.
This wasn’t supposed to be Wellsey’s problem. The Handy Pavilion was like any other shop, in that if there was a problem with a sink or toilet then a plumber should be called. But Marlon -- cheap bastard that he was -- would generally call on Wellsey to fix leaks in the grimy Pavilion bathroom. Wellsey could and did argue this was not his problem. He was senior staffmember in the plumbing section, sure, but that didn’t make him a licensed plumber or even, you know, a competent plumber. Marlon usually responded by glancing around and seeing no customers talking to Wellsey.
“Well, it’s not like you’re busy,” he’d say.
It was true, usually. A lot of customers didn’t like talking to Wellsey. Not so much the tradies, they didn’t mind him, but the middle class mums and dads who came into his section always gave him funny looks. Fair enough, he looked like he was bad news. He was a big man, and even though he was pushing fifty, he looked like he could dish out some damage if he wanted to. A shaven head, a facial scar, a missing front tooth and an armful of tattoos all seemed to confirm the inevitable first impression that Wellsey was a dangerous customer.
In fact, Wellsey was mostly harmless. He had been wild enough in his youth, but age had tamed him. His scars and missing tooth all came from the same teenage motorcycle crash, while the tattoos had come during a stay in prison in his twenties, for growing marijuana. The skin-head look was just his reaction to male pattern baldness. He was not a fighting man, not any more.
Looking the way he did, he didn’t have to be.
Marlon saw through Wellsey and pushed him around mercilessly. But this time it wasn’t Marlon who propelled Wellsey in the direction of spilled water. It was Fiona, the most junior of Wellsey’s staff.
She had come rushing over while Wellsey was in the middle of a three-way conversation with Axel Platzoff and a customer. The customer was a pleasant looking middle age woman hunting for some shower curtains. Inevitably she looked past Wellsey and asked Axel. It amused Wellsey that the woman saw him as a threat, but implicitly trusted the quiet little fellow who had once tried to blow up the Hoover Dam.
“Next aisle, left hand side, about half way down,” Axel said.
The pleasant looking woman thanked him, smiled, left, remembered to be polite to Wellsey too, turned, forced a smile, and carried on her way. As she went, Wellsey saw Fiona standing back, clearly excited by something and yet too deferential to break into the conversation between her senior co-workers.
Wellsey ignored her, and concentrated on Axel. Was there something different about him lately, since he’d taken up smoking again? Something different? Something strange and nasty? Wellsey shook his head. No. No, that was just the drugs talking. He had been clean for over ten years, and was mostly over the side effects -- but every now and then the paranoia would return. He just had to ride it out when it did. Axel was okay. Probably.
“So, I’ve been thinking about this 2IC position, and I’d like…” Axel began, but he was cut off by Fiona, whose excitement had reached bursting point.
Axel sighed. Wellsey sighed.
Fiona… Fiona meant so well. Handy Pavilion was her first job after dropping out of high school. She’d had a raft of references and letters of commendation and it wasn’t hard to understand why. She was friendly and good natured, and she tried so hard at everything she did. It seemed unfair that she was so bloody useless.
“Mr Popplewell,” she said. She shifted from one foot to another.
“Wellsey, Fiona. I’m not your teacher. Everyone calls me Wellsey.”
Fiona paused a second, perhaps wondering whether to address him as Mr Wellsey. In the end she simply said: “There’s a problem with the sink. There’s water going everywhere.”
Axel swore and pointed at the floor. Wellsey looked where he was pointing, and saw a pool of water seeping under the heavy shelving unit, soaking into the cardboard of some fittings boxes on the floor.
Fiona blushed brightly. “It’s going everywhere, sir,” she said.
How long had it been overflowing? There was only one toilet for staff and customers, halfway across the cavernous Pavilion. How had the water spread so far before someone noticed it?
Fiona grabbed Wellsey by the sleeve and with surprising strength dragged him into the next aisle, to a neat display of half a dozen gleaming new bathroom sinks. They stood lined neatly in an alcove in one of the massive shelves which cut up the space in the store. Sure enough an embarrassed looking woman was trying to turn off the tap on a midrange Swedish unit, while water spilled out over her open-toed shoes.
“How?” Wellsey said.
“I don’t…” the woman said, completely flustered. “That young woman… I said I didn’t need her to show me…” she added, accusingly.
Wellsey turned and saw that Fiona and Axel had come after him. Fiona blushed an even deeper shade of red, from her mousy hair to her gold-rimmed glasses to the green collar of her shirt. “How did you do that?’ Wellsey said. “Those sinks aren’t plumbed in.”
“Oh. Is that why it’s overflowing?”
“Is that? No!”
Grabbing the tap in his calloused hands, Wellsey wrenched it into the off position. Still the water came. He looked at his coworkers for assistance. Fiona merely goggled at it and hopped from one foot to another. Axel stared at the flowing water, nothing on his face but confusion. Okay. If a genius like Axel couldn't figure it out, that didn’t leave Wellsey much hope.
Wellsey tried again. He slowly turned the tap on, then manfully wrenched it closed. It would not budge. The customer was still there, so he bit down on a mouthful of curses before they left his lips. He tried again. Nothing.
“I tried that,” the customer said. God save us from helpful customers!
“So you turned it on, Fiona?” Axel said.
“Have you tried to turn it off?”
This seemed to Wellsey a silly question to ask, but then there was nothing sensible about the situation. “Give it a go, Fiona."
Fiona looked up, as if seeking inspiration in the vast ceiling fans. Stepping forward, she grasped the tap and turned. The flow of water ceased immediately.
“Interesting,” Axel said.
“Holy living fuck,” Wellsey said.
“That’s what I said,” Axel said. “Try turning it on, Fiona.”
Blushing a like a stop-light, Fiona opened the tap a half turn, and a little stream trickled from the minimalist Scandinavian device. She quickly turned it off.
“Huh,” Axel said. He reached out and turned the tap and nothing came out. He tried the sink next to it, a (frankly overpriced) Japanese unit. Nothing happened. “Fiona?” he said. Fiona turned the tap but nothing happened.
“How about the hot tap on the original unit?” asked the customer, who seemed to have gotten over her initial embarrassment, and was becoming curious.
“I don’t know…” Wellsey said, but he must not have said it loud enough because Fiona turned the hot tap, and water poured out.
Axel put his hand in the stream. “Not hot,” he said. A moment later he said, “Ouch!” and pulled his fingers away.
Wellsey rubbed his beard. “All right,” he said. “All right.”
All eyes were on him now. He hadn’t pulled himself up from the gutter for this, but fate had given this to him to deal with anyway. It was going to take all of his management skills, all his leadership to deal with this.
“Fiona, mop up,” he said. “Never touch this unit again. Understand? This did not happen. This absolutely did not happen. I’m not a tough bloke to work for, I reckon I can say that. But I do not let laws of science get broken in my section. Sorry, Mrs, about the problem, and if you need compensation for your shoes, I’ll make it happen if I have to pay myself. But this did not happen, all right?”
Fiona nodded with enthusiasm. The customer looked doubtful, but also seemed more keen to get new shoes than to investigate an unnatural phenomenon. Axel… Axel just looked thoughtful.