The joys of being Apollo 13 Man

methink1 The invention of the domestic tractor-mower many years ago was hailed at the time as perhaps one of the greatest garden labour-saving devices of all time. A great deal of humour is generated by the difference between early expectations and final reality.

A happy Monday to you all.

I had one of those weekends. Last week, Spring sprung from its closet, and then decided it was too cold and dashed back in again. Unfortunately, by the time it wimped out I had already convinced myself it was time to start cutting the grass again. There’s about 2.5 acres here, and around 80 percent of it is laid to grass.That’s quite a lot of grass. Once the temperature starts to climb up past 15 degrees and the rain falls, grass in these parts grows like it might be a nutjob religious fanatic determined to be touching the clouds by April: “nearer my God to thee” and all that.

So one of the things you need is a tractor mower. These come in all the sizes, colours and price ranges, but to the last machine, they have one thing in common: they spend at least as much time at the dealership as they do cutting the grass. And once back from the dealer, they behave with a level of disobedience that would try the most liberal of parents.

Anyway, I strode out into the morning sunlight, had my spirits raised by the early fruit blossom, and walked towards the converted pigsty, where my Husqvarna tractor lives. There’s a scene in the BBC film about the Manchester United Munich air disaster, where Busby and his team make their way to the plane for a third attempt at take-off. The camera rises up slowly to take in the trepidation on their faces. I remember watching this brilliantly directed sequence, and thinking ‘They look just like me about to use the mower for the first time at the end of winter’.

Predictably, it wouldn’t start (flat battery) – and given I’m still in the middle of loading up the pebble beach by the maison des amis, getting the car’s jump leads near enough to the tractor  for Vulcan mind-meld to take place was something of a trial. The car is a 208 Peugeot not a Land Rover, so understandably it took a dim view of being asked to star in a recreation of the Normandy landings. A lot of swearing and  Basil Fawlty hysteria took place in this process, but at last the leads were connected, and the Husky burst into life. I then spent twenty minutes persuading the 208 to execute the same thing again, only this time backwards.

Onto the grass we sped (on the tractor, not in the 208) and I switched on the blades. Grass shot out in all directions and I took this to be a good sign. Until I turned round to see that the cutting-wake I’d created was anything but a level playing field. The two blades were not synchronised. In fact, they were so far from working in concert, behind me lay a perfect Mohican haircut. Possibly even the world’s longest Mohican haircut.

Off the grass we sped, and onto two large timbers I placed over the main house front steps. I don’t have an inspection pit. It’s a missing piece in my life jigsaw. I’ve learned to deal with it. It’s been tough, but I’m through it, out the other side, and using timbers over steps. And that mode was enough to tell me that the adjustable undercarriage had one blade working on 3.0, and one working on 0.5. Close examination of the 0.5 blade caused the 3.0 blade to collapse. Thus I now had two blades functioning in perfect harmony on 0.0, the better to rip up the grass roots and all, and create enough turf to replace the entire playing surface at Wembley stadium.

Back in the pigsty, it was time for the Odds & Sods box. You don’t get to be a World Class bodger like me without an Odds & Sods box. Many years ago I had a girlfriend who used to call me Apollo 13 Man….by which she meant, having encountered (and probably created) a total disaster in some way, I only redeemed myself by being able to attach a bathtap to a vacuum cleaner and somehow limp back to Earth. So an hour later – the O&S having given up a supply of very tough wire – we were back in business with a blade undercarriage set at 2.5. It was no longer an adjustable undercarriage as such, because very tough wire doesn’t do flexible: but it was scything down the new growth like an anally retentive grim reaper, and this seemed to me a major result.

All was well for a little over ten minutes, at which point I stopped the mower to take a pee. Having adjusted my clothing* afterwards, I climbed back aboard and turned the ignition key.

It was a turn too far. In my hand was the plastic end of the key, with an inadequate amount of metal attached. The rest of it was still in the ignition.

Imagine what the reaction would have been if – after looping pointlessly round the moon, half-dead from thirst and high on carbon monoxide –  Apollo 13’s crew approached the Earth’s atmosphere, and Jim Lovell had turned the retro-rocket ignition key…only to see it come off  in his hand.

The Apollo 13 crew did not have the option of ringing up the dealership. It’s an option that for me is always the last resort, largely because the receipt of a very large bill inevitably follows. Although pliers had extracted the key blade from the ignition, I’d exhausted my ingenuity re this one; and so I rang Monsieur Tonon, and told him of my problem.

To my astonishment, he had an ignition key for my model in stock. This is very rare in France, but Tonon is largely devoid of Je m’en fou syndrome. An hour’s round trip saw Husky et Moi back on the grass and marching together in the manner of two intrepid blokes in a buddy movie.

For another twenty minutes. Then the mower uncharacteristically slewed sideways. I turned him off with my shiny new ignition key, and performed a walk-round investigation. I had a flat.

Devotees of the Percy Verance Academy of Self-discipline would get a second wind at this point. I am not made of such stuff. What I am mainly about is yelling “Fuck it”, cooking a well-lubricated lunch, and then taking a siesta.

I feel much better today. So much better, in fact, I have vowed to change tack, and cut some wood with the aid of a chain saw. What on Earth could go wrong?

In my early years, public lavatories always featured a prominent sign at the exit point saying, ‘Gentlemen are requested to kindly adjust their dress before leaving’.  Looking around and seeing nobody wearing a dress, I was puzzled by – and rendered more than slightly anxious about – who the author of this sign might be