November 1, 2013 6:25 pm

The time taken to fill a bath

‘I had the most wonderful feeling, as though not only had I solved this problem, I had actually solved all the problems that there are’

All this striving; what’s the point?

It was Sunday morning and I had the place to myself all day. I had plans all right – oh, I had plans. Broomsticks, box files and J-cloths – I was armed for action, primed for achievement. The attic was quaking with fear at my imminent ambush. Soft toys, half-dead from neglect, were mouthing, “Careful what you wish for,” to each other. The kitchen cupboards were indulging in a final shame spiral before the Big Bad Sort-Out of autumn 2013.

Or was that all a waste of time when there were loftier projects to consider? I had been commissioned to write a short story loosely based on the subject of Sigmund Freud, my great grandfather, and dreams. It was all a bit daunting. At a reading in a library last week I was asked, “Where did Freud get his compassion for the human race?” The excellent librarian, who had recently been voted librarian of the year, gave me a sympathetic glance.

“I don’t know,” I said. “His parents maybe?”

I was a bit tired, unslept for a few nights, not tragic, but not the opposite either. There were inner-city mauve and yellow shadows under my eyes. I slumped slightly. The slough of despond beckoned with its cavalier grin. “I dare you,” it said. It can be awfully seductive, the old devil.

I switched on the television, wrapped myself in a blanket, flipped the ring-pull on a tin of lychees and sank into an armchair. I felt a little smarting of disgrace on my brow but I looked that disgrace in the face and told it to scram. “Hello TV, my old friend,” I thought. I remembered on Fridays as a teenager putting away a whole packet of Simmers’ ginger and choc-chip biscuits (I thought they were called Slimmers) and watching seven TV shows in a row. I was so happy.

On the television a man in America was doing a spiteful stand-up routine, trashing all his wife’s (admittedly horrid) friends. He showed a photograph of one in a bathing suit and compared her to Miss Piggy, yelling: “You need to lay off the carbs, baby.” Everyone was furious with everyone suddenly. On the other channel some people who had known Myra Hindley were chatting about the pub where they all used to drink, where pictures of the missing children were pinned up on the wall right in front of them, right in front of her. The next channel was talking about a terrible strand of postnatal psychosis that affects one woman in 1,000.

. . .

Finally, I found my first true television passion – Little House on the Prairie – on a channel with a very high number, but Ma Ingalls had been manhandled by some cowboys and Pa was so angry and vengeful he shook her shoulders as she cried. My low spirits sank further. From the street I heard a car stereo blaring out what sounded very like Gloria Gaynor singing, “I Won’t Survive.”

Then, on the table next to me I saw an old exam paper. I read through the questions. One caught my imagination: “Tap one fills a bath in 10 minutes; tap two fills it in 20 minutes; tap three fills it in 30 minutes. How long would it take to fill the bath with all the taps running simultaneously?”

I grabbed a pencil and some paper. “You can do this,” I said. I did actually win a prize for maths at school but it was a multiple-choice exam and I had a kind of legendary luck that day, similar to – you know – those crazy monkeys of myth who, in theory, were locked up in a room with typewriters for 100 years and wrote the complete works of Shakespeare, just through trial and error.

Pretty soon I realised that the answer was between five and six minutes and that, time being as precious as it is, the owners of the baths needed to think about maybe installing better pressure. But I needed a proper answer. After another 10 minutes I worked out that the answer was very, very, close to five minutes, but not exactly five. It was quite exciting. I found some graph paper and felt a whole lot more professional. I wished I had a formula, but I did not.

“Work out what fraction of the bath is filled in one minute; then you can work out how long the whole thing takes,” I told myself sternly. I put on a starched apron in the dim hope it would help. I felt for a moment like the Mary Poppins of maths. Quite a bit of time passed. Not at all suddenly, the answer was mine!

I had the most wonderful feeling, as though not only had I solved this problem, I had actually solved all the problems that there are. I jumped up and sprinted to the attic, rolling up my sleeves. “Let’s do this,” I roared into the towering chaos.

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susie.boyt@ft.com

@SusieBoyt

More columns at ft.com/boyt

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