“We’re out of gas – again!” The exasperation in my husband’s voice yesterday was evident.  Like many people, we live in an area with no piped gas, and all our heating and hot water is provided by boilers that run on LPG (liquified petroleum gas) provided by Calor Gas, one of the UK’s largest suppliers of LPG.  So we have two big tanks in the garden which feed into the boiler, and in the past when the tanks get low, Calor Gas, who can remotely test the levels in the tanks, deliver and re-fill with gas. This worked aright for a few years, but recently, they have become very parsimonious with deliveries.  We know when we are getting low by checking the meters on the top of the tanks.  Then we telephone the company to inform them, and they always say that their equipment indicates that we have more than we have said. In other words they don’t believe us. And they don’t check their equipment.  (Does this sound vaguely familiar? – the Post Office refused to believe truthful sub-postmasters and post mistresses and would not check their faulty Horizon computer programme.)

A few weeks ago the above scenario took place.  Calor Gas did not deliver in time and we ran out.  That time we were without hot water and heating for a few days and then when they had delivered, an engineer was required to restart the boilers because they are old, and we are unable to do this.  This is not the first time that we have run out of gas and remonstrated with them to no effect.  The problem is that we can’t switch suppliers without changing the tanks and incurring huge expense, so they have us over a barrel – which means we are at their mercy. This expression is a nautical term and refers to the practice of draping a drowned unconscious sailor over a barrel to clear their lungs of water. The man’s fate was in the hands of those administering the treatment – i.e. he was in a helpless position.  As we are.

On Wednesday this week, we checked the tanks and they were both registering empty so we telephoned and indicated that we were about to run out, to which they said that  – according to them – we had 7% left, and they would not schedule a delivery.  Needless to say we ran out over the weekend (why is it always a weekend?), so we telephoned them on Sunday morning – they have a 24/7 emergency line, but it still took some while for them to answer.  My husband, in his habitual measured way, explained the situation.  The person who responded noted down all our details, and kept saying, “I can only apologise. I can only apologise.”  This was very kind and polite of her, but actually if that is all she or her company can do, it is clearly not enough.  They need to get moving and ensure that we have a delivery of gas, and organise an engineer to come and restart our boilers.  But there was no assurance of any of this, just her repeated apologies.  Apologies are good, but action might be better.

It is now Monday afternoon, and we have heard nothing from Calor Gas about a delivery. And even when we get that, we will need an engineer to restart our boilers.  Of course we are aware that many people have been without power in recent weeks because of storms, floods and other disasters, so we are not alone.  And of course, we have a couple of fan heaters, so we can keep two rooms warm even though we cannot shower. It is of course unfortunate that during the past 10 days, my husband and I have both had Covid – and though I have just tested negative, my husband is still positive and feeling pretty wretched and needs to keep warm.  We can’t even go to a friends house for a hot bath, because he’s still got the virus.

So we are ‘over a barrel’.  Fortunately, the weather is not freezing and, as regards Covid, neither of us are feeling breathless and of course we are going to ‘get over it’.  But, as another curious expression neatly puts it, it’s not ‘a barrel of laughs’ (not much fun).  I checked out the origin of this idiom as well – and discovered that the explanation is horrific.  Apparently African slaves were not allowed to laugh on some plantations, and so, in an act of defiance, they often stuck their heads into barrels in order to laugh out of sight and out of earshot of their white slave owners.  This dreadful story put things in perspective – and I instantly stopped feeling aggrieved.  Practice patience!  Far worse things have happened at sea or on slave plantations in the past.