About a week after I moved into my flat, the lightbulb in the kitchen blew out. No problem, I thought, and the next day, I popped over to the local Sainsbury’s supermarket, where I bought a new pack of lightbulbs. Unfortunately, when I got home and unscrewed the old lightbulb, it appeared to have sheared off halfway in the socket. This has happened to me a few times before–the metal bottom of the bulb remains in the light socket’s spiral threading, while the glass comes out intact. So the following day, I went out and bought a pair of pliers, so I could extract the bottom half of the bulb as I’ve done many times before. Unfortunately, after a few minutes of vigorous unscrewing in the dim light coming from the living room, I notice that little bits of plastic are chipping off and falling onto the floor. I take a look at one of my new lightbulbs, and discover that the standard British lightbulb does not ever have a threaded screw bottom; there are two little metal studs on the sides that hold it into place. So, having destroyed the light socket, I do the only sensible thing: cook dinner in the dark.
Time passes. I go to Los Angeles for a week, and then return. (In case you were wondering whether eleven-hour plane flights are pleasant, the answer is no, not particularly.) I get more and more accustomed to making food with only the light leaking in from the living room. But on the evening when the main bulb in the living room blows out, I decide enough is enough. (Of course, the main bulb in the living room is a special, fancy kind called the Director–it has a threaded screw bottom. In other words, my pack of three lightbulbs remains useless.) The next morning, I decide I had better take action, before I’m trying to navigate my way through the flat using only the light above the shaving mirror in the upstairs bathroom. I buy a new bulb socket, a screwdriver, and a couple of Director bulbs. Somehow managing not to electrocute myself on the 240-volt current, I restore light to my flat.
That evening, my cousin Tim picks me up so we can drive up to his parents’ old house, the vicarage in Great Bardfield, not far away from Braintree. His dad, my uncle the reverend, recently retired, and his parents have moved into a smaller house. This means that an antique desk is now excess; they’re happy to loan it to me as long as I stay in the country. On the two-hour trip up, we listen to a cricket match on the radio, which is probably a topic for another day. We also chat about linguistic differences between England and America. Tim recalls a trip his football (soccer) team took to America, back in high school. He was staying with an American family in upstate New York; one evening, the mother said, “It’s dinnertime, Tim–go wash up.” To Tim, this meant only one thing: he headed to the kitchen and started scrubbing the pots and pans.
So the vicarage is pretty much cleaned out when we arrive for the desk. There’s a few stray posters on the walls, some loose change on windowsills, that sort of thing. The desk comes apart into three pieces: two stacks of drawers, plus a flat top resting on them. There’s also a large piece of glass over the flat top to protect the red leather surface. We lay the glass down on the floor, and carry the flat top out to the car. When we return, we find the room in darkness and the glass shattered. In the two minutes we were outside, the lightbulb had blown out, and then ejected itself from the ceiling socket, falling on the sheet of glass and breaking it. Clearly, I should be staying as far away from British lightbulbs as possible. Maybe I’ll start working by candlelight.