Tim Dowling: a friend asks what I’ve been up to. I can’t reveal the truth

Tim Dowling
Photograph: Ozgur Coskun/Getty Images/iStockphoto

On Sunday, I walk down to the wine shop on the corner. When I arrive, there are three other men in there, waiting. I suppose it’s not improbable that I might know one of them, but on this occasion, I know them all.

This is, for me, an unexpectedly social situation. I have no prepared remarks. On the other hand, I am pleased with how it makes me seem. When I am talking to one of the men, in a way that makes it clear we are previously acquainted, I imagine the other two thinking: wow – this guy knows everybody.

It is, however, a high-wire act. My impersonation of the sort of guy who knows everybody will not stand up to much scrutiny, or even routine questioning.

“So,” my friend Max says. “What have you been up to?”

“What have I been up to?” I say. At this point I always think: if you left the house more often, you would have a better answer for this.

Here is what I do not say: “Well, Max, I have recently been trying to get the rust off an old iron pan I was given. It would be fair to say I’ve neglected my work and family to pursue this idiotic task, for more than a week. In fact, I have spoken and thought of almost nothing else.”

It is the truth, but I do not like the way it makes me seem.

I began the week by doing some research. It turns out that making YouTube tutorials about how to get the rust off an old iron pan is a pastime shared by a large number of men I wish I had slightly less in common with.

The method that appeals to me most involves setting up a homemade electrolysis bath using bicarbonate of soda, two iron bars and a car battery recharger. But it looks dangerous, and would be, I think, a very unattractive way to die. There are simpler strategies.

“Why is there a bucket full of brown stuff on the back step?” my wife says.

“It’s Coca-Cola,” I say. “The pan’s in there.”

“Does that work?” she says.

“No,” I say. “Not so far.”

“I’m going to the shops,” she says. “Do you want anything?”

“Yes,” I say. “Two gallons of vinegar.”

In between soakings I scrub the pan, but the rust mostly stays on. Rain dilutes the vinegar overnight, and it has to be replaced. I’m getting nowhere.

“I need one of those things,” I say to my wife on Thursday.

“What things?” she says.

“It’s like a wire brush, but with a drill bit attached.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says.

“You know, for getting the rust off pans,” I say.

“I’m going to throw that pan away,” she says.

The first shop I visit does not have any wire brushes with drill bits attached, or even a section where they might be. At the second shop, the man says he did have some, but they sold out. Suddenly everybody is trying to get rust off stuff.

“Any luck?” my wife says when I return.

“No,” I say, setting two large jugs of vinegar on the table. “But there is definitely such a thing.”

The next afternoon a box arrives for me.

“Wire brush drill bits,” I say. “A set of six.”

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“How much money have you sunk into this project so far?” my wife says.

“Enough to buy a new iron pan,” I say.

I stick a wire brush on the drill, and take it out to the back step. I put a mask on and apply the brush to the pan. The noise is horrible. My teeth chatter. It takes several hours to scour the pan back to bare metal.

“Now what?” my wife says.

“We bake the pan,” I say. “Then we oil the pan. Then we bake the pan again. Then oil. I might need to stay up all night.”

“Christ,” my wife says.

“Open all the windows. It’s gonna get hot in here.”

Back at the wine shop, I am resisting the urge to explain all of this to Max. To be honest, if the other two men hadn’t been there, I probably would have told him the whole thing.