A hero in hot water

by Mia Cobb

There are few things in life that I will readily toot my own horn about doing well. I feel competent at starting fires (fire in fireplaces kinds of fires, not rampaging wildfire kinds of fires) and reversing cars. Those are things I am proud to lay claim to doing well.

If the world depended on someone reversing a car along a precarious route and then lighting a fire to save it, I’m the person for the job. I never thought it would be my capacity to relight a pilot light that would set me up for hero status and leave me completely outraged all in the space of twenty minutes, but then I never really thought I was a feminist either. Some days, you learn things about yourself.

I was wrapping up a work day at home. You know the drill, eyeing the clock as I tackled some final tasks, juggling the time I’d need to finish the current email with the time required to arrive punctually to collect the toddler from care, and feeling smug because, you know, I’d nailed it.

As I was hitting Sleep on the laptop I noticed an umbrella surfacing near the gate at the front of our house. We live at the top of a driveway usually steep enough to deter people selling electricity plans or religion, so anyone brave enough to hike to the house (particularly in the foul rain we were experiencing that afternoon) deserved a gold star.

It was two teenage girls from the neighbouring house. They live there part-time as their parents are separated and I’d only said hello to them twice in the two years they’d been coming and going next door. The younger girl is about thirteen years old and the elder one around sixteen. They explained they had just arrived back from a holiday overseas to find the hot water service not working. Their father was still at work and didn’t want them to attempt relighting it themselves, so asked them to find a sucker neighbour to help.

Enter me, lighter of fireplace fires and reverser of cars extraordinaire. Now to be late to childcare, but feeling equipped to help.

My mother had shown me how to relight the pilot light on our gas heater when I was still in primary school, so I felt confident we could sort this out quickly, no sweat. As we walked over to their father’s house (in the cold and persistent Melbourne rain), we talked about how I worked from home. They were curious about my work as an animal welfare scientist and I felt that exciting moment when you know you’re introducing a whole new concept to someone young, breaking some moulds and challenging beliefs.

“Yah!” I thought, as we trudged through mud, “You can be a scientist AND be female, AND study animals, it’s true”!

I arrived at the house feeling full of girl power, only to be met by the eldest sister, whom I’d not yet met. I’m guessing she’s about nineteen.

“What?” she proclaimed, “You brought a woman to do a man’s job?”

Um. Sorry? You really didn’t just say that. Did you?

My brain immediately started an internal rant of You’ve got to be fucking kidding me! I’m a scientist who can light fires and reverse cars! My vagina doesn’t stop me! Shall I just leave you with your cold water until someone with a penis turns up to help you?

Outwardly I just sighed and said very quietly, “Oh, don’t even get me started on that…” and walked to the back of the house, by now ridiculously wet, to relight the gas water heater. I read the unit’s instructions. Turned off the gas. Waited five minutes. Explained the whole time to the youngest girl (by now, my only companion) what I was doing. Then relit the heater by turning the gas back on and depressing the ignite button. It lit like a dream.

“There you go!” I announced, “Now you’ll know what to do next time!” I was thanked by the thirteen year old.

No acknowledgement from the others.

I headed home, changed out of my soaking wet clothes and went to collect my kid. My kid, who is a girl.

My daughter who will grow up learning how to light fires, reverse cars and be her own hero in hot water, because she can. My daughter, who will not be fed a diet of pure Disney. Because it turns out I really care about equality and independence. The disappointment I felt at the nineteen year old for making a comment like that still seethes in me, two months later. So please, if you’re not sure, take two minutes and learn how to relight a gas water heater pilot light right now. No penis required.

A friend pointed out that maybe the eldest sister was just embarrassed because she wasn’t able to fix the hot water system herself, but I don’t know. She must have learned that attitude from somewhere. What do you think?

Image courtesy of Honest To God Jo.

Written By

Carolyn is the editorial director of Champagne Cartel and a freelance writer. In her spare time she is a long-distance runner, peanut butter enthusiast, and single mum to three incredible humans.


  • Okay, so I was feeling bad about not knowing how to do this until I worked out we have electric hot water. But apparently you’re supposed to top your hot water system up regularly. Does anyone know about this?

    • I did not! Shows my ignorance of having been raised and lived only in gas-hot-water-system environments! I would have thought they’d automate refill somehow, surely? If a toilet and a horse trough in a paddock can self-regulate top up, can’t a hot water system? Balls and valves and stuff?

  • I love that your mum showed you how to light the pilot when you were in Primary school, I want her to be my mum too!
    Great article, thanks, made my day 🙂

  • I read about this in my local free newspaper, so came on over to tell you I’m female too and know a fair bit about most gas appliances. My dad used to be a gas fitter and plumber, he’s probably fitting gas stoves for all the angels in heaven now, and I used to trail around behind him on jobs during school holidays. He taught me how to get things started like hot water heaters and stoves that wouldn’t light etc. I taught my own kids too.

    • Thank you so much for finding us and sharing your story! My Dad’s not here any more either, but my Mum tells me she thinks he’d be pretty proud of us ladies who can light our own pilots! 🙂

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