I was going to write a different blog but chose not to.
A blog is self indulgent pursuit at the best of times but one about a night in your life that you thought was hilarious to you and those present might not be to others so it’s best to leave it as a five minute anecdote in a pub. If you see me about and don’t know the tale of “The Black Balsam”, ask me and I’ll spill it like I spilt that particular liquid all over a quilt on that fateful night but be warned…you’ll need a strong stomach and a disturbing, guttural sense of humour.
This blog will be more relevant than a night out 15 years ago and more in keeping with why I started an observational blog a year ago about the freaks I encounter in everyday life.
..It’s been a busy month…
Firstly, the Prodigal Son returned, all too briefly, form the Far East, and the nights out with far flung mates from various locations made me realise why we have tight knit circles of friends rather than rooms of associates…less is more. Many beers were downed and then Bun was gone again and life returns to normal for the sake of my liver. Top stuff all round from you all…..We should do it more often and with increasing ferocity. Here’s to the next time…
Builders….. ‘Tradesmen’, ‘The Grafters’, ‘Men of the soil’. This month my house has seen a swarm of builders crawl all over it in the name of ‘Loft Conversion’. I’ve been watching them closely.
Before I describe my interactions with the builders I have to explain something…I need builders, without builders I would be living in a cave, or under a bridge as I am generally hopeless at DIY.
Examples of my lack of prowess in the building game are many but include notable examples such as falling out of a loft hatch having not seen the hole, electrocuting myself rewiring a door bell and being found in the doorway by a kindly passer-by, putting up a coat rack with such ineptitude that in the end I simply put a picture up to cover the mess and screwing through a central heating pipe when your girlfriend is eight months pregnant and flooding a downstairs neighbour.
Actually the last example was my crowning glory of stupidity as I simple wanted to stop a floor board creaking and managed to screw cleanly through a pressurised pipe.
I was alerted to the problem by the 75 year old in the flat below who was worried about the water dripping from her light fitting. As she spoke it hit me….. I run upstairs and pulled up a floor board to see the screw perfectly central to the pipe. Un-fuckin-believable. Stupidly I remove the screw and am hit in the face with a luke warm gush that Ron Jeremy would have been proud of.
While I stem the flow Jen rings my mate Kieran.
Kieran knows builders, he knows all kinds of people, he’s a popular bloke who I trust and have known for 35 years. After about twenty minutes Kieran arrives with Knoxy who is the only plumber he could raise at the time. Knoxy is a yet another great bloke, a professional, a lover of Brazilian beer and Golf, a man with tools that haven’t come from B&Q. I can’t see them arrive as I’m lying on the floor holding the pipe, stemming the flow, grafting hard doing low level, non-plumbing plumbing.
I look up and see my saviour Knoxy has a broken arm. I look at Kieran with my ‘are you taking the fucking piss’ face to which he merely raises an eyebrow. He’s a man of few words and we are deep in the shit now so I have to trust him. Knoxy’s a pro… this just might work.
Over the next hour Knoxy instructs Kieran in what to do and I lie their helpless in my own dirty uselessness. Between them they fix the problem and then piss themselves while talking about me being an idiot in my own house. Who can blame them? The screw in question was placed directly in the centre of a floorboard exactly where a pipe would be. If you need a pipe finding I’m your man.
It’s safe to say that my skills are limited. Jen is the brains. She does the measuring and I do the hammering… so to speak. She is all precision and I am the blunt instrument. I endlessly question and doubt the measuring but she is always accurate and I am always incorrect. I am used as muscle on low level tasks within this house. Lifting stuff, smashing stuff…. I am the torque of the screwdriver or the heft behind the mallet. I am nothing and so I rely on the skill of others…..
So let’s start at the beginning…. All major projects start with these fuckers. Scaffolders.
Scaffolders are a breed apart. They are the foot soldiers of the building industry…the grunts…The animals. They are not unskilled as putting up and taking down scaffolding, to me anyway requires a certain skill and immense strength far beyond my capabilities. The problem with the scaffolder is the stupidity. I’ve never encountered one that wasn’t a bit of a stroker. They tend to be trappier than normal, more “Oi! Oi!” Than “Ahoy! Hoy!”.
They also have little regard for your stuff. They smash stuff unnecessarily. My neighbour had scaffolders at the same time as I did from a different firm. It was a bare chested tattooed face off scenario where they were like apes fighting for territory with my scaffolders worthy winners of the ‘2001’ bone due to the fact that they didn’t smash a window with a scaffold plank or smash my door light with a wayward pole. They might be wankers but at least they are my wankers.
It never used to be this easy. Years ago another set of scaffolders hoisted up their erection around my house during which time they played football in the garden with a tin of watery paint spraying it up the wall….there was no apology.
I also recall sitting in the living room while the main man gibboned his way around the poles before hanging outside the living room window staring at me for a good minute while gently swaying. We locked eyes and it was I who blinked first in order to get the job done. It was slightly unnerving but we got through it…together.
The scaffolders leave and I meet the main men.
These men are tasked with creating my loft. Simon and Peter. This throws me. Where have the builders’ names gone? Where is ‘Pete’? Where is ‘Keith’? or ‘Dave’ and ‘Steve’? I can’t have this….next you know they’ll be a builder called ‘Tristram’ or ‘Jeffrey’. This trade is the final bastion on the “…’Ave it!!…” culture. I’m not having it. I will shorten their names to ‘Si’ and ‘Pete’ in order to maintain the long standing traditions that made this country and its workforce of Ladbrooks attendees and bacon sandwich eaters the Masters of build that they are.
Both Peter and Simon are lovely blokes. Simon is the older one….the brains…wiry and lithe whereas Peter is the young muscle with a brooding silence. He don’t speak much and I imagine he’s killed many a rabbit during a friendly cuddle.
Lovely or not I’m ready for these fuckers. I’m preparing to go all ‘Gangmaster’ and lay down the law about lunchbreaks and bookmakers visits. I’ve been here before years ago when I came home unexpectedly to find the two Polish labourers grafting and the natives of this land up the café or in William Hill’s on my day rate… pisstakers. Not this time. I’m Judge Dredd with the hump… they’re not the law…. I am the law.
Out of the blue they whip out prepared salads from their bags and bottles of water and ask if they can use my refrigeration services…the power shifts in their favour as I become all accommodating.. Dirty Rotters…
I stand by the kettle. I know my place. I’m arranging the specially purchased, low level, dust teabags and the white sugar that only gets an airing in the chipped ‘builders cups’. I’m eyeing them up. Strong tea the colour of mud with three sugars each I reckon as nothing else is acceptable in this office worker / builder stand-off. Fuck this shit, one is on juice and the other wants milky tea with no sugar, no wonder the country is all over the shop..
We have ‘Day One’ small talk and they climb the scary ladder to the roof… Oh yes…. ‘The Ladder’. I hate ladders, wobbly, bouncy and only going up, usually these attributes would grab my attention but not today….they have the upper hand, I’m on the rack early doors.
Over the next few days I make sure that I’m about in the mornings to have a chat with the main man and as a result I get to know him and we engage in bawdy chat where I throw a few fucks in and laugh at stuff I wouldn’t normally do. But I’m not in it for the swearing, I can easily out swear anyone alive or dead. I was trained by a professional, angry swearer with an encyclopaedic knowledge of offensive language… He was the Gandalf of Expletives.
I’m engaging with him as over the first few days he’s been slightly taking liberties in his attitude towards Jen. He’s not rude or abusive because that would be easy to deal with through physical ejection from my house with a note for his boss explaining that the next £8,000.00 won’t be forthcoming from the client. What he is doing though is being condescending, patronising and mostly sexist. If you’ve ever met Jen you’ll realise pretty quickly that this kind of attitude is doomed to failure. Jen knows her stuff as she’s the queen of research. Six building firms have attended this house to tender for the work with Jen knowing all about them before they enter the building. One of these firms couldn’t answer Jen’s questions and after telling her she knew ‘her stuff’ they left in shame.
A few years back during another epic refurb project instigated by Jen I came home to find her in an uneasy stand-off with some lumpy aging builder. I asked what was wrong and she raised an eyebrow and explained that the builder, on delivering the comical quote, refused to accept Jen’s decision and was waiting to discuss it with ‘the man of the house’. I dispatched him robustly…
This plum thinks he can blind Jen with technical bullshit…. He can’t….and so in order to keep the peace I intervene and sit him down to explain that whatever Jen wants, she gets. It’s the law of the house he’s tearing apart.
At this point it all spills out…….His wife has left him…..
This throws me momentarily. Normally I couldn’t care less and ‘Not my problem’ would leave my mouth but as my future comfort rests in his hands I feel the need to show a crumb of concern. Over the next ten minutes you would have heard me say the following:
- “You’re Joking mate?” (shocked mouth agape
- “Unbelievable” (arms folded, head shaking slowly)
- “She’s well out of order” (while prodding the table)…
- “What you going to do?” (oozing concern, palms open followed by “what CAN you do?)
- “it must be difficulty” (raised eyebrows, head tilting to one side)
- “how are the kids?….must be hard for them” (mouth downturned slightly)
- “take her to the cleaners mate” (hard face engaged, fist clenched)
…and my personal favourite…”The Money Shot” if you will….
- “Do you think she is sleeping with someone else?” (deadpan)
I was actually more industrial with the final question as I wanted one of two possible reactions in order to trigger the worker in him. He could be disgusted and return up the ladder or he could be shocked and would return up the ladder….. He returned up the ladder in disgusted shock….Happy Days….
Over the following weeks I was subjected to a daily update with regard to ‘the wife’.
On one occasion he showed me a picture of her on his phone and said:
“You wouldn’t let that go without a fight would ya?…look at her!!… I’ve got enough love for the two of us!!”
I look at the picture. She’s alright but wouldn’t stand out in a crowd as there is too much ‘vagasling Essex’ happening in my view. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder so each to their own and so I let out a non-descript, non committal noise to let him know I have acknowledged the existence of the photo before me.
Over the next few weeks I get a daily update on the state of his collapsing relationship.
It’s not too bad. Turns out he’s the type of bloke that checks his missus’ phone and doesn’t like what he found. If you don’t want to know then don’t go looking is my mantra.
Checking someone’s messages on their phone is as bad as whatever they are up to. He deserves the misery but his kids don’t so I remain lethargically sympathetic which gains me the upper hand. The problem I have is that he’s not retaining enough focus on my loft as his mind is elsewhere…. I can’t have that.
It got so bad at one point that when I asked him if everything was okay he informed me that he had instructed a solicitor. “What? For the loft? “says I, raising a finger skyward. “ ahh… sorry” he says, “..my head’s all over the place at the minute”… If he don’t get up that ladder… it might be.
The job progresses and all the trades start to appear at my house…
First up. Plumbers, the drummers of the building world.
Unless you are a heating engineer I see plumbing as fairly easy. Plumbing is Lego with the problem of added water. So long as you understand gravity and washers it shouldn’t really be an issue should it? Two plumbers turn up. Ross and Chris who are brothers. Chris barely speaks and I get to thinking that builders, when in pairs, leave all the interaction to one or the other.
Ross is a professional. He talks calmly like a surgeon about to remove a tumour, a tumour that turns out to be my money. Nothing he has to do is a ‘problem’ and he slowly and methodically talks me through the process completely unlike the two in the loft who are keen for me to stay away until it’s completed. I like the plumber, he’s a man I can do business with and I trust him not to mess me about.
During the build I spend a lot of time working from home so I can keep an eye on the workers. One afternoon I make the mistake of wandering into the garden to have a look at the progress from a different angle. I instantly know this is a mistake as they are on a break and are looking down at me from the top of the ladder…
“You coming up to have a look mate” one of the flash fuckers says with a more than a hint of a laugh in his voice.
They know I hate the ladder, it’s a test I can’t fail. Without replying and in silence due to fear I start the ascent. I may be a desk monkey but these Jubs can’t have the upper hand and so I must conquer the spindled snake of death arcing and bouncing it’s way up to my roof through the imaginary clouds making it even more hazardous.
Once I’m up there they skulk about and I ask hundreds of questions. Their realm has been invaded and I am back in command of my own house. I will now randomly appear at the top of the ladder in order to pile on the pressure, by pointing at things clearly half built. I overcome my vertigo to bluff my way through it. Getting down from any height is relatively simple. Like air travel I find the descent easier as my mind tells me that with every second I’m closer to the ground and so the chances of survival increase.
….and then the Plasterer arrived….
Plastering is an undoubted skill. If you’ve ever tried to do it without ten years of experience you will know this. The plasterer appeared two days late. I was told he was sick but he tells Jen he was busy elsewhere. These tossers can’t even get the basic lies straight. He only drinks water and ‘squash’ which is a word I haven’t heard since 1976.
He’s a little bloke, about 5’ 4”… a little cockney plasterer who I reckon I could throw a good 20 feet 3.87 inches, easy. He has that high pitched voice that Hertfordshire based Londoners have…You can really feel the bigotry and violence in the pitch.
I don’t take well to this bloke as he’s whinging that the job is too big and he keeps endlessly repeating it like I’m going to tell him not to bother with some bits. This doesn’t happen, in fact I find extra bits that he can fix as he deserves the slavery.
He also has that annoying habit of being overly polite. He can’t speak to me without apologising for nothing or thanking me for everything. I’ve already told him that he can use the water and the tea bags and I’m getting slightly arsey at having to repeat it in order for it to sink in. I almost tell him that as long as he doesn’t shit on the floor and gets the plastering done sharpish I’ll be happy. I switch off from this cheeky, chirpy, Cockney Herbert in order to deal with the Electrician.
The electrician requires no ‘dealing with’ however as he’s in his 60’s and has seen it all before. He has the client / builder balance correctly aligned. He’s polite when need be, he’s funny, doesn’t moan and he’s quick and accurate. He does the job once with minimal fuss as he’s a seasoned campaigner. Like an old sweat the Sparky drinks strong tea (“two bags mate”) and two sugars… outstanding stuff from the old man. I applaud him.
The tiler is another matter. The milky coffee with no sugar belies his carriage. He’s a big unit with a cap that doesn’t fit his head. He’s North London encapsulated in one massive body and he hasn’t even opened his mouth yet but I can tell from his peculiar gait. I eye him up and it makes me wonder how he’ll manage to carry out the tiling in the tight places but as he’s clearly not starving I’m guessing he’s capable.
He introduces himself and seems decent enough initially but it all starts going downhill rapidly when he continues talking and talking and talking. He also has that ‘jokey’ demeanour of the nervous where everything is a joke that only he laughs at. In the ten minutes we chat I know everything about him. Where he lives, family history, work history (he used to be a postman) and significant events in his life. Overly nourished and externally happy, the worst of all combinations. So long as he does a good job and I limit the interaction we’ll get along fine.
As the days go on I start to trust in their abilities and leave them to it. And then quite rapidly and without me paying much attention their work is done.
Unfortunately like all builders they leave one thing not quite completed. It’s like that Killer Whale documentary where after gorging themselves on seals for hours all they do with the final one is chuck it about rather than eat it leaving the feeding frenzy ‘open’. I’m certain all builders have this same mentality. A job isn’t complete until it’s not complete. The job left unresolved is a creaky floorboard so I’m not making a massive deal of it, and I’m not attempting to fix it either. I let them keep the tradition as even though it doesn’t sound like it I respect builders, I need their skills and respect the traditions of the building industry even if
So I stand in the new loft space with a smile on my face. It’s over to me now as finances dictate that I am the decorator. I’m organised and have all my stuff strategically arranged for maximum efficiency, I’ve been watching the professionals. I climb the step ladder and roll on the first stripe of the ‘mist’ coat on the newly plastered wall. The paint runs thin on my roller and I lean back to admire my opening effort. This is a piece of piss…I’m a natural…
I blindly step off the ladder in awe of my achievement while planning a new career as an international decorator for the glitterati and step straight onto the edge of a plastic tub of paint splitting it from top to bottom. As I watch the five litres of white emulsion ooze onto the newly laid floor I open ‘Google’ up on my phone and search for ‘mute, non-cockney, happily married, tea drinking decorators’…
….Nothing…. I am alone with a puddle of paint with no skill….