Sunday, September 18, 2011

the country woman's little black book of men

Every self respecting country-woman has a little black book with the contact details of 'useful - little - men- who - do – 'things'. These people are not found in the yellow pages. They are former salesmen from failed D.I.Y. stores, desperate ex-apprentices trying to escape the unemployment lists by use of promotional flyers, someone's neighbour's nephew or grandson, all trying to make an income for themselves. They range across the whole gamut of skills necessary to keeping a country house neat and on its feet. There are skilled plumbers and electricians, sometimes both skills in one person; there are those who know about the pecularities of the local roofing systems, or who have a way with cement; there are plasterers and painters and skilled tilers. There are tree surgeons and simple woodcutters. There are the rat-catchers and chimney sweepers. The one thing they have in common is that, in the beginning, they are prepared to do relatively small jobs.
Indeed, in their beginning, they mostly come when you call and are grateful for the work. A form of inter-dependance comes about between small time employer (yourself) and your little black book men. A shriek about leaks or outages and they will come. Later family information is exchanged over a post work glass of wine, especially with those whose children have been to school with yours. Everything is open to discussion, from the state of the local roads, the shocking retail prices, the state of local schools, the iniquities of the taxation system, but politics is taboo.
The rat-catcher and the man who comes to check the fire-extinguishers do not quite fall into this category. The are true specialists and come (when requested) on a regular, annual basis and unexpected disasters in their field of experience are few and far between. But, for example, my accredited wasp and hornet exterminator – who is also a part-time roofer, chimney sweep, decorator and fireman – is someone who usually comes on an emergency basis for his first two skills. Indeed, my wasp and hornet killer will come within 24 hours because he knows that I am seriously allergic to stings from these flying pests. (Also I have let him collect ceps in my closed woods.) He knows that the visiting holiday makers do not take a very tolerant view of them either. One time I called him out for a wasp infestation in the smaller holiday home, mentioning that the people concerned were city dwellers. So he dressed in the full gear, boots, overals with a zip up each leg, helmet and face veil, gloves sealed at the wrists. They were most impressed. Normally he just dons the head gear and gloves...
This year he had to come three times: one wasps' nest on a bush and two hornets' nests in trees. A third nest in the ground, at the root of a dead tree – probably small black bees – had already been dug out by some competitive animal, perhaps a badger, perhaps a buzzard, a grub eater anyway.
The news of their skills is spread by you amongst your friends, their skills and so their ambitions grow and your 'little' jobs begin to lessen in importance. They will be done, out of consideration for you who gave them their first jobs but now you have to fit in with their time scales, just put up with the leaks. And it is at this moment that you become seriously aware that they are not motivated by money. Yes, they need to earn money and yes, you have frequently negotiated how much of the money you pay them will pass through the books and how much will be cash in hand. Offering to pay over the market rate will seriously offend and lead to much loss of face for the offerer. These are skilled artisans, there is an appropriate rate for the job – the scale of which need not concern the government except in the most minimal way – and they will do the job out of respect for you, out of respect for themselves. Eventually.
And, irony of ironies, with increasing age the jobs that need doing get littler and littler, such as filling cracks in plaster because one is uncertain on ladders; or bigger, as old age indecision postpones the inevitable and what was a patch up possibility becomes a total refit. This is the point at which the country woman has to find a new intake of 'little-men-who-do-things' many of whom may be recommended by the first set that she helped launch into commercial life, those who now have serious work sites. But they will still come at year's end, take a drink and hand over a ball point pen, or a calculator, with their name and phone number engraved. The economic cycle rules.

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