Dear Dave

Wednesday 3 October 2007

Mice, yaks, tradesmen and a shovel

Dear Dave,

If there's one thing I hate about this job, then it's dealing with tradesmen. Honestly, I'd rather clean up vomit.

Erm, not that I'm making a direct comparison here. You know, like they both smell bad and leave a mess on your carpet. All I mean is that both things are on my list of normal duties and, if you arranged the list by ordered of preference, then dealing with tradesmen is at the bottom. Thus, there are any number of things I'd rather do, from making packed-lunches to standing outside school in the rain to watching the same episode of the Tweenies over and over again until their irritating voices buzz constantly inside my head and I feel the urge to take a large magnet to their animatronics while rubbing chewing gum into their fur. Heck, I'd probably even rather buy clothes than deal with tradesmen.

Considering I only have one pair of shoes and I still regularly wear a shirt I bought when I was at secondary school, that's saying something.

The problem is, I'm just no good at it. I can't seem to get them to turn up on the day they've promised, persuade them to do the work exactly as I want or inspire them to ever entirely finish the job to my satisfaction. Any tradesman I've found who I have managed to bend to my will has gone bust before I need their services again. (That or been replaced by their Porsche driving offspring who do a job that's not quite as good for twice as much money). Coordinating repairs to the flood damage from next door has gone particularly badly because it's my insurers who are paying for the work to be done so I have absolutely no hold over the company doing the work at all. If I have a complaint, I phone the insurers. After three days of trying, I get through to the person in charge of my case. He emails the plumbers. The plumbers don't reply. My radiators remain upside down. I have to go murder some Tweenies to vent my frustration and then I phone the insurers again. The cycle continues...

Things are finally progressing, however, albeit slowly. The other morning, a decorator was busily re-painting a ceiling on the top floor (the damage was on the ground floor of our three storey house) while refusing to touch up the skirting board on the first flight of stairs (mere inches from where a big patch of plaster had had to be replaced). Meanwhile, a plumber was happily removing parts of the central heating (again) but wasn't really committing to a definite timeframe for putting them back. He was also fairly reticent on whether they'd be the right way up.

Hey, at least something was happening, which made a change.

The doorbell rang in the midst of the chaos. It was Steve, Sarah's manager, and I was taken by surprise. We hadn't arranged to meet up and get the kids together. He didn't even have his kids with him. He was dressed for work but, obviously, he wasn't at work. He was neither being Useless Dad nor Clueless Manager and, thus, he was dangerously out of context. I stood and gaped at him.

"Is this a good time?" he said.

"Erm..." I had two tradesmen in the house, Marie was having a strop and I had a live mouse in my hands. I couldn't help feeling that this was stretching the definition of 'a good time.' As if to emphasise the point, there was a clang behind me, the sound of liquid escaping under pressure and muttered swearing. There was an almost desperate, pleading look in Steve's eyes, however. "Erm..." I repeated.

"Good God, what's that?" said Steve, suddenly noticing what I was carrying.

"It's a mouse." It was crouched under a glass bowl which I was pressing down on a thin sheet of cardboard. "I caught it."

"What are you going to do with it?"

"Well, when I catch spiders like this, I normally chuck them out the window. They're less squishy, though. Want to take it home for your cat?"

"Not really."

"Thought not. That leaves three options: let it go to die a lingering death from the poison it's almost certainly eaten, leave it under the bowl and watch it die a lingering death from the poison it's almost certainly eaten, or hit it over the head with a shovel."

"The first two don't sound that good."

"Shovel it is, then." I stepped out on the driveway, put my impromptu trap down and fetched a heavy digging implement. "Right, you lift the bowl and I'll whack it."

"That's a very big shovel for a very small mouse," said Steve, not entirely sure.

"It's the only shovel I have," I replied, losing it slightly. "They don't sell them in sets like they do with knives - you know, big shovel for allotments, medium shovel for flowerbeds, little shovel for window boxes and miniature shovel for mouse whacking. I have one shovel for all eventualities. What do you want me to do? Brain it with a teaspoon?"

"This isn't a very good time, is it?"

"No, it's not. Now lift the bowl so I can put Mickey out of his misery."

"All right." He very gingerly lifted the bowl. The mouse didn't move. "Are you sure it isn't dead alr..." He jumped back as I swung the shovel down with a thunk. "OK, it's really dead now."

I peered at it closely. "Yep, it's definitely not going to re-route its internal circuitry to its secondary power source and relentlessly hunt us down through a metal-pressing factory."

Steve looked at me blankly.

"Er, never mind," I said. I scooped the mouse into a plastic bag and binned it. Ridding the house of at least one rodent had eased some of my frustration. I felt able to deal with tradesmen once more. It had even been something of a bonding experience with Steve. "Sorry I was a bit short with you just now - it's been a difficult week. Want to come in for a coffee?"

"If you're sure...?"

"It'll be fine. Just try not to trip over the remains of the heating."

I led him through to the kitchen. The boys were at school but Marie was face down on the floor, screaming, because I'd mixed her yogurt in with her Rice Crispies for her. I'd then tried to make things better by offering to eat the Crispies myself and get her fresh ingredients but no - she wanted the same Crispies and yogurt, not similar ones. She wanted me to miraculously unmix them, solely in order for her to mix them herself. Strangely, I'd refused. She'd been crying for an hour. I guess she's just reached that stage... I motioned for Steve to ignore her and take a seat at the table. I washed my hands two or three times and then made refreshments.

"Now, what can I do for you?" I said to Steve, plonking his coffee down in front of him.

He looked uncertainly at Marie. "Is she all right?"

"She'll get over it." I picked up her bowl and offered it to Steve. "Would you like some Rice Crispies and yogurt?"

"No!" Marie screamed. "They mine! They mine! He not eat them!"

"Well, you'd better eat them quickly then, Marie, before he does."

"OK!" She leapt up from the floor and hurried to her seat in a panic, brushing her hair out of her face as she went. She snatched her bowl from my hand and hugged it close. "My Crispies... Mine."

I put on her favourite Scooby Doo episode with the sound down low and turned back to Steve. "Yeah, so what can I do for you?"

"Scott's been re-assigned," he said, dejectedly.

I was taken by surprise again. Being Steve's manager, Scott was pretty senior and so there weren't many opportunities for lateral movement in the org chart. Also, having met him a couple of times, I couldn't imagine which division of LBO would actually want him. "Where have they re-assigned him to? Pensions? Life Assurance?"

"Ulan Bator."

"Oohh..." I sucked in air between my teeth. "Do they play rugby in Mongolia? He can't be happy."

"They called him in, late yesterday, and told him to pack his suitcase. Didn't give him a chance to appeal. They said that, after careful consideration, he was the best man to explore new business opportunities in an expanding financial market that required hard-nosed negotiation and the ability to wrestle a yak. They didn't even give him time to tell anyone. He's on the plane already and I only found out because his replacement wants to see me."

My worst fears were calmed. For an awful few seconds, I thought he was going to say that he'd been promoted to fill Scott's parking space. No wonder he was upset - being Scott's favourite sycophantic minion had all but assured Steve's immunity to the job cuts and restructuring. "Who's his replacement then?"

"Morag Chandler. She's an awful woman. She's not even from the Communications Division. She's from IT! She got called in at the last minute a couple of weeks ago to arbitrate at one of the redundancy consultations, argued with everything Scott said and suddenly thinks she can do better. I'd heard she'd gone to the board to complain but I can't believe they even listened to her. It was only by chance she was at the meeting and now she's in charge. I don't understand it."

"Mmmm, yeah," I said, chewing my lip. I was slightly miffed that he didn't remember that it was my wife's redundancy consultation that Morag had attended. He seemed to have forgotten that he'd put her job forward for the chop and that, thanks to him, her career still hung in the balance. I resisted pointing out my lack of sympathy, however, since it might have accidentally emerged that I was more than a little responsible for Morag entering his life. "Any idea what she wants to talk to you about? I mean, presumably she just wants you to get her up to speed on everything that's happening in your department."

"Most of my network access has stopped working and my company credit card just got refused."


"What am I going to do?"

"I, erm..." Something about the situation began to trouble me. "Does Deborah know?"

"No, I haven't told anyone yet. I don't know what to do."

My suspicion was confirmed. Somewhere between helping him change a nappy and inviting him round to play Wii Sports, I'd been promoted to close friend. I was possibly his only friend outside of work and of the network of business contacts he had attained playing golf and squash. If he lost his job, those other friends might disappear and there was no way that Deborah was going to let him mooch around their flat. I might become his only friend, full stop, and he was bound to turn up at my house every day to do his mooching, probably with his kids along so I could 'help' take care of them.

After a couple of years of wishing a 'career readjustment' on him, I unexpectedly found myself not so sure. I knew it would be pleasant for Sarah to get a manager with more of a clue and that that would have trickle-down pleasantness effects for me but...

I sighed. Maybe I was jumping too far ahead. Maybe he wasn't going to lose his job. Maybe...

I offered him a consoling chocolate digestive. For the first time, I took in how abnormally crumpled and defeated he appeared. In his mind, there was no maybe. He had the look of a doomed man and, suddenly, I couldn't help thinking that he'd stolen it from me. I knew I was going to have to start buying biscuits in double quantities.

"It's not so bad," I said. "I hear Deborah's interior design work is really getting going again."

He shook his head. "There's plenty of interest but she doesn't have the time."

"But if she didn't have to look after the children..."

"Once you've taken into account the cost of childcare, she wouldn't make enough for us to live on. Do you know how much nurseries cost?"

"Well, erm, if you did happen to, er, not be working, you could look after Ophelia and Josquin."

"Me? But..." Fear crossed his face. "All the time?"


"But wouldn't they need fed and..." He seemed to ponder what else children might require but came up blank. "...things."

"Yep, they'd definitely need fed and, erm, 'things', but you could do that."

"I don't have the..." He indicated his chest. "...things."

"Ophelia's nearly four. Those things are no longer a feeding requirement. Fresh fruit, cheese sandwiches and sausages should keep her going, though. You could probably manage that."

"Every day?"

"You might want to vary the menu on occasion but I'm sure you could manage every day, yes. You can make cheese sandwiches, right?"

He was staring into space. "Deborah normally makes my sandwiches."

I decided to lay off on my housedad evangelism. He didn't appear ready to consider the future carefully. He just needed a little reassurance. "I tell you what - go into work and chat to Morag and find out what the score really is. Maybe there's been a misunderstanding or there's some kind of challenging new opportunity waiting to develop your career that she hasn't told you about. You never know. If the worst comes to the worst, though, you can polish up your CV and start phoning round your contacts. There's a long way to go yet."

He didn't seem to hear me. "Maybe..." he muttered and then looked at his watch. "Is that the time? I've got to get to work to see Morag. Maybe I can convince her to let me help Scott in Ulan Bator. I could learn to wrestle yaks."

"Sure you can," I said and handed him his coat. "It's getting the yak into the spandex that's the tricky part."

He definitely wasn't listening. "Yes," he said, slightly vacantly. "Yes, there's a long way to go yet..." I showed him to the door.

"Are you going to be all right?" I asked, somewhat concerned. He really wasn't all there.

"Mmmm? Yes, I'll be fine. Everything's going to be fine."

"OK. Well, take care. Bye."

He'd already wandered off down the drive in a daze. I watched him along the street for a while, just to make sure he didn't walk into a lamp post or anything, and then I went back to the kitchen.

Marie had cheered up. "I eat all my Crispies. I have dessert now!"

"You don't get dessert at breakfast," I said.

"Awwww," she whined. "I want chocolate biscuit." She pointed at the open packet on the table. "You eat nine."

"I had more like three."

"You eat nine!" She folded her arms and hung her head stubbornly. Another tantrum seemed on the cards.

"Whatever," I said. She had a fair comment in there somewhere and teaching her to count using chocolate biscuits wasn't a route I wanted to follow. I relented. "Would you like one?"

"Yes!" She snatched it from me and grinned. "Thanks!"

I had another myself and we settled down to watch some Scooby Doo. The plumber broke a couple more things and left. The decorator went off to buy a paper and sit in his van doing sudoku while he worked up an appetite for lunch. I was past caring.

Half an hour later, I discovered Steve had left his briefcase behind. On checking, however, I found that it contained nothing but a couple of pens and his sandwiches. Either that was all he normally had in his briefcase or he had left home with it out of habit despite knowing his fate. Both options were slightly depressing.

While I was cheering myself up by eating the sandwiches, Sarah phoned. Steve had been made redundant. On the plus side (or, from Sarah's perspective, on the other plus side) she'd been promoted to take his place. (Technically, of course, this meant Steve was being summarily fired rather being made redundant but they'd offered him a settlement to go quietly). A pay rise, added benefits and the freedom to do the job properly - Sarah was ecstatic. I wasn't quite as enthusiastic as she'd expected so I had to explain about Steve's visit. She did her best to understand but, to be honest, her heart wasn't in it. Can't say I blame her - his management had made her life a misery on occasion.

We agreed to meet up for lunch to talk it over and celebrate.

As I gathered up coats and tried to get my head back on straight, I noticed that the painter had touched up the woodwork in the end. Oddly, this felt like the best news I'd had all day. My spirits immediately lifted. In some small way, I'd got a tradesman to do what I wanted. Even if Steve did start turning up every morning, at least the house was nearly fixed. I could cope.

I put Marie's shoes on her and we set off along the street. Sarah's promotion finally sank in - more money, more holiday and a happy wife. That had to be good. There were all kinds of possibilities...

Pretty soon, I was so busy dreaming of big tellies, I walked into a lamp post.

Yours in a woman's world,


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