HAVING THE BUILDERS IN
Monday 21 July 2003, by
- Getting Plastered
- Reliable builders are hard to find, but.......
There is a sickness that afflicts those of us who dwell in the Midi. It is rarely fatal, although sufferers tend to become suicidal. We have almost all contracted it at some time or other. It is known as Having the Builders In.
As sufferers go, we are perhaps the luckiest: we have Reliable Builders. That means that if they promise faithfully to get the job done they will probably do so. In their own time, true. After much nagging, certainly. But our builders do actually build, and their work is good. Of course this is in itself a mixed blessing. Being reliable - Midi fashion - and delivering good work means that they are swamped with commissions.
And, being charming people, they just hate to disappoint… For this reason it’s as well to learn the language of the builder. "Oui" means "perhaps, but I’m not promising anything." "Certainement," or - worse - "Sans faute" means "forget it."
Other useful expressions are
A deux heures before five (probably)
Demaing by the end of the week (probably)
Jeudi by the end of the month (probably)
La semaine prochaine never: by the time next week
comes they will have forgotten all about you
There are tips and wrinkles when it comes to dealing with builders in the midi. First of all, it’s no good whatever being English about it. We English are so polite. We plead, cajole and thank effusively for service. If a builder turns up when he is expected we positively roll out the red carpet. Coffee? Croissants? Of course you can light up a Gauloise in my newly decorated, smoke-free-zone kitchen.
If, fired with indignation, we manage to pin down a builder and demand to know why he hasn’t delivered what he promised, the slightest hint of tetchiness on his part will send us grovelling back into apology mode.
Now this won’t do at all. My neighbour Josianne used to despair of me. We call her Mighty Mouse because she is very small and very, very fierce. She went to school with P’tit Guy, our local builder. She calls him ’tu’. She exchanges bisous with him. And still she nags and threatens, scolds and shrieks like a fishwife. If he is more than 30 seconds late for an appointment she is on the phone, breathing brimstone.
And does she get results? Well, after a fashion. Probably rather more than we did, in the early, timorous days. But you have to remember, this is the Midi. The disarming fact is that, at least in our village, you don’t have to be English to suffer from The Builders.
The timorous days are behind us, now. Now we can get on the phone and bellow threats and insults at our builder with the best of ’em. Firing him works well, too, as Himself discovered one day when pushed well beyond the end of his (admittedly short) tether. He had lunched not wisely but too well, and retired for a siesta still brooding on the wrongs we had endured. Suddenly it all became too much. He sat up, grabbed the phone and, miracle of miracles, actually managed to run P’tit Guy to earth. So incensed was he that he quite forgot he doesn’t speak French.
"Guy… NON!" he thundered. "Fini!" and slammed the phone down again. I was speechless with admiration. And the next morning, there was P’tit Guy on the doorstep, all innocence, ready to start work. Not a word was said about the explosive phone call, but the message had been taken to heart.
THE HUNTING OF THE BUILDER
Now we are more experienced in the ways of the builder, we consider ourselves a match for him. There is a game which is popular among all of us bonnes ménagères - English and French alike. It’s called Cherchez le Constructeur. It goes something like this. Marie Elizabeth lives opposite the café, her nets permanently atwitch. She spots P’tit Guy taking a morning coffee and instantly she is on the phone to Josianne. Josianne pops next door to tell me. I phone Helga, who lives a little way outside the village. The cry goes up: P’tit Guy is in the village! Suddenly Guy’s peaceful crème is interrupted as a dozen harpies descend on the café.
More subtle, and even more satisfying, is the game of ’Gotcha!’ Say a good friend has actually managed to tie P’tit Guy to an appointment at 2 p.m. Because she is a mate, she tells a chosen few. We all descend at 1:50 and lurk in her kitchen. Of course we know that P’tit Guy probably won’t actually turn up until 3 at the earliest, but he has been known to wrong-foot us. Besides, she makes excellent coffee.
Eventually Guy turns up, an unsuspecting fly buzzing into the communal web. And -WHAM! - three or four determined spiders pounce. The look on his face makes the game worth the candle: outrage, mixed with a you-got-me-bang-to-rights sheepishness. And a roguish twinkle which is the reason we all put up with him.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
When it comes to builders in our village, P’tit Guy is the main man. He’s getting on, now, and doesn’t do much actual work, but it’s his company and he sends the workmen in. P’tit Guy loves us to bits. He often drops in just for a chat, and looks hurt when we tactfully suggest that we discuss the work in hand.
Henri is the plasterer and bricklayer. He’s in his sixties, a wiry and astonishingly handsome little man with a big laugh and a personality to match. Getting to Henri is best done through P’tit Guy although, as Henri never tires of telling us, he doesn’t work for P’tit Guy. Oh no, he’s just helping out as a favour. His plasterwork is glass-smooth and his walls, which go up in no time flat, are straight and rock solid, but he’s the messiest workman I have ever come across. You never, but never, decorate before calling Henri in.
If you want a parquet floor, kitchen cabinet or window frame, Monsieur de St. Phalle is your man. Jean-Jacques, as we are now allowed to call him, is our local carpenter. His work is exquisite and he is consequently much in demand but, by Midi standards, he is as reliable as they come.
One day, though, he failed to turn up as promised, so the next day Himself and I went to beard him in his sawdust-scented lair above the village. He looked at us mournfully with eyes the colour of ginger wine. "I am so sorry I didn’t come," he apologised, "I had to go to a funeral." Thinking "Oh yeah? Pull the other one," we nonetheless made the proper noises. Jean-Jacques looked bemused by our condolences: "No, you don’t understand," he said. "I am also the undertaker."
Like P’tit Guy, Jean-Jacques seems to have taken a liking to us. It is rather a pitying liking, as of one who would say ’They’re only English: they can’t help it," and he does tend to look as if he is suppressing laughter every time he looks at us.
This may be a result of the day we asked him to build us a linen cupboard. Contrary to popular belief, our part of the world is not always hot and sunny. Every day is not a drying day, and when the weather decides to do damp and dismal, getting the sheets and towels aired can be difficult. We English understand the problem. Midi dwellers, brainwashed by their region’s publicity, do not.
We explained to Jean-Jacques that what we wanted was a cupboard with a heater inside it, for storing household linens. He looked at us in incredulity. He asked us to repeat what we had said. He began to giggle. Then he howled. It was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. To this day he pops by occasionally to find out if the linen cupboard is satisfactory. He hasn’t yet brought friends round to inspect the oddity, but we think the day may come. Why is it that the English seem to exist only to provide an endless source of hilarity for the French?
But, as I’ve said, we are lucky. At the end of the day - and it was admittedly a long day - Having the Builders In has not proved fatal. Now the dust is settling and we can congratulate ourselves on having not only survived the experience but benefited from it. We can sympathise with those of our friends who are in the throes of the illness. We can assure them, with that delicious hint of condescension, that it will all prove worth while in the end.
And what a source of stories: we’ll be dining out on our experiences for years!