The thing about signing on is that it is always the same. Not the A5 clipboard held together with an elastic band, that’s always the same of course. What is the same is the lack of difference. The DSS and the job centre; the police station and the housing benefit office, they are all the same.
At first I was convinced that it was the almost precisely offensive tint of green on the walls, but it wasn’t that. It wasn’t the steel tube and pinewood Government Issue furniture either. Although the décor is almost precisely similar in taste to the paintwork, it is not that which causes mind-numbing dread. The paranoid anticipation of imminent disappointment could not be credited to that. Even the most fervent follower of J.S.Mill could not be that talented. No, what the common denominator of gloom is, in these dens of aniquity, is the formulated skill with which the reception staff pitch their answers to your queries. They’re over friendly and all too helpful faces betray nothing of the talent they have for being as unhelpful as possible. To this wholly negative attitude is added that body language and cast in the eye; that millimetre small purse of the lips, which lets you know that you are a scrounger, a thief and a liar.
It wasn’t always like his of course. I had a good job before. In fact I was lucky that I knew the boss of the agency. Jon and me were at school together. We were mates then.
I suppose that we were eleven or twelve when we became friends. We went everywhere together. We even got up to a few tricks that we were glad our parents did not find out about. We even dated the same girls until we finally drifted apart and went our separate ways.
It was about four years or so after we left school that we met up. He had just finished college and I my apprenticeship. I was walking down the street in Darlaston. I cannot for the life of me remember why I was in Darlaston, but there he was in the road looking up at a building. The strange thing is that when I called over to him, he was a bit offhand. I think I just caught him by surprise. He must have been having a bad day at work or something. After all we were best friends and hadn’t seen each other for years. We didn’t meet again for maybe ten or fifteen years.
I went to this estate agent’s shop because I knew that they managed houses for landlords. The people who live in our house pay their rent there. It never occurred to me till I walked in the door that the name of one of the partners on the window was his. I remember making a joke of it at the time, something about Con’em Bodgit and Scarper. I seem to recall that it went down like a lead Zeppelin. Jon never did have a very good sense of humour. I always understood him even if the rest of the school thought he was just a little shit. It’s funny really, Jon and me are like chalk and cheese. At school he was a swot and I hated the place. He passed all his exams and went to college. I never did want all that stuff. It’s a waste of time really isn’t it? I mean look at the dipweeds that you get in the civil service. They need to get a life.
After I left school I did what anyone with a decent outlook would do. I got a job with training for a trade. That’s real work, not walking around an office with a clip board in your hand all day. That’s not work. How do you get up a sweat doing that?
Anyway I finished at the Askins when I got my ticket. They were not a bad firm but when you are qualified in your trade you expect more money. I did four years and came out as a carpenter and joiner. It was the evening classes at night school that I hated about it. Still you had to do it to get your City & Guilds. I asked for more money and they said they had invested enough time and money in my training. They wanted another two years out of me as a gratitude for my training. They were taking the piss of course. I sweated on the back end of a shovel for them for long enough at half pay, without doing more time for them. It would have meant working next to other blokes on the same job with less money than them. Sod that for a game of soldiers.
My Uncle Bill suggested that I go off and start as a jobbing builder. Now he was a one. Uncle Bill came from a background of industrial strife. And conflict with the police in the seventies. Though it has to be said for the most part, that his contributions to the causes of his brothers was more negative than positive. He saw himself saving the day for the greater part of the Great in Britain He worked as a flying scab labourer and was one of the major reasons for the police having to be called in the first place. His philosophy in life was bolstered by only two things: money and Norman Tebbitt. His encouragement to get on my bike clangs on my conscience to this very day.
I went round door to door at first. It was easy getting work on the cheap because I had my trade qualifications and no overheads. I was fitting tap washers and fixing overflow pipes for a few years. I never screwed the punters though. The number of times that I could have sold a new water tank and just turned the screw on the ball cock instead is nobody’s business. I can understand the con men that do it though. I don’t suppose there has been more than two customers in ten years that actually checked to see that I had done the work that I said I would do. People are so trusting; it’s no wonder they get conned. They practically ask for it.
Then the small sub-contract work started to come in and my little one-man band became bigger. I never did take on proper employees as permanent fixtures. You never can tell who you are dealing with. You take someone on and they are as nice as pie for a year or so, then they stab you in the back as soon as you want some commitment out of them. I’ve seen it all before. There was that John Maddox, he was a plumber with me at Askins. He started out on his own before I did. Full of big ideas he was. Well what can you expect from him. He was a big overweight bloke who loved curry and beer more than people. He took on loads of men and contracts, thought he was doing rather well for himself. Then all that stuff from the main contractor started. You know the type of thing. They wanted this and that doing before they would pay him. In the end he went broke.
It always annoyed me that you can never get a job with any of the big firms unless you have some college cerstifificate. And you know as well as I do that the chinless wonder on the other side of the desk, who is asking for it, cannot do the job as well or as quickly as you can. That’s what I mean about Jon, he was different like that. They all said he was as stiff-necked as the rest of them, but I knew different. He would always offer people a chance. If you fouled up he would come down like a ton of bricks of course, but at least he gave you a chance.
I was working on a small job one day when I happened on something a bit bigger. It seems that life is like that sometimes. That’s why I never turn anything down, you never know where it will lead. There I was messing about with a piece of wiring in the garden, when the householder said that there was going to be a new estate built in the fields across the road from his house. He was pleased because the locals had used the wasteland for fly tipping for years. I agreed with him, but I never let on that I had lost the occasional van load there myself. So I waited and watched the area until one day there were a bunch of white hats there with boning rods and theodolites. When I asked who they were I got the main contractor. That led to a chat with the quantity surveyor and I was offered a contract with them.
That job was the starting point for me, and I made enough from it to invest in some more tools and a better van. I had a bit of cred as it were now, and found work a lot easier to pick up than before. It was shortly after that that I can into contact with Jon. I was thinking about maintenance work anyway, and had a contract with a local housing association. That was the sort of work that you could fit in round other jobs, especially if it was raining. I mean the jobs were in occupied houses and were for the most part indoors. It was usually a bit of painting when the tenancy changed, or a radiator that some kid had pulled off the wall.
It’s good work for a cup of tea and sometimes a bacon sandwich too. Strangely enough you never seem to get a cup of tea from the nobs. Especially if they happen to be ex- council estate kids that made good. They were usually the tightest and the most demanding of clients. For some reason they have to make out that they have a quality about themselves that they think you don’t think they have. The trouble is it always comes out wrong and they just come across stuck up pratts.
One of the problems was that it was good enough work to make it pay, but too thin on the ground to take someone on for especially. In the end it was meeting up with Jon that saved the day as it were. He told me that he was into property management, and I said that I thought we could help each other. I put the idea to him and he came back with an offer a few weeks later. Apparently he told absent landlords that not only could he collect their rents for them, but also maintain their properties for them. This meant that if the bathroom leaked, they would not have to leave the beach on Tenerife to fix it. He would just call them and get approval on the phone. It suited everyone down to the ground.
Soon enough I was getting all sorts of work, all over the place, from all sorts of people. It turns out that Jon had started a business separate to the estate agency. He was offering maintenance right across the Midlands conurbation for other agents. He was sending me loads of work. In the end I had three teams of men and vans on the road. And there was more work than they could handle.
Of course there was no way that he could run the maintenance as part of the agency. He had to keep it separate. I remember he went to great lengths to explain to me that it had to be separate. He said he had set up a limited company and as I was the main man, he offered me a directorship. Well can you imagine that, I was a director of a real business. We were making loads of money at the time and everything went well for a year or so.
It was the private job that caused the trouble. There was this contact that Jon had down the golf club. Of course I never met the bloke. I wouldn’t be seen dead in a posh golf club. There was this barn conversion that he wanted doing, and it was cash in hand. I jumped at it of course.
There it was, tucked away from prying eyes in a little corner of the map. If you were not an expert in map reading, you would miss it for sure.
At one time it had been the barn to a manor house. I was talking to one of the brickies on the site when we were working there. He said that there was nowhere in England that you could get a brick that size. They did not make them anymore. It was just the size that they used in Elizabethan times. Imagine that William Shakespeare might have seen it in his travels between London and his home in Stratford upon Avon. Then again I said, what if Francis Drake had hidden some of the gold that he looted from the Spanish when he was a pirate. He said not to be so daft. Nobody was a pirate any longer. There were laws and company rules against all that sort of thing.
The problems came to the surface the week after we had finished the barn. It was a sad day for us all, Jon agreed it was sad too. It was a lovely job and we were lucky I suppose that we had finished the job and handed over to the client before the firm was discovered to be insolvent. I felt awful. I lost the house and everything. Still at least the judge in the bankruptcy hearing was good enough to say that it was not my fault.
I was just glad for Jon in the end. At least he had his other business to fall back on. I say fall back, but the estate agency was doing extremely well. The week after all the hearings were over he went to Italy for a holiday. When he came back we met up. He knows I like my Formula One racing. He was telling me that while he was in Milan, he visited the Ferrari factory.