In Praise Of Ageing Handymen

25th July 2022 · Home, My Writing

What do you do when your elderly parents have had the same handymen all their lives and now those old family retainers are reaching retirement age? An unfortunate event sets Tim Cooper thinking glumly about a rather different future. Read here.

My parents, for whom little has changed in half a century except the price of everything, always used the same small group of handymen for everything. I didn’t know that until my dad died two years ago.

Now that Mum is on her own, whenever something goes wrong at the house, which it often does because it’s an old house and no longer contains a man who knew how to fix things himself, I have found to my relief that she knows someone who can do the job. Any job.

This person – builder, plumber, gardener – will have done it countless times before. They will live somewhere close by. They turn up when they say they will and they don’t charge a bomb. And they have happy memories of hours spent talking to Dad in his study about whatever it was he talked about in there – the war in Korea, probably, and the “rugger” and the cricket, and how much better everything was in the olden days.

These people – salt of the earth one and all – always do a good job and do it quickly and cheaply and, most bafflingly of all, they never seem to charge any more for their work as the years pass. If they have a fault, it’s ony that it takes them a while to invoice for their work because the paperwork tends to be done by “the wife,” a mysterious figure who makes sandwiches for their lunch and has a mobile phone and a computer with an email and everything.

There’s only one drawback – they are all getting on a bit.

When I say “getting on,” I mean at this point they are heading for retirement. Some of them actually have retired. Others should have but won’t admit it. They are not in the first flush of youth and not all in the greatest of health. In most cases they can only be reached by landline because most of them are almost as old as Mum and Dad and, like them, either don’t have mobile phones, or do have one but don’t turn them on unless they need to use it (I know; believe me, I’ve had that conversation more times than I care to remember).

Now that I’m in charge of Mum’s financial affairs (because it turns out her financial acumen didn’t stretch far beyond reading a bank statement and writing a cheque and she doesn’t have a mobile phone or a computer), they all seem delighted to meet me because they all loved chatting to Dad, probably because he knew almost as much about their jobs than they did, having been a Royal Engineer all his working life. They may think I am the same but I can barely change a lightbulb or a fuse. But I can pay their bills on my phone.

Tom the gardener has a lustrous white beard and looks like Father Christmas might if Santa wore shorts in all weather. He is the only person this side of America who calls me “Sir” and he does it in a soft burr of an accent that he tells me comes from an upbringing in Oxfordshire. He is the “new” gardener, having replaced David, the old gardener, who is in his eighties and still comes to mow the lawn but leaves the specialist jobs to Tom.

Tom the Gardener

Derek the gas man is not just of retirement age; he really has retired. But he still insists on coming out to do anything gas-related for my mum and my sister, who lives in an adjoining house – most recently to replace all the pipes in both houses for reasons I forget but which probably related to safety regulations and the pesky requirement to prevent all three houses blowing up with my mum and sister inside.

Then there’s Evans the garage man, who may actually be Evans Jr (I haven’t seen him in decades) or even Evans III if he was American, because I remember Evans being an old man when I was a young man. But he’s still got his garage up the road and he still does the annual service and MoT on Mum’s rusty Renault and he never finds any imaginary faults just because Mum is in her nineties and doesn’t know anything about cars. Or, in fact, even drive hers any more.

There’s also Ian the water softener guy, a new name to me but one I had cause to contact last week to install a new water softener for Mum, because hers – a contraption that’s kept hidden behind an embroidered curtain in the cloakroom, presumably because she finds it unsightly – had finally expired after 21 years service. He apologised that he would not be able to come immediately on account of the weekend, but assured me that when he came on Monday he wouldn’t charge us anything for labour because the new one was quite expensive.

And that’s the thing. They are all as honest as the day is long. And as we all know, honesty has been having quite a tricky time of it recently, even in the upper echelons of government.

They charge rates about a quarter as much as anyone in London, and they take a dim view of sharp practice. It’s a point of pride for them that they are professional and honest: they actively enjoy grumbling about other handymen who rip off customers, giving their own dying breed a bad name. Which is nice.

They have another thing in common: they could all talk the hind leg off a donkey. And they do. Well, some of them do, but I’m not going to tell you which ones. Because that’s nice as well. I can live without the technical details of why this valve needs keeping an eye on and that rendering will need replacing soon, but I appreciate it because it’s invariably an explanation of how we can get by without spending any more unnecessary money.

They also like to chat about how much they miss my late dad, who used to bend their ears in his study with those tales of… well, I’ve no idea because I wasn’t there, but I can imagine, and they seem to have been entranced by them in a way that I now feel slightly guilty not always to have been myself.

As a result, they all consider it unthinkable to turn down a job for my mum now that she is on her own and in her dotage, even though some of them don’t actually work for a living any more and their own dotage is looming on the horizon.

They include John the builder, who has probably painted, filled and fixed every inch of my mum’s house and my sister’s house over the course of several decades, as well as the house in between. That’s where their South African carer Elza lives with her husband Tonie, a man whose gutteral Afrikaans accent remains impenetrable to my Mum after five years of practice. Even on the rare occasions when she remembers to use her hearing aid.

John has a son who is also a builder (and is probably in his fifties) and used to have some lads who worked with him. But these days John, who is now in his seventies, insists on working alone, and has been repainting all three houses and touching up all the window frames and windowsills. It’s a marathon task that he expected to take two months or so: a timetable I considered a little ambitious when factoring in conversations about his progress.

My mum, who is in her nineties, was worried about him working in the heatwave last week. She told him not to come on Monday when the temperature topped 40 degrees. But John is a stubborn and independent man who loves hard work and he was adamant that his floppy sun hat would keep him safe from harm.

Alas, it didn’t.

No sooner had he returned home from his daily seven-hour stint, pausing only to fetch a sweaty sandwich from his car for lunch, than he suffered an enormous stroke. Now he is incapacitated, unable to move, or even to speak. And unlikely to complete our renovations any time soon. Or at all.

And I, in my sixties, am finally starting to ponder the sad reality that we may soon need to find a new builder, and plumber, and gardener, before global warming and the inexorable passage of time combine to finish them all off.

The new ones won’t be the same. They will probably have mobile phones and email addresses and other jobs that mean they don’t turn up when they said they would, sometimes for several days.

They won’t want to hear my stories, because I haven’t got any exciting true-life anecdotes about winning medals in wars, and they won’t offer discounts because they’ve got loads of other customers through recommendations on the internet.

And when they come – if they come – to see what needs to be done they’ll purse their lips and scrape away at things with fingernails and screwdrivers and tell me that everything needs to be replaced and you can’t get that stuff as cheap as you used to and they won’t be able to do it for a few weeks, or maybe months.

And my mum will think that it all costs far too much and takes far too long. And so will I. Because I will have become my Dad.