MY WIFE and I like to think that we have the vestiges of a social conscience. But those vestiges became a lot more vestigial when, last year, about pounds 7,000 unexpectedly came our way via damages for a car crash and an unexpected tax refund. 'Good,' we thought, winding up our 78 of the 'Red Flag', 'let's use it to kick-start the economy.' This meant that we decided to have various things mended (roof, fences, electrics), cleaned (windows) or done (interior decoration) that we couldn't afford before. 'No problem there,' we said, 'loads of people queuing up to do this kind of work during a recession.'

We started with our filthy windows, as a flyer had recently come through the door offering the services of a newly established firm. We rang the number, explained that we wanted a one-off but really thorough clean and agreed upon a date when one of us would be at home. No one turned up; I lost a day's work waiting for the man to come. No one rang up to apologise and the windows are still filthy.

We then tried redecoration and sent out six detailed letters asking for estimates to local firms whose addresses we had found in the Yellow Pages. As we received not a single reply, we did the job ourselves.

We then decided to see about the fencing. One answering machine promised that if we left our number, they would get back to us. So we did, and they didn't. Another firm promised to send a man round to give us an estimate, but he never materialised. Another told us that they couldn't be bothered with the job. Another did actually send a man round who took down the details and assured us that he'd get back to us with an estimate. But he never did, and when we rang the firm for the third time and got a bit stroppy, the secretary told us that she wasn't paid to take that tone from anyone and put the phone down. In the end, a proverbial 'little man' (who was actually quite large and makes fencing panels in his spare time as a paying hobby) came round on a Sunday morning and did the job for a nominal sum. 'It gets me out from under the wife's feet while she's cooking Sunday lunch,' he explained.

We fared little better with the electrics. Yellow Pages produced a succession of ineffectual answering machines or female voices which told us that they didn't know when he'd be back and we'd have to ask him and he'd phone us when he got back. He did so only once, and when I described the job to him he said: 'If it's that bloody simple, why can't you fix it yourself?' That time I put the phone down. In the end I got a friend who understands electrics to fix things in exchange for a couple of bottles of wine.

We did get the roof replaced in the end, but again it took several tries. One firm failed to respond at all; another said they'd come and look but never did; a third sent someone round but never sent the promised estimate. In the end, we paid somewhat over the odds for an excellent job by a small, specialist firm whose boss came when he said he would, sent a detailed estimate by return and carried out the work quickly, quietly and efficiently.

Need I spell out the moral? I'll spare you the obvious ones and confine myself to a less obvious one. I got the impression that most of the firms couldn't be bothered with us because the jobs were relatively small. But when we have a big job that needs doing, will we go back to those firms? Not likely. And when a friend asks us if we know of a firm that can do such and such, which will we recommend? Two.

So what happened to the change from the pounds 7,000? We blew it on a trip to Greece where at least avrio (the Greek word meaning 'I'll do it tomorrow, if tomorrow ever comes') has a romantic ring to it, and the sun and the sea and all the other ad- men's cliches stop you from getting too worked up when the plane is four hours late and you find yourself jammed in next to a loudmouth from Surrey who tells you at length what's wrong with the British economy.