Doctor On The House

If a builder says he'll do a job 'for a drink', he doesn't want you to put on the kettle. By Jeff Howell
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Drink has been the cause of many a dispute between builder and client over the years. I don't mean the consequences of inebriation, although God knows, there's enough of that about. Building is thirsty work, and the partaking of cold beverages is common amongst its practitioners. No, I mean the use of the word "drink" as a euphemism for a non-taxable gratuity.

All professions have their slang words for a bit of cash on the side: in football it's a "bung"; in business, a "perk"; in Tory politics, a "weekend for two in the Paris Hilton". In legal terms, of course, these inducements all come under the general term "bribes", but that's another matter. When dealing with builders, you will often hear the expression "I'll do it for a drink", and herein lies the source of confusion. What, exactly, is a drink? Well, it is probably easier to say what it is not. For example, one woman I know inveigled next door's builders into carrying half a ton of putrefying garden waste out through the house and into their guvnor's skip "for a drink", and seriously thought they would be pleased by her offer of a cup of tea. She quickly found that tea, in this context, does not constitute a drink. Nor does a can of Sainsbury's lager out of the fridge. In fact, a whole crate of lager will not do. Nor, for that matter, will a hogshead of the finest Port, or a case of 1961 Pichon Longueville. For what is needed is cash. Of the folding variety.

What can be even more confusing for the middle classes is that the size of the "drink" does not necessarily relate to the amount needed to buy a round of drinks in the pub. As far as anyone can tell, there are no hard and fast rules about the exact sum involved, but if its purchasing power was to be related in any way to actual alcohol consumption, it could well be enough to render the recipient unconscious. In the East End of London a drink can be pounds 10, pounds 20 or, taking inflationary pressures into account, pounds 30. In the West End, a drink has been known to be pounds 50. Anything above this takes us into the higher bracket of a "good drink", which can be up to pounds 100, and then a "big drink", which is pounds 100 to pounds 500. Readers are advised to avoid deals where big drinks are mentioned, as the sums involved generally indicate at least tangential exposure to some kind of criminal activity.

If there is any degree of confusion or ambiguity about the sum involved, the answer, as always, is to ask. If, in the course of negotiations, a builder says "Give me a drink, then", say "How much is a drink?" It's alright to haggle - nobody will be offended. It is much better to admit ignorance from the off than to get the job done and for the builder then to think you are tight, or worse, scheming.

Note, also, that a drink is completely separate from slang terms such as a score, a pony, a nifty, a ton and a monkey, indicating pounds 20, pounds 25, pounds 50, pounds 100 and pounds 500 respectively. Again, be careful negotiating when expressions like this are used - people who make a habit of using prole slang when dealing with middle class punters are quite likely to be from privileged backgrounds themselves. They talk this way to give themselves a bit of street cred, and may not actually be sure what the terms mean. Builders like this, in fact, may well be talked into doing you a favour in return for a cup of tea. Earl Grey, of course.