The flip, or plus side, of the incredibly rigid criteria that Matthew applies before allowing any workman into our house - a multi-interview procedure that stops just short of a full CIA background check - is that anyone who makes it through the door with his toolbag is pretty much guaranteed jobs for life. He compares these lucky candidates to elected fellows of an Oxbridge college - very few are successful, but those who do succeed have lifelong tenure, so long as they aren't caughtin flagrante with a student under High Table during a feast, or they don't commit some other act of gross moral turpitude. Such crimes, however, as not turning up, incompetence or the inability to understand a word of English are considered far too trifling to bother with.
For instance, of the 10 years we have lived here, four were spent waiting for a carpenter called Joe who would, at his most punctual, arrive six weeks late for any job. We all loved Joe, and his coming into our lives and getting to know us at that delicate time just after a baby is born meant he was soon granted almost one of the family status. Whenever he did turn up he would bring a present for Louis - a small cot bauble perhaps - although by the time he had actually finished the bookcase he was building, he was giving comparatively sophisticated toys. Once he brought a Lego set that he said he would help Louis to build. We, however, counselled the by now 14-month-old boy against getting too excited, and three years later, the hind-legs of a Lego dinosaur sat unfinished on a shelf in his room.
Then there was William, an endearingly boyish, Jamaican plumber with whom Matthew enjoyed drinking rum and philosophising. William continued to be one of the family even after his attempt to install a power shower left us not only without a shower but also without any power. That was 10 years ago. This year, in the wake of another disastrously botched job for which he was paid extremely handsomely, I cornered William after a high-speed car chase around Shepherd's Bush. "Hello darlin'," he said, in a manner that did not suggest in anyway that he had been fleeing, "I was just saying to myself, I must get round to yours and finish things off." Six months on and he still hasn't been. Yet Matthew always speaks of William with watery-eyed affection. It is the memories of Peter, though, that really get the lachrymals going.
Peter was a Pole who unfailingly turned up on time and worked his socks off. His mastery of English however - never better than patchy - took a marked turn for the worse after he enrolled in a language course. The only thing he learned, so it seemed to us, was how to say "Yaiss, oh yaiss, I understand this vairy well!" And those are the precise words he used when I asked him to change a lock on the bathroom door, a door that by the end of the day had mysteriously gone missing. Then Peter met his true love, married her and returned to Poland. We still cry when we remember him.
The last survivor of our crack team is Farzan, an electrician and computer expert. He is punctual, fluent in English and brilliant at what he does, and he is so much one of the family that when he is not eating here with us it is because we are taking him out to a local Iranian restaurant. Farzan is always on call - once, when I was away, Matthew summoned him to change a light bulb - but he is expensive because he gets away with charging us a £30 call-out fee every time he steps over the threshold.
Looking back over the years it is shocking to think how many £30s I have forked out only to have Farzan demolish a cup of tea and biscuit, announce that he needs to pop out for a piece of equipment and then charge another £30 for his re-entry into the house.
So when Matthew announced recently that belts must be tightened, he suggested that we begin by paying especial attention to Farzan's bills.
"You need to have a word with him," he said. "You are much better at this sort of thing than I am."
"And where will you be?" I asked, remembering the time when Matthew left me to sack a rather terrifying cleaning lady after suddenly remembering an important appointment in Brighton.
In fact, he was in his shed at the bottom of the garden when Farzan attempted to charge £80 for a job that had taken him no more than 10 minutes.
"I am sorry," I told him firmly, "but I really can't pay you more than £50."
Farzan looked a little shocked at this sudden, unexpected loss of one of his £30 re-entry fees. But he didn't argue. Instead, perhaps to ensure that no damage had been done to his one-of-the-family status, he suggested we all pop out for something to eat.
We all went to the Iranian, where Matthew paid the bill. With wine and three courses, it came to a very reasonable £30 a head.Reuse content