The heavens open and up pops the roofer from hell

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The Independent Online
LIKE most hopeless owners of old houses we are terrified of our roof. Since the deluge began in the autumn and a Grand Canyon of cracks started to march across our ceiling, it has been haunting us, occupying our waking hours with visions of imminent collapse and catastrophe.

Things reached crisis point last month when water began cascading down the outside of the house. Immediately spots of damp bloomed on the bedroom wall with the opportunism of those plants that hang about for years in the desert waiting for rain.

Something had to be done, so I borrowed the neighbour's ladder and climbed up to confront the monster. Up top I spotted that the gutter downpipe was blocked by a Coke can; heaven knows how it got there - dropped by a Coke-swigging bird, presumably. But that was not the end of it: the water had backed up into the roof valley and was standing six inches deep; there was a forest of buddleia growing from unlikely crevices; a couple of slates were missing and the chimney had fallen off. There was nothing for it but to climb up there and sort it out. With some difficulty I lifted myself up, swept the water away and did a bit of pruning. I then tried to climb down to fetch some cement to fix the slates in place.

As Brian Johnston might have said, getting your leg over the side of a roof in the rain is no easy task. The ladder finished about 4ft shy of the lip of the roof and I couldn't work out an angle of approach. As I lay face down in the alluvial slime that had gathered in the guttering, pushing myself backwards over the edge, legs fishing for the top rung, I thought: all over the country at this moment there are people being humiliated by their roofs.

Half an hour later, after I had paid the woman five houses down the terrace a flying visit through her skylight, I reflected that it might be best if we contacted a roofer to sort out the slate grief.

It is probably easier to contact the spirit world than a roofer in the South-east at the moment. Most have phones which are permanently engaged, and those you get through to are dismissive of the job you require. 'Six weeks before I can get round to anything that small,' said one. These boys are in demand.

After hours on the phone, we found someone who came round, went up on the roof, gave us an estimate for pounds 80 to sort out 'a few minor problems' and said he could fit us in the following week. The roofer from heaven, we thought.

He returned at the appointed hour with his kit and a mate. But five minutes after they had climbed up on the roof, he was back down, a worried look on his face. Grossly underestimated the job, he said. So gross was his under-estimatation that what he now said was required was a new roof. He could supply one for, no fuss, ooh pounds 1,800, start now if we liked. Otherwise, we would be doing backstroke in the bedroom within a week.

But why, I wanted to know, had he not spotted how serious things were when he came round to give the estimate?

'Wrong quality of light, mate.'

I pointed out that what we really wanted was a patch-up job, something to stop the leak. His solution seemed a bit expensive.

'I don't want to ask difficult questions about your relationship with your bank manager,' he said, oozing concern. 'But you see that drain there? If I done a patch-up job you might as well take your money, roll it up into a ball and chuck it down there. That's the problem with these old houses you lot like to live in.'

I suggested I might get a second opinion. 'Up to you mate,' he said. 'But you'll be lucky to get anyone out to do a decent job at the moment. I'd take advantage of what you've got.'

In the end, after much research in the phone book, we found someone who said they could do a patch-up for pounds 150. Should last a couple of years, the new roofer said. Which should give me enough time to get my son a set of ladders, buy him a listing in Yellow Pages, teach him to suck through his teeth and shake his head while giving an estimate, the rudiments of being a roofer. Never mind the City, advertising or the media, if it carries on raining the way it is, that is the only profession worth being in.