As I sat on a video call, a few months into COVID working-from-home, our European head honcho was giving the whole UK team an inspirational talk about the achievements of the past year, and the challenges ahead. With a captive audience and midway through a stirring speech about priority business objectives and targets, he stopped, and said:
“Alan. I think you’re being burgled.”
I genuinely panicked, having recently seen a horror film about people getting murdered while on their webcams. But as I turned around, I realised what had happened. Before this crucial call had started, I’d let the man in who cuts my back garden. As he finished up, and I sat on my call with my back to the living room door and hallway, he was making his way out, arms full of bags, equipment and tools.
It was the last I saw of this gardener, not because he’d been banged up for taking more than grass clippings, he was perfectly honest; rather, we’d had a fairly simple financial arrangement in place. First time he came to do my garden, it was overgrown as I’d just moved in. He quoted £70 and it took about four hours and that was that. About two months later, he was back, it took about two hours, and I just gave him the same. And this continued for about 18 months. Usually it look less time, and I paid him the same.
After the faux burglary (during which the £70 trim had taken him less than an hour and a half), I’d left it a little while probably due to financial strains. When I contacted him again it was overgrown, and this time he said it would be more work so it would be £100.
It definitely would be more work, and probably even more than £70 work, but the deal was simple; I didn’t mind paying him the same £70 when it took just over an hour, and on the occasions it takes longer it balances out.
So I was on the hunt for a new gardener.
Buying a house was easier. For about six months the overgrown garden continued to overgrow unabated. I signed up to a thing called Fantastic Services, a sort of handyperson aggregator. Three consecutive bookings, they didn’t turn up. The paying in advance, they had no problem with, the fulfillment of any sort of service (even Basic never mind Fantastic) was more problematic.
I’d signed up for this because it seemed professional, they had an app, a subscription model, real-time tracking, all the stuff. Here’s how the real-time tracking worked when my first gardener was overdue.
It seemed unlikely that Radoslav and Nikolay were going to make it anytime soon, as they seemed to be adrift off the coast of Ghana. So I cancelled that, had a time getting my money back, and was back to square one.
I picked up a few tips from the local Facebook page, contacted some people, and not one of them turned up either. I began to think a local rumour had circulated that my house was cursed, and tradesmen – fearing for their lives and loved ones – wouldn’t touch me.
I was on Check-A-Trade, I got a quote for £500 for my tiny garden patch. And immediately a “LOL laughing emoji” from an unknown number. Was I being trolled by the previous guy? I never found out.
I was on one of the many apps I’d used to try to find someone when I saw a local handyman touting for work. Whilst gardening was on his list of services, it was pretty near the bottom. If full-time gardeners weren’t turning up to gigs at my house what chance did I have with this guy. Well, maybe more than you’d think, because he lived just along my street.
My message to Josh was like a charity appeal. “Please… you must help… if you can spare just one afternoon… you’re my only hope. Please mow generously.”
“I don’t really do gardens I’m afraid,” he replied.
I suspected this, “Please could you just come take a look, I’m only across the road.”
“Wait, what? Oh OK sure, I’ll be over tomorrow.”
Josh arrived to scope out my problem vegetation, and the first thing I noticed was that he was about a third the age I thought he was. I really must stop painting a vivid picture of what people look like based on their name alone. Although to be fair it’s usually spot on.
I figured I’d sweeten the garden deal by getting him onboard for a range of bits and pieces around the house. I didn’t need any shelves putting up as I’d had a whole set put up in the living room earlier in the year by … my old gardener (this had been on top of his usual £70, cost me a fortune actually, and took him two whole 12-hour days).
Josh had been in the garden and it was pretty clear he did not want to do it; by the time we came back in he was talking about a mate he knew who does gardens who might do it instead. We went to the kitchen and I showed him the skirting with disco lights (there when I moved in) that had been recently mangled by a new washing machine installation (insert link here when I get round to writing up the washing machine shitshow).
We also looked at my kitchen cupboards – as we discovered in the South Korean Shenanigans these mainly contain squatting spiders; if I get the drawers and cupboards ripped out and replaced at great cost that’ll teach them.
Josh is telling me about the kind of work he usually does, and some recent projects, as he pulls out drawers, checks fixings and sizes up the kitchen job. The garden is a distant memory, but he really knows his stuff. Then a trigger word sets off an almost audible alarm in my brain…
“Wait,” I said, “Did you say you do lofts?”
“Yeah boarded a bunch of lofts, did one recently.”
“Right,” I took the drawer out of his hand and slammed it shut, “Forget about all this, pretend you never even saw that kitchen, come on.” And I led him upstairs.
I’d only seen my loft once. To check it existed. This might sound strange, but you have to understand, it is completely invisible from the ground, as in the house looks like it has a flat roof. There was a hatch upstairs so I thought maybe, and generally houses don’t have flat roofs, but since I hadn’t been on any local helicopter rides it was impossible to check.
On the day I got my keys, I wanted to investigate in case anyone at work asked me any questions. I’d feel foolish if someone curiously asked “Hey Alan, so you finally bought that house you’ve been banging on about for fucking months. What’s it like? Does it have a roof?”
Actually, come to think of it a loft was mentioned in the survey, so I did have this to go on, but again I stress no roof is visible from street level so I was going on trust. Thankfully, the man who did the building survey for me, helpfully left behind his ladder, silly billy, so when I arrived in the house it beckoned me to see for myself. I’m not scared of heights or wonky ladders as such, just inexperienced, so I was very cautious, especially as the ladder & hatch were already at the top of two flights of stairs. A cartoonish accident and many months strung up in hospital awaited if I wasn’t careful.
Up I went, conscious of the eight billion spiders likely chillaxing on the top of the roof hatch, which would no doubt rain on me the second I disturbed it. And for this reason, it was very inconvenient that, mid lift, my phone rang. With the hatch balanced precariously on one hand, and the rest of me balanced even more precariously on the ladder at the top of a very long and bouncy drop, I reached for my phone from my jeans pocket. It was work; the place I was supposed to be heading to as soon as I’d picked up my house keys. Fuck – I better get that.
“Hello-whoa-whoa-ello?” I wobbled. Due to my enormous standing in the company, and the sort of high-level I operate at, it was obviously something really major and important, and it wasn’t (definitely wasn’t) a colleague calling to ask me how to install a font.
I managed to conduct the entire conversation with utmost professionalism, and without letting on how unstable my position was, and concluded the call still with the loft hatch balancing on my other hand, “Yeap. And just press install and you’re done.”
Shaken by the interruption, and reminded that I really needed to be heading to work instead of assessing roof existence, I climbed a few more steps on the latter and merely peeked my head into the pitch black loft. I could see fuck all really, but the diagonal piece of wood in front of me seemed to suggest it was a normal loft. I replaced the hatch and clambered down the ladder brushing imaginary spiders off my hair and body for the next ten minutes.
And this was why it was so exciting to be taking Josh upstairs. I might see my own loft for the first time, once I’d thrown Josh in there to check it was safe. For the last eighteen months my spare room, to which most of my boxes and junk had been delivered on the move, had remained pretty much as it was left. I didn’t have space for all these CDs, DVDs, tote bags from 20 years ago, or (embarrassingly) some of the larger, lower priority LEGOs.
The spare room entirely covered in boxes was the price I had to pay for not having a living room entirely covered in boxes. I had mused occasionally that doing something with the loft could help fix this, and now Josh was here to make it happen.
“It’s fucking massive up here,” Josh said. I mean, in a tiny terraced house there’s limits to how true that can be, but I think he just said it to get me to follow him up the ladder. I was definitely going no further than the entrance. I knew there was a rule in lofts about “step on the woolly bits don’t step on the woody bits” or the other way round, but I wasn’t confident enough to try it. Josh was a pro. And he had a torch.
There was definitely plenty of space here for my junk if we could make this serviceable by boarding it. And the previous owners considerately hadn’t left any of their own rubbish here, apart from some materials, some spare insulation, and a large painting of a cheeseburger.
Amongst those materials was actually a few packs of loft boards, suggesting they’d thought about doing this themselves but, possibly due to lacking a Josh, had abandoned the idea.
Over the next couple of days as we waited for remaining materials to be delivered, we talked through some ideas for the space. The roof wasn’t high enough to convert into an official room, but there was talk of putting some plasterboard walls in and turning this into a LEGO building workshop – an idea that sounds neat until you wonder why I, who lives alone, would go up into the loft to engage in my hobbies. Never mind how the fucking hell I was to transport LEGO to and fro. No, we just board the loft, put a light in and set about getting my boxes up here. I didn’t need to create a new little room for myself up here – by taking all the junk out of the spare room I was creating a new room downstairs.
For the first day of works, Josh brought along his mate Brad, a labourer who would clear the loft as Josh started on the boards. I was working all week (from home) which was fine because I was well away from the construction noise.
I was busy completing a particularly stellar piece of work, when I heard a loud crash. Nothing to worry about I thought, such noise will be common. And then a split-second later, the smoke alarm upstairs went off.
Only one thought came to mind. The smoke alarm is on the ceiling next to the loft hatch – so something had caused a cloud of dust underneath the loft. Someone had come through the ceiling. But the lack of a secondary bang meant they must have only come partway through.
I headed upstairs to find out which portion or limb of which lad had done it, and what the damage was.
Sometimes people ask me where I get the inspiration from for McCannecdotes. Shit like this mate, shit like this. I was brainstorming puns for the title as I walked up the stairs (“A Funny Storey”). As I got to the landing, I could see Josh’s face through the loft hatch, and Brad’s through the new hole in the ceiling.
As they looked down sheepishly, I burst out laughing. I like to think of all the reactions they could have expected, this was probably at the top end. Before Josh had time to explain that Brad had taken a wrong step while trying to carry the painted cheeseburger, I had already rushed to get my phone, and was getting Brad to pose in the hole with his hand sticking through.
I mean of course deep down I was furious. Furious that I had been robbed of a situation where Brad was sticking out of the ceiling from the waist down with his legs flailing around. It would have meant more damage but the GIFs would have been awesome.
“I think you misunderstood when I said I wanted the loft hatch made bigger…”
Josh was making plans to get this sorted, but I had every confidence he would, and these things happen. As I went back downstairs and started messaging everyone I know with the photos, there was a knock on the door. In all the chaos I had completely forgotten the other thing happening that day. I was getting a new tv delivered.
Now, taking out and installing this 65-inch tv onto the table in the living room was definitely a two man job, so I was properly in luck that I had two additional, and significantly stronger people in the house at the time it arrived. That said, Josh and Brad were pretty busy what with the “setback”, and also I really don’t think my humour could have extended to funny pics of Brad’s glove through the middle of the tv screen.
If you want to know what it was like watching me unpack, set up and lift this tv into place, just imagine an episode of Mr Bean where he unpacks, sets up and lifts a tv, because that was pretty much it. But it didn’t get smashed or scratched and to me that was a victory.
Meanwhile Josh made plans for his dad – a decorator by trade – to come round and make-good the Bradded ceiling. When he asked if I’d ever considered painting the hallway a different colour, this prepared me for the fact this wasn’t going to be a seamless fix, but he did a fine job.
Josh did an unenviable job for the next few days, levelling out the floor, replanting insulation and hammering down and gluing boards into place in the boiling heat, and relative dark. I’d also asked for any spider gaps to be plugged otherwise I would likely never set foot in this loft, so he got some expanding foam and went to town with it.
On the final day, Josh’s “sparky” mate appeared to fit a light. With a floor down, a light in, and spiders fossilised in foam, it was time for me to make the full trip up there.
Obviously it doesn’t look this clear anymore, as there are now boxes and boxes of DVDs, all my flattened LEGO packaging “just in case”, the polystyrene from the new tv which I threw up to get out of the way, a travel cot for Andrea’s baby, an old sound system, a bag of old cables, a suitcase from a holiday in 2007 which I never unpacked, spare boards, spare insulation … and a painting of a cheeseburger.
Josh had done an amazing job turning the most uneven surface in the house into the most solid. You could have jumped up and down on this floor safely (well, you couldn’t because there wasn’t enough head-height, but the boards were like concrete).
I now had the home improvement buzz and my “list of approved tradespeople” finally had a name on it. As I mentioned shifting my things up to the loft had the side-effect of freeing up the spare room to use as an actual room. I’d already tarted it up with some wall-mounted LEGO and Eurovision posters, and was finally able to walk around in there, but the basement room was still pretty dingy. I wondered if Josh could set about it with a lick of paint and a few improvements.
This was to be the tip of the iceberg, appropriate for a room that was to house my LEGO Titanic. Within weeks we’d start a renovation that would make the loft seem like a breeze (there was a breeze actually, needed to get the roof slates checked), and Josh would soon be spending more time at my house than his own… in the next McCannecdote.
I know some of you out there have been around me long enough to appreciate the credibility of even my craziest stories, but you draw the line at the painting of a cheeseburger, which you assume I’ve added in as a piece of creative writing. And so I purposely went to the loft to take a picture.