When you start renovating your home, it is like pulling the loose thread of an old jumper. Everything unravels. I only tried to fit a dimmer switch, and now my entire flat has come apart. Actually, that’s not strictly true. I was having Stefano the Albanian builder fit wardrobes in the spare room. It was almost done. He was just fitting the dimmer switch for the spotlights when he pulled a little too hard on the delicate invisible thread that holds everything in my world together.
Suddenly the entire flat was in darkness. Fiddling with the lights in the spare room had triggered a catastrophic failure of the wiring system, which then revealed itself to be ancient, made of fabric, and about to burst into flames.
I then tried to get my electricity provider, British Gas, to help with hilarious results. They cancelled and remade and recancelled appointments until I was dizzy. So I called in various local electricians who all made a huge production of telling me how I was lucky to be alive.
One particularly cheeky chappie was in my flat whistling and sucking air through his teeth for so long I thought I would never get rid of him. Loving it, he was. As he examined the wiring in the living-room chandelier, he looked down at my feet and said, ‘See them boots with metal buckles you’ve got on? I’d take them off, love. You touch this switch here wearing them boots and you’ll go up in smoke, you will.’
‘Thing is,’ I said, ‘I’ve had these boots three years and I’ve been regularly wearing them and touching that switch for all of that time up to and inclusive of today.’
He sucked air. ‘Yeah? Well, you’re lucky, intchya? Cor. I don’t know how you’re not dead.’
‘Fine. But that being so, can you tell me when you can start the work?’
More air. ‘I’ve got a big job in Chelsea, see. Then we’re round your way next week but I’ll have to talk to the boss…’
British Gas quoted me a reasonable enough sum to do the work, but with their record of cancelling appointments, I had visions of wires hanging out all over the place for weeks as I hung on a phone-line screaming at call centre staff in New Delhi.
Meanwhile, the quotes from Cheeky Chappie and other local electricians rivalled the GDP of Guatemala. So I made a decision: I would cave into Stefano’s demands and let him do it. And seeing as how I would be digging into ceilings and walls I may as well have that sound insulation I have long dreamed of to protect me from the drunken twenty-somethings in the flat above.
And while I was doing that, I may as well install fitted wardrobes in the main bedroom. And strip down and decorate the entire flat. And while I was doing that I may as well knock the place down and build an eco-home. Just kidding.
Stefano was adamant he could handle it and called in an Albanian friend who is an electrician to oversee the rewiring. He was a 25-year-old in tweed trousers with wild fuzzy hair and horn-rimmed spectacles. ‘Who is he, by the way?’ I asked Stefano under my breath, as the pair gabbled away in their native tongue.
‘Is good electrician. He study.’
The nerd scrawled a diagram of the circuitry on a scrap of A4, which Stefano would follow. What could possibly go wrong? Besides, I’m enjoying having all these Albanians around.
Every morning without fail, Stefano arrives with his crew of two or three men and they turn their radio on to the Islamic channel for morning prayer music. They work flat out hammering and sawing and doing goodness knows what to my electrics for five hours. Then Stefano goes and gets everyone, including me, a chicken shawarma for lunch. We co-exist peacefully for the most part.
Except for the other day, when he broke a radiator and didn’t tell me. He likes to give the impression that he can cope with everything, does Stefano. And if I ever suggest calling someone else in he sees it as a direct attack on his manhood. So he put a bucket under the smashed-up pipe and I was none the wiser until the boiler lost pressure and I lost hot water and heating as well as electricity and light.
Ironically, therefore, I had to call British Gas again, because I have a home care agreement with them. But Stefano was distraught and told me not to.
‘I know what is,’ he said, enigmatically. ‘I fix later.’
‘Stefano! Is there something you are not telling me?’
‘Maybe I break radiator,’ he said, very softly, so I could barely hear.
Maybe I lose mind.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 24 November 2012