|Taken for a ride by frere Jacques
With his flowing locks, permanent stubble and blurry eyes, he had the air of a fallen football star from the George Best era of boozing and birds. Yet, fool that I am, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and £3,000 to renovate the roof terrace of my hideaway in the Roussillon region of southern France. This is the story of a man we shall call Jacques Perez (fourth division builder) and the idiot (moi) who hired him. For those of you hankering after the French dream, here is the flip side.
"So why on earth," asked the man at the airport bar, "did you give him three grand up front? If you don't mind me saying, you were asking for trouble." At which point I could only take another slurp of beer and stroke my chin. After months of frustration and several cross-Channel flights, I was beginning to resemble my enemy. And yet it had all started rather amicably.
After buying my French property nearly a decade ago, I was thinking of buying another. The first purchase was prompted by a mid-life crisis. I was fed up with my job and wanted out. The second was prompted by greed. I had become a father and needed the money. Since the dawn of budget flights, I could have let my house twice over, so why not double my profits?
The trouble is that prices in Roussillon have soared over the past few years, making bargains very hard to find. And then, by chance, I stumbled across one, in a pretty, neighbouring village. It was exactly the right size for my target market. The only snag was the condition - it needed a total makeover. And, in these parts, finding a cheap house is a doddle compared to finding a reliable builder.
I was encouraged by the man showing me around. He had been working on a property nearby and when asked if he knew of others, had whipped out the keys for this one. He talked most plausibly about how he could renovate the house so as to maximise its rental potential without losing its Catalan charm. Move the marble fireplace there, put in another staircase here and then open up the roof, comme a, to create a sun terrace with views over the surrounding hills. In my euphoria, the only passing doubt was his rather seedy appearance.
I wasn't going to give the makeover gig to Perez straight away. The first house had a leaking roof terrace; I would test him out on that. We agreed a price for the waterproof membrane, the tiling and the metal balustrade and a few days later I gave him a cheque for 4,500 euros, foolishly thinking he wouldn't jeopardise the prospect of a total renovation by failing me on a relatively minor job.
After assuring me that he would do the terrace in the first week of December, I took his card and headed back to England, where I didn't hesitate to tell friends about my business acumen. But Roussillon's Rachman was in for a nasty surprise.
"No, there hasn't been any sign of him," said my French neighbour, who also cleans my house. "But I have wiped away most of the water from the living-room floor. Oh, and I've put a couple of buckets down for the drips."
Of course, I had already tried to ring Perez at home many times but had succeeded only in reaching his mother, who doesn't speak French and whose Spanish I didn't begin to understand. And there was no response from his mobile.
So it was, on a bleak day in late January, that my partner, our one-year-old baby and I found ourselves huddled in a hire car staking out a cafe which, I had gathered during an exhaustive tour of other local bars, Perez was known to frequent. Three hours later, his battered truck lurched into view. I dashed out and was treated to a string of excuses, ending with a promise that he would start work later that week.
The sound of the drill was music to our ears. Perez and his girlfriend were ripping tiles off our roof. When the music stopped and the rubble was cleared, they painted a thick coat of bitumen on to the surface. "We'll come back and lay the tiles when it dries," said Perez cheerfully.
Needless to say, by the time it dried we were back in England. Despite frequent conversations with his mother (my Spanish was improving) and several increasingly desperate letters to Perez, the terrace remained untouched. Towards the end of February, the waterproof membrane magically appeared. And then, nothing.
By the middle of March, I was on the plane again. I had tenants in April: it had to be finished before they arrived.
As I was unloading the car in brilliant sunshine, a battered van sped past. Leaving the luggage on the street, I leapt behind the wheel and followed Perez for five miles until he eventually stopped. He was speaking vigorously into a new mobile phone. I took the number and he promised two men would start tiling the next day. The balustrade, he said, had been ordered and was expected imminently.
The tilers, Antoine and Said, drank a lot of beer. They also did a good enough job, but after another week there was still no sign of the balustrade. I had chosen it from a catalogue from Lapeyre, which has more than a hundred shops across France. "No. No one called Perez has made such an order. Delivery time on that model is two months."
I stormed into the cafe where Perez was ordering a pastis. He told me, calmly, that he had ordered an almost identical railing from another supplier with whom he dealt regularly. I said that, as time was running out, I wanted a provisional balustrade in wood. We agreed a day. He didn't turn up. I rang the mobile. His van had broken down. Finally, they knocked up the substitute. When I checked with his supplier, a firm called Verdie, from whom he said he had made the order, they told me they didn't even stock metal balustrades.
I was on my way back to the cafe for another showdown with Perez when I spotted his replacement van. A smaller, speedier model. Pressing the accelerator flat to the floor, I struggled to keep up as he headed in hair-raising fashion towards the Spanish border. Then, about 13 miles later, he stopped sharply and doubled back into the entrance of a warehouse selling swimming pool parts. I leapt out of the car and flung myself into the path of a complete stranger. I was going crazy.
Utterly exhausted, I made my way to the cafe, where I met Antoine and Said. They commiserated over several beers. They said Perez was malorganise. He evidently said yes to a lot of projects. If only I had seen his own unfinished house before I had parted with any money. It was a grandiose pie in the sky; the sort of place which, if ever completed, might suit a footballer's wife.
Just as I was leaving, the man himself arrived. I told him I wanted 700 euros, roughly the cost of the Lapeyre railing. And then we would never have to see each other again. He shrugged his shoulders and said he didn't carry that sort of money, knowing that I would have to return to England and that there was very little I could do.
Meanwhile, having nearly acquired that second house in Roussillon, I don't suppose any of you know of a good builder?