Island Life by David Slack

If The Phone Doesn't Ring, It'll Be Me

What's a reliable measure of the state of the economy? How about the degree of difficulty involved in getting someone to re-roof your house? If that's a decent indicator, I can tell you that this economy is fairly pumping.

For about a month now we've been trying to get someone, anyone, who can put a new colorsteel roof on our house to come and do the job. You ring, you leave messages, you give them all the details they need, and they say we're flat out, but we can be there in a few days. And that's the last you hear. No letter, no postcard, nothing.

We're standing here with the chequebook open, but no dice. It's not like the thing we'd most like to do in the world is get a new roof, but if you look at this little snapshot, you'll see that it's the prudent thing to do.

That iron was new seven years ago. Rust never sleeps, and it looks pretty wide awake in the photo. Seven years ago, underneath the new iron, there was a new renovated house, which cost (and I know you won't believe this, but I swear it's true) more than it should have. So I got the roof painted on the cheap. We'll get to the full story in a moment, but I should also mention that we also re-used some of the old iron from the roof we'd pulled off to make way for an extra storey. Building tip number one: don't re-use old roofing iron, even if your builder says it'll be good as new.

So we're rolling along and spending up a storm, and the project's past deadline and over budget, so, you know: pretty standard stuff. I painted the entire exterior, working my way up the scaffolding, but by the time I'd got to the roof, and was looking at this pitch, I was thinking I don't know about that.

Or some stronger equivalent that you might or might not find in the dictionary of New Zealand slang.

I'm certain that the way some people manage to walk around on roofs is a mind over matter thing. Put that roof at ground level, and every one of us can walk up and down it all day, albeit with a slight amount of difficulty. Add thirty feet, and it's a different story. It's a walk in the park if you have Earnest Hemingway's heartbeat. I don't. I'll get up there and do it, but I won't do it with any great amount of assurance or confidence. And I'll be as pleased as hell when I get back down. I'm un-co enough at ground level; on a roof, I'm just a liability. Working just under the apex in this picture one afternoon, I swung a new 10-litre pail of paint over the handrail as I was climbing back up.

I lost my balance. I remember hanging for a moment, as I weighed up whether it would be me or the pail. You'd be amazed how far 10 litres can go when you apply it from 30 feet up. Karren was.

Anyway, the roof had to be painted, and I decided it probably shouldn't be me doing it. I got quotes, and they were all pretty vigorous. Maybe I'll be doing it myself after all, I thought. But then I tried another number from the classifieds and got this guy who was keen as. He was around in an hour. His name was Hussein. He was from Iraq, and you never met a more obliging guy. Sure he could do it, he said, and up he went, slight wiry frame getting across the slopes as though it was the simplest thing in the world. His price was just a fraction of any of the other quotes. Are you sure that's enough? I asked. Oh yes, he said.

The deal was that I'd supply all the material - in fact, quite a few more materials than most painters need, but I thought, fair enough, he's got a hard immigrant's road to walk here, help him out. Back he comes the next morning, and up he goes. He's a little tentative about the process itself, and it becomes clear that he has probably done not much more painting in his life than I have. But he's at home on the roof, and that makes him the guy for the job. I go down to my office, and he sets about his work.

The morning rolls along. I go up, he's doing a great job. In bare feet. We look up at the sky. The grey clouds are gathering, and it's spitting a little. He goes back up, working on the side of the roof which has the re-used iron. It's been tricky on this side, he says. The old finish has deteriorated, and it has a dusty surface. Spits of rain fall on them as we're talking and I say: that's going to make it even harder to work on.

No trouble, he says, I keep working.

I go back down stairs to my own work. And then a few minutes later, I hear one hell of a crash. Up I go, apprehensive. Hussein has come off the roof. Fortunately, there was a garden. He only had four litres, but once again, I am amazed at the coverage. More importantly, how is the painter? Nothing broken, but he is thoroughly shaken. The look on his face says this immigration thing's not really working for him. I leave some despot's bone yard, and end up breaking my bones in another country.

He goes off to the Doctor, and rings back that afternoon. The Doctor says it's just bad bruising, and he'll be fine, but he has strongly recommended that the patient stay off roofs. I start psyching myself up again to do the paint job.

But then a most unusual thing happens. One of the painters I'd called and left a message actually rings back. No, no, he doesn't brush, he spray paints. No, no, he's not worried about the treacherous surface. He has a harness, and a mate to hook up to it who stands on the other side of the roof for ballast. No, no, he wouldn't charge anything like those other quotes. Three grand? No mate, he'd do it for three hundred.

Yes, the warning bells should have been giving me tinitis. No, I didn't listen to them.

I think his name was Barry. He and his mate turned up on a bright, sunny Saturday morning that would turn into a scorching midday heat. Perfect roof painting weather, mate, Barry told me as they strapped on their harnesses and got ready to rope themselves together. They'd be done by lunchtime, he reckoned, and then he was going home to have a beer and listen to the races at Taupo. His mates had a roughy running that afternoon that was going to piss in. He was putting three hundred on it. You can tell where this story is going. I checked the results the next morning. The horse ran down the track. Couldn't stick. Neither, it turns out, did the paint.

Since then, we've had plenty of traffic across it by people who aren't nervous of heights. Another guy from Iraq put an Ihug dish up there, and Sky guys, TV antenna guys and gas fitters have all traipsed across the old iron without coming to grief. Our builder friend Adrian put this skylight in,
and I reluctantly got up there to help. The sky was grey and it was beginning to spit as we finished the job.

Also, one warm summer night, Leo, who is probably the fattest lump of cat on the North Shore got off our bed and went out to sit on this section of the roof.

There must have been a bit of dew on the surface, though, and gravity started to do its work. We heard this scraping sound accompanied by a rising feline howl, so we got up to see what was happening, just as there was a thud. We looked out the window and Leo was off the roof, hanging on to the spouting with his two front paws, and looking completely pissed off, with several kilograms of cat hanging below him. He hung there for a minute or so, but then, gravity once more had its say. I glued the spouting join back together, but it's never been quite right since.

All in all, it's a roof that's taken a bit of a thrashing, and where it isn't rusted, it's been weakened. So we need a new one. When I say we haven't been able to get anyone around, I should qualify that. A plumber came last week to look at it on the understanding that he could maybe do a patch-up job but not an entire re-roofing. He said he thought it would be a better idea to do the whole job, and that ordinarily they'd be pleased to do it, but they were short of staff right now. As fast as we train them, they're gone, he said. We just had to let go of two guys who weren't up to it. I guess that's a partial explanation for the problem.

I also have this abiding feeling that this has a little bit to do with the way so many builders and other trades people "run" their business. They're great at their trade, but they're not so good at the rest of the process. A bit of business management help could do wonders for their productivity, I suspect.

That's not to say that all business management is of a high calibre. I look at some of the large supply businesses in the building trade, and I wonder if they're not just as much in need of some help. By the end of our renovation, I was at the end of my rope with these people who tell you they'll be delivering something and keep slipping on the date. Just before Christmas, after Carters had missed the fifth promised delivery date for some cedar panelling, I rang them up to try and get it sorted out. Just to make sure the young guy at the other end of the line knew I wasn't just some confused faceless customer having a senior moment, I completely ripped shit out of him. I told him exactly what they'd failed to do and on which occasions they'd failed to do them and underlined it with: SO WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT? He suddenly sounded like a kid who was giving me his full attention. Yes sir. No sir. Very sorry about that. Not nearly good enough, no. He said he would look into it right away, and make sure that it was reported "higher up the archy." At that point, my sense of humour was restored.

I don't know what happened to Hussein. I just hope he didn't get caught up in any of those telemarketing outfits that like to hook into immigrants who can't get an opening for their real qualification. When they ring, I'm torn between sympathy for their plight and a strong desire to undermine their employer's profitability. I tend to vacillate between just politely saying no thank you, or getting subversive and tying up the phone for long enough to slow down the hit rate for the business that's actually organising this low-level harassment.

I've tried all kinds of things - many of them on this list. Presently, I'm thinking it might be a good idea to unsettle them by pointedly ignoring their: Hello Mr Slacks, how are you this evening? patter and launching straight into a recitation of something all cryptic and literary that sounds vaguely deranged: Time simply is. Part of it is cut and called history. I don't have a knife and can't cut any. That sort of thing.

I don't want to scare them, and I don't want to make life hard for them, but if it stops them from ringing our number, that will be no bad thing. I want to keep the line clear for roofers.