I wrote this a long while ago. Since then, this fictional situation is becoming frighteningly close to reality in London. I saw an advert for something similar only today. Better put this out in the public domain now, then.
Simon on Ken
I cannot describe to you how much better my life has been since Ken came along. I hired him from an agency that had opened just on the corner of the High Street where the Internet Café used to be. It had been rapidly transformed into a rather daunting place with mock wooden flooring and low lights, and filled with very pushy young people in suits who were determined to strike deals. It should have dissuaded me from the whole business, but I was glad I took their advances seriously.
They introduced me to the concept of “Household Administration Managers”. The services on offer are manifold, and deeply impressive – for the miniscule price of two hundred pounds per month, for example, you could hire somebody to ensure all matters involving your motor vehicles were as tip-top as could be, and he could be on call from the hours of 8am – 7pm. Then, of course, there were rather more advanced services to be obtained.
I opted for the platinum contract. I am not going to tell you what it costs, but it meant that I would have a man to attend to all my household appliances, DIY needs, and my car, and to maintain everything as well as he could. The higher fee also allowed me to dictate certain terms. If you agree to such a deal, they hand you a specifications form with an impressive array of tick-boxes on it, and I think you know me well enough to be unsurprised that I ticked the ones with “must wear blue overalls” and “moustache” written beneath the physical requirements. I am a details man through and through, and if I was going to progress with this, I wanted it to be done in a certain style.
The unusual thing about the whole arrangement is that they refuse to tell you the name of the person who will be assigned to you. They instead allow you to think of a name for them when they arrive, with which your man will usually comply. This apparently allows you to personalize them from the start, and begin an immediate rapport. I struck upon the name “Ken” whilst observing him tuning up my Kenwood Blender, which had been jamming rather too frequently when I tried to make smoothies. He looked to me like a person from a generation where that name might have been rather more common, with his unfussy manly moustache and stern disposition.
“Can I call you ‘Ken’?” I asked him gently.
“You can call me what you want,” he mumbled, barely looking up, “so long as it’s not abusive”.
I laughed at that, but he didn’t. Ken takes a lot of things very seriously, even his own jokes.
Ken’s first big project in my house was to investigate the noise emanating from the pipes in our loft. They had been waking the wife and I up in the evenings, and it sounded for all the world as if the percussive team behind “Stomp” had decamped there to rehearse. My headaches were starting to get more and more severe, and as a result my busy lifestyle felt less manageable.
“I’ll sort it for you,” he said with blunt and gruff positivity, and immediately retired to the attic with a hammer and began smashing the pipes around. “It’s air bubbles, see?” he shouted down to me. “You’ve got to knock them about a bit.”
After a few visits with his trusty hammer, the noises stopped, and already my quality of life had improved by an immeasurable percentage. This was when I knew for sure I had done a good thing by hiring him. Since then, he has also put new fuses in all our plugs, corrected the lamp fittings in the lounge (which kept blowing – the wrong wattage of bulb, apparently) and descaled the kettle. He will without prompting take on a lot of these little jobs, which must have already saved me a lot of time in my life.
All Kens tend to be jacks of all trades, and so can usually have a stab at resolving any technical problems you have, within reason. They are not always successful, but when they fail it would seem that they are trained to show maximum remorse and empathy, using whatever methods they can think of to show you how sorry they are. For example, quite recently I began to have problems with my stereo speakers at home – the issue first became noticeable to me when I was listening to Van Morrison’s most recent album, and there were pops and crackles as the sound dropped out suddenly. This spoiled my listening enjoyment completely, as you can doubtless appreciate.
Ken, of course, leapt to the task with his usual urgency, and began fiddling around with the wires and installing new cables for me. “Soon have it fixed for you,” he said positively. He didn’t, though. In truth, he was as confused as I was. He had to give up, and after he did so, he sat down on the arm of my sofa, hung his head, and said in a very small voice “I’m so sorry”. With that, he shuffled out of the house, and I thought that it may be the last of the matter, until he arrived back a few moments later with his favourite song on CD, which I seem to remember was the Rolling Stones “Jumping Jack Flash”. To my immense surprise, he put it on the stereo to listen, and as the pops and dips in sound interfered with Keith Richard’s guitar work, he winced and shook his head at me, looking pained and disgusted. It seemed he was trying to get some notion of how frustrating the whole situation must be for me, and how disappointed I must also be that he had failed to remedy it.
“Don’t you worry about this,” he said with a quivering voice once the CD whirred to a halt, “this is my burden now as well as yours.”
He then left the house with the record under his arm and a scalded look about his cheeks, and I instantly felt my concerns were being lifted from me. I even saw him a few days later stood outside Sainsburys smoking a cigarette, and he stabbed his index finger in the air towards me as if attempting to shift an immovable and heavy object with it, and shook his head and looked worried again. Seeing him do that, his shamed grey face hanging before my eyes, I approached my supermarket visit with a much lighter frame of mind. I usually hate visits to city food stores, with all the screaming children running around you and angry mothers rudely shoving to get to the full fat milk, but I almost felt as if I floated down the aisles on that occasion.
It did, unfortunately, lead to an appalling row between my wife and I. She took a dimmer view of Ken’s failure. She asked me what Ken was actually doing for us that was so special, and challenged me to deliver an itinary of all his “vital” successes over the past few months. I immediately mentioned the pipes in the loft, but she spluttered something about how I knew the problem was caused by air bubbles anyway, and could quite easily have sorted the situation out myself if (in her words) I hadn’t been such an “idle arse”.
Still hurt from this inaccurate insult, I was extremely wounded on Ken’s behalf when she asked me what “value” we were actually getting from the man. Like many people, she did not understand that when you have a Ken in your house, you don’t just have a “maintenance man” delivering “value”, you’re buying into a philosophy. He understands how frustrating men such as I can find the practicalities of the modern world, and is trained to listen without judgment. He will sit and absorb my woes whenever I air them, whether they’re about call centre staff (he will shout at them whilst I listen to him), computer spyware, or even the various sorts of light bulbs one can accidentally bring home from the stores. Feeling his sympathetic hand on my shoulder has made me feel happier on many, many miserable occasions. He worries about the nitty gritty details for me, which leaves my brain free to be stressed about the important issues in my career.
Of course, we live in an age of equal opportunities, and I do have to say that besides Kens I am told there are also Carols, Sues, Emmas and Sarahs out there, but unfortunately they have not proven very popular. Lots of people think that they will like the novelty – and in some cases even the excitement – which comes from hiring a woman in overalls to attend to their concerns, but they don’t tend to last for long. Complaints have regularly been made that they don’t quite strike the right sort of tone – it takes a certain sort of man to pull off the combination of confident authority and servitude which is required for the role. Even when the ladies do get it right, I have been assured that it still “feels wrong”. A friend of mine hired a lady who seemed to fit the bill in all manner of ways, but her gruffness and spanner-waving scruffiness made him feel as if he had a crackwhore about the place. He sent her packing after a week. Also, as the agency wisely pointed out to me, it is nearly impossible to hire a woman with a good enough moustache, so that option is normally removed for the fairer sex. I am all for political correctness, but common sense has to come into play somewhere along the line.
Naturally, “common sense” is also a phrase Ken likes to use a lot, but he’s very careful not to mention it when referring to me and my frequently clueless ways about the things he’s expert at. He’s patient and kind in that respect, and recognizes that not everyone in the world can be like him – that’s his role, to plug the gaps in these confusing times. I don’t know what I’d do if he ever had to go – I think I would probably miss him more than my own father. I cannot quite believe that I have just said that, but nonetheless, I do believe it may be true.
“Ken” on Simon
We have a word for people like him in my job, but I won’t repeat it to you here and now. You meet them all the time – boring old fuckers with money to splash around, but no imagination to think of interesting things to do with it. You walk into their houses, and it’s the same every time – expensive stereos, but hardly anything to play on them. Even though they don’t listen to music, they’ve got to have an expensive bit of kit to not listen to it on. Twats.
I got the measure of him pretty much immediately when I first walked into his house and saw the usual things that get my back up. Some knackered looking antique furniture. A bunch of old hardback books gathering dust on loads of shelves (I reckon he’d never read the things). Great big empty spaces with nothing in, otherwise – my voice echoed around all the rooms. This man had been born, had accumulated wealth, but had left no trace of his personality anywhere in his house. Maybe it comes from not having one. He likes to think he’s eccentric, but then the most boring people always like to think that. Doesn’t mean to say they actually are.
I did what I usually do on my first visit, which is to just wander around the place seeing if I could tinker with any bits and bobs. It shows the new client you’re capable, puts them in the right frame of mind, and lets them believe they’re being waited on already. I spotted a blender in the corner and just took it to pieces in front of him to see if it needed new blades or a bit of a clean-up. They always forget to replace the blades on those now and then, it’s a really obvious and quick thing to start on and explain – makes them think they really need you to sort their lives out. Then he says it to me – you’d be amazed how many go along with this crap – “Can I call you Ken?” he says. Just like that.
Now, I’d better explain. Most companies hiring out domestic administrators or maintenance gurus, whatever they’re being called this month, like to suggest to the people using them that they can call them by any name they want. I can’t remember what it says in the manual they get given now, but the idea is for the relationship to not get too personal. You’re basically some guy’s servant – you turn up at their place all the time, do your stuff, and get out again, and so it establishes an impersonal distance even though you’re in their house a lot. Of course, in this day and age, most people don’t go along with the idea and call me by my proper name, which is Joe. There’s always one daft little prick who gets off on the idea, though – and I’d found him.
So I crack some weak little joke about it all, he laughs, and I don’t. It’s a bit of a wrongfoot to get off on, really, but I leave it be. So long as he gives me the cash at the end of every month, I’m sorted, so I can just keep my mouth shut and get on with it. As it stands, he really doesn’t bother to make much else in the way of conversation, just stands over me staring at me, in a way that begins to get me a bit worried, if you know what I mean.
And that’s kind of the way it’s gone ever since. I turn up, he says “Hello Ken”, I say “Hello Simon”, I shuffle around his house checking things over, he stares at me for a bit, then I go home again. I wouldn’t want to lose him as a client, though, and I’ll tell you why – there’s nothing to do round his house. Nothing ever goes wrong there, because apart from the oven, the telly, his car and the bathroom, he never uses anything. I turn up every single week just doing spot checks over things, and in most cases they’re exactly like I left them the last time I was there. I don’t know what he does with his life, but he doesn’t seem to be at home much, except of course when I’m there.
One time something did actually break – his precious stereo. I’d had my eye on it for awhile – it was one of those numbers with enormous pillars of speakers, the kind you see pictures of in catalogues but never get to touch. I said I’d have a look at it, but to be honest with you I was shitting myself about breaking it. I checked the cables, but it wasn’t them causing the fault, and I didn’t want to take apart these huge, giant, mother-of-everything soundblasters. If you’re not sure about something, my company always says to leave it well alone. They don’t want lawsuits from angry clients who have had their pride and joy broken, and I reckon this stereo was more expensive than most cars.
I had an idea, though. I’d always wondered what one of my records at home – a good record, not one of his shitty ones – would sound like on a system like that. So I made some flimsy excuse, went back, got a Rolling Stones CD, and put it on just to hear. Even with the fault, it was fucking dynamite. I sat there making wincing noises to him in all the right places where the sound dropped out, but honestly, if I had something like that myself I’d probably never leave the house. I’d have all my friends round there, that stereo could keep us occupied all month. I’ve even thought about letting myself into his house while he’s out and listening to it, but that could get me struck off if I was caught. Start doing things like that, and you don’t stop. Best to keep it professional.
Because let me get one thing clear with you. Even though I’ve got a couple of silly sods like him to deal with on my rounds, I usually work for my money. I’ve got twenty people I’m on call to, and I’m also supposed to do maintenance stops round all of their houses all week, and some of them places are massive. The agency gives me a cut of whatever they pay, and it’s a living wage, but you’ve got to work fast, and you’ve got to make sure everything’s in order. Some of them aren’t stupid. They notice. You don’t ever – not even once – pretend to have checked something over if you haven’t. I’ve known men to be fired just because they didn’t run a computer virus check when they claimed to. That’s enough to put the fear of God into me. Since her illness my wife can’t work, so I need to do things properly to be sure we can both live reasonably.
It’s been hard since I left the army. First I found it tough to get decent paying work on the building sites round this way, then my wife got really sick. I’d heard about these new jobs and these agencies starting up, and it all sounded a bit dodgy to me. I don’t mind being someone’s worker, or even someone’s soldier, but I don’t want to be anyone’s servant, you know what I mean? Anyway, in the end I thought it was the best bet for me under the circumstances, and it turns out it was. Since I started, the whole thing has caught on like wildfire, and to be honest most days you’re left to yourself. Most people, even rich people, don’t want to be thought of as twats by anybody anymore, and even though you’re waiting on them they don’t like to treat you like a servant. They’re really polite, for the most part, and that’s when they’re even around. I’ve got keys to all their houses, and they’ll often just piss off and leave me to it.
I get a bit scared when I read these stories in the papers slagging us all off, saying it’s all a con and that nobody really needs us. It’s going to hurt business. It’s true enough if you want to look at it like that, I suppose, but then years ago nobody needed women to come round and do the cleaning for them, did they? That was considered a bit weird once as well. The thing with the kinds of people I deal with is that they’ve never got the time – they don’t have lives outside of work and their families. What we’re all doing is buying them back some time. If they don’t have to run maintenance on their PCs, don’t have to clean and run checks on their cars, and don’t need to put the odd shelf up — well, that’s half a Saturday back in the time bank for them, I reckon. They’d notice if we weren’t there to sort them out. So I think – I hope, touch wood – our jobs are safe for awhile yet, so long as we keep doing them well. Just don’t go believing we’re all on easy street just because you hear the odd story like mine, that’s all I’m saying.