Cracks in the plaster

by Gautam Raja

The man I’ll call Mr Ills is the contractor we hired to make changes and repairs to our apartment. During his work we’ve had to put up with tantrums, sulking, pleading for money, empty promises, rash promises, delays and outright lies. We’ve had to endure damage to property, bad design and shoddy finishing, and yet were expected to pay him huge sums of money whenever he wanted it.

It was all good in the beginning. We saw an example of his work elsewhere and liked the finishing. As he started, he enforced a high standard of his workers, with no prompting from us. Sadly, Mr Ills turned out to be a “95 per cent-er”. We all know about the 95% perspiration, and that it’s the last five per cent where personality shines through. It is your chance to show you’re a person of quality, someone with a spine who stands up for what he or she believes in. For it’s the last five per cent that the job is at its most vulnerable—one slipped hand, one minute too long, one wrong button push and everything can be ruined.

This is where Mr Ills lost our respect. After promising he’d supervise and hand over a perfect home, we moved into a place with cracks where there was crack repair, white paint splotches where there was black paint, yellow paint spots on the floor… and then there was the sink. Our expensive double stainless steel sink had first been messed up because it hadn’t been covered during other work, and was then cleaned with what I can only imagine was a pumice stone. A few days after we spotted this, Mr Ills sent us his “final bill”. So I promptly sent Mr Ills our final bill, totting up the cost of work he hadn’t done and letting him know how much he owed us.

My phone started ringing at the instant (I presume) he read that mail. I was driving at the time, so couldn’t answer; he called four times in ten minutes, and then sent a text. “I wanted to give you your cheque as per your e-mail,” it said.

“What a diva!” exclaimed my wife, not for the first time. Later, when I called him back, he said he had just wanted to wish us Happy New Year—the sort of non-straightforwardness that drives us crazy.

Both of us are often told that when you’re nice, people take advantage of you. We strive to be nice to everyone we deal with—and though it’s sometimes difficult, it feels like a more respectful and natural way to live. We’re surrounded by people who treat other people badly, often with no provocation at all (and we’re not always little angels ourselves), so we want to know that being good to people pays off in the end. But when we’re cheated of our five percent, we start to wonder—should we have been pushy and difficult from the start, a manner I know many people adopt when dealing with people such as Mr Ills? Should we have been less emotional and simply turned down entreaties, held back money and generally ordered everyone around? Would we have got better work and less goodwill? Or worse work and no goodwill? And finally, what use is goodwill?

All hard questions to answer, but hard questions to ask as well. Some part of our anger with Mr Ills is not so much about the work itself, but that he forces us to ask these questions of him, of ourselves, of human nature. There are cracks in the plaster and we don’t know who to blame.

First published in Gulf News, January 8, 2013