The Paying Friendship

I promised to publish a photograph once I had assembled my bargain ‘bin-hiders’. Here they are: eight pretty ones all in a row, standing empty in the pouring rain, waiting to accommodate our logs (once I get my rear end in gear). Despite what the nice man from Brico Depot said to the contrary, I found instructions inside and assembled them with my own fair hands and without too many problems. No tears before bedtime on this occasion, no ‘strong language’ to turn the air blue.![](upload://btdWpeZohlI574lPBjWtSYodNWb.jpg)

However, I should point out that they were finished off – as many of the tasks in and around this house have been – by my unique Ukrano-Canadian (or Ukradian) friend, Bret. He is the one who looks after the important little details, such as: raising them off the ground on palettes to ensure that the bases don’t rot too quickly; ensuring that the level is approximately equal so that the doors don’t stick; securing a black plastic cover that will actually keep the rain out and the wood dry.

My tale of our femme de ménage and her wedding weekend prompted much discussion about life’s indispensable people. Well, every home should have a Bret. In fact, house-sitting is just one of the occupations by means of which he assembles a living as an auto-entrepreneur. I can add ‘friendship’ to the long list of gainful activities. Of all the friends who have played a prominent part in my life on earth, Bret is effectively the only one I have paid to be my friend.

Perhaps I should explain. I wouldn’t want you to think that I’m such a sad and desperate character that I have to fork out for friendship. It’s simply that we both lead such busy and fragmentary lives that the only time we get to spend together is when I need someone to do something that I’m not capable of doing on my own. It started with a computer in our old house, soon after Bret arrived in France from some bitterly cold north-western part of Canada. I met him at a party, where he introduced himself as a writer. I gravitate towards people who are a little eccentric. Bret seemed seriously eccentric, so I wasn’t quite sure. Nevertheless, I learned – in between descriptions of wild ideas for novels – that he was a computer technician. Since I was having problems with my Mk2 computer and since he needed some work, reader I hired him.

He came and he sorted out the problem and others besides with such bewildering savoir faire and charged such a reasonable fee for going an extra mile or more and we had such fun while he was doing it that, ever since, if ever there’s a problem with something technical that runs on binary code, we just have to get on the phone and say ‘Bret’ in a certain helpless tone of voice. He will drop what he’s doing and come over with a metal case full of intricate tools and cables. If he can’t cure it on the spot, he will spirit it away to the workshop where he sits tinkering away like some modern-day Caractacus Potts, surrounded by old screens and ailing printers, determined that nothing will be scrapped without a rigorous examination.

Pretty soon my debit column had runneth over. In order to restore some credits, I put my worst boiler suit on and went over to the house he lived in at the time to help out with some pointing. Proud as punch, I took my collection of trowels with me. It wasn’t long, though, before I discovered that I had nothing of any practical use to teach him. When it comes to things physical, I am destined to labour for significant others. Bret’s father had been a builder and he had learned the ropes at his old man’s side. Before he went into computers, he and his brother had gone into business together and done all manner of work that might be categorised as ‘building’, including getting winched down in one of those perilous cradles to clean and paint high-rise buildings.

So I figured that his practical experience of construction might be a useful adjunct to all the knowledge I had garnered from books about building with straw bales. The Dude, as he became known, perhaps in recognition of his ever-changing flamboyant configurations of facial hair, perhaps simply because of his madcap sense of fun, came to work with me on the latter part of our grand design. It was at this point that it dawned on me just how capable he was and what a good friend he had become. By this time, most of the errors had been made – mainly as a result of my own naivety in assuming that amateurs shouldn’t need to check on the work of professionals, because they, the latter, know exactly what they are doing. (And it’s true. They do. They know exactly when to cut a corner in the name of expediency. They know just when to use a cheaper, more perishable material in the interest of economy.)

At least the second part of the build was comme il faut. To alleviate my stress, Bret would take problems home with him and return the next morning with a solution in his bag. It was only when he cried off for a fortnight due to a build-up of his own stress that problems arose – largely due to cowboy Bob Ze Buildair’s cavalier approach to taping and jointing.

Since then, it seems to me that I have spent my time earning money to employ my friend either to put right problems created by poor workmanship or to carry out home improvements. Your back balcony slopes towards rather than away from the house? No problem, call the computer man. You need those rain butts installed – and those posh new shutters? Who you gonna call? Why, the Dude of course.

Much as I would dread the thought of having to undertake something myself that tolerates no margin for error, I have such faith in his capability that I can relax and carry out (polite) instructions and relax and have a laugh. It’s during such times that you remember what it was like to be a kid and realise what you miss as a ‘sensible adult’ when you lose that capacity to giggle. So, to spend your hard-earned money on a friend who does a great job and makes you laugh at the same time seems more like redistribution of wealth than paying a bill.

At school, you see your chums every day. It’s a source of sadness that, other than the occasional social event, I barely get to see the Ukradian in between jobs. It’s not every auto-entrepreneur who founds his own religion, but my seriously eccentric friend is the high priest of Bretism, which teaches us to be good to others and have fun while you’re at it. At Christmas I found on our front doorstep a little badly wrapped package, which contained a reconditioned charger for my ancient mobile phone to replace the one I’d lost. He hadn’t had time to stop, because there were too many calling cards to leave around the area.

When the rain stops, I fully intend to move next winter’s wood down the drive in a wheelbarrow and stack it in the new cache-poubelles. It’s something I can do myself. I don’t need to pay a jobbing friend to help me. But guess who helped me cut it all up in the first place?

Thank you, one and all, for your kind words, comments and contributions. Your Guy sounds almost too good to be true, Terry. I did fail to mention that when Bret looked after our house and animals, we came back to find that he had caulked all the settlement cracks with mastic. I think he's as proud of this house as if it were his own gaff. I'm afraid that he doesn't live in the Herault, Shirley, though he may be tempted if you ever needed a responsible house-sitter.

Catherine, I love the sound of your project. It's just the kind of place this area needs. I'm not up to speed with my departmental numbers, but I'd love to visit your Tea Rooms when they're up and running.

Brian, Chris, thank you. I am a professional writer, Chris, but - alas - hardly in the public domain. Too many damn interests in life to distract me from my chosen profession. And Valerie, I'm very glad you understand my pride about the cache-poubelles. Yes, 5 bucks each. Not bad eh? Are my wood-sheltering worries finally over?

We also have a Bret called Guy, our next door neighbour who's a gardening whizz and can turn his hand to just about anything. If we go away for a few days we almost always come home to find he's done all the weeding we should have done ourselves, pruned the fruit trees, planted some veg he had left over from his own huge garden and generally pottered about doing anything he felt was needed. When we had a pedestrian/wheelchair access ramp built to make it easier to get from the road to the house it was Guy who spent days cutting up the scrap railings we'd got hold of, welding them back together and fitting them to the ramp. We owe him more than I can say. But pay him? He'd never speak to us again! So as there's very little I can do for him that he can't do for himself much better, we regularly take him and his wife out for the day, buy them lunch and take them to places we know they'll like but which they'll never get round to visiting themselves.

I want one! A Brett and a series of cache-poubelles!!! I love your pieces of writing - I wish you were in my area, (65/32) I'm trying to get up and running some Tea Rooms that could be used for Book Readings where I would serve Afternoon Tea with sandwiches, scones and gorgeous cupcakes and maybe a little wine too. You'd make a brilliant 'raconteur'...

Brilliant (as ever) Mark. We should learn from this one, at least intend to learn...

There's an 'auto' button that's missing from these website responses... It's the one that would be labelled 'Like - very much'.

Please tell me that you're a professional writer. It will make me feel a whole lot better about believing (can you hear me banging the table?) that every piece of writing should be honed and polished before you unleash it on your this case... your SFN audience.

A Bret? Well, we are in the shallows of a relationship with someone who is showing all of those vital signs. An ex merchant seaman who has recognised our house and garden as a magical and (even) haunted place - where he, as we do ourselves, drift off into a hypnotic state whilst merely being there... We actually recognised this as something we seldom feel in the UK. It's called relaxation... And I am envious of our 'Bret', because he gets to do many of the things I want to do but can't. He lives in France and I, as yet, I don't!

Brilliant piece, as usual Mark, and the cache-poubelles look superb. And all for, what was it, 5E each?? Incredible! Er, where can I find a Bret...?