It was a mixed fortnight with pleading and pride playing critical parts. Twice we needed major household repairs and twice we relied on favoured status for the work to be done with minimal delay. For installing a new gas boiler, it was my presumed frailty that added urgency; for replacing the leaking water main, the key factor was our ownership of the house. Some days later, and in a very different situation, it was simple, honest respect that played its part.
The boiler saga started when suspicious smells wafted from its housing. Over the phone, the advice from the gas company was unambiguous: “Turn off all gas appliances. No naked flames. Go outside and wait; we will be round within the hour”. Their emergency man duly arrived, found high levels of carbon monoxide, capped off our gas supply and told us that the boiler needed an urgent service.
A few days later, the service engineer soon discovered all he needed to know – “Carbon monoxide is being sucked back into the system and eventually overflowing into your house. The only remedy is to replace the boiler and fitting a new one can take time, but first we will send round a repairs assessor”.
The assessor reviewed the problem and confirmed that the boiler would have to be replaced, but it would take time! Then came a key question “Is there anyone in the house aged over seventy five?” I told him I was seventy six and he said that this made me “vulnerable”. After several phone calls in which my vulnerability was a recurrent theme, he announced that the work could start in two days. And so it did; a complicated job done with expertise, the minimum of fuss, and on time
In the middle of all this, we were forced to deal with a second household threat – flooding. We had been aware of a water leak in the cellar for years but it was becoming serious. We had often looked for the cause of the damp walls and occasional puddles but without success. It was time for a more determined approach and, after removing bricks from behind the mains stopcock, three fine jets of water were seen spurting out from cracks in a century-old lead pipe.
It took four days for the water board inspector to appear. Yes, it was a leak, yes it was serious, but no, it was not an emergency and “repair work like this can take time”. Trying my luck, I asked if I counted as ‘vulnerable’. No, not according to water company rules, but he then asked me whether we owned the house. When I said “Yes”, he managed to arrange for the repair to be done within days. On the given day and bang on time, holes were dug and the mains pipe replaced.
With our household services righted, it was off to march with 700,000 others in central London to demonstrate against our leaving the European Union. I arrived early and decided to have a coffee in the Lanesborough Hotel. It is luxurious and conveniently situated near the start of the march. Why coffee there particularly? Before its conversion to the Lanesborough Hotel in the late 1970s, the building housed St George’s Hospital and Medical School where I spent 12 years; first as a medical student, then as a doctor. I chose to take coffee there for sentimental reasons.
As I walked slowly down the main corridor, a soft-spoken, uniformed porter, coincidentally named Joseph, asked if he could help. I explained my medical background and my link with the building and in response he invited me to look around “for old time’s sake … and please take your time”. With its altered layout and opulence, it was unrecognisable.
Now it was time for my coffee, but when Joseph told me that a single espresso would cost £6.32, I thanked him politely saying I would have to find one elsewhere. “Please don’t do that. Come this way”. He sat me down in a grand sitting room with marble pillars, embroidered gold silk curtains and gilded door frames and whispered something to a waitress. In a few minutes she brought me my coffee saying discreetly, “Courtesy of the management”. I had been proud to tell my story and of my relationship with the building and the gift of a coffee felt right.
Over a few weeks the same me had gone from frail, to entitled, to proud. In each instance, other’s assessment of my status helped me get better service. The gift of a coffee felt right, but varying the urgency of the two repair services according to my status as vulnerable or entitled, raised worrying questions.