The Rolls-Royce came smoothly to a halt outside number three, Elderberry Avenue, and Mr Bert Dodge, chairman of Dodge and Boult Contractors, emerged and stepped up to the front door.
The big builder's back was so broad – his expensively tailored jacket straining at the seams – that Mrs Gulliver and James had to stand in the hall while he examined the offending tiles. When Bert Dodge turned round, however, his big, smooth face wore an expression of hurt innocence.
"What can I say, Mrs Gulliver?" he asked helplessly. "If you don't like the tiles, I'll have them replaced. I suppose you'll want the old-fashioned type, and they'll probably have to be in plain white. You see, they don't sell many nowadays – they're right out of fashion …"
Mrs Gulliver's lips began to move at the words "old-fashioned"; at "plain white" she began to murmur; finally at "right out of fashion" she could contain herself no more.
"Do you mean to tell me," she asked incredulously, "that all this is deliberate – the uneven surface, the varying joints, the rough edges … ?"
"Of course," replied the builder earnestly, "this is the new chaos theory tiling. Just look closely at these tiles: they're not flat, the edges are all slightly curved. You see, they are meant to be read as individual units, not as a bland, featureless surface. The tiler was instructed to vary the joints. This is the new architecture of fractal geometry. Still …" he shook his head sadly, "if you want it changed …"
Mrs Gulliver was murmuring again, and when she spoke, it was slightly incoherently, and apparently on the subject of her husband's lack of awareness of current trends in interior design. Then suddenly she spoke out clearly: "What I really brought you here for, Mr Dodge, was not the bathroom at all, but the hall ceiling." All three looked up; the ceiling was unpainted.
"Incredible," gasped Dodge, "the painter's missed it altogether! Never mind, Mrs Gulliver, two coats of white emulsion will transform your hall. I'll send round my best painter tomorrow."
There was a general shaking of hands, and the two builders took their leave.
"Do we have any painters available, James?" asked Dodge.
"No, they're all busy."
"I thought so." Then an idea struck him. "What about that apprentice, the young fool with the Mohican haircut? What's he doing?"
"Creosoting your garden fence."
"Yes, of course," replied Dodge with a laugh. "Well, when he's finished, send him round to Mrs Gulliver's. Oh, and another thing, James," he added with a sly smile, "tell him to change his brush."
As he climbed back into the car, Bert Dodge explained: "The last 2% of a contract never pays – the finishing and tidying and making sure everything works – so no builder ever finishes a job. It's far cheaper to leave the building unfinished and deal with the complaints, then try to make sure there won't be any. It's even cheaper," he continued modestly, "to send the chairman himself in his Rolls to deal with the complaints."
"Then the only clients who get their buildings finished," said James brightly, "are those who complain."
"Not even those, really," replied the senior man with a faint smile. "They get more snags dealt with, admittedly, but we take so long to deal with the bits and pieces that the snagging merges imperceptibly into maintenance."
James laughed. "I wonder what would happen if other manufacturers did the same – if Rolls-Royce didn't finish the last 2% of your car, and delivered it with no door handles, no windscreen wipers, no …"
"I wouldn't accept it, of course," interrupted Dodge impatiently, "I'm not stupid. Now," he continued more suavely, "remember this, James: pretentious people are the most gullible of all. Now, where to next?"
"Number seven – Mr Facer's garage."
"Ah, yes, Facer. Oh, and by the way, James, don't let me forget to collect my new dinner suit from the tailor at number 39."
At number seven, the two builders did not even cross the threshold. The door was wrenched open by a big, red-faced man with a belligerent glare.
"So you are Dodge," he boomed. "I didn't think you'd have the nerve to show your face round here. Well, you know where the garage is – the door's open, nothing's changed. Your last attempt at bodging was as useless as all the others. If you put any more render on the walls, I'll have to buy a smaller car. You know it's all a waste of time – you can't divert an underground stream with waterproof render."
It would also have been waste of time trying to silence Mr Facer – his eloquence was as irresistible as the stream flowing through his garage.
"You knew all about that stream," he bellowed into Dodge's face, "before you decided to cut the garage block into the slope. You know you should have diverted it through a proper conduit and tanked the outside of the garages."
James staggered back under the force of the tirade, but when he looked sideways at his employer, he saw that the big builder was looking dreamily into middle distance, as if he hadn't heard a word.
"… either you do the job properly, or you hear from my solicitor. Which is it to be?" concluded the furious householder.
“Where’s the first complaint?” “Number three. It’s Mrs Gulliver’s bathroom, and she’s right, it’s appalling. It looks as if it was tiled by a blind man in a hurry. We’ll have to redo it all.”
"Facer …" murmured Dodge, thoughtfully. "Hasn't your son just set up in business as a tiler?"
Mr Facer was suddenly on the defensive. "Er, yes. What of it?"
"Excellent man, and a couple of good lads with him," continued Dodge in the same mild manner, "working for us on flats in the high street. And he's just put in the lowest tender for our big new development of executive homes at Drovers' Down. It would be such a pity …" and here his voice hardened ever so slightly, "if we were in dispute with his father." He paused briefly, then finished off the conversation briskly. "There's a new waterproof additive on the market, I'll send round my renderer tomorrow. Come on, James."
He did not wait for a reply; he knew there would be none. With surprising sprightliness for such a big man, he set off down the path.
"Always remember, James," he murmured as they reached the car, "a soft answer turneth away wrath." Where next?
After satisfactorily resolving another seven complaints, Bert Dodge and James arrived at number 39.
"The tailor's a genius," explained Dodge. "He's retired now, but he used to work in Savile Row. There's nothing he can't do with a length of good cloth. I've been having suits made to measure for over 30 years, and even those that fit perfectly when they're new (and most of them don't) are too tight after six months. And then, of course, there's never enough material at the seams to let them out. But this man's solved the problem. He's developed a special seam that conceals plenty of spare material, and can be let out easily without spoiling the suit. He even puts in a corresponding seam in the lining. It's brilliant, I don't know why nobody else has thought of it. Yes, the man's a genius, but," he added with a sigh, "he makes me uneasy."
"Why's that?" asked James.
"Because he never complains. Not about the window that won't shut, nor the leaking roof, nor the missing toilet seat … He never complains about anything. I almost wish I hadn't beaten him down on the price of the suit."
He pressed the doorbell; there was silence.
"Oh, silly me, our sparks hasn't connected up the bell."
He knocked loudly with the mock-Georgian knocker. Almost immediately the door was opened by a small, skinny man in a worn suit. At the sight of the big builder he smiled broadly, and it seemed to James that the smile was too wide for the narrow face.
"Ah, Mr Dodge, come in, your suit is ready."
Bert Dodge squeezed into the narrow hall and accepted the neatly-packaged suit.
"I've let out the waist another inch, as you asked" said the tailor. "Would you like to try it on?"
"No, no," replied Dodge hastily, "I'm sure it will fit perfectly. I can't stay or I'll be late for the function."
"Ah, yes, the function," murmured the tailor, still smiling.
The two builders returned to the car.
"What's the function?" asked James cheerfully.
"It's my entry into politics," replied the chairman, rapidly regaining his composure. "Tonight I make my first speech at the Conservative club, then I start throwing lavish parties and getting to know the top people, and, before you can say 'generous donor', you'll be reading about Lord Dodge of Drovers' Down! That's why it's so important I make a good impression tonight."
"What are you speaking on?"
"Quality control in the building industry."
The chairman cut an impressive figure in his magnificent new dinner suit and, as he rose to speak, his massive chest swelled with pride. He was greeted with generous applause, but only from the audience in front of him. Those seated on the platform behind him were watching with consternation the back of his jacket. The seam had already begun to open up during the introduction, and now, with every movement of the vast body (and Bert Doge was an energetic speaker), the split grew longer and wider. Moreover, by a curious piece of tailoring, the purple silk lining was also opening up with the black cloth, thus exposing the white shirt beneath. It was clear to those behind that, within minutes, the semi-detached dinner jacket would suddenly become detached.
At the front, however, something very curious was happening to Dodge's trousers; the waist band had begun to part company with the rest of the garment, exposing a widening strip of white shirt where only black trousers should have been seen. It was clear to those in front that, within minutes, the simply supported trousers would be simply unsupported.
Bert Dodge, however, was totally involved in his speech. He waxed eloquent on the need for high standards of quality control in the building industry. He frowned with earnestness as he insisted on the importance of well-trained supervisors, and beads of perspiration gleamed on his broad forehead as he pledged himself to maintain these high standards in the face of cynical cost-cutting by his competitors. His audience, however, neither heard his stirring words nor saw his earnest face. Both behind and in front, they watched in open-mouthed silence an uneven battle between the energetic 20-stone speaker and a few cunningly positioned threads of cotton.
It was with an attempt to include the audience behind him with a generous sweep of his arm that Bert Dodge precipitated the final catastrophe. As he swung round, the seat of his trousers burst free of the waistband; desperately, he grabbed at his sinking trousers with his right hand. The violent jerk caused the stitching at his right shoulder to come adrift. Instinctively he clutched at his right sleeve with his left hand, and his left sleeve also parted company with his jacket. Abandoning his jacket as a lost cause, Dodge seized his collapsing trousers firmly with both hands and the seat split open.