Notes from Lapta, Cyprus – “Those Who Can – Part 1” by Ken Dunn

Changing a career direction, at any time of life, can be very traumatic. When it happens in middle age it can be frightening and when it happens several times it tends to be confusing to say the least. It happened to me and seemed to go on happening for quite a while. Looking back on it now it had its ‘ups and downs’, some of which were very satisfying, some of which were terrifying, but there were a few lighter, more humorous incidents along the way as I’ll explain.

I’d been a practising designer for the better part of twenty years but gradually became disillusioned with the whole business. It wasn’t the work which brought this on. No. That was stimulating and very often exciting. As a freelance designer I would happily tackle anything. Furniture, graphics, illustration, product design, exhibitions, it was all great fun except for one area, the common denominator which pushed me away and into a number of completely different worlds of work. That common factor was the growing difficulty of actually being paid for my work.

The trouble that caused, after almost every commision, drove me up the proverbial wall. I would find delays occuring after my invoice had been delivered. Queries would suddenly appear from nowhere over small details. Arguments would erupt over fees already agreed and a grinding inertia tended to settle over all matters financial. This made life extremely boring, tedious, time wasting and generally unbearable, especially with my bank manager, bless him.

It became so bad that I decided to pack it all in. But what to do? Although I’d had a fair amount of experience in the design world I was one of those odd birds with lots of little bits of expertise, a jack of all trades if you like, but not enough of a great big piece to specialise in, not that I wanted to do that. No, that might be too narrow a direction to go in and with the financial and employment prospects at the time, the 80’s, not a very sensible thing to do.

I fiddled about for a few weeks and eventually had a call from a kitchen equipment supplier. Did I know of any kitchen fitters? This supplier, light years above the usual ‘tat’ being sold, was desperate for anyone who could help him with a rush order. I took the plunge. Yes, I told him, me! I didn’t have a clue about fitting kitchens, but what the hell. I had to eat and it couldn’t be that difficult.

I turned up the following morning and talked the problem through with the owner of the business. A client of his had ordered a special kitchen but the fitter who had quoted for the work was trying to jack up his price. The client was not happy. If the whole thing didn’t resolve itself soon the kitchen supplier would lose the sale. I looked at the layout, trying to look as if I knew what I was doing, quoted a price and that was that. Everybody was happy, except me. All I had to do was to find out how the hell the stuff went together. There was another small detail. I had hardly any tools.

I spent the rest of that morning begging and borrowing and near stealing any hand and power tools I could get my hands on. The afternoon saw me crawling around, under, over and through the kitchen section of the local D.I.Y. hypermarket. It was the only way I could think of getting a crash course on fitting kitchens. I needn’t have bothered. The stuff I’d been looking at was well below the standard of the kitchens this character was selling. He was quite a smoothie.

He’d set himself up with franchises from all over the place and the kitchens he was selling were mostly European in origin, Italian, German, French and very, very expensive. I’m going back over thirty years ago and the cost of one of these kitchens, even then, would have turned anyone pale. When I say you could have bought a medium sized car today for the price of one of them then that should give you an idea of how ‘up market’ they were. So were the clients.

I turned up the following day and took the address of the client. It was a very prestigious area of town. The kitchen would be arriving in two days which should give me plenty of time to prepare. Off I went, feeling more than a little apprehensive. The character who opened the door when I arrived took me by slight surprise. It was instantly obvious that he was of the ‘other’ gender, if you see what I mean. He welcomed me in and minced outrageously to the kitchen. I wondered if this was going to be a good idea after all.

The house was one of those great Regency birthday cakes of a place, all white stucco at the front, three floors and completely white inside. Everything was white, floors, walls, furniture, everything. He gave me strict instructions about not being anywhere but the kitchen but, if I had to go to the ‘little boys room’, then I would have to take my shoes off. White carpets didn’t like ‘rough boys’ shoes. He had several other do’s and don’ts which, I must confess, I ignored completely. One of them was his insistence that I should wear white gloves if the phone rang! He supplied the gloves. Handing them over he minced out, leaving me to get on with it.

Now, the house may have been all white but as I began to take the existing kitchen furniture out a very different colour emerged. Have you ever dismantled a kitchen? Don’t. You wouldn’t believe the ‘grunge’ you come across, particularly behind a cooker and under a sink. I don’t want to go into detail but I had to wash my hands in white spirit, twice, before I could get the stuff off.

By lunchtime I had the room cleared ready for moving. I had stacked the ‘old’ kitchen units outside the kitchen door, on the patio, next to the white, cast iron garden furniture. Mr ‘Mince’ came back at that point and became quite excited at the prospect of the new installation but distinctly unhappy about the old stuff piled up outside. It didn’t help the view from the kitchen window he observed, in a rather overt and camp fashion. When was I going to take it all away?

This was something I hadn’t thought about and it hadn’t been part of the deal either. Everyone had assumed that I would take it away. I hadn’t. He became rather ‘cross’ and so I sighed and agreed to do it. I still had the problem of where to get rid of it. In any case I was still confused as to why he wanted another kitchen. It wasn’t that it was particularly old or decrepit in any way. I would have been very happy to have had the stuff in my place, not that I could have afforded it. It couldn’t have been more than two or three years old but it just wasn’t as ‘white’ as he wanted so it had to go. Nonetheless, I had to find somewhere to dump it.

Pacifying him as best I could, I promised it would go as soon as I could arrange transport. I could see any profit I might have made rapidly diminishing. Hiring a van would cost a few quid and that’s exactly what I didn’t have. I’d thought about using my car but dismissed that immediately. Even if I could get the bigger cupboards inside it, which I couldn’t, mini’s aren’t that big after all, it would take at least ten trips to the local dump. I didn’t have time for that. Either way I only had the rest of the day to sort it out. The new kitchen would be arriving first thing the following morning.

By mid afternoon I had the interior of the kitchen prepared to take the new one. Swept and clean, new fittings for the water, new contacts for the electric cooker but fortunately for me there was no gas in the room. I wouldn’t have been very happy tinkering around with gas fittings. The thought of the risk of leaks, fire and things going ‘bang’ didn’t appeal at all.

There was nothing left to do but tidy up my tools and leave. Mr ‘Mince’ had gone a couple of hours before and would be staying overnight with a ‘friend’, so I locked the place up, with the spare key he’d given me, and, still wondering what to do about the old kitchen, drove back home. I needn’t have worried. Things turned out quite well in fact.

With the new kitchen completed Mr ‘Mince’ was delighted and said so loudly to the owner of the business. The client was happy, the owner of the kitchen business was happy and I was very happy. And the old kitchen? Well, that solved itself. When the van had arrived with the new one the driver gave me a hand unloading it. As an observant opportunist, ‘par excellence’, he assessed the old one. Thirty minutes later he drove off with all of it in the back of his van and I had a hundred quid in my back pocket! There was always a good trade in second hand kitchens, even if they weren’t ‘white’.

With a few more kitchens fitted I began to get into the swing of it all. Then, a few weeks later, one of the characters in the office of the kitchen business had a quiet word in my ear. He knew someone with a restaurant who needed some work doing. Would I be interested? Always say yes, that’s the golden rule of working for yourself. If you can’t do it yourself you can always find someone who can. Then you take a percentage, a handling charge if you like, off their fee. So I said yes, even with his need for ten percent.

The restaurant was Greek, the owners greasy and vice versa. Two middle aged brothers ran the place and would have passed for members of the Mafia any day. Short, slightly portly, thinning grey hair, black moustached, dripping with gold and sly with it, they welcomed me and sat me down to outline what they wanted. An arch in the wall over there, a new bar of there, that wall over there taking away and new quarry tiles down over there. That was too much for me to handle by myself but I didn’t say so. I fussed around taking measurements and making notes and generally looking efficient for a few minutes while they watched through half closed eyes at a table by the window.

They would be closing the place while the work was being done but only for three days. They couldn’t ‘afford’ to close it for longer than that. That would be from the coming Monday. This day was Friday which only gave me the weekend to cost it and, a more difficult problem, find some manpower to help. I put that problem to the character who had pushed the work my way. He said he’d see what he could do and managed to find three, I thought, archetypal ‘cowboys’ but, beggars can’t be choosers, not with a few hundred quid up for grabs.

The price for the restaurant work was agreed by Saturday afternoon so I organised as much as I could prior to work beginning on Monday morning. By ten o’clock on the day not one of the trio of helpers had turned up. I’d had time to mark the walls up ready for demolition but there was nothing else I could do without them. By ten thirty I wondered how I’d be able to complete anything when they shambled in, every one of them looking half asleep. Not a good start.

Dozy they may have been but daft they were not. They were just as aware of the old maxim as I was, ‘get in and get out, fast’. By six o’clock on Monday we had the two walls ready for finishing and the quarry tiles stacked ready to be laid. The owners slid in to have a look, but didn’t seem too happy about the mess. I reassured them as best I could but they were not convinced as they left.

Tuesday saw the bar competed and the tiles down. That left us with decoration and the grouting of the tiles. By Wednesday Lunchtime we had the place cleaned up and I gave the owners a ring. They came down immediately to inspect the place, slightly surprised that we were finished. Again everyone was happy. This led to the next episode.

The brothers had acquired a dilapidated and ancient assembly room a few months before and were now anxious to have the place operational as a gambling joint. Shame really. The place had been built in the late eighteenth century and in its day must have been quite a place. Over the decades it had changed hands several times, ending up being owned by the local authority. They couldn’t pull the thing down as it had a Grade One listed building status but they did they next best thing. They left it to rot.

After the brothers bought it they had found contractors to refurbish the structure and most of the major decay had now been repaired and the building was almost complete and ready for the big opening in three weeks time. There were, however, one or two other items which needed attention. They took me along to have a look. The building had two floors and very large rooms. To give the brothers credit they’d restored it to its original eighteenth century condition, with a few minor modern additions such as carpeting and electrical power. But there was one feature which ran throughout both floors which they were having problems with. Chandeliers, twenty four of them in total.

Several quotations had been given for restoration but none had been accepted. This probably had something to do with the fact that they were all in six figures and the brothers were stretched enough financially just putting the place back to where it should have been. Would I be interested? My head nodded but I was shaking it inside. Twenty four chandeliers and all to be restored in three weeks! I must have been mad to take it on. The smallest of them was about three feet across but the biggest, the central one upstairs in what must have been the ballroom, was over six feet wide and around eight feet in height. That’s when I began to find out just what I’d committed myself to.

All the chandeliers, on each floor, couldn’t be lowered, except by taking them apart where they hung. I had hoped for some kind of crank or lowering gear for them but nothing existed. All I could find in the loft were a couple of ancient packing cases stuffed with mouldering paper and sacking.

Looking closely at the chandeliers I could see a light metal frame beneath all the glass. Curling, curved tubes of glass followed this structure and ornate glass shades hung from each arm. Between and round these were several rings and loops of pendant drops, all of gradually larger sizes, hanging from the very top to the bottom of each one. Down the centre of each chandelier were dishes of engraved glass, again getting bigger from the top to the bottom. On the large one in the ballroom the lowest of these was almost the size of an old dustbin lid.

Further investigation, from the top of a pair of long, folding ladders, showed that they had originally been designed for candles, then converted for gas and after that very badly converted for electricity. Years of grime covered all of them, some of the glass had been broken and glued back together rather badly and on top of that I discovered that the metal framework of each one had been painted gold. Why that had been done I’ll never understand. A test scrape of the metalwork showed they were solid silver!

It was impossible to quote sensibly for something like this so I offered a daily rate and to my surprise they accepted it. Daily rates can sometimes be expensive if the job goes over the specified time but with little of that available they quickly agreed. With my gang of three in tow again we made a start. With twenty four chandeliers the mathematics were straightforward. I only had twenty one days. I would have to complete eight of the things every week as well as rewire all the circuits to be ready for the grand opening!

Fortunately for me the building was now clear of all other workers so, with the help of a hired builders tower, we began to dismantle all of them. I’d had the common sense to photograph everything before we started. It’s just as well I did. Without those photographs we would never have been able to put them back together.

Taking the biggest one down proved to be a mini nightmare. Standing on top of the square tower, two of us were handing bits down to the others. That left us with the main structure in the middle. So far so good. The problem then was that the whole lot was held in place by a single, big, fat, metal nut on the bottom of the central shaft. With that undone, and after almost giving myself a hernia trying to undo it, we had the full weight of seven thick plates of glass to hold and slip off one by one. The bottom one must have been over two feet in diameter alone.

That’s when disaster struck. The two of us began to have a fit of the giggles as we swapped ideas about what would happen if we let go! The tower began to sway one way and the structure of the chandelier another and there we were trying to hang on to the damn thing and trying not to laugh at the same time! The weight of all that glass bearing down on a single point must have been the equivalent of several hundredweight and I still don’t know how the hell we held it up while in a state of hysterical laughter. We struggled, tears now pouring down our cheeks, the tower swaying alarmingly from side to side and the two below were helpless to do anything about it.

With the movement of the tower in one direction and the chandelier structure in another, the weight of anyone else coming up to help would have given certain collapse to the tower, us and the construction we were trying to hold on to. Then one of the lads below came to the rescue by shouting up the antidote which saved us from total crashing collapse.

The essence of the message he yelled was, ‘I say chaps, when you have had your fun we might earn some money. Come along now. We must get on and not mess about any more’ The actual words he used were rather more Anglo-Saxon than that, and largely of the four lettered variety, but it had the desired effect. We calmed, the swaying settled and we were able to slowly slide off all the glass without any further mishap.

Half way through the following day we had every piece down and on the floor of the ballroom. There wasn’t a square inch of space apart from two narrow gangways running the length of the ballroom which we had to make to get to each piece. The brothers called in to see how we were getting on and were stunned by the apparent chaos all over the floor. They became quite agitated, babbling on in Greek to each other and me, waving their arms around and covering their faces in frustration.

Calming them down, I promised that we’d be finished in time. They were not convinced. In the state they were both in they forgot how tightly packed the bits were on the floor and promptly took the shortest distance to the exit, tramping and crashing through several of the shades and assorted bits. I can still remember the splintering noise of the glass as they did this. Although they’d only taken a couple of steps it was enough to smash a number of important pieces.

How we were going to repair that damage was beyond me. Then I remembered the old packing cases in the loft. I shot up to it and, with everything crossed and my heart in my mouth, I pulled the paper and sacking to one side. There in the bottom were a jumble of spare shades and a pile of drops covering three glass arms. Salvation!

The days slid by all too quickly as we cleaned each piece, allocating it to its own place on the floor, numbered and identified to each chandelier and ready for rehanging. We moved the tower from place to place, in the other rooms, scraping down the metalwork, running new cables to each one and to new lamp holders. After two weeks we were ready to re-assemble each chandelier.

We completed everything a day before the deadline. A true miracle. But what was slightly unnerving was that we had a couple of buckets, yes buckets, full of spare pieces after everything had been replaced. I still have them somewhere and to this day I don’t know where they would have gone. It’s a bit like taking an old clock or a lawnmower apart and having several bits left over when the thing goes back together and still works!

… To Be Continued)

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