The lurid red leaflets advertising his range of 24-hour plumbing services in both English and Spanish have been blocking up our letter box for the last twelve years. Proudly declaring that he has been in the plumbing business for over thirty years, Juan, as I will call him, was clearly a reliable professional, or so we thought. When our toilet suddenly decided it needed some technical assistance, we decided to call him. How wrong we were!
From the moment that Juan and his equally burly henchman walked into our home, I felt uneasy about the two men. My usual well-honed character radar was already flashing warning signs due to their over excitable levels of ‘easy talk', which always makes me suspicious. Recovering from a heavy cold at the time, clutching a handful of 'Kleenex' tissues and after downing the Spanish equivalent of 'Lemsip', I showed Juan to the offending toilet. I was impressed, as well as disgusted, when Juan plunged his hand inside the toilet and appeared to grope erotically around the inside of the bowl with intense satisfaction. I guess it takes all sorts in life, but I was relieved that we had poured substantial quantities of strong disinfectant into the bowl before his arrival. He could at least have worn rubber gloves, I thought.
Juan confirmed my initial diagnosis that the plunger mechanism needed replacing. He nodded wisely, but then went on to explain that the sewage outlet pipe appeared to be blocked. Nothing too serious that would need machinery to unblock the pipe, but suggested that a dose of strong acid would do the trick. I asked how much this would cost and he explained that it would be about 25 euros. I agreed, and Juan and his colleague went off into town to get a new plunger mechanism, as well as the acid.
A short time later, the pair returned, carrying a new plunger, as well as a battered plastic container, which I guess was holding about five litres of liquid. I was presented with a receipt for twelve euros for the plunger, but there was no mention of the cost of the acid. Juan proceeded to fit the new plunger and to pour the liquid down the toilet. Both he and the toilet made impressive gurgling sounds; he was after all, a very large man who I suspect had a very large, late breakfast just before his visit. I was asked to examine the outflow from the inspection chamber in the road. It all seemed to be flowing well. Juan nodded with satisfaction and I asked for the bill.
At this point Juan became very vague and started to jot down a number of incoherent figures. He finally declared that the cost of 25 litres of "very special acid" at a cost of 15 euros per litre, together with 12 euros for the new plunger and his labour charges amounted to the grand total of 550 euros. I laughed, and told him that he had made a mistake. He shook his head seriously and attempted to explain that the "special acid" was one available only to certain plumbers who had authorisation to use the stuff. The alternative would be to employ a commercial rodding service that would cost much more. I asked him to show me the receipt for the acid that he had purchased, but he declined, telling me that it was his own mix (of water, I began to suspect).
As we disputed and argued, the atmosphere grew to a level where we were getting nowhere. I resolutely refused to pay up, whilst Juan and his henchman became more threatening and intimidating. The price came down to 500 euros, 450 euros, 400 euros and eventually to 300 euros. I refused to pay until I had been given a detailed invoice and could check the prices for myself after obtaining a second opinion from a specialist. In any case, I did not have that kind of money readily available, and so the plumbing pair insisted that they drive me to the nearest cash machine to relieve me of the cash. I refused to comply and asked the pair to leave our home, which they refused.
At this point, I called the police to ask for their assistance. When overhearing my conversation with the police, Juan immediately changed his attitude and asked how much I would be prepared to pay for the job. I offered one hundred euros, which I considered to be generous, and suspect it was double the price that the job was worth. Juan accepted, declaring that he was "very angry", and the troublesome duo finally left.
A short time later, two gun-toting Policia Nacional officers arrived at our house. They were polite, friendly and very helpful. I told them the story, which they carefully listened to. They advised me that I could make a formal complaint against the plumber at the police station, as they were undoubtedly committing a crime by advertising their services without an individual or company identification number, giving no business address or full name. However, as I had invited Juan into our home, and did not ask for a quotation of price or see their identification, they had not committed a crime. Indeed, it could be argued that I had committed a crime by paying them 'black money' for the job, which would not be declared to the tax authorities. I accepted their point, and realised that I had created a series of traps for myself by not being sufficiently vigilant in checking their credentials. Usually, I would ask a trusted neighbour or friend for recommendations, but sometimes circumstances force us to stray away from our normal pattern of behaviour.
Nearly every week, I hear stories of expats in Spain and the Canary Islands being victims of fraud, yet I had completely forgotten the key principles of checking the validity of tradesmen before letting them into our home. Admittedly, I was not feeling very well at the time, but this failure could have ended up costing me a lot of money, as well as more unpleasantness. I am now pleased to report that our toilet is flushing well, although I remain flushed with embarrassment. I have learned yet another serious lesson in life.
© Barrie Mahoney