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Falling Off a Log

The Logs Man Cometh – August 2009
in Italy this summer we were planning a day’s walking in the mountains and were packing up the picnic bag when the doorbell rang and it was Martin our (English) neighbour who said that he’d just heard from the logs man that thirty quintale of logs would be on their way to his house around lunchtime and could I possibly give him a hand with getting them into the house, for the logs man just dumps them on the street. Yes, Martin, of course. But you’re just on your way out. We’ll cancel it. No, don’t do that, don’t worry, I’ll get it sorted, you go and enjoy your day in the mountains. Nonsense, Martin, we can go to the mountains tomorrow.
The logs man phoned about lunchtime to say he was running a bit late and would be there sometime after two. I told Martin we’d probably see the wagon pass our house on the way to his, and we’d give him a bell.
We heard the logs man before we saw him, as his creaky old lorry – a bit like those you used to see cattle carried in, with high sides and an open top, it probably once was a cattle truck – came struggling noisily up the hill. We looked down from our top floor and saw it was loaded to the brim and beyond with logs. They can’t all be for Martin, surely. We phoned Martin to say that it could be his logs, or it could be someone else’s, so to let us know if they actually were his.
Within a few minutes there was a ring on our doorbell and it was Pam, Martin’s wife, in a state of agitation, saying can you come quickly, we need someone who speaks Italian, for although Pam and Martin live there pretty-much permanently, they speak only the most basic number of words.
I followed Pam down the street while she explained that they had ordered thirty quintale, the man had brought forty-two, and he was going to have to go away and come back with thirty, but their Italian was not up to explaining that. A quintale is a hundred kilos and if you want to know what four thousand two hundred kilos of logs looks like, well, it’s an old-style cattle truck filled very considerably to the brim.
I explained the situation to the man, who was rather striking-looking for an Italian as he had azure blue eyes. He said that he had brought forty-two for that is what it said on the ticket. Can you show me the ticket? Ah well, no, for I’ve left it back in the office. Well I tell you what, suppose you drop off just thirty of the forty-two quintale, take the other twelve back to the yard, then Martin and I will come down to the yard tomorrow, and if the ticket says thirty we’ll all be straight, and if it says forty-two Martin will take the extra twelve and pay for your time to do a second delivery? The man looked like he might agree to this, and since Pam in particular was adamant they’d asked for thirty, I was banking on the chance that it would, in reality, see the end of the matter. I translated what we’d agreed for Martin.
No, no, said Martin, tell him we’ll take the forty-two now and be done with it; just tell him we’ll take the forty-two. I told the man that we’d take the forty-two, and that if they wouldn’t all fit in the house: well there are other people with houses. The man could not conceal his relief and delight. And he began the process of tipping four thousand two hundred kilos of logs onto the street outside Pam and Martin’s front door.
Right, said I when the final logs had been kicked by the man off the back of the truck, that is the agreed price of . . .? thirteen euros per quintale, said the man, which was the price Martin had told me he’d previously agreed. Right, that will be thirteen times forty-two equals five hundred and forty six euros. Five hundred and forty five, said the man. An Italian will nearly always do this, knock a little off as an omaggio, or homage or gift.
Martin got out his wallet: here’s five hundred and fifty, tell him that’ll be fine. I told the man: He says here’s five hundred and fifty and that will be fine, would you count it. The man was, to put it mildly, incredulous. An Italian, he said, would never do that, he would ask for a bigger discount, an Italian would just never do that, I only gave you a discount of one euro because I was expecting to be negotiated down further. Well, I said, these Brits, that’s why they’ve never got any money, they’re always giving it away to people like you.
That humorous comment appealed to the man. I usually find that the British sense of humour intrigues Italians, though this does not extend to British jokes.
The man and I counted the notes together and then we had the customary jolly chat about how in winter, here in the hills it’s cold but dry, whereas where he is in the valley it’s not so cold but is damp, and then he went happily, very happily I’d say, and smiling on his way.
And there we were at 3 pm, Hilary and me, Martin and a seething and fuming Pam, two of their friends who had arrived the previous evening and were staying for a holiday; one just recovering from major heart surgery and the other with some sort of shoulder problem, and four thousand two hundred kilos of logs. Nothing for it but to start getting them loaded into the house. I asked Pam jokingly what she was going to do with them all, and she said: I know what I’m going to do with them, I’m going to put them either side of Martin’s bollocks and push. She was absolutely steaming, feeling she had been done, and Pam doesn’t like feeling that she’s been done.
The other thing that angered Pam and had Martin in her malicious log-wielding sights was that earlier that day she’d arranged with an English builder called Johnny who lives in the vicinity that one of his Albanian labourers might give them a hand with the logs and Johnny had agreed at a cash-in-hand fee of ten euros per hour. Martin had insisted she cancel this and she had done, thus annoying Johnny. When we saw just what level of job lay ahead, all to be completed before nightfall, for to have an unlit pile of logs blocking the street would be extremely dangerous, Pam phoned Johnny again, but he was so upset that he’d had to tell his Albanian labourer that he’d have some work for the day, and then had to renege on that, that he simply put the phone down.
In circumstances such as these, there are three sorts of people in the world: there are those, of whom Martin and I are examples, who say right: there’s a job to be done, no messing no theories no arguments, let’s just get on and do it however long it takes. Martin and I got stuck in immediately. Pam is of the second type: she flaps, trying to think all the time of ways in which the job can be overcome and who we can ask for help. And then there is the third type, who cries bad back, though to be fair to Pam and Martin’s guests, Peter, the man of the couple, could certainly be excused as he was recovering from serious heart surgery.
While Hilary sorted the logs into size, I filled a blue plastic toybox of similar-sized logs and carried them through to Martin’s cellar, where he was stacking them neatly. Peter, he of the dicky heart, tried to help a bit, under severe admonitions from his wife that he should desist at once.
Pam, meanwhile, was desperately trying to find a better solution, and eventually talked three of the neighbouring children to come and help; these consisted of two brothers, aged about fifteen and fourteen, called Michelangelo and Leonardo (yep) and another boy of thirteen called Simone. Michelangelo and Leonardo’s sister, Giulia, came out to help but was told very firmly to go away by the boys, and very firmly by me not to stand around among tumbling logs in bare feet and flip-flops. She languidly asked if she could help once or twice, but I said no, definitely not in flipflops.
The dad of Michelangelo and Leonardo, Sandro, runs a kind of hardware store, and also sells logs, and he had asked Martin if he wanted any this year but Martin said no he was getting them from elsewhere. This seemed a bit risky in terms of neighbourly equilibrium, but Sandro charges at least three euros a quintale more – in fact he may well get his logs from the man with the cattle truck.
When we used to run our hotel we learned something quite fundamental about the recruitment of staff, which is that to get the best person for a particular job, it helps if one or other or preferably both of their parents did that job. Someone will clean lavatories much better if her mother was also a cleaner, than if her mother is a teacher, say, or an accountant. And so it is with hardware store owners: their children have a natural bent for the task.
(Recruitment procedures in large organisations would usually find it discriminatory to ask someone what their parents did for a living, and so it probably is, to the employer’s decided disadvantage).
Michelangelo went and helped Martin with the stacking, and took to it like a fish to chips. Leonardo his brother has a moderate-to-severe learning disability, but after a period of throwing the logs about (unfortunately he’d seen me do that while Hilary was taking a break and I was similar-size sorting), Leonardo took to filling a blue IKEA bag with more logs than he thought he could carry, and then carrying them through to Michelangelo and Martin in the cellar, and then coming back to see whether he could carry even more next time.
Simone started off doing a bit of log-chucking with Leonardo, but then he too got into the carrying, this time with a yellow IKEA bag. I think it was Pam who explained how much happier she would be if they carried logs through to the cellar, rather than chucking them around, after one of the tossed logs hit Peter on the leg and caused him to bleed, and because his medication is an anti-clotting drug, the bleeding would not stop. After an hour or more it did stop though.
Some time later Michelangelo and Leonardo’s mother called them in as they were to go out somewhere, or maybe she was protecting her husband whose log business had been snubbed, whatever, Michelangelo and Leonardo disappeared, and along came Simone’s mother, who is small and slight but accustomed to manual work, to help.
Martin’s cellar was rapidly filling up with logs and looking like it might not take them all, so we offered to buy two or three quintale from him, which we did, me switching to loading the back of our car with logs and driving them up the street to our house, unloading them and then coming back for another load. We took a guess at what was a quintale. So we now have logs to last us the winter (just about – we normally get five quintale but can always get some more from Martin if we need them I’m sure). Three out of forty-two is not much, but helped him a bit.
And just as it was getting dark, we were out in the street, sweeping up the remaining pieces of bark. Between us and somehow, we had cleared forty-two quintale of logs, because you do, if you know you have to, then you do.
And Martin has a cellar full, very very full, of logs. Pam was still incandescent, but Martin knows that, as he and Pam are staying there for pretty-much all this winter, those logs will soon diminish, in fact they might even diminish to zero. Pam and Martin’s house is a cold one to heat in winter as the central stairwell acts as a kind of chimney up which travels all the heat and there aren’t really any doors you can close off; the house was not very well designed in that respect. Martin is thinking they’ll probably keep their open fire and stove going pretty-much constantly, so the logs will quickly be eaten into. We’ll see how they get on.


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