'What did I do to be so black and blue?' asks the existential hero of Ralph Ellison's unique novel of alienation, Invisible Man, referencing an old Louis Armstrong song. I use the word 'unique' advisedly. Ellison never managed another novel; the brilliance of his first must have weighed too heavily on his creative shoulders.
What did my wife do to be so black and blue, I wonder? She went upstairs to fetch a towel for her shower and stubbed her little toe on a poof. If that sounds a trifle absurd, I should point out that the poof in question has a wooden frame on which she must have caught her toe. We bought it off our friends Keith and Miranda when they sold up and moved back to Ireland. It's big enough to accommodate both pairs of feet when we curl up on the sofa to watch a film.
She made so much noise that I thought she dideth protest too much. Six days after the event, however, her left foot is badly swollen and the colour of something you might dredge out of a rock pool. The upshot is that she's walking with the aid of a crutch borrowed from friends. I drove her to work this morning and am planning to act as the company chauffeur for the next couple of weeks. Anything to keep her at the coal face, bringing in just enough dosh to keep us living in the style to which...
Now there's a thorny issue. When it comes to making money, we're a couple of air-heads. Whether or not it's our fairly feckless upbringing, but we both recognise a complete lack of acumen when it comes to making more money than we absolutely need. Perhaps it's partly to do with living in France, where wealth is generally discouraged socially and hampered politically. Both of us have the skills and experience to make more, but – faced with the prospect – we either lose it or give it away, or both. Result: an element of tension come the end of each month. Will we, won't we make it without going into the red? Thus far, we've managed it, but the ageing process brings a diminution of our powers and our value in the market.
Things have come to a head this month. My dear newly disabled wife has been grooming a successor for some time. She tries to pass new clients her way in preparation for a day when she can take her restored foot off the gas and prop it up on the poof a little more than at present. The trouble is that her reputation goes before her and, understandably I suppose, new clients want to see her rather than her colleague. For all the mentoring she provides (probably gratis), it doesn't remedy the situation. So she in turn consulted a mentor. An American one. Given Americans' propensity for making money, the advice was simple: put your own prices up. If people want to pay less, they can opt for the less experienced, less expensive colleague.
This advice has put Debs in a whirl. Can she simply put her prices up again after raising them six years ago (and ten years before that)? Is she worthy? Will she price herself out of the market? What if no one comes to see her? I wish I could advise her. I haven't put my own prices up since I started paying my income tax in France, over a decade ago. What's more, being a writer, I've seen my fee as a journalist slashed over time due to the impact of the internet. Where once I got £25 for a 200-word music review – a tricky, time-consuming business – I now receive £15. Squeezed margins, an undervalued profession, vicious circle, the way of the world and all that.
If I put up my prices, no journal would have me. Writing e-learning is more competitively remunerated, but I choose to work for one employer only now: a lovely ethical man, who pays my invoices on time without so much as a how-many-hours-did-that-take-you?, I have no wish to interfere with his bottom-line. However... I get to eat some fine cheese once a month for my ongoing column with France Magazine, I get to keep the CDs that I review for Songlines, and there is the occasional jaunt.
Early next month, for example, I shall be travelling to Rennes to cover the TransMusicales festival: a kind of nursery for upcoming global artists. The likes of Björk, Portishead and Amadou & Mariam have used it over the years as a stepping stone to a bigger stage. With accommodation and travel paid, plus customary pittance for the final product, it bolsters my self-belief. So I've said affirmative of course, but the whole of France will be going on strike on the 5th, the day after I travel and I don't know whether there's any prospect of getting home. Besides, at my age, the thought of all that hanging around waiting for bands to perform has rather lost its glamour. The one band I really want to see – the Minyo Crusaders from Japan, a huge outfit that plays traditional Japanese music with salsa instrumentation – won't be on stage till 5.30 in the morning. I did that once in Den Haag when I was a lot younger, for heroes of jazz rather than unknowns, back in 1986 or whenever it was, and it nearly killed me.
Anyway, my wife eventually decided that she would follow the American woman's advice. She tried it out the other day at the end of a Skype session with a client. Asked what her fee was, Debs quoted the new fee. No humming and hahing, no justifications, just a bare-faced statement of fact. The client took the hit without a murmur. I guess it's the phenomenon of high-end retail: a customer seeking quality will sniff at anything too cheap. The moral being: if you don't value yourself, who else will?
So the Good Wife is raising her prices: for one-to-one sessions and for training courses. After all, women in particular – and I'm sure I don't risk the wrath of #MeToo for suggesting such a thing – will think nothing of paying good money to sort their hair out. Isn't it reasonable to expect to pay an equivalent to someone who helps them sort their lives out? We shall see. Will her protégé – her amanuensis, as the peerless W.C. Fields might have described her – now have all the clients and the all the work that she can cope with? Will my wife have priced herself out of the market? Will we be able to pay the mortgage right up until April, '21, when the place becomes ours?
I don't know, but I'm happy to ferry valuable, limping cargo from here to Brive and back again for as long as it takes for a broken digit to mend to find out the answers. The role of part-time chauffeur will help to build my portfolio of domestic duties and justify my limbo-like existence. What did I do to be so slack and askew?