And so it begins. It’s been several years now since we last had the builders in and, like childbirth, the worst of the painful memories tend to fade in the interim. But they are back with the noise and the upheaval and that particular quality of dust, fine to the naked eye, gritty to the touch, completely tenacious and all-pervasive. The last building project involved adding an extension on the back of our house and a team of builders on the cusp of cowboyhood did it for us. The man in charge was rarely at the scene, having a somewhat vibrant personal life at the time, involving a wife and baby in the city and a Polish girlfriend, waiting for him to make good his promises in Poland. He left on site three likely lads; one elderly rogue with two dumb side-kicks (one was forbidden from getting on a fork-lift truck, since the last time he’d done so, he’d taken out a wall they’d just built). They took it in turns to work, one halfheartedly digging or hammering, the other two standing by, offering their thoughts. Most of the time they picnicked at our garden table, read their tabloid newspapers and philosophized. I spent my days making them tea, and wondering whether tremendous bladder capacity was the key qualification to the trade, until I noticed several bushes in the garden dying. Since then we have learned a great deal and found a network of reliable local tradesmen. With the exception of the electrician, who is a perfectly nice bloke, I’ve met all the others before, and they all work with one another on a regular basis. So there’s quite a party atmosphere around here most of the time, and it would be pleasant if I didn’t feel like that grumpy neighbour who just wishes they’d turn the music down and go home.
Inevitably we have already hit some difficulties. Our main gas pipe, it transpires, is too narrow for today’s regulations and so the gas needs to be pumped in another way. Replacing the pipe is out of the question – it currently runs beneath concrete, under two built-in bookcases and a fireplace. The alternative is only marginally better; after much consideration, they decided to run another pipe up the sliver of a gap between my big bookcase and the wall, up into the gap between floorboards and ceiling, through a bedroom and then down again, into the kitchen. My way of surviving building upheaval is to try to mark out a few oases of calm in the chaos, a few places where I can sit relatively undisturbed to work. By the time I got home yesterday, the study, which I had cleaned and tidied to give myself a little zone of civilization, was a bombsite, with piles of books over the floor, the top of the bookcase standing forlorn in the middle of the room, preventing us even from sitting down, and that layer of dust already forming over every single thing. The bedroom, whose floorboards we will now have to take up to run the pipes is naturally the one currently storing all the furniture and equipment from the kitchen and the other upstairs study, also cleared out for easy access to the pipes. Now we have to wait for the kitchen to be installed and some semblance of order regained before we can run that vital gas pipe. Until that time, no gas for cooking, no study for sitting, and until tonight, no hot water.
My husband had stayed at home all day in case there were problems, but by the end of the day, he’d had enough. He brought my son with him into college and we ordered a takeaway from the restaurant just round the corner. We’ve been there lots of times, but inevitably they chose last night to drop their standards. I was eating my chargrilled chicken salad when I realized the chicken was still raw in the middle. I knew it. I just knew that not being able to cook my own food was going to spell disaster. So, we wended out way home, not the happiest bunch of campers (literally), my husband tired, me hungry, my son bemused but ready to raise our collective morale. When I woke up this morning, I felt really rough. Whether it was the consequence of uncooked chicken, or whether it was just the accumulation of fatigue from a series of long and stressful days, I wasn’t sure. Life has been too busy for me lately. I’d found a good balance in working relatively hard during the week but having my weekends completely free. Just recently those weekends have been energetic too, with the literary festival, with packing up our house. It may not seem much to a healthy person, but when you are recovering from chronic fatigue, these things really add up. But I know what to do. The answer is always to just stop. Draw a line. Call a halt to everything. Don’t do anything, don’t talk to anyone, and enter that zone of healing, protective emptiness. That was tricky this morning, with drills howling and grinding, the tinny whine of two transistor radios playing different stations, but at least I was in my own bed, with the door of the bedroom shut. It was a space of sorts to call my own.
It’s foolish, really, when other things are so much more important, but I loathe my habitat being disrupted in this way. I’m a creature of routine, of order and a certain amount of tidiness. I can’t think straight at the moment and haven’t done any work since last week. Even when I go into college, where I am lucky enough to have the option of a bath, where my room is blissfully quiet and clean, where I can go and get myself a hot meal if I want to, even there, I find I am marking my time rather than dedicating myself to work. Several months ago my computer died a hideous death. My son, on hearing this last night, cast me an ‘I can fix that!’ sort of glance and turned it on, only to witness the strange alien noises it makes in protest at being disturbed these days. ‘It screamed at me,’ he declared, torn between outrage and admiration. And so in my room I am disconnected from the internet and unable to write. There are probably other things I could do, but I don’t do them. Home isn’t a place to do them, either. Men when left alone with each other mutate into completely different beasts; they all look like overlarge versions of my son’s friends in their builders’ uniform of three-quarter length combat trousers and t-shirts and they sound like overlarge schoolboys, too, making silly jokes, ribbing each other, talking in an impenetrable language, 50 percent jargon, 50 percent expletives. They sing along to their radios, loudly and tunelessly, call to each other from different ends of the house. I am an interloper in their midst, the one they have to tidy their act up for when they realize I’m nearby. We all get along, but undeniably my presence cramps their style. And I feel like a little woodland creature who’s had her burrow kicked in and is running hither and thither over the forest floor trying to find a big enough leaf to hide under. It’s not what you would call a creative atmosphere.
So I apologise to any of my friends waiting for an email. This is the first time I’ve got near a computer with an internet connection for 48 hours. But I must make an effort to transcend the chaos, to shut it out and find some peaceful space inside. There are documents I need to write for work that have to be done, builders or no builders. Not to mention another ten days or so of their presence to look forward to. Tonight I am going to tackle the intriguing task of producing three meals from one small microwave (eaten in two sittings – my husband is out rowing to find some calm on the river), but at least if I cook it, I can cook it all the way through. A proper meal with no risk of food poisoning would be a good place to start.