It Gets Worse

‘It’s darkest before dawn’ is a phrase I’ve always liked. I say it a lot to myself lately. We’ve reached a point of such degradation in our building travails that I would say the only way is up, if I didn’t dare tempt fate. Every room in the house is now involved in the disruption since the electrician found there was a break in the circuit he couldn’t locate. Finally, around mid-morning, he discovered a bunch of wires taped together with the live hanging loose, somewhere in the floorboards between the kitchen and the extension on the back of the house. Now, this is partly why we are submitting to this kind of radical overhaul; we always knew there was a certain madness in the way our house was put together. It was built by the local family of builders who came as close to a mafia as our small village was likely to have, half a century ago. Our house was built for one of the brothers, and they used all the leftovers from their other jobs to do it. When we first moved in, the bathroom suite was in three different shades of green – avocado bath, mint toilet, sage sink. You may imagine that structurally, something similar was going on. Every tradesman we’ve ever had visit has either recoiled in horror or burst out laughing when confronted with the inner workings of our house, but now the day of reckoning has come and it isn’t pretty.

This morning we had to clear enough space in the guest bedroom for the plumbers to get the floorboards up and lay the gas pipes to the boiler. We wondered where on earth we were going to put things, and ended up, inevitably, with the bulk in our bedroom. I climbed over them to sit and type on the bed, in jumble sale exile. There was a full Builder’s Symphony in X major going on, a cacophony of drills, the crunch of splintering floorboards, the usual song of expletives. In the end I thought I might escape to college for a little while. As I made my exit, I spoke to the tradesmen working in the study fitting the new gas pipe. It impinged slightly on my consciousness, but it was only as I was walking to my car that the cctv rolled in my head and I thought: what the hell was that? I retraced my steps and went to the beautiful study we had so carefully renovated four years ago. Sticking out the wall, a hideous copper excrescence, was the new gas pipe, vertical from waist height but then, up above my head, twisting out to disappear through the ceiling at the point where the cornices met. It was not what you would call subtle or discreet. The worst part was that dog leg six inches out from the wall, which I could see from the paint lines would be the visible part above the top of the bookcase. Actually, I could have cried. I didn’t know what could be done about it, and tackling tradesmen is something I hate to do, but I went off in search of someone to talk to.

Extraordinarily, the drilling continued unabated but the men seemed all to be hiding somewhere, behind bulwarks of stacked furniture. Finally I spotted our carpenter, Ian, who had put the bookcases in originally, on the first occasion he’d worked for us. We bonded when he drilled through the main gas pipe and we couldn’t find the key to turn the supply off (I rang my husband at work in a panic ‘oh no, we’ve never had a gas key,’ he said calmly, several miles from the possible explosion). I discovered something about Ian today. If you say to him, things are going well, he’ll list all the reasons why they aren’t. But if you say, as I said, that pipe looks awful, whatever can we do? he comes over all reassuring. ‘We’ll box it in,’ he said. ‘And once we’ve put new cornices around it, you’ll forget it’s there.’ The plumber was miffed. ‘Your husband said it would be all right,’ he protested, and I assured him I was aware that there were no other options. And that’s another thing. The first time I met the plumber we got on really well; this time we seem to keep getting on the wrong foot. Every conversation involves me apologizing for something awkward in my house or feeling like I’m getting in the way. Now this is ridiculous – why should I worry whether the plumber likes me? He’s here to do a job, not make a new friend. And why should I worry whether the tradesmen are all happy and enjoying the work? ‘They like the drama,’ my husband says to me. ‘They love the highs and lows, let them have them.’ Anyway. I allowed myself to be mollified by Ian and his promises of boxing, there being no other options in any case and went to leave in my car. At that exact point the lorry containing the new worktop drew up in the road outside in such a way as to block it entirely. I gave up, and headed down the road to see my friend for tea and therapy. I needed it.

This afternoon was a frenzy of activity, with lights going in, the boiler being tested, an avalanche of sawdust and shavings from the wooden worktops. The last tradesman left tonight at half past six and I think we all felt exhausted. I had been looking forward to a lie-in tomorrow, but we have one of the plumbers back. The youngest, to whom such drudge work inevitably falls, will return to balance the radiators. Whilst we have an oven and a hob wired in, we can’t use them because the worktop hasn’t been sealed. But the end is in sight by about Tuesday of next week. Then I will stop writing endlessly about the building work and start to tell you about some of the marvelous books that have distracted me from it. I’ve been lucky in this respect and have been reading some really classy writers, the brilliant Doris Lessing, and, unusually for me, the gardening writer Katherine Swift, whose amazing book The Morville Hours tells the story of making a garden, but also the intertwined stories of landscape, land, house in which it is created, and also her own life story in a journey through the liturgical calendar and the natural year, written in truly sumptuous and soothing prose. It’s an amazing, magical book. So more of those another day when I’ve got some head space back, and maybe some house space, too. They seem to be dependent on one another.

13 thoughts on “It Gets Worse

  1. I’m amazed that you can even blog this well in the midst of it. I’m also amazed they are finishing so quickly! My house is rather like yours minus the pseudo-mafia. It’s a hundred years old and over the years has been renovated by owners who fancied they knew what they were doing but didn’t at all. Every tradesman who’s come here has done the same sort of headshaking and what the electricians discovered was scary. I’m glad you’re getting some of that sorted out. And only a few more days!

  2. Oh dear, dear – I hope you’re right about that “dawn”. It seems churlish to say I enjoyed your post, but I think it probably is one more safety valve in a difficult situation. Best wishes.

  3. Oh my–this sounds horrible. Are they starting from scratch on your house? 🙂 I always feel out of place in these situations–in the few times I’ve had in plumbers or builders. I try and remember they’re working for me, but am generally too meek to take things in hand. At least the end is in sight? My house was once rental property, so I understand those cobbled-together repairs. We have all sorts of oddities in my house–light switches upside down and wrong-sized doors–like an Alice in Wonderland house! On a happier note I am looking forward to hearing about the Morville book–when you mentioned it before I looked it up and was tempted by it. It sounds wonderful.

  4. So, so sorry about the ugly gas pipe–but its story has entertained me for the afternoon! “Full Builder’s Symphony in X Major going on”–LOL! Can’t wait to hear what you have to say about Doris Lessing.

  5. This is on track to be the most expedient reno in the history of the trades. It’s a short, sharp burst of blinding pain, but wow, next week??!! that is efficient. Although your experience with the exposed copper dog leg is giving me nasty flashbacks to our own minor reno of the outdoor area and sunroom a few years ago. The electrician didn’t think there was anything wrong with just running all the wires OUTSIDE the wall. Made his job a whole lot easier, you see. He just didn’t want to have to get that pesky drill out.

  6. Oh my goodness! Is the end of the tunnel in sight? How we take our little corners for granted, don’t we, until something like this descends!?
    My problem with having builders in is I feel like I have to talk with them (entertain them??) while they are in. Actually, it is more like listen to them, because inevitably, they have a lot of stories to tell while I nod away.
    And when all this rebuilding is done, you will have to clean! That might put me over the top…. can you get someone in to help? I can just envision the grit and dust – yuck.

  7. It’s a wonder all of our houses don’t fall down around us, because how many of them are ever actually built well?? I’ve lived in old houses all my life, pretty much, and although I haven’t had builders/plumbers/carpenters in to fix things that often, I’m familiar with the puzzlement on their faces, the shaking of heads, the laughing. It’s never a good moment when that happens.

  8. Lilian – it HAS been quick on the whole (although I may live to regret those words – anything could happen still!), and I feel better this weekend, thinking the end is in sight. When I read your post about your house, it sounded wonderfully familiar to me! My mother-in-law’s house is so old that the foundations have all worn away and goodness only knows what’s holding it up. Trying to bring such houses up to date is almost against nature! 🙂

    Bookboxed – no, I’m delighted if you enjoyed it. The electricity got cut off twice while I was writing it, but the need to persist was dominant. Blogging is very good therapy!

    Danielle – they might as well start from scratch! You should have seen the kitchen once they’d demolished it – it was a plaster cavern. I am truly terrible at asserting myself with workmen, so thank you for the solidarity! Our houses must be very alike – ours had been rented out too, before we bought it and everything was odd and wrong. Oh and I will definitely review the Morville Hours very soon. I loved it!

    Charlotte – ah the voice of the cosmopolitan! Alas, my small village does not have anything like a coffee shop, though I might wish it did. It does help to be around and I have to be here at some points. Still, the end is in sight!

    Gentle Reader – entertaining you is a big compensation for having to go through it! And I love, love Doris Lessing. Her prose is just so straight and fearless and vivid. I’d like to try to do her some justice and not write a scrappy post – here’s hoping for peace and quiet!

    Doctordi – oh I hear you on expedience. When the tradesmen start to blind me with jargon in response to the question ‘why is that there?’ then I know they have chosen to do so out of ease for themselves. The builder ladies doth protest too much, and all. Running wires around the outside of a property sounds exactly the kind of hilarious horror I’ve been dealing with all week. Solidarity!

    Qugrainne – you are so right about that grit and dust. We not only have to clean, we have to tile, paint and replace the flooring, but these are more discrete jobs, and not so messy as the big building work. I’ve been telling myself all week that there are so many worse things to endure, I shouldn’t make a fuss. But then again, that’s what blogs are for, right? 🙂 And I know what you mean about entertaining workmen. I’m always on the lookout for good stories, though, just because they please me, and I figure I’m pretty safe posting them here. If I were certain about anything, it’s that none of the workmen read my blog – lol!

    Emily – it feels that way sometimes! I do tell myself there are much worse things to endure, but it is undeniably a pain. Still, we have recovered our bedroom this weekend, and that feels like a luxury now. 🙂

    Dorothy – no, and I do get the sense that for workmen, it’s their moment of power over the homeowner to whistle through their teeth and shake their heads in despair! Building regulations in this country change so fast that I can only think a tiny percentage of buildings ever conform to them! 🙂

  9. I can understand your need for the workmen to like you and be happy. If it were my house I’d want them to be happy and like me too for fear that if they didn’t they might do a shoddy job at worst or the bare minimum necessary to pass inspection at best. So glad it is almost done. It seems to have gone fast, but no doubt it has gone on forever from your perspective! Can’t wait to hear more about The Morville Hours. Your description has me particularly intrigued after my weekend of gardening 🙂

  10. I hope that the chaos is abating on schedule today! I have been thinking of you with much sympathy over the past week. I don’t deal well with having my living/working space disrupted in that fashion and, particularly, with being forced into regular interaction with strangers. Though I did once lift some excellent dialogue from a couple of pest control men who came to chase squirrels out of our attic. So, I guess that’s my only tip for making the best of it–take notes!

  11. Stefanie – that’s so true! Like being nice to waiters in case they decide to spit in your soup! Mind you, I was nice to the plumber and still we have a horrid great pipe sticking out the wall, so maybe I am fooling myself. I will definitely review The Morville Hours tomorrow. I do think you might like it.

    Kate – lol! I love the idea of you lifting dialogue. What better use could you put workmen to? Writing blog posts certainly kept me sane (as usual) while the chaos continued. The kitchen planner has just been around to have a look and he observed that last week must have been ‘like living in Beirut’, which is naturally not wholly accurate, but quite funny. And thank you for the solidarity about disrupted work places. It seems so innocuous and yet is so disquieting!

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