‘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.