This is the tale of my first major renovation project some years ago…
The reassuring purr of the mixer has been playing a background tune all morning. True it’s been interrupted by hammering, the metallic whiz of the circular saw and the screech of the drill but, by and large, the hours have passed with us all going happily about our work without incident.
Dave, my builder, and Rob, his younger brother, are making the most of the sun and have stripped off their T-shirts to show the results of their regular visits to the gym. Inside my 1900 terraced house the contented whistling of Jim, the bricklayer, echoes amongst a scene of seeming chaos as the grey blockwork of the wall between what will be my kitchen and dining room rises steadily under his skilled hands.
We’ve been lulled into a mood of complacency by the time the lunchtime gaggle of schoolgirls begin to pass but, when they see Dave and Rob’s exposed flesh, they set up a chorus of wolf whistles. I see Rob turn distractedly from the mixer just as he’s about to tip the contents into a barrow. As if in slow motion, the mixer regurgitates a huge glob of dark mortar which spins skywards before defining a magnificent, feather edged arc across the brilliant white wall and newly cleaned windows of my neighbour’s house.
For a moment we stand transfixed, then Dave steps forward and, with his hand, wipes a smear of mortar from the wall. What remains is an indelible sandy mark which stubbornly refuses all attempts to shift it by water or any one of the succession of other substances we try.
“A potted azalea, that’s what I always buy the missus,” advises Jim who has been quietly watching our fruitless efforts. Shrugging his shoulders in agreement Dave offers to drive me to the florist in his van.
On our return Jane, my neighbour, is delighted with the azalea and has accepted our offer to repaint her wall. Rob, on the other hand, refuses to remove his T-shirt in case of passing schoolgirls and is approaching the mixer as if it is a beast spewing fire.
Jim is carrying on with the air of having seen it all before and, at last, I begin to see the layout of some of the ground floor rooms. At the same time the drabness of the materials makes it feel as if the whole thing is closing in around me and I’m beginning to worry whether there’s going to be enough room for the kitchen furniture.
What concerns me even more is the size of the downstairs cloakroom. Dave has marked out its shape on the ground and insists it exactly matches the dimensions drawn on the architect’s plan; I point out that there’s not room to swing a cat let alone comfortably read a book!
Grudgingly, following a demonstration that involves me sitting on a crate holding a copy of the Sun with Rob acting as a wall, Dave agrees.
For what seems like hours I’ve been cutting a slot in the party wall which will take the end of the lintel above the cloakroom door. My hammering reverberates through the house and I pray that my elderly neighbour is out.
She’s not and, when she appears in my hallway, she’s carrying a headless black cat, or at least an ornament resembling one. “Hitler didn’t manage to break Blackie all through the war,” she says as she thrusts the broken head and torso forward for us to see. Behind me I hear Dave mumble to Rob “It’s azalea time again”.