Unless something dreadful happens we have less than a week before we leave our temporary flat and take possession of the new house. There has been intensive building work there for five months and it is nearly done. The local drug dealer, going through our post, which like that of all the tenants is accessible to anyone with a ruler, found out that we are about to depart and is heartbroken. ‘You set the tone for the whole block,’ he said to the better half, and he pressed a small package into my hand.
“Something to remember me by,” he said.
I was touched. It went straight down the lavatory, of course.
The builders have been excellent, and, since the entire house has had to be stripped to its joists and reassembled, fast too. There are two bosses and others who are more or less permanent. The bosses are called Tomasz and Pavel and they do a Laurel & Hardy double act. Pavel is expansive. Nothing is a problem. ‘Of course we can do it,’ he says, with an appropriate gesture of his arms. ‘We are very good builders’.
Tomasz turns to him and says in Polish, ‘Another fine mess you’ve got me into.’
Then he turns to us and explains in English, ‘It is very difficult, to be honest. We have never done it. It will cost extra.’
But so far it has worked out fine.
Early on, the better half and I decided that if we tried to be joint project managers it would not work: so she has done it. She has been much better than I could ever have been, although I have done it all several times before. She is much more charming than I am and also much ruder. She has a sense of timing when it comes for demanding a discount that Jack Dee would envy. I say ‘Jack Dee’ advisedly: the response from the salesperson who was until that point calculating a commission based of the full retail price is usually, ‘You must be joking’; but she nearly always gets her way.
I have limited rights to comment and ultimate rights of veto. The right to comment is exercised cautiously. (‘It’s much too big.’ ‘Well, we’ll send it back if it is.’ We do.) And the right of veto has to be balanced against a similar such right exercised by the better half and so is retained for things that are truly important and irrevocable. The one such area which has led to raised voices and examined consciences is the doors.
It is a Victorian house. The doors downstairs, leading unto a succession of reception rooms into which the neighbours and even the vicar might have been admitted, had long since been torn out and replaced with nice new builders’ merchants’ creations, mahogany-coloured, with cheeky decorative glass and light as a feather on their little hinges. Upstairs the original doors remained, heavy and solid – in fact twice as heavy as formerly on account of a hundred and fifty years of paint.
‘They’ll be nice stripped,’ I said.
‘Hippy,’ said the better half. ‘Over my dead body.’
The builders closed ranks. They do not like old. We had already had a disagreement when they threw out a cast-iron fireplace, which we asked them to take out of the skip again, and which now, after being lovingly restored in Islington – where else? – graces the master bedroom.
‘Wickes doors better,’ they said.
‘Wickes doors like cardboard,’ I said.
They were shocked. ‘Many, many Wickes doors,’ they said. ‘Some heavy. Some with beading. You will be happy.’
But we stuck to our guns and insisted that the upstairs doors would be sanded – not stripped – and repainted. The builders gave in with a very bad grace and sanded them very badly. ‘It is very difficult, to be honest,’ said Tomasz. ‘And stripping doors like that: it can’t be done, to be honest.’ And so it remained while tempers simmered.
Then there was an unexpected development on the downstairs front.
‘If you really want Victorian doors,’ the better half said to me, ‘I suppose we could. But painted, certainly.’
She went onto the internet and found a man called Stick who sells stripped Victorian doors near Lewes. We had a day out. It was freezing, but Stick was very nice, his dog was even nicer and his shed was full of wonders. We ordered five beautiful five-panelled doors.
‘Waxed?’ Stick said hopefully.
‘No,’ the better half said. ‘We’re painting them.’
Afterwards she had another very good idea. She got Stick to agree to take away the controversial doors from upstairs – he could strip them; he had a tank – in part exchange for ones of the same size that he had in stock. All the doors throughout the house would be solid Victorian doors, but painted because we are not hippies.
The great day dawned: a Saturday. Stick was sending ‘the lad’. He had satnav and our address. It would take two hours or so. We waited. Two hours went by and then four more. Stick told us that all contact had been lost. It turned out afterwards that the lad had got the right road, the A2, but the wrong direction and had gone to Gravesend.
On Monday Stick himself arrived with the doors. The builders were very hostile. ‘They look very bad,’ they said. ‘Worse than the nasty ones you already have. They will never be nice. There are holes where there used to be handles.’
What they said among themselves in Polish was even worse. It was necessary for me (the better half was not there, with her resources of charm) to be curt. ‘This,’ I said ‘is what I want and this is what we’re having. You are very good builders and they will look fabulous.’
I spoilt the effect however by going on to explain why I didn’t mind the holes, through the use of the word ‘palimpsest’.
Then two very unexpected things happened.
The better half arrived.
‘They’re wonderful,’ she said. ‘They’re so wonderful that they should be kept stripped.’
Then Tomasz came up to me. ‘You didn’t say that you wanted the old-fashioned style,’ he said. ‘We do very well the old-fashioned style. I suggest waxed, to be honest.’
And so they do and so they are, and they are everything that as a callow, impecunious and relatively long-haired householder I dreamed of in 1975. And the better half has a sheaf of counter-vetoes up her sleeve for when it comes to the soft furnishings.