Home Improvements 2 - The Christmas Special

So. We've ended up with a bunch of workman crawling around inside and outside the house in the already fraught Christmas run in. With the inevitability of Santa's once a year coming, the projects we'd foolhardily agreed to be done in December have overrun.

Madness, I hear you say, to willingly invite in such mayhem at this time of year. Well yes. And no.  The idea of having everything sorted by the end of the year is seductive, but we didn’t push for this. Businesses are only happy to overprogramme, leaving the tightest of margins. They can’t wait to get all the filthy lucre in their mits before the break.

I ran away at the end of last week. The house was filled with blokes spreading rubble and brick dust far more liberally than any festive cheer. I couldn't get past the ponderous patio man to my office and the dining room was livid with sooty wood stove fitters. Mrs A had the back room baggsied. So I fled to the sanctuary of the Double Six cafe on Eversholt Street, near my Camden employers to begin scribbling this blog. I found a table in the corner, hemmed in by the very breed of hi-vis clad fellows I was trying to escape at home.  

Our current log jam began with the boiler, installed back in November, which needed a few repeat visits by Alex to sort out various pressure and valve issues. To be honest, I became a little sceptical about some of the issues Mrs A was identifying. Our plumber is notoriously easy on the eye (apparently) and I sniffed an element of "yes, that bottle on the bottom shelf please", transplanted from the bar scenario to kitchen domesticity. "Ooh, you've got Alex have you?" admired friends and neighbours when Mrs A mentioned the sabotage (in my view) she was inflicting on the boiler and the remedial action thereby required.

Installing the wood burner has been the most intense and yet comic saga so far. Mick, the unreliable builder, has taken six visits to complete the two-day job of enlarging the existing hole in the chimney breast to make room for the burner. That's about forty quid's worth of sugar just for the tea drinking.

Nevertheless, he did uncover the dining room's original fire place behind about 10 black sack's-worth of brick infill. We were delighted with that. Experiencing the grinding down of just 2mm of 150 year old residue on the surface of these old bricks was a smidge less delightful. A thick, acrid dustcloud obscured one end of the room from the other for most of Thursday. Grit penetrated everything. It's an ingredient even Heston can’t translate to fine dining. I checked after seeing the state of the fridge contents.

Then Kev and his Mate came to fit the boiler. Then they went away again. They couldn't find two adjacent spaces outside the house for their van. Mick forgot to tell us this requirement. They came back the next day. We'd primed the neighbours this time and so were able to move cars around. Typically, a lorry came to haul away the skip full of garden rubble (more of this is a moment) at precisely the same instant. For about twenty minutes, the bottom of Cross Oak Road was like a game of Parking Mania meets Ice Road Truckers on LSD, involving one skip lorry, one 18 cwt van, two Ford Estates, three lines of frustrated traffic and four wheelie bin place-holders. I was too busy making rude asides to see what happened to the Partridge in the Pear Tree.

Kev and his Mate were irrepressibly cheerful. Cheeky banter and shouty mirth.

“There’s your burner”, said Mate as he dumped the Clearview Stoves box by the back door. “Merry Christmas” and he made to walk back to the van. “Excellent!” I replied. “Where do we plug it in?”

Later, Kev was cleaning the chimney, pushing his rods up the fire aperture, Dick Van Dyke style. Mate was barking instructions from the garden at the top of his voice. “A bit more Kev! Yep, keep it coming. Give it some oomph. More, more…” And then finally. “There she blows” as the brush popped out of the middle pot. “It’s a boy!”

And then some frankly juvenile stuff that had Mrs A snorting. Kev clambered onto the roof so that he could push the metal tube lining down the shaft:
“Is it in yet?” 
“It’s coming it’s coming…”
“I need more length…”
Etc after immature etc.
 And all the while, James was trying to lay the patio. Like I say, why does this all happen in the week before Christmas? James, a quietly spoken, careful and over-fussy landscape gardener didn’t naturally take to Kev’s supersonic chatter. He was also a bit uneasy about Mate standing on his carefully prepared hardcore bed, bellowing instructions to Kev. James seemed to have a suspicious relationship with Mick the builder too. Especially when Mick schemed to chuck the fireplace debris in his precious skip, rather than take it away himself.

Mrs A, on the other hand, thought James was looking for any excuse to take it easy. She wasn’t very sure about him at all. It probably didn’t help that she bore the brunt of his fastidiousness on the first day. Every few minutes there would be a little tap on the back door:
“I’m a bit nervous about the space for the skip? Can I talk to your neighbours about moving their cars?

“Shall I write some notes to put on the windscreens?”

“Can I tell you where I’m going to pile up the old slabs?”

“I’ll put the new materials down here. Is that OK? I may need to move your bins.”

“I’m just off to the loo if that’s alright…?”

Mrs A dubbed him Twinkletoes. Irony I suspect.

Twinkletoes will be back this week. He has to fill in his lovingly painted yellow outlines on flattened rubble with real slabs and real concrete. There’s a more than fair chance that he’ll still be there in the garden as we wake to open presents on the 25th. Mick is coming back before Christmas too, armed with his big gun to seal in the granite slab under the wood burner. We’ve reserved a Christmas dinner berth for him next to James.

But I don’t care, because the burner’s working. We’ve been lovely and toastie all weekend. And I had a perfect excuse to go and buy an axe, for which task I donned a thick check shirt and furry trapper hat. One has to get the details right. No one batted an eyelid as I queued at the till with my fine weapon, humming the Lumberjack song.

Tradesmen or no, one way or another we’ll be ready for the big day. Family gathered around us and counting our blessings. Every one.

Season’s greeting, all.


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