I had long had a mixed relationship with the tank room. Added on to the end of the old farm office, and reached by a separate door into the yard, it was a particular find of mine and almost my nemesis – twice. The vast green oil tank in it squatted like a smelly, threatening toad, almost entirely filling a largely lightless space that stank and seeped and constituted a health and safety nightmare as it was within feet of an ancient boiler-with-teeth crouching just beyond. In the first fortnight of our new life my girth was such that I could only get through the door of this bit of my new domain sideways – no real hardship, as the combination of my bird phobia and the very dead pigeon in there meant I didn’t even try. Until, of course, the hot water had failed and I was the only one there to sort it. It turns out that mild claustrophobia is another appealing little quirk of mine: imagine the joy then with which I began to squeeze myself between the ancient peeling face of the tank and the even more ancient crumbling masonry a scant few inches away from it. Matters weren’t helped by the lack of light: the one rather weedy bulb didn’t so much hang from the ceiling as sit on top of the tank. What light there was shone forlornly sideways, serving only to highlight the big patches where there wasn’t any pointing any more – very reassuring. Nonetheless, I persevered, walking crabwise in order to fit, head craned to face the way I had to go. I made it to the boiler and managed to reach far enough round it to go for the nuclear option and press the red button I had always been told never to touch. A comforting, if startlingly loud ‘boof’ suggested we were back up and running and I turned to leave, carefully avoiding the dessicated mouse and deliberately not noticing the tiny cobwebby window under the ceiling.
I looked down the side of the tank at the rectangle of light out into the yard and my nerve went. The tank seemed to be leaning over, tipping to make the exit route ever narrower and more impassable … I began to sweat even more – think: very hot summer, boiler house, small space, huge woman. I could feel my heart start to race, and my breaths to shorten. I talked calmingly to myself and thought calming thoughts and breathed calmly and then I screamed, because it was easier and the only thing I could really do. I yelled and railed; I stopped and listened; I yelled and railed some more. Nothing. I moved towards the edge of the tank, and stopped. I took two steps back and considered the situation. I shouted a bit more, and still no-one came.
By now I needed the loo. Big time. In desperation I shut my eyes, dug my nails in, turned sideways and went for it – as far as the pigeon, which I accidentally kicked. I screamed so hard that it hurt my ears: happily I was too tightly wedged to turn or stumble, and in a complete blind panic I ploughed on and suddenly, blessedly, emerged with a sob of relief into the bright sun. Kicking off the poor pancaked espadrilles which were all that would fit on my feet, I managed not to be sick on the bit that had touched the dead bird. And resolved that next time, we’d do without the bloody water.
Or: You can’t kid a kidder.
Keen to defray the huge cost of a brand new one, we sought to sell the carcass of the old.
In my experience, if you keep anything for long enough it becomes useful: all the wonderful, glossy magazines I had bought a lifetime ago to show how our hovel could look if we spent enough and ‘sourced’ enough, now came into their own. I pored over their classifieds, found someone who claimed to buy any Aga in any condition, rang him and told him all about it: I said ours was at least a thousand years old and that it had seen considerable service and that it had recently been condemned. I described the ancient, scraped lids and the missing enamel and generally did a cracking sales job on it, and he retaliated with an offer for £1,000 and said he would come the next day with a view to paying up and taking it away there and then. To my surprise, and Eeyore’s amazement, he did: bang on time, an ancient pick-up truck drove up the drive and dropped it’s front bumper on the gravel. A very small man in a dirty black leather jacket got out and kicked it back on, clearly used to the procedure. Once inside he checked over the brooding hulk of cold cast iron, sucked his teeth, and said it was missing a critical part. A moving part no less. (The afficionadoes among you will know that the whole point of Agas is their simplicity and that the one thing no Aga ever, ever has is a moving part.) Nonetheless the absence of this moving part, he said, explained the fact that it hadn’t been lit in the last ten years. I told him that it most assuredly had and, en passant, mentioned the carbon monoxide …. he said that even if it had, he couldn’t possibly now pay anything over £200 for it. He made it very clear that I should think myself jolly lucky to get even that, and that he was doing me a personal favour by taking it off my hands – at no small risk to his own personal health incidentally, and much against his better judgement.
‘Bother’ I said ‘Leeds, wasn’t it? Poor you – all that way! Have a cuppa before you go.’
He hummed and hawed and rang his boss and sucked his teeth and for my benefit told him it was a useless pile of junk. I took the phone and told the boss in person that it wasn’t to be relit, either. I handed the phone back and there was a pause while much of a packet of Rich Tea was eaten. Then he coughed up £1,000 in mucky notes, dismantled the thing, and left in a cloud of black smoke. Careless as to the fate of his front bumper now but fearing for his back axle, I waved him off and went in to finish the biscuits.
Result! In a life where small victories had come to mean a lot, this was definitely a Good Day. I rang the nearest Aga showroom.
To be fair his positivity (everything’s relative, and my mother nicknamed him ‘Eeyore’ for good reason) was probably a good thing. It quickly became clear that we and the builders were going to have plenty of opportunity to get to know each other better. Everyone knows that building projects only ever get bigger rather than smaller, but I think I can say without fear of contradiction that all involved were surprised at the extent of the problems we began to uncover.
Take the cellar. Two vaulted rooms complete with meat hooks, wine racks, the lot. And a whole load of newts, and salt leaching up through the brick floor, and two doors with rot and woodworm. Warmest place in the house, mind, but wet enough to need a whole new ventilation/circulation system installing to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until the end of time. (Which clearly would come before the end of the building works.) The sump put in by our predecessors wasn’t cutting the mustard any more and so in went a viciously expensive network of fat wormy tubes suspended from the ceilings and a big metal bracket to hold the large box with the motor in it. And vents to the outside and a plug socket and a special gadget for measuring the humidity – to stop the labels coming off the wine, as far as Eeyore was concerned. I was more bothered that the house might sink if we didn’t do something about it.
Or the banisters up the front stairs. A big staircase, with original wrought iron stanchions which apparently (they were a bit ‘Costa del’ for me) had to stay, but which were only hip height on my beloved, and therefore a really unpleasant accident waiting to happen. At some point somebody was going to tip over them and the fall of twenty odd feet onto the original tile floor beneath would be both fatal and messy. Nothing daunted, He Who Knows set about finding the original pattern and someone to cast them, and forty three new uprights duly appeared from somewhere in darkest Yorkshire.
Or the Aga. In January, it finally died. The beast had only ever loved the Vendor, and it had definitely disliked me from the minute I walked into the house. On any normal day its demise would have been a cause of great celebration but the fact that it chose to choke it’s last halfway through No3’s Christening simply underlined its vindictive streak. As it turned out, it had already tried to kill both me and the baby: in the early days, the marital bed in the room above it was pushed up against the flue. For some weeks I had marvelled at how soundly No3 slept, but had also complained that I was getting blinding headaches. It was only after the Christening debacle (forty people, cold food, January, no heating) that the local experts declared the thing unfit for purpose, and refused to relight it. It seemed it had been leaking carbon monoxide into our bedroom. Nice.
As time wore on the work rate ebbed and flowed but the rubble and mess and dust was never anything less than prodigious, and the cracks began to show. Not just in the fabric of the house, but in the relationships within it. In those days nobody used to make me laugh the way my sister did, but the night when she and I found ourselves searching in the unplastered shell of the new playroom, by the light of a dying mobile phone, for the lemon without which we would both find our hard-earned g&t’s undrinkable, was a real watershed. While the snow blew outside – and in, through the gaps in the window frames – and the wind howled down the unfinished chimney flue in the unlit, unlightable room, I thought I heard her squawking.
‘Was this really part of your Great Plan?!’ she yelled over the gale.
‘Pass me the phone!’ I screamed back ‘I think I’ve got it!’
To be fair, I wasn’t sure I’d heard her properly as she was bent double the better to scrabble, and sounding funny because her face wouldn’t move in the cold. But I have to say that I was playing for time: what I feared I’d heard had stopped me in my tracks. This, especially coming from her, was like a bucket of cold water (appropriately, as it’s all we had at the time. The plumber had been absent for a week – no-one could tell me why). Until that point my unrivalled powers of self-delusion had managed to persuade me that we were having a fantastic, character-building time. In that instant I decided that actually my character was fine thank you, and as built as it was ever going to be. I began to feel fairly sure that I had had enough. Getting to this point might have been Eeeyore’s mid-life crisis, bless him, but I felt I was about to have mine. I could feel it coming on. I had earned it, and I was owed it. (Actually I felt I was owed six weeks in the Maldives, but failing that I’d make do.)
I came to fear, more than usual, for my marriage. It was of course all Eeyore’s fault. He developed a nasty habit of answering ‘Oh it’s really not too bad!’ when asked how it was all going, and gradually that went from being not very funny, to being exceedingly unfunny. He began to give off a heady mix of smugness/burning martyr as he set off back to his calm, quiet, clean London bachelor pad each Sunday evening and while I of course demonstrated monumental reserve and admirable self-control, it really quite quickly became almost too much to bear. As did his twice daily check-up phone calls from his centrally heated office, complete with running water and loos not stuck to the floor with gaffer tape.
The day The Guys arrived however, I lost my nerve. Totally. When I opened the door to them (for the first and last time, as it transpired: thereafter they walked in and out at will) I offered them the same money just to go away and leave us alone. I really, seriously meant it – and had I known then what I know now, I would have insisted. But they were made of sterner stuff, and were clearly used to hysterical women in big houses. Smiling, they walked straight past me and got on with it. Within an hour they had cleverly and indelibly stamped their mark on the house, ensuring they couldn’t be turfed out. It wasn’t so much that in the space of sixty minutes they had blocked in one doorway and created another. Much more significantly, they had brewed up for the first time: clearly they were here to stay. At least they brought their own milk. Once.
As the first weeks wore on, we began to get to know the men with whom – although we didn’t know it at the time – we were going to spend much of the next three years. The two stonemasons were big chunks of men: creased brown faces and hands like ingrained baseball bats tossing great lumps of stone around as if they were sugar cubes. Aptly, Gabby was the more talkative of the two; the joker with the dashingly pierced ear who would leave silly faces drawn in wet cement and cause No2 to hoot with laughter. Ron was shorter and quieter and a real work horse – slowly, steadily, the extra bit was built on the back of the house and the chaos in the rest of the building deepened.
Pete was the boss on site and we all got on so famously that it was a while before I realised that the urgency apparent in No2’s speedy dressing and running downstairs every morning wasn’t born of hunger, or of a keenness (well, she’s a girl) to get to nursery. ‘Don’t you walk to talk to ME?!’ I would hear myself bleat pathetically at the back of her head as she vanished through the door and round the corner. Soon he became known as ‘Uncle Pete’ and his place in the family’s lore was guaranteed. My father’s first words were apparently ‘Daddy bang!’. Not so No3’s. In due course ‘Unca Pete bang, Daddy Lunnon’ was his first sentence.
Later there would be Murray and Neil and Tom and Tim and Paul and Alan and two Chris’s and two Bens and Les and Mark and the cornice chaps and the guys who laid the steaming asphalt for the kitchen floor, but to begin with it was just us, and it felt fine and everything was doable.
Over the months since our move we had planned, thought and consulted and most of all, watched how we lived in the house and how it needed to be altered the better to fit us and our lives.
The building isn’t particularly old – around 1864, as far as anyone can tell – but when we arrived it hadn’t been touched for about thirty years, when the main aim of the exercise seems to have been to remove all original features. Dado and picture rails were hacked off, acres of woodchip were stuck to dodgy plaster, windows were patched rather than replaced, and door cushions were discarded. The original double front doors were chucked on the fire in favour of one huge one which in the wet would neither open nor shut, and in the dry left 3″ gaps all round it. And was so heavy that it was pulling the masonry off the front of the house. A huge hot water tank was installed, but the ancient boiler had real trouble supplying both it and the central heating system – to which, over the years, extra radiators had been attached, rather randomly. There was no insulation. Zip. Nada. None at all. Except in the billiards room across the yard where, of course, it was about 4′ thick. The roof was fairly new (which was universally agreed to be a Good Thing) but the lantern in the middle of it was as old as the house, single glazed and leaking like a sieve. Bathrooms were tired to the point of exhaustion, the wiring was very suspect and worst of all, for us the layout was wrong.
The biggest problem was the kitchen. Originally of course its design and convenience would have been almost incidental to the owner but in our lives, wherever we have lived, the kitchen really has always been absolutely fundamental. Not only because we have children and all the painting, feeding, homework, can-we-make-biscuits that goes with them. We have always – despite the fact that Eeyore does not (and I mean does NOT) cook – loved feeding people, and having families to stay, and the prospect of doing this from a long, thin, narrow, high, bottle green room with a yellowed ceiling and windows high up in the walls on the dark side of the house was unappealing, and impractical, to say the least. The ancient blue Aga crouching rather menacingly at one end was at least almost illuminated by the colossal lighting system which served more as a conversation piece than a practical means of casting light. Five huge circular 70’s spotlights hung on a track over the sink and were so big that you could hear the National Grid sigh when they were turned on. (Think: Austin Powers.) The other end of the room remained resolutely murky but the twin upsides were that the dark terracotta floor tiles remained largely hidden and that they belted out more heat than the Aga ever did.
Clearly, something had to give. As it turned out, it was almost us.
This was getting silly.
By now No1 was back at his boarding school 2 1/2 hours away and needed collecting or delivering at least every two weeks. Add in his matches and concerts; and No2’s going to and from the nursery she loved; and No3’s not entirely unreasonable demands to be fed, changed, played with, and taken to A&E at all hours with his asthma; and an absentee husband. Oh, and planning the building project we were about to begin, running a big house and garden, and trying to establish a new life for ourselves, and what do you get? Well what we got was an unreasonably exhausted, frantic woman on the edge – and not just ‘of the fens’. Once again it became clear: this job needed two full time, present adults.
And then … and then there was Sylvia. Wonderful, sainted, rescuing Slovakian Sylvia, like salve on chapped lips and a ray of sunshine in an otherwise murky world. 28, the loudest woman you ever heard – and I speak as a pretty serious contender to that particular title – and possessed of curves and a smile that made everyone (including me) cheer up and in due course turned our builders into the most attentive of artisans.
An inauspicious start belied a true force of nature.
She got lost on her way to us (not a great sign, we couldn’t help thinking) so we met her on the village green and she followed us home. She was dressed to the nines in stilettos, full make-up and spray on clothing, and her hair was dyed pillar box red. Not by nature one to blend into the background, she brought sweets for the children and spoke better English than we had dared hope. In our desperation we even agreed that the volume was good, due to Eeyore’s almost total deafness, and we took up her references telling ourselves that at the very least she’d get us through the beginning of the building works.
Within a week she really was utterly indispensable – even Eeyore said so, and he manages to be a man both of few words and exacting standards. While I was always likely to grovel with gratitude at the feet of anyone who did anything to help, his opinion was much more masculine and unemotional (and his attitude therefore also intensely annoying and, in my opinion, deliberately provocative) and not founded on relief. Somehow she managed to do nails with No2; to play football and discuss planes with No1; to build dens and bounce on the trampoline with them both, and to roll on the floor and make dinosaur noises with No3, while ironing, cleaning and getting the lunch …. but, hold it …. all day …. while smiling and laughing, looking immaculate, and clearly having a whale of a time. Why didn’t that leave me feeling yet more inadequate? I think I was way past rational thought.
With help on hand and the new found optimism that goes with a huge problem solved, we approached the beginning of the building works with excitement and enthusiasm. As far as we were concerned the sun had come out, the lights had gone green and we were finally on our way. What, on earth, could possibly go wrong?
Oh, how the gods must have laughed.
In which BBB saves the day ….
The first time BBB held forth – and to be fair, it was hardly more than a pianissimo warning shot – was when I approached the pram in which No3 lay fast asleep under the trees, without getting his permission. He had been left in charge, and although he had demonstrated over and over again how gentle and soft he was, it turned out there was no way I was getting to that baby without one of two things happening. Either the Swede was going to have to tell him to stand down, or I was going to have to press my point, demonstrate my Alpha-ness, and risk him eating my leg. Suffice it to say, I still buy my shoes in pairs.
The second occasion was late one summer night as I got the last load of washing off the line. A truck came up through the field on the other side of the hedge, through the dark, almost silently and with no lights on. BBB was a one woman dog, and that woman certainly wasn’t me, but suddenly he was by my side, hackles raised, very tense. I stood still and as the truck approached, slowed and stopped level with us, I saw a cigarette end burn bright in the cab. BBB started to rumble and then suddenly let rip a truly terrifying bass snarl and bark.
Then: ‘Evening’ came a man’s voice, and then the van took off at speed, bouncing over the dry ruts towards the lane. As if a switch had been flicked, BBB reverted to his gentle self and started licking his magnificent goolies.
Well, each to their own. I had a gin.
We continued our quest to prove we weren’t xenophobes.
We found the lovely Kate. Polish Kate, who looked exactly – and I mean, exactly – like Squareonthehypotenuse from Asterix. (Check it out. It’s not a good look.) She was wonderful in every way and adored No2, whom she called ‘Birdie’ from the moment she first saw her. No idea why: her English was terrific, but she never managed to explain. Disastrously she had to go after a month – some selfish excuse about an ill mother – and we were back to square one.
Cue: the Swede. Well she wasn’t really, but she looked it: tall, broad, blonde and utterly capable. We fell on her with cries of joy and open arms – so desperate were we by now that Eeyore (not, let me tell you, a dog man) even welcomed the huge Big Brown Bear, her trusty dog and beloved companion. Statuesque and dead pan, she and BBB looked after us for as long as we could string it out and they were a wonderful pair. Sadly however as No3 grew our needs changed: she was most definitely a nanny, good and proper, and we needed a skivvy. She was wasted on us, and our ways parted. We missed her complete calm, her creativity and her cooking but perhaps – dare I say this? – I have to tell you that we missed BBB just as much. He was a loving, loyal, marvellous beast and – a huge point in his favour – I only ever heard him utter a sound twice.