It is Friday night. The temperature is -7.5°C I arrive at our house in Wiltshire with my wife and weary children after the slowest ever crawl down the M4 from London to discover our new oil-fired boiler has broken. It is even colder indoors than out. Although the woodshed is full, all the chimney flues in the house are cracked and still waiting for repairs. Our very first overnight guests are even now purring up the drive. What to do?
I did the obvious. I cursed the day we bought this beautiful, crummy old dump. But my wife and I had at least chosen our guests well. An invitation to stay on a partial building site in the middle of winter, even one with a lovely view like ours over park-like fields, is not for softies.
Charlotte and her teenage son seemed ideal guinea pigs: her a hearty Australasian outdoors type, and him on an exeat from some rugged boarding school. If anyone had the necessary survival skills, they did.
Come 7am on Saturday morning, I was up early, swaddling our children in thick rugs so they could eat breakfast without frostbite, when a dishevelled Charlotte stumbled in to the kitchen. ‘Sleep well?’ I asked automatically. ‘Ah? yup,’ she mumbled. Whether it was her frozen bones or some other unknown horrors in the guest bedroom that had turned her into a hollow eyed Strewelpeter overnight, I didn’t dare ask.
Alan, the plumber who installed the heating system, responded quickly to our emergency call. ‘The ground workers have been driving four ton trucks back and forth over the oil pipe feeding the boiler. Seems a coincidence there’s no oil reaching it,’ he hummed, fixing up a temporary oil pipe above ground. The boiler leapt to life, but still it was Sunday evening before it was warm enough to take off our thermal underwear.
Back in the summer, when my wife and I were choosing the heating system, we decided it was chic to fit under-floor pipes instead of radiators downstairs. This weekend revealed the risks. We got one other thing right, however.
I insisted that the builders ram as much high-quality insulation into exposed under floor cavities and walls as possible. Now, even with two guests in the house, we could hear nothing of them upstairs; not footfalls, nor the chattering of their teeth, nor moans of ‘Why, oh why did we agree to come here?’
My wife and I will have to decide in the New Year whether to tackle the derelict outbuildings or call it quits on the building works for now. Meanwhile, we have become so used to sharing the house with gangs of workmen, it honestly feels spooky having the place to ourselves. Even their pin-ups have gone. My favourite was on a yellowing front page of The Daily Sport, stuck to the oak panelling in our dining room this past year. She flashed her cheeky smile and semi-naked bottom at me whenever I walked in. Happy Christmas, Paris Hilton; I miss you.