Sometime very late on Sunday night a week ago, the phone screeched next to my bed in London and the voice I heard on the line was the least expected. It was Bob, owner of the builders restoring our house in the country.
He said in a matter-of-fact-way he was on his own in our half done house, finishing off the plastering of the understairs lavatory, and had I made a decision yet about the cornicing for the room.
‘I know you are bringing your kids down next weekend and I want to make sure everything is ready in time,’ he added. (Don’t believe all the stories you hear about lazy builders.)
Although the children are still only small, their first visit to see the house that will be their home was set to be a landmark for my wife and me. For all these months, it has been too risky to have them with us at site meetings, what with the diggers mashing up the garden, the gaping hole where the staircase was meant to be, not to mention the absence of a downstairs lavatory. And would the girls bond with the place?
Above all, I knew I had to get the garden swing sorted out in time for the big weekend. The swing, put up by a previous owner, hangs on thin ropes from a highup branch of a magnificent oak, a couple of centuries old, and it sweeps back and forth with such tremendous whooshes you could almost be surfing on giant breakers. What worried me was that the branch might have weakened fatally after years of toddler abuse.
So during the week, Bob the Builder put me in touch with a highly regarded local tree surgeon named Mr Handy – life in this corner of the world seems to be based on children’s books. And while he was at our place, I thought he might as well check on a few other trees around the garden.
Undertakers are harbingers of more cheerful news than tree surgeons, I discovered. Our expert concluded that the chestnut protecting us from the only houses visible from our land has contracted some virulent fungus in its roots and will soon die; the stately ash almost 80ft tall in the driveway is beyond praying for; our stupendous willow is about to crush the swimming pool shed it screens so neatly; the mature Scots pines leaning at tipsy angles are never going to sober up; and one in three of the apple and pear trees in the orchard at the front of the house has suddenly succumbed to a fit of the vapours. They all have to come down, all except the oak. The swing was safe for the weekend, hallelujah.
Once Bob had finished the understairs lavatory, that only left the staircase. (The great saga in brief: a softwood staircase was installed by error a month or two ago and I demanded it had to be scrapped at the risk of upsetting all concerned.)
When we finally arrived at the house in our family charbanc on Friday evening for our weekend in the house, there at last was the new hardwood staircase in place. I was soon to be found lying at the foot of it, caressing the raw oak treads with the tips of my fingers and breathing in its spicy fresh sawn perfume like an opium smoker.
Eventually, reluctantly, I allowed the children to climb the pristine stairs to bed where they slept as sweetly as if they had been born under that very roof.