The spring sky was glowing a joyful blue as my wife and I locked the door of our London flat for the last time yesterday and bowled down the M4 to the house we have been restoring in the country our new home from here on. Waiting on the front doorstep was a giant bouquet of orange lilies, sent as a welcome by Colin, the man who has masterminded our building project this past year and a half. It says ‘surveyor’ on his business card, but he could put ‘superhero’ just as well. Following us closely down the narrow lane to our house was a convoy of trucks. Two were removal lorries groaning under our family junk, the third in line brought the lawn.
It was pure coincidence that the turf arrived at the same time as all the rest, but now, as I sit here watching a brace of workmen unroll strips of vivid green grass across the back garden and lay them tenderly over earth that has remained a stark reproachful brown for as many months as I can remember, I realise we could have left all our furniture, clothes and toys behind. The new grass is what matters: the very sight of it is making our building site begin to look and feel like a genuine home.
Out of sharp curiosity, I had a word with one of the garden workmen just now. He is wearing blue overalls and a fluorescent jacket covered in red Post Office logos, a uniform he surely ‘borrowed’. Nope, he answered firmly, he is, in fact, a local postman and is squeezing in a few hours work on our lawn before he starts his next delivery round. His mate, sporting a paint spattered boiler suit, turns out to be a decorator. ‘If you can hang wallpaper, you can lay turf well enough,’ he chirruped. On remote Scottish islands, everyone holds down four different day jobs, but it is a turn-up to find this sort of frenetic multi-tasking is common only 70 miles west of London. Perhaps one of the turfers will turn out to be the vicar as well, and his friend to be the local MP.
Before we left London, we spent our last afternoon not as we imagined we would breathing in a last delicious lungful of metropolitan culture at some gallery or museum but choosing a lavatory, shower and basin. They are destined for the tumbledown cart shed next to the manor, where restoration is due to begin in two weeks. Our builders (the same firm as before) warned me it was crucial to supply them with every last detail of the exterior and interior alterations if they were to start work on the planned date.
So I proudly sent them the new bathroom details this morning, and by return of email they pinged me back a list of 26 new queries, all of them apparently vital. Suddenly, I am reminded what it is like to start building works.
Have you ever watched Olympic weightlifters? Seen how their muscles bulge and veins pop as they strain to hoist an impossible load, all the while their bloodshot eyes filling with panic at the idea of that weight crashing down on their heads? Only the uncertain prospect of success drives them on. Exactly how it feels right now.