Sandy Mitchell: Dealing with the builders

I am in shock. I have just overheard my wife comparing notes with a girl-friend about their experiences of restoring old houses. ‘Sometimes I could not cope. There would be these 16 builders at site meetings, all men, all in steel toed boots, and little me tottering about in my Manolos,’ wailed the friend.

‘The builders would never listen to me if I tried to give instructions,’ she went on. ‘They would stand there looking bored, and as soon as I finished talking, they would ask my husband the questions I had just answered. But what really annoyed me was that, when my back was turned, the workmen would sneak a look at my bum.’ I did not realise until then how lucky we have been with our builders. Whatever the tribulations on site, they are always polite, and I have never once had to worry about them ogling my bottom.

But the real surprise for me in this friend’s revelation is that I have not once stopped to think until now about how tough it must be sometimes to be a female client on a building site. So to make up for my piggish chauvinism, I offer this true tale of heroism displayed by another female friend. She and her husband were living with their children in Geneva, when she inherited a rundown historic townhouse in Belgium. As a stopgap before full repairs could begin, she had workmen fit a modern window to keep the empty place watertight, but sacré bleu a local informed on her to the national ancient-buildings watchdog.

She immediately received notice that the window constituted a serious offence and that the gendarmerie would be sealing the house to prevent further ‘crimes’. She was far too smart for that, however. Calculating that the building control Stasi would never dare to seal the house if there were anyone living there, she threw her children into the car, sped down the autoroute and ducked inside the house hours before the police came. And there she and her brood remained living for two months without kitchen or bathroom while builders swarmed around them. ‘We had to do it, or the work would never have been finished,’ she explained. I cannot think of any man who would have shown such true grit.

Back here, my wife and I are barely a week away from moving from London to live full-time in the country, and, with sublime timing, our builders are back. Here on the eve of moving, I should not go looking for omens, although I cannot help feeling nervous after recent events. Vandals destroyed our dining room last weekend. As all the doors and windows to the room were still locked when we discovered the scene, we first suspected a poltergeist. The floors and oak panelling, along with the leaded windows, were smeared and splattered so badly with off-white muck that it seemed the visiting ghouls had had a food fight with creamy ectoplasm.

When we switched on the lights, our true culprits were revealed. One crow was lying at the foot of the chimney it had dived down. Its mate made an even more macabre final picture, having died after stuffing its head down into a large glass candleholder.

Need I add that it was my wife, and not the sensitive quiche eater she married, who put the dining room back to rights again?