Put­ting the house in or­der

Country Life Every Week - - Spectator -

STRIP­PING out’ is a term much loved by builders and one that I’ve be­gun to drop into con­ver­sa­tion on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. ‘They’re strip­ping out,’ I say when peo­ple ask how the house is com­ing along. Or ‘Are they strip­ping this out?’, less ca­su­ally and some­times pan­icky while walk­ing round it again with Zam.

I made a list of things for strip­ping out that I gave, like an ef­fi­cient per­son, to the chief builder, who folded it up and put it in his back pocket. I’ve no idea if he ever looked at it again.

Quite high on the list was the ceil­ing that has all but col­lapsed in one of the be­d­rooms. It hangs weight­ily, look­ing ready to go ‘pop’ and the sight of it has made the builder and struc­tural en­gi­neer make happy whistling noises. ‘It’ll be in­ter­est­ing to see what we find up there,’ they say with glee.

The next time I visit the house, they’ve made a small hole, which re­veals some very dodgy tim­bers and a sort of oh-ho-ho re­sponse from the builders, who seem to be en­joy­ing them­selves enor­mously.

The cob­webs are sub­stan­tial, so I don’t hang around be­cause the torch­light up to the rot­ten beams re­veals shad­ows of spi­ders the size of plates and this isn’t a room for me. I re­treat to the door­way, from where I try to look con­fi­dent. ‘It doesn’t look too bad,’ I sug­gest, to which they re­spond with twitch­ing eye­brows and know­ing laugh­ter.

Else­where, a cou­ple of floor­boards have been half stripped out, which leads to another joy­ful re­sponse. ‘You’ve got plenty of worm there,’ they say, as if this is un­ex­pected bounty. I hover be­tween rooms, un­cer­tain if I’m as keen on strip­ping out as I thought I would be. Or as they are.

At least we know what we want to do. We’re put­ting the stairs in here and squeez­ing in a loo there—i carve out their imag­i­nary lo­ca­tions with arm-wav­ing as I show around a friend who has a good eye and who I thought might be help­ful on the pro­por­tions of these things.

I know these are small de­tails when en­tire rafters need to be re­placed, but I’m al­ways apt, as my mother of­ten tells me, to put the cart be­fore the horse. And, any­way, it’s best, as we keep be­ing told, to de­cide on every­thing now. You don’t want to change your mind on a build­ing pro­ject—ev­ery­one knows that.

‘Why are you put­ting the stairs there?’ my friend asks, within about 15 min­utes. After two hours, he’s re­designed the place en­tirely. Bath­rooms have been moved, be­d­rooms lost, floors raised, the kitchen ex­tended. ‘Just my ini­tial thoughts,’ he says com­fort­ingly as he de­parts, leav­ing Zam and I in a heap of in­de­ci­sion.

‘The elec­tri­cian’s com­ing to strip out to­mor­row,’ the builder re­minds us, ‘and the plumber. Just check­ing, but you haven’t changed your mind on where we need the ser­vices, have you?’ Zam and I stare at one another. Have we? I have no idea. We tell him we’ll con­firm our de­ci­sions… soon.

I take my sis­ter round the house and ex­plain the dif­fer­ent pos­si­bil­i­ties. With­out hes­i­ta­tion, she tells me ex­actly which so­lu­tion to use and is so cer­tain about this that she man­ages to make me feel very fool­ish to con­sider any other op­tions. I re­turn home and de­clare this cer­tainty to Zam. It’s not catch­ing.

In the night, I wake up and nudge him be­cause a eureka mo­ment seems to have come to me in my sleep and I need to tell him be­fore I for­get. ‘Only prob­lem,’ he mum­bles, ‘is that you won’t have a floor to walk on.’ I turn over again.

‘How’s the house?’ a friend asks the next morn­ing. ‘We don’t know where to put the stairs,’ I say. ‘And we’re still miss­ing a bed­room.’ I wan­der into the kitchen and find Zam. ‘It’s time to fin­ish the shep­herd’s hut,’ I tell him, thereby shift­ing all re­spon­si­bil­ity onto his DIY skills. I’m very happy with that de­ci­sion.

‘You don’t want to change your mind on a build­ing pro­ject

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