Upstairs are getting central heating: this involves a lot of banging, and whenever I open the airing cupboard a heap of plaster crashes out, rather invalidating the point of doing laundry. Downstairs have just finished some mysterious and terrifying operation which involved hammer-drilling for five minutes at precisely eight-thirty every morning, then not doing it again all day.
I, meanwhile, am trying to track down Malcolm, who came and measured the coal hole that passes for my washing facilities and said he'd give me some figures. He left a message on my answering machine saying he'd worked them out, then got sucked through a hole in the space-time continuum. I have to be patient while he works out how to reverse the process without destroying the world, and reappears in a field in Iowa with a tastefully ripped T-shirt, frightening the life out of some farm child who will be sent to bed without any supper for making up stories. We'll get there in the end.
Builders are an interesting breed, though. Have you noticed that they never have surnames? I've gone through my address book gleaning recommendations from my distant acquaintances, and they all come up with single names. I've never actually checked it out at the Public Record Office, but I'm fairly sure that there must be a huge British artisan family whose surname is just a blank. They probably originate in Brixham. They work the building sites up and down the country, and call their sons by way-out agricultural names. If I hadn't settled on Malcolm I could have had my bathroom done by Sprout, the Swede, Horse, or Jethro. That's God's honest truth.
This family also has a habit of getting up very, very early and being able to pinpoint exactly where I'm sleeping. You may have gathered by now that getting up early doesn't figure much in my game plan, though I do accept that if the phone goes in the morning it's reasonable that I should answer it. But it depends on what time of the morning. Downstairs' builders know their bye-laws and wait until the first minute of clocking- on time to get going with the hammer drill. I once had a builder who started at a quarter to six, with a mallet, on the wall behind the head of my bed. For three weeks. God knows what he was doing, but he spent about 25 minutes at it every day. I woke up screaming one day and he went quiet. Probably laughing too much to hold the hammer, the bastard.
The thing is, it's not so much the waking up, it's the hours you spend awake in anticipation of being woken up. One night I went to bed in my clothes. I flung myself out of bed at the first blow, ran next door, kicked open the front door and stormed in yelling. He was a little, weaselly man with a little, weaselly moustache. The sight of all six foot of me with unbrushed hair and both tonsils showing made him drop his hammer and back into a corner with his hands up to protect his face. Hah, I thought, that's shown you, you little rat-fink-creature. You won't dare try it tomorrow.
But he did. At five-thirty next day. I was across the room and into my clothes before the first picture fell off the wall. Kicked my way through doors, arrived spitting venom. Weasel was waiting. "It's five-thirty in the morning," I shouted. "Look, love," he replied (and not all builders employ over-familiarity, just the bad ones), "some of us have to work for a living, you know." "Aaargh!" I howled (well, it's not my most articulate time of day), "and I haven't done any work in the last week." "Well, aren't you the lucky one," he answered. But he stopped.
I lay awake throughout the following night, waiting for the crashes to begin. Come six-thirty I fell into a blissful, trustful coma. At quarter to seven, bang! My bedside lamp toppled from the table and landed on the pillow. I didn't even waste time putting on my big boots this time: just staggered round in my bare feet. There he was, hitting the wall with a sledgehammer. I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned. It wasn't Weasel. It was his brother, Weasel Monster. I stepped back and, found myself brushing the hulking shoulder of Weaselzilla. From the shadows emerged the fearsome form of Arnold Weasel. He walked up to me, stuck a ginger beard in my face. "Go," he said, "Away." So I did.
Of course, Environment Health sorted it out in the end. And they're not all like that. For there was Sean.
Sean spent a summer doing up another house next door. Sean didn't have a surname either, but he had a divine southern Irish accent, and took in parcels. On Friday evenings, there would be a tap on my basement window. This vision of loveliness would swing through it for the first beer of the weekend, and tread concrete dust round my kitchen while talking about Yeats. After a bit, my girlfriends caught on and started dropping in on Fridays, expressing a new-found love of Guinness and gazing rapt as the muscles rippled beneath Sean's miraculously white T-shirt and he opined that Maud Gonne was a bit of a sloven. In September, the house was spanking and the lads carried their tool bags down the steps for the last time. I had to start going out again on Fridays, and The Wild Swans At Coole gathered dust on my shelf. The perfect man: practical and cultured. Sean, if you're out there, my bathroom needs fixing. As does my heart. Just not too early in the morning, OK?Reuse content