The fat builder was the governor working for Rambino, a grizzle-haired doofus who has paid an inflated price for the near-derelict first floor of the tatty, shuddering house in which I "live", and is now Doing It Up.
There's been a vile epidemic of Doing Up all this year, complete with drills and jackhammers and orbital sanders and hammering, hammering, hammering. And shouts; those special builders' shouts, hoarse, alarmed and inarticulate, as though they are forcing warm fat at high pressure through their clogged builders' larynxes. "Grrrooooagh!" goes the Fat Builder. "Wuurff!" comes the call from the crew of barking hobbledehoys and stoney-faced religious minority groups tumbling out of their rusty blue van. "Ack! Rorf! Rorf" answers the flat-eyed lunatic turning the basement into a couturier's, complete with banging.
At any moment, I expect some runny-nosed anthropologist, some whispering relativist on rubber-soled shoes, to come creeping through the spindrift of sawdust and plasterboard, clutching a microphone, eyes shining with awe. Raw material, do you see? A fascinating glimpse of a primitive speech- system stretching right back to the mighty baboon: an oral tradition subject to precise rules known only to initiates, and woe upon the chippie who shouts "Aw spwarft?" when it's the spark's turn to cry "Nwaooh!"
This is stuff of great cultural importance, do you hear what I am saying? We are all sophisticated people here. We have been following the arguments raging in the newspapers about Contemporary Music, and we know which side we are on. Don't we? Quite. We are on the side of civilisation, structure, that delicacy of cadence which speaks of a society at its zenith. A glass of old Madeira, the warm glow of the candlelight, Orlando Gibbons's The Street Cries of London on the trusty hi-fi.
Well; we're wrong, and Contemporary Music is right, and Sir Harrison Jokewhistle is a damned sight closer to the spirit of Gibbons than any of that pipe-sucking crew who think the late 20th century has any room for (pfooh!) tunes. I went to hear Gawain at the Coliseum and its shouting, its clangour, its interminable honking longeurs and inexplicable hoarse cries of alarm were but a carefully-codified and orchestrated version of the Street Cries you can hear any day you like from my study window: the immemorial call of builder to builder across the primeval rooftops.
Gibbons would have recognised it at once. On the other hand, Gibbons didn't have to live with it, damn him. I do, and it is all beginning to get me down.
No; actually, as of this week, it has got me down, flat prone on the tear-sodden carpet, hammering my little fists and squealing with frustration. Not only can I not work during the day, but I lie awake at night, clenched into a ball of anger and frustration, dreading what fresh assault the morning will bring, and knowing that I am utterly, completely powerless to do anything about it.
I am, in short, no longer a force, and it's all Rambino's fault. I explained that nine months of building noise had driven me to the edge, and asked if he would give me plenty of warning of his own dismal travails. "I will indeed," he said, tossing his grizzled locks; "I promise."
Today he kept his promise. I went out for the papers and there he was on the doorstep, clutching what looked suspiciously like a last straw and ushering in his fourth consecutive set of builders. "It'll be noisy," he said. "How noisy? How long for?" I said. "Dunno," he said.
I dug out the Fat Builder and asked him the same question. "Dunno how long. Dunno how much noise. Could be hours at a stretch. Building works," he said. "Building works. BUILDING WORKS." I explained things to him. "Not MY problem," he said. "I've heard this sort of pharkin shit before and the law says I can make as much noise as I want between eight am and six pm". "I'm afraid that by now," I said, "I know what the law says. Can you just tell me if -"
And then he blew. He went. He lost it. He dun his ed in. All of a sudden, all on his own, he got even shorter and fatter and went puce. It was almost worth the nine months' misery. An instantaneous slick of sweat started out on his face. His glasses slipped down his nose. He started bouncing up and down on his little feet like one of those Wobbly Men, shouting "Phark OFF just phark OFF just phark OFF just phark OFF."
"Aah," I thought. "Poor little chap. It's really rather sweet..." but then I realised that I was in the presence of something rather more awful and majestic than a mere fat git throwing a tantrum. It suddenly struck me that the Fat Builder was in truth the spirit of the age, our very own genius loci, personifying our very own, up-yours, so-what, pig-off, out- of-my-pharking-way Zeitgeist. If the word for the Eighties was crass, then the Nineties are cross. But are we cross enough? Will there come a moment, like there was in that film - Network, wasn't it? - when we are all going to lean out of our windows and shout, "We're mad as hell and we aren't going to take it any more"?
I wonder. The law says that builders can sod up our lives between eight and six on weekdays, and politicians and profiteers can sod it up any time they bloody well like, but on the other hand we have got the scratch-cards to keep us quiet (which, at a quid a go, offers a better chance of riches than spending the same money on buying Red Star Parcels). We may indeed be mad as hell, and maybe hatters too; but we are going to take it, and go on taking it, until one day, just like the Fat Builder, our Nineties' Zeitgeist, we all shout: "Phark!" and fall over, burst. !