DOCTOR ON THE HOUSE

A simple garden wall can turn out to be a builder's toughest test, says Jeff Howell
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The Independent Online
You wouldn't believe how ignorant some people are about building. Last week I went to price up this job for a garden wall. Lovely garden - lawns, rose beds, shrubs, the lot. Bungalow. Single lady. Fiftysomething. Two yapping dogs. I can cope with that, but, apparently, the neighbours can't. The neighbours are complaining about the dogs getting into their garden, via the twin-strand wire boundary fence. So she's decided to build a wall.

Now, the trouble here is you get drawn into the dispute with the neighbours. And it's the worst kind of dispute - it concerns 1) territory, and 2) mummy's little boys, the aforementioned yapping brothers. I should have known better. I should have turned around and driven off as soon as I heard the things barking. No, I should have turned around when I saw the bungalow. I should have known from the post code. I should never have been a bricklayer in the first place; there must have been a mix-up at the hospital.

Anyway. It was a lovely evening. I pulled up outside the bungalow and the car was immediately surrounded by the two dogs. I opened the car door bravely and pretended I liked being ... I think the term is worried. The dogs worried me to the front door. The lady and the dogs worried me to the back garden, and I was shown a beautifully tended border shrubbery, and the two strands of wire, and next door's equally meticulous border, and I was asked to price up for a boundary wall. God, I can't believe I was so stupid. I was there for an hour-and-a-half. I gave her all the options, and in the end we decided upon half-brick panels topped with stone copings, with brick-and-a-half piers every four metres. And all the while the dogs were growling and snapping at my legs - that is when they weren't dashing next door to tear up the lawn and squash the geraniums.

So I finally got the thing measured up, and started working out a price. Remove top soil, level bottom of trench, place concrete foundation - that sort of thing. That's what you have to do if you're building a proper garden wall - you have to take the load down to a level below which the frost won't expand it and the summer drought won't shrink it. Otherwise it will start to move and crack. So I said to Miss Two-Mutts: "Do you want me to price for moving the shrubs, or would you prefer to look after them yourself?"

You could have heard a pin drop. Even the dogs fell silent. "Move?" "Shrubs?" I could sense from her tone, not to mention her body language, that I had said the wrong thing. The growling started up again, but this time it was more menacing, as though the previous growling had just been messing about. "You can't move the shrubs - they're established."

I tried to explain that she had asked me to price for a wall, and a wall needs a foundation, and anyway the bricklayer has to walk up and down when he's building the wall and there's going to be bricks and mortar and mess and ... do you know what she said? She said: "Can't you build a sort of platform over them?"

Then it became clear. She didn't really want a wall. Not a brick wall, anyway. She wanted a metaphorical wall between her and the neighbours. Preferably one which made the neighbours evaporate. If I could build those, I tell you, I could clean up.

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