‘Look at this,’ the plasterer said thumping the exposed wall, only through his thick Greek accent it sounded more like “lukathees”. ‘Is fucking shit.’ He hit the wall with a mallet and large chunks of plaster fell to the ground, a fluster of dust settling in their wake.
Our plasterer, despite the way his language became increasingly colourful over the weeks, is a nice guy who clearly took pride in his work. His despair was directed at what he considered more amateur attempts to create a smooth surface.
‘Lukathees, is noa way thas straight,’ he grumbled pointing at the place where the wall met the skirting board. Perhaps it was perfect. Perhaps it wasn’t absolutely bang-on. I couldn’t really tell. ‘Fuking shet.’ He hit the wall again and more dust flecked my hair ever greyer.
Part of me was glad that he was improving our walls, but part of me wanted him to stop making it worse first. I mean, sure it wasn’t perfect, but then, what is?
And there, I think, is my fundamental failing with DIY. I never actually expect things to work. I know where my limitations are. When it comes to work that I’ve done with my hands, passable is about as good as it’s going to get.
My fiancée knew this; there were plenty examples of slipshod, impatient work around our old flat, like the time I knocked a chunk of the plaster out when putting up a picture. That wasn’t, technically, my fault, but the repair job was pretty poor. I filled in the hole and left it to dry, but forgot to sand it down before painting over the top. There was a riddled lump in the wall for about nine months before I realised my mistake.
This didn’t seem to put her off when we came to buying a place. I mean, Casslee Road didn’t even have a kitchen installed when we looked at it. Despite our frustration at being taken for a ride by the estate agent, I was secretly quite pleased when that one fell through. The thought of such extensive renovations were frightening me and yet she seemed blissfully optimistic that all I needed was a bit of practice, some YouTube videos and a plaid shirt with dungarees combo.
Unfortunately, I’m a bit sensitive about my crapness in this area. I feel a manly failure, but I just don’t seem to have the aptitude for it. Or, to be quite honest, the interest. It isn’t genetically built into all men. I’d rather read a book. My fiancé, unfortunately, has seen too many feats of extremely masculine renovation to fully believe this. Her Dad converted their house from bedsits back to a family home (although it did take him nineteen years). Her friend’s husband added an extra floor to his cottage in Devon. Me, I once built some shelves. It took two attempts because I’m bad at reading numbers and muddled seventeen and nineteen, but once the two centimetre slope was corrected and the holes in the wall filled in they were okay.
In the end though, I kind of resent it because it’s keeping me from doing something else. Usually this: writing.
But that’s just life, isn’t it? Best to grow up and get on with it.
The reason we could afford a house rather than a flat was that the fusty decor must have put off the other drooling, desperate buyers. The same knackered looking couples we saw traipsing around the same properties every Saturday morning for three months. It wasn’t blandly neutral like so many other places we saw, but the character it did have wasn’t for us. It was going to need completely redecorating.
‘And those artex ceiling have to go,’ she said. ‘Straight away.’
Which meant getting a plasterer in. Which meant we might as well strip all the wallpaper off and see whether the walls needed doing too. Which meant my optimistic hope that, after the summer of homelessness, we might take things easy for the remainder of the year evaporated. She was right. It made sense, but still a bit of me wanted to spend some time with my books rescued from the store and a desk to write at.
On the weekend we finally got the keys, my fiancée went on a hen do while I moved stuff in. Once all the essentials were in, with everything else left out the way in the store, I wondered what else I could do. I knew she didn’t like the fitted wardrobes. Taking them out seemed within my expertise.
That went rather well. I quite enjoyed that. It seems my talents may lie in destroying stuff rather than constructing it.
Afterwards came the wallpaper, on a deadline for plasterers to quote the following weekend, we stripped the whole house in five days. In the middle of a heat wave. Sweat swum into my eyes as the steamer filled the rooms with fog and thirty years deep of gluey mush refused to come off the walls. It matted to our skin and every time we thought we’d done a room, an hour later we’d see dozens of straggly strips dangling that we’d missed. Underneath one room’s walls we inexplicably found layers of polystyrene as though they were trying to make a room where it was safe to bounce your head off the wall. Eventually, like a dawning sun the bare plaster appeared.
‘Hmmm, is pretty sheeet.’
The disadvantage of exposing all the walls – indeed of doing any exploratory DIY - is that we now knew they needed doing. We couldn’t just ignore it and hope it went away of its own accord.
At least we were off. I optimistically drew up schedules for completing the work that we immediately slipped behind. I’d spread everything out longer and we’d still slip. In the end I gave up; I was wasting my time. It would all take as long as it would take.
Despite my reservations I threw myself in with enthusiasm. Or energy, perhaps if not entirely excitement. Writing was discarded and instead I attacked each room with gusto. I lugged the remains of the wardrobes back from out in the garden and up into the loft to act as boards between the rafters. I was pleased with the recycling logic there. Physical strength and mindless labour seemed within my skill set. I took off and disposed of the lounge door which, with its ugly frosted glass panes, also had to depart. I successfully reattached the door to the study which, for reasons that elude me, had been removed. These were small triumphs, but each gave me a little shot of testosterone.
‘It’d be nice to put a fireplace back into the lounge.’
Okay, I thought. No sweat. A bit of internet research and then off to B&Q to buy a mallet, masonry chisel and crowbar. I can open up a chimney breast. It’s just smashing shit up.
After four hours I’d cleared an area about six inches wide, three inches high and half an inch deep. I’d created a fairly thick layer of dust on the skirting board and had been forced to use sunglasses as substitute safety goggles after a chip of concrete hit me just above the eye. As the evening approached everything was a bit gloomy. And, Jesus, did my shoulder ache. Inside, I could see breezeblocks rather than the few bricks I’d expected. I looked at my piddly little tools. Getting those beasts out with them was going to be impossible. I couldn’t spend four days solid hacking at one spot. I had to go to work.
My painting was equally erratic, but at least swift. We planned to splash a couple of coats of white undercoat on as the plaster dried to at least cut down the constant dust cloud of new plaster that fluffed through the house. The small bedroom, which will become a study, went up easily enough. The master bedroom, from which we’d been relegated to sleeping in the back room for a couple of weeks, was more problematic. Skimping on money, we hadn’t had it plastered (aside from covering up the swirly ceiling), but instead had decided to filler the cracks and line the uneven walls with paper before painting over. My natural instinct to cut corners was not best served here and even my dedication to painting – flying home on bike immediately after work to put a full coat on before shooting over to Peckham for dinner – was clearly prioritising speed over precision.
We started to get it, in the end. It’s coming together. The house no longer feels like a building site. After two months, all the walls and ceilings are plastered and covered in a base coat. Dust no longer follows me down the road to work. I no longer trip over buckets of water left in the middle of the room by the plasterer. None of the upstairs doors close because they’ve absorbed the damp of the drying paint and plaster, but that’s not a complete disaster. There isn’t an urgent need to work rather than write. The desk isn’t being used as a pasting table. The lounge is going to be taken apart again shortly as we paint it a more permanent colour than white and install some proper book shelves rather than the flat pack ones I’ve been carting around for a decade, but for the moment it is a calm place to read.
It is, at last, starting to feel like home.