With the author coming to the end of her third and, without a doubt, final renovation project, she reflects upon those men, the constructors, who made everything possible and, more often than not, impossible.
It is my contention that all builders are descended from a single common ancestor... the disaffected schoolboy. They feign diligence when you come into view but are, whenever they can manage to get away with it, dedicated to doing nothing at all. My admittedly anecdotal conclusion in this matter derives from observations of three distinct groups of constructors originating respectively from England, Spain and Romania.
Virgil and Relu were two hapless Transylvanians dropped off at our property by their Armenian works manager, Marian. Marian was seldom seen without her builders' handbook once our project began, a circumstance which did not inspire confidence. Virgil and Relu had been PE teachers in Romania and had come to Madrid to seek their fortune. They lived in the shack in our garden for six months. Despite being in their thirties, they wore teenage-style baggy shorts and baseball caps swivelled sideways. Relu, in particular, had the bewildered expression of a youngster who'd been left behind on a school trip to a distant land.
Marian, who was ostensibly the HR officer at the school where we taught at the time, had to come over to our property more frequently than anticipated to explain to Virgil and Relu how to do things from her builders' handbook. She'd expected her construction sideline to be a get-rich-quick scheme once she tapped into the desperate Romanian expat labour market but her employees were giving her a run for her money. Depressed at being far from their native land, Virgil and Relu felt compelled to drown their sorrows. They hitched almost daily lifts to the nearest mini-market to buy cheap beer. They would frequently stay up into the early hours on workdays, the air alive with Romanian folk ballads. When we came home from work in the evening, they were sometimes just emerging from their shack. Thankfully, our deal with Marian was pay by the job, not the hour.
On one occasion, Virgil and Relu sold our roof insulation to one of our neighbours to buy more beer, cunningly leaving a strip of the stuff poking out from behind the ceiling boards. Another time we found them sleeping peacefully behind a wall panel. We probably should have sealed them up in there, Edgar Allen Poe style, but we felt a bit sorry for them. When I made Relu a cake on his birthday, his wide blue eyes filled with tears in memory of his mother. On a trip to England, we returned with a box of novelty British ales for them. "Why are you giving them that?" my dipsomaniacal father snapped jealously, regarding them from the window as they wrestled with a ladder in the rain, "They'd drink shit off a shovel".
What had been sold to us at the onset as "quality budget work", should rightly have been described as "budget quality work" since much of it had to be redone. The radiator piping with its many superfluous bends and pointless valves could only have been be the work of PE teachers who had received their training under a Kafkaesque totalitarian regime, while the huge and monstrously ugly concrete water deposit they built spouted jets as soon as it began to fill with rain.
About a decade after the Madrid project, whilst renovating a house to put on the rental market in England, a friend urged me to hire two young men, Martin and Reece, who had some experience in construction but were presently down on their luck and pretty much on the verge of homelessness. Being charitable, I gave these pale, gaunt, mournful-looking fellows a job and comfortable beds in the house under renovation. They arrived in the evening and got straight to work, constructing an exemplary kitchen workbench with set of shelves above, on which they placed heavy tins of paint to show off their brilliance in carpentry. I cooked them a wonderful meal to celebrate this early success and Martin was so partial to my apple crumble that he kept nipping into the kitchen to get extra spoonfuls.
The following day was a good one too, with a considerable portion of the staircase being replaced, the downstairs floor boards repaired, wallpaper going up straight and a couple of rooms painted. We enjoyed another hearty evening meal and Reece referred to me as "Mother Theresa", I like to think for her good deeds, rather than her advanced years. Touched, I agreed to their request for a day's pay as they didn't have two ha'pennies to rub together. With cash in their hands, the work swiftly went to pot. For the next two mornings, they slept late and were difficult to wake up.
Then Reece evoked my sympathy by telling me he had lived with his grandfather, now deceased, and had a brother he hadn't seen since his mum had left home with said brother as a baby. When I overheard him on his phone the following evening saying, "Hey bro, how's grandad?" I was prompted to ask around about him and found out he was indeed on the verge of homelessness due to his mother– with whom he'd lived along with his brother– and then his alive and well grandfather throwing him out due to his persistent drug abuse. Martin had alienated his wife and children and next his mother for the same reason.
After a loquacious drug dealer came to the door demanding money, it became clear that their difficulty in waking up during the second half of the week was due to night-time binges. So it was that what could have been a decent little earner for them, with food and accommodation thrown in, ended abruptly and resulted in my completing the rest of the renovation, other than plumbing and electrics, by myself.
Now to the present, and our current renovation project...a big, old house in the historic centre of a beautiful southern Spanish city. We hired an architect this time and had him vet the building firms in an attempt to forestall further mischance. We picked a mid-range quote with a promise to complete in three months. Eight months later, they're still here, the company they worked for having gone bust after four. The incessant sound of the cement mixer surfaces in my dreams and I wake up thinking that decades have passed and they’re still there, whilst I have become an old woman overnight.
The owner of the now defunct firm used to turn up on site once a week to shout at his motley crew with a sweaty, red face. Coincidentally, he too was attired in teenage garb, despite being middle-aged, his saggy bottom cinched into cut-off denim shorts and his gut protruding from a knock-off football shirt a size too small. When he hired 'Jesus the Plasterer' things went from bad to worse. "Jesus is coming," one of the builders warned us, "You'd better lock up your valuables." Jesus did not prove to have light fingers; anything he took, he asked for first. He’d inquire about whatever was lying around but not in immediate use... tools, framed pictures, pebbles and shells from a trip to the beach.
Since the collapse of the company, we hired its workers direct. The two low skilled labourers, called ‘peons’ in Spanish, favoured skulking in corners, languidly rolling and smoking cigarettes, then suddenly picking up a bag of cement and carrying it where wasn't needed whenever my husband or I appeared. At last, smoking had to be forbidden on site, as the painstaking creation of roll-ups became akin to an origami focus group.
Then there's Diego, a highly skilled and slightly handsome builder, who goes on speaker-phone with the chambermaid in the hotel opposite the garden, while she eyes him longingly from the window of the back bedroom she's cleaning. He denied he was talking to her but I'd seen her lips moving in unison through the window pane with her voice coming out of his speaker. "Talk to the chambermaid during your break, by all means, but not during work time," I suggested. "But what if I need to speak to my wife when I work?" he protested. So I advised, "Speak to the chambermaid during your break at your leisure and to your wife during work, if there's an emergency."
At long last, we are into the final ten days of the project and there is only the fish pond to complete. Francisco has just arrived in a crisp white shirt. His job today is to lay the brick walls of the pond. He will be working with wet cement in a dirt hole. How will he keep his new shirt clean? Is he planning to tell someone else to do his job? Francisco has aspirations to be a foreman, which is fair enough as he's been building houses for over thirty years and knows the job inside and out, but this aspiration is more to do with being tired and unfit than organized and ambitious. However, he's not a foreman yet so I point at the bricks neatly stacked in the middle of the hole in the ground. This is too much for Francisco to bear. He complains about his struggle with chronic hemorrhoids and periodic fistulas. I can believe all this. He doesn't tell me about his eczema on his rear, which I'd rather not see on a daily basis, but can’t help noticing, due to his low-slung work jeans that don't fit him properly. I shall let this stand as the last among a myriad of reasons – including having found it a challenge to find time to write this because of having to be perpetually vigilant during the working week – why I intend never to manage another construction project again.
In a former life, Auriel Roe was a teacher of art, drama and literature in secondary school. Now she is a full time writer and artist. Her novels are inspired by her experiences as a teacher. Her debut novel A Blindefellows Chronicle was #1 in the humour genre in Amazon US, UK and Canada. Both novels are currently undergoing translation and being made into audio books.
Channeling my inner Samurai whilst attired in packaging