I mentioned in the first of these confessions that our calamitous DIY odyssey had begun just after we’d got married and moved into our first proper house together. As a test of whether a marriage would last, it really was an excellent exercise. As an opportunity to show how man can compete against resistant materials, it was an unparalleled disaster. If it had happened 20 years later, we really wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Kevin McCloud mincing around in a hard hat and sensible sweater, talking one minute to us about our hopes and dreams for the future, then cutting to the second camera, with some helpful comment like:
“I see four main problems here. They’re over budget, they’re way over their deadline, they’re completely knackered. And they don’t have a clue what they’re doing”
And, of course, he’d be absolutely right. We really did do some stupid things. Like try to live in the house while we were gutting it. For a couple of months we rigged up a sink in the garden while we put a kitchen in place. Which was great until it rained. We cut corners in the wrong places too, like when we asked a plasterer to fully plaster the walls but just to skim what looked like a solid ceiling. It wasn’t, and a hundred years of soot and reeds came down on the plasterer. He’d gone into the room in a set of Persil-white overalls, and emerged like an exhausted miner, vowing never to come back to the house. Given that this was going to be the baby’s room (so we weren’t completely knackered, McCloud, you supercilious git), it was actually a blessing, as there was a fair bit of weight in that ceiling.
And one of my biggest mistakes was in trusting Simon. Simon was a lovely bloke who we’d met a few years before, when he’d been training to be an electrician. He’d got a bit disillusioned with the whole scary cabling lark, and decided to join the police force instead, but when I called him up and asked him to come round and help one Saturday, he couldn’t have been more helpful.
“No problem, I’ll pop in on my way to the football”
And so he did. What I needed help with was the fuse box. The house had been at various times, a student house, two flats, and before that, bedsits. And as a result, there were three fuseboxes in the hall. I’d tested them all out, and only one of them actually serviced the house, so, to tidy up, I wanted to remove the two redundant ones. And because electricity is nasty stuff in large quantities, I needed to test them to see that they were safe to remove. Hence Simon and his electrical expertise. Simon had got to us a bit late, and we’d chatted for a bit, so it’s fair to say that when he ran his tests he might have hurried them along a little. Anyway, he declared both of the boxes completely disabled, and waved a cheery goodbye, nipping off for a traditionally frustrating afternoon at the Barclay End.
You may well be ahead of me here. Kneeling down in front of the fuseboxes, I started to unscrew the first unit, and discovered quite dramatically that it really hadn’t been disabled at all. I’d only seen the next bit in cartoons – the force of the shock actually sent me backwards on my knees, like a rewind of a footballer’s celebration, or an annoying kid at a wedding, and I ended up about 6 feet back from where I’d started. It’s hard to describe a shock like that to someone who hasn’t had one. You feel it in your bones and your teeth for days and weeks afterwards. About the only thing going for the experience is that pretty much every drink you have afterwards tastes like champagne.
Anyway, after lots more disasters, we pretty much got to the end of two years, and declared the project complete. The crowning glory to all of the hard work, was to have carpets fitted – we’d not had anything on the floors for two years, and this was the final ‘post painting’ touch.
The carpets were ordered for the Saturday. We knew we had to clear up a couple of rooms before they could be fitted, and got round to this at about 9pm on the Friday night. I went upstairs to fix all the floorboards back in place. Mrs E stayed downstairs to paint a couple of walls. After about an hour, she called up:
“The paint’s not sticking to the wall, it’s just falling off”
I went downstairs to have a look, and sure enough, as fast as she was putting it on, it was sliding down the wall. It was almost as if there was a film of water coming down the wall. It was almost as if that wall was directly underneath a bathroom pipe. It was almost as if that pipe was underneath a floorboard that had recently been nailed down.
“Uh-oh” I said, neatly summing up the situation, and nipping upstairs to confront my demons.
I took up the last floorboard in the bathroom, and as I did, the nail came out of the pipe, gushing scalding water all over my face. So at least the boiler was working. You know when you’re little, and you put your hands over your eyes because you think that people can’t see you? Well, it was pretty much the same with the floorboard – it was put back sharpish with the nail in place – that way I wouldn’t have to see the disaster in front of me.
After the 30 year old equivalent of putting my hands in front of my eyes and pretending to be somewhere else was over, I realised that I wasn’t going to be fixing this one by myself. So I managed to switch all the water off. Then I phoned a friend.
This particular friend had put most of the plumbing into the house, he’d put a new boiler in, had most of the radiators off the wall and I was pretty sure the last exchange we’d had was along the lines of “Give us a call anytime if you need anything”. Well, this situation seemed to fit the ‘anything, anytime’ side of things. The voice that answered the phone was, shall we say, discombobulated. We established who was who and, it being about 11pm, that this wasn’t time for an idle gossip. I told him what had happened, in a way that I hoped wouldn’t land me with too much grief and retribution.
“Thing is”, said he, gently slurring, “I’d like to help, but I’m currently stoned off my head”.
Which kind of left us in a predicament. We talked a bit backwards and forwards, and I wasn’t absolutely sure where we’d left the situation when I hung up.
My friend lived about a 15 minute drive away. About 10 minutes after I’d put the phone down, there was a screeching of tyres outside the house, and his white van executed a perfect parallel parking manoeuvre without stopping.
We were very pleased to see him. We surveyed the damage, and the pipe, and the hole, and he looked on in a slightly distant manner, slowly shaking his head and smiling.
“I’ll get my tools” he said, possibly the sweetest four words I’d heard that week.
There were a few dodgy moments where I held the (very hot) replacement pipe in place while he welded it in place, and his hands were shaking so much that I had to stop the floorboards from burning by damping them down with a towel. But after a while, he pronounced his work done.
“Christ”, he muttered, “I didn’t think I’d be able to do that”.
Which were ten words that I was glad to hear, after a successful mission, rather than before.
We said our farewells, fondly. We dried down the offending wall, and painted it. I very carefully nailed down the remaining floorboards. We got to bed far too late, giggling like relieved idiots, which of course we were. We woke up pretty early the next morning to welcome in some nice men carrying rolls of carpet, went out for the day, chucking our knackered boiler suits in the ever present skip as we did.
And when we came home, the house was done. For an hour or so we actually rolled around on the carpets like toddlers, because we could. We went out that night to a friend’s wedding, and got blind drunk, because we could, and woke up the next morning not really having anything to do. No trips to the tip, no rush to the DIY shop, no last minute painting or plumbing or wiring. Naturally this blissful laziness lasted all of about two weeks, before we started noticing things that needed fixing. But as two weeks go, it was something else.
Next time, bent drills, exploding cisterns and Fun With Superglue. Things that need fixing can be quite entertaining too.