On solid foundations

“Right,” said Mr Blue-Shirt purposefully. “Rubble…” He had just finished checking the brickwork he had completed a few days earlier: a series of low walls and part-formed shallow steps now run down the north and south sides of the house, forming the edging to the terraces he has been building over the summer. After a couple of days’ respite from toiling on his hands and knees beneath the powerful July sun, he had decided that the cement was firm enough for him to continue with the next stage in the process: filling the neat, rectangular spaces he had created with a generous layer of coarse rubble. Fortunately, we have a plentiful supply of the stuff. Mr Blue-Shirt’s methodical demolition of the pigsty had already yielded all the bricks for the terrace walls, but he had also salvaged a great heap of broken bricks and tiles for this purpose. Quite apart from the symbolic value we had placed upon ‘rehabilitating’ the materials from the building where the chain of events that had culminated in the burglary in spring had all started, it made little sense to send them all to landfill only to have to  go and buy several cubic metres of hardcore – made up of someone else’s discarded broken bricks and tiles – to do the job.

I knew that Mr Blue-Shirt had been looking forward to this part. Retrieving good quality, usable bricks had required a cool-headed and measured approach to the demolition of the pigsty. So he had had to resist the urge to take out his smouldering fury at the violation of all that we held dear on the source of that pain and simply smash and pound and rip it to pieces with his bare hands. His restraint was soon to be rewarded, though, and so it was with rage-fuelled determination that Mr Blue-Shirt filled barrow after barrow with boulders of rubble, slabs of brick and jagged shards of tile, then wheeled each arm-stretching load round from the pigsty, and with a roar of effort, heaved its contents into the neat brick-framed rectangles. And only once he had judged each rectangle to contain the required amount, he could at last unleash the anger he had been nurturing for this moment during the preceding weeks. Over and over again he swung his sledgehammer with practised ease and rained down a storm of crunching blows on the broken remains of the pigsty, the unknown faces of the Thieving Bastards imprinted on every chunk, I’m sure. After each volley of blows, Mr Blue-Shirt stood back, drew breath, and spread the fragments of brick and tile and mortar out to the edges and into the corners and checked the level. Another volley of blows, a little more spreading, another round of checking. Eventually he laid down his sledgehammer and spirit level and nodded to himself: no cavities, no gaps, no protrusions. He was satisfied, and his anger spent.

Next came the broad, unwieldy sections of steel mesh, with their vicious tips and spiteful edges, each of which had to be snipped exactly to size, strand by spiky strand, and then nudged and shuffled into position on top of the layer of chunky rubble pebbles. From the muffled expletives that floated up through my study window, I gathered that Mr Blue-Shirt had saved a few drops of rage especially for these uncooperative pieces of sheet – at least, I think that’s the word he used… Eventually Mr Blue-Shirt prevailed, though, which meant everything was now ready for him to fill each meticulously prepared rectangle with a layer of cement and finally turn them into recognisable sections of terrace. The quantity Mr Blue-Shirt had calculated he needed to fill them all was way more than either he or his poor, over-worked cement mixer could handle. So it was time for the big guns: a cement mixer lorry that from its position on the drive could effortlessly disgorge its load of gritty grey goo directly into each rectangle along the south side – like a cakey cement topping on a crunchy rubble base. The only problem was, the extendable articulated chute wasn’t long enough to reach the section on the north side of the house – which, of course, also happened to be the largest – so it was back to the wheelbarrow for this part. At which point I decided it was time for me to join in – partly to lighten Mr Blue-Shirt’s load, but also because finally seeing our long-awaited terrace appear felt like a bit of a landmark and so I wanted to be involved.  Plus, who can resist making mud pies?

So while Mr Blue-Shirt plodded to and fro with barrow after barrow of semi-liquid terrace, I set about spreading each sloppy load over the rubble and mesh with a broad, wide-toothed rake, teasing it into the crevices, coaxing it into the corners. We had to work fast, too, as in the mid-afternoon heat, the cement would soon start to set and would rapidly become unworkable.  While we feverishly pushed and tipped and raked and spread, the cement mixer operator looked on in bemusement from the shade of the cherry tree. “Siete matti – you’re crazy,” he said, shaking his head. To an extent he was right: we could actually have hired a pump and an extra long hose to reach right over the house. This would have added a couple of hundred Euros to the cost, though: way too much, Mr Blue-Shirt calculated, when it only meant shifting a few extra barrows by hand. After all, “how difficult could it be?” as the eternally ‘can-do’ Mr Blue-Shirt had put it. My answer to this, as I lunged back and forth, shoving and heaving my heavy rake through the fast setting gloop, was short and unprintable.

But the end result was worth every sweaty bit of the cement-splattered, dusty-faced, gritty-mouthed effort: by the end of the afternoon we had two proper terraces. In the lengthening shadows, we stood hand in hand with the wretched remains of the defeated pigsty behind us and admired the results of our handiwork before us. No longer just drawings of terraces, or lines of string representing terraces, but actual terraces. Better still, however, from something malign and broken and tainted we had created something new and whole and good.

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