Out on the tiles

Spring is in the air and Mr Blue-Shirt has got his mojo back.

Following the sudden deaths of both his parents within just seven weeks of each other, all work on the house and garden came to an abrupt halt last autumn. First there were the four gruelling trips to the UK that put paid to his schedule of works for the winter. Then there was the bone-aching exhaustion and sleeplessness that accompanies grief to deal with, as well as the matter of actually processing the enormity of the loss he had suffered.

December became a time to be and not to do; a time to mourn, to rest, and slowly to begin the healing. With the new year came faint stirrings of renewed vigour along with a growing need for activity and forward motion. So January saw Mr Blue-Shirt doggedly working his way through the heart-wrenching task of clearing his mother’s flat of every last teaspoon and biro to prepare it for sale, then sorting out his parents’ estates, cancelling subscriptions and closing bank accounts. Step by step he found himself erasing the minutiae of their worldly existence until all that was left of them in any material form were the two matching urns of ashes that sit on his sister’s window sill.

As I know from my own experience, finding ‘closure’ is a necessary part of the grieving process. But to make progress in that direction, there is much that must be dismantled, deleted, disposed of and destroyed and Mr Blue-Shirt soon began to long for something more positive; for growth, rebirth and renewal, which for him invariably means planning, doing and making,  So to satisfy his need to leave the shadows behind and focus once more on creating something new and whole and good, he set about tiling the remaining section of the terrace he built last summer.

It was in the lazy days at the end of summer after the pigsty had gone that he tiled the first section of the newly built terrace on the north side of the house. The final section, the part immediately outside the back door that became an impromptu breakfast terrace the instant the concrete had set, had been number one on autumn’s abandoned job list. It was unfinished business, and consequently the obvious start-point for Mr Blue-Shirt’s return to the building fray.

Before he could make a start on the tiling, though, he needed to render and paint the sections of low breeze block wall that enclose the western end of the terrace. Mr Blue-Shirt has tried his hand at most practical trades over the years, but rendering was a first even for him. Never one to be put off by anything so trivial as a lack of experience, however, he dived straight in with his customary battle cry of “How difficult can it be?” And of course, for probably the most practical person I have ever met, it was not remotely difficult. Within just a couple of days, the layers of tatty, dismal grey had disappeared behind a smooth, crisp layer of render, finished with a coat of vanilla-coloured paint to match the house. Mr Blue-Shirt was back on form.

So with the warm-up job complete, it was on to the main event. And little by little, the irregular rectangle of pale grey concrete behind the house turned to terracotta as, row by laborious row, Mr Blue-Shirt meticulously measured, cut, cemented and laid one tile after another. He spent day after day hunkered down on his hands and knees in the howling winds that lashed the area for the first half of February. While his freshly rendered walls provided him with some shelter, he still had to keep leaping to his feet to chase after a succession buckets, drawings and tools that the wind repeatedly whipped up and flung down the garden.

What Mr Blue-Shirt found far more frustrating than the weather, however, was the house’s almost total absence of anything that is straight, symmetrical or perpendicular. The northern side of the modern extension to the eastern end of the house that forms our sitting room and bedroom is at a slight angle to the original house, so the terrace has a matching kink in it; the walls along the western edge are not parallel to the house; the steps that lead up to the knoll where the pigsty used to stand are not in line with the back step, which isn’t in line with the back door; and the drain covers that dot the terrace are not in line with anything at all. Oh, and the whole thing also sloped in towards the house until the concrete was laid. All of which not only offended Mr Blue-Shirt’s laser-like eye for accuracy, but also meant much more time spent measuring, cutting and checking, and, of course, resulted in an annoyingly high number of wedge-shaped sections of tile rather than the expanse of perfect squares that Mr Blue-Shirt had dreamt of. “Rustic charm!” I would chirrup whenever he lost patience with another fiddly bit of the jigsaw, or “We always wanted quirky, though,” when he measured a five-metre run of tiles and with anguish in his voice proclaimed “But it’s 2.2mm out!”

Now that it’s finished, of course, none of the quirks or kinks is apparent – or even of concern – to any normal mortal. For normal mortals (ie anyone other than a former army engineer), it is now simply a lovely cool and shady space to enjoy breakfast in the height of summer, to sip a cup of tea in the mellow, late afternoon sun, and all year round to drink in the far-reaching views from a slightly different angle.

So with the terraces to the north side and the south side now complete, that only leaves Mr Blue-Shirt with the main terrace to the east to build. How difficult can it be?

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