“That flat area outside the sitting room is just crying out to be turned into a terrace,” said Mr Blue-Shirt. “It’s the obvious place to have a table and chairs. It must get loads of sun – and just look at that incredible view!” Even in the murky grey of a November afternoon, the view was sensational: a broad, olive tree and vine filled valley, framed by two hill-top villages, that sloped down to a tantalising triangle of slate-blue sea in the distance. “Mmm,” I answered absently, as images ran through my mind of long, languid lunches enjoyed beneath a rose covered pergola on a sunny terrace edged with terracotta pots from which tumbled a mass of vivid red geraniums and crimson petunias.
“Come on. Let’s look round the back,” said Mr Blue-Shirt. “I’m getting cold.” My mind snapped back to reality and I trudged off in pursuit of Mr Blue-Shirt as he disappeared into the gloom. We had just finished viewing the inside of the house that just a couple of months later was to become our forever-home. Within minutes of stepping into the spacious, recently converted farmhouse we were smitten, and almost instantly could see the rooms filled with our furniture, see how we would use each of the airy rooms, see ourselves living there and fulfilling our long-cherished dream of la dolce vita. In an effort to apply the brakes to our enthusiasm and get our heads back in control of our hearts, however, we were now poking around the outside of the property to get a truer measure of the level of work required to turn this undeniably ugly duckling into the elegant swan we had been dreaming of for so long.
Although the ‘heavy lifting’ of the conversion from traditional marchigian farmhouse to modern, open-plan, four-bed, two-bath home had been completed – and in a way that chimed precisely with our needs and our taste – the outside of the property had barely been touched. Back then the area immediately surrounding the house still bore the heavy scars of all the building work that had been undertaken. The driveway consisted of little more than flattened builders’ rubble, and weeds were now growing from the piles of unused hardcore and gravel around its edge. The unfinished terrace to the northern side at that time was a sorry jumble of rough concrete, crooked breeze blocks, downpipes and drain covers, although the two shrink-wrapped pallets of terracotta tiles standing in front of the house like tired sentries hinted at grander ambitions now abandoned. To the southern side, the lake of weed-strewn rubble still lapped right up to the house, and on the eastern side, the doors from the sitting room opened straight onto a reasonably flat area of coarse and clumpy grass. The evenly-spaced patches of bare clay soil from which the grass had been worn away suggested that the then owners had at least seen the same potential as we had in this spot, which had surely been the most likely destination for those unused tiles.
I recalled that murky November afternoon as I stood on the very same spot on a curiously similar February afternoon a couple of weeks ago; the spot where we and our friends and family had by then spent three summers eating, drinking, talking, laughing and lounging – and repeatedly re-positioning the table to try and stop it wobbling back and forth and spilling our drinks, and constantly tripping on the thick knots of grass or twisting our ankles in the numerous dips and cracks that peppered our proposed site for a proper terrace. Now, though, I was watching Mr Blue-Shirt finally starting to turn our fantasy of some forty months earlier into reality.
It had taken us months to decide on the shape and the size of the terrace: we wanted it to be generous – we weren’t short of space, after all, but proportional – not just big for the sake of it; and we didn’t want just a stark, rectangular slab. So after several rounds of drawing, measuring, pacing, pegging and stringing, we eventually settled on a broadly rectangular shape that linked the northern and southern stretches together, but with the edges steeply stepped in at various points to create a more interesting and less severe shape. This, along with a single step down onto the grass where the ground fell away more sharply along its longest side, would help lead the eye down the garden towards that marvellous view.
We had complete faith in our design, but even with his famously ‘can-do’ spirit, Mr Blue-Shirt was slightly daunted by the amount of work it would involve – which, of course, would be compounded by his ‘never knowingly under-engineered’ approach to all such undertakings. But he also loves a challenge, so with the grout between the tiles on the north terrace barely dry, he launched straight into the first of what would turn out to be no fewer than fourteen separate phases in creating will surely become his thirty-eight square metre magnum opus. And so here he was, once more aboard his favourite rented digger, happily clawing away at the tatty grass and carefully digging out the heavy clay soil to form the narrow trench for the concrete foundations of the low brick wall that would support the whole structure.
Standing in the chilly mist, that image from three years earlier flashed back into my mind. But now I could also almost smell the wood smoke rising from our first barbecue and hear the clink of glasses and the sound of laughter drifting down the valley on the gentle breeze. Not long now…