It was back in the pre-corona age of innocence just six weeks ago that I began the tale of Mr Blue-Shirt’s latest project – and probably his biggest to date. This has been the construction of the thirty-eight square metre terrace to the eastern side of the house that would link the sections to the northern and southern sides together and, more importantly, finally give us a proper, grown-up outdoor seating and dining area from which to enjoy the magnificent view over our olive trees up to the village and then down the broad, olive tree and vine filled valley to the tantalising triangle of turquoise sea in the distance.
It was in those weeks when Covid-19 was still a minor story in the foreign news columns that Mr Blue-Shirt progressed from scraping away the topsoil and digging out the foundations for the perimeter wall to lining the sides of the neat, narrow trench with plywood shuttering, then knitting together with twists of heavy wire the sections of thin steel bar that formed the long, thin cages that would reinforce the concrete he later poured into the trench. It was in those days filled with the promise of spring when our minds were still filled with three-year old images of long, languid lunches enjoyed beneath a rose covered pergola on a sunny terrace edged with terracotta pots from which tumbled a mass of scarlet geraniums and crimson petunias that Mr Blue-Shirt spread and flattened the 2.5 cubic metres of stabilising hardcore that formed the base layer. And that apparently simple step in the process felt like a huge leap forward. In place of an uneven expanse of coarse clumpy grass and bare muddy patches we at last had a clearly defined, mud- and grass-free, flat, solid area outside the garden doors. Those long, languid lunches suddenly seemed a lot closer. To me, at least; for Mr Blue-Shirt, there was still a long way to go.
As the news from Lombardy grew more alarming by the day and the spread of coronavirus became headline news, Mr Blue-Shirt cracked on with the next phase of the build: constructing the low brick walls that would support the whole structure. I’ve mentioned before, I think, that Mr Blue-Shirt loves bricklaying, and he takes great pride in achieving kink-free lines and exact right-angles. And just as with every job he tackles, preparation is paramount, so long before he could set the trusty old cement mixer in motion again, he spent ages – usually at dusk so he could use his prized laser measuring gadget – precisely positioning, checking and re-positioning lengths of yellow nylon string to ensure perfectly straight edges, and a perfectly horizontal surface. Only once he was satisfied he had got everything just so did he start wheeling round the first few loads of bricks carefully selected from the pallets of reusable building materials he had salvaged from the (happily now ‘former’) pigsty. It was only then, with a neat row of Jenga-like stacks of bricks in place, that he tipped the first batch of freshly mixed cement into his barrow, took the first brick from the nearest stack, spread it with a generous dollop of grey goo, and carefully set it in place, tapped it level with the handle of his trowel and, of course, checked with the spirit level that it was completely straight. One down; two hundred and forty-nine to go.
Over the course of the next week or so as the country gradually began to shut down, the skeleton of the terrace rose from the concrete foundations brick by brick. Neat slices of pinkish-beige laid in arrow-straight rows alternating with stripes of icing-smooth, pale grey cement. It really was a thing of beauty. I was intrigued, too, by how high the wall along the terrace’s furthest-most edge actually needed to be to ensure the whole area would be at the same level. It turned out that the uneven expanse of coarse, clumpy grass that had been our main seating area had sloped away much more than I’d realised, so when it was finished, our smart, new seating area would give us a distinctly more elevated view of the valley. It would feel a bit like being on the prow of a boat, I couldn’t help thinking.
Before Mr Blue-Shirt could crack on with creating that more elevated view, however, he had the incredibly time-consuming and fiddly task of installing all the cabling and conduits for the twelve lights that would be set into the terrace floor, extending and connecting up the irrigation system that is fed from the well, and carefully positioning the steel support brackets for the uprights of the timber pergola that will eventually provide some protection from the fierce midday sun.
Finally, with the giant spider’s web of wire and tubing neatly bunched together with cable ties, all connected up and fully tested, it was on to the infinitely more satisfying business of filling the entire space with rubble. Fortunately, we still had a plentiful supply of the stuff. As well as all the bricks, Mr Blue-Shirt’s methodical demolition of the pigsty had also yielded an enormous heap of broken bricks, tiles and chunks of concrete that he had kept for this very purpose: it had made little sense to send all this building detritus to landfill only to have to go and buy several cubic metres of hardcore that would simply be made up of someone else’s discarded broken bricks and tiles. And this was quite apart from the symbolic value we continued to place on ‘re-habilitating’ the materials from the building where the chain of events that had culminated in the burglary the previous spring had all started.
As it turned out, the day Mr Blue-Shirt had earmarked for this task was the same day all schools finally closed in an effort to slow the advance of the virus and my teaching timetable was instantly slashed to just a handful of classes. So with some unforeseen free time suddenly on my hands, I could at least help him with the shoulder-wrenching, arm-stretching task of wheeling barrow after barrow of rubble – three cubic metres of the stuff, in the end – from up behind the well on our western boundary, down past the house and round to its eastern side, heaving the contents into the thirty-eight square metre space, and then levelling it out into a relatively even layer with a heavy-duty rake, but mostly by hand. All the shovelling and shifting and raking threw up great clouds of throat-clogging dust from the ancient cement (and, we suspected, desiccated pigeon poo). So having just heard news of the first case of the virus in our village, we fervently hoped that no one would hear the incessant coughing and choking that accompanied every barrow load.
Next came the broad, unwieldy sections of steel mesh that had to be snipped exactly to size, and then shuffled into position on top of the layer of chunky rubble. Then, after Mr Blue-Shirt had precisely positioned a series of parallel galvanised steel bars to ensure the desired level across the whole of terrace, everything was at last ready for what would finally turn this large rectangle of rubble into a recognisable terrace: the concrete.
Naturally, Mr Blue-Shirt’s first instinct was to mix and spread the required six cubic metres of concrete himself. But then he did a little arithmetic: using just our battered old cement mixer, this would take about eighty separate loads. Each of these would weigh about one hundred and eighty kilos, and each would need to be transferred from the mixer to its final destination by hand, barrow and shovel. And even if he managed to mix, shift and spread as many as eight loads per day, it would still take a good ten days to finish the job – if the job didn’t finish him first. So he phoned the quarry to arrange for the six cubic metres to be delivered by truck and pumped straight into the space.
On that Friday in early March, I don’t know who was more tense, Mr Blue-Shirt or me. Mr Blue-Shirt alternated between checking his calculations and peering out of the window every time he heard a vehicle approaching, while I was doing some whistle-stop training on the online teaching platform that we were going to start using the following Monday. But when I eventually emerged from my work room, slightly boggled but more or less ready to run a virtual classroom, the cement truck had been and gone. While I had spent the afternoon getting to grips with screen sharing, breakout rooms and interactive whiteboards, it had disgorged its load over the waiting rubble and mesh as Mr Blue-Shirt plodded about in the viscous grey sludge, hurrying to keep up with the spreading and levelling, as the liquid cement gushed from the pump’s broad nozzle. By the end of the day, though, I was an online English teacher and we had a terrace.
And we had achieved both in the nick of time: at the start of the following week the whole country went into complete lockdown.