The Home Strait

We got there the weekend before we went into complete lockdown. Two days later, I was confined to teaching from a virtual classroom in my study, and Mr Blue-Shirt was confined to doing what he could on the house with the tools and materials he already had, or which he could manage to get online. But at least we had a terrace. To be more precise, the generous section of terrace to the eastern side of the house that would link the sections on the northern and southern sides; the section of terrace that would finally give us a proper, grown-up outdoor seating and dining area, the section of terrace from which we could enjoy the picture-postcard view up to the village and down the valley to the tantalising triangle of sparkling turquoise sea at the bottom; the section of terrace we had been dreaming of since we had first viewed the house on a murky November afternoon more than three years earlier. It was on that last working day before lockdown after a few hours’ intensive training that I suddenly became an online English language teacher, and that the cement truck from the local quarry disgorged its six-cubic-metre load of pre-mixed semi-liquid terrace into the rubble-filled and steel-mesh-topped brick-built framework. All in all, it felt like a momentous day.

But then came the waiting. For signs that the lockdown was slowing the rate of coronavirus infections, primarily. And also for our concrete lake to set, first so that we could simply walk on it, then put a table and chairs on it, and finally for it to be hard enough for Mr Blue-Shirt to begin the mammoth task of tiling the entire thirty-eight square-metre surface. He filled the intervening weeks with building a few metres more of the wall around the drive (and checking the concrete and the corona data), stripping out a bit more of our shower room (and checking the concrete and the corona data), locating an online supplier of tile cement and grout (and checking the concrete and the corona data) and, at last, shifting batches of tiles from the pallet in the car port behind the house round to the still pale grey terrace. Then, as the advance of the virus steadily slowed, deciding that the concrete was finally hard enough for the first of the four hundred and thirty tiles to be laid.

Mr Blue-Shirt started with the stepped section that links the southern part to the new eastern part, its dimensions deliberately chosen to ensure that he would need to work only with whole tiles. With five stacks of eight tiles all ready and waiting, he carefully mixed his first batch of tile cement to exactly the right consistency, knelt down on the black foam pad that still bore the imprint of his knees from earlier tiling sessions, and then slowly began the cycle that he would repeat over and over and over again in the coming weeks: slop, spread, position, tamp, adjust, tamp, check, tamp, measure, clip in place; slop, spread, position tamp… After a few cycles, he got into his rhythm, his trowel, float, rubber mallet, spirit level, measuring tape, bucket and sponge all back in their familiar positions around him so he could reach for whichever tool he needed without even looking. Slop, spread, position, tamp, adjust, tamp, check, tamp, measure, clip in place.

He completed that first section in a couple of days – but that was just a fraction of what remained. So on and on he went for almost a month: in time with the steadily improving corona data, the broad expanse of pale grey slowly turned to terracotta, as row by laborious row, Mr Blue-Shirt worked his way across the terrace. Day after day he was hunkered down on all fours, rising to his feet only to mix up another batch of cement, to flex his knees and stretch his back, and to lift his gaze to the blue horizon and remind himself there was still a world beyond those endless thirty-centimetre squares of terracotta.

The main section had also been designed with whole tiles in mind – fourteen rows of twenty-five, to be exact – so the only variation in his slop, spread, position, tamp routine came when he needed to cut the coin-sized circles for the irrigation system tubes in a couple of tiles, the biscuit-sized holes for the floor lights in a handful more, and the narrow slots to accommodate the four steel support brackets for the uprights of the timber pergola that will eventually provide some protection from the fierce midday sun.

As Mr Blue-Shirt advanced (backwards) across the terrace, a daily ritual emerged. At the end of each day, the results of his efforts would bristle with the chunky orange clips and small white spacers that held the freshly laid tiles firmly in place – a useful ‘keep off’ signal, for the temptation to walk across the smooth terracotta surface was hard to resist. Then at the start of each day, he would remove the previous day’s clips and we would christen the new patch of terracotta with a few cautious steps. Next, with a pair of pliers he would pull out the plastic spacers from between the tiles from the day before that, thus designating that patch officially usable. This in turn gave me the green light to move chairs, tables and flower pots over from the un-tiled to the tiled area, and, using old sun loungers, to experiment with the layout of the patio furniture we had decided to treat ourselves to when the terrace was completely finished.

For that month we measured time in fractions: a sixth of the way there, a quarter, a third, half way (half way!). Then after rain stopped play for a few days, the size of the remaining area of grey cement seemed halve and halve again with each successive day until there was only the northern stepped section left. Barely a day after that, just one last cycle of slop, spread, position, tamp remained  – and Mr Blue-Shirt clipped into place the tile he had had been looking for, as my late dad would have put it: tile number four hundred and thirty.

So that just leaves the two hundred and eighty-five metres of pointing to do. But first it’s time to sit back and enjoy the fruits of Mr Blue Shirt’s labours…

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