The home strait

“Ready?” asked Mr Blue-Shirt, looking me square in the eye.
I returned his gaze, tightened my grip and nodded.
“Right! Let’s do it…”
The moment had arrived, and my palms were sweating inside my grippy lifting gloves. Nearly four months after I had discovered a long-term leak in the floor of our shower that had caused extensive irreparable damage and following weeks and weeks of refurbishment work, we were finally ready to lift into position the first of the three gorgeous (but extremely large, extremely heavy and extremely fragile) jewel-coloured volcanic stone panels that would cover the short wall of the shower cubicle and form the centre-piece of our glamourous new en suite shower room .

We were standing poised on either side of the trestles on the landing to where we had moved the panels from the guest room. Along with the washbasin and the smaller matching panels to go around it, they had lain on the bed, patiently waiting for their cue while Mr Blue-Shirt completed the rest of the tiling. We had collected them from the studio where they were made a couple of weeks earlier so that we could make an end-of-term treat for me (including an overnight stay in picturesque Spello) out of the trip over to Deruta, the small town in central Umbria with a centuries-old reputation for ceramics whose many pottery shops we had visited a number of times. We had stumbled across the studio on our first trip there and had instantly fallen hopelessly in love with the bold colours, patterns and textures in these dramatic slabs of basalt. We were therefore powerless to resist when, in the depths of the coronavirus crisis, Mr Blue-Shirt discovered that the studio was offering fifty percent discount on all orders placed during lockdown. It was, we had told ourselves, one of those ‘can’t afford not to’ opportunities. And here we were, just about to grasp that opportunity – literally.

All we had to do now was carry the first 69cm by 99cm by 1cm panel into the shower room, lower it to floor level, slide and press it into position, and check that it was straight. Job done. Well, as far as one of us was concerned, anyway: for the eternally risk-tolerant Mr Blue-Shirt it had naturally only ever been a matter of ‘all we had to do now’, while for incurably risk-averse me such apparently straightforward undertakings are always fraught with danger, and in this case likely to conclude with our precious panels crashing onto the spanking new shower tray and splintering into a jagged mound of jewel-coloured rubble.

The thing is, over the years, we have learnt that our sharply divergent attitudes to risk can in fact be complementary rather than contradictory, meaning we are usually able to establish a course of action that can accommodate ‘both…and’ rather than be restricted to ‘either… or’. Since I can always instantly conjure up a lurid and extravagant smorgasbord of doomsday outcomes, I usually set proceedings in motion. My customary opening gambit in the form of ‘what if x happens?’ is invariably parried with a confident ‘it won’t’ from Mr Blue-Shirt. So my obvious counter-attack always has to be ‘how do you know?’, which results in Mr Blue-Shirt giving a detailed explanation of all the measures he has taken to avoid whatever worst case scenario I might have presented him with.  And it is in going through this cycle of challenge and defence several times that we arrive at way forward that we both feel comfortable with.  Mostly Mr Blue-Shirt’s answers provide me with the evidence and reassurance I need to have faith that his plan will work, while my probing usually identifies a handful of genuine difficulties and obstacles that any amount of bare-faced confidence won’t overcome, and the plan is altered accordingly.

So in order to deal with my principal ‘what-ifs’ (namely what if we drop it? and what if it falls off?), I had already ensured that the path to the shower room from the trestles on the landing where the panels were lined up was free of obstacles and had spread fresh dust sheets over the pristine white shower tray to protect it from the splodges of excess cement that always ooze out around the edges of any freshly positioned tile. Mr Blue-Shirt had made up a set of extra bracing pieces using the holes that had been pre-drilled for mounting the shower cubicle, and had got his trademark tile spacers in position to ensure the right size gaps for grouting. I had placed the spirit level and rubber mallet within easy reach and Mr Blue-Shirt had made up an extra-strong mix of heavy-duty tile cement before applying a generous but even layer to the lowest third of the wall. He had also demonstrated with an ordinary tile (and a crowbar, in the end) how a vacuum forms when a tile is pressed into place, and that it would be this vacuum as much as the tile cement that would actually prevent our precious panels from simply falling off the wall. We had even rehearsed the journey from trestle to shower cubicle wall, having established that the process would be lift, rotate, carry, turn, lower, slide, press, check, tamp, check, brace, release – and then repeat with the two remaining panels. So there was no more waiting, no more ‘what-ifs’.

“One… two… three…” intoned Mr Blue-Shirt. I took a deep breath, and we were off. As agreed, we first lifted and rotated the 30kg panel from horizontal to vertical and then adjusted our grip. When we were both comfortable, Mr Blue-Shirt set off backwards while I went forwards, steering our safe passage from the landing to the bedroom.
“To your left a bit,” I directed as he veered too close to a bookcase.
“Straighten up or you’ll bash the door frame,” I instructed as we shuffled towards the bedroom door. From the bedroom, we carefully turned through ninety degrees while keeping the panel upright, and edged into the shower room. When we reached the back of the room, we slowly swung round again, Mr Blue-Shirt following the line of the wall and me heading into the far corner.
“And rest,” said Mr Blue-Shirt.
We exchanged relieved glances and in turn each re-adjusted our grip so we could lower the panel to floor level, then, on the count of three, squatted down on our haunches and pressed then slid the panel into position. With me holding the panel in place with as much force as I could muster (I had forgotten the bit about the vacuum at this point), Mr Blue-Shirt wiped away excess cement, checked with the spirit level in every plane, firmly tamped each corner with the mallet, checked the spirit level once more, tamped again and checked again. Once he was satisfied that everything was square, flat, even and parallel, he screwed in the bracing piece, and I finally I could let go. It was in!

Job done!

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