It was about this time, when Quentin and Anne’s excursion to the Malverns put an end to their walks, that Quentin had some building work done at his home. He lived alone in a Victorian semi-detached house in Redland. It was one of those solid, well-built stone houses that stand proudly in this part of Bristol. They demonstrate respectability, and give a sense that they will be there forever, whatever cataclysms might shake the world. He had bought it carefully, as he did everything, hoping that it would rise in value. It had needed some repairs, especially to the kitchen and bathroom. In spite of the expense, he had both kitchen and bathroom modernized.
‘It’s increasing the value of the house, you see. It’s increasing the value. It’s a very good investment.’
Everything was completed, and Quentin thought he had finished with the builders, when a coal lorry knocked down his garden wall while doing an ambitious three-point turn. The coal company’s insurance would pay. Quentin had established this immediately. He then phoned the builders that had worked on his kitchen, and they sent one of their young bricklayers, Bob Parsons, to rebuild the wall.
Like two circles that just overlap at one point of their perimeter, Quentin’s world and Bob’s world just touched in these brief dealings with each other. But Bob’s world was a world of bricks and blocks and cement, of foundations and walls and windows, of mud in February and wind in March. It was hard and healthy world, in which men put up buildings which then over the years faithfully served the people that lived in them. For Quentin all these values were as remote as the life of Emperor Penguins at the South Pole.
It was mid-January and the temperatures in Bristol struggled to rise above freezing at midday. Forget the penguins and the South Pole, Bristol was cold enough that year. Today, of course, with global warming, the worry is that life is not cold enough for the penguins. In the sixties the expression ‘global warming’ did not exist but bitterly cold winters did. Along with political correctness, global warming had not been born. Words appear and fulfil a passing need. They live an intense life but often a short one. Pick up any airline magazine today. Destination X is always ‘iconic’ and ‘atmospheric’. So is destination Y and destination Z, and so are all the other destinations in the magazine. Everywhere in the airline magazine world is iconic and atmospheric. “Prague is atmospheric” says the article. ‘Well, it’s got air in it’, as Basil Fawlty would say. The Eiffel Tower is always iconic. This sort of writing saves the writer thinking. It saves the reader thinking too, so everyone is happy in our world of repetition and imitation.
But back to the wall. Most builders hoped for indoor jobs at this time of year, but Bob, as he unloaded his car by the pile of stones where the wall had been, on a bitter Monday morning at 8 o’clock, thought happily about the day ahead. He was looking forward to doing some stonework as a change from laying blocks and bricks. He was looking forward to creating something beautiful and leaving behind something that would last. The wall would be there and he could show it to his kids one day as they all drove past in the car.
‘I built that, and it was January, and freezing cold, I can tell you!’
And his children would laugh and make a joke and would only realize many years later, when they had children themselves, how important the wall had been and how much it had mattered. We all do this. We only appreciate our father when it is too late.
Bob put on his gloves and then went to mix the mortar. He turned on the garden tap and nothing happened. The water was frozen in the hose-pipe. He would have to mix the mortar later. He started to move away the fallen stones to get a clear area of work and to mark out the line of the new wall. Every job becomes easy when you have a system. Make sure you prepare a clear working area. Don’t move any stone twice. Give yourself room to work. Then you can get somewhere.
An hour later, when the sun came out and the temperature rose a little, when the mortar had been mixed and several base stones had been laid and the wall was on its way, Quentin dashed down the steps.
“Morning,” said Bob.
“Ah, so you’re starting. How long will it take you to finish?”
“It depends how it goes. About a week, I should think.”
“A week? It’s only a garden wall.”
“It’s stonework”, said Bob.
Quentin was already getting in his car. He had no idea of what stonework was or the time it took, or of any work that you did with your hands. It was still very cold.
Bob carried on, stone by stone. ‘Each one fits, lad. Don’t start wandering round the site choosing the right one. Each one fits.’ That’s what his boss Don told him when he had started to do stonework. ‘Each one fits, lad.’ And Don was right. When you’ve been working with stone for thirty years, you know what you’re talking about. And the wind blew up the street. ‘A lazy wind’ Bob’s grandfather would have called it. He was from Barnsley, and there are some terribly lazy winds up in Yorkshire. A lazy wind doesn’t make the effort to go round you; it goes through you instead. Straight through you.
The wall was finished on Friday afternoon. Don came round at about half past three.
“You’re finished then, lad. That’s not bad going.”
“Yes, it’s done in time for the weekend.”
“It’s not bad.”
“It’s a lot better than it was before they knocked it down.”
Don admitted to himself that it was the best bit of stonework that he’d seen in a long time. It was as good as what he’d done himself over at Clifton the year before, and he’d been proud of that.
“It’ll do, lad.”
Bob settled for that. Coming from Don, this was high praise.
“Pick up your tools and get off home.” This was quite a concession. The working day didn’t finish till 5.30.
Bob was sweeping up the last of the mortar and stone chippings when Quentin came home. Admittedly, Quentin had had a difficult afternoon. His secretary had been away, and that meant he had had to spend much more time than usual on the phone just when he also had a stack of papers to go through on his desk.
Bob said, “It’s finished now. What do you think?”
“I think it’s taken a very long time.”
“Stonework always does. Do you like it?”
“It’s a wall. It’ll do. Goodbye.”
Quentin hurried into his house. After all, it was too cold to stand there chatting to the builder. And he had to send a cheque to the NSPCC. He had to do that to satisfy his conscience, the weekly good work, so to speak, before permitting himself the pleasure of seeing Anne that evening.
“No man is well pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little,” said Samuel Johnson. Bob had managed pretty well in life without ever hearing of Johnson, but at that moment, as he leaned against the wall, he would have wholeheartedly agreed with him.
He took one last look at his work and smiled. It was his wall. It belonged to him, not to the man who had just come home and who had ignored it completely. It would always be his wall. Whenever he drove down that road in the future, he would slow down and look at it. If he was in the area, he would make a detour just to go down that road and see it. Just to check it was ok. He picked up his tools, put them in the boot of his car and drove away. It was Friday evening, it was skittles night at The Rising Sun, tomorrow was Saturday, the City were playing at home at Ashton Gate, and then came the lie-in on Sunday. Life wasn’t so bad. He was warm from the work and then, in his car, with the heater full on, he felt like toast. Absolute luxury.