The House that Jack Built

Spring is in the air. It turns out that when our pet rabbits escaped for several hours last month, one of them, Blueberry, found a wild mate. She has been nest-building for a couple of weeks, collecting fur from herself and her mum, Snowdrop, and plentiful hay, which they are given to eat. They have done this several times before, it seems to be a cyclical, hormonal thing, so we thought nothing of it. However, on Monday, Bea opened the nesting area to see if they had eaten a treat she had given them – an edible mattress – to find something small and dark wriggling inside the luxurious fur bed. She squealed with delight and surprise. We were relieved that, rarely, it seems to be just one.

Sky, the new baby, arrived with the sun. We have had six dry days with plenty of sunshine and, at times, a stiff breeze. The ground is drying and the concrete pouring has begun. We bought a small, electric cement mixer but, thankfully, were unable to start using it. If we had done, we might have lost the will to go on. A couple of weeks ago, when we were in the midst of frustration with the weather, our friend Iain offered to lend us his large diesel-powered concrete mixer. “Jack” – named by us because he builds houses – is a forty-six year old dinosaur of a machine who has mixed concrete for many a house-build on the Ross of Mull.

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He growls and rumbles along while we go backwards and forwards to him with buckets of water, cement, sand and gravel, and from him with wheelbarrows of lovely, sloppy, concrete which we tip over the crumbling edges into the trenches. We spill bits here and there before we reach the trench, stones and clumps of soil tumble in, sometimes an overfull wheelbarrow ends up half in the trench as we struggle to control the pouring. Jack just keeps on going, a steady background noise that doesn’t hurt your ears, but is a relief when it finally stops. We started on Sunday – a Mother’s Day treat – and a chance for the children to help out.

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Bea wrote on a piece of wood “Here Lies Our House” and threw it into the trench. Yesterday evening, in the dark, they both put hand-prints on the wet concrete, to join the cat-prints from the previous night. This is their build as much as ours.

We’ve started with the deepest, widest trench, the one that the stone wall will be resting on. It’s one metre wide, compared with the 55cm of the other trenches. And, because the ground is so uneven, where bedrock juts through making rises and dips, the concrete will, in many places, be two or three times the 15cm depth recommended by the engineers. We need a lot of concrete. When Iain offered to lend us Jack, Phil expressed concern that we might kill him off. Iain assured him that Jack would kill us first. After two days, 45 bags of cement and five or six tonnes of sand and gravel, I am beginning to see what he means. And we’re not finished yet. We’re waiting for more cement to arrive, so today we gardened for one of our customers and cleaned out our chickens – for a break.


Diggers and Dreamers

Rain has stopped play. It was dry for Will to dig and, it seems, there hasn’t been a day without frequent, cold, wintry showers ever since. For variety there have been a few days of total wash-out. Wind and rain lashing the caravan windows and roof for hours on end until our heads feel as though they have been repeatedly beaten. The trenches have filled with water, been pumped and refilled, time after time. My dream front garden is awash – swathes of standing water, broken only by muddy swamps. The ducks are enjoying it. The rest of us are getting fed up.

The trenches needed a bit of finishing off with spades. No-one better than a pair of gardeners for this job. Waiting for a dry enough day was hard. And digging a bed is one thing. Infact, digging out brambles would be light relief after a day of scooping heavy, sloppy, muddy, stony soil-ish stuff out of the bottom of metres of claggy trenches. I must confess that Phil did most of the work and I helped him out for a couple of hours. Long enough for me to acknowledge that my dream isn’t going to come about just by dreaming. My aching shoulders are testament to that.

The next step is to wait for another dry-ish day – or two, ideally, to allow the trenches time to properly dry out. We need to measure levels so that everywhere has at least six inches of concrete and then the deepest places up to four breeze blocks and the shallowest places just one. Then we will start mixing and pouring concrete. These are the calculations that have been taxing Phil in quiet moments – how long will it take to fill these trenches to the right height of concrete. I think the most likely answer is that we will know when we have finished how long it took.

The weather forecast doesn’t inspire us. Nor does the hail throwing itself at the window as I write. I have had to remind myself that we didn’t move here for the weather. The stunning landscape we are fortunate enough to live in was created by wild, relentless wind, rain and sea, and other, dramatic natural events. It has been beyond the control of humans and will always be so. I can’t really expect that to change just for us to build our house to our timetable. From the very beginning of the process, from buying the land, through planning permission, crofting procedures, building regulations, to waiting for dry weather, so much has been at the whim of unfeeling, inconsistent, powerful forces beyond our control. It will be worth it in the end.

Patience. Surrender. Acceptance. And don’t forget to breathe.