“Why is this one too short?” I pulled the offending joist across what will be my new bed platform and wrinkled my nose at the gap that glared up at me.
“Ah, that one just came out like that,” said Jose Manuel, as coolly as if I’d asked him why his hair was grey.
“What do you mean it just ‘came out’ like that?” I crumpled in laughter. “It didn’t cut itself, did it?”
A smile snuck deftly across Jose Manuel’s face as it is often wont to. There’s a quiet confidence to the guy, which is fortunate because I’m a right old piss-taker at times, prone to shatter more fragile egos without even realising. There’s nothing fragile about Jose Manuel though, neither in stature nor in personality. He’s a man-mountain, and frankly at this juncture in my build a man-mountain is exactly what I need.
“We need to move this,” he said, pointing at the massive new solar panel waiting to be hooked up. It took three of us average-sized humans to position it in the barn. But before I could hurdle the wood pile and get a hand on the thing, my new right hand man had picked it up like it was a briefcase. I must admit, I stared a little awed.
“It must be amazing to be big enough to do that!” I said.
“Sometimes good, sometimes bad,” Jose Manuel replied, a philosophical line creeping across his brow.
“Yeah, plane journeys. They have to be hell.” I imagined him trying to squeeze on EasyJet.
“Plane journeys...” Jose Manuel’s eyes moved upwards as he pondered.
Now I’ve said many times, all too often in this mud game help is not that helpful. It’s either too talkative or too hungry, or both. But as almost all self-builders and homesteaders will attest, every now and again an angel floats in and saves your sorry arse. Jose Manuel is my new angel. Halle-flipping-lujah!
Stonemason turned failed bar entrepreneur, Jose Manuel helped me out in the spring with a beautiful new dry stone wall. Later he came by for my floor joists. To my chagrin, at the end of June he found restaurant work, so I’ve been building alone ever since. I’m proud of what I’ve done in that time; the entire barn exterior has been re-mortared by hand and I’ve handmade two doors. Winter is coming though, and the front window and roof area were looming before me. I need a chimney too. Picking up the phone, I prayed Jose Manuel had quit his job, or been fired for lateness (not entirely out of the question, ahem).
The good news was, Jose Manuel had left the restaurant. The bad news was, the weather in November took off her kid gloves and socked us one. The skies turned from cyan to pewter in the time it took me to type this sentence, while rain hurtled across my land in sodden horizontal waves. The temperature dropped like a plumb line down a wall, and I took a solemn vow that this would be the last winter I spent without hot water.
“We’ll have to work on the inside,” I said to Jose Manuel as he pushed through my gate one chilly morning, brolly held aloft. He peered out over the vista, the hills appearing and disappearing as the rain clouds rose and sank.
“We’ll do the staircase first then,” he shrugged, Mandi the great German Shepherd trotting behind him, tongue lolling. I noted how my guardian angels always have a big dog.
We entered my old barn, ducking through my new bejewelled door, and approached the designated spot for the stairs. Ah, the staircase, and all the measuring it involved. For the tape measure and T square were about to see a lot of action. Whether any of it was meaningful action I’ll leave you to decide.
“Aguanta lo.” Jose Manuel shoved a plank in my hand, and I went into peon mode. A peon is an apprentice in Spanish, though I’ll wholly admit I’m an argumentative lackey with plenty to say about the process. This has driven other builders quite mad. Water off a duck’s back for Jose Manuel though. He basically just ignores me.
“Why are you drawing all these lines?” I piped up some time later when the two staircase joists were in. Because Jose Manuel had been fart-arsing around with the T square for a fair old while and didn’t seem to be getting anywhere.
“This is something to do with stairs,” he replied enigmatically, shoving the pencil behind his ear. But as he stepped back I knew the numbers and lines weren’t adding up. Running the length of the plank were two or three zig zags. It looked like a viper on a rack.
“Can I say something?” I peered at the defaced sides of my potential staircase.
Jose Manuel inhaled and proffered me a look which said “no.” Nonetheless, his mouth formed the more magnanimous “what?” instead.
“Why are you drawing all these lines? It’s a right mess.”
“It’s where the stairs go. But there’s something wrong with the measurements and I can’t work out what. When I get to the bottom of the steps, we’re out on one side.”
“Well we know how long the staircase is, so why don’t we divide the length by the number of steps?” I jabbed the staircase joist with my index finger, feeling impatient for so many reasons. To be honest, if it had been down to me I wouldn’t even have cared if each step was equidistant. I love that kind of quirk.
“I did that! 18 centimetres a step is the standard. We’ll go to 19 to fit all the steps in.”
“Okay so if it were me I’d start at the top or bottom, stick the first step in, make sure it was level, and move to the next one. Why all this drawing zig zags?” I fully admit this kind of comment is right up there on Annoying Level 10, and if I’d been Jose Manuel I may well have handed me the tape measure and told me to get on with it. But the man has lived through Franco, so he knows how to deal with an interfering bossy boots.
“Vale. We can try your way if you like,” he said. I was slightly taken aback by the generosity and sheer lack of ego.
Thus we tried it my way. We began at the bottom, which was lucky. I’d chosen some gorgeous old chestnut planks that had come off the original barn roof, Jose Manuel had chainsawed them to size, and I’d sanded and oiled them. They were things of beauty, the dark wood rippling like muscle tendons in a bicep. Jose Manuel stuck the first chestnut step in at the bottom of the two stair sides, and I balanced the spirit level on it, not that I needed to. For me it was as clear as the water in my spring; it wasn’t level.
I took a step back and squinted, Jose Manuel pushed the side joist down a little, and suddenly the fog lifted or both of us. The two side staircase joists weren’t parallel.
“But I measured them!” Said Jose Manuel, eyes narrowing perplexed.
“Pah, measurements, numbers. Worse than useless half the time. I trust my eyes more than some ruler any day.” As I said it, I felt the irritation bloom inside me. Not with my builder angel, but with the widespread worship of numbers and measurements which so often tend to miss some massively important underlying factor that everything hinges on.
“Okay, let’s use your eyes then,” said Jose Manuel, who’s been privy to the terrifying perfectionism of my vision a few times already. He unscrewed one of the staircase joists. I stood a couple of metres further back.
“I’ll push it down. You say when.” Jose Manuel tapped it with the hammer.
I squinted. “Okay. Down a bit. Down. A bit more. One centimetre more. That’s not one centimetre, that’s two! Okay un poco arriba. Bien bien!”
Next we stuck the bottom step in place. What do you know? It was exactly level.
The fingers of the rain god began drumming on my roof as though someone upstairs was losing patience. We were exhaling clouds of condensation every time we spoke. But we stuck with it. One by one we attached the chestnut steps until they flowed from top to bottom like a treacle-filled brook.
I stood back and clapped. A smile slid into the corners of Jose Manuel’s mouth. Ha ha, he was chuffed with it too.
“What about the bottom? It’s got to curve round here.” My builder guardian pointed at the end of the staircase, which was still a metre off the ground.
“What do you think? What are the options?”
“We can make it out of wood, or out of stone. Whichever you like.”
“And it makes no difference to you?”
Jose Manuel shook his head.
“Stone then. I’d love that.”
The next day the air was cold and the sky mostly grumpy. But it was just about dry enough. I watched as Jose Manuel surveyed the landscape for rocks and slowly, steadily dragged each one into the barn. With the mallet as his wand, he tapped and chipped and cast some limestone spells. It’s magic, what he does with those rocks, and the tape measure doesn’t get a look in.
The aesthetic of the result, the oiled chestnut steps set against the lime mortared stone wall with the stone curve of the staircase at the bottom, was so pleasing to my eye I felt I could look at it for a week. And that’s probably what I did.
The boulder of the day rolled to a close, and the cave of our world started to darken. Jose Manuel stooped under my doorway. Outside the sky had turned sooty, and the mountains were smoking. We shivered in our coats and hats.
“Your homework is to mortar those stone stairs in place before Monday,” said Jose Manuel as he ambled up the hill to the gate, Mandi the dog panting happily behind him.
I stood to attention and saluted. “It will be done!”
As the gate swung closed I inhaled the dusk. It was a potion the sky produced each night, a veil that blurred the line between logic and magic. I walked through the dewy grass, my wellington boots turning shiny from the wet. It’s so easy to feel the enchantment up here, and so hard to hear the trouble of the other world. The rocks squat on the hillside like lithic beasts, deer flit between the hazel bushes, and the weather is always nudging you, always reminding you who or what creates the real world order. Wandering down to my power ash, I saw the last leaves clinging to her claws. I could hear the arroyo bubbling below too. It was a special moment with the moon fattening on the blackening ridge.
I stared at my hand through the gloom; the branch-like splaying of my digits, the concentric rings on my fingertips, the lines on my barky skin. Then I looked up at the ash tree, at her branches bifurcating like blood vessels, the fibrous ligaments of the wood. My boot hit a root. It was as thick as an arm and wound down below the earth to who knew where? Down there it mingled with fungal pathways, microscopic organisms, elements, and worms, communicating, sharing, and drawing nutrients.
I felt the aura of the tree fall over me, and as I stared up into her ligneous arms I saw how close a relative she really was. How tree-like I was. How we are brother and sister right down to the DNA. As moonlight flooded my land, the grid lines of measurements and reductionism that have been cast over our planet flickered, and I sensed nature herself rising, expanding, refusing to be cowed or controlled or confined to numbers, or barcodes, or standard measurements. I saw how little we understand about how she manifests our world. How we think we can bully everything in nature to fit into our plan, how we think we can wipe out uncertainty and mystery and all inconvenience, how absolutely everything in modern society from education, to business, to health is about forcing humans to be less and less natural and more and more tamed, robotic, artificial.
As night stole up the banks of my land, I stroked the warm trunk of the ash tree. And yes how warm it was! As though blood were pumping through it. There was a flutter of wings as an owl swooped. The rocks growled, the earth rumbled, and the moon just kept on rising. I knew so deeply then. Humanity is going to fail in its mission of control. Nature is going to win that fight, a fight which may well turn ugly. And personally, I’m aligning with the planet. I made that choice a long time ago, when I woke up on a mountain in Turkey, heard the land speak, and sensed the magic stretching way beyond the numbers. When I put away the tape measure, opened my eyes, and noticed just how skewed and out of kilter civilisation really was.
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Atulya K Bingham
Author, Lone Off-Gridder, and Natural Builder.
"Reality meets fantasy, myth, dirt and poetry. I'm hooked!" Jodie Harburt, Multitude of Ones.