What I wish I had known – Part Eleven – The good, the bad and the ugly

—29th October 2020

In the latest instalment of Sandy's renovation diary he finds himself transported to a spaghetti Western...

Straight shooter: Sandy’s project was saved by a hero riding into town

A month ago the builders completed our new wing and basement. But before we could move in, they had one final task: to treat the new oak staircase and floorboards with a carefully chosen solution that would colour and protect them, hopefully, forever. What could possibly go wrong?

It happened to be a Monday when they told my wife and myself that in just four days’ time, a Thursday, the special wood-solution would have cured and our 18-month slogathon-project would reach its triumphal end. Already, the lovely paint on all the new walls of the wing was dry, the pristine bathrooms were begging to be enjoyed while the new windows and doors, cleaned of every last speck of grime, shone like Versailles’ mirrors. As I say, what could possibly go wrong?

So my wife and I called our interior designer with buzzing excitement and asked him to bring down from London all the new furniture, rugs, curtains, bed, lamps and tables for the wing and install them the day after the builders were due to finish. Friday night would see us sleeping for our very first night, resplendent, in our new bedroom.

Sandy’s new staircase: every inch was covered in orange goo

Let’s pause here for a moment to imagine this as a movie—a spaghetti Western. Opening scene: sun shining, children gaily spinning hoops in the dirt street, men grooming sleek horses, and somewhere the sound of a fiddle squeaking out a happy dance. Before trouble rides into town.

It was the Tuesday morning, with four days to go before the furniture was set to arrive, when I saw a strange posse of men loitering in our garden outside the new wing: low-slung jeans, big bellies, unshaven, swaggering. (On the movie soundtrack, maracas shake like a rattlesnake’s tail.)

I walked across the garden and asked the leader of the posse innocently, ‘How can I help?’

‘You in charge?’ he shot back, a dribble of ’baccy juice on his stubbled chin, fingers hovering over his six-shooter.

It turned out these men were the flooring sub-contractors. I stood back as they barged passed me into the wing and began their work, sloshing their barrels of liquid stain across the stairs and floors. And they were quick, I will say that for them. In and out in two days, quicker than expected. That should have been a warning.

While they were working, the chemical stench so overpowering that I only saw the results of their efforts after they left on the Wednesday afternoon. Every inch of the stairs and floors glistened like an oil slick. ‘It looks very…orange,’ I said to my wife. She looked as worried as I felt.

The weather was sizzlingly hot on the Wednesday night and the Thursday, and the builders reassured us that the stairs and floors would dry in good time for the arrival of the interior designer and his trucks on Friday. As for the weird orange colour, they insisted it was exactly as prescribed. Then Friday dawned.

‘Schloop, schloop, schloop’ went my feet as I tiptoed across one of the floors soon after daybreak, the evil gunk spread by the flooring contractors sticking to my shoes. An awful hollow feeling began to fill my chest.

When the interior designer and his furniture trucks arrived mid-morning, he surveyed the stairs and floor. ‘It’s marmalade!’ he said, aghast. All day he and the removal men hung around in the garden waiting for the oak to dry until, late afternoon, they hopped back into their trucks with all their kit and headed back to London. (Sharp, piercing violins and heavy drumbeats on the soundtrack.)

‘It’s marmalade!’ said the interior designer aghast, looking at the stairs and floors

That night—still in our old bedroom—was a dark night of the soul for me. I lay awake, feeling wretched, wondering if the entire three-story staircase that had taken months to handcraft would need tearing out and discarding, along with the floorboards on all three floors of the wing.

Next morning our interior designer rang to say he had just the man, a veteran woodworker, to assess the damage and try to put it right. One snag. It would be two weeks before the specialist could start.

After 3 weeks’ work sanding the floors back to bare oak again, the right stain could be chosen

The days dragged by, but during this period I was able to perfect a sophisticated meditation technique that enabled me for short periods to block out thoughts of murder and disembowelment. I recommend it to anyone with a complex building project. You bend at the waist, put your head in your hands, breathe deeply and repeat over and over a well-known Anglo-Saxon oath.

Then, two weeks to the day from that fateful Friday, the woodworker strode into this forlorn Wild West scene like Clint Eastwood—a rolling gait, jutting jaw, dark eyes that have seen before the very worst a man can do to wooden surfaces. He surveyed the marmalade devastation, looked me at squarely and said: ‘It will take me a while but I will sort this place out.’ (Cue spine-tingling riffs on steel guitar.)

Clint worked and worked at the wood, sanding off layer after layer of the orange gunk-stained oak, steadily becoming more confident that the underlying staircase and boards could be saved. He worked seven days a week without a break for three weeks. And it was a heart-breaking sweat; he would sand the risers and treads of the staircase or the floorboards back to pure bare wood each day only to find the next morning yet more of the evil orange oil had seeped out and stained the oak again. All because the flooring contractors, Clint explained with biting disdain, had used the wrong type of oil, gallons too much of it and failed to wait for the first dose to dry before pouring on a second.


At last, the new bedroom is ready to live in with its floor the perfect shade of peanut butter

By the start of this current week, he had miraculously transformed the stairs and floors from a sea of glistening gloop to an inviting expanse of soft mid-brown matt—less like Frank Cooper’s Thin Cut, more like the organic Whole Foods peanut butter we had originally imagined. And five weeks to the day since our interior designer last came with his truckloads, he is turning up again on Friday with all the kit and caboodle. We will be in our new bedroom at long, long last.

Clint was packing up his gear yesterday, job done, when I pressed a fat tip eagerly into his hand. ‘God bless you, sir,’ he said to me.

It was all I could do not drop to my knees, kiss the hem of his shirt and bless him in return. As he drove away, a dust cloud rising behind him, a fiddle began to squeak out a happy dance.

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