Our back garden had a problem. As soon as it rained the earth by the scullery door became all mud and puddles. After three years of inertia we decided to lay a paved path, edged on one side by a row of stones to restrain the herb garden, and on the other by a wall. Paving and edging I had done before; the wall was the challenge. It was to be around 3 metres long and 60cm high, and broad enough to house a flower bed in the top. The work was to be done by
Jean-Claude, with me as his ‘apprentice’.
As a man, Jean-Claude is kind and thoughtful, and also something of a local historian, philosopher and gourmet. As a worker, he is careful and indefatigable. As a stonemason he is a true artisan. He has worked with stone for some 40 years, starting as an apprentice to his father. He loves and respects stones, and the wall was to be built with green (actually closer to gold!) schist, a stone never mined but found locally in and on the earth from where it has been gathered for centuries. To traditionalists, these stones are treasured
Jean-Claude predicted the job would take a week and on the Monday we started at 8.00am. He explained the job and the procedures we would need to follow, as always he spoke slowly and carefully, checking to see if my French was up to it. He impressed on me how we would need to find the right stones (we had a pile at the bottom of the garden from which to choose), and then by using a plumb line, a spirit level and a set square the wall would necessarily be true. We measured up the site and he begun to mix the cement (the mixing remained his domain throughout). My job was to trundle wheelbarrow loads of stones, and later cement, up to the back of the house. The stones, which came in all shapes and sizes, I laid out on the ground ‘on display’
Building began. Jean-Claude scanned the stones, pointed to the ones he wanted, and I would bring them over. From the motley collection on offer he gradually built a wall with straight edges and right angles. Often the stones I passed looked too ill-shapen and irregular to fit into his neat creation, but somehow they did. The stones seemed to straighten up their own edges once in his hands.
When there appeared to be no obvious fit, he would pick up a stone and examine it from all angles by closely rotating it on the finger tips of his upturned hands. Then, having found what he wanted, he would tap it firmly and precisely with his pointed mason’s hammer. With seemingly little impact, bits of the stone would break off and a new stone with the dimensions needed would be revealed. Jean-Claude not only knew the outsides of stones but their insides too.
On other occasions he would inspect a stone then ask me to put it back but separate from the others. Its details were now in his mind, and hours or days later, when a particular niche was to be filled, he would ask for that particular stone back again. It would fit just right. But he also knew his limits. If, after inspection, no stone would do, he resorted to cutting it with a saw. This was rare, so of the 150 or so stones we used, only four needed cutting.
In the French way, we worked hard from 8.00 – 12.00 and then 14.00 – 18.00 hours with little or no breaks. Save on Wednesday that is, when without much discussion, he took the afternoon off. It was the height of the clam season, at 15.00 the tide would be out to its furthest for a month, and the forecast was for calm and sunny weather. Jean-Claude, again in the French way, had arranged with some friends to go and collect the delicacies from the beach. I learned from a slightly bleary-eyed mason next morning that the haul was good and the clams delicious.
By the Friday evening the wall, the border and, barring a few slabs, the path, were done, and the unused stones had been returned to the bottom of the garden. Jean-Claude left fulfilled. I was exhausted, ready to collapse, and content. But there was more than simply satisfaction in the achievement. One of my greatest pleasures as a child had been to watch artisans as they worked, sometimes even being allowed to help them. Bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers, and even the local blacksmith all gave me hours of wonderment, and this week I had been given it again. Magic.