It was a most unexpected ending to the day. Rather than feeling joyful, that afternoon was filled with sadness. We had been building a wall on and off for twelve months; it was the year’s big project. Then the work was done, the site was cleared, and it was time for saying goodbye. I didn’t actually cry but it was a close-run thing.

Jean-Claude, my mason friend, came out of retirement for the job. In all there was to be around five weeks work on site – an initial three-week session last October, then a further two weeks this March. But for me the project started much earlier. I am not a muscly man and was frightened that carrying stones and pushing wheelbarrows would damage my back. So, for six months before the initial session I did ‘back’ and ‘shoulder’ exercises in the gym. They worked – during the building there was never even a twinge.

It was my second wall in our cottage in France [A labour of love, 9th Aug, 2010] and this one was altogether more ambitious. Set out in an irregular U-shape, the new wall is some 20 metres long, around 45 cm thick, in places nearly 2 metres high, and is built mainly of local stone although for its hidden parts we used breeze blocks.

It was a pleasure working with, and watching, Jean-Claude. He could go on for hours – lifting, levelling, chipping, cajoling, and almost caressing the stones into place. With his help, the stones, which were of all shapes and sizes and some weighing up to 40kg, would somehow fit as though they had come out of the ground for us.

Apart from moving the stones around so that Jean-Claude could easily see them, as the apprentice my jobs were to deliver the cement to him when and where needed; fill in the gap between the wall’s front and back faces; tidy up the joints; and set the site up in the morning and clear it up each night. The trowels and spades, and the ‘surfaces’ of the mixer and the wheelbarrow all needed to be spotless. Often he would shout advice across the site telling me how, for instance, masons load their wheelbarrows facing in the direction in which they need to go when they are full, or how masons always keep the paths on site clear to ensure a steady footing etc. If, as we were building, I found a stone I thought would be a good match for a particular niche, I would ‘present’ it to Jean-Claude for approval. Watching my offerings being added to the wall gave a sense of boyish pleasure. It is an odd life being an apprentice!

All the time we chatted and joked. One recurrent subject was a tiny, skinny, ginger, feral kitten who appeared to be living in the neighbour’s garden shed. Ginger, as we named her, would come up and inspect the wall, frolic round the stones, and creep up on imaginary mice, but ran off rather than be stroked. Other themes we discussed were families, sport and politics, and towards the end of the day it was Jean-Claude’s sore right shoulder and my exhausted body. And then there were our mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks. In deference to the nationality of his apprentice, each morning at around 10.30 we would stop for coffee and each afternoon at 4.45 for tea. He knew me well and these breaks, especially the one in the afternoon, always amused him; the use of a teapot and a strainer and the addition of milk, rarely escaped comment.

Jean-Claude and I have been friends for several years and these few weeks together chatting and tiring, and working on a shared goal, had brought us closer. The goodbye that last afternoon marked the end of an era. But there was more. Were I younger, the lifting and carrying would have been a doddle but now it was too much. Somehow I knew that I would never be able to do such strenuous work again. The beginning of my decline had been made painfully clear, and that was sad. But being tearful has not stopped me enjoying the memory of the project, nor from getting pleasure from the wall itself. When I see it, I glow inside.

But, back to the kitten. We had been fooled, there was not one but two, and the second we named Spice. When we came back in March we soon discovered that they had been adopted by a neighbour and had survived the winter. Both were now much larger and Spice the more sociable. And it is Spice who is sitting by the wall in the photo. I had wondered how I could indicate the wall’s dimensions and she conveniently came forward and offered herself. An ingenious solution!

 

8 thoughts on “The apprentice’s tale

  1. I found this a very moving story, but beautifully crafted, with the uplifting cat story interwoven into it in ways which felt strangely French. I am left feeling this story could only be written in a French context. The film of the red balloon comes into my head. Just a feeling.

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  2. Based on the length, width and average height of your wall, and assming that the stones/blocks will have been ditstributed from one point, and knowing the wall’s shape, I reckon that you will have carried around 25000kg over some 10metres. Phew. Not bad! Jack Humphrys.

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  3. Jack – not a bad estimate. Jean-Claude reckoned that I would have lifeted (manhandled) stones weighing around 24,000kg. Some actual moving would have been done using the wheelbarrow, but an awful lot was not, so it is difficult to say over what distance they were carried in my own hands. It feels heavy even thinking about it! Joe Collier

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  4. This was a Hurculean task Joe. Shifting 24 metric tonnes over 10 meters is the equivalent of carrying a quarter of a ton, one kilometer, or running a marathon with 5.7 kilos in your back pack. Thank goodness for wheelbarrows.

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  5. I too have enjoyed the experience of manual work and the pleasure of bonding with fellow workers. In Canada I have built stones steps, a patio, and garden walls at various times and places. These projects were both physically tiring and rewarding. The satisfaction came in seeing something complete, practical, a thing of natural beauty – this, in stark contrast to my musical compositions which are ethereal, and continually at the mercy of the performance and interpretation.

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  6. Ah Joe, this tale demonstrates to me the emotion that is evoked when undertaking what folk might see as a basic manual task. I am always in awe if I see a plasterer at work, the dedication and skill to ensure the then amazingly smooth end product.
    Lovely tale Joe and if the cat could speak I wonder what would said… maybe we should start a french chat caption competition!

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