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Remembrance of Builders Past by Auriel Roe
The author on a construction site attired in packaging material

Virgil and Relu were two hapless Transylvanians dropped off at our property by their boss, Marian, whom we seldom saw without her builders' handbook, which did not inspire us with confidence. Virgil and Relu, former PE teachers, had come to Madrid to seek their fortune. They lived in a shack in our garden for six months. Despite being in their thirties, they wore teenage-style baggy shorts and sideways baseball caps. Relu, in particular, had the bewildered look of a youngster who'd been left behind on a school trip to a distant land.

Marian had to come over to our property more frequently than anticipated to explain how to do things from her handbook. She'd expected her construction business to be a get-rich-quick scheme once she tapped into the desperate Romanian expat labour market but her employees were giving her a run for her money. Depressed at being far from their native land, Virgil and Relu drowned their sorrows in cheap beer. They would frequently stay up into the early hours, the air thick with Romanian ballads. Thankfully, our deal with Marian was pay by the job, not the hour.

On one occasion, we discovered Virgil and Relu sleeping behind a wall panel in the middle of the day. We probably should have sealed them up in there, Edgar Allen Poe style, but we felt a bit sorry for them. When I made Relu a cake on his birthday, his wide blue eyes filled with tears in memory of his mother.

What had been sold to us at the onset as "quality budget work", should have been described as "budget quality work" since much of it had to be re-done. The radiator piping with its superfluous bends and pointless valves could only have been be the work of PE teachers who had received their training under a Kafkaesque totalitarian regime.

About a decade after the Madrid project, whilst renovating a house we'd bought to put on the rental market in England, a friend urged me to hire two young men, Martin and Reece, who had some experience in construction but were presently down on their luck and pretty much on the verge of homelessness. Being charitable, I gave these pale, gaunt, mournful-looking fellows decently paid jobs and comfortable beds in the house under renovation. They arrived in the evening and got straight to work, constructing an exemplary kitchen workbench in the pantry with set of shelves above, on which they placed heavy tins of paint to show off their brilliance in carpentry. I cooked them a wonderful meal to celebrate this early success and Martin was so partial to my apple crumble that he kept nipping into the kitchen to get extra spoonfuls.

The following day was a good one too, with the replacement of some worm-eaten floor boards, some professional wallpapering and a couple of rooms painted. We enjoyed another hearty evening meal and Reece referred to me as "Mother Theresa", I like to think for her good deeds, rather than her advanced years. Touched, I agreed to their request to pay them for their two days work at that moment rather than at the end of the week because they didn't have two ha'pennies to rub together. With cash in their hands, the work suddenly went to pot. For the next two mornings, they slept late and were difficult to wake up.

Then Reece evoked my sympathy by telling me he had lived with his grandfather, now deceased, and had a brother he hadn't seen since his mum had left home with said brother as a baby. When I overheard him on his phone the following evening saying, "Hey bro, how's grandad?" I was prompted to ask around about him and found out he was indeed on the verge of homelessness due to his mother– with whom he'd lived alongwith his brother– and then his alive and well grandfather throwing him out due to his persistent drug abuse. Martin had alienated his wife and children and next his mother for the same reason.

After a loquacious drug dealer came to the door demanding money, it became clear that their difficulty in waking up during the second half of the week was due to night-time binges. So it was that what could have been a decent little earner for them, with food and accommodation thrown in, ended abruptly and resulted in my completing the rest of the renovation, other than plumbing and electrics, by myself.

For our second renovation project - an old house in the historic centre of Jerez - we shunned cheap labour as it had turned out so badly in the past. We picked a mid-range quote with a promise to complete in three months. This ran over by six months.

The owner of the now-defunct firm would appear once a week to shout at his motley crew. When yet another of his rabble failed to turn up to work, he hired 'Jesus the Plasterer' and things went from bad to worse. "Jesus is coming," one of the builders warned us, "lock up your valuables."

The two labourers favoured skulking in corners, languidly rolling cigarettes. If I appeared, they'd each pick up a bag of cement and carry them where they weren't needed. Smoking was soon forbidden on site, as the painstaking creation of roll-ups became akin to an origami focus group.

Diego, a slightly handsome tiler, would go on speaker-phone with the chambermaid in the hotel opposite, while she eyed him longingly from a bedroom window. He denied he was talking to her but I'd seen her lips moving in unison, her voice coming out of his speaker. "Please talk to the chambermaid during your break not during work time," I urged him. "But what if I need to speak to my wife when I work?" he protested. So I compromised, "Speak to the chambermaid during your break and to your wife during work, if there's an emergency."

In the final days of the project with only the fish pond to complete, Francisco arrived in a crisp white shirt. His job that day was to lay the brick walls of the pond, i.e. working with wet cement in a dirty hole. How would he keep his new shirt clean?, I wondered. Francisco had aspirations to be a foreman, which was fair enough as he'd been building for thirty years, but this aspiration was more to do with being tired and unfit than organised and ambitious. I nodded towards the bricks stacked in the middle of the hole in the ground. In practice for his future career as foreman, he ordered the labourers into the hole and kept his shirt clean.


Auriel Roe taught art, drama and literature for twenty-two years in secondary schools in the UK and abroad. She is now a writer and artist along with managing her rental properties. As an editor of, she encourages others to write down their memoirs. Auriel's debut novel Blindefellows was #1 in humour in Amazon UK, US and Canada. Her website is Twitter @auriel_roe

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