Chapter Eight--Part 2

Inhabiting the teahouse/study

Kieran Egan



Finishing the interior

This morning began with Brendan adding some caulking around the exterior and me cleaning up the interior prior to putting in insulation. Brendan decided that we might be able to get the insulation and drywall in place by the end of the day. I began with the remainder of the thick insulation I had used in the base, tearing it in half then cutting it to fit between the studs. Having used it all up, I came in to make Brendan some tea. The phone rang. A friend wanting to know if I would be swimming today, as I usually do before lunch. I explained that I was trying to get the insulation in and also had a cold, and that I was just going to get another bale of the stuff. He had an unused bale, and would I like it.

Having driven round to his place and put the bale in the back of the car, I asked whether I could pay him for it.

"Let's say that if ever I need a bale of insulation in the future, you owe me one. Otherwise, it's yours."

This seemed a very civilized way of proceeding, so I thanked him, listened with some foreboding to his woeful story of trying and failing to contain runaway bamboo, sympathized with the fact that his cat insisted on walking all over his car as soon as he'd washed it&endash;&endash;the muddy evidence being only too evident&endash;&endash;recommended the various solutions people had offered me to keep raccoons away from the fish&endash;&endash;from landmines to motion-sensitive water-jets&endash;&endash;sped back home, and started stuffing his kindly donated insulation between the remaining studs.

There is something wonderfully satisfying about insulating with these packs of fluffy fiberglass. They slot in so neatly and promise future coziness at small present cost. They must be disobeying one of the laws of nature or of Murphy. My friend's bale was bright yellow, whereas the one I had put up earlier had been bright pink. The combination looks like a toy maker's fantasy.

We were still a bit short of insulation, with less than half the ceiling area to cover. I drove off to get some more, while Brendan began on the drywall. By the time I got back, he was half way round the interior. He graciously acknowledged that, there being so little room, I might be better off writing this than getting in his way&endash;&endash;not that he put it like that. He did allow me to help with an awkward piece of drywall that was to fit above the door and window up to the central 4" by 4" from which the rafters hung. As I lifted it in place, he whipped his cordless screwdriver from its holster and zapped in half a dozen drywall screws in seconds. I find the unhurried ease impressive, and also the speed at which it allows the professional to work. I too work unhurriedly, but the results, alas, are just slowness and something far from ease.

Risking his wife's wrath, Brendan says he will come over in the morning tomorrow, which is Saturday, to put the first layer of paste over the taped joints of the drywall.


The last week

I must put the text of this and the next chapter and the Conclusion in the mail a week tomorrow, the last Monday of February, if I am to meet my editor's deadline. Brendan did put on the paste yesterday, and will be here in the morning to sand it. At the moment there is a humidifier and heater going all weekend in order to dry everything out, so that we can prime the walls as soon as the drywall is smooth.

To finish, we need to put 1" by 6" cedar planks on the ceiling, then tack bamboo strips across them, and perhaps cover the 4" by 4" at the peak of the ceiling with bamboo as well. The rear wall I intend to cover with a paper print designed for fusuma sliding doors&endash;&endash;I will buy door "skins" and glue the print onto them and mount them on the wall. The alcove will be painted black, maybe, and the other walls will be painted in a light earth color with a hint of green&endash;&endash;back to my paint-associate friends and the infinite shades of beige. Wood trim around the room will be fir. Once the ceiling and walls are taken care of, it will be time for the tatami mats to go down, and we will build a fir frame between the walls and the tatami all around the room. In the alcove, I imagine a seat-high fir base, on which I will put a cushion for sitting or, as one of the books assures me, I can compose "modest displays" in it&endash;&endash;a hanging, with perhaps an off-center vase and a single and simple plant and a twig. We'll see. Then after finishing the interior, the last job is to put in decking, build steps down to the lawn, and finish the railing.

If all this gets done in a week, it will be a miracle. Today, Sunday, was unseasonably warm, so I went out to play around with stain. I wanted to try staining the supports of the structure green instead of black, and to begin putting on a final coat, touching up pieces that had been battered a little during the construction, and covering the beads of white caulking Brendan had traced around the windows and trim.

To do this I had to reconstruct the temporary scaffold I had seen Brendan put up last week. I used more nails than perhaps were necessary, and then slid the heavy 2" by 8" plank across the supports from the sides of the teahouse to the railings of the balcony. I heaved myself up, then I climbed down again, remembering to put the can of stain on the plank first. Then back onto the plank and the small matter of carefully getting to my feet, holding on to pieces of trim as I slowly did so. The pond seemed a long way down, and somehow anticipatory, the goldfish ready to take cover as I came in to join them. The plank was stretched across a ten-foot gulf from one support to the other, and bounced like a springboard as I moved.

Surprisingly, I got the staining done, put nearly all of it onto the wood and not onto me, and didn't tumble into the pond. I think, for the final coat, I will ask my paint associates to add some brown to the stain, to make it a little more subdued. At the moment the exterior of the teahouse/study looks positively cheerful. Considering the product of the afternoon's work, just to ensure that Murphy's law reaps its usual obedience, I concluded that black is indeed better than green for the structural supports, so need to redo some of what I have done this afternoon.


Brendan put the alcove window frames in, and told me that the place he was getting the glass from had suffered some crucial machine breakdown, and they were back-ordered. He then went to work with interior trim around the windows, cutting the fir to make an austerely handsome frame such as we'd seen in one of the books. For the last part of the day he was laying another band of paste over the joints and holes in the drywall.

He had told me of a guy he had worked with once who was a drywall wizard, and who had developed a method of pasting drywall without creating any dust. He worked slowly though, Brendan smiled. This seemed miraculous to me, as a feature of drywalling was sanding the hardened paste, and getting the white dust over everything. I imagined this guy as some ancient European craftsman, looking like Max von Sidow.

My jobs involved getting more bamboo. I now know the contents of the bamboo racks in the landscape supply shed rather better than do any of the employees. I got a single 4" piece, twelve-foot long, to finish off under the eaves, and ten thinner more uniformly yellow pieces for the inside ceiling. Returning with these, I then put a layer of paint on the small molding Brendan had cut to surround the delayed glass on the exterior of the alcove windows. My next job, after making tea and cookies for Brendan, was to select the paint for the interior walls at the local hardware store.

When I returned, and was carrying bamboo to the back of the garden, a cheap and battered car pulled into the drive. I assumed it was a visitor for one of the young men next door, across our shared drive. A thin, pale and rather scruffy youth, with undecided facial hair, emerged and smiled vaguely in my direction. He hung around a minute, then came towards our gate.

"I'm a friend of Brendan's."

"Ah, he's back in the teahouse."

"It's coming along." He spoke as though he had been here before.

I dropped the bamboo by the pond, then came into the house to begin typing, but was concerned, finding the youth's behavior a bit odd. He seemed to spend much of his time standing on the lawn making notes in a small book. I began developing fantasies, that perhaps he was the "legs" for some protection racket that was skimming money off tradesmen like Brendan, calculating what he could afford for the big guy downtown from this job. Or perhaps he was the editor of the carpenters' newsletter, soliciting a piece for their regular monthly column on "madmen I have worked for." Later, after he'd left, I went out to discuss some item of tomorrow's likely attack on the ceiling.

Brendan was up on a raised plank putting another covering of paste on the drywall joints.

"That was the drywall wizard I was telling you about. He was showing me how to get a perfect finish without creating any dust. You need this special kind of cloth and bunch it up really hard, wet it and immediately after laying on the mud&endash;&endash;the paste--&endash;&endash;you slide the cloth over it. I thought I'd give it a try."



The day begins with the news that the lumberyard was out of the 1" by 6" cedar planks we were planning to put on the ceiling. They will pick some up during the day and have them ready for tomorrow morning. I have to attend a meeting beginning about mid-day&endash;&endash;some holiday!&endash;&endash;so won't be around to help today. Brendan planned to finish off some bits on the exterior before doing a final clean up of the drywall paste, but his resolve was a little shaken by the ominous clouds behind the house, which turned into a deluge half an hour later.

We spent a bit of time inside the teahouse holding against the fir trim these tiny strips of color I picked up yesterday from the paint store. My problem with these is that I am influenced as much by their names as by the colors, so might find myself selecting Indian Peach, Green Summer, Woodbine, Sunnybrook Yellow, Orion, Amish Linen, County Cork, Mayan Gold, or Kenya Coral, for their names and associations rather than for how well they would suit the interior walls.

Mind you, it doesn't seem fair that Brendan gets all the good jobs and I do the dogsbody work. There he is, with his admittedly vastly superior skills and tools, cutting the fir trim with professional precision, trying out new techniques for dealing with drywall paste, cutting the cedar for the ceiling and mounting it. I get to crouch in the basement putting another coat of paint around the exterior trim, oiling the cedar before it goes onto the ceiling, and tidying up now and then. I hate painting, and that's all I'm allowed to do, apart from running errands. And don't think I have forgotten that this is all your fault.

One of the fun things he got to do while I was away was shape the piece of 4" bamboo to fit the remaining space under the eaves. One of the women at the meeting I was at today is Korean, and she has a lively interest in and extensive knowledge of Japanese gardens, teahouses, and Zen. I worry that my Irish compromising approach might be something of a scandal to Heesoon, but she takes it in good spirit. I mentioned that I had an alcove, and she agreed that this was a tad presumptuous of me. I also mentioned that in some of the books I had seen, a prominent corner of the alcove is fitted with either a bared part of a tree trunk or with bamboo. She assured me that it is indeed almost a requirement that some untreated but beautiful natural material serve such a purpose. When I returned home, I mentioned this to Brendan. The remaining piece of the handsome bronzed 4" bamboo was just enough to fit perfectly on the corner.

(This picture of the bamboo post is from a few days later, when the painting was done.)


The day began with my buying paint for the walls and Danish oil for the cedar that is to go on the ceiling. I got back to find that Brendan had arrived with the cedar, and was set up sanding it in the driveway. He sanded, then I brushed off any remaining sawdust and rolled oil into the boards. It is always an aesthetic delight and something of a miracle to see the cedar come to its varied colored life as soon as the oil begins to soak in.

Over lunch we chatted about the culture of carpenters, dwelling on his horror stories about, for example, the crooks who search out older widows to work for, ripping them off at every turn, and also the elaborate jobs done for which the carpenter was ripped off. We agreed that it was a terrible world out there, and agreed that we would go together the following morning to pick up the tatami mats, lamps, sandals, a cushion, and the fusuma panels.

As the proprietor of the Japanese products place is there only by appointment, I phoned. He said he could be there at 10 a.m. I was about to hang up when he said, "Cash only sale."

"I can't use a Visa or cheque?"

"No. Cash only."

"How much does it all add up to then?"

"I have to calculate. I call you back."

Brendan and I wondered whether I might ask if there was a discount for people who worked for the tax department. Another effect of this call has been my going back through this chapter to find the proprietor's name and changing it, to protect the possibly guilty. So "Mr. Lee" is not called Mr. Lee. And a further effect was a visit to the bank to ask for $1,300 cash from our already overdrawn account. Surely you can think of people for whom multiple copies of this book would make a perfect present?

While I finished off oiling the cedar planks, Brendan went out with his special cloth to finish the final pasting and scraping of the drywall, hoping to get a coat of primer on the walls before the end of the day. But he had to leave early, so that's a job for the morning.



Brendan began by priming the whole of the interior, and then we set off to see "Mr. Lee." The drive across town involved pleasant chatting about recent jobs, including one on a steep hillside on the north shore; an expensive house under which a stream ran, exposed under glass beside a wide stairway. The $40,000 renovation ended up costing the owners over $100,000, as rot and cowboy-work were exposed once the surface materials were removed.

"But they were both lawyers, so it didn't phase them."

Mr. Lee seemed to be involved in an altercation with someone on the street as we arrived, though they parted amicably as he came across to join us. I was discouraged to think that this might be his normal style of bargaining. Inside, Brendan poked around, examining the examples of Mr. Lee's woodworking, and looking through the impressive portfolio of work he had done. Not, surely, all on a cash basis? The tatami mats were boxed ready to go, and we gathered together the rest of my loot. An additional item I was persuaded to buy was one of those legless chairs, and a rather splendid red cushion.

During the afternoon, Brendan fastened the cedar planks to the rafters, and lay strips of bamboo across them, to make a dramatic and beautiful ceiling.

In the basement, I was doing more painting, and had a very strange thing happen. Clumsily, opening a new can of paint, I dropped the lid onto the basement floor, and it fell paint side up!

Brendan left a bit early, as it was his wife's birthday. He had said, while we were driving back from Mr. Lee's, that he wouldn't be able to come tomorrow, as he had another job he needed to attend to. I also had a meeting tomorrow, so I assumed nothing would happen till next week. But the woodwork in the teahouse/study went so well this afternoon, and looks so good, that Brendan said he would phone and explain that he wouldn't be able to make it to the other job tomorrow but would come here and finish off the remaining pieces of trim around the windows, and also prime the walls. Over the weekend I will paint, then we can put down the tatami mats, build the fir frame around them, wire up the shoji lamps, and be within striking distance of finishing the interior.



I returned at the end of the day to find that Brendan had indeed finished the woodwork and had primed all the walls. I had bought paint, in shades of green, on the way home. In the end, after a frothing dither of indecisiveness, I bought a lightish green for the walls and a dark green for the alcove. Feeling insecure about the decisions, I bought only sample-sized cans.



My wife and I spent the morning babysitting Joshua and Jordan, and by the time I got out to the teahouse/study I had time only to put a couple of coats of varnish on the fir with which Brendan had trimmed the windows and door.



I needed to do some paperwork in the morning; pay bills, delay bills, avoid bills&endash;&endash;that kind of thing. Then I put a layer of the dark green paint in the alcove. It looked a bit too light at first, but darkened as it dried. I had enough of the sample of the lighter paint to get about half of the walls covered. It's not the paint's fault, I know it is doing its best, but I concluded, as I sat on the floor looking at the wall opposite, that I had chosen a too light and rather boring green, almost a plain pastel. I think I will have to go to the paint shop in the morning and ask for a deeper, more interesting color, and perhaps have the young woman there add some black to the dark green.



I realize that I have a day more than I had thought before I need to get the text to the editor. But, starting the day by taking a look at yesterday's painting, I am convinced that the light green just doesn't work. Having covered half the interior with it, I try very hard to convince myself that it is just great, but in the end skulk off to the paint shop for something to replace it.

The young woman behind the counter takes color seriously. Her hair is a bright three-toned confection in orange and red with a straw-yellow strand across the top. It actually looks quite good, and is certainly more arresting than last Friday's brown. I spent some time with my eyes sliding gloomily across the color samples. Nothing seemed remotely right. I felt that perhaps there were somewhere important colors that they had forgotten to display; colors that were just right for the teahouse/study. But the paper samples on display did seem to cover the usual spectrum. My color seemed always to be between samples.

I approached the counter with best guesses and the copy of A Japanese Touch For Your Home book. She did have a quick eye, flicking expertly through her thick fan of samples and finding better matches for the pictures of walls I indicated.

"I think that's it," she said authoritatively. Each of the color samples had a number. "I've always liked 534. It has depth and color, light but muscular."

I thought I'd put her in touch with a few wine-freaks I know.

"I think you'll find 534 does the job for you. That 431 you chose last week is more like a children's bedroom, or perhaps a conservatory wall. It's sprightly and lighthearted, but doesn't have the depth or energy of 534."

I bought a gallon, and she was right. I was half way round the interior again when Brendan turned up. He had had to go to that other job this morning, and had hoped I might have the painting finished so he could get the floor in. I described my follies in paint choice. He agreed to take over finishing the painting while I came in to have a late lunch and write up this morning's small adventure of paint buying. He can't come tomorrow, so on Wednesday, after I put a second coat on, we will get the floor done, and the tatami mats down.

This daily countdown to sending off the final pieces of the text to the editor will have to end here. But, while the editor is working on the book so far, I will be able to describe the last stages, and tack them on later.


The week after the last week


In the kitchen I have a bowl half-full of tealeaves. After making Brendan's tea each day, and my own, I toss the tea bags on one side, and later break them open and put the used leaves into the bowl. When the painting is finished, I will take the damp tealeaves out and spread them around the floor. This will allow me to sweep up the accumulated mess from drywall and wood and dirty shoes without the dust flying around&endash;&endash;I hope. There seems a poetic appropriateness in using the tealeaves we have enjoyed in this way. It's a trick I learned as a Franciscan novice long ago when sweeping cloisters.


The balcony

The last item to be added is the balcony. One of the continuing doubts I have had since beginning the teahouse/study has been the wood to use for the deck. It is three-foot by ten-foot. My preference, all other things, like cost, being equal, which they aren't, would be for jarah. This is partly a sentimental choice, but also aesthetic. I have visited Western Australia a few times, and have been astonished by gorgeous jarah floors in some of the older houses. It is a rich red-brown. Jarah trees were grown almost exclusively in south-west Australia. I remember a delightful trip down to Margaret River, and seeing parts of the twenty-mile by a hundred-mile strip in which the jarah mainly grew. At the time I visited, there was a crisis because of a blight that was threatening to ravage the forest. It seems that some fungus had been brought into the area on the treads of huge machines used in mining bauxite.

A fancy woodworking store carried tongue-and-groove jarah, and some time ago said they might be able to get boards for a deck. Apparently they sold it mostly to people building expensive yatchs. It would cost about $600 to do the deck and steps. Then they phoned back to say they couldn't get it. Then, recently, I stopped into another branch of the same place, and was told that they could get it. I had more or less agreed with Brendan that we would do the deck in mahogany, but told him that jarah might be available. We agreed the price made it pretty prohibitive, but he said that he knew where they were probably getting it from, and one of the managers there used to work for him. Heh, heh. He also said that he had never worked the wood and would very much like to.

I visited the huge sheds of another supplier of specialty woods, and mentioned to one of the guys that I was looking for jarah.

"Don't know about that. You should see George in the office. But have a look around if you want."

There was a balcony on both sides of the shed, so I climbed up one side and looked at the massive planks of unfinished exotic hardwoods, from forests in central and south America, south east Asia, some few from Africa, and seemingly every steaming jungle in the galaxy. As I ambled by, doing the equivalent of kicking the tires, stroking and hefting planks, I asked the passing employees about particular woods, receiving the almost invariable answer, "You should ask George about that."

After an intoxicating while, I found the office and did indeed ask George. I was fortunate to get to him, as apparently everyone entering the place was told to see George. He was exactly what you might expect: a solid, salt-of-the-earth sixty-year-old who had clearly been involved with exotic woods from close to birth. I mentioned that I was planning a small deck and was looking for jarah. Clearly this was the right kind of thing to say. His air of slightly harried busyness lifted in a moment; he smiled at the thought of jarah, and gave me his full attention. We talked for a while of the beauties of jarah, and of the project for which I wanted it.

"We don't have planks at the moment. If you want a red wood, you might try bubinga or padauk."

"Those are woods? I've never heard of them."

"Ask one of the boys to show you. They're up on the right. The bubinga would set you back . . ." he did some calculations . . . about, well, you won't see much change from a thousand. The padauk we could get a bit cheaper."

I took a look at them, but didn't feel any special affinity to these beautiful, exotic, and costly woods, and thought that maybe the dream of jarah would have to be foregone. Perhaps if I'd spent time in the steamy heat of Malaysian forests where the red-sapped and red-brown wooded padauk came from, I'd want it for my deck, and perhaps it was the visits to the vineyards around Margaret River that has made the jarah trees so romantically memorable. My one visit to Malaysia led me to believe that the only flora left was palm trees. I drove north from Singapore through endless miles of unvarying palms. Thirty years earlier it might have seemed that the place grew nothing but rubber-yielding trees. With the invention of artificial rubber, the vast plantations, which had begun with trees imported from Brazil, had been wiped out and replaced with the palm which now generates for Malaysia the world's greatest production of palm oil.

Here is the finished deck:



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