Oh, bother Churchill! Why did he go and say (addressing Roosevelt in 1941), "Give us the tools, and we'll finish the job"? This heroic promise echoes down the years, a gruff and awful affront to all kinds of partners, noisy or silent, but mainly husbands. Particularly husbands who, in the early and callow weeks of marriage, make one fatal, doom-sealing mistake.
This dire mistake (and some very wise husbands I know do avoid it, but they are a rare and talented species) is to say, when the question of shelf-construction or floor-sanding, or screwing new hinges on the bathroom door presents itself - "Give us the tools, and we'll finish the job, er, my dearest, darling, honey pie, sweetheart."
Finishing is the problem. But of course the immaculate way to avoid the problem, the exhausting and time-consuming problem, of finishing, is to never, ever, on any account, start.
I base this on a simple philosophy, deduced from a rule taught to me in school. Everything, we were told, (with special reference to writing) must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It seems to me now, as it seemed to me then, that of course, like Schubert and his famously inconclusive symphony, or Gaud and his cathedral in Barcelona, you can have a beginning, you can have a middle, but you don't necessarily have to have an end.
So, if finishing is the problem, the solution is not-starting. But this isn't easy to achieve. You have to work incredibly hard at not starting things, and I'll admit that I'm far too lazy to have ever had much success in this business. I have started, and I have started, over and over again. And I tell you now, after endless experience, it is a mistake.
No sooner have you started, say, to convert the basement passage into a private art gallery/overflow library, or build a fox-proof house for the ducks, or make a weed patch into a flowerbed, or knock down the wall between the second spare-bedroom and the room that in 1900 was the kitchen but is now to be a study - than you will be confronted, as the night follows the day, with the question: "Have you finished?"
This question isn't meant to be tricky, but it is. There is in it a hidden implication. The corollary of finishing one job is the starting of the next. But in fact, starting "the next" isn't necessarily dependent on finishing "the last." I think of this as the Bill-Gatesean Phenomenon. You don't have to close down one window before opening another.
No sooner had I made giant inroads (rather literally) into the basement floor, than the urgency of protecting the ducks from foxes bore down upon me. As it was, the basement floor had interrupted the conversion of grass paths into gravel ones in the front garden. And in turn this had been begun before I had finished knocking down the brick wall in the back garden.
I may have mentioned before on these pages that when we moved into our house we thought we'd make a few alterations that would probably take the three months till Christmas.
THAT, let me see, would have been in September 1980. Isn't it amazing how the busy years speed by? They are as a wind that passes over grasses, or as a whistle in the mist. One cannot be coolly objective, of course, but as our millennial 20th anniversary fast approaches, it would not be fair if I failed to admit that:
There is a large half-dug hole in the basement passage. That the gate at the side of the house hangs by one hinge. That the kitchen unit is not yet tiled on one side. That the door into my wife's study has nothing to prevent it from swinging in both directions, although it's designed to swing in only one. That the duck house lacks most of its exterior trim. That the front gateposts, made of sandstone, are only partly stripped of old, crusty paint. That the patio (for which we prefer the Scottish name "the sit-ootery") at the back of the house still needs cement between the flagstones on a third of the lower level. That ... well, the story continues.
Now, I don't want to misrepresent my part in all this, but it might puzzle the reader to know that I am by nature a keen finisher. Really, I am. Those who know me well (with one possible exception, but she's too close to be impartial) will support me in this. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than the final coat of paint, the scrupulous grouting of tiles in a shower, the incisive edging of a grass-path, the final minute adjustment that makes all the difference between satisfactory and perfect.
One must live, however, in the real world. Every project goes through three stages.
First, a surge of enthusiasm and vision.
Second, the slow-dawning realization that one had perhaps been a little over-optimistic time-scale-wise. This less happy stage may occur, say, three months after the first stage and may involve an assessment of progress aptly summarized by such mildly shouted outbursts as "A-a-a-ch! This is a losing battle!" Or the stronger "There must be more to life than this!" Or even (best uttered with stormy Wagnerian desperation) "Open Oh Earth and Swallow Me Up. Enough, oh Enough!!!"
And third.... Hmm. Did I say there were three stages?
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society