A place to read humorous stories
If you take the train to Matlock in Derbyshire, and can find a cabbie at the station who knows the way, you can drive the few miles out to Over Ferndale. There you may view Grindlow’s folly. If the weather is unusually fair, you can see it from a distance and save yourself the fruitless errand of hiking up the dale to look at it any closer.
Further, if you doubt the strength of your will and good judgement to overrule your curiosity about such things, I can tell you all about it now, and you may save yourself a hike, a cab fare, and even the return ticket to Matlock, unless you have some other reason to go there.
When I was much younger, and a newly-qualified architect inexperienced in the practical mundanity of earning a living, I took a job at Over Ferndale designing and overseeing the construction of a building on the estate of a Mr Arthur Grindlow. It sounded like an excellent beginning to my career. I was assured that I would be paid well above the usual rate, Mr Grindlow being comfortably wealthy.
Arthur Grindlow had made his fortune in exports, and soon after I arrived, I guessed from the huge collection of books, tapestries, statuary and urns in his sitting-room that he had spent a good fraction of it on imports.
“I’ve always wanted to travel,” I said, edging round a stuffed peacock to perch on the only seat not piled high with bric-a-brac.
“Me too, me too,” Grindlow replied, a touch of wistfulness in his watery brown eyes. “How I wish I’d been to any the places that furnished my collection. Health was never up to it, lad. See the world if you can, that’s my advice. But not yet! Not yet.”
He seemed genuinely anxious that I might take his advice to heart, leap out of my seat, vault over the peacock and Japanese lacquer-ware and run for the railway station to begin my adventures. In retrospect, perhaps I should have. Instead I waited politely.
“What I’m thinking of is a tribute to the great wonders of the world. Nothing too flashy, lad. Nothing ridiculous, mind. Just a little wonder of the world I can see from my window. A small summer-house in the style of ... oh, let’s say in the classical style. Do you think that’s possible?”
“I’m sure it is, Mr Grindlow. Are you thinking Greek, or Roman?”
“Yes, I am. Exactly that.”
“Now the practical matters, the foundations and plumbing and such, that I leave to you. As for the detailing, make that as authentic as you can. I wouldn’t want to interfere and make a show of my ignorance. You’re the architect, lad. I’ll only give the outline, the concept of the thing. You’ll have a free hand as to the rest.”
I was flattered by this show of confidence in my good taste. At the time.
But the first problems appeared almost immediately, when viewing Grindlow’s early sketches. I hesitated to press him on what construction any particular pencilled shape represented, or ask him to translate his scrawled notes, sprouting all around the bold but problematic edifice. I applied tactful guesswork to elicit what he intended.
“About these arches, Mr Grindlow ..."
“Arches, you say?” He leaned over the kitchen table and peered at the diagram I was building piecewise out of his sketches and my unearned confidence. “I suppose they could be. Did the Greeks have arches?” He sucked at a teaspoon doubtfully.
“The Romans did. I thought that’s what these curves were, here?”
“Very good, lad, let it be arches then. You know best. Marble columns I think too, if that would serve. I want windows looking out over the dale. Did Romans have windows?”
“I ... believe it’s usual for a summer-house to have windows, so let’s allow it.” I made some notes. “Do you want it on the south-facing slope, down there by the pond?”
“Oh no. No lad, it’s not just for me, you see. I want everyone to be able to see it. Lots of folk round here never had the chance to travel the world, good health or no. This is for everyone to enjoy. I want it up on the ridge of Fern Dale, where I can see it from my sitting room.”
We made our way back to the sitting room (we were in the kitchen because it was the only room with a table not entirely covered in exotic detritus) and I gazed in foreboding awe at the steep, wet rise of the dale, no approach to it but sheep tracks zigzagging up to its surly shoulder of millstone grit.
“Up there, lad. Way up there. Think of the view!”
I was not chiefly thinking of the view.
I set to work trying to work out the practical details of an impractical concept that existed only vaguely in Arthur Grindlow’s head. It became clear that every time a problem arose, he would in an instant come up with a change of design to work around it. One that in no way helped. And every time things went well, Grindlow celebrated by adding another decorative feature.
The arches and marble columns gave way–after a minor delay in Grindlow’s builder’s merchant sourcing the correct colour of marble–to an Egyptian design in granite. More columns, a number of cat statues of course, but no arches. Also, the addition of an extra wing to accomodate a funerary temple in the style of the 18th dynasty. Why? It was perilous to ask; no good could come of that.
Grindlow’s good cheer increased when I told him the foundations were finally completed, at the start of November, although his health was worsening.
“It’s getting late in the year, and we will need to construct a temporary road up the other side of the hill. Planning permission for that is going to take some time. I’m sorry, Mr Grindlow, but we might have to delay construction until spring.”
“What will be, will be.” He chuckled to himself, until a bout of coughing took the breath out of him. “More time to gather my ideas, take inspiration from some of the new books I’ve ordered. Don’t you be discouraged, lad. Come back in March.”
By March, the summer-house had a new design. Arches were back, but in the Moorish style, to be decorated with several hundredweight of blue ceramic tiles already on order. The floor plan of the walls couldn’t be changed now the foundation was laid, but the most recently added wing was to be open-roofed, and have a fountain and a pool.
“They used to have that, you know. To keep the desert air moist and cool. Imagine the tinkling of the water! The reflection of the tiles shimmering in the sunlight!”
There I had to put my foot down at last. The argument that carried the day, against Arthur’s indomitable whim was: it’s Derbyshire. The air in any open space on top of a hill will be quite moist and cool enough more than three hundred days in a year. He relented sadly but with good grace.
The new plans saved a considerable weight of stone, and I began to feel more confident that the project could be brought to completion. I started up the hill a way to see how the temporary road was progressing, but my ascent was thwarted by sheep.
By the time the first storey of the summer-house was complete (or as I had begin to admit to myself, the first storey of the folly) it was clear the wet ground would not support a second.
“Never mind, lad, never mind. I’ve had an idea. In keeping with the Moorish look, why not a small dome?”
“A dome? I don’t think we can put a dome on a building not designed to support one.” It was hard to give Arthur bad news, now. He was getting frail, and the fact than nearly nothing lowered his mood made it harder somehow. “I’ll try. I may need a few extra columns.”
“There you go! I knew I could trust you to find a way. And you know, I’ve always liked columns.”
Yes, I knew that.
He brightened suddenly. “We should have plenty of tiles left to decorate them, would you say? I think I ordered a few too many.”
More than few. However, the dome was not going to be practical even with extra columns to hold it up. Part way through its construction, it sagged and subsided alarmingly, and had to be taken down, leaving a circular hole in the roof. But by the time I had to bring the news to Arthur, he was bedridden, and the doctor had brought him worse news. I had some photographs taken and developed extra quickly at my own expense, to show him how the work had been getting on.
“Ah well,” he said, feebly holding the pictures up to the light, “it will be something to see when it’s done. I had my doubts if it would be ever be a summer-house I’d get to spend a summer in. That’s why I added the funeral wing you know. Might have needed it as a mausoleum.”
“You’ll be up and about soon, I hope. We’re getting on quite well.” There didn’t seem any need to mention the dome now.
“I won’t be, you know. I won’t. I’ll be finished before it is. Never mind.”
“Well then, I don’t like to keep taking your money for something you ... might not be well enough to get the benefit of. What shall I do?”
"I am content. Leave it as it is. What man's folly is ever complete?"
To that, I have no answer to this very day.
Pete Alex Harris is a writer of SFF novels and short stories in various genres. He lives in Scotland. More of his nonsense is available on Twitter @ScavengerEthic