I found myself actually flinching at the anonymous voice in the store room, literally clutching myself as I spun around looking in all directions trying to find the source of the sound that seemingly emanated from fresh air.
It was a breathless, asthmatic whispered question I had heard, was sure I had hear, but I couldn’t locate where the sound had come from. Jesus I must be hearing things I thought.
The small room I found myself in contained all the fixings and site equipment. This same room was also used as a lock-up for everyone’s tools at the end of the day with a large steel tool-box against one wall and surrounded by assorted shelves jammed with odds and ends. I say room, but it was just part of the larger external space that had been sectioned off by a temporary stud wall to give it a hint of security when everything was locked away each night.
I had only started on this job a couple of weeks previously, working in the center of Manchester. I had followed my normal routine of arrival which was to find somewhere to park in the city center, then walk my tools over to the job. This normally involved a painful 10-15 minute lug across town juggling whatever I needed to take with me. I would have a tool box on my shoulder rattling away against my ear, while I’d be holding a drill box in my free hand, my arm slowly extending with the suspended weight over the travelling distance.
Under the same arm, jammed against my ribs, I would have another smaller tool case held there by the weight of the drill box hanging off the end of my arm. By the time I’d reach the job I would have stopped half a dozen times or more to re-arrange every position and try to remain comfortable. Also to get some blood flowing back to my shoulder and try to stop my now, foot longer arm holding the drill box from scraping along the floor.
The arrival on site meant asking the first person you saw where the site office was. In this case I bumped into a joiner I’d worked with before.
“Hello Mike! How are you? Didn’t know you were starting on here.”
“Dave! Nice to see you. Still with Stuart?”
“For my sins! He’s upstairs running around unsupervised!”
“Better get back to him then! Christ my arms gone dead. Where can I dump this lot?”
Dave directed me to the stores first.
“Get down there first – get rid of that lot. Timmy’s the store-man – he’ll point you in the direction of the office.”
Which is what I did, working down the narrow stairs into the basement, to find somewhere I could drop the tools. Timmy, was sat perched on a stool in the small room reading a much folded newspaper through some truly magnificently sturdy looking bifocals. He had that owlish look some people have who wear really thick glasses. That looking-down-their-nose through the lenses stare, with that slightly open mouthed gape that made them seem a bit dense. That measure cadence he had when speaking didn’t help either.
He was surrounded by shelves stacked haphazardly with odds and ends.
“Hello mate. Room for this lot?”
“Hello son. Not seen your face before. New start? I’m Timmy – the Store-man”
Timmy was a sixty-something old boy who had retired and taken the job on a casual basis, all cash in hand, kept him busy and out from under his wife’s feet. He was responsible for making sure all the plant hire being used on site was signed for and came back to this small room each day. Also he took care of any deliveries that arrived and made sure they were locked away. The rest of his time involved hovering on his stool reading his daily paper that looked as though he was practicing origami with. Each time he stopped to do anything it would be slipped into his back pocket. It was usually reduced to a 4 inch square wad by the end of the day.
Now any new job you start on always involves a certain amount of trepidation. If you don’t know the employer the first two weeks meant sweating slightly, waiting to see if you actually got paid after working that week in hand. It wasn’t so bad if there were lads on there already working who you knew – that meant more often than not it must be fine. If there weren’t any familiar faces it meant that either everything was ok or, that as a new starter you were there to pick up the crap jobs they didn’t want to do. If nobody had any inclination to talk to you it tended to be another heads up. It could mean they were aware of how bad the work was that you would be asked to do, or knew you were going to have your money knocked and wouldn’t last long enough to make it worth getting to know you anyway. You would be leaving soon enough when you realized that your money had been cut. Because, if you discovered it was a cowboy employer, come pay-day, they could cut your agreed rate or just not pay you at all.
Don’t get me wrong. It still goes on. Every job I start on these days still involves that gut wrenching couple of weeks before I get my first pay cheque – especially if its a bad job from day one. The only thing that’s changed these days, is that some employers want to pay you monthly or every 2 weeks instead of weekly. It’s up to you whether or not you take that chance. Lets face it – that’s a lot of money to be owed to have worked a month for and not receive.
As it happened, I knew a number of lads on this site. So when I walked into the brew room there were a fair number of familiar faces. I didn’t have to try and establish myself with the lads on that job. But, I have to admit there was an element of slapstick running of the job. All the foremen were mates, a couple had started on the job and brought friends in to similar positions. This meant that it was a job for the boys. Men were running the job who didn’t actually know what they were doing.
This becomes painfully obvious when trying to overcome any problems and your asking for a decision on some issue. The foreman will be stood there looking at an up-side down site drawing pulling his lip mumbling,
“Mmmmm. Well, I can see that’s a problem. Yes. definitely. What do you think then…?”
And you would gently turn the drawing the right way and fold it up and just say,
“Leave it with me. I’ll sort something out ok?”
The lads running this job had come from other walks of life. Most of them nothing to do with the building trade at all. But one of their mates had told them there was nothing to it. Just point at things and let the lads sort it out. It was quite directionless at times.
Most of the guys on site I knew were all older. A good group who had all worked in the game a long time. Most partnered up over a number of years. Dave had worked with Stuart a long time, and I think it was just resigned patience from Dave that had kept them together. Dave was obviously the brains of the outfit.
“You’ll do ok on here Mike. Money’s fine – no problem. All cash too.”
I raised my eyebrows in surprise. A cash job meant the employer was cutting corners somewhere. To be honest I wasn’t going to worry about what the employer was doing – I was just relieved I was going to be paid. The only thing you had to worry about was staying safe on this job. That slapstick way of running things had almost ended in tragedy a couple of weeks prior to me starting. We were sat in another one of those rooms that had been requisitioned out of obscurity and converted into a brew area for the lads. It was down in the basement of the building, badly lit with fold out benches and tables and permanent hint of dust in the air, which filtered down through the floor above. Dave turned to me one brew time and said,
“You missed all the fun a couple of weeks back Mike.”
“Fun? Why? What went on?”
Stuart sat next to him spat some tea back out as he snorted over a snigger.
“Fun? Christ we didn’t know what was going on!”
Apparently the guys running the job had decided in their wisdom to have a mini digger lifted up onto one of the floors to aid demolition.
“Yeah, they had this thing rolling around on the 2nd floor pushing all the crap into a big pile,” continued Dave. “Only these idiots just kept on piling it up in the same spot.”
“Much there? Christ it was a pile of brick and rubble almost up to the ceiling.”
“Blimey. What happened?”
“Well, we’re all sat in this shit hole down here, when all of a sudden we could hear this rumble.”
“What? Like thunder?”
“Yeah, we thought the same at first.”
“I actually said – I did didn’t I Dave? I said “Is that thunder?””
threw in Stuart wide eyed. Dave looked heaven wards – it seemed he’d had this conversation a number of times with Stuart.
“Yes you did Stu. Spotted it straight away. You often say when it starts raining, “Looks like rain,” too. You also mention when the sun is shining how hot it is or isn’t. You should be reading the fucking weather on the telly – you’re wasted here thats for sure. Only It wasn’t thunder was it?”
What it was was the mound of rubble on the 2nd floor. The old flooring joists couldn’t take the weight and had collapsed. The rubble, digger and all and had come crashing down straight through the first floor, finally coming to a rest on the ground floor – directly on top of the brew room.
“Right on top of us!”
“Couldn’t see a fucking thing! Took all the lights out – what we actually have that is – a fucking mole with a torch would get lost in here! It was real panic stations to be honest.”
“Christ! What happened?”
I asked, peering up at the ceiling above me.
“Well, luckily they had fitted all the new steel supports under the floor above the week before, so when it hit this level everything held. If It hadn’t been for that, Michael Fish our resident weather expert over there would have been as flat as the rest of us!”
The cascading debris had knocked out all the lights. The noise of the descending rubble on the floor above had been frightening enough. When the lights went out they were plunged into pitch darkness with choking dust coming through. It had been a case of lighters flickering in the darkness to find their way out into the lobby, crawling or blundering blindly against one another, and up the narrow stairs to the exit. A real claustrophobic experience.
“I had Gammon sandwiches too that day,”
threw in Stuart wistfully, staring back into the past.
“Missus made them special.”
I looked from Stuart to Dave and could see him visibly grinding his teeth staring at the sky again. I don’t know how they managed to work together for so long. I think it was the approach of retirement that kept Dave with him after all that time. I think he made the most of knowing he wouldn’t have to put up with it on a daily basis much longer.. I settled into the job but have to say it was never one of my favourites. The bumbling management didn’t make anything easier and as they were getting bonus’ for saving money this began to extend to the quality of the materials.
I had been rebuilding the roof, a flat structure with rows of peaked atriums springing out of the structure. Some were designed to take glass skylights which were situated down the center of the roof in order to stream the natural light into the building, and down onto the ground floor far below that was covered with a beautiful mosaic tiling feature. I found out how poor the materials were at this point as I fixed one of the roofing rafters.
I had stepped onto the one already fixed to nail the one I was fitting. As it was I was straddling the roof members with a 4 floor drop below straight through the atrium. I don’t know what came first, the crack of the timber or the give as it snapped. I caught myself before I went too far through. Wedged between the rafters either side with legs dangling over the drop. I’ve never had a problem with heights and noticed them even less when actually working on a project. Its only when something suddenly goes wrong that you become aware of a impending – and possibly permanent – issue. It was a wake up call and one I took seriously after I climbed off the roof and stood with trembling knees checking through the timber I was using.
The first thing someone always suggests in those situations is a cup of tea. Sweet tea too. To calm you down. But I wouldn’t have trusted my hands to hold one steady at that moment as they were shaking that badly. Upon closer inspection the timber I was using was crap. Cheap and nasty really. Who-ever had ordered it had done so with an eye on his bonus regarding what he was saving in costs if he had bought better material.
I just took more care selecting what I was using from there on in.
The final straw came for me some weeks later when the DSS raided the Job.
This was a government body in charge of social services at the time. I had been oblivious to the fact that the wage payments had been in cash so that the employer hadn’t been deducting tax from certain people. They were given a false name so that nobody could trace them. The trouble was nobody working on site knew who was on the fiddle. People weren’t discussing it with work mates so nobody was any the wiser if a mate was using an assumed name or not. This particular morning there was sudden activity below me on the job. I had almost completed the roof and tilers had followed along behind me battening and slating the roof. I had heard some shouting below and looked through a skylight to see a flurry of activity and bodies rushing around the job.
“Dave! Dave!! Whats going on??”
“Its a fucking raid! The DSS are here!!”
And he rushed past looking for a way out. (Obviously Dave was a Frank Smith on the wage slips) I’ll give Frank this. For a fella nearing retirement he couldn’t have shift when pushed.
“What about Stuart?”
“Fuck Stuart! The Bastard! He climbed out a window at the back and jumped in the skip before they could seal the building off!”
It was like someone had poked an ant hill and people were spilling out all over the place. The forefront of most peoples minds was escape. It was only at this point that I realized the scale of fiddling going on. There must have been 90 per-cent of the work force scrambling about looking for an exit. Bodies were flinging themselves across the roof looking for a fire escape to get down. Seeing no joy at one end they would run past people going the other way looking for the same thing, non actually getting anywhere. Looking over the roof edge I could see there were police stationed on the street at each exit from the building. It didn’t look good these people meant business.
“Frank! I mean Dave! The newsagents!”
And the penny dropped. He waved his thanks and took off. I could hear “The Newsagents!” being shouted round the job as he descended the stairs. What I had noticed from the roof was that the only entrance not blocked by the police was the doorway to the shops inside the building on the ground floor.
We walked into the site that way each morning to buy a paper, then continued through the shop into the lift lobby where the lifts would be situated. This lobby ran the length of the building and would house the ground floor flats. It was this lobby that had the lovely mosaic as a floor finish that I could look down upon from the roof. From here you could enter the stairs that took you down to the basement, up into the site or out of the exit at the rear of the building. There were only two other exits, one on the front and one at the end of the building through two now unoccupied shops.
I rushed over to the side of the building where the newsagent was. It didn’t take long for bodies to begin sliding out, each clutching a paper or some other item as they left, so the copper outside assumed they were just leaving the shop not the job. There were various nods to the officer guarding that end of the building oblivious to the evacuation going on before him. Bodies drifted off in different directions into the busy city center with that slightly urgent quick step just shy of breaking into a run.
I made my way down through the building carrying my tools with me. I wasn’t leaving them lying around as it was obvious the working day was over. On the way down through the now abandoned site, littered with helmets and tools, I met one of the foremen heading the other way directing a rather officious DSS officer around the building. I was told in no uncertain terms to go straight to the room being used to check ID’s, immediately, without deviation.
On the way down I was met by various police officers eyeing me suspiciously, stationed at key points through out the building, guiding the few that remained to one of the empty shops on the ground floor. By the time they managed to search the job there must have been 9 of us out of a work force of 40 actually on site.
And 3 of those were arrested on the spot as their false ID’s were made obvious.
The rest had slipped out through the newsagents carrying various confectionaries. We were the only legit workers on the site. I had had an inkling that some had been using different names but never in my wildest dreams had I expected it on the scale it was being used.
The DSS officers were devastated. What had been a slick operation, surrounding the building like a finely oiled machine had turned into a farce. It was a quick identity check and back out on site.
I made my way to the basement store room to lock away my tools, reflecting on the number of people that were working under different ID’s. I realized I wasn’t sure if I had been calling people by the right names. It was as I was rattling the tool box lid trying to put my gear away that I heard the voice and jumped back looking around. Then I realized – It was coming from the box.
“Jesus! Who’s In there?”
“Its me! Timmy!!”
came the guarded whisper.
I then noticed the tools scattered around the room, placed there in an obvious rush. Timmy was another assumed name working for his cash in hand. And as soon as the raid had begun he had dragged everything out of the chest and got one of the lads to lock him inside.
came the whisper.
“Have the DSS fucked off yet?”
“Nearly done mate,”
I found I was bent down whispering back.
“They’re on they’re way off site now.”
“Oh thank fucking Christ for that! I think I’m running out of air!”
“Really? Ah. Well don’t go getting stressed. Your going to need to stay calm and use as little as possible mate.”
“Stay calm? Stay Calm? Did you say “use as little air as possible?”???”
There was a slight hysterical edge to the whispered voice. Then,
“I’ll be fine. Yeah fine. Just get Terry. With the key. Fetch him down. He can let me out.”
All the while the voice was raising slightly and the breathing had gained a slightly frantic gulping quality.
“Yeah. Get Terry. He can unlock the box! He’ll have me out in no time!”
I was stood staring at the blank front of the tool chest trying to pick my words, then whispered back,
“Well, That’s the thing Tim. Terry’s not a Terry – he’s a John. And they’re just loading John into the back of the police van…”