“You away on holiday this year Dennis?” I threw the question over my shoulder, making conversation as I carried a sheet of plywood into a building with Dennis, a five foot five ball of varying degrees of angry Scouse. The height difference made it difficult as the board tended to have a lack of […]
There is something definitely satisfying about the sound of tearing fabric. Either the slow, gradual rippppppp, or the swift, rapid tear, both paint an definitive image in the mind.
The old Laurel and Hardy films were, and still are favourites of mine. There is so much conveyed in those movie shorts, originally through expression, but even more so with the advent of sound. That satisfying explosion of sutures always left one or the other of the duo trouser-less.
Let me tell you about Tony.
I’ve just spent the last year ferociously busy with work. Non-stop ridiculously hectic and it’s made writing or completing any blogs difficult. But I had to pass this one on.
One of my close friends has worked with me this last year, which has made for an entertaining time because, well, he’s very self deprecating, extremely easy going, very funny and, one of the few people who make me laugh without trying.
He’s also a Man City season ticket holder and relives every tribulation, real and imagined his team goes through.
(Count your blessings he doesn’t sit behind you at games Viv )
I, on the other hand, support a proper team – Man UTD – so it makes for entertaining Monday mornings. But I can say, he’s very passionate about his team in his pursuit of watching his confused idea of perfection. To be fair, he’s quite honest in his opinions about his team. He wants them to play exciting, entertaining football. Anything else is a disappointment for him.
In fact, he’ll criticize his team when they win, for playing badly.
The last job I worked on went on for some ten months, with quite solid completion times in order to hand it over to the incoming client. It meant we had targets to hit all year in order to allow this business to open. So, from day one it was high impact work. organised in a way to be continuously rolling along and completing targets. I kept a team of lads I trust implicitly together in order to achieve this. They’re the only people in the trade I would ever recommend if anyone asked for top quality labour.
Tony was part of this team.
I think it’s fair to say, Tony had put a bit of weight on before the start of this job. But, with the way we were shifting each day, I think we all expected it to drop off. What we didn’t expect was him to gain a stone and a half after some very hectic weeks. I was impressed. It was only as we neared the end of the job that the issue was really raised.
It was a lull in a busy period and Tony was breaking a piece off a Toblerone, something he seemed to have a supply of at odd times like this.
“Blimey Tony. Have you put some weight on this year?” I asked my friend, as I looked at his body profile with one eye closed.
He’s strained to looked down at his own body
“Nooo. Welllllll, maybe a bit. I think I just have a slow, whaddya call it? Metabolism.”
“Slow? Jesus. I think it’s stopped. In fact, you only have an ‘ism”
“Yeah, yeah. Funny.”
“Seriously, You’ve actually put weight on.”
“A bit. Maybe.”
“Mate. Elasticated trousers aren’t a fashion statement.”
It’s fair to say he takes some ribbing. But to be honest that’s what makes Tony funny. The amount of – there’s no denying it – abuse, he actually gets is phenomenal. Over anything. He’s actually too good natured. It’d break a lesser person it really would. And if he wasn’t getting verbal abuse he would be ambushed in other ways.
One ideal situation would be to block him on his way to the toilet when he would get his daily two minute warning. This was a moment in his day when the toilet was a immediate necessity that could not be stopped. But obstructing his route as he was spotted trotting along and have him hopping on foot to foot in slight desperation while you talked to him, became another form of entertainment.
I must admit I can sit here right now and find myself actually laughing out loud when I think about some of the things he’s come in work and told us about that have happened to him over that weekend. And expected everyone to just carry on and not even comment.
The building trade is not, I repeat, NOT that kind of compassionate environment.
Jesus. Its like handing over a gun then passing on the bullets.
As he began to gain weight we actually took to watching Tony arrive of a morning and make his way over to Greggs bakery. He would meander back with what looked suspiciously like a twelve inch pastry and a coffee.
He kept claiming he went for porridge to start his day off right. But I’ve never seen anyone walk back from Greggs with a large coffee and look like they were trying to deepthroat a bag of porridge…
We’d be sat in the van upon arriving and there’d be a nudge and an “Aye aye. There he goes!” Then we’d sit and wait to watch him walk back to see how he would struggle manfully to get a bag of “porridge” down his neck by taking sips of coffee so it would be soft enough to swallow..
Then morning brew time would come. Tony would wander off with one of the other lads, Sean, to get a bacon and egg sandwich. Sean, who I hate to admit had a metabolism like a humming bird, just ate what-ever, when-ever with no impact.
I think unfortunately Tony saw this as a challenge and – Whooah Nelly! – did he lose that deluded competition.
He’d match Sean’s bacon and egg, or bacon and cheese, and he’d even raise the stakes and order a toasted tea-cake for afters.
It’s not like he’s even tall and can carry it off. His head just seemed to get closer to his feet.
This went on all year. And in between this, there were odd days I would walk out of the room I was working in to pass on some measurement, and find him chewing on a piece of Toblerone that had suddenly appeared from somewhere. It happened to be a particular favourite of Tony’s.
So, as the job drew to an end, I happened to take a sidelong glance at Tony and realized with a jolt he’s really packed a bit of timber on.
I thought it was time to give him a break and try a lighter tone.
“Honest mate, this time I’m not taking the piss or anything. You really have banged a bit of weight on.”
Tony was quite adamant – blinkered even – it was nothing to worry about. Certainly not as noticeable as I was trying to express anyway. I have to hold my hands up here because we had been quite merciless in ribbing Tony all year, on anything, so for him to doubt my sincerity was, in my honest opinion, a good move.
“We’re going to be having a Christmas night out soon and you don’t want to be looking like that kid, Chunk, from the Goonies do you?”
Tony just turned his nose up slightly.
“Actually I’m not sure if I can make it. I have other invites on the night, so I may not get out.”
“What! Your’e ducking our piss-up?”
Tony instantly blustered trying to defend himself.
“It’s my cousin’s do on the same night! Family! And my last employer has invited me out! There’s too many invites! I don’t know what to do !” He wailed.
“But Tone! We’re your mates!”
But Tony carried on without hearing.
“I’ve got the match on Saturday too! City are playing at home! I can’t handle a heavy session on a Friday when I’m expected to go on the piss before and after the game the next day!!”
“Ah well when you put it like that it’s completely understa – I can’t believe your abandoning your mates you fat bastard!”
“Thats it! I’m defo not going out on the Friday with anyone! I’m going to the match on the Saturday and having a pint then! No! Thats it! My minds made up!”
He held his hand in front of my face in a dramatic gesture to stop me interrupting.
(for the record I wasn’t even trying to speak)
“You can’t talk me out of it! I’m going to the game!!”
“Well if your mind’s set fatty, I obviously can’t talk you round . Tell you what. See how you feel on the night. I’ll pick you up if you change your mind.”
“Alright. I’ll think about it.”
The next day I walked over with Tony to get myself a sandwich.
“I’ll walk over to your shop today Tone. What are the sandwiches like?”
“Yeah they’re ok.”
He sounded somewhat subdued.
” Whats up with you? What you eating today?”
“A salad sandwich”
I actually stumbled.
“A what now?”
“A SALAD sandwich. Are you deaf?”
“No. But, well. Whats with the salad?”
“Wellll. I hopped on the scales last night -”
He snatched a look at me.
I ‘d made a noise.
“Sorry. I have “snigger reflex”. It must be genetic or something. Sorry. You were saying. You broke the scales…?”
“Yeah. Ha. Very funny. No, well, I jumped on last night and – ”
It came out in a rush, his revelation disgusted himself even.
“Well it was a bit of a shock I knew I’d put a bit on – butnotTHATfuckingmuch!!”
“Alright chunks. Calm down. Lets just clear up exactly how much you’ve put on shall we?”
“- Fuc -”
“- And a hal-”
“- k ME Tony!! A stone and a half! Jesus!!”
“Alrightalright! Iv’e got to start somewhere. So. I’m cutting stuff out.”
“Stuff? Stuff?? You want to cut out anything you can get in your mouth mate.”
“Seriously. I’m off the bacon and egg. That’s it! I’m being good!”
We talked it through as we walked over,discussing the merits of eating better types of food, while Tony led the way to his regular nose bag shop. It was a back street cafe, the type I hadn’t seen in a long time. These days It’s a modern, multi -selection of coffee/tea and special-bread sandwiches and wraps, with strange flavours of crisps. What happened to all those full English with a cup-of-tea cafe’s?
Anyway, walking into this place was slightly nostalgic.
We were greeted by a cheerful, thick set, middle aged lady who was obviously a firm believer in the attributes of cooking with lard.
“Hiya Tony! Bacon and cheese day today love?”
I snapped a look at Tony who had the good grace not to meet my eye.
“Your’e on first name terms-”
He completely ignored me and replied to the lady.
“No not today. I think I’ll have something new today. A fresh start! How’s about a chicken salad with mayo and cheese on – ”
He stole a glance at me,
I recovered from my shock to close my gaping mouth.
“Whoah whoah whoahhhhhhh! Tell you what love. Give him a chicken salad. NO cheese. NO mayo. And NO, butter. He CAN have brown bread.”
The lady in question looked from me to Tony.
“Is that what you really want Tony?”
Tony turned to me.
“Can I have a Toasted teacake for later?”
He turned back to the lady with dejected eyes, shoulders slumped.
“Yeah. Just the chicken thing please.”
It was left for the lady to stand momentarily with her mouth open. Then she slowly turned away reflecting Tony’s body language completely.
Obviously profits were going to take a massive hit.
We got back to the job, and sat in our adjacent van’s eating our sandwiches, Tony without the usual enthusiasm. I just kept honking my horn and rubbing my belly and mouthing “Yum Yum?” at him.
He was a bit dejected.
The next day we headed over to get a sandwich again, this time with another lad in tow, John. we decided to try a new-ish looking cafe for a change.
Tony was first to the counter. He took a long look at the menu then licked his lips and addressed the lady.
“Can I have a cheese and ham panini please and -”
“Hang on, hang on hang onnnnnnn! ”
I interrupted from behind. Tony shoulders slumped. I continued to the nice lady.
“Tell you what. Forget the cheese, no sauce’s, and he’ll have tomato there instead. He can have the bit of ham. And if he ask’s, he can’t have a toasted Tea-cake for after.”
Tony shoulders drooped even more.
The lady looked from me to Tony and raised her eyebrows with a silent question.
“Yeah. That’s what I want. What he said please.”
He turned briefly to me.
“Can’t I just have one toasted Tea -”
“Yeah. Just what he said please then.”
We sat down to eat, me with a toasted buttered bagel and John with a toasted cheese and marmite pannini, and I have to say even that looked more appetizing than Tony’s dusty and very, very dry ham and tomato panini.
Twenty minute later, back on site, I was congratulating Tony on doing well, when my phone rang. I was needed downstairs to take care of a job.
“Right. Well done you. I’ll be back in a bit.”
I turned away from a hungry looking Tony to find out what I was needed for.
Ten minutes later I was calling Tony on his phone.
I could hear the ring tone nearby.
“Hello? Tone. Listen.Where are you? Down stairs?”
I headed toward the fire exit door leading to the car park where I had heard his phone ringing.
“Have you got your foam gun with you? Mine’s at home.”
“Yeah, it’s in the van – I’m just near it now.”
He sounded muffled.
“Yeah I heard your phone I’ll come and get it off – ”
I pushed open the fire exit door as I spoke to find Tony stood on the other side.
He threw his hands in the air and turned away in disgust heading to his van, unable to talk.
The reason being he had been stood in this out of the way place with a six inch piece of Toblerone in one hand and a fair chunk in his mouth. All he managed was a muffled –
.”Awwwwww! ‘Um ooonnn -”
“Tony what the fuc -”
He managed to swallow.
“Your’e having laugh! I can’t even have this on the quiet -”
“Have you seriously snuck off to eat a load of chocolate -”
“You wouldn’t let me have a toasted tea-cake!!”
I couldn’t stop laughing. I was immediately on the phone to John, the lad who had accompanied us to the cafe.
“You’ll never guess what! Iv’e just found Tony hiding outside eating a bar of Toblerone!”
Even Tony could hear John laughing as we reached the van.
“Yeah! I Know! Toblerone!! So much for ham and tomato!! Hang on a minute!”
Tony was surreptitiously trying to open the sliding door on the side of the van to reach the foam gun.
“Hey! What have you got in there??”
I reached past him to open the door fully. A large bag fell forward.
“What the fuc -hang on John,”
I tipped the bag out to reveal its contents.
Tony literally threw his arm over his eyes in shame. This was going from bad to worse for him.
My voice was going up in octaves I didn’t realize I had.
Out of the bag had fallen the other half of the large Toblerone, A six pack family sized bag of crisps and a large party size tube of fruit pastels.
I turned to Tony.
“I was throwing it away today! I forgot it was there! It’s not even mine -”
“John! John! Your not going to believe this…”
As you can imagine Tony’s ribbing took on a whole new level.
The end of the week couldn’t come quick enough for Tony, which only remained to see if he was coming out with us for a beer or not. But he was adamant.
“No. Defo not. I’m not even going to my cousins do tonight. And I bought a ticket for that!”
“Ok mate, no worries. Tell you what. If you change your mind later I can still pop over and pick you up.”
“No, seriously I don’t think I can go out tonight and face tomorrows game and have a beer then too. So I’m just going for the beer on match day instead.”
So, that’s where we left it.
Next day, feeling, I have to confess, somewhat tender myself, I checked the scores to see City getting beat by Chelsea. I couldn’t resist it. I texted Tony knowing he was at the game.
The reply came back understandably subdued and then I didn’t have the heart to carry on after the week he had already had. I could add to his misery in person the following day as I had some wood to drop off for his wood burning stove.
I sent a quick text.
“Never mind mate.Worse things happen at sea! I’ll see you in the morning.”
There was a muted reply.
I turned up at Tony’s the next day ready to pick at his disappointment.
“Ok Tone? Bit of a hammering yesterday?”
“Yeah, and some. But, I’ve got to admit. I never actually watched the game.”
“What? your’e joking?” I know you’ve left games early before they finish but – come on! Your’e a season ticket holder! When did you leave? When the third goal went in?”
“Well, to be honest, I left before kick-off.”
“What Your’e joking mate! Why??”
“Well you know I said I wasn’t going out on Friday? Yeah. I went out. I didn’t get in till half four on Saturday morning. I went to my cousins do. I knew It’d get messy!”
“Oh mate your’e kidding!”
“No. And to top it all, I was blind drunk! I felt terrible when i got up on match day!”
“You didn’t carry on drinking did you?”
“I tried a half but I have to say -”
He looked green as he continued,
“My stomach rolled as soon as I had a mouth full! There was no way that was going down!”
“So what happened?”
“I just thought I’d give the beer a miss. But on the way down, on the coach , honest to god, I thought I was gonna barf up on the old lady in front. I kept having to swallow it back down!”
I winced at the image as Tony shuddered and carried on,
We got to the ground and the lads were all for a pint before the game, but there was no way I could face it. So I figured I’d head into the ground and sit and watch the warm ups.”
“Oh mate – ”
“Well I sat there for a while and my stomach was just rolling all over – there was no way I was going to get through the game without chucking up so that was it.”
“I went home.”
“What?? Without seeing a ball kicked??”
“Yeah. But that’s not the worst part.”
“There’s something worse?”
“Yeah. quite a bite worse to be honest.”
He looked extremely sheepish.
“What? Well? Get on with it!”
“I’m walking away from the ground and I only go and get my two minute warning!”
I began to laugh. I couldn’t get a breath to ask what happened.
It was his two minute warning.
“What could I do. I mean? What??” I had to go!!” I HAD to!!”
There was a note of hysteria creeping into his voice as he tried to defend his actions.
I could feel an asthma attack coming on. I was almost breathless as I asked,
“Where Tone? Where did you go?? There isn’t anywhere there!”
“There’s that open land at the bottom -”
“The Asda! there’s an Asda at the top of the hill -”
“I was at the bottom of the hill!! At the bottom!!!! I Looked like I was trying to walk along to a Bee-Gee’s track!!! I’DHADMYTWOMINUTEWARNING!!!!”
Like that explained everything.
I have to admit I was caught between horrified fascination and a morbid need to know what had happened.
“I ran down this path onto the waste ground, and , well, there was this mound..”
“Tony. It’s a lump of soil in a wide open area. It only shields you from the other side of the fucking mound! Anyone on that side of the mound can see you!!”
“I know! I know!! But I’d had my two minute warning! The sweat was pouring off me! Pouring!!!!”
What had followed wasn’t pleasant, with Tony circling the mound trying to pick a sheltered spot in a open plain. In the end, unable to contain it any longer he just had to drop his trousers and go for it, bobbing up and down like a demented Meerkat.
I was opened mouthed trying to take in what he was telling me when another thought struck me.
“But Tony, what about, I mean, Toilet paper Tony! Toilet paper? What did you use??”
“My underpants! It’s all I had!”
This painted another picture on my already scarred mind and I tried to comprehend the mechanics of what he was describing.
“Your – you mean you – What?? You stripped off your trousers in the middle of an open field to take off your underpants to use to wipe you –
“No!! Jesus! No!! Don’t be stupid!! I RIPPED them off and ran like fuck!!”
I swear, till the day I die.
The sound of tearing fabric will never, ever be the same again..
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…”