Sam is standing outside of Curry’s Electrical Store looking through the window at the HD televisions. The street smells of fried onions coming from a stall selling chestnuts and hotdogs. In the advert on the television a family are in the kitchen. A woman is slicing bread. The screen is so big the woman is the size of a real person. In fact she is bigger than some of the passers-by: the school children on lunch break, the neat black Somali women. It is drizzling, the type of rain that takes a good ten minutes to soak through, but Sam, on a personal level, is not bothered by rain, does not use it as excuse to down tools and shelter in a Mackey Dees with a Big Mac, like some who will remain nameless. Sam takes care in the rain at work –of course. An 800 quid bevelled beauty can travel by road all the way from Liverpool, a slip of the hand, a jolt, and you’re looking at a shattered pane –a thousand diamonds. Sam stands in the street being rained on, in a high-vis-yellow jacket watching bread being cut and real-sized slices fall.
Glass is Sam’s thing –she grew up with mirrors. Not just a full length one in the hallway, and a head shot glass in the bath room, but one or more in every room (long before the home makeover shows used them to make the 2-up 2-downs look less poky). The mirrors of Sam’s childhood house had oak frames or no frames at all and were oval or square with bevelled edges. Sam’s mother was Miss Co-op 1962 but that does not completely explain the mirrors; some were positioned too high up to see into and others were so old they had liver spots and freckles. If someone asked, ‘why glass?’ one evening after Sam had been loosened up by a couple of pints, even if there was a risk of coming over all poncey, Sam would answer, ‘It’s about the honesty, the way it does not shy away, the way it comes right back at you.’ Sam might describe the way glass protects you from the outside, makes you feel safe, but not shut-in, and they might nod and get it because they all drove cars. Sam will never be drunk enough to confess her joy for the house of mirrors, watching herself –fat Sam, long thin Sam –with the passengers of the ghost train howling outside. She will never be drunk enough to take it back to the beginning: The power of Snow White, of hearing half the refrain Mirror, mirror, on the wall, and shouting out from under the quilt, who is the fairest of them all?
Sam wears her hair plaited and tucked up under her hard hat. The two pigtails make a barrier between her head and the top of the hat. The site where she works employs thousands of men but less than a dozen women. Once, when she had been working for a few weeks she saw another woman, her hair tucked away like Sam’s. There are scores of nationalities, and the world’s men, divided by language and national anthem and favourite food, are in agreement about one thing only: On women, a head of long blonde hair is more disruptive than legs. Health and Safety don’t have to tell her to remember her hat, not ever. It helps that her husband, a big bloke, works with her. He is a cement worker specialising in high gloss finishes. They might not work together, but just knowing he is one of the thousands of yellow jackets on the Cabot Circus site helps.
In the evenings when Sam’s hands swap drilling, grinding and polishing, for peeling and chopping, her diamond engagement ring moves up and down, winking dimly beneath ingrained site dust. They talk about the people they work with: the craftsmen, the grafters, the skivers, and the jobsworths. Sam listens to problems with concrete; the honeycomb that needs breaking and patching up the next day. She tells him a bird of prey will be released into the glass dome roof to keep seagulls away when the shopping complex opens.
‘All the MP3s and blueberries and feats of technology and they’re using a bird for pest control. You’ll be telling me next they’re replacing email with pigeon carriers,’ he says.
‘Blackberries, she says.
She is not keen with all the moving around the world seems intent on: the English no longer look English, seagulls and foxes are strutting around city centres, and now a bird of prey right next to the M32. She wants to know, how will that work? Where will it nest? There are 1,000 panes of glass in a roof of 6,500 square meters and she thinks of the poor bird eating and sleeping with everyone going to The House of Fraser able to look on at their leisure.
People assumed her husband got her into building work but it was the other way around. She had been 24 years old. It was the start of a mild winter and in shop windows shoes were stacked like crates of vegetables –aubergine pumps and deep green wedges and a pumpkin yellow pair of block heels she had her eye on. She was thinking of the shoes as she walked home. There was a building site near her house. It had been there for several weeks but with the screening pulled back she could see inside. There was a machine pumping concrete into a wheelbarrow. There was a red dump truck (she later learnt to call a moxer), tearing up the earth in the boarded off area. I could work one of those, she remembers thinking. She walked onto the site. The mud was rippled from the truck tyres. Her heels sunk down. The governor called her Luvvie.
‘It’s not a place for ladies Luvvie,’ was what he’d said, shouting over the noise of excavation.
She remembered a poster she’d seen once: A woman’s place is in the work place. It was a work place wasn’t it?
‘Maybe not, but I’d like to have a go all the same.’
She began on traffic lights. She did what she was told. When a new machine took her fancy she asked to have a go. Have-A-Go-Sam they called her with a wink. She got the double meaning, chose to ignore it as long as they let her have a go, get the certificates. It took a couple of years, but one day when she was sitting on the moxer digging deep into the earth she noticed she had a starring role in her own fairytale (Sam and the Red Moxer).
Sam stopped collecting tickets after her stint on glass. The other jobs had been dating but glass was forever. Sam’s work has taken her all over England and Wales and she can point to examples of her work in Wembley Stadium, India Quays, the Millennium Stadium, and Dublin Airport. Sam imagines a building is blind before the glass goes in –it makes her feel like a surgeon from Moorfield’s eye hospital whipping off the bandages. Already, 70 frames have gone in across the site. On the higher levels the spider crane has sucked the glass flat onto its unfolding legs before releasing the glass into position. But on the ground level she has held the panes and swerved and danced with men and together they were as graceful and strong and precise in their movements as principal dancers.
Of all the shops in the 500 million pound shopping complex, it is Harvey Nics Sam wants to give sight to. She wants to see the shop’s eyes flick wide. She wants to be responsible for all those people looking in at mannequins and handbags, responsible for sliding glass that parts like the red sea when shoppers go out, sated, carrier bags held high. On her mother’s birthday they will go shoe shopping. Sam will stop to point at glass she put in, explaining the stitch plates, the gasket, and the capping underneath.
After buying shoes she will offer to take her mother to the champagne bar knowing she will turn it down preferring an afternoon tea. Sam will take care to ‘watch her mouth.’ She can swear in fourteen languages and damn a soul to hell in Portuguese. She will make sure none of the words casually thrown around the site end up in her mouth. Sam will raise her cup of Darjeeling and toast her birthday thinking of the thousands of meals her mother has cooked and all the plates she has washed. Plates dirtied over and over –all that work undone before it can be acknowledged, never pointed at, never claimed as her own.
The yellow jackets –on the benches, under trees, and sheltering in shop entrances, are thinning out. Lunchtime over. Sam walks away, passes two drunks sharing a can, dog at their feet. Passes men with turbans kneeling, faces inches from the ground, wordlessly tapping paving into place with mosaic skill. The smell of onions follows her.
Thursday, 20 November 2008
I was working on the outskirts of St Paul’s in a pub housed in one of the pastel coloured town houses. People hear ‘St Paul’s’ and think riots even though that was twenty years ago or more, before my time, but St Paul’s is like an ex-con not allowed to forget their form. The pub owners stocked real ales, Old Speckled Hen and other ales not widely available. They had a beer garden for smokers too, so we got all sorts coming in.
Every Friday builders swarmed in with their pay packets. The pub owners, Sue and Steve, took on two extra staff on Fridays but we still couldn’t pull pints quick enough. You hear a lot from the other side of the bar. Sue and Steve said bar staff were like the clergy; they trusted us. The point is there was no need to earwig; you couldn’t help overhearing their conversations. They had complaints about the landlady of the bed and breakfast they were living in (something about the sheets). They worked from seven to six but they didn’t mind the hours. The money wasn’t bad. (They said that a lot and I took it to mean the money was good.) It wasn’t a bundle of laughs being outside in the winter. I wouldn’t say I took a job there based on what I heard. It was partly the way they were, buying rounds for their mates, even the ones they didn’t like, ribbing each other about ugly girlfriends. Reminded me of the seventh foster family I was with, acting like they hated each other, but in a loving way.
Sue and Steve liked to be positive. It could get on your nerves. My real dad was the opposite. ‘Let’s be realistic’, he’d say before telling me why I’d never, I why I couldn’t, why I shouldn’t. I’m more used to being told what I can’t do, what I’ll never amount to, but they liked to point out the positive. They told me I was safe pair of hands. They said it wasn’t common for a kid my age to be able to add up the cost of drinks and give the correct change from a twenty-pound note. It was an older person’s skill apparently. I am skilled with my hands. One of the teachers told me I had good hand/eye coordination and I would have taken woodwork at school, but I joined the year they decided boys and girls should all do food and nutrition. At least I can make a cottage pie.
It was what happened to the Asian guys that swung my decision to leave.
The Asians came in every Friday, but never during the week. They sat together, keeping themselves to themselves. I don’t know where they were from exactly, but they all had the same wide, flat, faces. They weren’t Muslims because they liked shots of Scottish whisky. One Friday they were missing. The talk was there was a raid by immigration –the Asians didn’t have the right papers. Up until then being British hadn’t seemed like a passport to anything special, but the Asians getting busted gave me the missing card. I was nineteen, strong, good with my hands, with a head for figures and measurements and I had UK citizenship. I had a royal flush and I couldn’t wait to show my hand. I couldn’t wait to get a job on a building site.
I struck lucky with my first inquiry. A scaffolder who knew his way around said there was a job for me if I wanted it. Anytime, he said. The sub contractor had a shared house sorted for the scaffolders and the rent came out of the pay packet so I wouldn’t have to worry. The bedroom I had at the time was in a back room above the pub. There were boxes of crisps stored under my bed and I kept dreaming about rats gorging on packets of salt and vinegar. I didn’t fancy sharing a house with a bunch of men but I didn’t think my accommodation could get much worse. I gave Sue and Steve a month’s notice. They were Australian –sunshine stored in their DNA, high on vitamin D, so they wished me well and told me not to make myself a stranger.
I might have had safe hands but I didn’t like heights. The scaffolder who got me a job treated the sky like a VIP lounge. He said he liked the privacy up there, the fact that no one could sneak up on him. Because he was the one who got me the job he kept an eye out for me. I think he noticed I didn’t have anyone so at the weekends he’d invite me for Sunday dinner with his missus and his kids who were about my age. Cassie and me are born in the same year. Anyway, I only stuck out the scaffolding for as long as I did because of him, and the dinners, and Cassie. ‘The world looks different from up here’, he used to say, adjusting his radio dial and removing cling film from a cheese and pickle sandwich. It did, but I didn’t like the view.
I got this job on the back of the scaffolding. An apprenticeship in stonework. It wasn’t advertised as far as I know, but I was around and willing –the right place at the right time, which is the opposite of my real dad who whenever he got caught said he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I liked the work from the get go. Marble, granite, sandstone, and limestone –it’s the natural stone I prefer. It’s real; you can touch it and change it. It isn’t invisible, like trading on the financial markets, or like PR or IT –jobs that can be summed up with initials. My aim is to become an expert, a craftsman like the guys working at Quakers Friars –the site of the Raymond Blanc restaurant where they uncovered circular stones that were used by medieval Bristolians to sunbathe on. Like Cassie said, not many things last that long.
So far, the job is mostly passing tools and mixing mortar, but I’m watching too. The stonemasons work from plans and all the stones have a number. They check the stones are in their proper place with a plumb line. When they are sure the alignment is correct, the mortar is spread between the stones with a trowel and smoothed over. (There is a worrying amount of kneeling on hard surfaces.) I’ve seen stone floors going in, but the most impressive technique is stone facing. The wall underneath might be damaged but it doesn’t take much to resurface it, to make it beautiful again.
He has diverted the electric cables and now he is digging –not with a shovel but with a digger that churns up the earth. It is a big hole already, at least six feet. It’s surprising how deep down into the ground you need to go, how many different shades of brown there are down there. He wants a cigarette. No, he needs a cigarette. The last time he smoked one he finished it in four delicious sucks. It used to be you could smoke outside, but now you can lose your job –collect your cards, and all for a fag outside of the designated smoking area. His wife would be mad as hell. She is anti-smoking, especially now.
Whenever he digs and gets to six feet he thinks of death. He wonders how long a coffin takes to rot and who decided on six feet. Why not seven? He shouldn’t worry. He is in his forties but he can still run marathons. It’s something they do as a family, not the wife, just him and the boys. They do him proud. For his 50th the whole family are going for a short break to New York. He isn’t interested in the Empire State or other landmarks. He wants to ride in a yellow taxi, buy a newspaper from a box, and run the New York Marathon, a son either side when the starting pistol goes off. He hopes he makes it. This last time he ran he was slower than ever. The boys made personal bests. No point complaining. It’s the way it should be. There’s a natural order to everything, a right way. Take a building –foundations first, metal work, bricklaying, concreting, glass.
He shouldn’t be daydreaming because it isn’t the type of digging that is straightforward. Digging exposes essential services –gas, water, and electricity. He has to dig and drill without expensive damage, without disrupting supplies.
He has always had dirty jobs. It’s in the blood. His dad was a bin man. Popular on his round, not bothered by the smell of maggot juice or rotting food, he was the sort of bin man who got envelopes with money in, from old ladies every Christmas. Where there’s muck there’s brass. His boys were reared on dirt –digging for worms and making mud pies. The washing machine constantly buzzing in the background. A house full of dirty boys, his wife says. It is his fault her sons chose to play rugby, a sport that involves sliding in mud facedown. It is his fault her sons have dirty jobs –one works in a wood factory, the other is a lawyer.
He worried about the lawyer. He didn’t want to raise a son, send him away to university, and have him come back looking down his nose. He need not have worried. His son is proud of his working class roots. The boy reckons his background has given him an advantage that Eton and posh parents can’t compete with, and maybe he’s right. The boy can talk to everyone on the same level –is incapable of talking down or looking up.
Neither son understands the complexity of his job, how careful he needs to be with fibre optics for example, the logistics of laying drain work foundations. It isn’t quick work either and the conditions can slow him down further –too wet, too cold. Most of all they don’t understand his work is all about foundations, about creating a stable base for all who come after.
In the afternoon they want him to do a bit of demolition on another part of the site. He’s looking forward to it. Smashing things up and breaking things down is what he needs. An afternoon in demolition is what he needs. It helps with anger, especially the worst anger –where it’s nobody’s fault, and you have no religion to make sense of it, where you don’t have a person to be angry with –the type of anger where, when someone says softly, ‘good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people,’ you want to head butt them into a bloody pulp.
One day, when he was off sick, he listened to a phone-in radio show. The public were calling in trying to find solutions for their angry behaviour –wife beating, road rage, screaming at kids for leaving their homework at school. It surprised him how brazen not having to show their faces or reveal their true names made them. A counsellor suggested anger management for one of the people who kept beating up his girlfriend –a course of twelve weeks to start with. But all the man needed was a few days on a demolition site –the exercise would have lifted his mood, an instant result, and he’d have earned a few quid too.
Above the background noise of bending cranes and bleeps of vehicles backing up, and below the up-close noise of the digging, his boss is talking. His boss is shouting as if he’s been trying to get his voice heard for some time.
‘Take a break, and when you’re done go straight to demolition.’
‘Yeah, nice one,’ he shouts back.
He is not hungry but he is meeting a couple of the metal workers in one of the few coffee bars not snotty about builder’s boots. He used to be a fan of the canteen, mostly for the atmosphere, but he’s gone off it –too many people coming and going, noticing he isn’t eating like he used to. He would happily stay, but working through isn’t the done thing. He doesn’t understand people who are work shy. He knows that sometimes there is more money to be had from signing on than going to work, but that misses the point. Work is about self-respect. It gives you a shape to the day, it’s where you meet your mates and take your mind off yourself for five minutes. He honestly thinks work can keep a person alive.
He is nine feet deep now. He finishes up. Switches off. Climbs down.