Thursday, 20 November 2008


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.