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