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.
Thursday, 20 November 2008