Working men.

As a kid, I always looked for work in construction through the long summer holidays. It was usually a full-time gig, paid a lot better than casual jobs behind a bar and once in a while it was a cash in hand affair, so let’s not involve the taxman in it. At the start, it required some necessary inventiveness in terms of describing my experience and age, but I soon got into it. Crack that first job, then you’ve got experience and then you’re a made man and off to the races.

There was always that rite of passage of taking some ribbing from the older men who in retrospect I think had a pretty shrewd idea of exactly how much I knew about anything on a construction site, which was actually not a lot, so initially I got the unskilled brute force sledge hammer jobs. I’d no idea what the fuck I was doing, but I was young, strong and willing. Point me at it Boss, I’ll smash it down for you. Sledge hammer boy. I was not much more than a child really.

I took a lot of ribbing being called “kid” or “college” and the usual pranks every one of which I fell for like being sent to the storemaster for striped paint to the general hilarity of every man on the site, but after showing a strong back and not being afraid of ending up the day with blisters on my hands, they adopted me because they realised I and the family needed the money. We really did. I wasn’t a tourist or some work experience wank off kid. As long as they held me on for the full week and there was the prospect of another week’s work on Monday, I was the Guvnor’s bitch.

By slow painful degrees and as they allowed, I became part of the crew.

I was punching well above my weight. They were older men with sons and daughters my age who couldn’t stand watching a deranged kid like me killing himself by working stupidly and yet who just simply wouldn’t go away, so they began to show me some of the basics of their profession. All the little tricks and tips to a kid who knew he was so far behind, he just soaked them up silently but gratefully and resolved every time to never make the same stupid mistake twice.

Always work smart became the litany they taught me.

First off, they brought me to a working man’s cafe where every morning they ate a huge crack of dawn fried breakfast and forced it down my gullet because it was fuel, they explained. They were right; no more toughing it through exhaustion every afternoon. They spotted me breakfast for the first week, but made damn sure I repaid the debt afterwards. I was down pat with that. You burned the fuel through the day, which explained why although there were one or two beer bellies in the crew, there was nobody you could call fatso.

Lots of other useful tips.

How to swing a sledge hammer so it was working for you rather than just being a weight you were lifting. How to fill a hot water bowl with salt and stick your soft blistered hands into it to harden them up. How to work safe and not be a danger to your mates. There were no Health & Safety regs in those times, so you really did have to watch out for each other. People being killed or injured on construction sites was a boring weekly occurrence in those days; hardly worth reporting on. And yet it happened and I’d seen it.

How, when you were all out for an easy end of week Friday drink and another crew with a few head cases backed your crew into a corner, you never hesitated for a moment once your crew chief nodded to let them have it, and to fuck with whoever was in the right or wrong. But also, it was fair you could beat the shite out of each other, but never do anything so vicious that it would stop a working man turning up on site Monday morning. That was the rough honour code.

The leader of the crew I belonged to was called Declan. He didn’t have any particular job title nor was paid more than anyone else, but every man Jack of us knew he was the leadership. I’d heard stories from the rest of the crew about listening to him from the pavement outside of his fifth floor flat playing Rachmaninoff on an old upright piano as some girlfriend furiously went for the full orgasm on his lap with her legs wrapped around his waist in time with the music and him. He really was that sort of dreamy mad bastard. You couldn’t invent him. The stories about him were legendary, but none of them ever came from him. There was always something about Declan.

Just to complete the whole hero worship thing, he’d also done some stuff in the war I never got to the bottom of, but the old sweats in the crew who’d done their time working their way across the deserts of North Africa knew all about and were totally in awe of. It seemed to be entangled with some lost love, which was why the wives were always trying to match him up with a nice young girl.

They couldn’t see it, but all the nice young girls did in the end. There was a little light in that direction that’d flicked out and despite their most thoughtful efforts, wasn’t going to flick on again. I’ve seen it since, a one and only one woman type of man. Any woman who lay with him would always be competing against a long deceased ghost.

I recall one time when we were working far away from home and every night sleeping in the back of a van, we all went out on the lash Saturday night and the whole crew ended up in a brothel. I was scared shitless and ended up edging unconsciously way up close to Declan who was not partaking but on the piano playing a selection of favourites with a bit of impromptu Hoagy Carmichael thrown in for good measure. Declan I’m pretty sure had never paid for the company of a woman in his life and I was so young and innocent, I wouldn’t know which end to start on anyway.

In an effort to gentle me as you would a spooked colt, he asked me what type of music I liked. I knew better than to say rock and roll and in an effort to sound sophisticated, said I liked classical. ‘Who?’ he asked. I blundered out Chopin. He smiled and moved seamlessly into playing the second nocturne from memory. For a moment, every man and whore in the place stopped to listen.

It’s not a long piece, but at its end, he withdrew his hands from the keyboard and rested them there on his knees. He seemed to stare at them as if they were strangers. Eventually he came out of that fiercely private space he sometimes retreated into, and gave me that oh so familiar wolfish grin before launching back into some raunchy boogie woogie to kick the mood in the joint back up.

I’ve since heard it played in concert halls and even by proxy leaning against the outside wall of a very swish conservatoire in Prague, but in the remembrance of Declan’s performance of the piece, they all seemed lightweight. An angel had alighted momentarily on the Earth before lifting off again but it left an indelible footprint in my memory.

Having lost my father, I made some lasting filial relationships with these craggy more knowledgeable older men I’d come to love and when I was back home, I’d always pop into their haunts to do a catch up with them. We’d have a laugh but there was invariably a point in the evening where I got a careful grilling about how I was doing at my studies.

They were fine rough tough working men, not ashamed of how they made a living, but there was a certain parental pride about the young man they’d helped kick into shape, one of their own crew moving upwards in the world and somehow waving a pair of fingers at da man without disowning them.

Like all fathers with a son who was prepared to work, anytime I was home and there was any piece of work flying around, they’d make a hole for me in the crew. I always worked twice as hard as anyone else because I felt I had to prove I wasn’t talking the bread out of the mouth of a working man’s family because I was getting preferential treatment over. Perhaps I was, but I always worked hard anyway.

One time over the Winter break, we were all working on a motorway in the run up to the Christmas. If you’re a dad, it’s an expensive time of year, so you just have to go for it. It was flat midland’s stuff with a driving lateral wind that would shear the frozen bollocks off you. We all worked as much as we could, but after an hour or so, none of us could feel our fingers any longer. It gets dangerous then, so you have to stop. There was no shelter, no lee from the wind, so nine or ten working men became jammed into Declan’s old Ford Zephyr and out of the cold and wind.

I’d never known cold like it. We all literally cuddled up for warmth and with everybody smoking, the interior soon became blue and impenetrable, and there wasn’t a man among us who wanted to go back out into that hell. Declan, as usual, cracked it.

“You know lads, if we stay in this car much longer, we might distract young Pointy here from his ambition of becoming a scientist”. His timing and enunciation was perfect, especially if you pay attention to the two commas in that exact sentence. There was a pause, then a little snigger began about sledge hammer boy, and soon a Ford Zephyr rocked in fun as we all laughed our heads off, but it was enough to get us all out of the car for another hour’s worth of winter brutality. Get those arses and elbows up and moving. That was the real leadership thing and it was only him who could have turned that trick so neatly.

It was a demolition job, but it was obvious to everyone the Gippos had already been in and stripped the whole joint clean of anything they could flog on to the local scrap merchant. A building after that sort of treatment is like an unexploded bomb if you’re there to take it down. Declan knew that and insisted he’d scope it out alone, but over his objections, his second insisted on doing the wingman thing.

The man who’d hammered into me to always work smart went into the building with his mate, and the whole fucking thing came down on their heads.

I was away at the time, studying nothing much of any lasting consequence and so ashamed I hadn’t been there with the rest of the crew furiously scrabbling through the rubble to get to them out in time, that I didn’t want to go to the wake, never mind the service. The usual kick up the arse from the men to the educated young idjit adjusted my attitude. They knew I just couldn’t stick with the idea of them being gone forever. Stupid, stupid, stupid boy. To this day, I’m no good at taking a loss like that and never will be.

The company rep turned up at the wake to express the company’s regrets. He was just somebody sent into the lion’s den and to be fair to him, he was courteous and extremely polite to the widow. He knew he was on very dangerous ground. There were a lot of men in the room just ready and needing to kick off, but I left it to him and his shit heel company. Sledge hammer boy wanted to kill him but was persuaded otherwise by the crew. As always, wiser heads prevailed, and I accepted it. Take the hit Kiddo, just take the fucking hit. Bite down hard on it.

It was a fine Irish wake. We’d all thrown in for the funeral costs, the wake itself, and the family left behind. There wasn’t an unpaid bill left in sight after it. The women bravely cooked up a storm of boiled bacon and potatoes with some buttered salty cabbage on the side, because that was the displacement activity they used to handle the heart breaking loss of two such darling men.

They knew their menfolk had been utterly destroyed.

The faces of the two boyos had been ruined by the bricks coming down upon them, but the women had draped filigree handkerchiefs over the faces to preserve their grace. Declan and Paddy had taken a bullet for the whole crew. It could so very easily have been a very hard day at Babylon for all of them, and they knew it. The women took ownership of the occasion and were just seeing them home. By the walls of it, I knelt and wept.

The men in turn told all the terrible bad stories about them, laughed, got drunk, talked stupid over the open coffins in the living room, but ultimately put their hand on the breast of the fallen men and went away to have a bitter cry in some private corner of the house. There was always a woman or bloke who noticed and followed them just to be there and to pat them on the back and say there there, there there. Men don’t have much in the way of coping mechanisms because that’s not allowed.

Some men you put in the ground, but you never forget them.

©Pointman

Related articles by Pointman:

The lawnmower boy.

Click for a list of other articles.

 

 

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Comments
8 Responses to “Working men.”
  1. Blackswan says:

    Pointman,

    Whatever Sledgehammer Boy was learning in the hallowed halls of academia, nobody taught him to appreciate humanity in quite the way that Declan and his crew did – and those ripples have now spread far and wide.

    Like

  2. rapscallion says:

    That was one of the most moving eulogies I’ve ever read. You have an amazing ability to paint us a picture and then create the mood. Declan and Paddy would be proud of you.

    Like

  3. 42david says:

    Well written Pointy. The hurt never goes away. Gets tucked away but unexpectedly rears its head at strange times and the tears come.

    Nothing you can do about it so you have just got to get on with life and in doing so honour the memory of special people who leave an indelible mark on your soul.

    Like

  4. Freddie says:

    My first comment ever on the internet. Nobody uses words like menfolk or preserving their grace, or knows psalm 137. Only you pointman. Thank you.

    Like

  5. philjourdan says:

    This is a great eulogy, but a great insight into the backbone of any nation, the hard working man.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Like

  6. Bushkid says:

    Amen to that, Pointy. There are those you can never forget, no matter how long gone they are. Thank you.

    Like

  7. Bennett In Vermont (@BennettVermont) says:

    Wow. Just wow. Thank you again for taking me far away from the comfort of my home.

    Like

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