I’m working in the dust and debris of a renovation with little natural light. it’s a netherworld, like being trapped in someone else’s nightmare. Outside its May, the suns shining. Bluebells, hazel woods and the scent of wild garlic fill my imaginings. I have an irresistible urge to burst out into the light, ”Drat spring cleaning”, to hop and skip among the fresh growth of Spring. But its work, a learning curve I tell myself like knitting or flower arranging. There are two of us on site, Billy who has a comprehensive knowledge of building work and myself, the apprentice. We’ve been on-site for a week now. At the end of each day we timetable the following days work with the dregs of the coffee from the flask and a spliff: Tomorrow we’ll replace guttering and downspout. I pray god the sun shines, as that will be a welcome respite from the netherworld.
The day dawns fine and mid morning I am on a ladder some thirty feet of the ground in full sunlight. It’s a solitary task prising and teasing the aged cast iron brackets from the wall. Down below, with one foot on the lower rung for my safety, Billy offers instructions and advice when needed. With the guttering removed we break for coffee, kit kats, and a spliff of a much sought after local produce. Did I mention that horticulture was another of my mentor’s skills? We return to work and the task of removing the downspout. Funny that it doesn’t occur to me how climbing a ladder with a head full of weed while wielding a two-pound hammer may be viewed under the mental heath act. Again I am perched above the populace of a northern seaside town hammering a reluctant bracket when it breaks loose and drops those thirty feet to the street below.It hits the pavement, bounces and disappears through the open front door into the vestibule of the neighbouring house. I watch this play out in slow motion and eventually the succinct clink of metal on glass reaches back up.
I descend as Billy retreats. Missus neighbour and myself touch base simultaneously. Small, grey haired wearing a floral house coat and polished brown brogues she looks at me askance, not so much seeking explanation as erasure of this imposition to her domestic arrangement.
“Sorry Missus, is there any damage?”
“You’ve cracked the glass pane in my door, son. It’ll have to be fixed.”
I assume the stance of the college educated exuding an assurance of honest intent. I’m hoping she hasn’t noticed Billy’s stoned face and manic grin momentarily peep around the door, then disappear like an apparition half witnessed.
“I’ll go and get a measuring tape so we can pick up a piece of glass in the morning and sort it out. Give me two seconds.”
Minutes later I am rising from my knees clutching the imperial dimensions for the replacement glass written on the flyleaf of a Rizla packet.
Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow. Tomorrows and broken promises come and go. The flyleaf’s become roach material and the cracked pane remains. We start arriving furtively. No flyleaf means no dimensions means no replacement glass. Thursday morning, why I remember that detail I have no idea but it adds to the clarity of the sequence of events that follow. Today we will remove the dividing wall between adjoining rooms and secure the structure with acro props, then install a reinforcing steel joist. With our usual morning break finished we proceed. I discover that demolition is fun, like sanctioned vandalism. Wielding a sledgehammer in someone’s home imparts a sense of forbidden pleasure, innocent or illicit its pleasure nonetheless. The rumble and thud of falling masonry, the rising cloud of dust aver to the destruction. As the dust settles we settle to lunch amidst the devastation to review progress, exchange news and revisit weed, as you do. The clouds of dust have just about settled in the room, but not the cloud in my head as we return to the task in hand. Billy is at one pier and I at the other with the RSJ on our shoulders. We slowly climb the step ladders to place the beam, a performance worthy of Smarts Circus. Now add to that an insistent knocking on the door and you have drama.
“Ignore it; it’s that oul doll from next door” says Billy.
“How do you know?”
“I saw her pass the window”
Considering the concentration and balancing act involved in the task at hand, his capacity for extra peripheral vision in this light is truly impressive. Must be the weed. We manage to lodge the RSJ in position for fine-tuning as the knocking persists.
“We’ll have to answer that. Ah fuck she’s at the window now.”
I answer the door expecting the third degree on a glass pane. Instead its human pain.
“Oh son I’m awfully worried”
“Why what’s wrong Missus?”
“My husbands not answering the door”
“Maybe he’s gone out”
“No, son. I was out getting a few messages and left him at home. He has a heart condition”
“Oh, how can I help?”
“I have no key so I can’t get into the house. Could you go over the wall at the back and open the yard door?”
“OK, go you round and I’ll let you in.”
I pass back through the house to the yard.
“The old dear’s locked out and her husbands not answering. He’s got a heart condition so the wee woman’s worried.”
“Aye, he’s probably in there with the nurse. Fuck he’s going to be thrilled seeing you peeping through the window. Give me a shout if you need a hand…. with the nurse”
I climb the wall and open the yard door. She’s through the door, like a greyhound released from the trap, and over to the yard window.
“Oh son I can’t see him. What am I going to do?”
“Don’t worry I can get through the kitchen window.”
The upper half of the small sash window is partially open. The inner ledge of the lower window used as a shelf for a miscellany convenient to the sink. I pull the top window down and squeeze through the aperture scattering matches, soap and dentures in a glass on to the tiled floor. The teeth bare at me in a pool of water like a marooned piranha as I cross the kitchen to the door. In the back parlour by the doorway to the kitchen the old guy is sitting bolt upright on a dining chair in his dark pinstripe suit. There’s a cascade of little white pills spilling from a phial into his lap. I open the outside door to his wife. Her apprehension bursts into the room before her. When she sees her husband her anxiety overflows.
“Oh son he’s gone, he’s gone”
“No Missus, He’s still breathing. Call an ambulance.”
I flounder in my attempts to reassure her, marooned like the teeth.
“We have to move him on to the sofa.”
I don’t question her logic but know for certain that between myself and this small old lady this is not going to happen. Her husband is not a small man and, though I think it, I don’t mention dead weight.
“No Missus you phone an ambulance, I’ll get my mate and we’ll move him.”
I rush in next door animated by the immediacy of the moment and find Billy leaning against the wall, spliff in hand, surveying his handy work.
“What’s up with her then?”
“The old guy’s had a heart attack. Come on and give me a hand to move him.”
“What for, are we hiding the body?”
“Fuck you’re a gag. No she wants him on the sofa.”
“Is it not a bit late for that?”
“Just come on and give me a hand.”
When we go next door I notice that I’ve left a trail of footprints through the house and as we enter we add a further layer of dust and debris to the polished tiles and Axminster carpet.
“Oh son, he’s gone. What am I going to do?”
She stands by her husband, who’s still upright in his chair, clearly distraught and confused.
“Did you call the ambulance?”
“Yes I did. We’ll have to move him onto the sofa.”
I still don’t think to ask why as it seems inappropriate to her distress and more prudent to comply. So Billy and I man handle the now evident deadweight of this man with little dignity on to the sofa. The old lady in her agitation and misery flits about the room voicing the inarticulate language of her agony. I am impotent to offer any words on this foreign shore and grateful for the arrival of the medical services uniformed to assure and comfort. I am happy to defer to their experience, so Billy and I depart with a few muttered words. As I leave, a backward glance at the tableau of medical efficiency around the supine corpse presents an improbable snapshot. The husband’s recently pristine pinstripe suit is coated in the dust and debris of demolition.