SHORT STORY: To The Trade

Winning entry in the 2008 Michael McLaverty Short Story competition, by Aiden O'Reilly

‘Would you lift up, don’t be stooping’. The craftsman leaned down and gripped the hawk over the white knuckles holding it up from below. He slapped and smeared the mortar, scooped a glob deftly onto the trowel. Hurled it at the eroded joints in the chimney breast, sealed it in with the trowel edge. 

The loaded mortar board sagged again, inch by inch, until it rested on the stringy black hair of the boy underneath. His face was streaked with grey stains from the cement, his nose red-raw from the cold and the brisk friction of his sleeve. Grains of sand ground into his fingers, working their way under an old plaster. It didn’t hurt now, but he knew it would later. He peered up from under the board and willed strength into his drooping arms. The master scooped the mortar onto the trowel in one fluid motion and turned to the work again. Again the hawk sank slowly, and again the white knuckles on one side released their grip as the boy scrubbed his nose. He shook the blood back into first one arm, then the other. 

They were on a scaffolding erected at the gable end of a house. It was a Victorian redbrick in the old residential part of the city. The father was up on a trestle pointing the chimney base. Each time he slapped on a trowel-full of mortar a good portion of it skited back, leaving long streaks on the lower brickwork. 

The mortar board became lighter. The boy could spare the attention to look across at the upstairs windows. He could see white lacy curtains, empty window boxes, wet leaves on window sills. He could see through the lace, to the room inside. An assortment of bottles and spray cans stood on the inside ledge. A bright orange wardrobe with a mirror set in front. It had to be a woman’s room. Little pictures, or postcards, were stuck all over the door. His eyes searched the crumpled bed clothes, trying to follow the shapes of the discarded items on the bed. 

‘Is it heavy? I say, Is it too heavy for you?’ The voice broke through like a fistful of gravel hurled at him. He strained his arms and raised the hawk again. If he hung his head to one side the strain was less. He counted slowly. 

From this position he could see the rows of slanted black roofs, the bushy crowns of trees, and all the little chimneys pushing out their smokes. It was a different country up here. You could giant-step from roof to roof, valley to valley, clamber across the mound of a treetop and reach the flat expanse of the factory roof. From there you could make your way along the top of a high wall to reach more distant archipelagoes in the ocean of ground level. More of the city is roof than road, he suddenly thought. The roads are not roads, but are canyons between roofs. Back gardens are hollows and pits into nothingness. 

The houseman's wife appeared and stood cautiously to one side of the scaffolding. ‘Are ye ready for a bite to eat?’ she called up. 

It won’t be long now, the thought idled through him, holding him steady, warming him, waiting for the lights to change, any moment now. But the craftsman disdained to be seen rushing in for lunch as soon as it was called. The woman stood below, looking on at the work in progress, as was her prerogative. 

The boy rested the hawk on a spud of the scaffold, relaxing in the security of her gaze for a moment. He resumed his game of finding a route across the roofscape, and now built the tangle of telephone wires into his scheme. Over these precarious bridges you could reach the church. The tiny three-runged ladders at the top of each telegraph pole provided temporary resting-places. 

‘Ah givvus a bit,’ the voice intruded, but under the gaze of the housewife not as harshly as usual. The boy lowered his head and offered up the hawk. Looking down he saw the round red face of the woman smiling at him. She called again: ‘Don’t be letting it go cold on the plate.’ 

There was no reply but the bristle sound of a stiff brush on bricks. The wet grit skited down into the boy’s face. He screwed his eyes half-closed. At last his father climbed down from the trestle and threw the trowel and brush into a bucket of water. He thrust the bucket into the boy's hands — ‘Take this would you’, spoken through the nose and mouth together. 

‘By God there’s a bit of a chill out too, you young lad must be freezing,’ the woman said kindly. 

‘It’s all right,’ the boy said. It was awkward to be treated with such consideration. 

‘Get in and eat the food while it’s still warm.’ The boy looked up at his father still scouring the wall and hesitated, unsure of which authority applied. ‘Go on,’ she said. The boy went ahead inside. 

The sink was in a room next to the kitchen. He went through and washed the cement from his hands under a strong gush of warm water. There was a bar of soap and a bottle of detergent but he didn’t want to interfere with her things. Outside he heard the woman scolding, urging his father to use the good warm water inside. The boy shook his hands vigorously, the life now fully seeped back into them. Too fully. They were two fleshy lumps of red speckled with paler blotches, and now the pain seeped too. He wished he was back at school, though there was nothing he had hated more than school. Maybe next year he could go to London, earn good money by painting people’s railings, get his own flat. 

The woman had prepared a simple stew, served not with potatoes but with stacks of bread. Through the window they could see the lawn, now with tracks of mud where they had dragged the heavy scaffold pieces. 

‘That's a powerful stew,’ the craftsman said. 

‘’Tis only a bit of meat and carrots, you need something warm on a day like this, and the pair of you way up in the wind and rain.’ 

‘That’s all you need in a stew, barley and a slip of onion. You know an onion keeps off all kinds of colds and flu’s. There’s a power in an onion.’ 

The father reached out for another cut of bread. His thin hands were appallingly abused. The thread remains of a bandage clung to the middle finger. The skin on the sides of the knuckles was cracked in a radial pattern. Dark grey concrete stains lined the ancient cracks; one of them seeped blood, but as though welling up from a great depth. Veins and tendons interplayed on the back of his hand. The fingernails looked like worn saw teeth, or a cracked trowel. They were alive, but had the appearance of things, of abandoned tools. One nail was like a hoof — flesh and keratin intertwined to close over old wounds. Another was split in two from the quick to the fingertip, and a hard growth filled the space between. A bulbous texture like the organic growth of a tree bark over a rusty nail. 

‘What kind of meat is that in the soup?’ his father asked. 

‘Just a bit of an old lamb is all.’ 

‘Lamb is a great meat. People long ago used eat a lot more lamb. I don't like pork. The Jews never eat pork, that’s a fact. When I was young we’d have to kill the lambs ourselves. We’d run after a wild one in the fields with a knife and cut its throat. We’d do all the butchering ourselves, and me only twelve years old. And then there’d be lamb for dinner that same day. A very healthy meat, so they say.’ 

‘That’s right, that’s right,’ said the woman, who had stopped eating and was looking at him intently. She had not been unaffected by his reminiscence of the lambs. 

‘That’s a great gossoon you have there,’ she said. The boy shifted on the hard chair. The teapot gurgled pleasantly tea into the cups, and for a long while the spoons clinked round and round, stirring in the sugar thoroughly. 

The woman squinted and caught his father’s hand in hers. ‘Look at the state of your hands. I’ll go get a plaster for you.’ The man looked at his hands as though puzzled by them and drew them out of sight under the table. 

‘Don't be bothering. It’s as well let the air at them.’ He picked at the tattered plaster and let the bits fall to the floor under the table. 

‘Will we have to build another level for the chimney?’ asked the boy. The father paid him not the least attention. 

‘Put this on you — give me your hand,’ said the woman on her welcome return. She held his hand steady on the back of the chair. The father’s eyes caught the son’s and were swiftly averted. 

‘Now you’re fixed. It’ll hold together until five o’clock.’ She winked at the son. 

‘Thanks for the bite to eat,’ said the man, and pushed the chair back into place under the table, a concession to the female domain of the house. 

Outside the grey clouds had sealed together. 

‘Clean that filth off the lawn, and that, and that mortar off the wall. We can’t leave it in that state. These kind of people are used to having their homes tidy, not like a pigsty.’ 

The boy picked up the yard brush and started scrubbing. 

‘How would you use a yardbrush on a wall?’ his father bawled. ‘Take that scrubbing brush there, and are you listening? Don’t finish it until it’s finished. Get all that filth away and give it a good scrubbing. Get those things out of your way first — don’t put them on the lawn, for Jaysus’ sake! Can you move a little faster? Did you not get enough to eat? Take a grip on the brush and move yourself.’ 

Perhaps there was some good reason why the small handbrush had to be used instead of the long-handled yardbrush, but the boy only passively perceived that the easier option was forbidden. He dipped the brush in the grimy water and scrubbed the wall, dipped and scrubbed and found a rhythm, and then he was away, thinking of nothing, and was lost inside the pattern of the brickwork and the angles of the scaffold framework. Time passed, any amount of it, cloud-lengths of time, rolling on to five o’clock. 

A shout called on him to pass up more planks. So they were building another level. This was a welcome change from the scrubbing. When enough planks and poles were up on the platform he climbed above his father and stood on the bare horizontal pole. His father in turn passed the materials up. The boy noticed the clenched-jaw effort his father had to make every time he pushed up a plank, and the way he squinted his eyes against the hail of grit that tumbled down. Finally they both stood on the new boards and began to attach the lengths of pole. 

Up at this height the scaffold didn't have the same solidity as on the lower levels. It would be nice if the woman came out, the boy thought, and saw the way he was able to clamber about at such a height, with the whole construction swaying at every step. It was getting late, he could see from the way the clouds were tinged with colour close to the horizon. They secured the poles provisionally, screwing the bolts home with finger and thumb. 

‘Get me a number sixteen spanner, would you,’ his father said. 

‘Is it in the car or in the toolbox?’ 

‘Sure you’ll find it anyway.’ 

The boy descended the ladder, watching the world change to normal again. He searched quickly through the tool boxes, found nothing, and went out to the car. The sun at the ends of the day broke through the clouds and lit up everything horizontally. The car was warm inside, like a greenhouse, with a warm luxuriant scent. He rummaged through the back, suddenly aware of the passage of time again, and finally found the hammer. 

His father was busy fixing in the new poles. He seemed not to notice neither the boy’s absence or arrival. 

‘Here,’ said the boy, holding out the hammer. The father looked at it and hesitated, and then in little more than a whisper: ‘Is that a number sixteen spanner?’ 

The boy looked at it and his lips wavered, but he answered in a firm voice, ‘Yes’, and held it out. His father reached out slowly and grasped it, looking into his son’s eyes for signs of defiance, or stupidity. There was only calm certainty. 

Touched on some raw nerve of superstition, the man felt foreboding creep over him. Old feelings and intimations came back to him. There was a wedge driven into reality and it was threatening to crack apart. Slowly he fitted in a section and hammered it home, and then shook his head and muttered, For Jaysus’ sake, a hammer! and snorted. But there was nobody to hear this appeal to common sense, and he found that, after all, he didn’t need the spanner. 

The next time he spoke to the boy it was in a more subdued tone. 

‘Can you hold up the crossbar?’ They worked together almost wordlessly, the boy following the movements of his father. 

A trickle of sand from above formed a tiny dune on the boards. The boy thought of holidays on the beach in the time before his mother went away, the hill at the end that was all theirs for two weeks. It was a sand hill with a circle of marram grass. Whenever a strange boy or girl crossed onto their territory they would be challenged and forced to acknowledge the true owners. Between themselves they’d had battles to see who would be king of the hill. It had been a laugh when Dad had made a camp fire at the back of the caravan and they’d roasted potatoes and boiled up tea. 

His father climbed with surprising agility up onto the slates and clambered around to the other side of the chimney. He demanded the slate rip and a bucket, and told the boy to lay out the planks and fasten them in the meantime, handing him the hammer. 

This surprised the boy. His father had never asked him to do such an important job before. Usually he was given the most simple repetitive tasks, just washing and cleaning up. He looked up and down the platform, figuring out what length would fit where. The planks were stacked vertically on the platform below, within easy reach. He began working steadily, pulling up a plank from below, fitting it into place, and hammering through the long metal pins. They stuck out the other side and he hammered them to curl back and grip the timber, like he’d seen his father do. From here he could see the ragged scraps of clouds lit up in red along the horizon. He licked his abraded fingers and spat. Down at ground level things seemed darker, though up at that height it still seemed bright. With a feeling of contentment he realised that time was limited. The day was drawing to a close; soon there would be stars. In the room across the street a light was on already. 

‘Is it all finished, is it?’ the gravel voice assaulted him. He jumped up with a shock and tapped at the nearest metal pin to hammer it home. 

‘Is that steady? Is that something you could stand on and work?’ His father tested an edge plank with his foot. The boy quickly grabbed a clamp and slapped it on, pulled it closed. One turn of his fingers tightened the nut. His father stepped fully on the plank. The clamp slipped a little. 

‘Is that fast, is it?’ his father repeated, ‘And this one, and this one, is that well-fastened?’ His father bickered hoarsely, pointing at another plank. He made his way towards it. The boy grabbed another clamp and ran to fasten it. Too late. His father jumped onto the plank with his full weight. 

‘Do you see!’ he roared in triumph as it slipped from under him, ‘you can’t do anything right!’ 

He’ll land on the lower platform, the boy thought quickly, as the figure keeled over and down. But there were no planks left below. The figure fell and fell, and the head slapped with a resonant clang against the bar at the bottom level. The boy stepped cautiously up to the edge and looked down at the small crumpled corpse lying across the dark scrapings of mortar. The grey greasy strands of hair were clotted together, and a thickening ooze of blood spread over the cold damp concrete.