It is surprising that Bob entered Anne’s story at all, but he managed to, by chance, one sunny Saturday morning when a pipe was leaking in Anne’s kitchen, and there was an inch of water on the floor.
Bob’s world happened to converge with Anne’s when Anne walked half asleep into her kitchen just before 8 o’clock that Saturday morning. She soon woke up as she stepped into a puddle of water that was growing deeper as she stared at it. She turned off the stop tap under the sink. Then she phoned the number of some builders that Quentin had given her when he had had his wall rebuilt, and, in response, Bob was sent with Dave, the plumber, to sort things out. While Dave was getting his tools from the van, Bob quietly mopped up the water and assured Anne that this was nothing really and that they’d have it as good as new in an hour or so. Their two worlds met.
As they talked, Anne realised that Bob lived a life of immediate needs, needs which were easy to see and which could be resolved by a bit of thinking and plenty of hard work. She had forgotten that life could be like that. She lived a life of demands from herself, demands which her mind made on her from the moment she woke up. When you have no difficulty in paying the mortgage and the gas, the electricity, and the telephone, then other worries arise. Bob was busy with the first, while Anne was battling with the second. As always, her demands, made by herself on herself, were far harder to satisfy.
Bob’s world was one of the many worlds that rub shoulders in any city. We inhabit our own. We have our routes, and we meet those that share these routes for a time, but we really have little idea of the world of our neighbour. Bob’s was a world of scaffold poles, stacks of bricks and piles of concrete blocks. It was a world of drilling, banging, and sawing set against the background music of the concrete mixer. It was a world of jokes and swearing. It was an out-of-doors world where the weather mattered. It was a world of sweat and strength and stamina; the world of a new building rising clean and clear out of the mud and mess of the building site. It was a world of hard work and skill, of good humour, of several cups of tea during the day and a few beers in the evening.
Anne felt a weight descend on her shoulders each morning as she opened the heavy oak door of her chambers and stepped on to the thick red carpet in the hall. But Bob felt happy as he strolled, whistling, on to the building site in the clear light of early morning. He felt better when he went on site and saw the confusion, the puddles of water, the piles of bricks, the torn cement bags, the heaps of sand, the mud, and, among it all, the clean lines of the walls and windows of a new building, for this new building was something that would last. Among the banter, the rain and the mud, the noise, the sun, the sweat, the shouting and the singing, the building rose towards the sky.
Let’s take a day at random from the time when Bob was working on his previous job, renovating an old farmhouse just outside Nailsea near Bristol.
6.30 am. The alarm goes off. ‘I will never, never, never go to the pub mid-week again.’
Breakfast: four rashers of bacon and two fried eggs.
‘I can’t face it!’
His mother makes him eat it.
“You can’t be on the buildings all day on an empty stomach.”
Obediently, he swallows the bacon and starts on the eggs.
7.59 Arrives on site. Just made it. Just. Leave home five minutes earlier tomorrow. Traffic is getting worse and worse.
8.00 Picks up his tools in the hut, walks along the planks laid over the mud, up the ladders, careful of the hole over the stair well, we ought to rail that off, it’s dangerous, over rough concrete floors to the wall of face brickwork he started yesterday. It is strange how different the job looks in the morning. Late the previous night laying the last course of bricks was hard. Every brick weighed a ton, and every movement was an effort. Today, first thing in the morning, after a night’s sleep and breakfast, the job looks nothing at all. Right, now I’m ready to go. Take out the level, take out the line, slice into the pile of fresh mortar on the board, fill my trowel and slap it on the brick. When Bob has laid the first brick, the rest is easy.
8.30 A lorry-load of bricks arrives. Six at a time are thrown in a line. If you don’t catch them and press them together fast, they fall.
8.35 “Catch them and stack them, catch them and stack them, never mind your aching back. Catch and stack. Hold them tight together or they’ll all fall. If the driver can pick them up and throw them to me, I can catch them. Never mind the pain. Who’s going to ask for a breather first? Him or me? Catch and stack! Catch and stack!”
11.00 Two lorries of cement bags arrive together. This always seems to happen. It’s like the buses in London. You wait for half an hour and then two come together. It’s a relief to have the stuff as we were nearly out of it, but why two loads? Bob joins the line of men humping bags of cement from the lorry across the planks over the mud to the shed. When a lorry arrives, everyone leaves their own job to lend a hand with unloading it. The driver stands on the lorry, grabs a bag of cement and balances it upright on the edge of the lorry floor. The sides have been let down, so the lorry is open. Walk to the lorry, turn, brace yourself and the bag falls on to your shoulder. Brace your arm by putting your hand on your hip. Trudge over the site, through the mud to the shed where the cement is stored. Why can’t the lorry get nearer the cement store? It never can! It never can! Bob never forgot the first cement lorry he helped to unload when he came to the buildings straight from school. He was 15 years old. The first bag of cement nearly broke his back. He had lined up with the other men. When he reached the lorry and his turn came, he doubled up under the weight. Red face. General laughter. Some comments. (It had happened to all of them their first time.) It didn’t happen again. Next time he was ready for it.
11.15 Back to laying bricks. Course after course. The wall went up.
1.00 pm Lunch. Six sandwiches (3 raspberry jam, 3 lemon curd) and an enormous slice of fruit cake, sitting on the cement bags with his back against the wall of the shed.
3.30 Rained off. They would work through drizzle, but this rain was too much. Nice to stop, but then it’s always hard to get going again. You wish you had never rested at all. Your back hurts more than ever after you’ve stopped.
5.00 Just one hour left. The back’s beginning to ache more, and the bricks feel heavier, the zest has gone but the rhythm is there. Course after course, the wall’s going up well. Yes, today has gone all right. I’ve done ok.
5.45 Lay the last brick of the afternoon. Throw a few old bricks with some water into the mixer to clean it out. The clanking of the bricks is the happy music of the end of each day. It’s the sign that work is over. Empty the mixer. Clean the tools.
6.00 The firm’s van arrives and collects the rest of the men. Bob locks up the shed, gets in his car and drives back home.
7.00 High tea. The dining room feels warm after the cold wind on the site, and his mother is fussing over him again. She puts a huge plateful of bangers and mash on the table in front of him.
Then out to The Rising Sun. Darts. Back home around 10.30.
Another day tomorrow. Get up at 6.30. Breakfast. On site at 5 to 8 and at 8 o’clock the merry music of the concrete mixer will break the quiet of another morning.
But this was Saturday. Anne’s morning began with a flooded kitchen at 8 o’clock and ended at 1.00 with a new pipe, a dry floor, and an invitation to go out that evening, but of that, more later. When it was all finished, and the pipe repaired and the wall and the floor made good, and the water was turned back on, Anne gave Bob and Dave a coffee, and they all talked. Then Dave had to rush to another emergency. This ‘emergency’ had had to wait for him to finish his coffee. The Armada, after all, had had to wait for Drake to finish his game of bowls. When Dave had left, Bob managed to say what had been on his mind since he had first seen Anne at 8.30 that morning. Why not? She can’t eat me. She can only say no.
“Would you like to see City play at Ashton Gate this afternoon?”
“Well, thanks, that’s kind. But I don’t know the first thing about football, but…” (Why “but”? But what?) “…but there is a film I’d like to see this evening”.
“Why not?” thought Anne. “Why not? He can’t eat me. He can only say no.”
They saw the film. When they came out of the cinema Anne asked Bob what he thought of it. He had clear ideas on the plot, and he commented on details that had not occurred to Anne. He asked her why the suitcases in films were always empty. It was obvious. He knew what it was to lift blocks and bricks. When she had asked Quentin about a film they had seen, he had summarised the review in the Times and had never thought of giving his own opinion.
Anne and Bob became one of those couples, if you could call them a couple, that see each other from time to time because they do each other good. Anne needed someone from the real world, and Bob felt that the mud of Monday to Friday was on another planet as he showed Anne to a table in a restaurant in Clifton that he would never normally have dreamed of going into.
To Anne, Bob seemed to know something about everything: plumbing, wiring, wallpapering, painting, decorating. He could turn his hand to anything that needed doing in the house. Anne was amazed.
‘How did you learn about all this?
Had Bob known about Balzac’s Vautrin, he would have answered ‘Je m’y connais!’ ‘I know about these things!’ But Bob had never heard of Vautrin or Balzac and was no worse off for that.
‘Well, you just pick it up.’
Bob assumed that everyone must know how to mend a fuse or unblock a sink. How could you get through life without knowing about things like that? Those things, however, were a mystery to Anne. She started to learn, though.
And what did Anne learn about bricklaying? She learnt much.
1. Pace yourself. You’re bending, lifting, measuring, mixing mortar and concrete, laying bricks and blocks, shovelling rubble 10 hours a day. Take it calmly. Pace yourself.
2. Meet the challenge. That pile of bricks, taller than you, has got to be laid today. You can do it. You can do it. You can do it.
3. It matters. This house, this wall, this gable end will be here in a hundred years. You have built that wall. It matters.
4. Keep busy and keep moving. This way you will stay warm at eight o’clock on a December morning, when it’s still dark, when the water in the tap on site has frozen, and when there’s sleet in the wind that feels as though it had come straight from Siberia as it probably had.
Bob helped her with all little jobs that had accumulated in her house, and Anne helped him in other ways. For example, she wrote a letter to his insurance company when he had been involved in a claim for damage to his car. His company had been very slow in settling the claim. They had delayed payment for weeks on one pretext or another but when they received Anne’s letter and then her phone call a day later, they paid immediately.
Bob was amazed. ‘How did you manage that?’ he asked her.
‘It’s just a question of how you speak to them, Bob. You pick it up!’
Like Jack Sprat and his wife, they complemented each other well.
Anne gradually found out more about Bob’s work as they chatted together, and she began to understand, though she could not feel, the satisfaction of being warm from the rhythm of work, of seeing something created at the end of the day that had not been there at the beginning, of achieving more than you thought you could, and of going home having built something that would last.