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‘An industrial relic it overlooked the men’s hut like a strange Gothic watchtower’

This extract from Site Works by Robert Davidson takes the reader to the building site to shed light on what really goes on in construction. Site Works is the story of the men and their work engineering a huge drainage project in northern Scotland, which sees the men toil through the daylight hours and into the night, enduring hardship and conflict.

Extract from Site Works
By Robert Davidson
Published by Sandstone Press

It’s the Clearances all over again

Last to go would be the towering batching plant with its mounds of aggregate and sand and bags of cement. An industrial relic it overlooked the men’s hut like a strange Gothic watchtower. Ikey saw it as having religious significance, the great mixer and maker, an alchemist device that turned loose materials into unyielding concrete. Standing by the Plant Contractor’s van he observed its outline against the blue sky and then lowered his gaze to the the wooden cludge that would be the last structure to be moved up the road.

Willie Sweeney was also outlined against the sky. Balanced on the men’s hut, last to descend, he kicked at the roofing felt where it had come loose at the crest.

‘What’s it like,’ Cammy shouted up.

‘It’s a hundred years old, bullet riddled and torn. This must be the hut Custer hid in when the Apaches were closing in.’

‘Sioux!’ Ikey shouted up. ‘They were Lakota Sioux, Mr Sweeney, and it was the other way round. Custer attacked them.’

Willie pointed at him with his hammer.

‘Did you read that in a book? You’re spending too much time in that cludge.’

‘Lakota,’ Ikey repeated.

‘I wouldn’t argue with Willie,’ Jimmy English said, exiting the hut.

‘I was a farrier in the 7th back then,’ Willie said. ‘They busted me after the massacre, said the whole thing turned on a loose horseshoe, but they were covering up for Reno. He was one of them in ways I could never be.’

‘Is it usable,’ Jimmy asked, impatient, ‘the felt?’

‘Nope, it’s had it,’ Willie said. ‘No wonder the hut lets in.’

Willie crouched on his hunkers and took the claw of his hammer to the roof nails, drawing and releasing them and letting them slide down and fall to the ground, pulling the felt away from the crest like a blanket, dropping it also to the ground.

Stores had been the first hut down. Too far gone to be repaired and reused Cammy had broken it up and started a fire with the rotted roof joists. He dragged the first sheet of felt over and threw it on to blacken and curl and take light. As it shrivelled he pushed the edges into the fire’s heart with his boot.

‘More costs for Swannie,’ he said. ‘He won’t like it.’

‘And he’d avoid replacing it if he could,’ Willie said. ‘We’re doing the Lochdon troops a favour.’

‘Whoever they are,’ Cammy said.

Squatting precariously at the end of the roof Willie leaned over and prised at the nails that kept the remaining felt in place. ‘Who is staying and who is going, that is the question.’

‘Everybody’s staying,’ Jimmy said. ‘Lochdon is a bigger job, more pipelines, three Pumping Stations, four Tanks. I’m seeing Swannie about rates when the light goes. We’ll get the work if we’re not too greedy. Start maybe next week.’

‘The sooner the better,’ Willie said, ‘because there’s no money in this.’

‘Perzackly!’

A flat lorry bounced in off the A9 with Derek the Steelfixer at the wheel. By now the joiners had the mess hut, the last hut, down and stacked. It remained to get the panels of all three huts onto the back of the lorry, tied safely down and carried up the road to Lochdon. Two journeys Jimmy reckoned.

Willie shielded his eyes with his hand and made a great play of peering under the lorry.

‘Where’s Trots, Derek? Shouldn’t he be driving this thing?’

‘He says it’s not his job and won’t be until he’s paid the rate.’

‘So it’s yours?’

‘There’s no money in Lochdon till this is done. The best thing I can do is move the job along and take whatever rate Swannie will pay. Give me a hand with these panels.’

Willie and Cammy each took a corner of the first wall panel and powerful Derek took the other side by himself. When Jimmy moved across to help he shook his head. The three men threw the panels one by one on the back of the lorry.

Where the huts had stood the ground was marked with the rectangle of their floor shapes. The compound fence hung from its posts and the gate swung on its hinges. Where Stores had been was littered with oil drums and loose bolts and spilled gravel. It was a place where life had once been but was no more.

Jimmy came over and stood beside Ikey.

‘The place is like a battlefield,’ he said.

‘The Little Big Horn,’ said Willie.

‘No,’ Ikey said, ‘the Clearances. It’s like the Highland Clearances all over again.’

‘Did you know it was Jimmie burned out Strathnaver?’ Willie said. ‘He’s changed since then. The love of a good woman saved him.’

Cammy’s fire crackled and sparked and grew as he scoured the area for odd pieces of scrap timber and threw them on.

‘Good women,’ Willie sighed. ‘Whatever happened to them?’

Panels secured on the back of the lorry Derek fired the engine and drove out, heading back north to Lochdon. Jimmy climbed into his car and followed leaving Willie and Cammy to tend the fire, to make sure everything that could burn was consumed. Later in the day, maybe tomorrow, Conn would dig a hole and doze in the waste and bury it.

Ikey superstitiously tapped the wooden side of his pride and joy, the cludge, as if it contained the spirit of the work, the Great Manitou of Civil Engineering, as some said all cludgies did, and took a walk to the Settlement Tanks where Conn’s jib stood tall above Tank Two.

The double chain hung taut with the load of an aluminium scum trap that he swung in slow instalments closer to the tank wall. Below him on the concrete base the Plant Contractor’s foreman opened and clenched his fist slowly and slower still as the dead weight drew closer to the wall. Abruptly he raised both arms and brought the movement to a halt.

Conn locked the jib, opened his cabin door and spat out the remains of his roll-up.

‘Yo ho, Ikey.’

With the scum trap hovering gravity neutral by the wall two fitters moved in to sit by either side. They pushed and eased it into exact position and shoved the holding bolts through and into the pockets that had been boxed out before the pour. As they tightened with their spanners the weight of the trap was transferred and the chains became slack.

‘You moving up the road to Lochdon?’ Conn asked.

‘Mr Lammerton has yet to decide, sir.’

‘Or if he’s decided he hasn’t said. That’s how these people work.’

‘Nil carborundum, Mr Conn.’

‘Bullseye, wee man, I hope they take you along. You deserve it.’

‘Thinking of movement, Mr Conn.’

‘That’s Conn, just Conn.’

Ikey struggled against saying to Conn what he wanted to say to Willie but eventually it came out.

‘Did you know there were Highlanders at the Little Big Horn?’

Conn eyed him warily.

‘I didn’t. Which side?’

‘With the Long Knives.’

‘Joined up? Joined the Long Knives, the White Eyes, Roundeyes, Yellow Legs, Red Coats? Playing the pipes as the arrows came thudding in? Gathering in a circle at the end and singing their Gaelic psalms?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘We were the same in Kerry with the Roundheads, on the wrong side as ever. In the end they always win. Did you know?’

‘I did, sir, and for better or worse we join them. They would have been cleared from up by. Strathnaver, sir, or the likes.’

Ikey stood talking to Conn and the plant operatives as the light of day began its departure and Conn switched on the crane’s one headlight, watched while the troops leaned dangerously over the Tank to tighten the bolts, as they levelled the spill-over rim to ‘near enough’.

Feeling the call of nature he wandered back to where the compound had been. Inside the cludge he hung up his jacket, took The Brothers Karamazov from his pocket and sat to ease himself through the last bowel movement of the Ness and Struie Drainage Project with the last sustained read.

The boys had killed their father. Well, he understood, although the reading of C G Jung and the living of his life had taught him all he needed to know about the slaying of the father and its futility.

When he came out the sun was gone. All was dark and there was barely a star in the sky. Willie and Cammy had been joined by Derek the Steelfixer, returned for the cludge when they had broken it down. The three were silhouetted against the fire that overtopped them by twice their own height and might have been made for the burning of a witch or some other unredeemed soul bound for hell.

In the darkness of daytime night the temperature dropped and a sparkling frost formed on the ground and on the site’s detritus and there hardened. Ikey joined the three others by the fire and felt its heat and its call to the primitive and wondered about guilt, sin, revenge, justice and what they were. Damned little, he thought, against the great round of history’s repetitions and humanity perpetually breaking up and moving on.

Site Works is out now published by Sandstone Press (£8.99, paperback)

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