Ballymun Chaos: If the walls could talk – a short story by Louise Hall
12 Stories of Christmas, day 7: the ups and downs of a gaffer’s life
Illustration: Pearse Hall
“Oh, the cranes, the cranes,” the gaffer used to say, and he would push his spectacles up his nose and rub his hands together. Out, he’d look, right through me. Through the grit and the grime, through the black metal bars outside my window. Out over the flat felt roof of my garage where the litter of stray kittens would play, the gaffer’s eyes gazing towards the misty Dublin Mountains. During the short winter days, just before he went home, he’d look out at the tangerine of the city lights and imagine the silhouette of those cranes he knew were there.
But it wasn’t just cranes he was wishing for in the beginning. The promise of a week’s rent would do. He’d let me out upstairs. Felt he could run his small business from my cubby hole office below. He made sure they put the ad next to the sports page in the Evening Press. That way, it wouldn’t go amiss. And it might cheer the reader up before he got to the death notices, he thought back then. A new local tyre business and some rooms to let in Ballymun. That’d be enough to keep him going for a while.
Lodger One had a mattress and one coat to his name. That and the envelope that came across the water every month with a stamp from the Royal Mail. A pension maybe, the gaffer thought, for some sort of service to her Majesty the Queen. But whatever service it was, it had shook Lodger One. The gaffer would be only coming in to work of a morning, and Lodger One would be going out. Up to the early house not a few yards away. And he’d tip his flat cap to the gaffer then rub at the stubble of his chin. “I’ll sort ya out at the end of the week mister,” he’d say, “I promise.” And what could the gaffer do but tell him “that’d be fine”.
He knew it was none of his business what they got up to in their own rooms, but when the going-ons of Lodger Two, the lady of the night, started coming through on the two-way radio control units, and the aul fellas queuing up outside, all of them rooting in their pockets and looking like chislers who were lining up to get into a peep show, he had to tell her to go.
“This is a respectable neighbourhood missus,” he said, “there’ll be none of that shenanigans going on in my building.” And he knew he was probably shooting himself in the foot because she always had the notes ready when he came to collect the rent. But he’d morals, he told himself, wasn’t that enough?
Lodger One left soon after Lodger Two.
Think he was a bit lonesome on his own at night.
They’d started to build social housing up the road; blocks and blocks of concrete flats that skimmed the skyline, and there wasn’t much of a demand for dinky bedsits no more.
“Sure, I’ll change them into offices upstairs,” the gaffer said one day, and he walking up and down the forecourt, puffing away at the thick cigar and telling off the young fellas for sitting on the boundary wall. “Getuptheyard,” he’d say, and the young fellas would pull their dark hoods up over their heads before sticking two fingers up in the air.
“Gaffer, Gaffer,” one of his grafters shouted one day when he asked him to do a clear out of the old bedsits. Turned the torn mattress over, this grafter did, and what’s stuffed in between the springs and the fluff only tons of crumpled pound notes. Lodger One had cashed every one of those cheques that came every month and felt they were safer inside this mattress than in the vaults of any bank. “Keep that mattress there,” the gaffer told this grafter, “there’s a bit of luck in that.”
Took the gaffer a few weeks, but he tracked Lodger One down outside the flats one day. “You forgot something,” the gaffer told him as he handed over a paper bag with the notes inside. Lodger One took the bag off him and opened it slowly before peering inside. Then he raised his eyes upwards, closed the bag tight with his fist, turned on his heels and said to the gaffer, “Thanks mister, I was wondering where that was.” He’d turned the corner and disappeared into the block of flats before the last sentence came out of the gaffer’s mouth: “What about the rent you owe me?”
The gaffer didn’t hang about. There was work to be done. There was always work to be done, even when it seemed that there wasn’t.
He had to call into a site, to see a man who was having trouble with a bit of machinery up at the backroads near the airport. Told him he’d be there with his best grafter and they’d have a look at it for him. And when he arrived, the gaffer stood there, puffing on that thick cigar; sizing up this massive machine. “Earthmovers” they called them. Used for moving earth in the quarries where the rock was dug out to make concrete for all the building that was being had around the city.
“We’re needing to swap the tyres around,” the foreman told the gaffer, “but every tyre company says it’s too big, that they can’t do it.” And the gaffer just nodded and walked around the big yellow machine. And he could’ve stood straight up inside the rim of one of the wheels, it was that big. He’d a word with his best grafter then turned around to the foreman and said: “That’s no problem at all. We can do that for you.”
He came back to me in Ballymun and talked to his fitters in my kitchen, telling them about the big yellow machine and what was needed to be done. And they were all saying, “but we can’t do that, we haven’t done that before.” And the gaffer just told them: “There’s no such thing as problems, only solutions. You can do it. I’ll show you how.” And so he did.
Site work picked up. “Oh, the cranes, the cranes.” And the muck and the potholes and the nails and the steel bars and the drivers who were bouncing off kerbs or driving over rocks and taking chunks out of tyres that needed repairing. “’Cause if you’ve a machine down, you don’t want it down for long,” the gaffer would say. “Not when the work has to be done and has to be done fast.”
The gaffer told the foremen on every site he visited that he’d get his fitters out quick and do a proper job too with the machines. They’d strip the tyre off and repair the puncture inside, put a new tube or patch in if it needed it, and then refit the tyre back onto the rim. He told them they wouldn’t plug the tyre for a quick fix like some do. They’d fix it properly, and that way the wheel wouldn’t go soft again in a hurry, and the foreman could get on with the work and the foreman’s boss would be happy ’cause the houses were getting built quicker.
The gaffer had gotten the young lads fresh out of leaving school. Some of them came from up nearby the flats. They weren’t clever with the school work, they told him, but they’d be good at labouring and they liked the idea of being out on sites working on rubber ducks and dumpers and teleporters. Didn’t they hear people talking about some Celtic Tiger, and they wanted to hear a little bit of its roar. So the gaffer showed them how to do the work, then set them up with vans and tools and told them that he’d go out and get the customers, and they were to keep them happy.
These lads climbed my stairs and walked my floors for many years. Oh, the chaos! Steel toe boots and overalls covered in muck. In and out and up and down the stairs, leaving dockets into the girl who managed the telephones and the two-way radio system. Swearing and rowing with one another and then sharing a pint in The Slipper pub when they finished up on a Saturday afternoon. Back when you were allowed the one or two before the drive home. But not before they checked the amount of notes that were in the brown envelope that was handed to them at the end of every week. And when they saw what was inside, then they didn’t mind the hours of overtime that had them weary.
Lodger One’s old mattress stayed in my back room, even when the gaffer had to put a desk and some shelving in there and take an extra person on in the office. He just propped it up against my wall, like it was a piece of art. No one ever asked him to move it. He just left it there, so he could remember back to the days when it was just him and his best grafter and Lodger One and Lodger Two. And that way, he wouldn’t lose the run of himself as he rode on the back of this Celtic Tiger.
He didn’t do too much with me, the old building. But I didn’t mind. I liked the buzz and the chatter and the rows and the lads, who didn’t say it often, but probably thought more of the gaffer and what he did for them, than they did of their own fathers.
That’s what made it all the harder when almost overnight, the phones went quiet.
Then the cranes became idle and eventually started to come down.
The vans were left sitting on the forecourt for more hours than were normal.
And the cheques took much longer to come in the post.
Some months, they didn’t come at all. And even though the gaffer tried to call out to where those cheques were supposed to come from, he was met with the same reply as all the others, “We’re just waiting on a few bob to come in and we’ll fix you up then.”
And what could the gaffer do but say “thanks, that would be much appreciated”.
Even though he was told he was holding on to staff too long and that he had to cut deep, the gaffer was sure the phones would start ringing again. And even though he was told to wind down and not to put his own money into the business, he insisted that he’d ride through the storm. “It can’t go on forever,” he told himself, “the good times have to return.”
Some nights, he stayed back late and tried to work on figures, see where he could cut more costs. Afterwards, he’d stare out, through the grit and the grime and the black metal bars. Out towards the tangerine lights that still dazzled amidst the gloom. And then he’d pull that old mattress down from against my wall and lay his body on it as he puffed on a cigar in the dark.
On one of these nights, he dozed off and woke gasping for a drop of water. He rubbed at his throat and thought he might be coming down with something because he was finding it hard to swallow. He felt as though there was a lump caught in there. And after some tests and investigation over the next few months, he was told that there was. But he kept going, the gaffer did. For as long as he could.
For as long as he was let.
Sure, I find it hard to talk about it now. About the last time he walked down my stairs and through my door.
Even though bricks and mortar should be just that.
Bricks and mortar.
They came in hard and heavy, the days after the funeral. Came through my doors to pay their respects, they said. They paid their respects to the girl in the office who managed the phones and the two-way radios. They paid their respects to his best grafter. They paid their respects to the ones who had to leave during the crash but came back when the cranes started to slowly appear in the city once again. They talked about the smell of cigars and the good times and the lodgers and the bedsits and the business and the “what would happen now?” in a roundabout way. Weren’t the cranes and the sites and the quarries back up and running? That Celtic Tiger was seen stalking around the city once again.
There’s a suit in my office now where the gaffer used to sit. He’s looking out, through me, through the grit and the grime, through the black metal bars. He doesn’t puff on cigars and he mightn’t have the gab of the gaffer, but he’s looking out at the tangerine of the city lights. He’s looking with that same look the gaffer always had. Curious of what’s out there to be had, and eager to go for it. And I’m wondering if I’ll ever get used to this stranger who will climb my stairs and walk my floors. I’m wondering if he’ll tear me down or rent me out. I’m wondering if things will ever be the same now the gaffer is gone cause it’s hard to fill the boots of a certain type of man.
The suit stands up and rolls his shoulders back. He walks across my floors moving from room to room, kicking at my loose skirting boards and picking at my peeling paint. And I’m not knowing or possibly liking this man who is not the gaffer ’cause it’s not easy when someone’s been with you for over 45 years and when familiarity never did breed contempt. And the gaffer is still with me ’cause I can feel him in my walls, in my glass, in my bars and in the pit of the black night when the air is so cold.
Bricks and mortar shouldn’t feel that way.
The suit takes off his blazer and throws it across a chair. He walks into the next room and sees the mattress propped up against my wall. He loosens his tie and pulls the mattress down so it’s lying flat on my floor, and he throws himself on top of it. I’m still not sure and I feel myself creak, and the suit opens his eyes wide and then his jaw and I’m worried that I mourned so loudly for the gaffer and I want to just crumble and fall.
And then he speaks.
Ever so slowly.
“Oh, the cranes, the cranes,” he says.
And maybe there’ll be chaos in Ballymun once more.
“Oh, the cranes.”