The Nadger's tunnel.
If you enjoyed the jolly slaughterhouse story in ‘Playing the bass with three left hands’ then you might enjoy this delightful tale. Just after I left Spiritualized, (and shortly after the slaughterhouse), I took a job with a scouse shotblast gang who were renovating the Kilworth canal tunnel outside Rugby. Here, for your delectation and delight, is that story in its entirety from my first book …called “A book of jobs”. A pdf version of the book is available in the downloads section of the shop here.
“Over the northern portal of Husbands Bosworth Tunnel its length is given on an engraved stone as 1,166 yards 2 feet, and on a modern plate as 1,170 yards. Mr Bevan's record of construction gives the length as 1,180 yards, but on a survey by Mr. Milner in 1893 it was found to be 1,1703/4 yards. At least two of the 100 yard distance stones were set upside down. Eight shafts were used during its construction; the brickwork was completed on the 29th April 1813 and on the completion of the deep cutting beyond on the 25th May, the navigation was opened to Stanford and Welford Mill. George Smith of Coalville, relating a journey in the Midland Counties Carrying Company's boat Ouse in 1880, in his book Canal Adventures by Moonlight, tells how "in going through this tunnel we came in contact with half-a-dozen laden coal boats, connected with which there would be some twelve or fourteen men, whose language and manner in some respects were nearly equal to those of the cannibals". After leaving the tunnel "The canal, as we sailed away, in many places now presented a more lovely and picturesque sight, and deserves a much better title than the 'Grand Union Ditch' as the contemptuous captain of the Ouse referred to it). Here it seemed to be a union of all that was lovely and enchanting, and not, as in other places, a union of poverty, misery and wretchedness." Though much of his life seems to have been spent looking for 'dirt and ignorance' on the cut, for once he must have been delighted by the scene when they emerged into the wooding cutting at the northern end of the tunnel.”
“The song I sing is very rude
in sin mayhap my life I live
but ye are wise and will forgive
for none of us are very good”
Patrick MacGill from Songs of the Dead End.
The Nadgers tunnel…by Will Carruthers
Barely with me dear reader, as I relate the sorrowful tale of the darkling hole in the crunching depths of the broke mid-winter.Your patience please as I relate the details of what transpired though they may beggar belief even by my own low standards. Please forgive the occasional lapse into cannibal cant and my mangling of tenses.
Here's me, nanking for a quid and sorely bereft, as I traipse, heavy hearted, to the old navvy channel in the hope of scratching out a few bob on its miserable upkeep. Time had been this hole's grave enemy for a hundred years and sore pressed of time was it. The sour gumption of damp and age had so contrived a crumbling in it, that none but the stout hearted could stand to gaze upon the depths with anything other than the dismal certainty that the whole thing could collapse in on itself any second. ‘Twas all or nothing and me, having only nothing to keep my vitals from icing off and the wolf from my door, was here.
There were badgers in the bushes but none to see. With more sense, and no rent to pay, they were huddled in their deepening holes, snug and grunting. I wished I were badger, safe in my dirt home and snacking on beetles, but no, here’s I, leaning over the cut and peering up the blackness, flexing my shout into the relentless dark of this man made hole and nothing's belching back except scabby puffs of lung disgusting smoke. Being quite frozen skint in these, the bone cold beginnings of the year, I could ill afford any feelings about the whole sorry situation.
After an age of yawping up the hole and painfully close to just giving up and heading home, I hear a fizzy little engine and so lean over to peer into the smoke and gloom.
"Alright John," I say, as he finally emerges, squinting in the half light on his little blow up boat.
" Alright Will. " he says back, "Wanna go and have a look? Hop on."
So ..he points his filthy craft at the bankside and grabs some grass to steady us as I do the hopping on .
" Fucking cold isn't it." he half-laughs through his weather beaten and smog dirty cake hole.
" Too cold for badgers." I agree. He turns the boat round, revs his little engine, and we are off into the dark.
"This tunnel is a mile and a half long.” He says, “Don't fall off or you'll have to swim out."
I go, " HAHA," but I don’t really mean it, as I turn from the miserable gloom of my future to look back at what I just left. There is a thin slice of daylight rudely stopped by a floating roof of smog and dust.
He says, "Keep your head down. The fumes all gather at the top of the tunnel when there's no wind."
" No wind?" I snort, "In this arsehole you'd think there'd be at least a fart for fresh air wouldn't you?"
"HAHAHAHAAHAH," we both laugh, because it's too cold to go boohoo.
Onward we go and it gets darker and dustier and smokier and coldier with every little echoing chug.
" I gotta be careful here," says John, "I sank a barge by accident the other day and we don't want to hit it." I keep my mouth shut in an effort to keep what little clean air is in me and when I look back I can no longer see any trace of sunlight and I can barely see John at the back of the boat, but I can hear him giggling to himself as he tells me the tale of how he sunk the boat.
"Fucking over loaded it," he says, "and when I jumped on board, one side just tipped down enough to let the water in. I was fucking standing on it and I could see it was gonna go down any second so I jumped off just as the thing rocked back and slurped up enough water to sink it. It went down like a sack of shit." This had been no small boat like the one we were on. It had been a huge steel transport barge. I asked him how they were going to get it out.
" Fuck knows!" he says, and cackles like a maniac.
Anyway, back to the hole. We chundered on over black and icy water, mainly avoiding disaster by using our weakling torch to reveal the curving walls of the tunnel through the churning grot of our environment.
Up ahead, I could hear the faint noise of machines and some sickly artificial light was visible in the near distance, smudged and stricken by the awful billows of pollution . The closer we got to the noise, the more unbearable the air became. It stank of diesel, dust, damp, and the rot of winter so I closed my eyes and dreamt of badgers. The badgers, I presumed, were not dreaming about being a mile inside a tunnel cold enough to freeze your meat.
We pulled up alongside the first barge we saw which was roped on to another two moored beyond it, side by side, completely blocking the canal. It was pretty clear to anybody with sense organs that we had finally arrived at the source of the smoke and smell. I could hear a diesel generator thudding away inside the barge we were moored to and I could see a dirty smoke stack belching out those good old diesel fumes. Up ahead there was more noise, another diesel generator and a massive cloud of some, as yet, unidentified shite. John said he’d go and get the gaffer so I stood in the piles of dust and debris and took in the view, which stretched about ten feet in any given direction, and was at least consistent in that it was all horrible.
So, moping in the grim, drip drop, dark was I, bemoaning my fate to all who would listen, which was nobody. Thus, outwardly silent, I was counting the names and faces of every twitch weak, rat friend, that had mixed this shit-smelling predicament that I was supposed to gratefully spoon down and say thank you for. Them bastards! I could see em; feet up in the sunshine, waggling their little fingers at slaves, and blowing dick powder off their nodules. God, I could see their demon faces laughing at me in the muck ballooning out of the roaring contraptions growling around me. I snapped out quick. Time to play nice. I got ready for my job interview.
"Alright mate," said a voice from a dim blob in the gloom which got sharper and said "I'm Dave, the gaffer. Looking for work then are you?" I put on my most ingratiating smile. "Yeah." I said, after all it wasn't like I was up there sightseeing was it?
"The job is pretty simple mate," he went on, "We need a labourer to keep the place tidy and to load the shot blast and cement into the machine. Ten hours a day, six days a weeks, half an hour for lunch, and two tea breaks. Reckon you can do it?"
"Yeah, I reckon I can do it.“ I lied.
"Sound.” he said. "You'll be working with two other lads. Be down by the wharf at seven o'clock tomorrow morning and we'll get cracking. We need to get this job finished fast."
" Alright." I said, "See you in the morning."
He smiled, I smiled, and then he turned and made his way back into the dust cloud . I noticed that there weren't any other hopeful job applicants, in fact there weren't any hopeful job applicants at all.
When Dave was out of earshot, John cackled, and said," That's Reassuring Dave. What a cunt."
The next day, I am dressed like an acid boggled refugee from a Second World War panzer division because, in an effort not to freeze to death, I have purchased a German tank suit from an army surplus shop called, "Surrender” which has a thick woolen liner and a one-piece thick cotton overall that fasten together in a way that might make a person relatively comfortable in a tank. I have got four pairs of socks on and a weird hat, also army surplus, with large furry ear-flaps.
I am clean.
My two new work mates climb out of the barge where they have been sleeping and come over to greet me. It is still dark and the air is as cold as the blood in my landlord’s heart.
We all take it in turns to say "Alright, " , everybody coughs a bit and then we all light cigarettes. There is not a lot of jovial banter going on. Reassuring Dave appears from the dossing barge and gives us all a great big, " GOOD Morning." " “Bright and early eh Will?' he says to me and despite the fact that he is only right about the last part, I smile and say, "Yeah."
The other two don't say anything or smile but one of them coughs a lot.
Dave says, "You've met Den and Kev then Will? Don’t worry they’ll show you the ropes. Right lads, let's get going. All aboard! "
We all climb onboard John’s little dinghy and set off along the canal with nobody making much noise except for Reassuring Dave who is whistling tunelessly, and Den who is still coughing. We all gaze off into our own little worlds and breath in the cold clear air, enjoying our last minutes of freedom like men on their way to the scaffold.
After about ten minutes we arrive at the entrance to the tunnel which looks like a pitch black egg hovering in the first grey of dawn surrounded by a halo of dark scratching winter trees.
"What strange beast would hatch from an egg like that", I think to myself, "all wobbling, misty, and filled with night?”
We break into the black egg and leave the dawn behind.
"Alright then Lads,” said Dave, reassuringly banishing my dreams of the tunnel egg and what might be waiting to be born from it, "Den, you show Will what he's gotta do and we'll get cracking in no time. Only a couple more days this week and we can all go home to Liverpool. Be nice to sleep in a real bed won't it?"
Den coughed a bit and said, "yeah." then he turned to me and said, "Life on the ocean wave eh? What brings you to a place like this then? Trying to get a bit of fresh country air are ya?"
John piped up from the back of the boat, "Will's a musician, he's pretty famous." and then started cackling again. This got Reassuring Dave interested. "Are ya lad? I've never heard of you. What kind of music do you play like? "
"Well,” I said, wishing I didn’t have to talk about it, " just weird stuff really. The kind of music that doesn't pay the bills. I've played in Liverpool a few times".
"Wow, Have ya?” said Kev, "Can I have your autograph?"
"Sorry, “ I said, "I left my pen by the swimming pool at my mansion."
We chugged on into the darkness. Five grown men in an inflatable dinghy, half a mile up a canal tunnel in the midlands, on our way to do things we didn't want to do for money. We were all in the same boat and there was no getting out of it.
We reached our place of work and moored up. John took the torch, managed not to fall in the canal, and somehow got the first diesel generator fired up. As it kicked into life so did the lights and then the little exhaust pipe started puffing blue smoke out of the top of the engine house. We all climbed out of the little inflatable boat and on to the big steel barges our boots clanging on the decks.
Here are some facts about diesel fumes.
"Exhaust from diesel engines is made up of both gases and soot. The gas portion is mainly comprised of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur oxides and hydrocarbons. Studies in rats have shown that minuscule soot particles from diesel fumes can make their way directly to the brain via nerves in the nose.
These may penetrate the brain and affect brain function.
Half an hour of sniffing diesel fumes in a busy city street is enough to induce a "stress response" in the brain. It is conceivable that the long-term effects of exposure to diesel nanoparticles may interfere with normal brain function and information processing. According to The American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the main one to have been linked to diesel exhaust. But it is also suspected that other cancers such as those of the larynx, pancreas, bladder and kidney may be associated with diesel exhaust. Diesel exhaust is believed to play a role in other health problems such as eye irritation, headaches, lung damage, asthma and other lung diseases, heart disease and possibly immune system problems.
Scientists in Scotland have found that tiny particles produced when diesel burns are harmful to blood vessels and can increase the chances of blood clots forming in arteries, leading to a heart attack or stroke. "
Good job I didn't know any of that when I started work eh? I might have asked for a pay rise. Anyway, I didn't, but I did get a little paper mask and some goggles, which was something.
With one long minute gone and nine hours and fifty-nine minutes to go, my brain was putting out all sorts of stress responses that the rest of me was was doing its best to ignore.
"Right", said Dennis, "What we've gotta do is blast off all these loose bits of brick and mortar from the walls with the shot blaster and then we've got to spray cement onto it to seal it all up. Here is the mixer and there is the hopper that is linked to the machine that does the spraying. What you've gotta do, is make sure that the hopper is full of cement or shot blast and keep the place clean enough so that we can all work. Me and Kev will do all the blasting and shotcreting. It gets pretty dirty in here, but it's not too bad once you get used to it."
He coughed to prove his point.
It wasn't a polite little cough, like someone does when they are clearing their throat to give a speech, it was a big dirty spasm, like his body was trying to get his lungs to leave by the front door. Forcibly.
"Nasty cough." I said.
"Yeah," he said, " Anyway, the lads will bring all of the materials in by boat and you’ll have to help them unload it and stack it all here." he pointed at a pile of full sacks by the mixer. There were fifty-pound bags of Rugby cement, and smaller ones full of sand and shotblast grit. "Basically all you've gotta do is keep an eye on the hopper to make sure it's full and do what we tell ya, when we tell ya. We’ll give you a shout and tell you when to load and when to stop."
He showed me the various on and off switches and then said he'd do the first load for me so I'd know what to do.
Reassuring Dave reappeared. "Alright lads? Everything alright Will? Sound are ya? Dennis sorted you out has he?" I assured Dave that everything was alright. His enthusiasm was as infectious as chlamydia.
" Great," he said, " I've got to go back to the wharf to check on a few things with my boss, but I'll be back up to see how you are getting on later. Charlie, my gaffer, will be up later to make sure everything is alright too.
Ok? Well, see ya later." And with that he got back on the boat with John, who turned it round, fired up the engine, and then they both headed back to the daylight, leaving the three of us on our little floating island paradise.
"Alright, let's fire her up!" comes the cry from the front of the barge where Kev is holding on to the hose that shoots the shit at the wall. "Alright," says Den, "Here we go." I hear another diesel generator start up at the front as Den turns the switches on in my department, which makes the machine in front of us start vibrating and whining. He grabs a bag of shotblast, rips the top off, and pours it into the hopper, quickly followed by another two, until I can see by the gauge that the thing is full and ready to go. " Ready Kev? " he shouts, and then he turns to me and says, "Put your mask and goggles on." Which I do, just as Kev starts spraying.
Within five seconds the air is so thick with shotblast dust that I can barely see Dennis five feet from me. The noise is immense. The thudding of the two diesel engines and the generators, the whining of the hopper, the moan of the pipes and the constant chatter and hiss of the shot blast, all conspire into a hideous cacophony. "Alright?“ shouts Dennis over the theatrical din, "We'll do about an hour of this, and then we'll concrete. Keep the hopper full of grit and I'll come back when it's time to change over.
"ALRIGHT." I yell back and give him the thumbs up.
What a CONFABULOUS mancraption of racket this was. No earthly heathen should have been faced with its bashment. What manner of God sends his divine creation to be insulted by that level of clatter and stink?
If I was a gambler …I'd bet it wasn't the lord herself that fired me up that craphole, but rather a more EARTHLY spirit. I could hear ghost whispers from the Navvies who’d cut this place out of the dead earth. They were clawing at me boots, pleading for a minute, gasping for a breath of fresh air, asking me to tell a tale, and begging pennies for their eyes, though we were none fit to escape this endlessly crossed river, living or dead. We were there for good, and old Charon wasn't going over to the other side because their was only this side …In side, and the outside might as well have been a million miles asunder or a hundred years dead as ten hours further down the line. Here we were, digging out and making good so the right honorable George Smith of Coalville could float his miserable ghost up the darkling channel and look down on the living until he makes his delightful exit into the perfumed valleys of the afterlife, never giving a thin farthing fuck for the dirty coughing bastards who made the passage smooth enough for him to navigate.
Other than the wind, there is no ventilation in the tunnel. When there is no wind, the fumes and dust have as little chance of escape as us. If the job had been set up properly, with full respect to the law, there would have been fans set along the tunnel to make sure we could all breathe properly. I suppose that it was cheaper not to have them. I am guessing that the person who made the decision to save a few quid on the fans was not going to be joining us in the tunnel. Workers are cheap, and none of us were in a union.
It was put up or shut up and breathe when you can and we were fairly unlikely to die on the job anyway, unless the carbon monoxide got us.
I noticed a small yellow, important looking box, hanging on one of the barges.
I asked Dennis what it was.
"That's the moxy meter," he said, "Don't worry about it, it's broken anyway."
Carbon monoxide sounds like something boring you learned at school, Moxy sounds like an evil wizard from the Lord of the rings.
In the old days, miners would take a canary in a cage down into the mine with them and if the canary died, the miners would know that the levels of gas were getting dangerous and get the fuck out.
We had taken a dead canary into the mine with us. Canaries are yellow and so was the box. Nice touch eh? Moxy, our dark lord of miasma, would have cackled in glee had he not been an odourless gas, and thus, probably lacking a sense of humour. Carbon monoxide is not laughing gas. It is sleepy gas. Sometimes when you go to sleep from it you never, ever, wake up again.
"Teabreak !" came the welcome cry from the gloom.
I switched the machines off and the last of the deafening clang echoed off up the tunnel, leaving us to the relative peace of the thudding diesel engines and the sound of our boots on the steel decks.
There was a cabin on one of the barges that had been set aside for our allotted tea breaks so the three of us went inside and sat down, warming ourselves with the small electric heater, which just about raised the temperature to somewhere slightly above freezing fucking cold. We all took out our flasks of hot drinks and our sandwiches. Because everything was so dirty, there was no point in washing our hands, so we held our sandwiches with pieces of clean paper and tried not to get too much of the surrounding dirt in our mouths. I tried not to breathe the air. I tried not to feel the cold. I wished the minutes in the hours of my days away, but I wanted the teabreak to last forever.
Every move we made produced little clouds of dust and when I looked at my workmates sitting next to me on the hard bench in the dim light, I could see that they were covered in dust and that the dirt had collected in the lines on their faces, accentuating the wrinkles, so that they seemed to have aged ten years in the last couple of hours. I guessed that I looked the same. There were no mirrors.
It was my first day on the job, so my workmates were still sizing me up and they read their papers while we made small talk and drank our tea.
"Do you like the Beatles mate?" said Dennis .
"Yeah I do. " I answered.
"I went to see them back in the day." he told me, with more than a hint of pride. "I saw em at the Cavern. Great times they were. Great band."
He got all misty for a while as he is was temporarily transported back in time to the Cavern and to his youth.
“There was no alcohol served you know,” he told me, “It was just coffee. Great times they were.”
The original Cavern club in Liverpool was knocked down. I say knocked down, but really it was just filled in. You cannot knock a hole down. I started wondering how much earth was above our heads and whether I would ever see the daylight again
Because time crawls when you want it to fly and vice versa, our ten minutes of relative comfort and peace passed with cruel haste. We each reluctantly dragged our cold bones upright and trudged back to the work, where the machines were started and the blistering noise and racket started up with them. I was now covered in dust and dirt, and despite the many layers of socks, it had been some hours since I had last felt my feet. As I was loading cement into the mixer a bag broke. The fine grey powder spilled down my sleeve and made its way through to my skin. This happened a couple of times during the day, until I was almost completely covered in dust, dirt, crap and cement…inside and out.
It was cold, dirty, and miserable, and I could not afford to dwell on any of it because It just made things worse, like clock watching. I switched myself off as much as I could and got on with the job, heaving and tearing the bags , mixing the cement, and shovelling up the great drifts of crap into empty cement bags to be transported out later. The actual work and conditions became easier to bear as my body and brain stopped giving out the distress signals that the stubborn part of me was resolutely ignoring. The agony was subsiding.
Of course, if I had got any money, I would have gotten the next boat back to the daylight and never returned to the stinking place.
This was not the case.
Somehow I had been brought up to believe that my future held pills for food and hovering nuclear cars for transport, yet here I was, not munching pills and certainly not hovering.
If I’d believed in notion of progress, I’d have thought we’d gone back in time.
My tenses were mingling, confused and confusing.
I was backward and forward like a push me pull u, whatever that was.
Through the soot and the dreams of the dark lord Moxy I wasn’t just seeing the navvies that first hoiked out this cunt in the hill. I was one of em, in an unbroken line of toil, and the future we were building was neither sleek not sanitary and was not to be for us to enjoy.
How many of them navvies died hacking this damn thing out that we were now to keep from falling back in? Sweating and freezing and spitting and coughing, cursing the way they were born, too tough to give up and what for?
The wages? Enough for a bottle of piss and a bed warm from somebody else’s arse. I was paying off debts to another millionaire landlord and my dreams of subsistence had subsided to nothing with the leaving of the place I’d called home that had come so rudely and with a crash. So … here and there I was, and had been, hefting and humping, cursing and groaning and sure only of the certain belief that no man got rich by his own bad back.
We had another break, dirtier than the first and longer. With just our dim white eyes and teeth showing through the grey of our faces, there were more tales of the Beatles from Den, who said he’d liked Sgt. Pepper best, and that the summer of love was as much fun as he’d ever had, what with the skirts so short and the girls so willing and all. They’d been hopeful times in Liverpool, not like now, not like now at all, so at least we knew that some things changed, which was something… for someone. There was even time for a little after sandwich snooze for us all, mulled and rested in the arms of Moxy as we were, and there been less of what you’d call breathable air in the snug metal coffin where we rested.
“Wake up boys, wake up.” Moxie’s got his velvet claws in you and there is a commotion at the door and the rocking of our little canal top home says that someone’s aboard and the fucking reassuring fucking voice of fucking reassuring Dave comes through the door like a bitter syrup to soothe the nerves and bring us back to the earth we can’t see.
”Alright Lads. Everything alright is it?” It wasn’t a question, it was a statement of incontestable fact or you’d be out of the tunnel before your first moan reached the daylight and as much as all of this was a burden for the back and senses, being skint was worse and jobs were not to be found in the branches of the trees at the mouth of the hole we were in.
“Wake up lads,“ Dave soothed, “Health and safety’s coming for a visit.”
We wiped the shutting air of Moxy from us and stood at our drowsy attention while Reassuring Dave hopped about and clucked like a fucking chicken as a putting boat chugged up the other side of the tunnel from where we’d come in. As it got close, Dave, reassuringly, went to meet it with an unbelievable smile and a cheery “everything’s alright” kind of greeting. He wasn’t an idiot, he was just paid to behave idiotically and he rose to the task like a champ. He was like us, in a way. and I could do nothing but admire his resolute betrayal of reality. It was as if his misplaced and undentable cheer was the only thing stopping us from throwing ourselves into the canal. I could imagine his stupid voice saying “evrything alright lads” as we hit the black and freezing water and vanished beneath the surface. Still, at least he wasn’t a moaner, constantly reminding everybody what they already know and are doing their best to ignore. What do they want? Pity? Sympathy? Fucks sake, we are feeling like the lowest scrape in the sump of the most blunder-fucked barrel as it is. Sing us a fucking song or shut up. See, I can tell you about the place and how shit awful it all was, and probably is, for some poor bastard right now, because we aren’t up there. If I was sat next to you on the barge at teabreak we wouldn’t be talking about this. It’d be too destroying a thing. We’d never pay the fucking rent.
So, we shored up this crumbling passage for the future generations of holiday makers who would probably chug through and marvel at the human ingenuity and spirit that had built the thing but who would never dare a fast scuttling hello if they saw us propping up the bar all shit covered after a day on the job. We were best as museum pieces,somewhere nice and airtight where we couldn’t smell up the glorious achievements we’d wrought with our farts and our foulmouths. When did you last thank God for a plumber when you were taking a shit? Exactly. Out of sight out of mind is best for all concerned, so we’ll talk with our hands, quiet our creaking bones, and shut up unless we’ve a cheery “top o the morning to you Sor” for the gaffer. Which was one of the few laughs at the bosses expense the old navvies had gotten away with. Sor means bastard in Gaelic but it also sounds like Sir with an Irish accent. The patronising git of a boss waltzing past in his finery thinking …”Yes that’s right, I finally taught these shovel monkeys respect.” as they laughed at his back and made plans to be elsewhere.
Somewhere sunny would be nice. Somewhere sunnier than this anyway, which wouldn’t be hard, as the earth had barely dreamt a place so deprived of a cheering ray of sunshine as this dismal tunnel we were somehow doomed to inhabit and call our place of work.
Anyway, Dave was meeting health and safety who were there to make sure we didn’t die, or worse.
“Elf and bleeding safety” had become one of those phrases used by a particular persuasion of idiot to draw attention to a world so regulated by do-gooders, that no move could be made by a right thinking person anywhere without everything our forbears held dear sinking beneath the waves we had once supposedly ruled. Like straight banana regulations from the European union ruining the great British banana and “political correctness gone mad “making people feel uncomfortable about making racist jokes. Health and safety, the nanny state, socialism, workers rights, unions, a working carbon monoxide meter …fuck all that right ?
My God …HEALTH and SAFETY …TOGETHER ? What an awful thought to those of us that had been brought up to believe it was sweet and right to die for one’s company, even if that company was largely American owned and had funneled all of its profits through an off-shore tax haven. That’s freedom buddy, and if you don’t like it you can move to fucking Russia.
The dreadful freedom-hating bastard from the government climbed aboard the good ship free enterprise and began to destroy everything we held dear. He actually brought out a working carbon monoxide meter and proceeded to test the air with it. It was a total insult to our own dead canary that hung in perfect silence and peace amongst the guffing gas and sleep inducing air we were breathing with no apparent ill health or non-safety at all. Had the empire bloomed for this?
“ Mate, you’ve got to get these lads out of this tunnel, “ said the man from health and safety, with an apologetic but serious face. “These readings are dangerous. How come your Carbon monoxide alarm isn’t working?” Reassuring Dave slapped our dead canary and pretended to be surprised that it didn’t do anything. “That’s weird” he said, “ I tested it this morning and it was fine.”
Reassuring Dave was, in a way, telling the truth. The mechanical canary had been fine that morning in that it didn’t work, and thus allowed us to work uninterrupted by trivial alarms about air quality and imminent death.
“There is a boat bringing up supplies in fifteen minutes.” he reassured the man from the government, “I will make sure the lads are out of here until we get a working meter. Sorry about that”.
“Alright,” said the man from Health and safety, sounding reassured, and then he got back on his boat and chugged off into the darkness away from us.
Reassuring Dave waited for a safe and healthy five minutes before turning to us and saying, “Alright lads, back to work then.” He got back in his little boat and fucked off in an appropriately different direction to the man from health and safety. We went back to work without a grumble. Our dead canary was hanging off its perch in a silent and serene way. It was as peaceful as the grave. Somewhere up the tunnel, following the retreating safety official, was the thin, mocking laughter of our miasmic lord Moxy. You could hardly hear it over the noise of the thumping diesels anyway.
We carried on blasting the walls and spraying concrete on to them because that was our job. At a certain point in the afternoon, when the machines were relatively quiet but the dust had yet to settle, I heard a strange and croaky voice start to sing. Somewhere, in the distance, through the thick veil of dust and fumes, over the leaving sound of the engines, the disembodied voice of Dennis, obviously inspired by our teabreak Beatles conversation, was singing a familiar and cheerful song.
“We all live in a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine.”
Maybe Dennis heard my laughter over his own singing, the slap of the canal, and the thin hissing of Moxy.
It was nearly time to knock off when we received the first visit from Charley, the big gaffer. The boat had pulled up while we were working and I hadn’t heard it, so the first thing I knew about the arrival was John pulling on my arm and telling me to kill the machines.
“We’ve got the supplies for you”, his dim outline told me.
“Come and give us a hand….Charley is here, don’t let him get to you.”
I made my way over the boats towards the moored up dinghy and was met by the screaming shape of Charley.
“CMON YA BOLLOCKS.” he shouted, “WE HAVEN’T GOT ALL FUCKING DAY. HERE TAKE THIS!”
He threw a fifty-pound bag of Rugby cement at me that felt like a punch in the stomach.
“OOOF!” I said.
“FASTER YOU CUNT …C’MON. “ he screamed, as I took the weight of the cement and hopped from one boat to the other like some dirty slapstick clown in a forgotten circus of hell.
As I dumped the first sack and was coming back for the next, I could still hear him yelling like a banshee in the dark.
“FASTER! FASTER! DO YOU WANT THIS FUCKING JOB OR NOT?”.
When I got close enough to him he threw the next bag at me, which I only half caught, my one desperate hand clawed at the bag and ripped it, covering me in the fine grey dust of good old Rugby Portland cement.
“YOU CUNT!!!” he screamed, “WHAT ARE YOU FUCKING DOING YOU EEEJIT.”
I picked up what was left of the bag, ran, and dumped it with the others while he carried on yelling and creating hell in the darkness. Next thing I knew he was off the boat running towards me like a maniac with another bag of cement which he hurled at me as soon as he was close enough to hit me with it. “FASTER” he screamed again, like a man whose head was about to explode.
Charley was the angriest person I had ever met.
Before dogging became a term for what swingers do in public places after dark, it was a term used on the building site to describe the process of giving people an unnecessarily hard time in order to focus their attention on the job in hand and as a way of instilling fear and respect in your workers. Charley was Irish, so there was probably a little satisfaction for him in shouting at some green English sounding twat like me.
His cries of “FASTER YOU CUNT.” were practically terms of endearment. It was tough love and he just wanted me to succeed, or break down and go home crying. I couldn’t afford to cry so I just got on with the job and hoped he would fall in the canal, but of course he fucking didn’t, he just carried on screaming and throwing big bags of cement at me.
It was actually pretty funny, although none of us were laughing.
When the boat was unloaded he got back in it, started the engine and left us all in relative peace and tranquility. He didn’t even say goodbye.
“Fucking dogging bastard.” shouted Dennis to me through the murk.
“Pay no attention to him”.
“He is fucking hard to ignore though isn’t he?” I replied to some laughter and coughing .
I started the machines and we got back to work.
I was too tired and cold to even feel relieved when we finished for the day. The small jubilation of knocking-off blurred into more resignation and the realisation that there was another ten hours to endure tomorrow.
John arrived in the little dinghy to pick us all up and we climbed into the boat as he went off to shut down the generators. As the final sound of the diesel engines died away, peace was restored to the tunnel and we were left in the dark and machineless quiet, listening to the slapping of the canal on the boats and the tunnel wall. We didn’t say anything. John made his way back to us using the light from his torch, started the boat engine, and we headed back to the world we had left ten hours before. He shone the torch ahead of us and revealed the remaining clouds of dust and fumes, until we’d got far enough down the tunnel that a slit of pale light began to be visible in the film of muck. As that slot of light got brighter and bolder it became clear that there was a world beyond the one we had inhabited and created for the last ten hours. When we were within fifty metres of the outside world, I could feel my heart pounding with excitement.
The air was gradually losing the taste of diesel and dust and when we finally broke out of the tunnel it was like being born again. Bird song, trees. FRESH AIR. I never breathed so deeply and with more gratitude in my life. It was like paradise.
We all got a bit dizzy and started cracking jokes and laughing. It was absolutely freezing and it was nearly dark but we were in heaven for a minute. It felt so fucking good chugging along that canal leaving the Nadgers tunnel I can’t even begin to tell you.
John dropped me off at my Mum’s house in Rugby.
I stood outside the back door in the dark and took off my outer layer of clothing.
Little clouds of dust came off me with every movement I made.
“Bloody hell Will,” my mum said when she saw me, “you look like you’ve been down the pit.”
I left my overalls and my boots in the garage and then went upstairs to run a bath.
I had a wash before I even got in the bath. That’s when you know you’re dirty.
While I was soaking in the hot water and enjoying the little pain of the heat returning to my body I noticed a sore spot on my arm that hurt a bit more than the rest of me.
I investigated it and found what felt like a burn or a graze on my wrist.
After I had washed it, it still looked dirty.
The cement that had found its way down my sleeve had reacted with my winter sweat and started eating its way through my skin. I had a lime burn caused by the extremely alkaline powder and it had formed a scab about two inches long that was rock hard and still burning into me. I scrubbed and picked the Rugby cement out of the wound and although it hurt a bit, it was strangely satisfying.
I lasted about four weeks on that job and when I was finished I gave most of the money I had earned to the landlord of the flat I had moved out of because I couldn’t afford to pay the rent.
At the end of the job I had nothing to show for it except for a few more scars and this story.