Thursday, March 02, 2006

On the Nightwatch

Talking about our unisex office reminded me of a time when I worked in a place as removed from gender balance as could be. I was a night watchman on a construction site for a couple of months in the Belgard area of Tallaght at a time when some tunnelers were blasting through the rock beneath the Belgard Road and driving a pipeline through. This was a development in the late 1980s, and I would turn up for work by bicycle at around 7.00pm and keep watch over the place until 7.00am.

Night watch work is nothing to be recommended. I would get up in the afternoon and watch Bosco while eating dinner, cycle to work, have lunch around 3.00am, then arrive home about 7.15am and eat breakfast before going to bed for the day. This went on Monday to Saturday, but on Sunday I got to do the "day-shift" of 7.00am to 7.00pm. This was for the convenience of the regular watchman, or yardman, or whatever they called him during the day. If anything, I learned quickly enough there was little or nothing in the construction company's approach that had anything to do with my comfort.

The hut was completely filthy and inhabited over the course of the day by the hardest men I have ever seen or am ever likely to see. These were two culchies from some God-forsaken place who looked like they'd grown out of the grey rock at the bottom of the tunnel. At night, as I was arriving for work, they set off dynamite to blast through another few metres. The dust settled overnight and the twosome spent the day shovelling out the spoil. They spent their working days kneeling in water, or lying in it, with short-handled square-headed shovels. They spoke a kind of English language, but I hadn't a notion what they were saying half the time. I suppose they must have been in their thirties when I met them, and they looked like they had toiled since they were boys. Their clothes stank of wet and mould, and they hung them up to "dry" overnight, washing the worst of the grime from their faces, necks and arms, or stripping off to the waist to scrub at the dust. Then they piled into two half-rotten cars and disappeared off to a pub or nearby digs grinning widely as they went.

I was left standing in the door of the Portacabin, the gate of the compound locked behind them. A diesel pump sucked out the water from the tunnel overnight. I kept it filled with fuel. I "patrolled" around the chainlink fence, looked over a couple of mechanical diggers, wondered what some of the tunneling equipment was, then retired to the hut to wait the long wait.

As dusk was falling, there was a gas cylinder on the rough plywood table. I learned how to tie and light a mantle lamp that fitted to it. This provided the light, the heat, and the carbon monoxide fumes for the rest of the night.

If nothing else, the lamp made one get up and move around the yard every few hours. If not, you had a tendency to nod off onto the table, and were in danger of poisoning from the fumes.

The hut was divided roughly into two by a wooden partition. Large pneumatic drills, drillbits, and other tools filled one end. There was a wide spillage of hydraulic fluid on the linoleum floor and encrusted dirt everywhere. I looked at the two ring gas cooking arrangement that rested at floor level. Out of pity, I scraped the week-old brown lard from the frying pan and boiled water in it until it came reasonably clean.

The compound through which the tunnel was being bored was owned by a company which leased Portacabins, and the boss would sometimes arrive in his big Mercedes car. A couple of lively fitters would sometimes visit to make ready the interior of a cabin nearby, and these were good company.

On Sundays, the field next to the compound was used as a sports ground, and I could watch a game of soccer.

The nights were terribly lonely, though, even with the radio-cassette machine I bought with my new-found wealth. I took to cleaning to pass the time, poured sand onto the hydraulic fluid and swept it up. The two tunnelers pronounced the work good.

The boss was the foreman, who lived in a rented house in Kingswood for the duration of the project. On payday, I would call in and he would be there in the unfurnished house writing in a big ledger and counting out rolls of hard cash.

One evening the one who looked after the yard on alternate shifts was waiting in his car, a sly grin on his face as I came in on the pushbike. The two cabin fitters wanted to know if I'd been there the whole time the night before. Did I see anyone about the site?

Naturally, I'd been there the whole time and no-one other than a few kids had been around.

It transpired that someone in the compound had acquired some scrap aluminium windowframes by way of an extra income. It also transpired that someone else decided to fit me up for being in on stealing them from their new owners. I never did like that smarmy yard man. I reckon it was him.

No matter. I wasn't asked to join them again when the tunnel inevitably went off into another area. I was paid off and given a cursory farewell a week or so later when the job in Belgard had come to an end. Such is life.

Gobshites are everywhere, but take my advice: don't do the nightwatch.

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