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Dry-walling. by Cobble

© Cobble

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Funny how you don’t have to look at your hands when you’re working. Funny how your hands don’t have to be told what to do - how they just get on with it. An idea is all you need - a rough idea of what you want to do and an urge to do it and there you are. I mean what if I had to think about every little movement in my fingers, in my arms, in my back and legs and feet and all over my body whenever I have to lift a stone onto the wall. All those different muscles to control and get to work together so it’s smooth and just the right amount of force used. I’d like to know how it’s done - I mean, I do it without thought and if I don’t do the thinking, in detail like, then who the hell does?

I think about stuff like this when I’ve got a long job on - when one of the off-cummed-uns, as we used to say - the folk who’ve moved in from outside, gets it into their heads to save the local heritage and have their walls done. “Restored.” they say. “You come highly recommended!” this one said and I said, “Aye?” and she said, “Oh yes - Mr Ormerod was full of praise for the dry-stone walling you did at his place!” “Oh Aye?” I said, and I remembered the trouble I’d had getting the money out of him but I said nowt.

They get knocked about a bit on this job - your hands. I remember the first time I was shown - old Johnson it was who`d asked my dad if I wanted a bit of work - seein` as I’d got nowt right away after leaving school. Nobody thought about gloves in them days - now they’re all over the place - you see dozens of perfectly good working gloves lying squashed flat and mucky in the road and nobody bothering to pick them up. Takes the skin off does this stone round here - the millstone-grit’s the worst, it’s not called that for nowt - it grinds the skin down - takes the layers off one by one and when you’re new at it you go home with fingers like raw meat. “Comes wit job lad - bathe um in salty water - harden `em up,” my dad said. “Harden `em up?” I think Gran must have put salt in the old bugger’s bathwater when he was a kid.

You haven’t a clue when you start. “Nowt to it,” I thought, watching the old timer. I soon learned better. Take this gap now - somewhere in this pile of stone is a piece that’ll fit like a man fits the missis - made for it it’ll be - slot in - just like that! Hah! Just like that! I used to like that feller on the box, that magician always buggering his tricks up and then getting it right at the finish anyway. Then he drops dead on the bloody stage and that’s it! Fun’s over. Anyway you get the eye for it - get so as you can just cast your eye over the pile of stuff you’ve got and pick out just the right one - the one that’ll fit the gap.

“You never see Jim pick up the same stone twice!” That lad of Moore’s said that in The Cock, “If he picks one up it goes in the wall.” Meant it as a compliment - he’d had a few drinks after the market - and that’s how they took it, being as I’m known. But I've seem them as can claim the same - if they pick a stone up it goes in, goes in right or wrong - and a right bugger they make of it and all.

These bits of clay pipe are always turning up in the filling. They must have cursed a bit when that happened. Probably bit through the stem lifting a through-stone and it’d drop and smash and it’d probably be the only one, so they’d be stuck for the day without a smoke - less they could cadge one of course.

She’s going to the hospital again today. Got this lump under her arm. Probably nowt but what with her mother and their Kathleen and that, she thought she’d better have it seen to. She’ll be right! Tough as old boots! We’ll probably have to shoot her at finish.

I shouldn’t have taken this on. Not on my own and with my back as it is but I can’t resist a challenge, I look at all these old walls dropping to bits and the gaps all patched up with bits of chicken-wire and old bedsteads and stuff and it gets me down. You go up the Dales and there’s walls all over the place and all in good nick - but round here - look at `em! And the fields - see that one there - Old Stansfield must be turning in his grave - full of rushes where the land-drains have gone and these new folk knowing nowt about them…

There was that pipe I found that wasn’t broken. Just sitting there in a little gap that looked as though it’d been made for it. Like new it was and a bit special - the broken bits I turn up are usually pretty plain but this one had a face on the bowl - a woman’s face, a bit scary-looking like one of them women with snakes on their heads, only this one didn't have the snakes. There was some faint red stuff on the end of the stem as if it had been painted.

It’s getting a struggle here now to find enough decent stone to be going on with. Pearce said he’d come with a load but he hasn’t turned up. That’s the trouble with these old walls that’ve been down for years - stone goes missing, gets buried, gets broken up with the frosts, gets taken for other jobs so there’s never enough and they don’t like buying extra. Not so bad when they’ll help - cannibalise some somewhere and bring it up on the tractor.

I wondered about that pipe. Thought at first it’d been put by there to keep for the day after. Maybe it was a spare and hidden at each day’s end and got walled up by mistake. Or the chap hadn’t come back to the job for some reason - I don’t know… illness - had a day off sick, or drunk and somebody else carried on with the job. Could’ve been struck by lightning I suppose, or carried off by little green men. Folk have seen some weird stuff up here, we even had a couple of local coppers reporting strange lights or something but I’ve seen nowt that couldn’t be explained.

She’s put cheese up again I think. Cheddar’s alright but she cuts it too thick and then it overpowers the feel of the bread in your mouth. I’ve been going to say something but I’ve left it too long and if I complain now… Well she’s been putting my sandwiches up for donkeys o` years…

Can’t make my mind up about them wind turbines. Make the landscape look smaller and you can see them from everywhere but you’ve got to admit they’re clean. Used to be like looking down into hell from up here into the valley, when everybody burned coal and all the mill chimneys were going. All that black smoke and smogs. Well it wasn’t the windmills that stopped that though - that was the smokeless zones but windmills are the next step, I suppose…

I keep looking at her since the lump. Just looking; just checking - trouble is she notices and bangs off into the kitchen.

That silly bugger in the pub; what’s his name? Mick? Mick Noonan! “I don’t know why they’ve put all them windmills up there - isn’t it windy enough round here as it is?” Still, I wish I’d owned the ground they’re on - useless boggy fields that are trying to be moor again - Cold Soil it’s called and well-named. How many thousands a year do they get for every turbine on there?

I put the pipe back in the end. Might have been worth something to a collector but I thought about the man building the wall and how he’d been a working man like me and you don’t know what’s behind it being there. Could even have been a sort of memorial to somebody - somebody who’d dropped dead on the job maybe; just a man like me - nobody special…

Mind you the bloody wall he’d started did fall down after two hundred years so that’s no recommendation.

I often find myself apologising to the man who built a wall I’m having to dismantle. Sometimes there’s been changes to the land - maybe a drain’s collapsed and it gets boggy so the wall starts to sink and move. You’ve got to root it all out and start again, re-bedding the footing-stones. Depends what mood I’m in and what sort of job I think the original man made of it but if I respect what’s been done, which is mostly, then I get this daft feeling that he’ll be watching and resenting me pulling out the stones that he broke his back to put down all that time ago.

Of course she says I’m daft to be carrying on when I could put my feet up and sometimes when it’s siling down I think maybe she’s right.

You can watch the rain coming from miles off from up here - years ago the were nowt for it but to carry on through it and sometimes the clothes would dry on your back and sometimes you’d squelch home sodden through. Nowadays I go and sit in the pick-up till the rain eases, or if it’s looking to last I take off and leave the job where it is.

Sometimes, when I’m up on the tops working, I stand up to drive my knuckles between the bones at the base of my spine, against the pain, and I look round at the old walls dividing up what was the the moor into fields - most of the fields full of thistles or rushes now, and I’m amazed all over again. Amazed at the sheer amount of work that was put in to build them, up here in the middle of nowhere.

It was because of the rain that I caught her out that time.

Of course then you must have been able to open a quarry for the walling-stone more or less wherever you wanted and labour was cheap. They tell me Irish navvies would come over carrying their own spades and picks but that might be just a tale.

I was working away - over Worsthorne way and up on the tops and I remember looking over towards Pendle to fathom the mood of the day and I couldn’t see the hill. It was as if there was a black curtain stretched across the Burnley valley. This side was bright sunshine and the other just a black skirt of rain under a solid bank of black clouds. “Bugger this!” I thought, because it looked like unusually heavy-duty stuff that was obviously coming my way. I’d felt a bit off all morning anyway, so I hid the tools under the loose stone and headed down over the moor to the pick-up.

Sometimes if I can just get my mind fixed on another train…

The storm chased me out of Cliviger and down the gorge and caught up with me at the reservoir with a great clap of thunder.

How long were they at it?

I mean when you consider the yardage I can do in a day - in a month, it’s nothing compared to the mile upon mile of walls round these tops. There must have been armies of ’em…

Dyson’s car was parked on the road. Dirty old Cortina it was, with furry covers on the seats. Course I didn’t know it was his then. I had to pull out wide to get round him to turn into the street.

I wonder how she’s gone on at the hospital… I could ring, I suppose, but if she’s still in the waiting room or in with the specialist….

Armies of `em - armies dividing up the old commons with these rough stone walls.

It was her across that caught my attention - she was hanging out of the door, even though it was raining hard. She was staring up at our bedroom windows but turned her head when she heard my engine and watched me up the street. As I pulled up at the kerb she looked straight at me, raised her eyebrows, looked up at the window again, and then ducked back into her house, leaving the door ajar.

I climbed out of the pick-up. The rain was hammering down now, a streak of lightning struck somewhere over the other side of the railway line, the thunder right on top of me. As I hurried to get into the house I noticed that the bedroom curtains were closed.

The thunder was still rolling about as I climbed the stairs. I hadn’t shouted in case she’d got a migraine and gone to lie down and now I pushed open the bedroom door slowly - just to pop my head round to see if she was alright. It was like a thump in the stomach.

"It was the first time," she said, "a mistake," she said, all sorts of stuff she said at the time and at the time I was half insane and going on at her, sometimes all night and her crying and me wanting to cry and shouting and not giving a shit about the neighbours or nothing. And the police involved because of his injuries…

It’s like I was saying about there being another something, another somebody inside you that you don’t realise is there - maybe more than one - maybe there's lots of them, and they wait till they’re wanted for a particular job, a need to answer, an emergency or a threat. All I’m saying is, is it wasn’t me who dragged that man off my wife - sure I was there, and there was this cold bright rage - almost like joy in a way - but it was some ancient beast or warrior who was suddenly in charge of things.

I told them I was sorry I had hurt him so much, sorry for his broken teeth and cheek-bone, sorry for all the bruises - contusions they said - which may have been caused when he fell down the stairs. The bobbies grinned at that one and glanced at each other and she sat on the sofa and stared down at her hands and fiddled with her wedding ring.

"Severe provocation," the copper who came back a day or two later said. He’d taken his helmet off and put it down on the table and it looked odd to see it sitting there by the sugar bowl - something like that - on our table… I don’t know what they’d said to him but they’d had a word and he’d agreed to let matters drop if I promised not to go seeking him out…

At the finish up she said it was because she’d wanted a child. Said time was going on and she wasn’t getting any younger. She said it had become an obsession after I’d refused to go to the clinic for a test. She’d been and they‘d said she was alright and would she get me to go. I’d got mad and then stubborn about it - well you don’t want to know, do you?

She’d met him on a night out with her mates - don’t know how far it went then, but apparently he’d just turned up at the house that day. Yes I know. And I went into all that and a hundred other things at the time but you come to a point when you have to stop the questions - draw a line under it and leave it alone, and I did. A one-off is what it was and we left it there.

Water under the bridge and we’ve moved on, but even now, after all this time, I can wake up in the dark listening to her breathing - sweating still from the dream where I desperately pile stone on stone over the grave on the moor where I buried Dyson’s body. Stone after stone to hold him down - blot him out - but I know I will never find stones enough, or build high or wide or heavy enough - ever.

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