‘Pull them out with the coloured side facing you buddy,’ called James’s father from atop the roof. He and his workmate watched as James fought to take yet another five tiles out from the grasp of the palette’s wrapping and onto the rusted elevator, which carried the tiles up to where the two men stood waiting to lay them down.
‘Yep,’ said James, teeth barred. His young fingers were cut and blistered from the concrete edges, and despite his efforts to conceal discomfort, the pain would often force him to pause and reposition his grip. The sun was an inescapable spotlight cast to sap the very life out of his body, and in cruel waves it would beat him with an intensity that stripped away any of the pleasure he might conjure. He looked to the sky to see if the single cloud he had been following all morning had grown into a darker shade of promise, but the small white patch had now disappeared altogether. There was nothing above him but the endless blue summer and two impatient men. The set of five tiles made their way up the elevator.
‘I’ll go down and help him,’ said his father.
‘Fark, at his age we used to hold seven tiles to a shoulder and with one hand pull ourselves straight up the ladder. No elevator, and seven at a time. I remember it,’ said the workmate. Years of hard labour had weathered him down, his silver beard failing to conceal the deep lines in his face. His legs and back were together reminiscent of a birthday card, his waist the crease which refused to let it close.
‘Yeah, and then with time we learnt not to. He’s just learnt faster with us old tradies here to walk for him as lessons.’ The father stepped down the ladder and walked over to the boy, kicking the elevator switch off before taking a Stanley knife out from his pocket, which he ran across the top of the stack, the blade tapping each tile. He held the stack from falling with one hand, while placing the other on his son’s shoulder as he spoke to him.
‘Cut the wrapping as I did, right to the back before you try ripping it. Then take the first tile out and place it on top of the sixth so it holds the stack in place as you take the next five away,’ he said, handing the knife over to the boy. ‘It’s also easier if you unpack the tiles one column a time.’
‘Yep, sorry. Thanks.’
‘I’ll help you down here for a bit, while Mickey keeps laying them.’
‘Nah, I’ve got it. I can go quicker now.’
‘You sure?’ his father asked.
‘Yep, I’m fine.’
‘Grab those gloves I brought you out of the truck.’ His father kicked the lever down, and placed a load of five on the elevator before he climbed back up the ladder.
The boy swore under his breath before taking the gloves from the dashboard of the truck and returning to the palette, where he pulled out yet another set. They came to him a little easier this time, his now protected hands holding them to his chest as he walked them across the yard. He was ashamed of the gloves he wore. He felt they branded him with a delicacy that could only be a weakness in this kind of work, revealing to the others just how out of depth he really was.
‘Sun’s getting higher. We best be outta here by lunch,’ James could hear the old workmate call to his father on the roof.
The father placed his hand above his eyes and looked up. ‘We’ll get it done by then,’ he said.
James thought to help move the time along. They all did that: think, talk, listen to the radio- whatever helped to move time best. But it was mostly the thinking that did it.
Forty years, forty fucking years, thought James, as he considered the old man. That’s how long he’s been doing it, and I can hardly get through this week. What a machine. Ahh things’ll be alright I suppose, just a couple more weeks and I’ll have money to get outta here. Then the real work begins. Not that this isn’t real. This is as real as it gets. But writing is hard. I can’t run off with my distractions then. I’ll have to face the bull front on. Tough work. Not sweat pouring out from every corner tough, but it’s difficult to write something that is truly good. You’ve always known that, or at least you learnt it as you wrote that first story. There’s nowhere I can hide on a page. There’s nowhere I can hide now.
The old man tossed a pile of off-cuts from the roof, where they landed in the bin beside the street.
That old bugger, he really is something. I wonder how this guy would go about one of my uni courses…. something like that psychoanalysis unit. Probably not too great, he’d get bored and struggle with articulating the ideas in his essays. That’s if he were able to grasp the ideas to begin with. But then, who are you to assume that? He could probably do alright if he wanted to. Better than what you are at roofing. Maybe he’s just doing this because he knows it’ll put food on the table, a roof over his family’s head. Can you say with certainty that your writing will do the same?
Stack after stack he sent the tiles up, and James was surprised to find himself working in a steady rhythm. A breeze from the north had begun to funnel down the side of the property, and he looked forward to the moments when he was there by the palettes, where the wind would sweep his hair up to touch his neck.
‘Quick break,’ his father called.
The three men took the water and sandwiches they had packed from the truck, and sat in the shade under the front deck of the house. The old man had brought a newspaper, and James watched him it to one of the front pages to read while he rolled some tobacco and paper into a cigarette. He caught James watching him.
‘You want one?’ he asked, holding the tobacco pouch out to James. James glanced over at his father a few metres away, then shook his head.
‘Hm, suit yourself.’
A silence fell between the three. James took off his gloves and drank in passionate gulps from his bottle, then began to eat the sandwiches as he lent against a wooden pillar, allowing for the tense muscles in his shoulders and back to rest. The old man took long draws from the cigarette he held with the corner of his mouth, opening the other corner when he wished to let the smoke pass through with an exhaling breath.
‘Is there anything interesting in there?’ asked James.
‘What? Oh, in the paper? Fuck, you know, same ol’ same ol’,’ he said. ‘You take off soon don’t ya? Overseas?’
‘Yeah, in just over a fortnight.’
‘Well, good luck to ya.’
‘Thanks,’ said James.
The silence came again. James looked out onto the street and wondered where the passing cars were taking their passengers, and if these passengers really wanted to go where they were being taken. He thought they’d probably just like to be still, and simply exist under the cover of some shade, like he was at that moment.
James’ s father eventually interrupted the tranquillity of unburdened time when he called it time to start working again. The sun was dangerously close to its peak in the sky. The old man closed his paper and pushed the butt of his cigarette into the dirt before standing. James rose to follow him, hoping the gloves would be forgotten on the ground. The old man glanced back at where they had been sitting.
‘Don’t be an idiot,’ he said. ‘Put them on.’