An electrician by trade, John lives in Vancouver, Canada. - author supplied data
The first time I read a story by John Duffy it was during my read through of Abandoned Darlings, a collection of writings by the 2011 and 2012 MA in Creative Writing classes at the National University of Ireland at Galway. His story was about a very dangerous bus trip through the Andes in Bolivia. These words sum up how I felt about Duffy's really well done story, "Death Road".
You might have seen a National Geographic Channel program about the terribly dangerous road through the Andes in Bolivia that the narrator in this story crosses in a bus ride sure to scare anyone out of their wits who is not from there. The first person speaker in this story is an Irishman out for an adventure in the wilds of South America and he happens to hook up with a beautiful and delightful sounding "French girl of Lebanese extraction". Some cynics say the reason the English conquered India was because they could do things and have adventures there that they could never do at home. I think that is part of the deeper theme of this very interesting marvelously cinematic story.
Since then I have had the honor publishing two of his original short stories as well as a wide ranging Q and A session I recommend to all interested in short stories or Irish culture to read the Q and A session, from there you can link to his stories.
Today I am very pleased and honoured that John Duffy has entrusted me to share another of his stories on The Reading Life, “it is a Tear Down Day”. ( John Duffy is the exclusive owner of this story. As protected by international copyright law, this story cannot be republished in any format without his permission.)
I hope to follow his work for many years.
“It’s a Tear Down”
A short story by John Duffy
Another day. Count them down. Tick them off. Another day closer to pay day. Stay focused. It won’t be long now until the flight home. I’ll cozy up with Julie back in the city. We’ll walk by the lake together and chat about things that happened during our time apart. We’ll bring the dog with us and he’ll trot along beside us on the boardwalk. That will be sweet for sure. To feel the sun again and see the water sparkle across the Great lake.
I left the apartment, perished with the cold on the outskirts of Saskatoon, walked across the superstore carpark and waited for the green light to cross the highway. On the other side I joined a group of people at the bus stop. The bus pulled up and I was relieved to board and feel the heat within, took a seat by the window and drifted back to sleep. I need some action today, something to break up the monotony of this system. They’re only thoughts. Don’t worry about it. Pay no mind. The coin won’t count itself. It will be all worth it Thursday when we board the aeroplane. Remember the hot-air balloon the last time we left after takeoff. It looked like a ripened pear with yellow stripes, hanging still against the orange sunset. Shawn bought another beer from the airhostess and she brought it up the aisle. I turned around and raised the can to him. He’s a sound fellow Shawn. We just about made the flight, the two of us running through the airport terminal roaring at them to wait for us. It could be worse though. The work is handy here and the lads are sound enough. I’ll keep going for another while.
The grey-white towers and buildings of the mine came into view and the bus pulled in to the car park. The darkened masses marched and shuffled toward the gates carrying lunch pails and tools. Electricians, Scaffolders, Fitters and Iron workers. I clocked in through the turnstiles. Beep.
Beep. The heavy thump of work boots and clatter. I joined the team and we stood gathered around outside the mechanical room waiting for the brief from foreman Dan. Jessie stood with his hands behind his back. Mitch and Sal were there. Thompson and Husky. It was 6:00 AM and dark as dawn. The tunnel was lit by a string of temporary lights and it smelled like freshly poured concrete, potash and hydraulic grease. I turned up my toes inside the Baffin winter work boots. They were a lifesaver as I had previously wore regular steel toe work boots and almost lost a few toes from having wet feet during a cold snap. It was twenty-two degrees below and dropping. Saskatoon style. They’d tell you nothing about it.
‘There’s no difference between -25 and -35. You won’t notice any difference at all.’
I shook my arms to smother a sneaky draft that crept inside my layers like some ice cold lady’s fingers pressed tight, then scraping and creeping. Brain freeze. I stretched against the wall and jumped around.
Dan and his sidekick Solar showed up. The boys were well wrapped up in winter coats. Dan wore a balaclava and spoke through a small hole cut out of it.
‘Good morning boys.’
‘Saskatchewan was colder than Mars last night.’ ‘Mars?’
‘The planet Husky.’
‘Oh very good. Nice to hear you’re breaking records out here boys. Fair play. Give yourselves a hand there.’
Solar kept his hands inside his sheep-skin gloves and trench coat pockets. I figured it was my turn to lead the warm-up so I went to the centre and pulled some choice ninja stretches. Husky slipped over after a while and fell away laughing, the big red face on him.
Dan started reading from the clip board after warm up.
‘There will be a Health and Safety Meeting at 3 o’clock tomorrow in Hall C.’
‘We’ve got an armoured cable pull in the tunnels under 611 this morning. We’ll need respirators and dust suits. You can sign them out from the tool-shop on the west side.’
‘The best side.’
Solar shook his big serious looking head.
‘It’s warm in the tunnels but it’s dirty and dodgy with those damn belts running and you can hardly breathe with dust.’
‘Steve needs three of us in the chapel later. If anybody wants to go there, let me know before break.’
‘What’s he doing?’
‘Fire alarm inside. Ground cable outside. As far as I know.’
The chapel was an open storage facility with a high-pitched roof. The first I heard about it was at site orientation on my first day when the safety officer was speaking about tying off while working at heights.
‘Two of you can load the cable and have the cable-jacks brought to the entrance by 611. Use channel 1 for the fork lift driver.’
I played a few games of Rock, paper, scissors against Mitch. The loser would have to fill in the safety forms. He beat me on the third challenge with a slick sheet for an outstretched hand and I was fair sick afterwards.
‘You’re too predictable D man.’
He walked away with Thompson waving his hand around like a bird’s wing. ‘Give us a shout when you’re ready.’
I looked over the safety forms,
Work at height hazard.
What are we even doing here?
Personal limitations hazards.
Clear instruction provided. Distractions in the work area. Trained to use tool and perform task.
Keep the lead in your pencil young fellow. Until you’re old enough to know what to do with it. I filled in the information and went through to the process facility, past the heavy-duty motors, four-hundred horsepower beasts with runs of pipe and cable-tray overhead. The safety boy wore thin white gloves and a shiny hi-vis vest. The safety reps would normally scribble their signature and hand you back the safety booklet but this fellow took his time reading the information. The big bushy eye-brows on him.
‘What’s this e-pig?’
I leaned over his shoulder and looked at my handwriting.
‘That’s epic. It’s going to be epic.’
‘The control measure we have in place as a defence mechanism against the hazard.’ ‘Where’s Mitch?’
‘I’ll have him sign it.’
Mitch was in the Compressor house by a data panel holding a heat gun over his out stretched pants, warming his bollocks.’
‘What the heck are you at?’
‘Did you tick this for a hazard D man?’
‘They didn’t give me the option.’
‘You should try it sometime,’ the big smiley head on him looking up and down the corridor.
Later we went down dusty steel stairs below 605 and through tunnels where conveyor belts moved fresh potash along. It spilled over in places, fine white powder and red grains, still warm from the earth below. Fresh dug potash. The salty taste of it. We used shovels to dig our way through mounds which had gathered, blocking our path along the run. I could barely see Jesse and Mitch further along. They were all blended into piles of potash with coils of cable at their feet. Horsing them in. Thompson gave us a hand and sometimes we’d get a break, waiting for slack from further along the line. Speak to the crew down the radio.
‘Just waiting on Solar here boys. Hang tight.’
‘And we stayed in this old castle from the 17th century and we had some fine wine with dinner over candle light. It felt different, you know, like I’d just come from the past or something, like from another age.’
‘Of course it did. Because you were like Prince Arthur in a four poster bed afterwards you lucky man.’
‘10-4. Give us a shout when you’re ready.’
The conveyor belt trundled along and an old industrial fan rattled overhead. ‘Keep back from the emergency line there, like a good lad.’
After break I went to the chapel with Jesse and Tony.
If you lose your dog in Saskatchewan you can see him run away for three days.
We met Steve and climbed flight after flight of scaffolding steps outside the building and then climbed a ladder to the top of the chapel. Looking around there were no landmarks in any direction, vast prairie land stretched away to the shimmering horizon. Easy land for laying tracks. The train pulled a line of steel containers away from the yard. On the north side a van approached along a straight dirt road with a trail of dust swirling up behind it. She was on her way to the mine alright. There was nowhere else to go. Tony looked pale. He gripped the scaffolding rail with both hands, the back of his curly mullet raised by the wind.
‘I don’t think I can do this Steve.’
‘That’s OK. This job is not for the faint hearted.’
Steve held up the pole and Tony went down the ladder.
We stood at the apex looking out along the rooftop, a thousand feet sheer drop of grey-white canvas on either side. There were no walkways or any form of work structure in place. A catenary wire was fixed to metal rods that protruded from the rooftop and ran the length of the
building, for the convenience of those souls foolhardy enough to be out there in the first place. I felt like a soldier. A cog in the wheel of some hardened platoon, working a dangerous mission in a hostile environment, happily taking directions from Colonel Steve, putting my life on the line for some Godforsaken cause. He raised his voice over a biting wind that swept across the roof.
‘Now I’m going to tell you boys. This is a unique building. There is nothing like this structure in the whole of Canada.’
‘You might have heard,’ he continued as he nodded past us. His mustache danced as he spoke and his safety glasses looked like a pair of shades a welder might wear.
‘About the young man, who wasn’t tied off?’ ‘Yes. That was terrible altogether.’
‘That’s not going to happen again. We’re going to put every safety measure in place for this operation.’
‘That’s sound Steve. No problem.’
Jessie tightened the strap of his safety harness around his leg. The tip of his nose was red and wet.
What’s the worst that could happen? If we slipped and fell the safety harness would engage and we could pull ourselves up again. Pure heroes.
The Colonel continued,
‘Now I’m going to tell you boys. I would never give you to a job I wouldn’t do myself. And you two are going to look pretty fucking stellar with the company if you pull this off.’
‘That’s sound Steve. No problem. It should be straight forward enough. We just walk along the roof there and pull the cable with us. Terminate at each point.’
‘Well, yes. But Saskatoon wasn’t built in a day boys. We’re going to take our time with this job.’ ‘Will there be somebody watching out for us?’
‘I’ll be with you boys every step of the way. You have my word.’
‘OK. Let’s move out. One by one down the ladder. Let’s go.’
We signed out special safety harnesses with a double lanyard from the tool-shop and then went to the administration office for permits. There were blueprints spread over the counter; pencils, sharpies and empty coffee cups on the table. Tony ran back across the boneyard and burst in the door.
‘Dan. Quick.’ ‘What?’
We went outside and followed him past the huts. A tiny figure scaled the rooftop of the chapel. He looked like GI Joe with loops of rope strapped to his back, moving along sideways like a crab, latching on and off to the catenary wire. He reminded me of the man who walked the tightrope between the twin towers in New York. He looked like an angel.
Stephanie, the safety lady stood beside us with her shoulders well back.
‘What the heck is he doing up there? We have no high angle rescue in place.’
‘He’s dropping rope for the cable pull.’
‘He should never have gone up there alone.’
‘He’s a hero.’
‘Well, yes. But heroes don’t always get to go home in the evening. Now do they?’ ‘Oh my God. What is he doing?’
Steve stood up and stretched back.
Dan called him on the radio.
‘Steve, call back. You’d better come back down. We’re going to do it a different way.’ ‘What? No way José. This rope is going down. I’m almost there.’
He stooped over, latched on and continued side stepping along. When he reached the last terminal he let the rope drop down the roof. We ran over and tied it to a concrete weight by the side of the building.
‘Got her Steve. It’s tied off.’
‘10-4. I’m heading back across. My legs might seize up and this radio is almost dead but I think I can make it. Have some water ready for me.’
Now some people might say Steve was a reckless cowboy, jumping the gun by going off on a solo mission. And some men might say he could have done things differently. But I thought it was a thing of sublime beauty. Here was a man I could trust. A man of action, ready to lead, willing to go the extra mile without fear. My commander-in-chief and very own super hero Steve Andrews. Then I thought about Malachy the safety officer during site orientation on my first day on the job. There was a man who could tell a story.
‘What are your three rights here folks?’
‘The right to turn down unsafe work.’
‘Yes. Who said that? Put your hand up.’
‘Here’s a pen from Parker. You have the right to refuse what you believe to be unsafe work folks.’
The operation was called off and we returned the harnesses to the tool shop. Later, we were gathered around outside the lab. Husky and Tony flipped towers of penny washers from their elbows to their hands.
‘Eighteen, fucker. I’m in your head.’
‘You’re not. Here come twenty two.’
Thompson stood about six feet four. He nodded over toward the chapel.
‘I guess they’ll just have to think of a safer way of doing it. But for now. It’s a tear down.’
‘It’s a tear down.’
‘Did anyone collect their potash penny yet?’
‘You can pick them up from 208.’
‘We should head out tonight. Throw them on the ponies in town.’ ‘Sounds like a plan.’
‘She’s thirsty work.’
There’s only a few hours to go then back to the apartment. It will probably be pizza and chips and the next episode of The Wire. I’ll video call with Julie. It will be good to see her again and hear how she’s doing back in the city. Blast those ants in the bedroom. Fair weather friends. They marched all over that peace and harmony pact I put in place on Monday evening and tried to take over the place ever since. Still, it’s nice to have some company all the same.
End of story
Again, my thanks to John Duffy