Friday, 1 July 2016
Barkus stood and gazed at the Square in the pre-dawn light. It was ridiculously early, but he couldn't stand to stare at the ceiling anymore. He blew on his fingers and stomped his feet automatically but in his mind, stakes were planted, spades were hefted and volunteers allocated. He watched the inner movie bustle and heave while the sun's rays crept across the roofs and the birds sang.
These were the times he cherished. When the pre-planning had been done but the first piece of sod had not yet been cut. How many times had he done exactly this? Standing before a site that would soon be a hive of controlled apparent chaos? Not too many times yet, he mused, marvelling that he still felt the thrill of anticipation, still got the nervous butterflies at the thought of the hundreds, no, thousands of things that could go wrong, that would go wrong without an experienced hand on the tiller. *When this feeling is gone* he decided, not for the first time. *Then I'll pack it up and find something new. But not before.*
The sound of a key in a lock woke him from his reverie and he was surprised to see that the Square was fully bathed in light, without him noticing the intermediate steps. But then, it was not the first time that happened either. He chuckled, remembering the time that he turned from a pre-site and jumped to see the whole work-force standing behind him, grinning at his absorption. That had been a good job, he remembered.
The sound that dragged him from his thoughts this time was Mary opening up and, with a last, lingering look, he turned and ambled towards the Cafe and the coffee, his heart lighter than it had been in a while.
“No,” he said, placing his hand on the pile of sod protectively. “We have plans for every piece of it. In one way or another, every piece of of sod is going back into the Square, Mr?”
“Johnston,” said the disappointed seeker of free sod. “James Johnston , Mr. Barkus. Here what do you mean, “one way or the other”? You're going to compost it? That's top-quality sod that is, you cant waste it like that!”
“Actually, it's 3rd rate sod Mr. Johnston,” Barkus replied. “And as I said, none of it will be wasted. we need every piece of it. So you just keep it damp and happy Susan.” This was to the teen who had been the target of the opportunistic Johnston. “And you figure out a different source for your your lawn replacement Mr. Johnston because this is all spoken for.” Johnston looked to argue, but the look in Barkus's eye made him nod and shuffle away instead.
“We'll need a padlock to keep it safe,” Susan said quietly. “He's the third one since I've been standing here.”
“Don't worry Susan,” Barkus assured her. “I know a trick or three for tarps and bungee cords.” Susan shrugged.
“You're the boss Mr. B.” With a smile and a nod, he walked off again.
All over the Square the demolition process was going on. Benches, path and edging stones were being removed and assessed for damage. A large truck was guided backwards into a parking space, its bed almost overflowing with mulch and covered with tarps. Behind it, 3 more were patiently waiting their turn. Trailers of compost were already sitting in their designated places, ready for the first shovel.
An increase in the shouting made him look round to see a truck with a builder's logo on the side trying to enter the Square. He hurried over as an older man climbed down from the cab.
“Mr. Smith?” he asked, extending a hand in greeting. “I'm John Barkus.” The man seemed a bit taken aback, but then he smiled and clapped Barkus's hand in his in a bone-crushing grip.
“Call me Donny,” he boomed. “Donny Red. My real name is Smith but there's so many Donald Smiths round here people call me Donny Red to keep me straight in their minds.” He laughed and shook his hand again. Barkus grinned and wondered if he'd be able to keep the use of his hand, or his shoulder. “Though now of course, they may start calling me Donny Silver,” he grinned, lifting his hat to reveal a mop of, yes, pure silver hair. He grinned at his own joke and turned towards 3 other large men who had squeezed out of the truck cab like clowns from a mini cooper. “And these are my boys, Donny Jr., Shane and Steven, if they have nicknames, they haven't told me them.” He laughed again and the sons smiled as they shook hands with Barkus, all exhibiting the same firm grip as their father.
“So where you want this Gazebo of yours Mr. Barkus?” asked Steven.
“Right there in the middle, I have it stalked out for you already. Annie said she gave you the plans?” Barkus not quite asked as he led them to the spot. Donny Jr. nodded and held up a tube of paper. Barkus could see that numerous notes had been made on it.
“We've a clear plan of attack here Mr. Barkus,” he rumbled. “We just need a clear battleground.”
“Do you need stakes? Or string?” All 4 heads shook, but the eyes were already assessing the ground before them. As per Annie's specific advice, he had started the sod removal under the eventual Gazebo location and left 3 times as much clear space as it would eventually need. There was clearly some mental mapping going on as the eyes darted in all different directions and, one after the other, all 4 men nodded slowly.
“Looks like we can get started straight away then Mr Barkus,” Donny Red said, as his sons peeled away back toward the truck. “How far up can we bring the ol' girl?”
“You can bring her up to here to unload, but then she has to back on the asphalt,” Barkus told him firmly. “I don't want the soil compacted more than I can help.” If Donny Red thought that was an odd thing to be concerned about, he didn't show it, just nodded agreement.
“Fair enough, we'll have her unloaded in a trice and then get to work.” With a nod, he strode back to join his sons.
“Looks like the wheels are turning then,” came a voice from beside Barkus. He looked to see Sol standing there, smoking peacefully. There seemed to be some kind of increased internal pressure in the man though, as he rolled back and forth on the soles of his feet and there was an extra gleam in his eye.
“Starting to anyway,” Barkus agreed. He had decided that his strange, fiery experience was some kind of dream but now looking at him, the image of a burning Sol kept butting for his attention. “The initial breaking down is always that bit that people forget about but it's necessary to get a properly finished result.”
“Cant make omelettes without breaking eggs,”Sol commented. Barkus nodded, eyes scanning the progress of each task. They had estimated that this stage would take the full day with the gazebo and material recycling taking the rest of the next 2 days. By the look of it, they would be on schedule, barring any great mishaps. Sol had just asked him something.
“I'm sorry, that was rude of me, I wasn't listening,” he admitted. “What did you say?”
“I just said that it's been a long time since the Square has seen this much action.” Barkus frowned.
“You know, you're not the first person to say something like that and I wonder, why? It's right in the middle of everything, it's fairly flat ground, it has benches.”
“It's completely open so no chance of privacy, the old paths were supplanted by the flower beds, pardon the pun, so people had to either walk right up to each diagonal corner to cross it or run the risk of suffering the wrath of the community watchdogs who are always on the look out to embarrass somebody. There was no shade or shelter whatsoever unless you brought it yourself which meant in the summer you melted and in the winter you froze. They used to allow sports until someone complained about the muddy patches not being aesthetically pleasing and they used to encourage the kids to build snow sculptures until the porno-snowmen and the “Incidents of the Yellow Snow.” “ Sol rolled his eyes and sighed. “Its almost as if someone wanted a silent town center.” Barkus looked to where Sol's eyes had briefly flickered and saw Paul Taylor's shop, it's garish store-front dominating the street.
“Oh yes?” he asked. “What would be the point though? Surely if more people were walking back and forth they would....”
“Not be spending their time and money inside,” Sol finished and then shrugged., “But what do I know, I'm just a lil' ol' banjo player who pokes his nose into other people's business.” He sighed. “I remember when I first came here, there were concerts once a week, and people threw frisbees and children played and couples lingered and then they tore down the trees for making the streets slippy with leaves.” He brightened again and slapped Barkus on the back. “But now, thats going to change, yes?”
“I hope so,” Barkus replied. “But thats up to the people, not me. I'm just here to supervise the change, not what they do with it afterwards.” The two men stood in silence for a moment, lost in their thoughts before a hearty voice pealed out.
“Unless you want to add some extra traction to the wheel, you boys had best step aside.” It was Donny Red and they both stepped aside with a laugh to allow the full truck to pass.
The younger Smiths waved off all offers to help and, faster than Barkus had expected, Donny was reversing the truck back the way it came. Sol nudged Barkus.
“Watch this,” he said. “I'll bet you've never seen anything like this before.” Barkus wondered how building this structure could be different from all of the others he'd seen, but dutifully paid attention to the Smith sons bustling about with lumber and hardware and tools. He frowned.
“Why are they stacking them like that?”
“Just wait,” Sol chuckled. “They've got quite a crowd already.” And indeed, everyone who had been working on the Square's dismantling now stood in the loose circle around where the Smiths had set up. There was a definite feeling of anticipation and Donny Red ambled back to the Square with the air of a magician about to delight and astound.
Steven, Shaun and Donny Jr. stepped back from the materials which had been arranged like points on a clock. They lifted their toolbelts and cinched them into place, then let their hands hang loosely by their sides, almost, Barkus realised, like gunfighters waiting for the signal to draw.
Donny Red turned in a slow circle, assessing each pile and son as he went. Barkus marveled at the sense of theatre the man could bring to the occasion, they were not just building a gazebo, they were creating a show. Slowly, deliberately he lifted his own toolbelt from his shoulder and pulled it tight around his hips.
“Mr. Barkus,” his voice rang out, cutting the murmured conversations short like a knife. “You say you want a gazebo right here.”
“Yes sir,” Barkus replied, aware of the need to match the tone. “The best one you can give the town.”
“Hear that boys?”
“We hear Pa,” the sons boomed out in unison.
“Then let's get 'er done!”
“Unbelievable,” Barkus said later in Jim's Place. “Simply unbelievable. I've never seen anything like it.” The Smith boys smiled and Donny said;
“Once you find your best way to work, things just go smoother, haven't you noticed?”
“But you were juggling and throwing pieces of lumber to each other, it was like something from a movie, or a circus!”
“Well we're 3rd generation builders,” rumbled Steven. “But before that we were circus clowns. Great-granddaddy felt that his youngest should try something different and apprenticed him to a carpenter during the Great Depression. But he kept his circus skills and found that they helped him get jobs where others could not. A Master Carpenter that makes your family laugh so hard that they're sick tends to stick in the mind, you know.”
“And he made sure that all his kids and grandkids learnt the fine arts of clowning around,” Shaun supplied. “And they are fine arts, believe me. Misjudge a catch or a fall and you're lucky just to be badly bruised.” He shrugged one huge shoulder. “After that it's about how to handle an audience, how to tease them out like a guitar string, how to let them laugh from their deepest corners, how to turn a groan into a gasp. Daddy is a master at it as you saw today.”
“He was something else,” Barkus admitted.
“People remember that,” Donny Jr. nodded. “There are plenty of other builders around here, too many sometimes. But we're the first ones that come to people's lips because not only do we create a beautiful product, we give them a show too.” Barkus nodded, remembering again the wonder he felt at watching those 4 big men manipulate pieces of lumber like they were matchsticks, tossing tools to each other and swinging up and down the ladders like monkeys. They didn't go faster than other builders he had known but they had dazzled. And a few times his practised eye had noticed when one Smith or other had lingered over an unimportant spot then whirled away to reveal a carved post, or a textured place for fingers to rest. They added in beauty where others would have left it plain. He mentioned this and it was like the sun rose again when all three men grinned as one.
“Grandaddy always said that it wasn't enough to just build something, anyone can do that. As descendants of circus folk we have to be able to make people pause, to linger and see things that they would otherwise have not,” Donny Jr. told him proudly.
“He said there was enough darkness and ugliness in the world, that our tools should only create brightness and beauty,” Steven mused. The men stood in silence for a moment before Barkus raised his glass.
“To Grandpa Smith,” he said. “And the creation of beauty.”
“To Grandpa Smith,” the Smith boys chorused and their glasses met with a clash.
“My, my, my but things are looking mighty fine out there,” came a cheerful female voice and the men turned to see Sarah walking over with a smile and a beer in her hand. “Progress is happening. Evening Barkus. Hullo my favourite physical comedy amateurs, long time no slapstick!”
Barkus felt a tug on his elbow as the quartet of laughter-seekers fell to exchanging insults and observations. There was a wizened old lady there, clutching what looked like a hot toddy in an oven glove. She motioned and he bent down so she could murmer in his ear. But that was all he heard, a vague murmer, with complimentary overtones. He stared into her red-rimmed eyes, mind racing as he desperately tried to pull meaning from her voice, to not embaress either her or himself. She seemed to take pity on him, for she murmered again, patted his arm and wandered back to the bar, the steam from her cup tracing her path like a flag. Barkus watched after her for a few moments, then turned back in time to see Sarah finishing the delivery of a saucy line to Steven, his brothers buckling with laughter. “Oh come here you insufferable tease,” Steven cried in mock consternation as with one hand he deftly extracted her glass and held it out to Barkus who grabbed it quickly and with the other arm spun her around and up in a surprisingly balletic movement, until he stumbled and fell. She hung at the top of the arc for a heart-stopping moment then, just as she began to fall, Shaun's arms were under her, he held her tight against his chest and spun her up and around once, twice, three times like a dancer before he lobbed her through the air back towards Steve, but he overshot and as the youngest Smith opened his eyes wide in horror and ducked to avoid her feet, Donny Jr. stepped in at the very last second and caught her securely in his broad arms. He raised her up over his head and all 4 participants struck “Ta-daaa!” poses to the whistling and rousing applause of their audience.
“Did you know they were going to do that?” Barkus asked Sarah as, beaming and breathless, she took back her drink. She shook her head and looked to where the Smith boys were getting their backs slapped and hands shook.
“Not to that extent no, but there's always something in the first ten minutes. Did they tell you that they're from circus folk?” Barkus nodded. “Then you'll understand that they're always on the lookout for an opportunity to astound and amaze.” She grinned ruefully. “I guess doing the gazebo today got their blood up cos thats the most exciting turn they've used me for yet.” She wiped her forehead and laughed. “For a split-second there even I was worried and I've known them and their ways for years.”
“But they tossed you around like a ragdoll!” Barkus exclaimed. “And you're, you're,” he faltered, aware that he may have gotten himself into real trouble. She laughed.
“Not the smallest girl in town, eh?” she laughed, stretching herself to her full height proudly. “But I was a dancer for years and there are ways of holding yourself to make it easier for someone to pick you up. Or more difficult of course,” she added. “Where's Papa Smith?” she asked Steven who had turned back to them. A momentary cloud crossed his face.
“He didn't want to leave Mama too long. She's not had an easy time of it this week,” he sighed and Sarah nodded sympathetically. “Although she asked me to tell you that the liniment you gave her has helped a lot.”
“Oh good.” He grinned again, eyes sparkling.
“And Papa said to say thanks as well, he's enjoyed applying it.” Sarah burst out laughing.
“Then work was not in vain, that's good to hear,” she chuckled. “Mama Smith just had a double hip replacement,” she explained to the amused Barkus. “Which is a good thing because the old ones were driving her nuts, but its a lot to recover from and she's an impatient lady.” Steven nodded agreement.
“She's been making rag-rugs like there's no tomorrow.”
“I thought she was photo-collaging,” Sarah said, surprised.
“She's finished that, then she finished the sweaters she promised us all ten years ago, then she decided what colours she wants all of the rooms in the house to be, now she's on to rag-rugs. And she's starting to complain that it's getting boring.”
“Oh wow,” Barkus said. “How long has it been since the operation?”
“4 weeks,” was the reply. “She gets up and walks around and does the exercises she's supposed to do, but she gets tired a lot faster than she used to. She's an active lady and and doesn't like spending all her time staring out the window.
“Does she crochet?” Steven paused, then shook his head. Barkus continued; “When my mother was laid up with a broken thigh, the only thing that kept her attention was crocheting. She made blankets and cushion covers and everything.”
“I don't suppose she taught you how to do it,” Steven asked. Barkus shook his head.
“She tried, but I was completely ham-fisted at it. Couldn't get it to work at all.”
“Mary crochets though,” Sarah supplied. “She comes by sometimes and her pieces are just beautiful. Maybe she'll come up to Loretta with a spare hook?”
“It's worth the asking,” Steven agreed. “If Mama can't find something to occupy herself, she'll do herself an injury and then we'll be back to square one again.”
“Hey Steven, you coming with us?” came the call from the door.
“Be right there Shaun,” Steven called back, before draining the rest of his drink. With a hug for Sarah and a handshake and “see you in the morning,” for Barkus, the builder walked out through the door into the early evening.
“What time is it?” Sarah asked, checking her watch. “Just gone six, good I'll make it for supper.” She drained her own drink and set the glass on the counter. “If I'm late again I won't hear the end of it.” Barkus nodded.
“Yep, you have to be careful about punctuality when a hot meal is waiting.” She laughed.
“Don't I know it. Have a good evening,” she said as she headed for the door.
Barkus blew out his cheeks in a sigh. Jim passed him a menu on his way past.
“Chef's burger and fries please Jim. And another beer.”
It was 8pm and Barkus was back in his apartment. The envelope Deputy George gave him was torn open and three sheets of paper lay on the sitting room table, Barkus was standing by the window. He didn't see the view, but the handwritten lines instead. He blinked, rubbed his face, then grabbed his jacket and keys and walked out, closing the door carefully behind him.
Sol was in the corner store when he walked in, leaning on the counter and making the young man on duty laugh so hard you could see the bands of his braces.
“Hello Barkus,' Sol called cheerily as the youth wiped his eyes with his sleeve. 'Do you have any comment on Marxism vs. Anarchy?' Barkus shrugged and pasted on a smile.
'Only that you should never count your revolutionaries until they're cracked.' A weak one, but it got smiles from his audience. 'Pack of DuMauriers and a lighter please,' he said to the attendant. Sol's eyebrows rose.
'Didn't you quit?'
'Yeah, well, some evenings are easier than others,' Barkus hedged. Sol nodded.
'Well, if its only for the evening, how about I open my shiny new packet of tobacco and give you a few rollies instead? That way, you've still quit cos everyone knows that you only start up again once you actually buy a pack.' Barkus wavered, then nodded. The youth put the pack back in it's place. Sol stood up.
'Right, lets officially break the seal on this baby,' he said, then winked. 'As the High Priest said of the Vestal Virgin.' The youth guffawed and waved them off as Barkus followed Sol out of the store and to a bench a ways up the street.
'Can you roll your own?' he asked once they got comfortable in the evening sunshine.
'I used to be able to, my roommates loved to have me around in college. It's been quite a while though.' He smiled. 'Like almost everybody it seems, I used to roll together what ends of tobacco I could find. Well, I say 'I' but really it was me and my older brothers and it was really only because our Uncle smoked rollies and we were all a little in awe of him.' Barkus swore as his fingers proved to be even clumsier than he expected. The shaking in his hands had nothing to do with it of course.
'Of course,' Sol said and Barkus frowned before he continued. 'It's usually a mysterious, older role model that starts the younger ones on something. Smoking, drinking, wearing pants that make you look like you missed the toilet.' Barkus chuckled and licked the glue on his paper before attempting to smooth it into place. 'Okay,' he admitted, holding up his creation. 'It's a sleeping bag, but at least it's not a camel.'
'Does your Uncle still smoke?' Sol asked, passing him the lighter. Barkus bent his head to shield the flame from the wind and lit up.
'Car accident when I was fourteen,' was the short reply. 'Winter. Plough came around a corner over the line, Jimmy served to avoid it, flipped through the trees and got pinned underneath his own car.' Inhale, exhale. 'Died of exposure in the dark.' Sol shook his head in sympathy.
'I don't think my father ever got over it, really. I remember the look on his face any time any of us forgot to call and let them know we arrived somewhere.' Inhale, exhale. 'The only time I ever heard him and my mother have a real, flaming row was when she had insisted on driving through a storm. I can't remember why, but she wouldn't budge. He was as tight as a bowstring for the whole day and when we got up the next morning and she still hadn't come back or called he was in pieces. He had spent the whole night beside the window with the phone at his elbow. When she walked in the door at lunchtime he alternated between screaming at her and hugging her.' Inhale, exhale. 'They were the first people to get cellphones, you know, the original bricks with the lift-out antennae? Dad got two, one for each vehicle.' *And they still ended up dying at home* came the new, now hated voice. Sol's eyebrows rose, but Barkus didn't notice.
Barkus stared at the empty yet cluttered square as the shadows began their long slide into night. His hands mechanically cupped the rollie from the wind, raised it to his lips at the proper intervals, his lungs worked to deliver the nicotine to his blood but he himself was on the other side of 30 years ago, when his Uncle could be found under the chassis of a car, whistling through his teeth, or occasionally groping for a tool that one of his nephews would hurry to hand him. James would eventually join him under there, using his skateboard to wheel himself in and out.
'What happened when your Uncle died?' Sol asked, breaking smoothly into his thoughts, Barkus blinked and realised that he was down to the end of his rollie.
'It was like someone ripped a hole in us.' He leaned back and shredded the little rectangle of paper before stuffing it into the half-empty flower pot beside him. 'When he died, nothing stayed the same.' He sighed. 'Poor James.'
'Your Uncle, or one of your brothers?' Sol asked. Barkus grinned mirthlessly.
'Both, technically. My Uncle's name was James but he preferred Jimmy. My older brother, the second son was named after him but preferred James.'
'At least it cut down on the confusion,' Sol observed. 'So why poor James over everyone else?'
'He idolized Jimmy. James was a very smart guy but he couldn't read all that well. No problem with numbers 'so long as they didn't get stupid,' in his words. But reading?' Barkus shook his head. 'Nowadays they'd call it dyslexia and give him a different method to learn. Back then in that school they called him stupid and made him the laughing stock of the classroom.' He accepted the rollie Sol passed him and lit up. 'By the time Daddy found out what was going on, it was too late. Nothing could make James set foot in a classroom ever again. So Jimmy started showing him the mechanical ropes. He told Daddy that reading didn't matter as much as understanding in the mechanical world and James had that in spades.' Inhale, exhale. 'James was supposed to start as apprenticeship with a company when Jimmy died. He had arranged it all for him, right down to the boots.' Pause. 'That's what he was driving back from when that plough came around the corner.' Silence.
'Poor James,' Sol said. 'What happened to him?' Barkus shrugged again.
'He went and did the apprenticeship, got his Red Seal, made a name for himself, got other young ones apprenticed and set on their way.' Inhale, exhale. 'He told me that anything else would be an insult to Jimmy.' Long, hard breathe. *'I just can't be as strong as you John, I'm sorry.'*
'When did you see him last?' Sol asked gently.
'Six months ago.' Barkus stood up abruptly. 'Thank you for the ciggarettes,' he said, grinding the second one under his boot. 'You're right, much better than buying a pack myself. I feel like I should go for a walk though. See you round.'
'See you round,' Sol answered, but Barkus was already gone.