1951: Deconstructing the Dream
At a little after seven o’clock on a Monday morning in March Harry Cartwright arrives at work and chains up his bicycle. The sky is low and heavy with cloud and a dismal mist is coming off the river. It rolls in in great, damp drifts, the kind that can defeat any mackintosh, creeping down the back of his neck and seeping through the layers to his skin. This is only the second day on what will be a six month contract so, despite the symptoms of a nasty cold, Harry has turned in early. He is hoping for a cup of sweet tea and a chance to gather his thoughts. Experience has taught him that a big job like this one means that you can’t be too careful. A moment’s loss of concentration and someone could get hurt.
Harry is still flushed and panting from his early morning exertions. There’s nothing quite like a bike ride for keeping out the cold. He pulls up his collar, adjusts his muffler, and whips off his cycle clips, slipping them into his trouser pocket as his gaze sweeps over the site. But Harry is clearly the first to arrive. The whole place is deserted; frozen, it seems, in the mists of time, and silent as the grave. All the buildings are shut up tight. Even the great dome is deserted. A few damp and peeling posters forlornly flap in the wind. Some other advertisements, long since torn down have been trodden to a much on the tarmac where rain of several days has collected to form a series of shallow pools. Here and there a packet of Weights sails like a boat along the surface, or a brightly coloured chocolate wrapper sticks in the mud like a flag. All in all, not much remains of the site’s former optimism, the laughter and gaiety, the holiday spirit and good cheer.
‘Where the hell’s he got to?’
Harry’s tone is disgruntled. He screws up his eyes and squints into the wind. He is relieved to see, Arthur, long-legged and gangly, loping towards him.
‘Come on, lad. Get yourself down here. Let’s have a brew before we start.’
‘The lad’ is how Harry refers to Arthur who, frankly, does not care for it. Arthur, after all, is twenty-six and married with two sets of twins. Harry, however, is thirty seven and, some days, feels a thirty years older so, try as he might – and he does try, at least intermittently – he struggles to see his workmate as anything more than a boy.
It is ten past seven. Arthur has arrived a little later than usual. He shrugs this off by pointing out that they’re not due to start until eight. Anyway, he says, Harry was so early he must have pissed the bed this morning. Harry aims a blow at the joker’s head but Arthur ducks and grins.
‘What,’ says Arthur, his hands in the air in a gesture of outraged innocence, ‘now I’m responsible for the natural weakness of an old man’s bladder?’
‘Not so much of the old,’ returns Harry, ‘and my bladder is none of your business. That’s the trouble with you chuffin’ youngsters, no bloody respect.’
‘That’s right, me old china,’ Arthur says, mocking, ‘you set me straight. You’ll be telling me next how you won the war just to save my hide from the Nasties.’
He places one finger beneath his nose and gives a goose-stepping salute.
Harry scowls and falls sullenly silent. He wishes himself back in his bedroom. His head aches, his nose is running, and the back of his throat is on fire.
‘Let’s just get the kettle on, eh, and get us in out of this cold.’
‘Ok, boss,’ says Arthur and he flips a key in the air.
Arthur sings a snatch of ‘Don’t Blame Me’ as he unlocks the hut that yesterday Harry and the rest of the team set up as their temporary ‘office’. It is a ramshackle construction with a heavy brass padlock and one tiny window. They use it to store the primus stove, their coats and the tea things; and, of course, their midday ‘snap’ which they bring in every day.
The ‘tea things’ consist, firstly, of an aluminium kettle that screams like a banshee; then there is a brown glazed teapot with a chip gouged out of the spout. There are also three teaspoons, an ornate Christmas biscuit tin, some plates, and a handful of mugs. Arthur himself has his own special cup because he can’t drink tea without a saucer. The others take the mickey, of course, but Arthur doesn’t care.
Arthur takes a spinsterish pride in ‘doing things properly’. It is he, for example, who collects the tea money and records it in a little green book. It is also he who buys the morning milk and goes once a week to the Co-op where he fusses over prices and buys broken biscuits if he can. Every so often, Harry will provoke him by openly calling him ‘the tea boy’. Then, Arthur’s eyes will flash as he curses under his breath. But, mostly, the lads are happy enough to let Arthur be ‘Mother’ if he wants to. With a wife and two sets of twins at home, they figure it’s no wonder. Perhaps he comes in early to get a bit of proper peace.
‘It don’t seem right to me, though, Harry.’ Arthur is looking at the ground plan. ‘Think of all the money, I mean. It must’ve cost a bloody fortune.’
‘So it did, lad. So it did.’ Harry’s expression is thoughtful. He dips a Lincoln biscuit and solemnly shakes his head. ‘More than you or I will see if we live to be a hundred. But it’s all going, just the same. Mr Churchill has made sure of that.’
‘Bloody Tories,’ says the younger man, and he spits through his teeth. ‘It’s downright shameful is what it is, a waste of public money. And what’ll we do with it, when all’s said and done? It’ll all go for bloody scrap. A lorry load of bloody scrap metal: is that really all this country’s worth?’
‘Maybe so,’ says Harry, who, despite his sore throat, is beginning to feel a bit better, ‘but just you hang fire a minute. Things aren’t quite that simple. According to that chap on the wireless, we can’t afford to keep it. A “reckless expense” was what he said and “out of step with the times”. It was grand while it lasted, though, I’m not denying that. The missus and me, we took the kids. It cost me nigh a week’s bloody pay.’
Arthur takes a long swig of tea. He is frowning out of the window. What he wants to say to Harry is something that matters a lot.
‘It isn’t just the money, though, is it? It’s like it’s a symbol of the future. There’s a lot like us – and some even worse – who are struggling to put food on the table. We need some encouragement. We need a bit of – cheering up.’
Harry’s puts down his mug and turns to look directly at Arthur.
‘Cheering up,’ he says, ‘cheering up? Bloody well cheering up! Have you any idea, young fella-me-lad, of the state of this country’s economy? We’ve just got rid of one bloody lot that’s done nothing but spend. What’s called for now is a bit of restraint, not live now, pay later. We can do without any ‘cheering up’. I’ve never of heard anything so daft.’
Having delivered this last and most serious pronouncement, Harry turns back to his tea. He stares down into the mug and swirls around the dregs. It is almost as if he has half a mind to read his own tea leaves. Instead, however, he opens the hut door and throws out the slops.
‘Come on,’ he says, in a different tone. ‘It’s time we got down to it.’ Somewhere a clock has started up. ‘It must be eight o’clock.’
But Arthur is not ready to leave it. He squares up to Harry. He presses in towards his chest. There isn’t a great deal of room.
‘For one thing,’ he says, ‘I’m not your ‘lad’ and, for another, you want to wise up a bit. Before you go moaning about what’s been spent, you want to stop and think. What’s that money been spent on, eh, but a decent bloody future? It’s been a long time coming – too bloody long – but I for one deserve it.’
Caught off guard by Arthur’s attack, Harry is left staggered and speechless. His mouth opens and closes a bit but no words come out. And then Arthur is off again, seeing and seizing his advantage. Never before has Harry heard him talk so much at once.
‘To my mind, Labour have done alright,’ says Arthur, flushed and furious. ‘We should’ve stuck by them; that’s what I think. I think we’ve all let them down. Churchill may not like what they’re up to but Churchill aint living down my street. And he may have won the war but we shall have to win the peace.’
‘Ay, lad,’ Harry begins but he pulls himself up short. ‘Ay, mate,’ he continues, ‘that’s all fine and dandy but can the country afford it?’
‘They can afford it,’ says Arthur with some vehemence. ‘They can always afford it. But it seems to me that, unless we stand up to them, we’ll be the ones who have to pay.’
For a moment, Harry seems about to speak but then he changes his mind. Outside the hut, both men shiver and button up their coats against the damp. Harry leads off and Arthur follows as they join up with the others. Harry reaches for his handkerchief and remembers that his throat is very sore.
Forty minutes later, they are all assembled and standing in silence. Harry and Arthur won’t look at each other as they contemplate the task in hand. A fine rain is drizzling down on a circle of upturned faces. The aluminium structure that rises above them floats in its cradle like a dream.
‘Well,’ says Harry, ‘there she is. It’s a shame but we’d better get on with it.’
Arthur has been scuffing the toe of his work boot. Head down, he turns and walks away.
Abi Wyatt © 2011