Ruben Connell

Hence the Wall

“What kind of a man are you?”
  That was the question put to me by one of the many political pamphlets stuffed through my letter box this morning. For some reason it struck a chord with me but since my life has been so recently turned upside down I have no answer.
  “You’ve got a lot of faith in yourself haven’t you,” my boss had said only yesterday.
  “Yes I have.”
  “I’m afraid it’s misplaced.”
  It goes without saying that I’m less than the man I thought I was. I’m dispensable. So here I am, still at home on a weekday, with nothing better to do than a spot of navel gazing. In the circumstances I can only think of myself in the terms they inevitably see me in - another number to add to the grim statistics. An article in one of broadsheets today talks of the depression as being the Somme of my generation. Without a war to do us in, it says, we are felled by the rapid fire machine gun of redundancy, leaving our pride, our hopes and our dreams languishing in the thick mud and mine fields of a financial crisis with no apparent end in sight. I’m not optimistic about my chances of finding a new job soon.
  It doesn’t take an economics degree to see we’re beyond a double dip recession. The last few years have resembled a radio wave more than a “w” and though commentators now talk of a plateau, it feels more like a flat sea bed with an ocean of national debt above it – a salty sea of austerity. As you can see I’m depressed. I never used to get depressed. So whatever kind of a man I used to be, I’m changing and my life is changing too. My days as an owner occupier are numbered for the time being. Soon the car will have to go.
  As I read past the caption and bold typeface on the front of the pamphlet, I discover that if I’m the sort of man who favours a sensible, pragmatic means of alleviating some of the problems of our time, then I’ll be in favour of the Townsfolk Act. Pretty much all the pamphlets say the same thing. Red, blue and gold seem to have become shades of grey with only the blue bigots and the loonies capable of deviating from the designated centre. I don’t have much truck with either of them to tell you the truth. Don’t they know that we put their kind of rhetoric to bed when we turned out the light on the 20th century and moved into a new millennium? It probably is helpful that the main parties all broadly agree on the direction things should take these days. Maybe it means that people don’t really stand up for what they actually believe in anymore, but life is all about compromise isn’t it?
  The civil unrest has been bubbling away for quite some time with so many people out of work. It’s not so much the demonstrations and strikes choreographed for the cameras that cause the problems. They’re a nuisance but they’re not a menace as such, even when they turn violent. It’s all contained and the police come out in force to bash heads if people step out of line. The real problem is when disorder spills out into everyday life. The atmosphere in town is chilling sometimes. You dread walking past a group of angry young people because if it kicks off, no-one will help you. You just have to walk tall and hope they only hurl insults.
  “We agree with the wall,” say today’s headlines. So at last the opposition has fallen in line with the coalition. Everyone knew they would after the inquest into the disturbances. A few weeks ago about fifty or so unemployed men and a few women turned up in the richest neighbourhood in town and starting wrecking the place. By the time the police turned up windows had been smashed and homes had been looted and set fire to. Someone had even killed a pet cat. It was obvious that after that we’d get a wall in some form. And I’m happy with that and whatever else the Townsfolk Act might say. At the end of the day you’ve got to give primacy to property rights. The day an Englishman’s home stops being his castle is the day we might as well all give up. Unfortunately my castle is now in the hands of the banks and I am in the hands of my parents. Thank God they never did move to Spain.
  “I used to like building walls when I was younger,” my father tells me, encouraging me to get back to work instead of moping around the house. “It’s an art you know. It looks simple but there’s a real skill to it, getting it perfect. I built the wall around the garden,” he adds, as if I didn’t know.
  “And you knocked down the wall that used to be there between the kitchen and the dining room,” I answer, feeling rather sore about the direction the conversation is going in.
  “A lot of good has come from walls you know,” my mum remarks, adding her two-peneth. “There’s Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China and I’m not sure if Offa’s Dyke was a wall.”
  “What about the Berlin Wall? I don’t think that was a good wall was it?”
  “Well not all walls can be good walls,” she concedes, somewhat absurdly. “But I dare say most walls do a good job. And I’ll be relieved once this one is up.”
  Bless them. They’re trying to condition me so that I’ll swallow my pride and do what needs to be done. Of course I know as well as they do that it’s only a matter of time before I’ll have to join the ranks of the well educated men who now work with their hands rather than their brains. I used to watch them digging foundations as I sat in traffic on my way to work. I pitied them. Now I pity me.
  “You got any experience?” the foreman says.
  “No.”
  “You got your papers on you?”
  “I didn’t know I’d need them,” I lie.
  “No papers? I’ll have to put you down as a Pending. That’s less than the minimum wage. Understand? You get paid less than the other fellas. You want the same rate then you bring your papers in. But I can’t promise you’ll get any work on full rate. You understand?”
I understand alright. I’m not sure it really sinks in with everyone though.
  “A bloody disgrace.”
  That’s the view of one of the other new Pendings as he airs his views rather too openly in the minibus over to the site.
  “You could bring your papers in,” I say a little provocatively to see what sort of reaction I get.
  “That’d be a great entry on my CV wouldn’t it?“ he scoffs, thinking I mean it. “When an engineering job finally comes up I can say I don’t just do the design, I can build the bloody thing too.”
As the minibus pulls up at the site I can see that a crowd has gathered to look us over. They don’t look friendly. An eager young Pending is the first out of the bus and finds himself confronted by the sort of people I can tell he’s never encountered before. He makes the fatal error of being as friendly and helpful as he can be.
  “Just let me know where to start,” he says, as if it’s his first day of work experience in an office.
  “Ello matey boss chief,” comes a cheerful response that soon turns sinister. “You can start by learning that your degree don’t count for nothing here. And you boys working on the cheap puts men like us out of work.”
  I made a conscious decision there and then to set myself apart from the other Pendings and join in with the career brickies. It’s made for a hard start but it spares me the worst of the abuse as time goes on. Gone are the rounded vowels and long words that would attract the sneers and threats of from my new colleagues. As much as I can be, I’m one of them. I’ve even plucked up the courage to taunt them back.
  “How does it feel to be building your own prison walls?” I ask them.
Some of them laugh and shrug their massive shoulders. Others start to regurgitate the simplistic propaganda they buy into so easily.
  “The thing that disappoints me about the loonies,” one of them said to me the other day, “is that they’re supposed to be in favour of public works and creating jobs but they’re against the wall. Makes my blood boil.”
  “Well I guess they see it as putting a stop to social mobility,” I began to explain.
  “Social mobility,” he snapped back. “What sort of bloody life do you think I’m trying to live. I’m not after tea with the Queen. I just want a job, pal.”
  I don’t bother talking politics anymore. It’s not for me to tell the poor how to think if they can’t think for themselves. He might be happy to fence himself in but God help his children if they ever dare dream for more. They’ll never shake off the stigma of coming from the wrong side of the wall.
To the delight of the career brickies I seem to be the sort of man who worries about sunburn more than they do. It’s been a good source of insults during the hot spell in the last week or two. Well I’m not taking any risks. They can give me as much grief as they like but my delicate pink flesh doesn’t stand up to the sun like the hide of a beast accustomed to working outdoors. The foreman saw me rubbing in my lotion today. He just shook his head and called me a willy-woofter. Ironic that.
  “Pending,” he said to me. “What you get your degree in?”
  “Economics.”
  “Is that like maths?”
  “Sort of. It involves a lot of maths.”
  “My little Stacey got A-levels in a few weeks,” he said. “Needs a C or above in maths so she can get to University and then spend the rest of her life working on a building site with clever bastards like you. You’re going to teach her.”
  I’d heard about Stacey by reputation before I found out I was going to become her tutor. One of the other labourers told me she had the sort of tight, firm arse you could bounce a brick off. Having met her, I can’t tell whether she’s genuinely attractive or just young. It’s not something I’m worrying about.
  “Have you slept with a lot of women?” she asks me.
  “Is sixty-two a lot of women?” I ask back, bragging because I can tell she wants me to.
  “Yes,” she gushes, wide eyed and impressed.
  “Well in that case I haven’t slept with a lot of women.”
  Don’t get me wrong, we do a lot of maths. It’s just that we do other things too. I meet her in the college library after work and try and get her to concentrate on logarithms and algebra for about twenty minutes or so. Then we sneak off and find an empty classroom to snuggle up in and have a bit of fun. She’s an excellent student. In a way it’s sad that she’ll be languishing in the ghetto when the wall finally goes up. I can’t say I’ll shed a tear. It just means I’ll be able to get on and live the nice, comfortable middle class life I was always destined to live.
  Until that time I’m finding that labouring has almost become a pleasant occupation. I quite enjoy the mindlessness of it as well as the satisfaction you get from doing something practical and doing it well. My dad would be proud, although he wouldn’t be quite so happy about why my new career has come to such an abrupt end. It all started this morning with a familiar sneer.
  “Ello matey boss chief.”
  “Me?”
  “Aye, you matey. Rumour is that someone’s knocked up young Stacey. How about that eh? And all the hard work she put into her exams. You know what, I reckon anyone daft enough to get involved there would be best getting off that Pending list right now so that proper brickies can do some work around here.”
  He made a persuasive argument. I weighed it up for a minute or two and then walked off the site and kept on walking. It’s seven and a half miles home across town and into the suburbs where my parents raised me. For some reason I didn’t feel like getting the bus. I followed the route of the wall for much of the way. Only a few sections remain to be completed and those areas are still fenced off behind high hoardings. I think they’re still figuring out what the eventual route will be. Something to do with compulsory purchase orders apparently.
  I can’t bring myself to tell my parents. The son of a headmaster and a banking clerk isn’t supposed to get a teenager in the family way. Then again I wasn’t supposed to lose my job, my house and my car. So how better to complete the fall from grace?
  I can’t bring myself to get in touch with Stacey either to be honest. She’s a nice enough kid but there’s more than ten years between us. We’re in different generations. It eases my conscience to think that, as unsuitable boyfriends go, I must at least be at the better end of the spectrum. If it hadn’t have been me it would have been someone else. She was that sort of girl. At least I taught her maths too.
  Now that the wall is about to go up I don’t even know if any of this matters. I never handed in my papers and I never even told them my surname. I’m just some random Pending who’ll be sitting pretty on the right side of the wall in maybe just a few days now. Plebs only have freedom of movement on their side. It’s there in the Townsfolk Act. Just punch your card at the gates and make your way briskly to work if you happen to be needed. No, I won’t be seeing any more of Stacey.
  “They’ve fenced off your old school,” my dad yells to me as I sit brooding in the bedroom I grew up in.
  It’s true they have. From the attic sky light I can see over the hoardings and barbed wire and I’m sad to say that digging has already started at the edge of the playing fields. That place had quite a proud tradition in my time but now it’ll become the same as the rest of them, a factory to churn out robots to work in factories – and brickies too God bless them.
  The Mayor will be cementing into place the last symbolic brick today before the wall is finally completed. There’s a big gathering of the press planned and then a carnival to usher in the new era. I won’t be going. The hoardings came down yesterday and the precise route of the wall was something of a surprise. Like all the other dirty handed beasts of burden, I am a fool who has built his own enclosure. The wall and the Townsfolk Act no longer feel like a sensible, pragmatic means of alleviating some of the problems of our time. It all feels more like cynical ploy of the establishment to fence us off. And to think I thought I was one of them.
  What kind of a man are you? Apparently I’m the sort of man who does the honourable thing. Stacey is excited about the wedding and it’s to go ahead as soon as possible. Everyone agreed it would be better to get her down the aisle before she started to show. I’m not especially traditional but that seems proper even to me. I suppose hard times change how you feel about yourself and the world. After all there’s only so many rejection forms a man can take and I have to accept that there are no jobs for graduates on this side of the wall. Without a wall to be built there are only so many labouring jobs to go around. It helps to know a foreman.

Ruben Connell © 2011