Over the three years I spent working in the housebuilding industry in England, Keith, Garry and I worked on numerous sites, not always together. My last job was back with Keith once more, as back-up forky on a site southeast of Arundel in a little place called Angmering. The houses were in the higher end of the market in terms of value, half a million quid bought you a narrow two, or three storey brick box, with a postage stamp for a back garden and usually only a hard stand to park your car, because the garage supplied would have struggled to accommodate a couple of bicycles!
Personally I would not give you ten pence for one of those dwellings; to call them a house is laughable. Back in New Zealand the average double garage is much bigger, not to mention better built!
Steve the site forky was in his early sixties and lived locally four miles away in Littlehampton on the south coast. Because of tight financial constraints within the company, he and I were paid by the brickies while being employed by the building company. Confused? I didn’t care just so long as I got paid.
Steve thought he was indispensable on site. To that end, he was always coming up with reasons to get rid of any competition for his job.
Once it was made abundantly clear to him that I was only there for a few short months, he abandoned any thoughts he may have had to get rid of me. If there was an award for being the roughest forky on any given building site, then I would have no hesitation in nominating Steve, despite him informing me that he was “the safest forklift driver on any site.” I have never met anyone who handled a telescopic the way he did, or that could destroy so much building material in one day! He drove like a maniac around the site, totally disregarding the 10 mph speed limit.
Despite everything, once the ground rules had been established, he and I got on just so long as I let him continue to believe that he was ‘numero uno’ on site. As I was returning to New Zealand for a while I made it abundantly clear that I was not interested in playing his silly games.
Steve would arrive on site and unlock well before seven in the morning, partly because of his abiding belief that he was the ‘site agent’ in charge, not my mate Keith, and therefore responsible for the whole building site, and then he would sit in his cosy little domain until we all turned up. At the ten o’clock break, he often used to cook the pair of us a breakfast of bacon and egg, or steak banjo’s and a cup of hot steaming coffee or tea as we sat in the tiny room yarning and relaxing for a quarter of an hour, surrounded by brooms and other bits and pieces, or until a truck arrived with a delivery.
A few minutes before the brickies would get underway around seven-thirty, he would go out and start up his 12 metre telescopic, and I would start up the 9 metre. In his mind, because he was ‘site agent’, he had to have the biggest one.
Despite being fairly new, both telescopics were generally in a poor state of repair. As it was winter and we were experiencing bitter icy winds, a lot of driving rain and the occasional snow flurry, getting the engine and hydraulics warm before work, not only made good sense but made our job a lot safer.
The site was tiny by comparison to others I had worked on, but the number of houses squeezed into it was about the same. In that particular area of the south coast a lot of the new housing developments were being built to cater for the high end of the London commuter market.
I tell you this – if the industry carries on building the way they were then, pretty soon there will be no more countryside left!
The site had originally been a mushroom farm and the extensive pile of rich fertilised black dirt removed from it by the groundworkers lay in one corner of a muddy expanse of rough ground behind us on another site.
Steve always insisted that it was his job to look after the brickies, “I’ll do that son,” he’d say. “You take care of the rest!” This in effect meant I was the one doing all the work across the site. You normally found Steve sitting in his cab, yarning with someone in his imagined capacity as ‘site agent’, while blocking the road with his telescopic, preventing the punters already living in their new homes from going to work, while some poor unfortunate chippy, electrician or brickie was trapped inside the man-cage on the end of the fully extended boom, twelve metres up in the air beside a building, while I had to drop whatever I was doing to cover for him! I didn’t mind too much as it meant my day went quicker and I was constantly on the move.
To keep in touch with each other around the site, I agreed to give him my cell-phone number. Bad mistake! If there was a job he thought was beneath him, he rang and got me to do it. “There’s an f…..g truck at the f…..g gate, get it sorted, alright son?” his voice would scream in my ear over the noise of my telescopic’s diesel engine. Then when I got there, he would already be unloading the consignment himself, shaking his head, and giving me his ‘bloody hell’ look as he roared off at top speed, yet again totally disregarding the site speed limit with the load wobbling around, dangerously high in the air on the forks.
Steve had the act of appearing to be busy while not actually doing anything, down to a fine art. He was an expert at skiving! In the end I used to ignore the damned phone altogether. I lost count of the number of times I missed out on lunch because of one or other of his imaginary problems.
The amount of bricks he asked Keith to order was phenomenal. “I’m responsible for building the f…..g things up to an including the roof,” he would insist. “I’m streets ahead of the bloody site agent, he don’t know nothing!”
Because of the narrow twisting road design throughout the tiny estate, any deliveries on the large eighteen wheelers had to be dumped along the uneven ground beside the narrow main internal road effectively blocking it. After the truck had dropped them off, they had to be shifted around site and poked into whatever space was not being used. “Just find somewhere, alright son,” Steve would tell me, then moan his head off because I put them down on a spare patch of ground. “What’d you put them there for?” He would ask. “No no, can’t have that. Get them shifted!”
I told you earlier about how fragile a pack of bricks can be. Well these ones were probably the worst ever, especially since the truck driver had little choice but to stack them on an uneven surface.
If I didn’t know better I would have sworn the packs were seconds!!! They were poor quality and only barely held together with thin rusting metal straps, often with no shrink-wrapped covering. Move them once and you could probably get away with it. Move them twice and you had a lot of broken bricks! “Bloody hell son, how many more are you going to break?” he’d demand to know while shaking his head as he drove over the top of the offending bricks, smashing them to dust.
Steve just loved to find fault, not just with me, but with everyone on site. However it was an entirely different matter whenever he dropped, smashed, drove over, or backed into the stocks of bricks, blocks, and other piles of materials strewn across the site – a situation that happened on a daily basis. “Just an accident son, I’ll clean it up later,” he’d say then promptly ignore it, trying to shift the blame onto me or god knows who else.
Steve had worked for the particular building company for a few years across the south of England. I was warned by Keith before I started about Steve’s own brand of total BS. To listen to him, you would have thought he was the company chairman’s right-hand man.
“Me and him is like that son,” Steve would often say, crossing his fingers to emphasise his imagined relationship with the boss of the company. “That bugger upstairs, I could get him sacked tomorrow – no trouble! I’ve been invited up to the head office you know son, yes, oh yes. Invited personal I was! The boss asked me if I wanted to be a site agent once, but I turned him down. No I says to him, I’m happy where I am like. Bloody site agents is ten a penny son, ten a penny. I runs rings round them I does! While I’ve built all these houses on this site, the bloody agent sits up there mucking about with his paper work while I does all the real work! I’ve been in this game all my life son, all my life. I knows more about houses than him upstairs, bloody site agents know nothing!”
Something I never told him before I left that site, was that the brickies foreman came to me a few days before I left, and told me that he wished it was Steve that was leaving and not me! I often wonder how it was that Steve wasn’t fired years ago. Who knows, perhaps he had something on someone in the head office?
More about Steve later…