As you all know, my Septic Eye series for this esteemed journal, a year or so back, introduced me to a world-wide audience along with the inevitable huge acclaim and plaudits. I like to think that recognition was not just for me but indeed for each and every one of you, it’s just that I received the acclaim and plaudits and you didn’t, however I feel we were all truly blessed.
I received calls fom Hollywood, Bollywood, Cricklewood and, one occasion, even Ronnie Wood. It became so intense that I just had to find a retreat, somewhere I could find myself again, somewhere I could re-connect with my inner self.
I was on my private island, close to Tahiti, I won’t reveal exactly where as those paps are so persistent, when the call came. Now I use an app perfected by NASA and the Dupont Corporation which identifies, in nanoseconds, the exact identity of the caller, their blood group and their shopping preferences.
It seemed harmless enough, the caller ID shown on my screen said ‘The Home for Sick Hedgehogs’, now I like a sick hedgehog as much as the next man, in fact probably more so, it is a bit of a niche market. Without hesitation I answered their call, expecting to be asked to front some global appeal for those little flea-infested, prickly charmers.
I can tell you, my bones are pretty cool but what I heard next absolutely chilled them to the very marrow. I recognized that voice right away, it was him again, Swiss Bob. He had found me, I felt a tremor down my spine, somewhere around T4, T5, that sort of area.
“Allo son” he wheezed, I could count the Embassy tipped and the cheap supermarket whisky just in that little phrase, about 40 a day and an unbranded, budget litre bottle was my best guess.
“What do you want Bob?” I shot back, trying to keep my voice steady.
“I think you owe me, what with all those plaudits and acclaim, I made you and this is how you repay me, eh? I just want a little article, something for GP, you remember GP, big shot?”
“I don’t write anymore Bob, I can’t, I…I have this thing, I…I just can’t, my right hand is gone, just above the wrist.”
“Yeah, I can guess why your right hand has gone. I just watched your grandson playing rugby this afternoon, nice little school Millfield, costs a few pennies I guess, be a shame if anything happened to him.”
“What do you want me to write, this will be absolutely the last article, I won’t do anymore, just the one and then we’re done, OK?
“Well they like guns and planes, know what I mean, something military maybe or mechanical, that sort of shit”
“I had a Tri-ang set when I was very small and a Hornby-Dublo thingy once for Christmas but I connected the rails the wrong way round, it’s really not my kind of thing.”
“Yeah, whatever, write what you know, eh? Be seeing you, big shot.”
With that the line went dead. I got up slowly and went to my luxurious kitchen area, the exquisite Fantasia ceiling fans circled slowly but silently in the humid Polynesian night air, barely causing a shimmer on my Bonsoir Mulberry silk kimono. I went over and popped a cooling Chai Latte pod into the Nespresso machine that George Clooney had personally recommended to me, it’s a tempting tea which combines frothy milk creamer and exotic spices in a delicious dual layer effect.
I should explain the paragraph above might contain some product placement which is fully endorsed by me, however it’s only a paragraph to you but it’s a year’s income to me, thank you for reading.
I had to write something, damn this writer’s block and this useless right hand, write something good but something fast, but that’s it then Bob, we’re finished, no more and this time I mean it.
His words kept coming back, write what you know, write what you know, I think I’ve got it, I was just a kid, a fresh faced college kid, thanks to Clearasil, back in those days I was called the Student Prince, that’s it, that’s my piece, it’s called the Student Prince, I hope you like it.
THE STUDENT PRINCE
The Student Prince is simply a sobriquet, merely a moniker which was once applied to myself, in circumstances which I will reveal shortly. It has no reference to the 1954 film starring Mario Lanza, a man who was dubbed The Voice long before Tom Jones even discovered his own amplifier went up to eleven.
Lanza was an operatic tenor who drank copiously, ate excessively and fornicated with paid whores on his film sets whilst his dressing room door was wide open. Back then he would have received fan mail from a young Luciano Pavarotti but today he would be ripped to shreds on Jeremy Kyle, if such a thing existed any longer, but I digress. I am at my most content when dyeing gresses.
It came to pass, in the summer of ’64, that my mother and father had a conversation in the front room of our suburban 3 bedroom detached. This was the room with the flock wallpaper, consequently this was a serious conversation.
“I am not having that boy sitting around on his arse, eating biscuits and smoking Woodbines with his ne’er-do well friends for six weeks”, said father, he puffed on his briar pipe in contemplation of such a sorry event. Mother agreed and shortly after this I was knocking on Mr Gurney’s door. The college holidays were soon to be underway, not for me the prospect of a gap 6 weeks of the easy life, life did not work like that when I was a lad.
Instead I knocked in trepidation on Mr Gurney’s door. Mr Gurney was a pillar of the community, he lived in the big house at the end of our road. He was our local Conservative councillor, he was the chairman of a local building company and also, somewhat surprisingly the chair of the local council works committee.
It was a source of constant bemusement to me that his company, Charles Ball and Co., Charlie Balls, as they were known locally, always got all the council repair work. As far as I was aware, in my naivety, Charlie Balls and Mr Gurney and the council had just shattered the laws of coincidence by achieving such serendipity.
It was agreed, in a brief doorstep interview with Mr Gurney, the big cheese of the Charlie Balls corporation, that indeed I would commence a period of six weeks employment with his work crew. I had mentally prepared myself for a much more rigorous scrutiny, indeed I had rehearsed my answers with care.
“Well young man, where do you see yourself after three weeks in this organization?”
“I’m going nowhere but the top Mr Gurney, when are you planning to step aside, there’s a new boy in town.” I intended to shoot the cuffs of my Rael-Brook striped shirt as I took the big cheese down.
Sadly, none of this was necessary, I only discovered much later that my father had already broached the prospect of my employment with Mr Gurney.
“I am not having that boy sitting around on his arse, eating biscuits and smoking Woodbines with his ne’er-do well friends for six weeks”, my father had said and Mr Gurney had nodded solemnly in acquiescence.
In addition, I also unfortunately failed to meet Mr Gurney’s daughter, I rather hoped Jill might have answered the door. Although a couple of years older than me she was very attractive, nice legs too and she favoured the very short skirt that was fashionable at the time. I suspected, even then, that she was just a tad out of my league and that suspicion was well founded, she was.
My first day at the Balls corporation was memorable, being up and out of bed at 6.30am, the middle of the evening for students of my ilk, was a shock to the system. However I was on site for 7.30 and anticipating the pre-work conference with my new work chums.
Albert was the alpha male on site, the crew foreman, he was the go-between, the conduit that linked the top echelon and the deplorables who did the spade work. Albert favoured the Clark Gable / Errol Flynn look, someone spinster aunts would disparagingly refer to as ‘a ladies’ man.’
He surveyed me inquisitively, “Who are you then, boy?”
“My dad is a friend of Mr Gurney’s, I’m at college, I’m just here for six weeks.” I had played my Mr Gurney card very early on, please don’t kill me, if you do it will all come out, Mr Gurney will know and you will be in trouble.
“Oh lads, we’ve got a student, what do you study, boy?”
“We’ve got Charles fucking Dickens here boys, come and say hello. Come and meet the Student Prince.”
And so, in that brief exchange, a building site legend was born, someone that would be talked about until almost early afternoon on his first day. My fellow workers were a motley crew but I grew to love them although this was never reciprocated.
There were the obligatory Irish, digging machines not men, they mostly lived in bed-sits and had expended, through the medium of alcohol, the total of their wages by Tuesday evening. This then involved a sub which enabled them to carry on drinking until Friday when they repaid their sub. They would then drink until the following Tuesday when the money ran out and the whole mystic cycle was repeated, over and over again.
There was Alex, a dour Scotsman with thick black curly hair. To save money, I apologise in advance for the stereotype, a Scotsman saving money, Alex would cut his own hair but in a very special way. There will be more on Alex and his tonsorial economy in a bit.
Chris was in our crew, he was the prototype for the cucked male, if you searched in some advanced, latter-day, digital online search for the phrase ‘cucked male’ I’m pretty sure an image of Chris would still pop up, even now. Every day Chris had a cheese and tomato sandwich in his lunch box, this led to one of the more memorable exchanges I’ve heard in my life, with one of the most ruthless punch lines I could ever imagine, I shall also reveal this later.
It was hot on my first day, hotter than Cairo and Athens probably, we hadn’t even reached the global incinerator that today’s children face as the doomsday clock reaches five minutes to midnight, nevertheless it was very hot, I hope I’ve established that.
Albert, with what I realize now was an impish sense of fun, had assigned me to a tarmac gang. Briefly, this involved a large vehicle spewing out tons of black, glistening, sticky tarmac. This then had to be shovelled into barrows, the Irish shovelled, the drones, myself included, pushed the barrows to various points on a massive driveway where it was manually spread by rakers and then tamped, by tampers.
I hope this is not too complex for those of you who are not tarmac smart, just to summarise, shovellers, barrowers, rakers and tampers, and I also forgot to mention that tarmac, in excessive heat solidifies quickly so that it forms a giant, black solid lump unless distributed rapidly.
By around mid-morning I became aware that my soft, pink, English literature hands were swelling up just a bit and had watery little blisters on them but I was no quitter. Fortunately, not long after, the subject of lunch came up and it was decided that, under the circumstances, just half the crew would lunch first, enabling a form of perpetual tarmac motion.
Even including the extra water in my blisters I calculated I had still lost around four pounds in body weight, consequently I had hoped we could adjourn to a pleasant, shaded pavement café, possibly under a parasol, but it was not to be. The Irish group seemed very familiar with an establishment called The Rising Sun where I had barely time to consume a cheese roll and a pint of bitter.
To their credit, the Irish boys put away four pints each of draught Guinness in under thirty minutes, no food, just the Guinness. That’s an evening session for most middleweights like me, they managed that in under thirty minutes then went back to shovelling. How they did that I do not know to this day, practice I suppose.
The afternoon was just a blur, heat, blisters and barrows but somehow, and with little credit to me, we got the job done and indeed well before clocking off time, rapidly setting tarmac focuses the mind and body. The works truck dropped me off at the top of my road, at home I soaked my hands in cold water, then carefully popped the blisters and covered the holes in Elastoplast. I went to bed at about 7 o’clock and slept like a baby, albeit a baby with blistered, punctured, Elastoplast hands.
I realized early on that there was a special humour on building sites, Albert was usually the source of much of this, jokes that I realize now were just the old classics but I was new to them so they worked.
“He’s leaving Friday, you know,” he would say mournfully to some newbie with a general nod toward the assembled crew.
“Who’s leaving Friday,” the mark would respond.
“Robinson Crusoe,” says deadpan Albert followed by collapse of the assembled crew.
He once said to me, “It’s a big drawback, isn’t it boy?”
“What is Albert?” I responded dutifully.
“An elephant’s foreskin” he replied.
I couldn’t argue with that, it certainly is.
All the building site standard gags were employed, novices were sent down to the builder’s merchant for tartan paint or a left-handed screwdriver. Once Albert asked me to go there for a long weight, I was pretty clued up by then so just told him to fuck off, to his great delight.
Instead they sent Eric, a skinny little apprentice brickie. He returned after half an hour with a folded note from the builders merchant that said, How much longer? Albert wrote back on the note, About another 20 minutes, which Eric in his innocence took back to the store. Eventually they said to him, “You’ve had a long wait now son, fuck off back to work.”
One day I was assigned to help Sean at a small job in Stevenage old town. Sean was Irish but not merely a shoveller, he could drive which stood out back then as most of the Irish lads didn’t drive. We got to the old town High Street and he stopped the Land Rover.
“So where are we going then?” says Sean.
“I have absolutely no idea, Sean.”
“Jaysus, I thought you had the address,”
“I’m not driving Sean, why would they give me the address?”
“I’ll call them up,” he says after a bit of a ponder.
We had these two way radios in the Landies, to call the base.
“Hello, hello, anybody there, hello, hello over,” he’s really shouting into the mike, this will make it much easier to communicate, I’m already biting my bottom lip.
“Hello, hello, over, hello hello over.”
“Hello Sean, over.” comes back eventually.
“Where are we supposed to be, over.”
“Where are you now Sean, over.”
“We’re here, over.”
“Where’s here Sean, over.”
“Here in Stevenage, where are we supposed to be, over.”
“Tell me where you are Sean, over.”
“In Stevenage, over.”
“Where exactly are you in Stevenage, I’ll guide you to the job if you tell me what your precise location is, over.”
“Oh Jaysus, I see, we’re in the Land Rover.”
I can hear the radio operator choking, I hear the immortal phrase, “Oh, for fucks sake.” I’m choking too, my fist is in my mouth and I’m biting my big thumb as hard as I can, tears are rolling down my face.
Alex, the dour Scot, was a money saving man, he always had tips on saving a few pennies, Alex cut his own hair, he advised an incredulous group of us exactly what this involved as we all sat together one tea break.
As he had short, curly hair he actually didn’t need to cut it, that cost money and was strictly for losers, what you have to do is put the oven hob on a low, steady flame and then hold your head over it until you hear the hair singe, you then simply move on to the next bit and once all is done you just comb any burnt bits out, Bob’s your uncle and Alex is your barber.
I wanted to know how he did the back bits but was too polite to ask, I imagined some contorted yoga position as he bent over the hob backwards, I was not tempted to try it and I don’t know many who would.
Albert collared me one morning as I got into work, he was worried Alex wasn’t too well, he didn’t look well either from a distance.
He said to me conspiratorially, “Go over and see if he’s OK, I don’t like to ask, he’ll probably talk to you though.”
As I approached Alex, I realized he looked like those radiation sickness photos I had seen after Hiroshima. There were large bald patches on his face and head which were bright red in parts, he had virtually no eyebrows or eyelashes and there were red welts on his face.
“Are you OK Alex,” I asked anxiously.
“Fuck off, bastards, the lotta’ youse” came back in broad Glaswegian.
Complete hysterical collapse of the entire crew at this point, I had, of course, been set up. Alex had arrived home late at night, from the pub and worse for wear, decided he needed a wee trim and proceeded to set his hair and face on fire, he was just smart enough to have grabbed a towel and put out the worst of it but had facial burns and no eyebrows left.
I don’t suppose his own personal alcohol fumes helped very much either, someone took him to A&E later that day and he was off for a couple of days but returned, burnt but unbowed, to relentless piss-taking. There is very little sympathy on tap in the building game.
Chris was a cucked male, timid, rather quiet, his wife made him a sandwich every day which he brought to work in an Oxo tin. Mrs Chris would never be confused with Mrs Beeton, she was rather slovenly and sat around at home drinking coffee with her friends most of the time, she was a piece of work according to our crew although ironically she didn’t go to work and did no work around the house.
We are all sitting round the campfire burning pallet wood one lunchtime, banter was flying but then Albert asks Chris, “What sandwich is that you’ve got Chris?” The group is now silent, we are all rapt, something’s coming, something good.
“Cheese and tomato” says Chris glumly.
“You had cheese and tomato yesterday, didn’t you Chris?”
“What did you have Monday, Chris?”
“Cheese and tomato.”
“You have cheese and tomato pretty much all the time?”
“I suppose I do.”
“Do you know what I would do, if my missus gave me a cheese and tomato sandwich every day, Chris?”
Albert delivers the coup de grace with the precision timing of a George Burns.
“I would get a pair of scissors and cut off her fanny, then I would wear it like a Davy Crockett hat.”
Coarse, cruel, vicious, whatever you like but I can’t fault the imagery, that delivery, that line, whether original or not, has stayed with me all my life.
Today, of course Albert would have to run the gamut of social media, he would have to apologise and would finish his life as a night watchman on a building site in Hatfield close by a traveller compound. Chris would receive counselling, a six figure compensation pay out which Mrs Chris would siphon out of his account before leaving for a new life with a second hand motor home sales executive.
Charlie Balls would file for bankruptcy and Mr Gurney would be found floating face down in the River Hiz, his daughter Jill would still be wearing a short dress but her ankles would be thicker. I suppose that’s progress.
Building sites were not for the easily offended, I found myself amongst hard working, hard drinking roughnecks, men who worked in heat or sleet, they didn’t complain about much, just got on with the job. I was their Student Prince for just six weeks, most of them did it all their life and for scant reward at that.
That’s it Bob, that’s my last one, I’ve got to go, Chris Nolan wants a script for ‘Batman Finally Admits His Gender’. I’ve always wanted to work with Lady Gaga, spoiler coming up, she plays Batman.
© Viciousbutfair 2019