Marko lifted the mortarboards one by one and stacked them beside the small mountain of woven builder’s merchant bags he’d taken them off. Then he removed them and shoved them all into one. With a spade, he stabbed the pile of sand they revealed, but the spade didn’t go in, and only the tiniest amount trickled in a mini avalanche down the edge of the pile.
“Frost’s got to it,” Marko said.
At his back, Marko’s boss and another bricklayer were cracking ice puddles with their work boots while carrying tools and materials from the van to the half-built house. Scaffolding poles stretched high above the walls and the doorways had no doors in them.
“What d’you want me to do about that?” his boss said. He continued his march.
Marko stabbed the sand pile again – again to no avail – and then turned the spade and tried to dig into it downwards from the top. He decided to wait until the bricklayers had transported everything from the van up onto the scaffolding around the skeleton house before giving it another go, and in the meantime set up his cement mixer on the hard, lumpy soil beside the front entrance. He arranged the mortarboards intermittently on the scaffolding planks in places the bricklayers could easily reach. When his boss went back to the van to make a call for some estimates on timber, Marko got the other bricklayer to come help.
“What do I do, Paul?”
“How bad is it?”
Marko held out the spade and Paul interrogated the pile with it. “It’s not the worst I’ve seen.” He smiled at Marko from under the beanie hat rested above his eyebrows. “Just keep working it.” He patted the back of Marko’s coat with his gloved hand and left him with the sand pile.
The van door slammed shut and heavy boots thudded towards Marko.
“Haven’t you got a mix in yet?”
“I … it’s really frozen,” said Marko.
His boss grabbed the spade and attacked the sand. But he soon found Marko had not been exaggerating. It didn’t budge. He kicked it with his heavy boots, then handed Marko the spade and marched back to the van. Marko didn’t move. His boss returned from the van and moved him, then swung down hard into the top of the pile with a pickaxe. The sand came alive at once, fracturing and beading down the sides of the pile. A few more swings and it was practically fully loose.
The boss thrust the pickaxe into Marko’s hands. “Come on, Marko. Have you ever heard of initiative?” He strode into the house and Marko winced as he half expected the front door to slam.
Marko got to work on the mix. He turned on the mixer and threw a bucketful of water into its battered and crusty, slightly egg-shaped mouth, swilling it clean and pouring the water away. Then he began the actual mix, starting with more water and a measure of mortar adhesive, before shovelling the lumpy sand into the whining machine. It was satisfying to watch the whirling motion churn the frozen bits into smooth sedimentary liquid with the water. He added the cement, then more sand in roughly-measured bucketfuls, and the mixture stiffened and gradually gave a little as it turned a smooth grey colour.
“Where’s that mix?” shouted the boss over the walls.
Marko, watching the mixer churn, fumbled with the wheelbarrow he now placed in front of the machine. “Coming,” he shouted up.
“I hope so. We’re waiting.”
Marko tilted the cement mixer forward and the mortar slopped into the wheelbarrow in staggered lurches. He wheeled the barrow to the side of the building and passed mortar up to Paul in bucketloads for him to distribute around the boards on the scaffolding, after which Marko went back to the mixer.
“Piss,” his boss shouted out loud. “Chuffing piss. What the fuck am I meant to do with this?”
“Marko.” Paul had come around to the front of the house on the scaffolding. “That frost on the sand is making the mix wet. Don’t put as much water in next time, okay?”
Marko nodded. He looked at the pile of sand where, indeed, the slanted morning sun was making the frost sparkle, momentarily, before turning sections of sand darker with moisture.
“Thanks, Paul,” he said.
The boss went around the boards placing dry bricks into each pile of watery mortar. Marko grimaced and rotated his tired shoulder a few times to try to wake it up.
Then he got to work on the next mix. He absentmindedly put in the same amount of water as the previous one.
“More chuffing piss,” yelled his boss, as Marko wheeled back to his spot with the empty wheelbarrow again. Heavy boots clomped around the wooden scaffolding beams and the boss glared down at Marko at his workstation. “Marko, I hate to ask you this, but do I look like some kind of freak to you? I’m not into piss. You’re sorting it out this time. Find some old bricks and come up here.”
Marko scouted around the area with the mixer in, around the van, and then found some cracked bricks in a stack that had been unloaded onto the empty grass field next to the house. He walked them up the ladder and placed a half brick into each pile of mortar to soak up the excess water. After a minute he turned each brick over. After another minute he went around removing the bricks – throwing them down onto the ground inside the house – and mixed each mortar pile with a trowel to even out the moist and dry patches. He headed to the ladder to go start another mix.
“Cheers, Marko,” said Paul, as he loaded up his trowel and felt the better texture of the mortar, without looking the teenager in the eye as he passed him on the scaffolding.
Huddled into their coats along the front seat of the van at lunchtime, the three men ate sandwiches quickly and then looked out over the house and surrounding fields and farms.
“What y’ do this weekend?” asked the boss.
Paul looked at Marko but found him staring out of the side window with his chin on his fist.
“Not much,” said Paul. “Got steaming in town Friday. Football called off Saturday so I went to watch Rovers. Then had to deal with Lisa in tears yesterday.”
“What you been doing to her this time?” the boss asked.
“I told you she wants us to move in together, yeah?” said Paul.
The boss nodded. “You still don’t want to?”
“No. Not yet. I still need to get hammered on a weekend and feel free. Some sort of free.”
The boss laughed. “Chuffing hell, Paul. We’re gone thirty. There comes a time.”
The van went quiet again but for the low-volume radio.
“That village shop doesn’t sell coffee, does it?” asked Marko.
The two bricklayers shrugged.
“Bet it doesn’t. This place, man.”
“Is that why you’ve been so steady this morning?” The boss smiled. “Haven’t had your coffee?”
“I miss doing jobs at houses,” said Marko. “Ones already built, with housewives at home who like to spoil you all day with tea and biscuits and what not. Those are the jobs I want. Can we just do those jobs from now on? Can we make it criteria for when they ask us for a quote? If not, slap ten grand on so they won’t take us.”
The boss’ smile disappeared. “You mean: when they ask me for a quote,” he said.
“I was just saying.”
The boss shook his head. “I’m not sure you know how much work I put in before we lay a single chuffing brick.”
“Sorry. I was just –”
“Speaking of which … two courses. Two courses laid on the living room wall; that’s all we’ve got done this morning. That’s the least I’ve ever done. And it’s because of all that piss you’ve been serving us.”
“Hasn’t been too bad,” said Paul. “It got better.”
“It’s been piss all morning,” said the boss. “What’s wrong with you, like?” he asked Marko.
Marko sighed and left a cloud of white breath hanging above his seat as he opened the van door, exited, and slammed it shut. He sparked up while leaning against the sliding door of the van with the boss’ name and company details printed on. The sun was at its lowest high point of the year and the deep clouds it was struggling to bore through threatened snow. A car making its way along the long, quiet country backroad was nothing but a moving panel of red metal above the line of hedges. Birds sprang up from the bushes intermittently as it made its way. Marko blew smoke over the end of the cigarette to watch it glow. He could hear murmuring from within the van.
The passenger door opened and Paul stepped out.
“Yep,” said Marko. “I really do just fancy a nice big cup o’ Joe. Something to make me focus a bit better, you know?”
“Christ, all this over a drink?” said Paul. He shut the door and looked at his labourer’s face.
“Had any more thoughts about what you’ll do? I mean, you’re not going to stay doing this your whole life.”
“Nothing at all?”
“You know, he didn’t ask me, did he? He didn’t ask me about my weekend.”
“He was asking us both. You could’ve said something.”
“D’you know what it was?”
“Know what was?” Paul asked.
“The anniversary.” Marko threw his cigarette butt into one of the melting puddles of ice. “Year ago this Saturday gone.”
Marko marched across to tidy his work area by the mixer and went up the ladders with a bucket of water to clear the boards for afternoon.
“Christ,” Paul whispered. He went back inside the van for a while, speaking briefly with the boss before sitting in silence for a long time. Eventually they came out and everyone restarted work.
The crew worked for an hour before the boss said, “Gotta fetch some wall ties, we’re running low.” He went over to the van and, with the door open before stepping in, shouted back, “Good work, erm, keep it up.” He then jumped in and hastily reversed over the muddy entrance and sped away.
Marko stared off frequently and smoked many cigarettes during the half hour the boss was gone. There was only Paul to labour on – the slower bricklayer of the two – and the couple of little sprinklings of snow made for ample meditative distraction.
When the van tore back onto the site, Marko turned the mixer back on, wheeled the barrow in front of it, and stared intently at the churning mortar he’d prepared in advance. He checked to see that his boss could see he was and had been busy.
But his boss wasn’t out to catch him slacking. “Afternoon break,” he shouted from the open van window.
Paul stopped, brick in hand. “Since when did we have afternoon break?”
His boss’ hardened face crinkled into a smile through spiky stubble. “Well, I mean if you don’t want it I’ll –”
“No! Coming. Christ, don’t you worry.” Paul was already taking his gloves off and walking around the scaffolding towards the ladders.
“You as well, Marko,” said the boss. “You can turn off the mixer.”
Paul was smiling as he approached the van. “I found a full box of wall ties while you were gone,” he said. He climbed into the passenger’s side and realised. There was no box of wall ties sat next to the boss in the van. On Paul’s seat there was only a cardboard holder and in it, three takeaway coffee cups.
“Oh. Thanks,” said Paul, shimmying a cup out of the tight holder.
Marko entered, was handed a cup by Paul, and stared at his boss. The three men sat for a few minutes without speaking, holding the hot cups in their bare hands or putting them in holders on the dash, which caused growing patches of condensation on the windscreen.
“You should’ve told me,” said the boss at last.
Marko watched his own hand smooth over the grey plastic panel above the glove box.
“I’m sorry,” his boss continued, “but you should’ve said, Marko.”
“I didn’t think it’d make a difference. What difference does it make?”
“It makes all the difference,” his boss said, and then, after a while, “well, I don’t know – maybe none, I suppose.”
“I didn’t want to let it interfere with work. It shouldn’t. I have to be the man of the house. My mum was in bits this weekend.”
“Shit,” said the boss. He drained a large volume of coffee.
“You’ve done well, Marko,” said Paul. “It’s not easy. If it helps, I’m sure the first year is the hardest. You’re through that now.”
“How old are you again, Marko?” his boss asked.
After a while Marko said, “This is nice coffee, thanks.” Each time his father’s heart attack tried to creep into his thoughts, he sipped a little coffee to take his mind away.
The boss said, “The way I see it is: a man shouldn’t be silent on these things. A man deals with things. Problems. Things that need solving. And just ignoring them doesn’t deal with them. You have to face them head on, not that I’m any authority on –”
Huddled in his cement-speckled coat against the window, sobs came from Marko. His head was turned towards his window and his right hand rubbed up and down his face. Paul placed a hand on Marko’s shoulder.
“It’s fucking hard,” said Marko. “Hardest year of my life without him. Fuck.”
His boss looked out over the half-built house. A piece of a builder’s merchant bag, escaping from the one Marko had shoved them all into at the start of the day, flapped in the cold breeze.
“Shall I go get another mix in?” Marko asked.
“Take your time,” said Paul.
“You don’t have to do anything,” his boss said. “Have you finished your drink?”
Marko swilled the cup in his hand and shook his head.
Paul looked at Marko. “So your gaffer’s been and driven, what, seven miles just to get you a drink, and you were going to leave it. Fucking rude that, mate. Christ.”
Marko sniffed and then the other two laughed and eventually Marko spluttered a laugh too.
His cheeks were red when they went back out after fifteen more minutes, whereupon they worked hard and shone against the cold. When asked whether he’d had enough, on multiple occasions, Marko said, “No, and I’m honestly not just saying that,” and they managed to complete the remaining four courses on the living room in the time between afternoon break and the early winter sunset.
Josh Oldridge is a writer from East Yorkshire. His work has been included in Litro, Scrittura, Sarasvati, Bandit Fiction, and the 2019 edition of the University of Exeter’s annual student showcase publication, Q Journal. He is currently working on his first novel.