Confessions Of A Roofer Part Two: A Death In Westminster

Swapping keyboard tiles for roof tiles is a shock to the system. But nothing quite prepares you for a death on site.
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Swapping keyboard tiles for roof tiles is a shock to the system. But nothing quite prepares you for a death on site.

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After months of searching for paid work in the writing game, I’ve given up the ghost and dusted off my old roofing toolbag. People might not be prepared to pay for written content but they’ll sure as sh*t pay to stop their roof leaking.

After a couple of phonecalls one evening, I found myself up on the roof of an office block in Westminster for a refurb the following morning. So far, so good....

I won’t lie to you, it was a bit of a culture shock after several years in office jobs.  Although I had to carry 1200 tiles up five flights of stairs before I even started paving the rooftop walkway, I was happy enough to be earning again that the pain could be postponed till I got home to soak in the bath.

Jesus wept! By 10.30am, all I could think about was that bath. My calves screamed, my gluts groaned and my T-shirt stuck to my back.

But for all of that, there was a good bunch of blokes on the job and a bit of banter always makes things a bit easier when you’re grafting.

Five minutes here and there on a stairwell; an exchange of pleasantries and tacit solidarity and then off again, toiling up to the roof. When I got there, the views and the suntan were welcome fringe benefits and a great place for the morning coffee and ciggie. If I needed to check the time, I just clocked Big Ben’s western dial.

Uppermost in the banter stakes is a diamond driller from the East end who is, naturally, a bit of a diamond in the rough himself. Big Richie O’Donovan has a mischievous, almost gentle playfulness that belies his tattooed and shaven-headed first impression.

Chat and banter on this particular site had a real international flavour

And then there’s his Mongolian mate Arman; he's about fifty, short, stocky and plump with continuously twinkling eyes. Richie says he looks like an egg with legs. It’s like they have a little comedy routine going. Richie is mostly the gags man while Arman plays it straight but every now and then, they swap it around. For all their knockabout humour, they’re two clued-in geezers and they work well together on the tools.

Once I got talking to them, I knew I was settled in on the job. I don’t how it got started but we came to the conclusion that Richie was Paddy the Englishman, I was Paddy the Irishman and Arman was Paddy the Mongolian. (That got me onto calling him Genghis McCann but by then, the conversation had moved on).

Chat and banter on this particular site had a real international flavour. Aside from Arman, there were labourers, tradesmen and managers from all over the world on the job. Romanians, Brazilians, Poles, Lithuanians, English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Nigerian, Jamaican, Bosnian; all on a small site, all working cheek by jowl: a little united nations of construction.

There was a whole squad of sparks (electricians) run by a burly Brummie ex-body-builder. When any of them were up working on the roof, I’d chat amiably enough with them. Like everyone else on the site, they were a lot more keen to talk politics and current affairs than I remember in the fat years of construction before the financial crisis.

I was however only on friendly nodding terms with the young electrician who was killed while working in the basement...

I wasn’t on site that day, at least not until after the event. We’d pulled up to deliver some materials to site before lunch last Wednesday with a view to getting starting on an area that had been cleared for us.

I’d been in Stratford working on the Westfield Centre for a few days and didn’t much like it there but more of that anon.  I was just looking forward to returning to a job where I could get on with the work without having forms filled and fingerprints scanned.

I’d kind of forgotten what it was like to work in an environment where people die and suffer serious injuries.

As we came around the corner, I noticed Richie and Arman sitting on a plinth outside the building, they both looked a bit dazed and bemused. The site agent approached our pick-up and told us that the site had been temporarily shut down and sealed as a result of a death on the job. One of the electricians had been killed while he was working in the basement and now everyone was on stop.

Questions will inevitably be asked about health and safety on the site and well they should be asked; in the course of an official investigation for starters. Let’s see where that goes...

As of yet, I have not been able to ascertain the exact circumstances of the incident which claimed this young man’s life. I will continue nevertheless to make enquiries.

Can’t really say I’m looking forward to returning to that job.  I’d kind of forgotten what it was like to work in an environment where people die and suffer serious injuries.

As we pulled away from the job, my boss Mick -- who’s worked on the North Sea rigs and witnessed a couple workplace deaths in his time -- observed that the blokes who were down in the basement with John when he died would be hit really hard by the experience but that everyone working on a small job like this would be affected by the death. I was inclined to agree with him.

Like I said, I was only on nodding terms with the poor lad but I know he was agreeable and hard-working and I’m sure he left loved ones behind. He certainly deserved better than electrocution in an anonymous office block basement.

Confessions Of A Roofer

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