Great Balls Of Fire

banjo

“Kevin! Get that rubbish together in the compound and burn it. Save some space in the skip.”

This instruction shouted to the site laborour. Kevin, was a 27 year old simple lad. Quite easy going, happy to help, and like I say, a bit simple.

Now I’m not saying he was stupid. No.  But there was an absence of focus. A distracted air about his personality that made you think he was never quite on the same page whenever you had a conversation with him. His mental approach to anything made you aware that very clear instructions were needed to prevent any misunderstanding.

His level of attention wasn’t brilliant either and if left alone too long you would find the concentrated brush strokes in the dust leading off, in one long, meandering sweeping line, to where you find him, nose pressed against a window steaming the glass up with each breath and staring out at the world going by with a vacant look.

He had this naivety about him and a goofy kind of grin that made him seem harmless, always leaving you expecting a kind of “Yuk Yuk” laugh to emanate any minute. He always took the mickey taking in good spirit never quite getting the joke, but laughing anyway.
Really, a pig under one arm and a banjo slung round his neck wouldn’t have looked out of place. That empty look that drew across his face like a curtain during mid conversation made you realize you were wasting your time trying to pass on a too complicated request.

There was nobody home.

The job we were working on was a car show room on the outskirts of Bolton town center and had had controversial moments from the beginning. Pat the machine fitter who repaired all the sites machinery, had called on the job to service some equipment. As he walked across the compound at the back of the job he came across a dumper that had been left, engine running, while the driver was fetching something from a container. It was a pet hate of Pats and, grumbling to himself, he leaned over the drivers seat to turn the key to switch the engine off.

As Pat leant strained towards the key, he caught his sleeve on the gear stick making the dumper jerk forward knocking him to the ground. The initial forward momentum of the dumper was enough that it ran up his leg as he fell, coming to a rest on top of it and pinning him to the ground.

“All I heard was the “Crack!” and then the pain!” said Pat.

“It was just a good job the ground was soft so that I actually sank into it somewhat. I was still lay there with a leg broken in two place mind, but the mud had save me from being crushed badly.”

It was a gas-and-air job while they reversed it off him to drag him out and ship him off to hospital. Ow.

But it happening to Pat, being as safety conscious as he was was a surprise. It kind of set the tone.

Another face at the time I remember was Austin.

He was a jet black, deeply lined Jamaican joiner, I always found difficult to put an age to. Somewhere in his late 50’s I always assumed. Austin worked on a number of the sites for this firm and was a familiar face. The secret to his success was that every time he was laid off, he just turned up on a new site the following day that the firm had running and the agent assumed he had been sent there and would put him to work… He would then disappear for a few months and go back to Jamaica until he ran out of money and would suddenly appear one Monday morning and the process would start again.

He had a bouncy relaxed way of walking, and this was reflected in his completely laid back approach to everything. He just never rushed and had one speed and approach that carried him through life and work. You never really got a laugh out of him or any extreme emotion to be honest. Just a gentle smile that always seem to linger. He hardly ever said anything, and when he did it was near impossible to understand the deep Jamaican accent. So conversation was limited – everybody knew him, but hardly anything about him. He was just always there or around. He answered most questions with a nod or a shake of the head and if there was any verbal answer you had to make damn well sure you listened carefully or you were on the other side of the conversation nodding dumbly and trying to work out how to reply.. In a way I think he was as conscious of this as much as we were and tended to be very quiet.

He drove an old – and I mean – an old, full of holes van. I had been making an effort to speak to him and get to know him, although this meant I did most of the talking and he did most of the nodding. Anyway, I was helping him load his tools into his van when I dropped his tool box in the back. The dense, unnatural solid sound that struck my ears when the box hit the van floor was completely out of place and made me look twice. As I stared hard I realized the rear end of the van had heavy plastic lining the perimeter and a piece of timber across the inside against the back doors.

What Austin had done when the holes had become too large in the back of the van floor was prepared it like a shutter.

For those of you who don’t know, a shutter on site is a pre-formed box that concrete is poured into until it goes hard then is stripped to expose the finished product. Like a column or a flight of stairs.

So, as the van gradually deteriorated Austin turn the rear into a shutter, lined it with plastic and poured 2″ of concrete into the back to form a new floor. It must have been like driving an oil tanker on the road with this slab sat in the back. He must have been floating around on his rear wheels trying to maintain traction. He was lucky any corner he took at any speed over 10 mph didn’t roll him over or put him through a shop front.

Braking to stop at traffic lights must have started as he left the previous set.

Eventually though Austin did his disappearing act and – I think -finally returned to and stayed in Jamaica. I assume this was the case because I never read about an accident involving a small van with 6 ton of concrete in the back ploughing through a set of lights, 17 cars and a retirement home and only came to a stop when the axle collapsed.

Kevin on the other hand was a walking accident waiting to happen. The only time he became animated was when he was talking about his Thai Boxing. Apparently he was quite a high graded belt which inevitably decided how far we would go winding him up. I mean, as one of the lads said, if you were going to aggravate someone who could kick your cup of tea up your fucking arse hole then you got what you deserved.

But like I said Kevin was good nature personified.

Friday was pay day and our wages were paid out in cheque form. We would then rush off to the nearest bank that would allow it and cash them. On this rainy miserable Friday, Kevin offered to drive myself and a couple of the lads into Bolton town center to cash the cheques in his pride and joy. His white Ford Capri.

capri

Not the roomiest of cars in the back but we squeezed in and headed into Bolton to collect the money. It was on the way back to the job as we were driving down a suburban street peering through the fogged windows, into the miserable weather outside, that Kevin suddenly said,

“‘Ah used ta do my paper round around ‘ere.”

“Did you Kev?”

“Aye. Weather was shit then too.”

“Bet you wore short pants then eh kev? Haha.”

“Sometimes. If weather were alright.”

“So when was this Kev? 10 – 12 years ago then?”

“Nah lad. It were last year.”

There was a pregnant pause momentarily as we looked at each other.

“What? Last year? Do you mean last year – the year before this one??”

“Aye lad.”

said Kevin concentration still fixed on the road.

Last year? How old were you Kev?”

“26.”

“You were a 26 year old paper boy? Did you have a bike??”

“Noooo. I did in in t’car.”

“You did the paper round in a fucking Ford Capri?”

“Aye lad.”

This car now?”

“Aye.”

The silence was further strung out as we stared into the past, trying to absorb the image of kevin, stop starting his Ford capri along this road, jumping out every 10 yards to run up a drive and deliver a paper.

“Mind you,” he continued, “Ah didn’t last too long.”

Really Kevin? And why was that?”

And he said,

“Ah couldn’t earn enough to pay for the petrol…”

Back on site he was generally daft on an everyday basis. The building had been clad in a corrugated tin and was some 3 stories high. Some snagging work had taken place after the initial job and rather than erect a full scaffold, an 8 foot wide, 12m high quick erect scaffold had been used to do the moving repairs.

“Kevin! Over here!”

Kevin had dropped his brush and jogged over.

“Yes Mick?” He had asked my dad who was running the job.

“See this scaffold? Its being off-hired today. They’re coming to collect it in a couple of hours. So I need to get it down. Drop it and get it ready for pick up.”

“Ok Mick.”

My dad said he had just reached the end of the building before there was and almighty crash of aluminium tubes and frames behind him. Jumping against the wall at the crescendo of noise, he turned to find the scaffold flat on the floor, running the length of the building behind him.

“Kevin! Jesus Christ Kevin! What the fuck are you doing!!??”

“Well, you said to drop it..”

You had to be quite literal when speaking to Kevin at times. He had just physically got a grip of the base of the scaffold, lifted it onto its front edge, staggered around with the top of the structure waving madly around above him, until one eye closed and tongue stuck out he had managed to line it up sufficiently to tip it over.
My dad was just lucky he was out of range of the line of fall before it hit the floor.

It could have gone anywhere to be honest.

But I have to say through it all Kevin was a lovely natured man. Nothing really ever upset him and he just laughed about everything that we threw at him. He wasn’t bothered what he did as long as he plodded through his day. So when he got the shout to burn the rubbish in the compound he plodded off to sort it out.

At the back of the car showroom was a large compound that was being used to keep the site cabins on. The site office, brew cabins and storage container were spread out back there. It was a large plot that would later be used to store the new cars coming in to be sold. But in the mean time it was still an undeveloped area ideal for burning any waste we didn’t need that didn’t have to go in the skip.

This day we came out of the main building heading over for our brew, to see Kevin in the middle of the compound just finishing off piling up rubbish to burn. As we entered the brew cabin one of the lads gave him a shout.

“Kev! Tea up mate!”

“Aye! A’ll be in inna minute. Ah’s just getting this going!”

And he turned back to light his pile.

We in the mean time go in and fill mugs and get sandwiches out sitting down around the brew table.

“What the fuck is he doing?” said one of the lads staring out of the window tea forgotten.

We all turned to look out of the window to see Kevin trying to light the fire. But the problem he had was he was attempting to light a fire in the middle of a large open compound, mid winter, in Bolton with a gale blowing through it.

Every time he struck a match, no matter how well he shielded it, it blew out before he could offer the light to the pile. The frustration was obvious to watch.

“Kevin!! Tea up lad!!!”

He just waved distractedly more focused on lighting the fire.

And then – I see it now – he had an actual light bulb moment. His posture stiffened as an idea struck him. I swear to God you could hear the “Plink” of the bulb lighting up.

It caught everybody’s attention immediately.

“Aye, aye. He’s off.” said someone as Kevin stood up, a mission in mind.

Kevin trotted off to the container and disappeared inside. He was but moments though and re-appeared holding the gallon tank of petrol we kept on site to run the petrol saw.

“This should be interesting.”

Murmured one of the lads, as around the cabin, sandwiches and brews were forgotten, held mid-air, as all eyes following Kevin.

Kevin trotted up and began to liberally shake petrol from the can onto the fire, working his way around it making sure he got enough on his prepared pile.

“He does know he’s throwing that lot into the wind doesn’t he? It’s going all over the bloody place!”

Then taking great care to place the can well away from the fire, Kevin turned back and picked up his matches. He took one out, crouched down shielding his match, and struck it.

You could hear the air being sucked out of the room as we watched him light that match.

Kevin’s hands went up like flares. He leapt to his feet waving his hands in the air then did the only thing he could do to put them out.

He slapped them on his thighs.

Instantly, his thighs were on fire, and Kevin took off around the compound thighs and hands trailing flames, possibly hoping that sheer speed would put the fire out.

Finally, he spotted the plasterers drum, a large steel barrel kept full of water for the plasterer to use to mix his plaster with. He didn’t hesitate but rushed to it and dived in head first in a move that would have warmed Jonny Weissmuller’s heart to see it. Then after some moments under water, falling back spitting dirty water every where, he began to scoop as much water over himself as possible.

It did the trick and the flames were quenched, leaving Kevin dropping onto his behind panting, wet through, holding a hand to his head and gently smoking in the chill air.

The open mouthed silence in the cabin had shattered as soon as Kevin lit himself up like Guy Fawkes. There was tea and bits of sandwiches all over the places as people had fell about howling with laughter while still attempting to keep Kevin in eye-line as he hurtled backwards and forwards around the compound trailing flames. No one could stop laughing long enough to go out and check he was alright even when he managed to finally put himself out.

He eventually staggered in dripping water everywhere, still smoking. But I have to say, the expression was still that same vacant, empty headed look he carried around all the time. It just never seemed to penetrate Kevin’s blank demeanor, regardless of how-ever dramatic or ridiculous the events were. The first thing he did when he realised everyone was laughing was smile and look around the room and say,

“What? What’s happened? What you all laughing at…?”

fire balls 1

Like he hadn’t just been running round with his balls on fire.

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