THE GRAVEYARD SHIFT
Dusk came early, gulping the city and surrounding valley. Irish Steve clocked on as the builders and engineers packed up and left for the day. The easy craic and banter of the local lads soon dissolved in the approaching mizzle. Pulling on his high-vis vest over a thick wax jacket, Steve gazed about the place. The building site changed a little each day, but as night fell it loomed with the same ghouls and echoed with same sounds. He sat on the threadbare swivel chair in the foreman’s hut and pawed through a newspaper by lamplight.
The tiny lamp inside the tiny hut made the surrounding darkness deeper, darker and colder. Towering girders rolled overhead, reaching out into the indigo which enveloped the seven hills, the seven hopes, the seven places of shelter for a fugitive of daylight. The city sat spread-eagled in between, its gennels and gulleys running amok over broken-heeled cobbles. Mosswood bridges over the sound of brooks babbling, the boards creaking under the weight of ghostly padfoots patrolling the twilight.
A distant farmer making a last check on his sheep looks down from his stile. Beyond the shadowy pasture, heath and stubble fields Sheffield twinkles with secrets. Rustic bricks battle Utopian concrete. Ribs ache from laughter and drunken mishaps. Tomfools lying on cracked curbstones, while piss-artists sing at the pockmarked walls.
Irish Steve checks his watch. Many long night shifts have taught him patience, but not the kind his boss expects of him. The bricks and mortar provide stoic conversation, the sprites and goblins melancholy nonsense. Steve answers both with dry humour and the boldness of a man who has faced worst demons. A nearby derelict warehouse focuses in the gloom. Every grey window with a brick through and whiskers twitching, tiny scuttles disturbing the dust. Scrawny pigeons flock in to roost for the night, calling neurotically to one-another amongst downy twigs and shit splattered brickwork. The cold sets into bones and Steve can already sense the routine of travelling home on an early tram. Home to Brokers Place and the 7am sleet.
It’s too long to wait. He knows his will power is too weak and his guts crave beer and human conversation. A nearby stack of rubble is gurgling, damp from the soft weightless rain which is barely falling.
“If they got me a damn dog, it wouldn’t be so dull. But he’d do a better job anyways, so I’d just let the mutt mind this rammel,” he says aloud to the rubble and rats.
His newspaper rustles in reply. His breath is shallow like the lamplight, but still seems loud in the gloom. He longs to be away from sobriety and creeping loneliness. Sometimes he enjoys the solitude. He was brought up in the sticks after all, used to conversation with sheep and grasslands. Used to the mocking wind and chatter of hail. But now his kids are grown and left, he needs silliness even more. Up the hill in the city centre, the football fans will be flocking in, half-cut and full of jokes. There are local haunts where the barkeeps have named him ‘Irish Steve’, just like the dayworkers. His face is familiar – lined with a life of laughter and troubles drowned with cheap lager and knock-off cigarettes. He’s built a habit of skivving for large parts of the evening. He’ll still be on site in the small hours when the toe-rags are most likely to come looting for tools and making mischief. But the graveyard shift passes a damn sight quicker with beer in his belly and a takeaway brought back to the shabby little hut.
The same dull details, the same signs. Hard hats should be worn at all times, and hardships must be shoved into steel toe cap boots. He lights his second cigarette of the evening and puzzles over whether the newspaper belongs to today. The stories seem familiar, written for an audience that wants the same thing day-in, day-out. Sun rise, sun set, and after it sets, Steve is alone with a night-time that no-longer spooks. He smokes some and idly checks his watch again, knowing it’s a terrible habit. He tries, at least, to last a little longer each night after the lads have left. Counts up the minutes as rewards. An extra bag of pork scratchings deserved, buy that pretty bar maid in The Duck a drink tonight. He’s not one for sleazing, but takes small pleasure in seeing her smile at his jokes. When they’re good enough.
It’s colder tonight, though. So much easier to keep the icy air out with a beer jacket on. Nodding off for a wee while at 1am to the fuzz of the radio. He rubs his hands close to the little heater, which is about as hot as a candle, and stares at the dried up skin around cracked nails. The open door shifts on its hinges and outside the half-built walls grin cynically at him.
“Already?” A discarded wheel barrow says.
“No bother.” He sniffs. With weary predictability he stoops to a stand and shoves the maglite in his jacket pocket. Pushing the door further open his steps down, then stops his casual tracks. His ears chase a sound across the deconstructed brickland. There’s someone else on the site, creeping suspiciously about.
“Fur fox sake.” Steve emits a hefty sigh. He pulls out his torch, positioning it just above his head, the beam reaching out into the dark.
© Kirsty Fox 2013