fiction from mel fawcett
A couple of years ago, Bill and I were the painters on this big job down south. There were lots of tradesmen there - plumbers, electricians, plasterers, you name it - and although it was a bit chaotic with so many of us working at the same time, it was a great atmosphere. Everyone was getting on with everyone else and during the breaks, we all had a smoke and a laugh in the tea room. Bill was in his element. Wherever you were working in the house, you could always hear him laughing or shouting or pontificating about something or other. He was a noisy old bugger - but that's the worst you could say about him.
The problem started when Richard, a fifty-something carpenter, was brought in to build some wardrobes and cupboards. He was a strange one. He never joined us in the tea room - he preferred to sit on his own at the top of the house, reading.
'That's no way to behave,' Bill moaned. 'If he's not going to join in he shouldn't be here. We're a team and we need team players, not little twats who sneak off upstairs reading books.'
One of the lads said Richard went upstairs because he didn't smoke.
'What's that go to do with it? So it gets a bit fuggy down here, so what? No one else complains.'
I made it a rule not to get involved in petty work-place feuds. I got enough grief at home with Daisy and young Darren without inviting it at work. While all this was going on, Daisy ploughed into a brand new Mercedes while taking Darren to school and the insurance company refused to cover it. With stuff like that happening at home, I didn't need shit at work as well.
I wasn't on site the day it all started. That was the day I was taking Daisy to hospital. She did something to her back when she ran into the Merc. As though it wasn't bad enough nearly writing-off two cars, she had to hurt herself as well, so I lost even more money by having to take time off work. When I got back the next day, Bill wouldn't stop bitching about Richard. He claimed that Richard had been deliberately taking the long way to the station after work so as to avoid walking with him. 'That's it as far as I'm concerned,' Bill said. 'I never did like that little shit. You can't trust someone who doesn't like company.'
He wouldn't say a civil word to or about Richard after that and the atmosphere when they were in the same room was terrible - not what you want at work at all. The whole crazy affair reminded me of a malfunctioning Catherine wheel, in that it coughed and spluttered for a time and then suddenly spiralled out of control and finally exploded, leaving an unpleasant smell and a nasty taste in everyone's mouth.
During the weeks that followed, Bill kept having digs at Richard and tried to get the other guys to join in. There was a regular sawdust war for a couple of days, with Bill demanding Richard sweep up every few minutes so the sawdust didn't blow onto his wet paintwork. Bill also had a go at him for not contributing to the biscuit money. Richard told him he didn't eat biscuits, but Bill reckoned that made no difference. As you can tell, it was all silly stuff. But, like that Catherine wheel, it was smoking and spluttering as it went round, with sparks flying off. Nothing really dangerous happened, though, until that Thursday morning.
Richard was working in the tea room, building some cupboards either side of the fireplace. He was still working when the kettle was on and while various trades were wandering in for the morning break - so Bill told him in no uncertain terms to put his tools down.
'What you do upstairs on your own is your affair, but when it's tea break we expect a bit of bloody peace down here - isn't that right, boys?'
Everyone cheered and Richard had no choice but to stop working.
'Not going upstairs on your own today, then?' Bill said to him.
'I was thinking of having a cup of tea, if you don't mind.'
Richard had this big tool box which he used for a seat and in which he kept his cup and sandwiches. He took his cup out of the box and put it on the table while Bill was pouring water from the kettle into our cups.
'You don't think I'm pouring you one, do you?' Bill said, in his loud way. He was playing to the room, of course.
'I can pour my own,' Richard said.
'Not with this water you can't. I filled the kettle and I'm using the water.'
'So I'll refill it,' Richard said wearily.
'You can fill your own sodding kettle.'
'Don't be stupid.'
When he'd finished filling the cups, Bill kept hold of the kettle. Some of the guys cheered him on because they didn't really know what was happening. Richard was shaking his head. He reached out for the kettle. Bill pulled it back so quickly that hot water shot out of the spout and splashed his own arm. It obviously hurt, and, although it was his own fault, he was furious.
'That'll teach you not to be childish,' Richard said.
'Who're you calling childish, you little twat?'
Some of the guys cheered again. Richard just shook his head. I must say, I think Bill was carrying it too far, especially when he stepped towards the table and deliberately poured hot water over Richard shoes.
From the way Richard hopped from one foot to the other, the water obviously went through his shoes. I half expected him to thump old Bill; it would have served the silly bugger right. But Richard just snatched the kettle away from him. Bill was taken unawares. He tried to hang on to it, but Richard had got it, and Bill staggered backwards empty-handed. A few of the guys laughed at the unintentionally-comical way he tottered backwards. But then his foot caught on some of Richard's tools lying on the floor and he very nearly fell over. Someone - I think it was little Dave, the electrician's apprentice - roared with laughter. I don't know what Bill was thinking, whether he simply didn't like being laughed at or whether he thought Richard had left those tools there on purpose, but he was so angry, he turned a deep red. I'd never seen him like that. Even so, I couldn't believe what he did next. I don't think anyone could. He picked a mallet up off the floor and went towards Richard, who was making himself a cup of tea. Someone shouted a warning to Richard, but he only managed to turn half-round before getting whacked on the side of his face with the mallet. 'Jesus Christ!' someone cried. I winced at the sound of the mallet hitting Richard's temple Richard lurched sideways. Not surprisingly, he went down. A couple of us rushed over to help him. But what really surprised me was that he got up again almost immediately. With a crack on the head like that he should have been out for the count, but, like I said, he got up. He wasn't right, though, I could tell that. It was as though he didn't know what had hit him. He said he was all right, but he sounded strange, like he was drunk, slurring his words and not making a lot of sense. Some of the boys told him to sit down and rest. And that's what he did. He sat down and closed his eyes and seemed to go to sleep. We thought it best to leave him alone.
Bill was a bit sheepish after that. He tried to justify hitting Richard with the mallet but he didn't get any support. We all knew he shouldn't have done it, and that included Bill himself.
Nasty though the incident was, I suppose we all thought that was the end of it. We assumed that after a while Richard would wake up and we'd all go back to work. But he didn't wake up. It was Terry, the electrician, who first noticed that Richard was dead.
'What're you talking about, of course he's not dead!' Bill blustered. 'He can't be.'
Someone laughed nervously. No one knew what to do for a while. Bill had gone white. Then someone said we'd better call the police.
'Why?' Bill asked. 'What for?'
'Because someone's been killed,' Terry said.
'What're you talking about, killed? It's not our fault he died, is it?'
No one said anything.
When the police arrived, they wanted to know exactly what had happened. Bill tried to claim it was an accident.
I heard later that Bill got five years for manslaughter. I wasn't around for the trial because we'd moved back up north to escape some debts. I can't say the news about Bill affected me much. That's the thing, isn't it? - no matter what happens, no matter who dies or goes to prison or crashes a car, life goes on for everyone else; that's all you can say really.