A Year in Oxfordshire

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic
A year away from home to build a £20m construction project, what could possibly go wrong.

Submitted: November 03, 2018

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Submitted: November 03, 2018

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A Year in Oxfordshire

The Final Week of a Construction Project

Monday mornings can be tricky enough at the best of times, harder when work is 85 miles from home and even tougher when it’s your last Monday. Week number 55 of this, my latest project, never once during the previous 54 weeks had it ever occurred to me to refer to week numbers but here at the end of the job, it’s week 55.

I struggle up, 5.30am is a lovely time of day, fresh, clear, invigorating, plenty of time to get into your day. I have often heard that, but rather sadly to my mind there is nothing about 5.30am that wouldn't feel better at 7.30am, or even 8am. So it hurts, every Monday morning as I rush to start the car by 6am, reach the M25 by 6.15am and therefore get to work, I hope, by 8am.

Now as every commuter knows early delays are exponential, nothing is worse than exponential delays, I have always said that.

That said I'm a manager, I assess the expected impact of identified problems and take steps to minimise any issues particularly those which affect the projects that I run. The shower is still in the planning phase, the day is drifting all ready. I could use an age-old management tool rarely taught in this modern age, I could hurry up. This could minimise, if not completely mitigate the late start and avoid experiencing escalating delays.

Alternatively, it seems my mind can be very sharp at ungodly o'clock, we could consider scenario two, suppose I left at later, the roads should be clear by then. With no rush hour traffic I could even make the journey quicker, I could be efficient.

It was 10.30am when I finally pulled into work, the journey had taken a little over an hour and a half, shorter than usual. My phone had rung constantly for the last hour, my cunning plan of efficiency had forgotten to account for the fact I was supposed to be busy that day. Oh well, another age-old management tool had to be pulled from the bag, I blagged it.

I had missed two calls from the director to whom I reported, well when I say missed, actually I simply ignored them. Car phones are excellent now compared to how they used to be, technology is both an aid and an encumbrance. On the upside its now possible to actually hear each other during the call, communication has really improved, and without the need to tie up either hand so it’s possible to still drive safely. Of course, the down side is that its obvious that you are on a car phone, and therefore by extension not actually where you are being paid to be.

The first call I made after I turned off the ignition was to the idiot director who brought little to project but authorise my time sheet every Monday morning. This was my first call, my first action had been to swiftly check my email and ensure he had completed his week’s work, to ensure the call wasn’t to query my previous week’s timesheet.

He had and it wasn’t, he had a report to write. Wednesday was the monthly project progress meeting where he got to present the reports that I had drafted for him. He managed to do it in such a manner as to suggest that he was involved in the management process. I didn’t mind, I had had some fun over the last year, or 54 weeks as we now apparently refer to it, and earnt well.

“Tell them we are finished” I said, I was two and a half hours late, low on patience and had to check on the tarmac crew that I hadn’t actually believed when they said “we will be back Monday”. I was also three cups of coffee behind planned progress.

“We have certain contractual commitments we must meet in compiling these reports” he was such a knob. I often wondered if he knew that.

“Okay well you draft it, yes the tarmac crew will finish tomorrow, yes the snagging is complete other than the items you are still in denial about and won’t authorise, no our client still hasn’t sorted the phone lines or the lifts. Send it over when it’s done and I will review it before its issued.” I had long ago given up any pretence that I actually reported to him. It was simpler if told him what he needed to do, to help him to look like he was involved, if not in charge.

I checked with Mick, we had 12 operatives on site that day, all of them male but for reasons that escape me we must not refer to them as men. We had welcomed more than two thousand individuals through the site gate, inducted them into our systems and procedures. Clocked up approaching a quarter of a million working hours and not a woman amongst them!

I checked that the days operatives were properly set up, paperwork completed and working correctly and considerately and returned to the site offices for breakfast. 

12 operatives, for most of the project we ran nearer 90, for months we had four 100t mobile cranes operating and averaged 80 deliveries every day. Breakfast had been sanctuary for me, Mick and I had a system, a routine which rarely differed, he supplied and made breakfast, anything from simple beans on toast to ribeye steak with scrambled eggs, organic duck’s eggs at that, for my part I ate it. We talked for half hour in the privacy of the meeting room kitchenette, other than the presence of a rarely invited guest, people knew to leave us be whilst we ate.

We rarely discussed the project, we had the rest of the day for that, Mick has been working in construction for 52 years, me a mere 32, but that’s 84 years of experience and more importantly stories. A year, well 55 weeks, half hour a day, five days a week, that’s 137.5 hours or in broad terms three and a half working weeks that we spoke. Obviously the weather, travel, weekend plans, the previous evenings activities were all discussed but mainly we recited stories of old jobs, previous work colleagues, averted problems and drunken rampages. Most of the stories were true, many didn’t need embellishing, some toned down to ensure believability. Three and a half weeks of story-telling without including the time we spend drinking together, but that all becomes part of the legend, the stories of the future, that time can’t be counted.

There is an old rule in construction, never let it be said that you have been late twice in one day, having turned up two and a half hours late I ducked out and went home at 3.30pm, just to be safe.

 

Tuesday morning was as always easier, mainly because I had been conned, Construction employers lie to us, always have, we know it, they know we know it. When I took the contract on it was to build a project near Stansted Airport, but on the morning I started I was told that it had been delayed, probably by a month or so. Could I possibly set up a job in Oxfordshire? Further away they knew but then I would move to Stansted when its ready to go, start dates do drift, that’s part of construction so off I went.

It took two months for the confession to come, Stansted has “slipped away from us, you may as well stay and complete the one you’re currently on” they said. I was committed at this point so with little real choice I took the job. 170 mile round trip every day, I dint think so. I bit the bullet, accepted the job and rented a flat for the year. So Tuesdays were easier, I woke in a reasonable sized one bedroom flat in a town I had not previously heard of, at 7am and could be on site at 7.45am.

This particular Tuesday, Tuesday of week 55 was similar to Monday in many ways, the tarmac contractor completed his work without much fuss or input from me. Tuesday or Wednesday tended to be my sneak home day, 2pm I would, assuming all was well take an early dart, or to put it another way, just blatantly go home early. This Tuesday I was due to have dinner with my son, something we do every week, I didn’t see why a year in Oxfordshire should change my routines and did I mention they had conned me? The idiot director was there, but I cared not, it was my last week and we were quiet, he would be okay and still do his job for the week Monday morning, so I casually mentioned I’m clearing the flat I rented, I need to run some stuff home I will be off soon.

“Oh but the Managing Director is on his way to see you, he wanted to personally thank you and discuss possible work in the future, I was going to mention it but thought it would be a nice surprise”. What a knob!

 

Wednesday, my last was not a typical Wednesday, I had been cheated out of the previous evening with my son who works shifts, missing Tuesday does not mean we simply move it to the next day, Friday was hurriedly booked in, not the most convenient day for either of us but it could work and in any case this evening we planned, not a leaving do as such but certainly a drink or two.

The cancellation of the monthly project progress meeting certainly eased the day, with only six operatives working and no directors the breakfast took much longer than normal, so much so it almost intruded into lunch!

The night should have been innocent enough, colleagues working away from home bringing a large construction project to completion decided to treat themselves to a relaxing evening in a highly recommended local Public House, famous for its food they were told.

The trek into Oxford which had been made on a monthly basis was not appropriate this evening, we couldn’t be late Gavin had a small and simple crane lift the next day so something different was needed. Now pubs are of course just for drinking, restaurants are the place to eat, but actual restaurant are few and far between out in the remotest Oxfordshire, so local advice was sought and taken and a table booked in a country pub.

George and I arrived first, cars safely parked up and taxi phone numbers saved to our phones so we could drink a pint or two legally and safely in this weird county without modern conveniences such as Uber. Gavin was the steel and precast concrete manager for the project, truly a man of steel and to use his words “an erection specialist" his ability to manage his operatives, deliveries and cranes on a logistically challenging build cannot be questioned. But then neither could his ability to talk, I was tired so as often happened I simply left the initial conversations to him, I had learnt early on the project that when he paused, as most people do to allow others to participate, three slightly awkward seconds later he just carries on all alone.

Two pints and half hour into a pleasant monologue Mick arrives, to my surprise the bar staff clearly knew him, he hadn’t mentioned anything about having been there before, I certainly hadn't noticed them come around the bar to hug any other customer, but alarm bells didn't ring quite yet. 

We were shepherded to a table and presented with menus and for no apparent reason a tray with five shots, Sambuca. The young blonde behind the bar Anna turned out to be the manager, Sheila the other girl behind the bar introduced herself and we all downed Sambuca shots before dinner as they welcomed Mick back to their “restaurant”! Another missed alarm signal.

Dinner, whilst not restaurant quality was nice, lovely in fact, a series of sharing boards that should have fed six, but we are big men, enjoy our food and were clearly hungry, particularly George, whom it seems has amazing stamina of the jaw in more ways than one. The food was quickly consumed but we were not in a restaurant, we were in a pub and as we know, pubs are for drinking, so we drank, beer initially then we drifted to lighter drinks, large ones, gin and tonic for me, Grey Goose for Michael whilst George kept changing his mind as he regurgitated drinking story after drinking story.

Anna and Sheila appeared at regular intervals always with shots, always joining us and always clear that these were on the house, and never allowing the sin of an empty glass before us. I could easily blame Anna for her overly enthusiastic hospitality, for she fed us Sambuca and was far too quick with the refills, but no, for reasons I struggle to understand let alone be able to explain I blame Mick, to be clear I don’t think it his fault, but blame him I do.

We are construction managers, we have very responsible jobs and are, as they tell us on our regular safety training courses both morally and legally responsible for the operatives under control along with the public passing the site. In the old days we drank lunchtimes and went back to work, but in those days we didn’t wear safety clothing or hard hats either, now quite rightly we have a zero tolerance to drugs and alcohol and are subject to regular and random testing. Accidental drunkenness is a serious thing and indeed it became obvious we had drunk a tad too much. The signal that neither Mick nor I missed was George ordering more scotch eggs and being asleep at the table before they arrived. 

Experience kicked in, we realised we must deal with the situation Mick had caused and ensure that we were properly fit for work by the time we got there, our tactics however differed significantly in technique and implementation.

George, first off the mark, engaged a plan staggering in its ingenuity, in sleeping at the table he got his head down in a timely and responsible manner, ensuring he had a full eight hours sleep whilst deploying the double whammy in that drinking ceased with immediate effect.

I called a halt to the drinking, other than the final shot which sadly had already been poured and “can’t be put back in the bottle” and summoned two of the county’s most expensive taxis. I took the first with George and dropped him at his digs on the way, cunningly I used the rest of the twenty-minute journey efficiently, I slept.

The benefit of starting at 5pm is of course you can still have a good evening and be in by 11pm, so I drank water and slept until 5.30am moved around, drank coffee and ate. But the genius part of my recover plan, I had arranged the crane lift to be lunchtime so I could go in slightly late the next day, just in case! 

Now Mick, as the eldest and most experienced member of the group, a tough man who started work digging tunnels by hand, a clever and focused man who dodged his way through the difficult and blame orientated employment environment that is the Railways, a man who understands the importance of team work and protecting not only yourself but close friends and colleagues. Mick watched us leave, he calmly ordered anther drink and cancelled the taxi, we didn’t see him until Friday, he knew we would cover for him!

 

Thursday hurt more than Monday, a lot more, but this wasn’t the first time a leaving do had hurt this much and doubtfully the last. Coffee was drunk from 5.30am walking to the shops and back despite their being closed also helped. Breathalysers are an important personal safety precaution these days, I was good at 8am and at work by 9am, an hour before the idiot director.

The crane lift was something and nothing, a 55t crane lifting a bridge section but the idiot had messed up the whole design and manufacture process for so long everyone seemed to assume it would be an issue, it took 20 minutes. So the evening started sooner than expected, everyone was gone by 3.30pm.

Mick had called at 2pm, “do you need me to come in today” he had said insincerely. The badness side oh my mind almost said yes, yes I do, but I knew there was no point, that the humour would be lost.

“Its fine” I said, “worry not, sleep it off.”

“Good” he replied, “I’m four pints in”

“for fuck sake” I muttered, but part of me hopes at 68 I can behave in such a way.

Back at the digs, no microwave, it had been dropped to my eldest daughter the weekend before, but it hadn’t ever been heavily used, I’m 52 not 22, I didn’t spend my evenings away from home sat in pubs drinking, I spent them cooking nice meals, reading and watching television. I had ribeye in the fridge, potatoes and asparagus in the fridge.

But it was too early to eat, the flat was in bits, most everything I wanted to keep already dropped home. I was a sad sight, I had actually enjoyed my time there. This would be my last night, pop a few things in the car in the morning and that’s me. The cleaner had a wind fall she could never imagine, I gave her all the furniture that I had bought, all less than a year old, she didn’t know, but it saved me sorting and disposing of it, she kept saying thank you so I said its fine!

There is a nice bar in the market square, I have been maybe ten times in my time there, I thought I would wander over and actually have a beer or two by myself. So I went in, the bar was empty, owner Nick was chatty, we talked of staff problems in a small village, we compared prices he charged with what I paid at home, with what we paid on our Oxford forays. We discussed the minimum wage and its pluses and minuses, how he had foolhardily taken to a young barmaid and been generous on their staff outings and when she was ill to find that she just took advantage.

Half way through my second pint he asked the question I think he had been working up to, “by the way, what the bloody hell happened last month, the last time you were in, and who the fuck was that Mick?”

 

Friday, departure day, brace for the actual leaving, the getting in the car for the last time, leaving the keys for the flat that was home for a year. The job is finished, I can hold my head high and be proud. I am though leaving the final tidying and post contract works to another, to Mick who I know will push away the interference of the idiot away and leave things right and honest for me.

I wander in late, again, this is hard for me, I hate it. 55 weeks of living in each others pockets, more time together than with our wives. Men, and I mean men, not managers, professionals, co-workers or any other gender non-specific terms, men. Particularly men of our age, just don’t like good byes, he is quiet and distracted, I am agitated, keen to get this done and be away.

With a last scout round, my boots, jacket and hard hat are in the car, a call checking in with the Idiot placed, its time to go. Mick shows his experience again, “I will see you in a couple of weeks, I spoke with George, we are coming for a few beers in London” great no finality now, it will be only two weeks.

I get in the car and drive with a heavy heart, we both know the promised “London trip” is not real, it will never happen, but the idea helps.

I get on the phone, talk to people, anyone just to fill the journey home. Thankfully I make it home almost exactly the time I need to leave to meet my friend for drinks. The day gets filled, we start drinking at 2pm, we finish at 11pm, we ate both lunch and dinner, we drank, if not too much then an awful lot and Mick wasn’t even there. The world keeps turning.

 

Saturday, to rate the final days of a project by how much the following morning hurts says a lot about our industry and how hard it is for the men who suffer the curse of working themselves out of a living. Men who push, shove, cajole and bully to ensure their completion dates are met, because that’s what they do, how they take their pleasure, feel the pride in achieving their goals.

Saturday is sad, the 55 weeks are done, the goals achieved the £20m project successfully completed on exactly the due day, we did it, we won, my head hurts.

 

Sunday is simple, the lie in, the packing of the boots, gloves, safety glasses into a bag, the checking of Monday’s destination, the new site’s details, to wonder what lies have been told. The new challenge, once more to work yourself out of a job and then walk away from men who had become, for a short while closer than family. 

 

Monday next, the new job… all seems well, new people, new journeys, new procedures, new software, no one cooking for me, and the lies do not start appearing until lunch, this could do, well for a year or so!


© Copyright 2019 C S Bennett. All rights reserved.

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