I learned to use a pneumatic drill on an archeological site. Well I know. Pneumatic drills are not the usual tools for use on archeological sites. It was a medieval site, but spotted with nineteenth century concrete footings. So that was what I was doing. I was banging away at the hard Victorian footings to expose the medieval archeology underneath.
There were two of us working on this task. I was standing on top of the footings with my pneumatic drill, cleaving off great concrete clumps with my heavy machine while the other guy - several years older than me, stripped to the waist, with sinuous muscles and a flecked, brown back - would deliver a wheel barrow in time to receive a heaving chunk of grainy concrete, before barrowing it away to the spoil heap, leaning hard into the run as he did so.
He was counting the weight as he moved it.
"That must be a tonne now," he would announce. Then: "another tonne." Then: "another."
He was counting each tonne as we removed it.
It was a matter of pride for him to have moved all of this weight.
I was in my early twenties at the time. About eight thousand four hundred days, give or take a few. He must have been in his thirties or even older. But he was lithe and strong and dedicated to this simple task. He made me feel proud too, that we were achieving this thing: moving great weights of concrete from one place to another. Neither of us was concerned about the archeology beneath. It was the sheer weight that mattered.
So I would heave the weight of this clunking great machine into position, dropping its point onto the edge, and wrench the grips to start it up. And it would judder and roar angrily, banging through the concrete to make a dusty hole, then a crack, and then I would watch as a portion of it sheered and fell. And my friend was always there to receive the lump in his trusty wheel barrow, edging against the concrete where I was working. And this was the day. The rattling of the machine through my joints. The grinding whine and judder. The crash and the roar. And counting down the weight as it fell away from my feet.
"That must be ten tonnes now. Eleven tonnes. Twelve."
And on. As if we were counting away the weight of the Earth as we moved it.
All of this was taking place in a windy city on the North East coast of that country we talked about earlier, and which, for the sake of argument, we decided to call England. The city was situated near a flat brown river, snagged by treacherous currents, with heaving flats and silky mud banks along its tidal shore. The mud banks were threaded with whispy lines, where tiny streams had left their mark.
Sometimes, after work, we would go down to the river to gaze across it to the other bank, far away across that great, sliding, shifting mass of complicated water. There was nothing there: just a few trees, and the occasional ramshackle farm buildings dotting the low-slung hills like notes in a musical score.
Brown and green beneath a wide, blue sky.
Something very strange was happening to me at the time. It was like I was infected by something. Some strange, mechanical gilded creature, half insect and half machine, about the size of my thumbnail, had crawled its way through the caverns of my body, and had made its way into my head. I have no idea where it came from, or when, or how I had picked it up in the first place. It was a kind of defeatedness, an emptiness, as if the insect had latched itself onto my emotional wiring with its bug-claws and was draining all the colour out of my life.
Someone had put the sun out and replaced it with a melancholy brown glass lamp.