Drinking, Dreaming, Other Men Working

One of life's greatest pleasures is taking time out to sit, to contemplate, to enjoy a quiet beer, and most of all, to watch other folk working. You deserve it. I deserve it, and just occasionally, I'll take the opportunity. Join me. Pull up a bar stool, here, by the window. This bar is old enough to have seen the road outside made and remade maybe ten times. It's seen its share of picks and shovels, smoking tar boilers, fierce hissing steam-rollers. Gangs of Irish navvies in cloth caps and dungarees, filling and heaving buckets, tamping the hot tar or fetching galvanised watering cans brimming with boiling pitch, raking mounds of gravel in front of the roller, and all the time sucking on the stub of a Woodbine.

But not today. Half a dozen professionals, three or four heavy machines and the new road's being extruded, foot by foot, right in front of our Victorian sash window. The guys don't even break sweat. This is progress. Soul-less, unromantic, if you like, but so much more efficient. And impressive. I want a shot on that machine! One thing that hasn't changed - the smell of hot tar. Forty-nine years ago, my friend Roddy said it was the best smell in the world. Rising to the challenge, I said toasted cheese was better, but deep down I knew he was right, and so did he. Now, with no higher thought for the afternoon than a couple of beers and the odd reminiscence, I close my eyes and drift away...

Joe wants to help. The Iraqi widow (we never learned her name) is distraught, wanting to return to a time long gone. A time when she baked fish on a charcoal fire, for her husband and children, for her old father. To look back on loss - a loss so cruel that it eclipses from her view the natural world - this is her burden. It wholly sets her apart from the company. But Joe once read something, somewhere, if he can only find it. He pores over page after page, vainly believing that, in this strange foreign book, there are words of comfort enough, even for this lost soul.

The heavy roller makes the room vibrate. Two glasses on the gantry, just touching each other, ring together like a distant supper bell. With no customers to serve, Fiona sets to polishing the old brass beer handles causing a faint but sharp smell of ammonia to clash with the warm tar aroma. But she's a young lass yet, and doesn't have to understand.

Joe finds his quotation and finds it lacking. Nothing, not even the smell of hot tar, can be resurrected with advantage from a happy childhood. Something is always lost in the reawakening.

Two hours, three beers, and it is done. Outside, we have a new road, if not a new direction. But only for the traffic. For walkers, nothing changes. And that is how it has always been. For those who consume and destroy, there are teams in the wings to repair and replace. For those who walk naturally, there are only dreams. Better, there are dreams. It's a good life, when no-one bombs your village.


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