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Sport 10: Autumn 1993

♣ James Norcliffe — Tamping Down

page 93

James Norcliffe

Tamping Down


Fathers were powerful. They became powerful because they worked. And they worked at being powerful.

Fathers had been given Sandow developers by their fathers. They stretched the developers, building up their biceps. One spring. Two springs. Five times. Ten times. Fifty times. One arm. Two arms. When their muscles were fully formed they could extend five springs fifty times. Then, panting slightly, they would flex their muscles, command their sons to feel the tough knotted bulge that throbbed like outsize ganglions on their upper arms.

Fathers would use this ganglion when they Indian wrestled. It never let them down.

And they would display this ganglion as a goal, a holy grail, an end. Dreaming of it, their sons would tentatively pick up the tentacles of the Sandow developers and attempt to stretch them. One spring. Two springs. Two times. Five times.

From time to time fathers would inspect the small tight bulges on their sons' upper arms and then insist their sons punch their hard flat stomachs with all their might. This never made fathers flinch. Only laugh at their invincibility.

Fathers rode rafters. They could swing claw hammers in a perfect arc driving four-inch nails deeply into the four-by-twos. Bang. Bang. They would never miss. The nails would be sucked in by the wood. Fathers could saw in a perfect line as if they were slicing bread, each thrust in perfect rhythm. They could cut dwangs. They knew all about soffits and skirting boards.

Fathers understood precision. They used steel rulers. Slide rules. They used a spade as if it were a scalpel. They were as watchmakers with the engines of their cars. They used feeler gauges and timing torches.

page 94


My father bought a concrete mixer. Originally it was hand driven, but he attached a small electric motor to it and a belt drove the large wheel. The concrete mixer was a noisy beast. It clanked when turning empty and when full would go kershuffle slide kershuffle slide kershuffle slide. My father would swing shovel-load after shovel-load of premix into its gaping mouth with an easy rhythm and each shovel-load would thwack drily and clatter. Then he would add a slurping bucket of water and the mix would splash and splodge. As the big wheel was driven it in turn drove the small gear wheel and I would look at the remorselessness of the black greasy cogs and fear for my fingers.

The long black flex snaked away from the motor towards the transformer.

'Be careful,' my father would say. 'There's enough juice in there to knock you into kingdom come!'

Outside, except on the coldest days my father never wore a shirt. Only a white singlet which quickly became grubby. His face would brown and his shoulders would turn brick red, then peel, blotch and freckle. When he washed up and took his singlet off, the white outline of the singlet remained.

Dump trucks backed down the steep drive delivering yards of premix. Their steel trays would be prised up and up and then with a scraping clatter the load would give way to the inevitable and slide out: a perfect mountain of sand and small stones which over the next few weekends would be fed remorselessly into the rotating mouth of the concrete mixer.

My father loved concreting. He had laid down the drive. He had laid down paths. Pads. He liked making the boxing. The angles. Curving corners. Strengthening the pressure points. Pegging. Buttressing. Getting everything perfect with a spirit level, a plumbline and string.

Most of all he loved finishing. Screeding the surfaces. Troweling. Heating. Getting a fine plaster on the surface. Planting a lucky penny. The cement would be delivered by Lofty Trelawney, the carrier. He was a nuggety little man with huge forearms and broad shoulders. He would back down the drive in his huge truck as if it were a Morris Minor. He would pull on the brakes, jump out of the driver's seat, and vault into the back of his truck. Then he would jump from the back of his truck with a bag of page 95 cement under each arm. He would do this five or six times until the cement was delivered. Two hundredweight each time.

My father would lean on his shovel and grin in admiration. Then Lofty would roll a cigarette, take his money, and roar away.

I was pretty impressed myself. All the same I had no doubt my father could jump huge distances with a bag of cement under each arm. He was bigger than Lofty Trelawney, anyway.


Fathers were powerful. They could make you powerful. They had hard flat stomachs and hard faintly throbbing biceps. They could lift you up with one hand. They could save your life.


We lived on the steep side of the hill facing south-east. Steep, as in cheap. In the morning we had the sun but we lost it early in the afternoon. The hillside was loess clay—yellow and slushy after rain, but hard white and spade-resistant when dry.

Our drive was long and narrow and it turned into a vee down into the steeper incline that led to my grandparents' place further below. I remember our house being built. First there was the bulldozing of the two terraces: one for the basement/garage and one above for the house proper; then came the concrete foundations, the concrete block walls, and finally the green concrete tiles of the roof. Then there was the drive to concrete. The paths. The terraces. There was a lot of concrete in our house, and a lot of concrete around our house. It was just as well my father liked the stuff.

Even the clay was like concrete. My mother tried to grow a garden in the hard white clay, and failed. I remember stunted fruit trees, struggling clumps of red-hot pokers, love-in-a-mist dried and desperately thirsty, and exhausted gerberas. The only thing that grew at all well was the iceplant with its shiny pink daisies and green spiky fingers, jelly green inside and with a bitter oxalis taste.

Where the house hugged the side of the hill was a steep bank, a towering page 96 steep bank which rose the height of the house and more in some places. Between the house and this bank was room only for a narrow gravel path. A damp, dark canyon. The view from the kitchen window would never be a selling point.

Every time it rained the water brought slushy clay down the bank which mixed with the gravel and made the path treacherously slippery. With the rain the bank also threatened in places to subside against the house, so it was a matter of some urgency to seal it with something permanent and to engineer some sort of drainage system. Naturally, my father considered that concrete would be the material best suited to the purpose, and so a concrete wall was designed, about sixty feet long, I guess, and, in places, sixteen feet high. It was a do-it-yourself project of mind-boggling proportions.

Every workmate who owed my father a favour or any to whom a favour could be lodged in advance was enlisted. Material (car-cases to provide boxing, old fencing iron, scaffolding framework and boards, recycled nails) was commandeered, borrowed, and, when there was nothing else for it, bought. Lofty Trelawney delivered dozens of bags of cement and several perfect mountains of premix were delivered down the steep narrow drive. The hillside echoed to the banging of flailing hammers and the scraping of shovels, and all the time the steady kershuffle slide kershuffle slide of the concrete mixer kept up an almost hypnotic ground.

To me was delegated the task of dismantling packing cases, sorting their boards, and straightening their nails. It was wonderful work for a boy of eight or nine. It was responsible, noisy, and time-consuming, and it kept me well away from the racing lurching wheelbarrows and the shaky Heath Robinson scaffolding.

I practised hammering in a perfect arc. I tested my developing biceps prising out the long flat-headed nails.

Everybody worked in furious bursts punctuated only by smokos and tea and scones.

Lunch was invariably soup. Thick vegetable soup murky with split peas, lentils, and barley. Thick slabs of white bread. Thick yellow butter.

It was never particularly nice soup, but I am grateful for it in a rather perverse way for giving me the first near-death experience I can recall. We were always in a hurry. The wall waited for nobody, and I guess the pattern of shovelling premix into the concrete mixer was so well established that shovelling soup into your mouth became simply part of the continuing page 97 rhythm of the day. Shovel we did. Spoon, spoon, spoon.

At first I took no notice of the scratchiness. The barley husks gave the soup a distinctive scratchy quality at the best of times. But then I became aware that this scratch seemed deeper, and longer, than any caused by a mere barley husk. I tried a swallow reflex, and the scratching object did not budge but instead anchored itself with searing solidity into my throat. I tried to breathe in so that I could suck the obstacle down, but in a panicky instant I discovered breath denied me. I half rose, like Macbeth at the banquet, clutching at my neck, and gagging. I was making the sort of noises deep- throated balloons make when expelled air is squeezed out of them. The staticky gasps of old valve radios fumbling round the short wave bands. Death rattles.

The effect on lunch was electric. Noises. Panic. The table shoved aside. Plates flying. Falling cutlery. Shouts. Frightened shouts. Frightened instructions.

'Get him . . .'

Running footsteps. I don't know whether or not my eyes were bulging but my memory of the kitchen is as if seen through a fish-eye lens, and it was turning, rotating, swinging, moving upside down.

'Get him into the lavatory!'

I felt myself picked up. Swung around.

Fathers can pick you up with one hand.

'The lavatory!'

My whole choking being was centred on the one burning breathtaking obstruction. It seemed huge. Had I swallowed a packing case? Suddenly I was in the lavatory. We were in the lavatory. Everybody seemed to be in the lavatory. Then I was jerked into the air. I was being held by my ankles by somebody who had jumped up on to the lavatory seat and stretched me into the air so that my feet must have been just about touching the ceiling and my face was brought just above my father's. I guess he was crouching on the floor. Somebody else's hands must have wrenched my jaws apart for my father was quickly able to get his hand into my mouth, grab something, and then, gargling and coughing with relief, I was able to breathe again.

I was returned to the world. I spat a little blood and drank a lot of water. My voice was a rasp. My father showed me the large splinter of wood that had lodged in my throat. We worked out that it must have have split from the crates I'd been dismantling and got caught in my jersey from where it page 98 had fallen into the stodgy depths of the soup. I didn't care how it happened. In all sorts of ways, literally and figuratively, my world in a frightening instant had been turned topsy turvy; and that things could happen like that out of a plate of soup was something I hadn't known before, and now that I did know it I didn't it like one little bit.

It was good, later, to get back to the concreting. My father let me get up on the scaffolding and he gave me a length of steel reinforcing rod and showed me how to tamp the wet concrete down to get it hard and solid when it set.

I stood high up on the scaffolding, my eyes level with the guttering on the roof of the house. The wind lifted my hair as I worked the piece of steel up and down, up and down, practising the perfect rhythm of the hammer, of the saw, of the shovel. I sensed the security in that rhythm and worked at it long after my upper arms became sore.

I looked down to see that my younger brother had been given the job of straightening the nails. He crouched down far below me flailing the hammer clumsily.

I continued to tamp, aching for my father to come along with his trowel, to relieve and praise me.