A New Right-Hand Man?
Crack! I felt my knees smack the pavement. There was a shudder and then pain. It shot through me so intensely I was at a loss at how to respond. A youngish man stopped and asked if I needed help. I shook my head, wincing. He bent down and asked again. I just wished he’d disappear. He did. The pain didn’t. It blew up my kneecaps and dragged tears to my eyes. I still managed to stand up and walk on down the street though. But all I could think about was how long it would take me to recover. I have so many things to do, after all!
That I managed an accident while walking along an urban high street is ironic. It didn’t happen hanging off a ladder, or lobbing rocks around, or chainsaw in hand. It happened down there on a pedestrian crossing, in the land of concrete and curbs. Smack. Bang. Ouch!
That evening I rubbed castor oil gently into my knees for the bruising. As I reclined on my bed, I raised my legs up and hoped for the best.
In two days I was back on my feet, which isn’t so surprising I suppose. I’ve never broken a bone in my life, not that it’s for the want of trying. For those who’ve seen the movie Unbreakable, that’s a little how I am too. I’ve been hit by cars, and have literally bounced off the bumper, before standing up and walking away. I crashed a motorbike at 90kph in the middle of a Turkish town once too. I remember sliding with it a small way, before pulling myself out from under it. Feeling terribly stupid, I sprang to my feet, and shooed off the bystanders rushing to scrape me off the tarmac. I remember a policeman staring at me in disbelief. “Are you sure you’re all right, hanımefendi?” I saw myself in his Ray-Bans. All I had was a graze, and a red face from embarrassment.
Reality is what it is though. This is 2021 and I’m no spring chicken any more, he he. My knees healed fast, but soon after everything else started to ache. My hips and back groaned and tightened. Then the fatigue set in. The weather didn’t help. It has been cold up here, the nights keen and starlit, the days edged with an inclement chilliness. One morning as I yanked myself from my bed, the exhaustion dragged at my bones like the claws of the dead. Extreme tiredness often has the ring of mortality to it. How annoying to be reminded I’m not superhuman after all.
I stepped out of my chicken coop one brisk morning, the sunlight illuminating the freshly opening ash leaves. They looked like stained glass windows. My kitchen was a chapel. As I tiptoed toward it in my pyjamas, I sensed I was heading to some kind of confession. On the left the barn stared guiltily up at me, the “corner of woe” was trying to hide but failing. This part of the barn is built into (and from) the rock of the land. It’s all but submerged, which means it needed a fair bit of “work”. Pausing, I gawked at the mess. I’d managed a bit of mortaring, and a bit of landscaping, but there were rocks all over the place. Rainwater tanks had to be installed, a new wall built, guttering, and a roof extension...
A hawkish breeze ran over my arms. I shivered. Every one of these jobs was uninspiring. They were uncreative functional necessities. Looking for a place to start, a number one on my to-do list, my motivation froze over so completely you could have ice-skated on it. This always happens at a certain point in builds or big endeavours, and is often termed the kitchen sink of the project. From where I was stood, shivering in my PJs on the upper bank of my land, this particular kitchen sink had distended into some scum-filled nightmare from a student flat-share. It was a monstrosity crammed full of cornflake-encrusted crockery and extinguished cigarette butts. Many stumble and fall at this juncture. Hey, I already had!
The wind picked up. I heard it rumble in from the east. It rolled over the hills and into my land where it turned the ash branches into percussion instruments. The trees were speaking. I closed my eyes and listened. “Just get help in,” they chuckled. “There’s plenty of it around.” I realised in that moment the Lone Ranger was going to have to get off her rather high horse.
That evening I called Jose Manuel.
“Buenas!” A voice called through the gate, followed by the tap of a walking stick. And then a portly man with a brimmed hat and a rucksack pushed the gate open.
Jose Manuel was the stonemason. I’d already worked with him on my stone wall (or rather been the stooge). He’d said I could call him back any time I needed help. So I had. Dropping his rucksack on the dirt, he pulled up a chair. It was far too small for him, he’s a big guy after all, and he perched on it awkwardly trying to maintain his balance.
“Quieres un cafe?” I held the coffee pot up.
“Si!” He grinned, then pulled out a tape measure and a mason’s hammer, resting them on the table. Peering over at the two IBC tanks that were now clinging to the slope behind the barn, he nodded. “Hmm. We’re making a place for them, huh?”
“I hope so.”
“Did you build any walls while I was away? Now that you know how to do it.” He winked a little wickedly.
“Not really.” Sheepish, I sank my head into my shoulders. “But I did do a good job repairing the back of the barn. I’ll show you.”
Jose Manuel levered himself up and ambled down to have a gander, coffee cup in hand. But then he was an ambling kinda fella. Definitely not a man of haste. Running his spare hand over my stone and mortar work, the mason nodded.
“Not bad. I’d probably take you on as apprentice.”
“What do you mean, probably!” I drew myself up to reach his shoulder. “Tuh! I think I did very well!”
Jose Manuel chortled, and his belly chortled with him. Suddenly I was reminded of someone I’ve missed for a long long while. I used to jest with Celal like this back on Mud Mountain in Turkey. Ah Celal, my right-hand man. Had I found a new helping hand at last?
As Jose Manuel moseyed down along the corner of woe to where the tanks were supposed to go, I smiled. You couldn’t imagine two more anatomically diametric men. Celal had been tiny, all sinew and worry lines. Jose Manuel, on the other hand, was a Spanish-speaking Shrek. A gentle, unpanickable giant with a propensity to knock things over quite a lot.
Three hours later, under a billowy sky, Jose Manuel laid the last stone. He tapped it into place before standing up to admire his handiwork. I was admiring it too, because we’d achieved more in a morning than I had in a whole month prior. Jose Manuel had built a superb retaining wall while I’d filled the back of it with broken tiles to create a platform for the IBCs. But that wasn’t all. A wonderful curving stone staircase now graced the side of the barn. Jose Manuel had built this as an aside, and it just staggered me that he’d finished it so fast.
Hands on hips, I gazed at my new staircase besotted. “It’s a work of art!” I said.
The stonemason took a step backwards and promptly stood on his chisel. “It’s not that difficult,” he said, catching his balance. “It’s not art though. It’s just building.”
I felt my eyebrows pull together. “It is art, Jose Manuel. Me encanta tanto!” And I ran up and down the steps for about the twentieth time since he’d made them. He shook his head, but his smile hid a bucketful of pride.
Celal and Jose Manuel might have been physically disparate, but they did have a couple of other things in common. One was a penchant for coffee. The other was they’d both been dazzled by the lights of the city, seduced from the village into urban life, before finally realising it was a crock of shit. The one and only reason Jose Manuel had time to come and help me out was because he’d just closed down his bar. Ostensibly Covid was the reason, but in truth he was happy to see the back of it.
“Started it a good ten years ago. Oof, nothing but stress,” he said as he peeled an egg for lunch.
“Yes, it’s the great dream right? Open a bar or a restaurant or some guest house. Then whaddya know, the dream is a nightmare,” I laughed as I picked at my salad. “Been there, done that.”
I watched Jose Manuel staring out at the landscape, still wobbling a little on the chair. “It’s nice up here. Really nice. I’ve got land around here too. May be I should build a cabana on it,” he said, dropping bread crumbs for my chickens who'd already decided he was a more generous benefactor than me.
Broken dreams. I’m all for them. They are a rite of passage for us humans and the only way we really understand who we are and what we want. Because we’re always being trained out of ourselves and lured onto pathways that aren’t ours. Lost souls that we are, we search for our dream in all the wrong places, continually borrowing other people’s instead. But no one else’s dream is ours. No one else has our answers. They are locked inside us. Waiting. Waiting for us to stop comparing ourselves or seeking approval or listening to other people, and instead to simply be and do what makes us happy.
Jose Manuel returned for a few days more, and we attacked the kitchen sink of my build, with or without tea towels. Insanely fast, all those drudge jobs I hadn’t found the drive or power to do myself, completed. The roof was extended over the IBCs. The guttering was installed so it fed into the water tanks. And then it began to rain. Water, the elixir of life itself, plunged from the sky. It ran off the roof, along the guttering and into my tanks, filling them faster than a pump at a petrol station.
When the clouds lifted a little and the sky brightened, I wandered out along the corner of woe, and down my beloved new steps. My tanks were now a good two-thirds full, and probably only off-gridders will understand just how fantastic that made me feel. As I turned to the front of the barn, it towered over me. With its gaping crack and all the repair work that front wall entailed, it was the next big job. But as I studied the stonework I smiled, because sometimes all you need is a bit of a jump start to get your inner engines firing. All you need is a bit of a laugh and some help. And let’s be honest, to get it you generally only have to ask.
The tide of my motivation had turned. I could feel it lapping at the shore of my muscles. Mortar, I’m ready for you. Stonework, I can sort you. Oh happy day!
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Atulya K Bingham
Author, Lone Off-Gridder, and Natural Builder.
"Reality meets fantasy, myth, dirt and poetry. I'm hooked!" Jodie Harburt, Multitude of Ones.