“A gas leak? Are you fuckin’ joking?
No-one’s going to believe that.”
“That’s what I was told. And that’s how it is. Shut the site down and send them home now. Tell them to report back in two days.”
“And that’s it?’
“No, there’s more. Yourself and Seamus, stay. Wait for me. Go’n’ave a pint, have lunch. I’ll talk to you in a few minutes.”
The twins shrugged and turned away, throwing their hard hats on a bench in the corner. Seamus grabbed two coats, rough wool, dark blue donkey jackets, hanging from a nail beside the door and tossed one to John, his older brother by two minutes.
Neither spoke until two pints of Guinness stood in front of them. The pub was a short walk from the site. It was an old pub with brass and copper pipes and water stained mirrors faded with age. The wooden floor was pitted and creaked as the lunchtime crowd spilled in. The bar shone with a veneer of spilt beer and a couple of centuries of furniture polishes. Old wooden pews, John suspected were castoffs from the church, lined the walls.
John broke the silence.
“I don’t like it.”
Seamus said nothing. He stared at his settling pint. John studied the straight, glass pot of black beer in front of him, his brow furrowed like the neat stack of folded napkins on the bar.
Seamus waited. John picked up his pint and squinting, sank his upper lip into the froth of creamy stout and tilted his head back, his Adam’s apple bobbing, once, twice, as half the beer in his glass disappeared. Seamus followed suit, watching his brother.
John set his pint down hard on the wood counter, stained and shined by elbow grease and slops down the years. The beer sloshed from his glass. It made Seamus jump. He set his own glass down carefully on a beer mat, using both his big, gnarled, navvy hands.
“I don’t fuckin’ like it,” John said again. He stared at his feet as he leaned into the bar, both hands stretched out before him for support. His anger commanded a presence in this Dublin saloon as office workers, shoppers, tradesmen and builders crowded in for lunch.
John was not a big man. They were both of average height and build, 5’9″ in their socks and though, in their civvies, they’d pass for ‘slight’, it belied the hardness of their physiques, sculpted by a lifetime of labour; first on their father’s subsistence farm in the west and since then on building sites around the world like Boston, USA; Perth, Australia; Hamburg and Berlin in Germany and, of course, every corner of England. They’d built bridges and skyscrapers, dug tunnels and canals, sometimes in blistering heat but more often in freezing cold and driving rain. They worked hard and played harder. They drank, like any other navvy, for companionship and to hold the lonely nightmares at bay for a Western sunset in Perth might look spectacular but it could never look the same as an Atlantic sunset from Doolin.
Money was never a problem but when they collected their wages, no matter where they were, the first port of call was the nearest Western Union office and a cash transfer to the sub-post office in Darragh, Co Clare. The money was for their widowed mother who lived alone in the old cottage, surviving on her sons’ cash and an old age pension.
Their duty discharged, they hit the pubs, the greasy spoons and back alley dives. Seamus and John were identical twins but John, being the elder by two minutes, always led where Seamus followed. Seamus knew his brother well. He knew John broods and fumes when something bothers him. It was like standing by a smouldering volcano.
“Is this about the bones?” Seamus asked. John’s gaze was downwards but at no fixed point. His shoulders were hunched, the muscles tense. He waited. He always waited. It was body language only they understood. When they got in fights, John threw the first punch but Seamus was always ready. Even if he started the fight, John threw the first punch. Seamus saw it coming and Seamus backed him, to the finish.
“There yiz are,” Costello the foreman came through the door, interrupting anything John might say, “sorry I kept ye waiting. Did ye order me a pint? did ye get something to eat? what’s the soup, today? Give us a pint of stout, are ye ready for another, boys? I can only stay for the one.”
John stared at him. Seamus knew the look. He got between them, saying, “no, we’re grand. We’re only in the door ourselves. We were just chattin’, we haven’t had a chance to look at the menu.”
“Ah, that’s fine, so. will we sit down?” Costello, oblivious to the tension, picked up the still settling pint the bartender placed before him, and marched off to a vacant table in a corner of the bar, just below a stained glass window where the afternoon sunlight cast a red and yellow shadow across the floor.
John picked up his pint, staring after the receding figure. He took a contemplative swig and swallowed. Seamus picked up his pint and nudged his brother forward.
Costello was studying the menu when they sat down. “The measure of a good pub is the quality of their soup. That was my father’s contention, anyway and he’d walk a mile through a blizzard for a good bowl of soup and a heel of fresh bread.”
Costello’s like a crab, John thought, he approaches everything sideways. He watched the foreman’s eyes shift around the room while he took everything in, the measure of everything and the value of nothing, he thought. They’d known each other all their lives, grew up in the same rural backwater in Clare, went to school together, played on the same hurling teams. When they worked on sites in London, it was often Costello got them their start. He wasn’t a great grafter but he always had the ear of the boss, the site foreman, the subcontractor. He could talk up a storm, never said ‘no’ and always knew someone ‘who could do the job.’ It was Costello persuaded them to come back to Ireland. “Buildings are going up here like ragwort in a meadow,” he said, “they’re screamin’ for good workers, the pay is good and there’s plenty of overtime.” They were on a site the day after they came home, excavating a foundation for a new apartment block. Costello got them the job. He was their foreman.
“We have to move the bones out of the site. Any delay could destroy us,” Costello said this while he studied the bar menu. He looked up when the waitress stood before him, “what’s today’s soup?” he asked. John and Seamus gawped at him. He ignored them, concentrating his attention on the young girl before him who had that out of date, bleached blonde, feather cut, mullet look of someone from eastern Europe.
“Tomito and roast rid pipper,” she said.
Costello’s eyes stayed fixed on her face.
“What?” he asked.
“Tomato and roast red pepper”, John said, interrupting.
Costello looked at him like he saw him for the first time. John was growing impatient.
“Right.” said Costello, “I’ll have a bowl of that with a heel of brown bread, if you have it? D’ye want anything?, he asked the twins. John dismissed the idea with a wave of the back of his hand. The waitress walked away. John noticed the ladder in her black stockings.
“What do you mean ‘we’ ? We don’t want anything to do with this.”
“John, I won’t see you wrong. How long have we known each other? Didn’t I get you the jobs in the first place…I just need this one favour. Ye’ll be well paid for it.”
“We didn’t sign up to move bones from a church.”
“It’s not a church anymore. It’s been decommissioned or deconsecrated or whatever they call it. If the bones were important to them, they wouldn’t have left them behind them, would they?”
“Moving them is still wrong,” John said, “it’s illegal, isn’t it?”
“It’s fucking illegal to stop people working, ” Costello spat back, his chin thrust out, one eye squinting at the twins. Seamus hadn’t said a word. He let John do the talking.
Costello tried to stare John down but broke off with a shrug.
“Look, ” he said, “this business has turned cutthroat. There’s a lot of competition out there and ye’ll do anything to stay ahead.” He looked at John as though he expected him to fold. John said nothing, his stare fixed on Costello’s face.
“Our last two jobs were held up. We went over the time limit in the contract and they started costing us money. We can’t afford to let that happen again. We’ll go belly up…you’ll be out of work. Them Polish boys are good workers.”
“Is that a threat?” asked John. Seamus sat up. He watched Costello, his fists bunched.
“We’re subcontractors, for fuck’s sake. We’re subcontracting to the main contractor. He gets the job and pieces out the work. If we don’t get finished on time there’s a penalty clause on us, not the contractor. Finding bones or pots or a Viking’s shit pot means an archaeological impact survey has to be done. That takes time and it costs money, more money than we can fucking afford. D’ye get it, now?”
“Ye’ve lost your souls, that’s what I get…these are human bones and we’ve dug them up. They deserve a proper burial,” John spat back at him.
He stared around the room as though the answer to his questions were hidden in the bar’s brass footrail, the water stained mirrors or the nicotine shaded plasterwork. “Ye spend yer life building but only in Ireland will it bring ye back to politics,” he thought.
“What did’ye say?”, Seamus asked him.
“Nothing,” John said.
Costello studied him. He paused. There was a glint in his eye.
“I agree with you. They should have a proper burial. But we shouldn’t have to pay for it. If we take them out and bury them tonight, no-one will ever know. It won’t cost us a thing and we’ll all keep our jobs.”
“He has a point, John,” Seamus spoke for the first time. John looked at his twin like he’d been stabbed in the back.
“Not you as well. What the fuck is going on? I don’t believe we’re even having this conversation.”
“It’s a dog eat dog world, John. If we’re out of work we might have a job getting another when they’re hiring more foreigners that’ll work cheaper.”
John stared at his brother in disbelief unsure whether what he said shocked him more than his brother putting more words together than he’d heard from him in his life.
“Jesus,” he muttered before picking up his pint then paused to stare into it before he drained it and smacked the empty glass on the table. “How will we do this?” he asked.
Costello smiled and called for three more pints of stout. Then the three of them huddled close.
Four hours later they were in Costello’s Land Rover pulling an open trailer of bones covered with a tarpaulin, through the southern suburbs of Dublin.
“Are we nearly there yet?” Seamus asked.
“You sound like my kids when we drive to Brittas. It’s at the end of this road. We’ll go in the back way so we don’t draw attention,” Costello said.
“What is this place?” John asked.
“It’s another job we have on except this time we’re putting in the foundations instead of excavating them like the last job. So, it’s like we’re burying them again. There’s no harm done.”
“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” John said, staring blankly out the window at the passing houses.
“Ah, don’t start that shite again,” Costello barked. He swung the Land Rover through an open gate on what appeared to be a closed site.
“Is there no site security?”, Seamus asked.
“He’s one of ours,” Costello answered, ” I called ahead. He knew we were coming. He’ll stay out of our way .”
Costello was true to his word. One hour later they were finished, six large sacks of bones dumped in the foundation of the new site with two dozen bags of gravel dumped on them. They piled back in to the Land Rover. They were silent, exhausted. John felt little satisfaction from the job they’d done. He knew Seamus was right. They needed to keep working so they could send money home to their mother. They couldn’t afford a conscience. It was a luxury.
Costello drove the Land Rover and its empty trailer out through the site’s front entrance, slowing to wave at the site security, a black man hunched over a metal bucket aglow with warm coals.
John read the site project banner above the front entrance with its list of contractors, engineers and architects and the legend of the project itself, ‘site of a new Mosque’. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He felt like he’d buried part of himself.
“A gas leak? Are you fuckin’ joking?