By Russell McGilton
On warm days, I often find myself lying on our backyard deck, my feet dipping over the side as if I were in a small boat, my back feeling the gaps in the timber decking, my fingertips running over the neat polished joins. It is a place where my family have summer dinners, have friends over, where our cat hides underneath, or on occasion – parties where the thumping and jumping of guests’ dancing does not at all perturb the deck’s solid performance.
Building the deck was a Herculean task (I have no prior skills for such a feat) but I enjoyed the escape into endless problem solving, not to mention the radio world of art programs and African music, the circular saw cutting to the hard rhythmic beat of Congolese Soukous. The deck also became, at last, my free pass into conversations with men I did not know (my interest in sport is non-existent), so I could now wax lyrical about footing depths, joist stirrups, self-drilling deck screws, bearer lengths and, for the love of God, Bunnings. It gave me male kudos – whatever that means.
Yet, it wasn’t always like this.
Only a short few years ago there was no deck but rather a seismic nuisance of jagged concrete lines that were at fault for unexpected trips, stubbed toes, numerous spilt drinks and the unremitting cries of fallen toddlers. I’d had enough and, when I told my wife, SJ, of my plans to build a deck, she laughed and went off to stuff her face with bocconcini cheese, mumbling how I’d turned the ceiling in our old house into an upside-down ski jump.
Unperturbed, I lured friends over with the promise of lunch and beer if they helped cut and clear the concrete. Darren, a draftsman who thought he was a builder but clearly was neither, had promised the broken concrete to a hippie friend who, for want of a reverse Grand Design (start with the rubble and work backwards) wanted to build a house out of it.
Soon the backyard was busy with men: Graeme, tall, and directive, wrested the concrete saw cutter from Darren and demanded he do it (odd, as it was Darren’s saw). Thus, the rest of us were left with the job of loading up the wheelbarrows. There were no women here and I lamented how my life since having a child had been demarcated along almost traditional roles: SJ tended to the internal workings of the house and, apart from doing all the cooking and fixing the odd fixture or tech issue, I looked after the outside, including the car.
In any case, I was enjoying the camaraderie, the lewd jokes and the unspoken competition of who could carry the heaviest pieces of broken concrete. After a while, and like on an archaeological dig, the removed blocks revealed another time – footprints left by heavy-booted men, hessian bags, sand, broken asbestos sheets and, ‘The Last Supper’ – an empty rusty can of dolmades dating back to the early DIY Period – the 1980s. Then the cause of the ruptured patio: muscular tree roots from our liquid amber tree, its tendrils gripping the earth, slowly and silently forcing the concrete apart like a tree trunk I once saw growing out the centre of a Cambodian Angkor temple. Suddenly, I was back there, young, memories flowing of the woman I had travelled with, the sexual tension between us growing hotter with the day, a delicious fever broken only later that night and –
Walking through the side gate in big lanky strides, flannel shirt and sprouting a big, bushy, grey beard was Darren’s hippie friend – a man I’d met before. Well, not just met, but rather had thrown out of my car. Some years ago after a Confest recce, I’d offered him a lift, but soon he was demanding that I let him smoke in my car. It’d nearly come to blows and it was only when I parked out the front of the police station did he get out.
Now the fucker was here at my house.
‘Hi,’ he drawled. ‘I’m Flynny’.
Reasoning that years of smoking dope had addled his memory, I found myself shaking his hand and introducing myself. Still, with him being here, I couldn’t help but grind my teeth as I saw him eating my food, drinking my beer and using my toilet. What’s more, the fucker not only didn’t help, but just sat there rolling cigarette after cigarette, smouldering like a coal mine in a pall of dirty smoke, and I wondered if indeed he had recognised me and was now just fucking with me, provoking me to throw him out again! I burned like the end of his rollie, but within a few hours the loading was done and Flynny was gone, his beat up Jeep truck spluttering and rattling after him. I never did find out whether he had forgotten me or not.
That night, my friends drank and laughed, compared our wounds from hauling the concrete: crushed toes, ringing ears from saw cutter, and the fuck ups with the cutting, something of which Graeme quickly glossed over, and of course, my story of throwing Flynny out of my car. We had such a good night, a first time in a long time. I wondered if this was the only way men could connect – through a physical activity. They promised to help with building the deck, but one excuse after another fell at my feet till I was left to do it all by myself, my wife laughing all the way into her cheese.