My friend Bob, Justbob, has a spaceship in his pocket.
He got his name the day he wandered onto the building site. He stood watching one of the YTS kids slapping bricks and mortar together, and then, in earshot of the foreman, Mr O’Reilly – he doesn’t much like it if you call him Malcolm, and he doesn’t much like it if you omit the Mr – he said, “I can build walls.”
We were shorthanded. The Poles had been heading back home since before we knew what a credit crunch was – canny buggers, and the YTS kids didn’t seem to like the cold weather. And even when they did turn up, they were crap. Witness the state of the wall. So O’Reilly gave this new guy the once over; he wasn’t much to look at. You wouldn’t have had him for an East European; he lacked their stolid bulk, and his hair, rather than coarse black, was thin, and sandy. But you could see it when he talked – the pause as he translated in his head, then the slow drip of English that emerged.
“Yeah?” O’Reilly said, somewhat doubting. “Go on then.”
And Bob – though we didn’t know his name then – put three rows of bricks on top of the YTS kid’s lop-sided mess. He wasn’t quick, but by the time he was done, the wall, which had been more disordered than the pile of bricks it’d come from, was suddenly straight and true. When O’Reilly came back he whistled low, and called for his metre-long spirit-level.
“Blow me. You can build walls at that. All right, we’ll take you on, on a weekly basis. But no trouble, okay?”
Bob didn’t look like the sort who would cause trouble. But I kind of doubted he could hold his own, so I reckoned he’d get into plenty. The foreman, he wasn’t too particular, trouble was trouble, and whether you were giving it or receiving it, you’d be out. But that was what I thought to myself. Bob just nodded.
O’Reilly shrugged. “Okay, good. What’s your name?”
“Bob”, said Bob.
“Just Bob.” And he smiled, a gentle smile as if to say sorry, but that was just the way it was, no offence, but ...
O’Reilly shook his head sadly. “Another bloody illegal immigrant. Well, Bob Justbob, go get yourself kitted out and we’ll see what you can do. Steve,” – that’s me – “he’s your responsibility, until we get someone legal or he blows away in the wind.”
Serves me right for earwigging, I guess.
Bob’s uncanny ability to fix up walls meant he was still on site six weeks later, and that, and the thing in his pocket, earned him another moniker, “Plumb-Bob”. He’d show it to you, if you asked. It dangled from his key-ring, a small, pointy egg-shaped thing. It was kind of pearly blue, not quite shiny, more semi-matt. If you held it up to bright sunlight it would sparkle a little, motes of gold that seem to move lazily inside. And if you did hold it you’d notice how light it was, and wonder whether it was much use as a plumb-weight.
The first time I’d seen it, I asked him what it was. He handed it over, and I ran my fingers over the smooth surface and wondered how it could stay like that on a building site.
“It’s my spaceship.” Bob had said.
“It doesn’t look much like a spaceship.” I replied, and Bob, Justbob just nodded, and gave me a gentle smile.
He did a lot of that. Like when you asked him where he was from. I asked him outright, of course, but he just smiled and said I wouldn’t have heard of it. So I kept guessing.
“Hey Bob, you Lithuanian?”
“No Steve, I am not.”
“Romanian then? Ukrainian?”
But I didn’t like to push it. A man needs his space, and there’s plenty of reasons for keeping below the radar. I’ve heard more than a few of them, in my time as a builder, and they made my sorry tale of marital breakdown and subsequent depression sound like a garden of roses. As long as they kept themselves to themselves, and kept their noses clean, it didn’t matter much to me. It wasn’t like I was the one who was employing them, and O’Reilly seemed to have a sixth sense about which of them were going to cause him trouble of one type or another. Though I still thought he’d got it wrong with Bob.
“Bob,” I said, curious long after everyone else on the site had given up asking to see his spaceship. “How does it work?”
He cradled it in his hands. “Nano-forces,” he said. “Millions – no, trillions, of tiny force generators. They shape themselves into things, a spaceship, a house ...”
“A house? That thing can be a house?”
He nodded, and then replied, straight-faced, “Is simpler than a spaceship, a house.”
“So why don’t you live in it? Or fly away?”
And then he’d looked sad. “The nano-forces, they can be detected. I don’t want to be found.”
I looked at him for a moment. “Bob, you’re a lunatic. But you’re the nicest lunatic I’ve ever met.”
And he’d smiled his smile in reply.
In the end, though, I think I was right. Bob did get himself into trouble. But it was the same day he became a hero, and also the last time I saw him, so I guess no-one remembers that bit.
It was the week of the snow storm. We got two days off, unpaid, of course, and when we returned to the site, O’Reilly noticed that one of the walls had sagged, which maybe wasn’t surprising as we’d just opened up a trench next to it; the sewage pipes had been put in the wrong place.
O’Reilly called Bob over, and told him to level it out. Bob had taken a look at the wall, and slowly shook his head.
“Bad wall,” he said.
“Yeah.” O’Reilly dropped his butt on the icy floor. “So fix it.”
Bob kept shaking his head. “No. Rebuild.”
O’Reilly went ballistic. I guess the two days lost to the snow, and the cock-up with the waste pipe, had left him in a far from happy mood.
“I’m not askin’ for your opinion. So just feckin’ fix it.”
Bob just stood there, shaking his head, looking sad.
“Rebuild. Is dangerous.”
Bozie, who’d been working in the trench at the time, almost leapt out. “I’m nay working under a dangerous wall!”
O’Reilly turned red. “You feckin’ work shy ejiots. You,” he jabbed his finger at me, “stop lallygagging and get some scaffolding poles to prop up the wall.” He turned to Bozie, “and you, you ponce, get that bloody pipe moved today!” And then he turned to Bob, and I was fearing the worst, but O’Reilly was suddenly deadly calm. “And you – you do whatever you damn well please. But I’m telling you all now, at the end of today, someone isn’t going to be working on this site any more. So bear that in mind when you feckin’ mess me around.”
I’d seen him in that mood before, and I knew he was serious. So I go to it smartish, and once the wall was propped to mine and Bozie’s satisfaction, I hightailed it to the opposite end of the site. I cracked the whip for the boys there, telling them O’Reilly was in a foul mood, and suggesting they forgo the usual tea breaks. They grumbled, but I guess they knew what was good for them. When I did have to pass by the little Portakabin kitchen and office, goddamn, there was Bob, loitering around the trench, looking like a lost child, hovering around doing nowt. I should have talked to him, convinced him to fix the wall, or even come over and help my team out, just to show willing, but, well, I didn’t. One look at O’Reilly’s face as I passed the office window told me then that nothing would save Bob.
Then, mid-afternoon, as the sky began to get grey and dark, I heard a rumble and a scream, and before I knew what I was doing I dropped my drill and sprinted across the site. By the time I got there a dozen people were stood around looking into a cloud of dust and rubble, and when it cleared I looked down into the trench. The scaffolding had given, and one of the poles was twisted like a pretzel. The wall had collapsed into the trench and I felt a sick feeling in my stomach.
“Is anyone ...?” I asked hesitantly.
The builder next to me nodded, his face grim and bloodless. “Bozie’s down there. Poor bastard. And Bob – silly fucker jumped in as the wall collapsed.”
I pushed forward, barking commands as I went. “You – rope and tackle, quick! Mike – call for an ambulance, NOW, dammit! Pads – give me your arm and brace yourself, I’m going down.”
And gripping his meaty hand, I lowered myself down the incline of bricks and wood looking for a sign of life. And then I saw it – fingers reaching up through a gap, and heard a shaky voice –
“Fuck! Anyone out there? Give us a hand will you?”
The crowd above me burst into relieved laughter, and I scurried down a little further, grabbing the hand, and was about to call on everyone to start digging him out when I realised he was coming out under his own steam. Miracle upon miracles, he seemed to be in an air pocket – the scaffolding must have formed a roof around him. Lucky bastard, I thought, and pulled him the rest of the way out. He looked a fright, and his ankle was a mess – I don’t think he’d realised yet, and when he tried to stand on it the scream split the air. Pads picked him up and gently carried him out. I looked into the dark hole, amazed at his luck, and then another hand emerged. It was Bob, and I shook my head in amazement. He came out nice and easy, completely unscathed, and I noticed he was holding onto his key-ring. I was about to shout for someone to give us a hand up, when I felt the ground under my feet shift as the air pocket collapsed.
“Shit! That was close!”
I looked up and saw O’Reilly staring down at us. His opened his mouth to say something, then abruptly turned away and headed back through the crowd.
After the ambulance arrived and took Bozie away, Bob drew me aside. He’d just had his hand shaken and his back slapped by everyone on the site – well, everyone but O’Reilly, but he looked sadder than I’d ever seen him. “Bloody hell Bob. You’re a hero! Cheer up will you?”
“Steve. I am happy ... for Bozie. But sad for me. They will come now.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. Then I twigged. The ambulance men would call the police to investigate the accident; the police would turn up, take one look at the crew, and call immigration.
“Well damn it, if you don’t have your papers, leave now. No-one here will tell – not now. Come back in a few days ...”
He put his hand on my arm. “No. It is too late. They are here”.
And I looked over my shoulder and there was a sleek black car with tinted windows. Two men got out, sombre-looking fellas in dark suits, and he went to them, without a fight, without a protest, and as one of them guided his head into the car, he gave me a small smile, and that was the last I saw of him.
But at some point in that conversation, he’d slipped his key-ring into my pocket. The next day, the men in the black car were back, in force, searching every inch of the site, and questioning every one of the builders, but I wasn’t there. By then, I was light-years away.