PART ONE – The Forth Bridge
‘Some sight though, isn’t it Charlie?’
‘Aye, it is right enough Davey.’
The two construction workers sit side by side staring up at the towering structure above them. A huge, sprawling arch, one of three straddled across the Firth of Forth, a collective engineering marvel, peers down at them. An intricate, labyrinthine display of steel. A bridge mid-construction. The conjoining cantilever segments yet to be built, the three arches of the soon-to-be Forth Bridge stand disparate across the river, like a trio of giants splashing through the waves.
‘How long hiv we been at this noo, Charlie?’
Charlie takes a drag of his hand-rolled cigarette, puffing out a small cloud of smoke into the dewy early morning.
‘Wit…six, seven years noo maybe? Haud on, we started it when…1882? Aye, it wis. ’82. So aye, that’s six years we’ve been going fur…’ he bookends his comments with a tobacco-laden cough.
‘Christ. That lang?’
‘Aye, it will be.’ Charlie hands the cigarette to Davey who accepts it with a gracious nod. The former takes off his flat cap and batters it against his leg, liberating layers of dust and flecks of grime as they cascade slowly to the ground.
‘Still…it is badly needed efter all. That ferry service kin only take a handful o folk oer the river at a time. A train’ll carry dozens, hunners even at a time.’
‘And it’ll look spectacular. The brawest o all the bridges.’
‘True,’ answers Charlie, leaning over to retrieve his cigarette, ‘but who’ll get the credit I ask ye? No us, that’s for sure. No the hunners o men that have given their blood and sweat for this bridge. Naw. That’ll go tae the architects, the designers. Aye, just wait, however many years doon the line, we’ll be aw but forgotten I bet ye.’
‘Ach you’re maybe right Charlie but how many folk can say they’ve worked on something as grand as this? Eh? Ye wid rather be daein this than be stuck doon a bloody mineshaft wouldn’t ye?’
‘Well…’ begins Charlie before his words are drowned out by a clanging cacophony of hammer-on-steel echoes. He takes a final drag of his cigarette before tossing it towards the water caressing the coastal wall yards from them. ‘That’ll be break time oer then.’
‘Naw naw Charlie boy, the gaffer’s nowhere near here. We’ve still got a few minutes. You’ve a lot tae learn aboot the working life. A young man in his twenties. Ye still think everything has tae be done now. Right away. Learn tae enjoy life young man. Relax a bit. Take yer time. Take in the beautiful views around ye.’ Charlie smiles gently and stares up toward the cloudless sky.
‘Ye mean,’ retorts Charlie, ‘be a lazy shite like yersel aye?’
‘Well, in so many words, aye.’
The two of them laugh. An easy, knowing laugh. The kind constructed and cultivated over several years of working alongside one another, practised and tested before a common sense of humour is finally found.
‘Right, anyway, we’d better get back to it’ adds Davey as he leans down to pick up his toolbag.
Charlie starts to do likewise before both are stopped in their tracks by a desperate scream cutting through the air. The scream in turn is cut short by a sickening thud that reaches far down into the pit of the stomach of every listener. Work on the structure immediately ceases, the hammers falling silent. Charlie winces, his eyes closing briefly, a sigh trickles out of him.
‘Not again’ he says wearily.
Davey bursts instinctively into action, dropping his tools, and heads at speed towards where the scream originated from as the brief silence is suddenly ruptured by the panicked shouts and orders from a crowd of assembling workers. Tiny specs of humanity descending from the uppermost beams, others scrambling along the lower areas of the structure. All attempting to reach their unfortunate fellow worker.
‘It’s like a bloody graveyard this place’ mutters Charlie to himself as he slowly begins to walk in the same direction as his co-workers.
As he moves closer he notices several of them take off their caps in unison, holding them against their waist. His heart sinks. The weight of resigned expectation failing to temper the familiar feeling of devastation. He spots Davey who in turn spots Charlie. The former looks at him and shakes his head slowly.
Charlie follows suit and takes his cap off as he continues to trudge forward, looking up at the mass of steel once more, majestic yet eerie in the mid-morning silence.