Ian McMillan: Stuff of Arthurian legend, circa 1978

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We were cabined up and we were getting cabin fever. It was raining so heavily that nothing could move anywhere on the building site but they wouldn’t send us home because the forecast (in a newspaper, rather than on a smartphone, because this was 1978) was good for later in the afternoon. We’d pointed out to the gaffers that the site would still be muddy at teatime but they ignored us.

So there we all were, the labourers and the brickies, the dumper-truck driver and the bloke whose job was a mystery, sitting in the cabin at the edge of the half-built estate on the outskirts of Sheffield. We’d played cards. We’d read newspapers. We’d told jokes that none of us could really remember the punchlines of, and now we sat in a smoky fug.

Arthur piped up from the depths of his cardigan. “It were muddy that time I worked on’t motorway,” he said, and we knew we were in for an ‘Arthur on the Motorway’ tale.

Arthur piped up from the depths of his cardigan. “It were muddy that time I worked on’t motorway,” he said, and we knew we were in for an ‘Arthur on the Motorway’ tale. We settled back and began to listen. It was like a storytelling session in a library, but with added wellies and tattooes. Arthur was a man in his fifties who lived with his mother and had spent his life working on building sites and motorways. He was a man you called on when you needed something lifting or something carrying or something hitting with a hammer.

He began again. “It were muddy that time I worked on’t motorway; it made this look like a desert. Tha couldn’t move for mud. It got in your hair, in your tea, all over your cap.” As ever, as a budding writer, I marvelled at Arthur’s fantastic use of language; he was a natural bard, it seemed to me. I never told him that, partly because, like Trigger in Only Fools and Horses talking to Rodney, he called me Dave and indeed when he bought me some towels as a wedding present, wrote TO DAVE AND FUTURE WIFE on the label.

He continued: “It were raining that much that t’gaffers gave us afternoon off and said we should come back in’t morning so we all walked round to a pub down a back alley that we knew would serve us in our muck and we had a drink. We had a good drink. We had a proper drink.” Like all the great orators, Arthur employed the “rule of three” beloved of speech-making politicians. The drink; the good drink; the proper drink.

“We got totally balloonified,” Arthur said, and we laughed. Arthur had a number of words to describe intoxication, and balloonified was one of the best. “So we decided that we needed to get some sleep and one of the blokes said that we could all go and sleep in the house he rented at the end of the street. So we all set off down the road, singing and dancing and still completely covered in mud.

“We got to’t house but he’d lost his key so we all climbed up the drainpipe, opened the window and we all went to sleep in the beds. We didn’t take our boots off, or course. Mud everywhere.’

Arthur paused and took a long glug of tea from a mug with WITHERNSEA written on the side. “We woke up to shouting. It were the wrong house.”

The rain intensified.

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