of February and the drifts are up to the eaves. On the old folks' bungalows, startled faces at the glass shrink behind their curtains. Crazy! And we know it, painting in this, but it’s all the firm’s got on. We forearm snow from around the windows, haul the propane cylinder close as we can. Water from our flasks poured over the brass regulator opens the diaphragm, releases the gas. Gloves are useless: our fingertips frozen numb adjust the pressure, set the flame of the blowtorch to melt ice off the sills, rag them dry for glossing. Only two buses per day detour this way and the corner shop with a bell has the same pie on the white tray as yesterday, but we’ll keep at it as long as we’ve got gas. In our Portakabin even the bin’s too cold to stink, the torch set between three bricks thaws the kettle to boil.
Man on the Fire Escape
Approaching the T junction, you can’t miss him: white overalls, one boot on a handrail five stages up the fire escape jutting from Tunstall library. Next time you’re passing, his arm’s locked round a stanchion, leaning out, full stretch. One slip and he’s through your windscreen. Edging up one evening in traffic, it’s not the mullion windows with pediment gable and arms, nor the terracotta lettering, just how far he’s got. Weeks after, the top coat of lickable red blinds you to that leaking-radiator brown and you notice the way he breaks off at the angle of strut and beam. Today, stuck at the lights between trucks, you can’t help but crane your neck, checking the skeletal metalwork for him even after all these years.
Thirty-five years in the trade and you believed you could read the sky. Now the job’s almost done, it’s as though you’ve worried it on. In the passenger seat for a change, at odds with the roomy footwell, you can’t relax into your book. The laptops and handbags long gone. From guttering to downspouts to drains, how noisy it is. God’s way – your mother used to say – of making you rest.