Father and son do manual labour

I hear a tapping noise nearby, turn my head and see Dad standing outside, behind the window, hunched slightly as he tries to see in. Through the glass, he shouts and asks me to help him with something in the back garden, and it comes through as the faintest whisper. That’s exactly how he refers to it: something. He’s standing in the rain with his waterproof hat and coat on, and the request comes with a half-grunt, half-frown before he walks away with no more said. There is something laboured about Dad’s body language that promises ominous things to come. And it isn’t just because of the endless rain.

I think Oh no, and for good reason. This feeling has nothing to do with the weather and the rain and the tormented sky which has crept in over our part of England in the last few days – in fact, I am looking forward to leaving the safe haven of my self-employed life for a few welcome minutes. It will make a nice change to go outside at this time, and one that I probably wouldn’t have made for myself voluntarily.

The uneasy feeling growing within me originates more from the context of all this: like many Dads out there, my Dad never asks for help outside unless it’s something he really can’t manage on his own. Something which has caught him entirely off-guard. Something big. As I put my jacket and walking boots on, I consider what in the world might have driven Dad into such a situation that he had no choice but to swallow his pride and admit defeat so openly like this. I can’t think of much, really – more to the point, I don’t want to think of much – other than that he has decided to dig one of the old trees up, as people in later life so often needlessly do when they have got bored of their garden and fancy a change, even though this change involves the mindless destruction of crucial habitats that have stood for many decades and provide a welcome refuge for life such as birds, etc. Like I said, I didn’t want to think about it.

Outside, I soon discover that Dad has got himself into a bit of a mess. Meeting him in the garden, I see a large, square, 6-foot-high concrete post sticking out of the ground at the far end, in the dirt. Its base is surrounded by a large pit that is several feet deep and dug-out haphazardly. How long he has spent digging this pit is anyone’s guess. I look at the post and I think Has that really been there all the time? And I realise it must have been. But still, it’s hard to place it, probably because of the pit, and the odd diagonal angle with which it is stood out of the ground. The more I look at all this, the more the rain falls, the more it feels like the post fell out of the sky, embedding itself deep into the ground.

“So…why are you doing this?” I ask Dad. The intergalactic vision has now gone. I have now re-imagined the concrete post in days, months and years previous. I see it standing there innocently, doing literally nothing at all when I am 7. It surprises me how little I have considered its purpose before. I get that Dad wants it gone because it serves no discernible purpose, but, similarly, I see no reason for the sudden mysterious compulsion to have it gone.

“We need to move it out of the way,” Dad says abruptly, as if the post is becoming an increasingly dangerous threat and standing here doing nothing is directly adding to the misery it might potentially cause. His urgency is compounded by the rain, always the rain, and so this transfers to me as I try to help him wangle the massive post thing out of the ground. Despite the ground being dark and sodden with moisture and the post rotating round in a circle, it seems stuck dead. It does not want to move, even when we use all our might.

For several minutes, I stand back and watch Dad trying desperately to free the post – he uses his arms in every conceivable way, then his legs, then various combinations which obviously don’t work but apparently seem like a good idea. I don’t do nothing out of malice, or laziness, although it is comical in a fucking-hell-get-me-out-of-here kind of a way. I do it because I have realised something that Dad clearly has not: that without a plan of action and some sort of actual logic, that post isn’t going anywhere. We will never beat the post. Unfortunately, Dad is in the moment and entirely at the mercy of his own animal instincts. Get the post out, somehow, anyhow, right now. I put this down to him being drawn into this bizarre, pointless drama over a period of unknowable hours and minutes. Nothing to shake him out of it. He hasn’t realised yet that it might make sense to stop and think and waste a few minutes, rather than trying as hard as possible for a very long time indeed.

“Are you going to help me, then?” Dad says. “That’s what I called you out here for.”

I say “it might be best to stop and think about what we’re doing first. It’s only a suggestion.”

Dad’s face shows he isn’t impressed with this irrational forward-thinking attitude, and he is not looking for suggestions either. I am one of the old-school, it says. We don’t stop to think, we just bloody do.

After another few seconds, I still can’t think of a way to lever the post out any time soon. This is ridiculous. At least not without rounding a few neighbours up or using a complicated harness system which would take some time to devise, let alone implement. One idea had been to tie it to something and drag it out that way. Our dog, Jojo, crosses my mind briefly in an insane but surprisingly effective scenario involving rope tied to her back legs.

I get drawn into it too. The rain is lashing us now, and Dad is getting increasingly more frantic – we’re both talking and not really listening to anything the other is saying. I have no gloves so trying to shift this fucking annoying post – I am near the base, now knee-deep in the pit – is not only difficult, but promises great pain and some bloodshed if I don’t grip it hard enough to stop its abrasive surface suddenly grating my hands. In the pit, there’s a hell of a lot to think about: my back, my hands, my legs – at least one of my femurs is going to get crushed if Dad lets go of the post suddenly. I think about Mum and what she’s going to say if Dad gets injured because he’s gone and done something stupid and I should have stopped him, because I was the only one who could.

Then the post gives a little. Not much, but enough to show that at the base of the post is a huge lump of old, heavy concrete. I look at Dad’s face. I see that the sight of the half-buried concrete has crushed the tiny morsel of optimism that had existed for the smallest second before. No wonder it wouldn’t move. Dad and I look at one another, both of us not knowing what to say. I find myself stepping out of the pit as we try and drag it, like a pair of stupid animals. Like we have some sort of plan.

As it is physically impossible to hold onto the post and support it whilst also stepping out of the pit and steadying myself, Dad is now holding the post all on his own. He’s a modern-day hero. His face is pure stress, anxiety, fear and regret (that deeply hidden old-school regret that desperately doesn’t want to be caught out in the open, yet is).

“I’m holding the post on my own!” Dad says, with all the breath and power he is able to spare. He looks like he may speak again, but then he doesn’t. He just frowns.

I say “yeah, you are, what would you like me to do about it?” and go on to point-out that taking into account the minimal room (the post has now been dragged just out of the pit, and Dad is backing into a bush with not much space around it for me to manoeuvre), if I now try and help, there’s a good chance that the post might crush me beneath it, or at least break one of my feet. Dad looks at me with simple naked horror, as it now finally dawns on him that this job he has taken on is a much bigger undertaking than he had ever previously thought about before (but more likely not).

Somehow, we manage to get the post into a resting position next to the fence without it maiming either of us. We are beaten. He’s pissed-off. The rain is still coming down, with no sign of stopping. I go in and make Dad a cup of tea as he stubbornly clears his things up outside, staring into the pit, thinking…well, anyone’s guess.

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