It always feels the same. Just another day, standing, waiting to go to work. The van should be here any minute. Not even light yet, there is a chill in the air.
The other guys are here too. We’re not really friends, but they’re OK. Just normal guys, happy to have some work, some income for their families.
To the other people driving by, or standing at the bus stop, we seem to be some sort of exotic creatures. Let out of our cages for the day, what could we be up to?
But it’s always been like this. I suppose I get it, my people don’t always help themselves. There are certainly enough lazy people in my community. It’s so frustrating, I want to slap them up the back of the head. Things are getting better, but they don’t change quickly, of course. It takes time, so much time.
Still, it starts to get to you after a while, being looked at with suspicion all the time. People crossing the street, jumping when they haven’t seen you coming. You start to feel low, to feel less, maybe even to feel nothing.
I’m determined not to let that happen, to fight it. It’s all in the mind, the power of positive thinking. I am me, not some character created in a bigot’s mind. I am more than my skin and clothes.
On some days the anger builds, and I feel ready to explode. It all seems so unfair. After all, what do they want from me? If I was sitting outside, smoking and drinking they would be judging me, but why on my way to work?
Here comes the van, at least once I’m inside I am with my own. But that’s the problem, I don’t feel like I belong here either. Constantly floating between two foreign worlds, what an existence.
We are jammed in to every available space, there are no seats in the back, of course. It’s a warm, stuffy and rattly ride to the site. Some time to chat, to smoke, maybe just to zone out.
Our work assignments come as an unpleasant surprise every day. There shouldn’t be any real shock, of course, the shock would be getting a good job. But that’s not what we are for. We are for the shit jobs, the shit that no-one else wants to touch, we have the right camouflage after all.
Anger is my enemy, it creeps up on me and, before I know it, my mind is whirring. Every slight I have ever received, all the words and looks, every rejection. Then I have to remember, the positive mindset I am trying, desperately trying to construct. It’s OK if it slips, occasionally, it’s all about how quickly you catch it and shore up the foundations again.
As we rattle along, I begin to look at my co-workers. We are a right mixture. We are young and old, energetic and lazy, sharp and dull, honest and not so. There are people here who, with a little encouragement, could grow into something. And there are others who would always be standing with one foot on the bottom rung. Am I just being arrogant, thinking that I deserve more? What makes me better than them? And that is always what gets me, maybe I’m not.
There’s that self-doubt again, I get the feeling that today is going to be a tough one. One of those days where positivity is a struggle and it’s just going to be a matter of pushing on through. But I mustn’t give up yet, the sun could still shine on my day and brighten my mood.
All of a sudden, we are here. The van crunches to a halt and the order comes to get out. Surprisingly, the sun is actually shining, the warmth on my skin feels like golden honey flowing over me. I stand for a few moments, hoping for some energy to flow into me.
But the peace and solitude doesn’t last long. Mr Novak looks in a bad mood today, he’s over by the office barking orders. All of a sudden, he looks at me. The shiver running up my spine is like ice, this can’t be good. Why is he staring at me?
Who’s shouting? It’s Michal, the site supervisor.
‘Ondrej, come here, now,’ he shouts. He doesn’t look happy either, please God I can’t lose this job.
‘Yes, Michal, what’s happening?’ I ask, trying to sound upbeat.
‘The shit’s really been hitting the fan today. Novak is out for blood. Looks like somebody is going home early today,’ he says shaking his head.
My worst nightmare, losing the job I hate. There is only one thing worse than having a job you hate, having none.
At that moment a huge argument seems to have broken out. Two voices, shouting and screaming. Anger being vented.
‘I’m no thief Novak, who’s been telling stories? I’ll cut their fucking head off!’ it sounds like Jan the leader of our work gang.
‘No stories Jan, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Now take your shit and fuck off of my site!’ Mr Novak is shouting, but seems calm. He is in control, after all.
And that’s that. Jan slopes off, hurling some choice words over his shoulder, and then he’s gone. It takes that long for such a change. Jan’s been one of the gang leaders since I started working here, and for a few years before that too.
I think everyone new he was skimming a few materials here and there, but he must have pushed it too far.
The atmosphere is thick now, everyone is waiting to see what happens next. Is there anyone else in the firing line?
‘Right, Ondrej, your up next,’ says Michal.
‘You’re fucking with me, I haven’t done shit,’ is my diplomatic reply.
‘Just go and see Mr. Novak, now,’ he orders.
The walk over seems like the walk through no man’s land. Leaving relative safety behind, crossing a zone of emptiness and approaching hostility. The anger builds inside me as I walk. By the time I approach Novak I am ready to burst, there is no way I am leaving quietly, I’ve done nothing.
‘I’ve been watching you for a while now Ondrej,’ Novak says.
A grunt is the best that I can do.
‘I watch everyone here, who takes what, how much. Everyone skims a little, some assholes too much and they take the piss. But you, never, as far as I can tell. Are you honest, or just smarter than the rest?’ he asks.
‘I’ve never stolen anything from you Mr. Novak, honestly,’ I can hardly breath as I say this. What is he thinking?
‘I believe you Ondrej. Can I ask you a question?’ he asks.
‘Of course,’ I say.
‘Where do you see yourself going with this firm? What do you want for yourself?’ he asks.
What is this a job interview? I can’t help but chuckle a bit.
‘What’s so funny?’ he asks with stern eyes.
‘Sorry. It’s just hard to explain. What do I want for myself? Actually, maybe it’s not so hard. A chance, that’s what I want. A chance to prove that I am worth more. More than a ditch digger’s wage. A chance of some dignity, to hold up my head, to show my family that there is another way,’ I am lecturing him now.
Sheepishly, I stop and avert my eyes.
But I can still feel his stare burning into me. I decide to meet it, to see what is in this man’s heart. And when I do, I see hope. I can’t explain it, but I can see it.
‘It won’t be easy you know? Not all of the men will accept you. You will have to be tough, but I have a feeling you’ve always had to be,’ he says. ‘I need a new gang leader and you’re it. You’ve been here a couple of years now, keep working hard and we will see what you can achieve and where you can end up,’ he says so matter of factly. He can’t know what this means.
I’m speechless. All I can do is nod and smile. My heart feels like it is going to burst through my chest. Finally a step, forward, up, somewhere.
So this is what it feels like, pride.
© Neil Hayes and neilhayeswriter