Des the Bricklayer

Soon I am going to write a post about what I did in my weekend, along with some pretty photos, but another story has to be told first.

They are currently doing some renovating outside the place I work and as a consequence have recently poured some new cement down. I walked past it this afternoon and breathed in the heavy, earthy smell and started to remember.

They say that smells are indelibly linked to memory. It certainly seems that a certain smell can conjure up a whole raft of memories that would otherwise be inaccessible to us. For me, the smell of freshly poured cement rang a bell in my head, which pealed loudly with the name “Des the Bricklayer”.

I would have been around 5 or 6 years old and my parents were working on extending the house in Trent place. I don’t remember much about that time, but I do recall that I became fast friends with a black bricklayer known to me only as “Des the Bricklayer”. In my childish mind, “The Bricklayer” was a title in league with “the Archbishop of Canterbury” and I treated him with due reverence.

I have a vague recollection of tailing Des for days on end, while he patiently explained to me the science of bricklaying and admonished me not to get any cement on my hands. He smelt of wet cement and freshly turned earth. Apart from that I remember very little. I don’t remember his face, his build, how old he was or anything about him for that matter except that he was black, his name was “Des”, he was (as I have reiterated enough) a bricklayer and his favourite song was “We are the World”, which was very much in vogue at the time.

The song had just been released that year (1985). It was written by Michael Jackson & Lionel Ritchie in order to raise money for famine relief in drought-stricken Ethiopia. Even at that young age, I had a vague appreciation of the fact that the song meant far more to Des than it did to me. To him it represented a dream: equality, peace, freedom and fairness for all people, irrespective of race. It showed that a black man could make it in a white world and that maybe the world wasn’t quite so black & white after all.

The reality is that the role of bricklayer is purely manual labour: mixing cement and putting one brick on top of another in an orderly fashion until it constitutes a house. Des, by virtue of his race and station in life, was nothing but cheap labour, a “boy”. He would have been referred to as a “boy”, even by me, although I was many times his junior. This topsy-turvy social situation is explored in the Athol Fugard play “Master Harold and the boys”, which was showing on TV at around the same time. My time with Des was spent during the heyday of Apartheid, it would be a decade before any meaningful change even started to take place.

Whenever I smell drying concrete, I look wistfully at the craftsmanship and wonder if Des ever lived to see his dream fulfilled.