I was out of work. I had flung myself down in a park, and was drowsily watching the play of green colours on the lawn and in the treetops. As the clock struck eleven, a pretty young miss came walking down the lane, her breasts gently dancing. My intoxicated gaze followed her to the far edge of the park, where she disappeared like the sun dipping below the horizon. And darkness took possession of me again.
I was startled out of my brooding by the rumbling of a dray cart. It was drawn by a lustrous gold-brown horse which beat the asphalt with heavy hooves. The shirt-sleeved driver kept swishing the whip, as if whistling a merry tune with it. Clustering behind him and clinging to his seat, were a noisy bantering gang of drink-loving removers.
They were headed for the trees where they snuggled their cart up to the kerb. One of them climbed on a pile of tools and held a spy-glass to his eyes, as if scanning the ocean. “Anyone want to earn a couple of pengoes?” he shouted, and out I jumped from the park as from a green prison, and leaped on the cart. No sooner had I drawn myself up that the man who had shouted came over to me and laughed gaily into my face. “Here, Jack,” he said, handing me some bread. “Have some grub first, so you don’t topple over… You’ll get your two pengoes afterwards… It’ll take us a couple of hours… and a gallon of sweat.”
“Been out o’ work for long, chum?” asked another fellow. The words he spoke were almost drowned by the jolting of the cart as his mate’s had been. And I, forgetting the weeks of bitterness behind me, mumbled through my stuffed mouth: “Six… weeks…”
Our job was to lug a safe up to the first floor of a mansion with a marble staircase. I had been trying to act the man of experience, but was genuinely amazed to see how smoothly the massive thing slid off its base and was trundled along on two iron bars up to the stairs as if it weighed no more than a stone. It barely took five minutes. All my strength seemed to have flown back into me when, harnessed to the sturdy wooden trundle like human horses, we started to pull-and-push the safe up the dazzling white stairs to the accompaniment of lusty “heave-ho’s.” The iron rings along the sides of the trundle creaked plaintively from the pull of the rope passed through them. A cheerful lot but a moment ago, the men like myself were now breathing hard and their ruddy faces began to perspire.
But when we were received on the first floor by the chatter of an appetizing chamber-maid while a bewhiskered private secretary with a Frenchman’s air about him showed us the way; and when, as we jauntily moved the safe through the rooms, we were welcomed by a sparklingly elegant lady amidst tapestries and cut mirrors which reflected our cocky gait and the safe as it rolled on in its leisurely way – well, then and there I suddenly took such a strong fancy to this trade that, on the way back to the pub where the gang had set up their headquarters, I caught the hand of big-mustachioed Old Joey, and, looking him square in the eyes, said, “Couldn’t you take me on as a regular?”
The other fellows heard my words too, and peered into the air as if the answer were written there, and pursing their lips, shrugged their beefy shoulders and complained that business was slack, that they could hardly earn enough to buy their food… But then, with a sudden change of mind, they shook hands with me on it.
I’ve been one of them ever since. I sit, when we’re idle, behind the fleecy foam of my pint of ale; or I watch the trunkless heads bobbing up and down in lively conversation behind the high-set windows. When a job comes our way, I stretch my limbs, yawn, and then clamber onto the cart. I have by now acquired that cock-sure air with which my mates whistle their way through the streets, and let my well-fed frame be jolted about just as unconcernedly as they. We fling obscenities at the girls we pass, and rumble on. Szepi is the strongest member of the gang: he lifts weights every morning; and the six of us wouldn’t think twice before tackling thirty-odd students.
When we pass along a park, it’s my duty to climb on the heap of tools and shout at the jobless men lingering there, “Hey you chaps, come along and help!” And if one of them looks too skinny or sickly, I wave him back. “We don’t want skeletons, my boy,” I tell him, and as we giddy-up our fat brown horse, Sári, I can see the one who’s been rejected hang his head and walk away with heavy feet, perhaps even weeping.
They make me do this on purpose to remind me of bad times past.
Many’s the time we go in for a drinking-bout. Last night, too, we had a splurge in the company of two tarts, blonde Tess and ginger Gisella. We made a hot evening of it, alright! We had plenty of beer and peppered wine. Old Joey grabbed the pot-bellied accordion player, shoved him under the table and told him to make music there; then, taking the red-haired hussy by the waist, he danced with her on the table, as brisk and lively as if he had never seen fifty.
The two wenches took it out of us pretty badly at the hotel, so this morning we sit around our pub, with leaden faces, swallowing large quantities of sodium bicarbonate and sharp paprika. Only Old Joey shoots proud glances at the table, even stroking the spot where he footed it with the redhead last night.
It is high summer, and the place is swarming with big bluebottles. The coolness of the sprinkled floor feels good under our feet; and we hardly mind the pub-keeper’s dog Bodri licking the tips of our idle fingers.
Szepi has dozed off on his chair and is snoring away in the sun; and we, too, merely raise our heavy eyelids from time to time only to shut them again tighter than before.
The languid quiet is shattered by the buzz of the phone. The pub-keeper motions me towards it with his long-stemmed pipe. (He always calls for me, as I’m more intelligent-looking and a smarter talker than the rest of the gang.) Reluctantly I walk up and, puffing and sighing, put the receiver to my ear.
“Hullo,” I mumble. “Yes, ma’am, at your service… What number did you say?… Number seven, Trefort Street, second floor… A safe… I’ve made a note of it, ma’am… We’ll be there in an hour, and be done in another… Well, fifty pengoes, if you please, ma’am. Rock bottom and no haggling… It’s very hard work, you see… With full responsibility, of course. Thank you, ma’am, we’ll be there… Good-bye.”
Back in the room, I clap my hands and shout: “C’me on, Franci! Bring up the old cart.” The fellows stretch themselves; and then jolting along on the cart, they deliberate how many extra hands we should pick up at the park.
“Two will do, in the rear.”
We pass through the streets, yawning all the while. Our limbs are heavy, our waists as stiff as stone. We have to unbutton our shirts, the day is so hot. It would be pleasanter to take a nap, instead of having to work. But then, if we give four pengoes to the extra hands, we shall still have enough left to keep the six of us going for two or three days.
“Any concrete in that safe?” Old Joey turns on me suddenly. I scratch my head: “I clean forgot to ask about that.”
“If there’s concrete in it, you’ll have to take on six extras, not two. And then good-bye to our money!”
Well, we shall see. I wave my hand like they did to me before, and five blokes run up, out of breath. They are mighty anxious to get the job. Now which of them shall I take? That little stocky fellow with the big, strong hands will do. Who else? The lanky one there must be a better sort, judging from his looks – but he’s too thin for the job… Aw, let him come along.
The little stocky fellow is called Paul; he asks for a fag in advance, and instantly starts swearing and talking smut. He goes over big with everyone. But the lanky one is a silent bird, with that thin neck of his; he stares straight ahead, blinking, his hair tousled by the wind. He looks like someone riding in a car and enjoying the caress of the breeze. He’s a good sort, so why not give him a chance to make some dough? But as we get off in Trefort Street and I see him produce a pair of nickel-rimmed specs and put them on, I cannot help thinking the gang will send him packing because he looks just a bit too toffish. But without waiting to be told anything, he picks up the heavy casters, goes to the trundle and does everything without so much as a word – quite unlike the little stocky chap. I begin to be glad that I picked him.
“You fellows will stay in the rear,” says Old Joey, and he gives a rap on the metal wall of the safe. “You hear that? It’s got concrete in it… Now you, Isaac, or whatever your name is,” he goes on, turning to the greenhorns again, “you get the crowbar and don’t let the safe slide back, not even half an inch, though it breaks your back. And you, Paul, you push it on the side and keep on pushing like hell.”
The safe is mighty heavy. And the staircase is narrow, with the wrought-iron work of the handrail sticking out in places. What is more, the stairs curve sharply at each landing.
We take up our stations at the end of the rope. “Heave-ho!”
The blasted thing won’t budge. We exchange significant glances: we still are feeling pretty lazy, and our muscles are awfully stiff.
“Blast you! – Heave! Up!” It moves upwards two steps and encouraging each other with our shouts, we clutch the rope with our cramped hands and pull till our veins bulge fit to burst.
Glancing back through the blood-red haze before my eyes, I cannot see the little stocky fellow; he must be taking it easy somewhere below. The lanky one, however, his spectacles running with perspiration, his panting mouth as wide as a gate, is almost collapsing under the strain of raising the huge weight with an iron bar.
“The devil take it,” Old Joey pants and shakes his grey head, causing the sweat pouring down his face to spray in all directions like a spring shower. My shirt-tails have slipped out of my pants, and the draught from above feels cool upon my flesh. Franci, his belly protruding, sticks out his two bad upper teeth almost down to his chin, while his nostrils quiver from the exertion. Usually I can tote ten times as much, but that crazy binge last night and that hateful blonde Jane have used up my strength, and my companions are in no better shape. It seems as if only my bare bones were heaving and the muscles were hanging from them flabbily.
Luckily, we at last reach the landing on the first floor. The air resounds with our cursing and swearing. We spit and wipe our faces, red as horse-meat, on our shirt-sleeves. Szepi, well-nigh choking with a cough that never leaves him, is about to light a fag when Old Joey strikes the whole packet from his hand and sends it flying down to the ground floor. “Wait till we’re done,” he grunts. “Have you got so much wind to spare?”
Little stocky Paul is leaning against the banister and spitting across the safe at the wall, he accompanies this action with a violent curse.
Lanky keeps on wiping his glasses, holding them against the sun and breathing on them. He does not say a word till I ask him: “Some weight, eh?” Then he nods: “Sure is…”
Soon we are at it again. It is bad enough that the landing is covered with linoleum, so that our heels slither about as if we were sliding on ice. After an agonizing struggle we reach the first stair leading up to the second floor. Fifty pengoes are a mere song for a chore like this one. It would be best to take a good rest or send for more hands. One floor – that’s a child’s play; but when you tackle the second, everything seems twice as heavy. Yet it would be a shame to give up now we’ve begun the job, a team of eight men! None of us so much as opens his mouth… To be a man is to keep on pulling and heaving even if you feel you can’t any more!
I am one with my mates, heart and soul, I know that what is too heavy for me is too heavy for each of the others. So I get pretty scared at the curve in the second flight. I keep on pulling, I can hardly stop myself from yelling, my feet slip again and again on the edges of the stairs, and I am hardly able to get a foothold.
The safe refuses to budge and even slides back one stair.
“Hang on, Joey, for Christ’s sake,” I groan.
“I’m hanging on,” says he, getting more purple in the face than ever before.
Oh, those wicked females and that booze last night! Now there’s hell to pay, all right.
“Give it a pull, boys!” Franci bellows.
“Heave-ho!” thunders Szepi’s rich bass. The big hulking fellow is standing on tiptoe, as if wanting to break loose from the earth… But he sinks back, his limbs shaking, without the safe having budged half an inch. Yet here we are, rounding the semicircle of the curve with the back of the safe swinging out in mid-air, ready to tip over any instant. And even if the fellows at the back manage to jump aside, it will surely crash through the staircase as it swings back. We stand there flushed and breathing heavily. Slowly but surely the safe seems to be wrenching our waists and arms out of their sockets. The rope is already slipping a little through my hand, and the trundle is wobbling threateningly.
We look back. We can’t hold out much longer. Lanky is struggling with all his strength, gasping for breath; the iron bar is lying across his shoulder, his mouth is awry, his knees buckle under him but again he rises and heaves away.
‘What will come of this?’ I ask myself and close my eyes. “Up!” I shout. “Heave!… Up!”
Suddenly I am petrified at the sight of stocky Paul popping up from behind the safe, bending over the smooth banisters and gliding down them like a little boy.
“I’ve no mind to croak for your two pengoes,” he shouts up at us, as he disappears.
I haven’t the strength to shout after him: “You dirty skunk!”
But the fair-haired lad, completely absorbed by the struggle, continues to hold his ground. Now the safe is about to crush him together with his bar, but he draws himself up again, peering at us, goggle-eyed. “I say…” he groans huskily, “I say…”
We can’t give up, even if it kills us. I’d better shout for help. Let all the tenants turn out and turn out quick. But my cry for help is no more than a half-choked whimpering, like that of a little boy. That fellow at the back is done for! And this two-ton monster is going to crash through the staircase, and we shall come tumbling after.
At this moment, what at first seems to be a blown-up white shirt comes sailing up the stairs. The white shirt reveals the rotund outlines of a fat belly. And now, I catch sight of a pair of short legs being lifted by their puffing owner from stair to stair; and beside him the blonde mop of hair belonging to a skinny little servant-girl, carrying a shopping-bag full of vegetables. The fat bastard blinks at us, and stops dead, instead of rushing to our assistance! I yell at him as if I had paid him a hundred pengoes, “Quick, give us a hand, or it’s going to fall on you.” At this, still unruffled and with slow, deliberate movements, he peels off his lustre jacket, gives his moustache a twirl and rolls to the side of our bespectacled lad like a meatball. Now Lanky, shifting his iron bar on to the fat shoulder of the newcomer, applies his arms and body to the safe. The meatball turns red in the face and begins to pant; he too is alarmed by the swaying of the safe. Almost touching the stairs with out foreheads, we give the trundle a pull in a last, desperate effort.
With much creaking and grating it shifts at last and follows us obediently from stair to stair, as if its great weight has melted away. On reaching the second floor, we sit down on the edge of the safe, every one of us. Sweat is streaming down our cheeks and from time to time we inspect our bleeding palms. There we sit, and we would like to go on sitting there until nightfall. Meantime that silly chatterbox of a maid gives free rein to her tongue. “I dunno what you’d have done,” says she, “if Mr. Frey hadn’t lent you a hand!”
“Ahem,” says Mr. Frey, puffing and blowing, and putting on his lustre jacket, from which he produces a long cigar. “You should have brought along a few more hands.”
And off he goes proud and priggish, with the skinny little maid. I hear him speak disparagingly of us, while the girl fawningly echoes his opinions.
Now the safe rolls on through a set of luxurious rooms. We shove it along, as if in a dream, still afraid that the floor may give way under our feet any minute.
At last we get our fifty pengoes. The lady of the house tries to beat down the price.
Clutching the money in one hand, I hold the iron ring of the trundle inertly in the other: we carry it downstairs like a big beetle. Lanky has shouldered the iron rollers and carries them like a pair of rifles.
We step out into an empty street: it is lunch-time. The sun is undisputed sovereign. He is baking the houses as if intending to dine on them in the evening. At the wagon-pole, Sári welcomes us with her neighing and kicks at the air.
“Whoa!” I shout weakly. “Whoa!”
Lanky silently mounts the cart and lets his feet dangle from the side. His shoulder is marked with black-and-blue weals, imprinted by the iron bar. Sári trots along gaily. Franci almost drops the reins. He never once swishes his whip as he’s so fond of doing, but huddles up in as little space as possible, so as to prop up his tired limbs. My shirt and pants are drenched with sweat, and whole puddles seem to fill my boots. This damn cart will jolt the life out of us by the time we get to the pub.
We stop at the park. I produce a five-pengoes piece and my companions nod their assent: he has earned it. But Lanky does not stir, he just sits there with his feet dangling and his eyes closed. Looks like he has dozed off.
“Shall we take him as far as the pub?” I ask. “And besides… You see, Old Joey, he’s a decent chap, Lanky is. S’pose we feed him up a bit, and…”
But now he gives a start and, seeing the park, jumps down instantly. He looks up at us in embarrassment.
With a sudden gesture I hand him the money and hear his murmured “Thank you… Thank you.” Franci cracks his whip at Sári, and we rumble off.
And now we’re back again at the pub sitting at the green covered tables and groaning from exhaustion.
Without waiting for orders, Gus, the waiter, brings us the usual froth-glasses of ale. Old Joey orders a goulash.
“You got to get some grub,” he says bitterly, “you just got to.”
Sipping my ale, I stare drowsily into the sunlit liquid.
Little by little the heads around me sink onto the table: the boys fall asleep in broad daylight. Empty and forsaken the very beer-glasses are napping around them.
The mirror on the wall reflects the images of the dozing men; I draw myself up a little and cast a tired glance into it.
Suddenly I hear Sári whinnying in the street: someone will have to go and get water for her. I borrow a pail in the kitchen, and presently, leaning against the pole, I find myself watching her open mouth, her yellow teeth, her greedy tongue. Amazing how much she can drink.
“Hey, Gus,” I shout in through the window. “Bring me another pint.”
And together we drink, the horse and I.