It was a Saturday night in the First In Last Out, an Old Town pub in Hastings, UK when I got talking to a brickie called Neil. He had spent the day working at one of those big houses which are dotted around the Sussex countryside, not a country estate he said, but 14 bedrooms, that sort of thing. “It’s more of a favour for the owner than anything else, just on the weekends,” Neil said.
“She asked me if I’d be coming tomorrow and I said it depends. “If I get too drunk tonight I won’t be coming, but if I don’t get drunk enough I won’t be coming either, because I’ll want to get the rest of the session in tomorrow.
“So she was looking at me thinking, ‘so he won’t come if he’s drunk but he won’t come if he’s sober either’.
“But that’s all right,” Neil said.
“It’s a favour after all, and Saturday night’s my own.”
Neil was no ordinary brickie, having particular skills in restoration work which had taken him to Potsdam for nine months to rebuild an ancient wall there.
“They’d been trying to get it done for a while before I turned up,” Neil said.
“They kept rebuilding it and pulling it down again if it looked too neat.
“So I got this curved bit of it done for them, which was the most difficult part of the job, and then I sat around while they argued about what to do next.
“You see, they had two photos, one of the original wall and another after it was rebuilt the first time. They couldn’t decide which version they wanted me to reproduce.
“I got bored with it in the end and came home, leaving the last straight bit – around 40 yards, still to be done.”
Neil said they kept asking him to go back but he didn’t want to.
He also saw nothing of Potsdam.
“You know I was living just down the road from that golden palace – like having Buckingham Palace at the end of the street but I never took a walk to see it.”
He saw where they built the zeppelins though.
“Yeah, I was drinking in a bar called the Zeppelin and I asked why it was called that.
“So the landlord took me through this door at the back and there we were in this bloody great hangar.
“I said, is this where they built that one that went…”
Neil’s hand made a curving downward motion.
“Yes,” the landlord said. “That one, and many others.”
“Oh right,” said Neil. “Can we go back for my beer now?”
Standing in a pub in the southeast corner of England, we both knew the significance of those many other zeppelins.
Another round was in order and in the FILO that meant Crofters, a pint for him and a half for me, of the finest bitter on the South Coast, brewed right there on the premises.
If pressed, landlord Mike Bigg would tell you how much of his sweat infused the latest barrel, metaphorically we presumed.
While we were left to guess the sweat content, there was no mistaking the love that went into Mike’s beers. I can see him now, behind his bar, holding a glass of Crofters to the light and calling on the assembly to admire its clarity.
Our glasses refreshed, I asked Neil what else he was doing these days.
“Right now I’m rebuilding some old chimneys in Robertsbridge but the trick is not to do too good a job, so they still blend in,” he said.
“They’re big chimneys and I have to take them down, leaving the base, and repoint that so it’s solid. Then I rebuild the chimney on top of it.
“But you know, I still use a square trowel like they do over in Germany.
“It took me ages to get used to it, but once I did I wouldn’t go back to those pointy ones we use here.”
Neil said he took two trowels over to Potsdam but one broke and he lost the other, and so was forced to make the switch.
“And I tell you what, it was really weird at first but when you’re up high doing a chimney and someone has to pass you up a bucket of plaster…
“Well, with a British trowel you have to wipe it round the bucket but you can’t get it off the bottom, so you have to whack it on a board and all of that, but you can’t use all the plaster.
“With these foreign square ones, you can get it all out of the bucket, which makes a big difference when you’re up high like that.”
Neil took a slurp of his beer and his eye twinkled – the eye of a man who sees further than most.
“I tell you what, when you’re up there you see the place like no-one has since those houses were built,” he said.
“Only the men who were up there putting the roof on got to see it before me – and maybe other blokes like me fixing things, but it’s a hell of a sight.
“You can see for miles all around. There’s nothing like it.”
He smiled to himself for a moment, his mind’s eye seeing what I never would, before returning to my side at the bar to call for another pint for him and a half for me.
It was a Saturday night after all and Sunday morning was still some hours away.