Once upon a time in Scotland, there were three men who built high-tension fences, the kind that keep animals in and humans outor maybe the other way around. Magnus Mills gives us a wiry novel of tensile strength that proves him a writer of ferocious talent. Eerie, resonant, spare yet rich in tones both hilarious and ominousas if a work by Irvine Welsh, or perhaps Macbeth, had been adapted by the Coen brothershis story has a finale so ingenious, insidious, and satisfying, it remains locked in the mind long after the last wire has been strung into place.
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'I'm putting you in charge of Tam and Richie,' said Donald. 'They can't go to England on their own.'
'No, I suppose not.'
'We'd never know what they were getting up to.'
'So you can take over as foreman from today.'
He allowed me a few moments to absorb the news, then asked, 'Are you finding it hot in here?'
'Just a little, yes,' I replied.
'You should have said.' Donald rose from behind his desk and moved to the skirting board, where a radiator pipe emerged. He turned a stop-tap several times, clockwise, before settling again in his chair.
'These things can be controlled,' he remarked. 'Now, are there any questions?'
He sat back and waited. I knew the sort of questions Donald expected me to ask, but I couldn't think of any. Not with him examining me from behind his desk the way he did. At the moment only one obvious question came to mind.
'There's no one else available. You're the last one.'
Donald's gaze remained fixed on me.
'You don't seem very excited about all this,' he said.
'No, no,' I replied. 'Really, I am.'
'Doesn't sound like it. After all, it's not often we appoint a new foreman.'
'No, I know,' I said. 'I just wondered...have you told them?'
'Robert has told them.'
'Can't you tell them?'
'Robert is quite capable of telling them.' He reached for his typewriter and slid it across the desk towards him. I watched as he placed a sheet of paper in the roller and began tapping the keys. After a while he looked up and saw that I was still standing there.
'Wouldn't it be better coming from you?' I asked.
'Itwould give me some authority.'
'Haven't you any authority of your own?'
'Well, then.' Donald continued looking at me for a long while. 'It's only for a few weeks,' he said. 'Then you can come back.'
He began attending to his typewriter again, so I went out. Donald's mind was obviously made up, therefore further discussion was pointless. Closing the door behind me I paused briefly and listened. Inside the office an unsteady tapping had started up. The decision was probably being committed to paper at this very moment, so that was that. It would have been better if Donald had told them himself, but I really wasn't bothered either way. There was no big deal about the new arrangement. No particular cause for concern. After all, there were only two of them. Should be a piece of cake. True, they had their own way of doing certain things, but that was fair enough. Only to be expected considering how long they'd been together. We'd just have to get used to each other, that's all. I decided to go and see them straight away.
Their pick-up truck was parked at the other side of the yard. They'd been sitting in the cab earlier when I went past on my way to Donald's office. Now, however, there was no sign of them. I walked over and glanced at the jumble of tools and equipment lying in the back of the vehicle. Everything looked as though it had been thrown in there in a great hurry. Clearly it would ali need sorting out before we could do anything, so I got in the truck and reversed round to the store room. Then I sat and waited for them to appear. Looking around the inside of the cab I noticed the words 'Tam' and 'Rich' scratched on the dashboard. A plastic lunch box and a bottle of Irn-Bru lay on the shelf.
So where were they? They seemed to have disappeared without trace. From what I'd heard this was the sort of thing they did all the time. They'd just go off somewhere for no apparent reason. And when they came back they wouldn't have an excuse or anything. That's what I'd heard anyway.
Eventually I got fed up with waiting and went round to the timber yard. They were nowhere to be seen, so I then conducted a search of all the store rooms and outhouses. Nothing.
Finally, when I couldn't think of anywhere else to look, I went back to where I'd started and found them sitting in the truck eating sandwiches. They sat side by side in the double passenger seat, watching me as I approached. I knew Richie by sight. He was the one by the window. Therefore the other one must be Tam.
I spoke through the opening. 'Alright?'
'Alright,' said Richie.
'Just got back?'
'Looks like we'll need a bit of a sort out,' I said, indicating the gear in the back of the truck. 'But finish your sandwiches first.'
I walked round and got in the cab at the driver's side. Tam looked at me for a moment as I slammed the door shut, but remained silent. I could now see that Richie was providing the sandwiches from the plastic lunch box, perched on his lap. He swigged the Irn-Bru and handed it to Tam.
'Don't leave any floaters in it,' he said.
Tam drank, lowered the bottle, and examined the contents.
Then he turned to me. 'Like some?'
'Oh. Thanks.' I took the bottle and drank the warm dregs in the bottom. 'Thanks,' I repeated, handing it back.
'That's OK.' Tam passed the empty bottle back to Richie, who screwed the top back on before throwing it out of the window.
And so we sat there in silence. Richie on one side, Tam in the middle and me behind the steering wheel. All staring through the windscreen. It was a bleak sort of day, with occasional gusts of wind gently rocking the vehicle from side to side.
There was a movement in the distance and Robert came into sight. We watched as he opened a gate to let Ralph through. He appeared to be about to set off on one of his long walks. Whether or not he noticed us sitting there in the truck, watching him, was hard to tell. If he did, he didn't show it. He merely closed the gate behind him and ambled away over the fields.
'Look at Robert,' said Richie. That was all he said, but I could tell by the stifled silence which followed the remark that Tam and Richie were obviously sharing some private joke made at Robert's expense. I didn't join in.
After a short interval I said, 'Did Robert come and speak to you?'
'Just now,' replied Richie.
'Oh. Right. Is that OK with you then?'
'Have to be, won't it?'
'Suppose so,' I said.
Tam glanced at me briefly, but didn't seem to have anything to say on the subject. Instead he turned to Richie. 'Got a fag, Rich?'
Richie reached to a lump I'd noticed in his shirt pocket and took out a cigarette pack. Then he squirmed sideways and fished a lighter from his jeans. He handed Tam a cigarette, gave him a light, lit his own, and we sat there in silence for another few minutes while they smoked, and desultory flecks of rain landed on the cab roof.
'Right,' I said when they'd finished. 'We'd better have a go at sorting out all the gear.' We got out and stood looking into the back of the truck. The collection of tools lay in a shallow pool of rainwater, some of them bent, most of them showing the first signs of rust. This was supposed to be a set of professional fence building equipment, but actually looked like a hoard of junk. There were hole-digging implements, wire-tightening gear, a rusty steel spike (blunt), a selection of chisels and a chain winch. All in various states of disrepair. Also several coils of wire. The only item that appeared to be in reasonable condition was a large post-hammer with a cast iron head, lying slightly to one side.
'Here's Donald,' murmured Tam, and they both immediately began sorting through the pile. Donald had emerged from his office and was advancing across the yard in our direction. His sudden appearance had a marked effect on Tam and Richie, whose faces showed that they were concentrating hard on their work. Tam leaned over the side of the truck and pulled out the post-hammer.
'Glad to see it's still in one piece,' said Donald as he joined us. He took the hammer from Tam and stood it, head downwards, on the concrete. Richie, meanwhile, had lifted one of the coils of wire onto his shoulder and was about to take it into the store room.
'You seem to be in a great hurry all of a sudden,' said Donald.
This caused Richie to hesitate awkwardly in mid-step with the coil balanced on his shoulder. He half-turned and looked at Tam. Donald was now peering into the back of the truck.
'You people really should take more care of your equipment,' he said.
After a dutiful pause Richie made another move towards the store room but was again brought to a halt by Donald.
'Leave that for now. I've just had a serious phone call. You'd better come into the office.' Without further comment he turned and walked off towards the open door. We all glanced at each other, saying nothing, and filed after him.
On entering the office I saw that Donald had placed two hard chairs side by side facing his desk. I'd seen these hard chairs before. They were slightly less than full adult size, made from wood, and spent most of the time stacked one on top of the other in the comer beside the filing cabinet. That was where they'd been earlier when I was talking to Donald. I'd hardly noticed them really. They just looked as though they were intended to remain there indefinitely. It never occurred to me that these two hard chairs were kept for a particular purpose. They had been positioned squarely and symmetrically in front of the desk, and Tam and Richie did not have to be told where to sit.
I went and stood by the small recessed window, half-leaning against the radiator, which I noticed had been turned up full again. There was one other change. Donald had removed the light-shade from the ceiling and replaced the usual hundred-watt bulb with a more powerful one. This bathed every corner of the office in sharp light.
Slowly and deliberately he settled in his chair and sat for a few moments regarding Tam and Richie across the desk.
'Mr McCrindle's fence has gone slack,' he announced at last.
Copyright © 1998 by Magnus Mills
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Building high-tensile fences should be a boring repetitive routine job. Dig some holes, place some posts, string some wire. Repeat until the beasts are restrained behind their new wire homes. This slightly inept crew somehow manages to create a body count with their laid-back, carefree attitude fence building. That's not the payoff with reading this book though. That would be the sparse, lazy, meandering dialogue where little is spoken but much is said. I found myself wondering if [[Elmore Leonard]] might have a son that emigrated to the UK to pursue his writing craft. I wouldn't read this expecting fireworks but with the attitude of slowly drifting down a calm stream with the occasional hidden underwater object to render a jolt or two in the otherwise profanely serene waters.
What a bizarre little story. Definitely the first time I've read a comic novel about laborers putting up fencing in a near Kafkaesque situation where severe deeds matter little and minor events have seemingly cataclysmic ramifications. Lots of "What...?!" moments and a few laughs - the result of the joiner's work (eh?!) and Tam's tattoo spring to mind - and the end result is an odd little story with much information about high-tensile wire and some insights into menial labor, which is hardly menial, and its effect on the minds of some very special people.
An odd black comedy about an Englishman who is newly appointed as foreman over two Scottish fence builders. The foreman¿s odd boss and the tension with the two Scotchmen form the central themes of this tale, sometimes macabre, sometimes humorous. The writing can be quite droll, and the somewhat surreal story makes for pretty good entertainment.