We are foraging tiles from a roof in Currie – a Gumtree find, for them free removal, for us free materials. Two thousand five hundred concrete tiles, upwards of 6 tonnes in total. It is a lot of weight for an unstable roof to bear, and quite a mission to remove the tiles safely. Mum assesses health and safety while A constructs a vast slide of sterling boards and long planks. We have spent hours denailing the planks, measured the width of the sterling board and held it in place for the circular saw – pointing its way along the pencilled line with a laser. We rig up a system to hoist the top of the slide with pulleys, aiming for a 45% angle from the ground up to the building’s north-facing wall. The wind blows in gusts, flicking dust into our faces.
I pull my side of the pulley, using my body as a counterweight or a pendulum. A cautions me ‘steady’ but the contraption is too heavy. I dangle, hoist myself, pull down. The slide bucks and rises another layer, catching on the scaffold. Mum pulls it back – a foot, another few inches – A and I pull and it rises. I hold it in place on my side, Mum holds the other side in place while A climbs the scaffold, lifts the end of the slide and hooks it into place.
It has been an endeavour. But the winds are too high to leave it there, Mum and I maintain – we have tested the theory and it works. We can set it up again when we have a team. We take the slide back down.
On Friday, I return with A to rig up a web of ropes across the roof, which has no ridge piece and no structural integrity. It is hard to imagine that it is safer to place faith in these narrow cords than in this solid-looking construction. Yet on the other side of the roof is a hole where some tiles have fallen through – slim beams and tattered roofing felt are left exposed. The scaffolding has metal eyes screwed into the brick, which we use as fixtures for the ropes. I seem an improbable candidate to be throwing ropes, rigging pulleys, hoisting trolleys and sheets of sterling board for the roof part of the mission.
At the weekend, the family gather for a tile-removal reunion – from the Lake District, Glasgow, Kirkconnel. It strikes me that a surprising number of my family have their own hard hats and safety boots.
Away from Friday til Monday, I miss this part of the task – my return, after my driving lesson Monday afternoon, sees the roof almost bare, fringed with four layers of tiles that come down to the wall head. It has been a massive undertaking, and I feel some relief that I wasn’t there – not because of the work, but because I shudder at the thought of my family members cavalierly suspended, secured only by ropes, above the gulf. The building is vulnerable now, its fragile vertebrae and torn skin exposed. I guide the trailer back to where tiles are stacked neatly in orderly piles forty-high. It all looks very efficient.
I change from jeans and boots into work trousers and steel toe caps, fasten an orange hard hat and pull a garish yellow high-vis jacket over my plaid fleece. I am bulky, and grubby, and inelegant. The site owners’ long-haired cat flows down the steps, approaches me daintily as I reach out a hand, then walks deliberately past. I’m more of a dog person anyway.
With A, I load 400 tiles securely onto the 16 foot flat bed trailer, trying hard to bend with my knees and not my back. I imagine I resemble nothing so much as a high-vis frog to the boys armed with water pistols who are forbidden the scaffolding playground.
The tiles form a lattice, overlapping, then planks are put around the sides. Straps zig zag across the top, holding the tiles steady – fastened with ratchets or knotted with round turn and two half hitches (Mum tells me when I ask). This task complete, some hours later, we must just secure tiles askew on the scaffolding.
I bash my head with some force when scaling the ladder – my hard hat has limited my peripheral vision. I stifle a yelp and climb on with more caution. On the top platform, I steady leaning stacks of tiles on the scaffolding, scrape off the clinging moss and pluck nails from their corners. The tiles are destined for the roof of the old coach house in the back garden. I hope, but am not convinced, that putting them on will be easier than their removal has been. Wrestling a particularly stubborn nail from the corner of a tile, I add it to the nail bucket, where it plinks.
Driving home the CD skips – Dreamboats and Petticoats, catchy tunes and dubious gender politics. I see what might be a stoat running along the top of a fieldside wall and catch a glimpse of a barn owl. I yawn. Only 1400 tiles to go.