I worked on a quarry for two weeks shortly after my thirty-second birthday. It both was and wasn’t as hard as that might sound.
I wasn’t quarrying as such, there was no lifting rocks or dropping rocks or putting rocks on piles. Instead, I was a traffic marshall; it was primarily my job to point and stand around.
Four days after my birthday, (not that this chronological marker really matters; it is only that each birthday serves as further proof of how far I am in time and space from what is expected of me) and two days after a successful weekend camping with an assorted bunch of friends, I caught myself on a train heading to the Peak District: to Buxton, and then on to Flash, highest village in England.
I remember sitting on that train, watching the hills appear and Manchester side-shuffle out of the frame. I remember the pit of dread, my very own stomach dungeon, coming up to meet me then, and the resultant sickly feeling brought on by fear, mixed with the intensified aloneness caused by recent company, mixed with shame.
The good thing about movement is that fear for me works like eyeballs looking out the windows of a vehicle: it locks on, loses grip, finds itself, locks on, loses grip. You can slip away. All you need is a little distraction.
I don’t remember how I got from the train station in Buxton up to the heights of Flash. I do remember someone reassuring me I would be sharing a room with the only other girl on the team, a reassurance that instead placed more anxiety in one of the few pockets where there hadn’t been any. Only one other girl. What did that mean? It only gave me a low-lying sensation of mistake.
However, I also remember feeling warm and cosy throughout my plight. Something about heading somewhere unknown with all your belongings in a bag or case, and being picked up (abdicating responsibility) and transported kindly to someplace else. I arrived probably in the car of the overweight, racist, insecure-and-angry-about-it football hooligan who drove us to work from the cottage we were staying in each morning, and took my bag to the room; and there she was, waiting, this maybe Emma, all teenage-bedroom-giddy about it. There is something so satisfying about being safely scared and needing to safely survive.
The journey into the unknown is the frightening part. The bit after the fall is okay, the looking around and finding the light within the canopy and adjusting one’s eyes. There is no choice then, only routine; a maze you have to shake your legs into. And, of course, enough emotional distance to make everything seem like a half-dreamt game.
The working days were long, twelve hours. The quarry was no longer active. It now played host to a biannual meeting of machines: an exhibition space for buyers and sellers of cranes, hoists, grabbers, excavators, dumptrucks, hydraulic pumps, cement mixers. Emma was an Events Management graduate, she was twenty-six, I think, and was technically a supervisor. Except we both arrived together, and were both told the instructions regarding what we would be doing, together, and she was supposed to be supervising me. Still, she had a map of the entire exhibition area that I didn’t, heaps of natural and immediate confidence, and likely received a symbolic amount more per hour than me.
I needed the money. I’d worked at festivals. I thought it would be a laugh, loads of people like me just doing odd-jobs for a laugh, just seeing what was out there in all these different subcultures of the world. Just meeting new people, dipping our toes in, making new friends, experiencing new walks of life, mucking in, getting on, going for beers.
It wasn’t like that at all.
After work, we’d drive home to the cottage (and I’d try not to say anything that made me feel too ridiculous). And it was beautiful. The rolling hills were beautiful, the rising mist, the falling light. The grey brown mud brick walls and the endless hemmed-in fences. Some parts of my idealisms I don’t mind at all. But it was a long two hours until it was reasonably time for bed. I’d call my then-boyfriend, limbs hooked through the lines of the fence to the drive, escape but not escape, rebellion but not rebellion, independence but not yet. His voice bridged the gap – my need to be here versus my need to leave – his reminding me I could at any point, if it all got too much, just hop on a train home made it seem not so bad. His phone call became my quarry therapy; I worked it into my routine.
My mornings consisted of standing on a dusty plateau with Emma, trying to simultaneously direct traffic and connect with her (I remember she didn’t notice we didn’t). We kept up the facade of happy campers, hopping around and smiling and waving our arms, helped along by our boredom, our backache, and an early morning wafer-thin breeze. After several hours, we’d get spoken to roughly by a couple of university boys in a position of authority and sent out separate ways.
In two long weeks, I never heard a word of thanks from those two men, not to me, not to each other, not to anyone. It’s not that they were overly rude, I just never really saw them appreciate anything. These were the real supervisors. Not the zero-hour temporary chaff the seasons blew in and threw out again. I had often had that same reaction when I temped places, people hating me just because this wasn’t my cage.
After the morning plateau, I was handed a walkie-talkie and stationed sentinel-style somewhere down in the quarry proper. The key, here, was to speak to the truckers direct, tolerantly ward off the inevitable sexist banter, and left-right-left them to their own little patch of stone. I enjoyed it; the anticipation, the questions, the reciprocal smiles. It reminded me a little bit of hitchhiking, just me alone on a stone incline, the fluctuations of the weather, the tracing-paper sun luminous behind the matte, battery-powered sky.
And Tony, let’s call him Tony, he was one of the festival organisers; tall, good posture, orange jumpsuit, his white hair lazy but slick. I looked forward to him walking by each morning on his way down to the information stall. He’d bring me coffee, ask questions, wait to hear the answers, answer mine. When not living in a quarry, he organised flower shows, classical music festivals, worked for a boating magazine. He lived a different life every few months of the year. Intensely, semi-nomadically, hierarchically. He’d build a world, watch it prosper, collect the evaluation forms, tear it down. Festivals surging and waning. The build-up, the tumult, the hustle, and then the ebb, the drain. What are you doing here? Tony asked me.
I walked up and down and across the gravel terrain, saw the tyre-track paths assert themselves over the days, watched the buildings unfold, click open, snap in place. The hours spilled out, lava crawling down a mountain face. Sometimes nothing. Sometimes only the pleasing aesthetic of dust on my boots, the weight of the walkie-talkie in my palm, the white noise at the start and end of messages not for me, then silence. A vague sense of community, of order.
It was our job to ensure the trucks didn’t get clogged up behind each other, to prevent bottlenecks and the potential skirmishes that might ensue should their drivers collide. The walkie-talkie stuttered, HGV for G9. I’m on it, I’d reply, and I’d run to the nearest corner that had full visibility, check the machines on these young roads – some reversing, accelerating, angling, unloading; some with their suction-ended cricket-legs poking out and probosces boring distractedly into the ground. Clear, I’d cry.
There were many aspects of this job that I hated: for example, being one of about ten women on site in a crowd of thousands, which in itself is not drastic, but which led to frequent remarks, unneeded sympathy, and occasional leers. For example, shooting pains up my legs and back, followed by clicks of passing authoritarian fingers if I decided that this was a good moment to sit down. For example, the feeling that we were nothing, and that we meant nothing and deserved nothing from those from the agency directly employing us. For example, the pay.
But within and aside from all that, I found my fun. I found meditation among the stone and metal structures, I considered nature. And I broke the rules: I practised tiny rebellions in honour of the child I used to be who would never have dared. I hid out in the temporary shanty stalls of my favourite truckers, drank steaming cups of coffee and chocolate biscuits as I listened to stories of toll roads and traffic jams and notorious sections of motorway. On the last day, I took a shot of whiskey from a hip flask and got a slap on the back for being so bold. I walked. As long as you kept walking, they left you alone.
On the final day, after the apocalypse, when the show was over and the leaves were falling off the stalls, I scavenged. I looked for treasure; promotional mugs, pens, key rings, caps, a golden pound. I took photographs, hunted. From out of the debris the director appeared on his little go-kart and handed me a memorabilia keyring torch with the exhibition logo down the side. It’s powerful, he said, got a good beam.
I was in that quarry because I needed to be. Normally, I worked at the university on a zero-hour contract (not the worst zero-hour contract in the world, but insecure and unreliable all the same), and over summer I usually had to wing it a little. On the train on the way there I felt like I had failed somehow, like I’d just celebrated another milestone of my continued existence and was being promptly thrust back down into the earth. I felt myself in comparison to my peers. Felt my poor choices, lack of responsibility, avoidance of what might be the real world. It was a long two weeks, but on the way back I felt like I’d just swam a channel in a storm: a nostalgic sort of relief infused with the pleasure of completion, narrowly-avoided danger, and fatigue.
I feel lucky that I was open to going there, that I didn’t think it wasn’t for me. My time in the quarry is an unrepeatable experience that I treasure and add to my catalogue of unlikely things that I have for one reason or another chosen to do.
The quarry became company for me, a familiar rock face. I knew its contours, had my favourite ridges. I took photographs of it in the early morning sun before it filled up with vendors and visitors, my clutch of lanky purple machines grazing against the grey. I watched it get used, worn out, abandoned, change shade throughout the different portions of the day.
There was rhythm in the quarry.
There was also swearing, pain, disappointment, and exploitation in the quarry. Emma, who hoped this job was a stepping stone, who hoped in the future to be the one grunting orders from out the shipping container, in the quarry to network, was probably spoken to by the two young agency overseers even less than I was. The football hooligan was called gay by one of the seventeen-year-olds in an immature and badly aimed joke, for which the aforementioned seventeen year-old nearly received a punch in the face. The ageing rocker, whose job it was to sit at the site exit and scan the registration plates of cars as they departed, and who didn’t want to change posts, preferring this task of absolute isolation and monotony to all others, spent his twelve hours a day pretending his scanning machine was a gun, pointing it at the back end of each passing car and muttering bang, laughing at his own joke every single time.
I have a couple of mugs from the quarry, a winter hat, and a cap, and of course the torch: my medals. I wear and use them proudly, with a smile. My secret brand names, from a world that isn’t mine but which I wandered in and nested for a time. I like how incongruent these objects are; I like adapting and constructing my image from the debris of my haphazard time on earth. I like that my accidental mystery bears the mark of a conveyor manufacturer. I like being in disguise. Somehow removing myself from what was difficult about the situation and allowing myself to play dress-up; remaining a child. Whenever I see heavy machinery on the city streets since that fortnight, I feel like waving to it.
I feel like we had something.
Lydia Unsworth has been published in Ambit, Pank, KillAuthor, Tears in the Fence, Banshee, The Forge, and Sentence: Journal of Prose Poetics, among others. Her debut collection of poetry, Certain Manoeuvres, is available from Knives Forks & Spoons Press. She was the winner of the 2018 Erbacce poetry prize and her second collection, Nostalgia for Bodies, is due out later this year from Erbacce Press. Based in Manchester/Amsterdam. You can find her on Twitter: @lydiowanie