One of his jobs is making coffee in the mornings. Sometimes, if no one is looking, he puts his two hands into the pot on the gas stove, letting the warmth seep into his fingers. It doesn’t matter, he figures, since the water will boil anyway. The coffee is black tar, more drug than drink. Everyone keeps their own cup.
Hot showers are what he misses most of all. Regular access to warm water. They have been on the road almost four weeks, and have covered two-thirds of the small intercity highway. They work from sun-light to sunset, not a particularly daunting task during these winter months.
The team is taking down aluminium lampposts and steel crash barriers from the sides of disused carriageways. “Lampposting” is the nickname given to this line of work. The salvage, once transported back to the city, is a clean and cheap source of metal that can be melted down and reused for almost anything. The work can keep you away from home for months at a time, but the money is decent and, more importantly, reliable whenever you make it back to head-office.
Barnaby’s job is uncoupling the posts from the ground and managing their disconnection. Sometimes this is as easy as loosening bolts with his four-foot wrench, but just as often time has sealed them up and he has to use an angle-grinder. The work is slow and they cover maybe half a mile on good days.
For this job they are depositing the lampposts and crash barriers every few hundred yards for collection by a later transport crew. In the past Barnaby has worked many smaller freelance arrangements where bringing in the goods was part of the bargain. This was slow going. He’s worked with stinking old diesel tractors, retro-fitted biofuel pickups. Even horses. Life is easier since the industry coalesced into a couple of big operations.
They pile the salvage as high as they can without cranes. Invariably the stacked posts remind Barnaby of logs in the forest near his home town. Stripped of branches and left for collection. The similarities in form and purpose makes him smile. He wonders if anyone is logging again, now that the forests have made such a comeback.
When it gets too dark to work anymore they walk back to camp, or walk forward to make a new one if the time has come. They have one truck that will hold their tools or their backpacks, but not both at the same time. The camp is comfortable — Barnaby often thinks their tents are the only modern feature of the whole setup.
If there are woods nearby someone will light a fire and they sit around and eat off metal plates and drink from tin cups. Older men talk about the road and the trips they once took along it: where they were going, who they were visiting. What kinds of cars they owned. For one guy this route was actually his daily commute; he burned hundreds of litres of petrol a month travelling thirty miles to and from work every day. Everyone grins as he describes it. Tales from the past always seem slightly absurd, even when you know for a fact that they really happened.