Where new writing finds its voice
Short Story

Mario vs The Iron Man

Lee Tappin


The patch to the far left of Thorbury belongs to The Two-Up Scaffolding Co. It’s a hard place to earn a living. In the winters it’s an open store of orderly stacked timbers and poles on a chewed-up bog made so by the wheels of battered forklift trucks; in summer it’s a dust bowl where the scaffold boys graft shirtless or sit playing cards on beer crates with the boss away.

The whole show is run from a small windowless office in the opposite corner of Thorbury by a monsterman we call ‘The Scaffolding Guy’, or just TSG. Nobody uses his real name. Rumours float that he has form, but I couldn’t say what in. He looks like the Iron Man from the Ted Hughes book, and is never sans deerstalker with the floppy ears and pompom like a big cherry.

Each morning his boys pile the day’s steel on to the back of Two-Up’s crippled old wagon. It brightens my day to see a badly stacked load pitch itself over the side and send them all scattering like men of Pamplona with a bull on their case. The boys are unhinged: a single comic organism of aggro and wind-ups. 

TSG keeps his people straight with a brew of humour and brutal discipline. Daily he’ll wade into Jakub, the giant peaceful workhorse from Slovakia, who wears the abuse with unending patience. Jakub has hands for damage, but I’ve never once seen him lose his cool. 

Michael, the young newbie who looks like the kid from MAD magazine had his temper doused fast. ‘Cheeky little fucker nearly cost me a lot of money with that mouth of his,’ says TSG, pulling Michael from the back of the wagon one afternoon. I never got the full account, but the gist of it is that Michael lipped off the foreman on a job in Bradford, making TSG look like a bit of a cee-yoo-en-tee. To show him the way, TSG had some of the boys knot Michael’s hands and feet together and drive the forty miles back to Thorbury with him pinballing on the flatbed in the foetal position. 

TSG has a nemesis in the form of Super Mario from the HGV Training School. We call him Super Mario because of the physical resemblance – squat and round with a fat moustache. Mario is Thorbury’s resident jobsworth, a sucker for regulation and a sergeant in the TA. His partner in the firm is a tall geek who looks like Teacher from The Bash Street Kids and walks like a copper.

My first day working at McCarthy’s, Mario and TSG had an argument that saw Mario dragged through the side window of his wagon cab as part of an ongoing dispute over parking spaces. Their rivalry is classic eighties sitcom. ‘Forget it. I’ll be seeing you in court. You’re not getting away with this!’ said Mario when TSG tried to apologise later that day.

Mario’s land fits one wagon and the storage unit where he and Teacher keep their jet wash, along with its detergents and whatever else piles up in the back of those things. Because of the limited space he and Teacher have their clients park on the road outside of TSG’s office. They say it’s a thoroughfare and anybodies to use. ‘That little bastard. If he has anyone dump their shitbox outside mine again he’ll see what happens!’ says TSG after months of having to perch his 4x4 wherever it will fit. 

Many words have been swapped on this, but Mario is a little man and slave to his own passions. He cannot be seen to bend to a larger buck, so he does what his heart says he must and the parking goes on.

I am a man, no question. With a drink inside of me I can delude myself of almost anything, but TSG scares me. A pissed-off TSG scares me double. Seeing him stride like vengeance and wrath towards the place I work is not what my day was asking for.

McCarthy’s has a giant swing door for deliveries. The boss man, Big Wayne, likes to crank it level with the roof and watch us all freeze from the warmth of his office. He won’t run to the cost of heating the place but nonetheless believes it’s important to show that we’re ‘open for business’. Most hours of the day we cold boys get a limited vista of Thorbury, like looking out from the inside of television at a picture that’s stuck. 

Our view has a left, a right and a centre like the flags of France and Italy. Leftward you have Big Wayne’s office – HQ and refuge for a paid-for sex fetishist and prick in general. The Two-Up Scaffolding Co’s patch sits on the land behind him, sticking out a little into the road towards the middle, which is how come we can see so much of what goes on there. Right-ways is McCarthy’s big paint shed, made of corrugated iron like an old blitz shelter and stained red from years of exposure to the primer that we gloop over everything we produce. Mario’s land is visible at the far perimeter in the centre of our flag.

‘Where’s the keys for your forklift?’ says TSG through powerful breaths. ‘Mine’s fucked again. Are the extensions on?’ We use extensions for abnormal loads. They slide over the regular forks, giving another yard’s reach. Really they should be secured with steel pins but ours have been lost a while now. ‘Keys are in,’ I say like take it, take it!, and he John Waynes into the driving seat, gunning across the yard, hammering the tarmac and threatening to throw an extension, till he’s gone behind the paint shed.

Repetitive work does funny things to the mind. I specialise in repetition because four days out of five I stand at the drill press pumping the handle like a stinking one-arm bandit that never pays out. There have been moments when I thought myself mad. I sing old Sam Cooke tunes or hold meaningless conversations with nobody, till I break out in laughter and people ask, ‘What’s up with you?’ or tell me deadpan, ‘You’re fucking losin’ it man’. So when I hear ‘JEE-ZUZZ’ and ‘FUCKMEE’ and ‘hahahahahas’ and raise my head to see a silver family hatchback floating fifteen feet in the air from behind the paint shed, I’m truly not all that moved. How surprised should I be? This is a place of such things. A moment later TSG appears, piloting our desperately overburdened forklift truck, which he drives without caution. His lower jaw juts two inches from the rest of his face as the forks list wildly on the bad road surface, threatening to throw their cargo at any point.

Mario has broken the parking rule one too many times. TSG wants satisfaction and gets it punching straight into the belly of the HGV School’s reputation.* Right now Mario will be in the full throws of a ‘Mirror, signal… third, THIRD!’-style diatribe against an innocent learner, and has no idea what awaits him back at Thorbury.

We all know that Mario, Teacher, and Student will be on the road for a few hours yet. This allows time for the scandal to ferment. A steady flow of tourists emerge from the offices on Thorbury, camera phones in hand, like a league of amateur journos, to point and angle up the best shot for the kids at home. The atmosphere is charged, the way it used to feel when there was a big fight on at school, that buzz before the bell. Everybody is making more noise than usual, and there’s a lot of horseplay going on in the scaffolder’s yard. Even Big Wayne is laughing. 

Mario’s HGV is pristine white with the company name and number written down the side in bold print. It has never seen commercial use, so it always shines like new. He and Teacher like to sud it up and soak it down at the front of our paint shed, usually when I am inside working.

‘You’re supposed to do that in a properly ventilated area with the correct extraction,’ he once said to me in reference to our primitive ‘door ajar’ approach. On windy days the airborne particles turn everything in range into a Jackson Pollock, including Mario’s cab. ‘You’re telling the wrong guy,’ I said with the tone of a man who doesn’t get paid enough to care.

I am in the paint shed when I hear the familiar hiss of wagon pneumatics pulling up outside. Removing the respirator from my face I push at the rusty door with my index finger, shielding my squinting eyes from the Yorkshire sun with a flattened palm pressed sideways against my forehead. It takes a second to adjust to the brightness.

In my late teens I had a friend who kept piranhas in his living room and fed them live goldfish. One night, after a heavy drinking session, I bullied him into tossing one to its death for my own sick amusement. The wretched thing flashed for shelter within the castle ornament on the bottom of the tank. It knew what was coming and, looking out from the portcullis, wore an expression of pure fear. 

I don’t know if perhaps it was some brand of memory failure induced by the trauma that made the little fish break for cover, but either way, I witnessed first hand the spite of nature, as one of the piranhas tore through its mid-section leaving nothing but a delicate fan of tail and a dismembered head weaving their way to the bottom of the tank. The fish’s expression had changed from fear to absolute disbelief.

When my vision clears it is this exact same cast I see on the faces of the three HGV men in the wagon as it drifts to a stop. Their mouths and eyes are gaping, like the finger holes in a bowling ball. They exit the wagon. They stand. They shift positions. They are not laughing. Then Mario begins to wail his apologies to Student and Teacher mills over to where we are pretending to work. We’re first choice on Thorbury in a situation like this. 

‘Can you lift it down for us?’ he asks, not smiling. Everybody refuses, pointing him my way. ‘Nofuckingchance. I’m illegal as it is mate, what if I drop it? Not happening.’ I feel bad. I’d like to help the man but what can I do? Although I am pretty skilled as a driver, I do not hold a valid licence and could serve time for fuck-ups on this level; I’d be totally liable. ‘The keys’re still in if you wanna have a go?’ I offer, and he sighs. ‘The man’s a lunatic; he’s got a campaign against us. We know he’s trying to force us off Thorbury, but we’re not going anywhere. The lad who owns that car’s a big fella.’ This is unwanted news.

As Teacher pulls away TSG drops by via the back door. ‘What’s been said?’ His breathing is clipped. ‘Wants to know who’s done it. Reckons the student’s a big lad, and he’s not happy,’ I say, sort of semi-clammed-up. ‘Nothin’ todoowimme. Didn’t see a thing,’ he says, like I’m an accuser. Then he bounds away with his silly deerstalker ears flapping at his jowls like a giddy spaniel. Teacher is taking a long time lifting down the car.

Things are heating up outside. The scaffolding boys have numbers on their side, but they’re losing nerve. You can see it in the way they distance themselves from the action, keeping busy on nothing jobs. Three of them pull away in the wagon, a trio of laughing deserters. The comedy has turned sour and nobody wants claim of it. 

Playing dumb is all there is, and somehow, this is how it is settled. With nobody talking what can the guy do? No bones get broken, and nobody’s nose gets bust. Teacher pulls the car down, and Student probably makes a mental note to park elsewhere tomorrow. And that’s it. The drama fades like a pissed-on Catherine wheel with nothing to say it happened save for the bellyache of ill-feeling and maybe a kinked exhaust pipe.

I’ve heard that in the wild most animals will shy away from confrontation to save themselves from a serious injury. We have a similar deal, a kind of natural selection where it’s best to be at peace with your place because things will get unpleasant, nasty even. Not everybody has the equipment to deal with it and those people need to find a new job. Some would call it bullying, though this is rarely the intention. We are working men, and these are the things that keep us sane.


* If you have ever wasted a moment of your life worrying about strength of your portable storage unit, I say don’t. They are strong. I know this because I am looking at one as it supports the full weight of the family hatchback, which has been placed upon its roof.