Poison in a round tin

In 1963, I’d begun my plumbing apprenticeship and was working on a building site at Waltham Cross. My boss, Tony, told me that I was going to join the six rainwater stacks into the earthenware drains using a product called PC4.  Having never done this sort of task before, he picked up the nine inch tin, and told me to fetch a pail of water. The product tin was a white rope coiled in its holder.

“Go and find parts of old cement bags.”

On returning he ripped the bag paper into strips and put them in the water.  Soaking wet he then pulled them out and began filling the gap between the pipe and the spigot of the drain. Once he was satisfied, he pulled a length of the rope from the tin, immersing it in the water as well. After spiralling two or three on top of the wet paper, he explained:

“This product is called PC4. it’s made of rope impregnated with cement and asbestos. The joint is fully smoothed over the surface of the joint with your hand or a trowel.” He made the work look extremely easy and walked away, leaving a perfectly formed joint. “Oh, by the way, when pulling the product from the tin try not to breath any of the dust in before you put it in the water, the asbestos particles aren’t good for you”.

Eleven years later, “The Health and Safety at Work Act “ came into force. In the news at the time, it transpired that thousands of workers in the asbestos factories in Africa, where it was produced, had dreadful debilitating lung problems. Like many in the building industry, at the time, I thought it was just another fear put out by the H&S inspectors, to justify their interference. These were the old practices, which we defended.

Thirty years later, in 1993, my life obviously had moved on. Now I was a family man living in Harold Hill. It usually popped into the Bow and Arrow pub in Straight Road after I’d driven from Hackney. There I made some really good friends. Gary and Len, had worked as “Laggers” for at least twenty years and they were both built like weight lifters and were  natural comedians. There were evenings when I was reduced to tears of laughter. They told anecdotes  recalling experiences and people they’d come across. Two lovely men who anyone would  be comfortable in their company.

It was a shock, when yet another twelve years later, I was travelling to London on the tube, when an oldish guy said, “Hello Mick”. We shook hands, and all the time I was trying to place this skinny dishevelled, bearded man who obviously knew me.

“Hi I replied, long time no see”.

After an embarrassing stilted conversation, the man said, “You don’t remember me do you”? I had to confess, that I couldn’t place him. Then he said “I’m Garry from the Bow and Arrows”

In the conversation that followed, I learned that our other old friend , Len had died eighteen months previously, from asbestosis. Gary, was travelling to London’s Whitechapel hospital  for yet another period of intensive therapy, to treat the same disease. “I’m going to die myself soon,” he said. There wasn’t much I could say in reply.

Lately, I’ve noticed I have developed a cough, which doesn’t feel right. I daren’t go to the Doctor in case, I’m told the word “asbestosis”.

It might be just a ticklish cough though!


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