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SocietyJanuary 2, 2020

An honest living

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Summer reissue: A column this year pondered why anyone would work in fencing, but it applies to much of manual labour. With her husband’s permission, Emily Writes shares his story of what an honest living really is.

First published on 1 February 2019

“Fencing sounds like a great way to make an honest living, but you don’t have to be a physio to take one look at it and think ‘back-breaking’.”

– Jackson Thomas: ‘Why you couldn’t pay me enough to plant trees or build fences’

I don’t know when my husband’s body started to break down. It has been happening for so long, I don’t know if there’s ever a point we could pinpoint and say “there!”. If we could, would it make a difference? Would it have changed anything at all?

My husband can add, multiply, divide any number in his head in seconds. He could have been an accountant. He is the most generous and caring person I’ve ever met. He could have been a paediatrician. He is smart and a really fast learner, calm and reasoned. He could have been a lawyer.

But really, could he?

He left school at an age where I was still making friendship bracelets, still had posters on my wall of TV shows and actors I loved from TV Hits magazine. He left school to work full-time when my friends and I were just starting our first babysitting gigs.

As a young man, instead of reading To Kill A Mockingbird or learning physics, he was mowing your lawn. He was clearing your backyard. He was climbing the trees you wanted cut down for your better view, hanging from the limbs and hoping his wits, and what he’d learned on the job, were enough.

One day the chainsaw he was using kicked back, almost killing him.

I first saw him through a bus window. He looked like he was in his 20s but he was still a teenager. He was lugging a huge bag of grass, almost bigger than he was. He carried the bag easily despite its immense weight. I’d think about that a lot later when he would scoop me up, surprise me with a passionate kiss.

Even at 18 and 19, some days I would see him wince as he pulled his heavy boots off, taking his protective coverings and shaking the grass onto the tiled concrete of our first rental.

“I don’t see the benefits of a hard days work on a decent wicket (hourly rate) at the end of a week, but rather I think of my deteriorating knees and inevitably sunburnt neck at the end of a year.”

Some days it was so hot I’d sit in my office and need two fans on me. He would come home and his neck would burn until midnight when it would finally settle. It sometimes seemed as if there was no amount of sunscreen possible. His uniform offered little protection.

But he might own his own business one day. If he just kept working more, and more, and more. If he’d just put up with it all, keep going…

“I enjoy being able to choose when I get my exercise in, be it hitting the gym or beach on the weekends – bugger having it part of my 9-to-5pm.”

We moved for work. But it fell through. Found fruit picking available and were grateful. He picked up other work too, wherever he could. I’d work nights in a winery having my ass grabbed by the men who would hire my husband to chop their wood for $10 an hour. Sometimes they had pools, home gyms, lifestyle blocks.

My husband would pick fruit; his hands became calloused. He was 22. I would hold him and try to massage his aching shoulders.

“Starting out on $18 and getting up to $35 sounds like a decent deal for a gig where you don’t need a special qualification.”

A car accident didn’t help. He was a passenger, his hips shattered. ACC covered him, but he had to return to work because you can’t be out of work for long if you want to stay in work. There’s always someone younger. He was 24. He worked and then used crutches in the evening. He mowed your lawns, cleared your yard, chopped your trees for $13 an hour. This was a big increase to the $10 we had been living on. Sometimes people would pay us $15 and we were thrilled.

He negotiated two weeks off well in advance to be with his first baby when he was born but his boss called a few days later and said you need to come in. Or else…

When we were due to have our second baby his manager stopped returning his calls despite owing him thousands of dollars. It took weeks with a brand new baby to get the money back. This was a job with no leave – if you’re sick, too bad. Holiday? What’s that? When we were told “You know that’s illegal right?” we laughed. Yeah, welcome to being a labourer.

“We come from a generation who see more than a competitive hourly wage.”

He tried to get out of the work, find something new. But do you give up your dream of one day being your own boss to work at a petrol station? He was 27.

Some days he couldn’t get up. Some days he would lay flat on the floor and his eyes would water and his face would flush and I’d just want to pick him up the way he held me for so many years.

With a baby in hospital he’d take anything he could get for some flexibility to be there for his boy after surgery. He chopped wood for hours and hours and then thanked those who paid him for giving him time with his family.

“The thought of being a physical wreck at the ripe age of 40 for the sake of a few thousand dollars isn’t enough to get us in our cars at the crack of dawn and out to White Fencing.”

He’s 34 now. And some days his pain is only at a two. Some days he can easily pick up his little boys. If he went back into manual work again he would end up in a wheelchair. He’s on a strict health plan that includes diet and exercise designed to try to simply maintain where he is. He won’t get better. There is no cure for this.

He plants hundreds of small containers of beans, tomato, strawberries for the school fair. He makes swan plants for our children and their friends. He sleeps on the floor and during the night I hear him moan in pain. He stepped awkwardly once and broke his toe. His pain is always there, it’s just about how bad it is. Some days getting down onto the floor to play trains with his children is impossible.

“Work smart, not hard.”

He can tell you the name of any plant in English, Latin, and often te reo Māori. He knows what will grow in wind, rain, direct sunlight. He knows where to cut a branch to safely fell a tree. He knows every disease and its spread that can infect a leaf or bark or grass. He knows everything there is to know about soil. He can make his own fertiliser. His knowledge of horticulture is astounding.

Can make anything grow.

He’s the smartest person I know.

Be glad it’s not your broken bones.

Keep going!