Silk Stockings On A Ladder
by Yvonne Sinclair
After giving up dancing many years ago, I had to earn a living and being than only slightly built and wanting to get away from the very feminine image I had, I started my life of manly pursuits to become as macho as I could. I found work on a building site with the only ladder of promotion being from pick and shovel to the glorious trade of hod carrier. Not very kind to the nails, picking up flettons or sandface bricks all day, but in time one gets used to it, and it's one of the few jobs where you are your own governor with regard to the fact that you have so much to load out either on the foundations or on the scaffold. Some like carrying the muck for the brickies, but me; twelve bricks in a hod were enough and shifting between 3,000 and 5,000 a day kept you pretty busy. This, I add, for the princely sum of two shillings and ninepence (14p) an hour.
I have started on a site at 8 o'clock and heard that they were paying 2/10d up the road and slung the job in at 9.30, picked up the money due and started at 10.00 on another site. In those days we really counted the pennies!
Well, to get on with the story. Wet weather was the curse of the site and quite often on some jobs you got half a day's pay at half the rate just to retain you. Others, no wet time at all, and if it seemed that rain was in for the day, then you were sent home and "'ard luck, mate". Some sites had a gang hut, stinking of sour milk, sweaty socks, damp clothing, cement, cats' pee, and a fug of smoke that if you took a deep breath, you never needed to light up your roll-up of best pirate shag.
In those days, chippies were the top men. One of the few tradesmen you knew that were the backbone of the site. They understood the feet and inches, so they, with the other craftsmen, with a score of young boy apprentices, were the elite.
Brickies too were tradesmen, but they had the common workforce of builders labourers at their beck and call, so their status was not as high, so, like it or not, they sat at the same benches as the labourers; the great divide was only overcome by one simple game with 52 cards: Brag or Pontoon, the working man's stock market of chancing your arm. The betting brigade with their papers would spend the morning break searching through the maze of form figures to invest the day's gamble of sixpence (2'/p) each way bets with wonderful names like "Round Robins", "Union Jack", "Yankees", which were surefire ways that won your money back - or didn't. Mostly, you lost.
Rain then brought the 'Hut' a damp fug of mankind together for longer than the usual ten minutes. You even learnt that 'Arold or 'Arry knew a man that 'ad one that fell orf the back of a lorry, or 'is mate 'ad one for sale; 'is old lady was up the duff, and that Shirley 'is oldest daughter was seeing this geezer that was a bit of a villain, must be, 'cos 'e 'ad a motor and took 'er to Southend.
The tea boy, who was usually around eighty and retired, received no wages, but ran the but like Joe Lyons, with his galvanized pail that was cleaned only on the outside, "Adds to the flavour", and stood by a coke brazier stewing a week's grouts, which each day received the kiss of life with a cup of Mazzawattee, half a -tin of Russell condensed milk and was shown the sugar bag. We each had our own mug, which you placed on the tray marked `with', if you liked sugar. Not that it made any difference, as the sugar remained on show only when the tea was being made. It was there to show you that the tea boy, to whom you paid four bob a week, cared for your finer tastes. Some sites had tea boys that never had sugar. A better class of tea boy knew how to take care of his lads.
I digress. At tea break, about ten, the papers were read, the finer points of the betting slips written with the borrowed stub of a pencil, with more instructions than the Architect's plans for Centre Point, and the groans as the unwrapping of sandwiches revealed the culinary skills of wives; the delights of meat paste, Marmite, cheese and pickle, egg and tomato brought forth cries of joyful pleasure as each man hopefully tried to swap his for something different. The wives who packed with such loving care these tasty morsels never realized how the local wildlife was nurtured by the caring of the men who felt their need was greater. Those who, through hunger, managed to finished their treats, would then seek to pass the remaining hours in the knowledge given by the bowler-hatted general foreman that if it stopped raining by twelve the site would resume work by 12.30.
After this revelation by the God of the Site himself, the rain would fall even harder, and the cards would magically appear and the table be cleared and there would be much piling up of coins-pennies, halfpennies, threepenny bits, sixpences, shillings, two bobs and the loveliest coin ever minted - the half-crown; big, fat and round, eight to a pound; a man was rich if he had a pocketful. The usual "'Ere, lend us a bob 'til pay day and if I win you can 'ave 'alf me winnings", which at best worked out that you were the one that lost to him.
The game would start quite slowly, with the pot often left to build up with a penny in for each hand and the last man not picking the kitty up. After a while, a blind brag would get the gamblers looking to increase their pile, but as the blind man looked, then betted again, hands would fold and then the real betting started. Two bobs'worth of betting and around ten bob in the kitty, it meant a day's pay to the winner. The blind man calls. A Royal Flush spread out with a grin. The blind man grimaces "Pair of fours" and throws the cards down in disgust. And so it went on. Those who ran out of money watched with envy those who still played; grinning at the winners and laughing at the losers who have wasted their cash on the bravado of a pair.
Me, I loved the whole grubby bunch that formed love-hate in the space of a few hands. I wasn't short of a few bob at the best of times, but I have played for bigger pots than that bench ever saw. But I have always studied my fellow man and it was easy to see the fence sitters and the fools who played each hand with greed in their eyes that stopped them maybe picking up a lot more. So I won some and lost some, never being flash with the betting, and that way making friends that I still have today. However, we had a chippy who was a grabber, with little eyes which shone greedily at each pot and who would flash his few pounds to ensure his opponent got the message and that often allowed him to win a pot that would knock out most of the players. We all called him Monty, after the song - `The Man who broke the Bank at Monte Carlo'. It was this man who brought out the legend that I suspect is still spoken of in South London today.
Monty had played blind for three hands and I had gone with him and two others open. I decided that with nearly a quid in the kitty that maybe I was chucking good money after bad, but how I wanted to take him to the cleaners. So I took a look at my cards - a 1-2-3 straight run in clubs. Sneaky old me went through the act of not being sure but, of course, I was pretty certain the pot was mine. The game took a turn for the better as Monty stayed blind, meaning I had to put in double and the others went with me. Then Monty looked at his hand, reached for his wallet and sat grinning from ear to ear. I knew he had a good hand as he never bluffed. The other two now got cold feet and folded. Monty put in a pound "You betting then?" For once, I grinned back and took out my wallet, drew out a couple of quid and put one in the kitty. He followed suit and watched me do the same. By now, everyone was quiet and were, I am sure, praying that I had a good hand. Monty now had four quid in the kitty and was getting worried, though his greedy eyes never left the pile of coins and notes. His `oppo' reminded him that I went blind and that renewed his courage "Yet bluffing; make it a bit interesting - two quid." I knew this was the time to kill him with a raise that would boggle his mind. I put my two quid in, then opened the wallet and took out two fivers. Some of those sitting there had never seen so much money in one lump.
I stuck in one of the fivers and just nodded. I watched him greedily take out a fiver and call me over, I knew my hand so I watched his face as I turned the cards over and saw I had him as the last card showed 1 had a running flush.
The cheers lifted the hut's roof as everyone went mad at seeing Monty's face as he lost his wedge (money) and, of course, my wallet fell to the floor and spilt its contents - you've guessed it - photos of you-know-who wearing his frocks. At first everyone thought it was a wife or girl friend, and then someone looked at them and noticed that the costume was from a show with plumes, etc. This aroused new interest "'ere, gisalook. 'oo is it then?"
Cards forgotten, the interest centred on the pictures, then someone decided they looked awfully like me and asked outright, “This is you innit? You said you worked on the stage sometime. You was one of them fellers what acts like a bird, a female impersonator or summfink like that?"
Well, when you've got twenty-odd men looking at snaps and then at you. I can advise you, dear reader, that no bluff can settle the question that lurks at the back of their minds, "'e's a poof". Though not spoken aloud, in those days wise men kept silent regarding certain feelings, true or false. I admitted it was me and then began telling them about my life before getting to know the joys of three-and-one-mix and cement dust on your face instead of Max Factor. Like any storyteller one played to the audience, answering the questions with a shift of emphasis on work rather than the pleasure. The outspoken question then came, "Dancers are all poofs." I answered "Well, you should know I suppose, being a poof yourself. I mean you seem to do a lot of dancing." I smiled, the meaning was plain enough to make the point and it was left at that. What they wanted to know was, "Did I still dance?" "No." "But I still dressed as a woman?" "Sometimes."
I quite enjoyed that and went into a quick tale of the advantages you gained if you fooled the public; like a man letting you sit down on a train or bus. (I add, that in those days men still acted like men, and the only women I saw in trousers were the Land Army girls.)
I had the usual questions about what did I do for a pee when out dressed. "Go to the loo." "Whose?" "The Ladies'." Silence, as that sank in. "Women's loos?" I nodded. You could hear the cogs in the heads grinding as they pondered the next question, and so it went on.
Those of you who know me at the Group, know well that I can hold an audience and for the remainder of the morning I spoke about my stage life etc., plus a few lighthearted stories about when I had been dressed and fooled a few with my girlish charm. I admitted that I had dressed for years, and still did if the mood took me. I didn't say I was a Transvestite - I doubt whether they would have understood the word! I knew one thing, the fact that I had bested Monty at his own game made me ,one of the boys' and I felt that my honesty about my dressing gave me an aura of mystery. I was different, but I was alright - in fact I was treated with a kind of respect.
It had to come - "'Ere, I bet you wouldn't turn up dressed 'ere one morning!" This brought laughter as one added, "Can you imagine the Coddie's (General Foreman) face!" More laughter, and it got worse as they all tried to act as women, mincing around and pretending to hold handbags. I laughed with them and could also envisage the site foreman red in the face if he saw me dressed.
It rained every day that week, but I mulled the idea over and thought that it certainly might be fun. Then one morning I woke up early and lay there looking at the clock, and grinned to myself `Why not?'
Deciding what to wear was the next step. Bra and panties, with seamed stockings, and a can-can petticoat (all the rage at the time), then a yellow print dress with a white belt and white winkle-picker high heels, with a white cardigan over my shoulders. Having in those days long fair hair, with the aid of a `doughnut' of false hair, I put my hair up and pinned on a yellow satin ribbon. I slipped a pair of flatties in my carry bag and donned white gloves. I suppose I looked about nineteen, although I was a lot older, and with eyes outlined in black pencil, lashings of mascara and blue eye shadow I looked a little like Dusty Springfield, though the chart topper at that time was Alma Cogan, who started the net petticoat fashion.
Swishing down to the bus stop I joined the girls there, who looked at me and saw a clone of themselves, clutching their handbags and chewing gum as if their lives depended on it. Of course, the men conductors would always send you upstairs, "No room inside, plenty on top" and ring the bell, so you had to hop on smartly and he'd stand grinning up your skirts. No fools, those conductors, they knew their perks. Though this time I managed to duck under his arm and get inside. Ah, where have those days gone? When a man would offer a woman, no matter what her age, a seat. Although I think the men were always embarrassed if they had to brush past you when you were wearing those petticoats, as they would bunch together and ride up, while you would puff and pull them down again with a filthy look at the culprit as if it were his fault, when really he had no chance.
Well, I arrived at the site after the whistle had blown and swished my way to the hut, first bringing wolf whistles, then a few "Oi, you can't come in 'ere, Miss", as red-faced men in baggy drawers scrambled to put on their overalls. I said nothing, but just reached inside the door and took my hod, put it on my shoulder and went with a swish and a wiggle to where the stack of bricks waited. The most unusual hod carrier ever slipped off her high heels, put on her flatties and began loading the hod.
The site, normally a hive of activity, with confused shouting and men scurrying like ants to their work places, was not quite normal that morning. Everyone was staring at me, the only sound was the mixer thudding away with the guy filling a wheelbarrow until it flowed over the boots of the fellow who was pointing but not saying a word. A chippie with his hand under his armpit because on seeing me he had hit his thumb. A brickie tapping a brick for so long that there was no muck in the joint. Outside the hut, a group of men, some with overalls around their ankles, stared, while others stood in their socks in the puddle without noticing. At the top of the ladder I shot the bricks into a pile, struck a cheesecake pose, and then waved. A cheer went up and everyone began hobbling, tugging and jostling towards where I now sat on the scaffold tube, dangling my legs. The word spread like wild fire and before I knew what had happened, the other sites were heading towards ours. I came down the ladder and stood waiting to see what would happen. Although most were grinning, I felt a little unsure about it all and for a moment had a vision of being dumped into the cement, but once they realised it was me, I was greeted with cheers. Then came a voice I recognised. The foreman began yelling "What's up?" and pushed his way to the front. "Oi, you can't work 'ere Miss, you lave to be a feller." Which brought rounds of cheers and a voice from the crowd informed him that I was. Then I started up the ladder again and everyone was pushing forward to see up my skirt, 'He's wearing tart's knickers as well", "'e's got stockings on too" and "Yer sacked mate."
Well, it was fun as I dropped the hod of bricks and pouted back at the foreman. I had my supporters then, who said I was only doing it for a laugh, "Git 'ome and bloody well change then, yer bloody poof".
Off I went, but returned to work the next day to have my leg pulled. Everyone thought I looked smashing, and one bright spark said I should be on the stage, "I was," I said and grinned. Funny thing, even Monty agreed it was a bit of fun and bore no grudge. Oddly, no-one would stay in a room alone with me after that. Unfortunately, the foreman had it in for me and before the week was out I was given the push for some trivial thing. "Get yer cards, yer sacked." There was no point wasting breath arguing with a foreman, so I left, and a few friends walked out with me.
The usual thing was to go to the main office on the Thursday to collect your cards and any money due. So I decided to do it in style - and make sure I knocked their eyes out. The wages clerk's eyes boggled, as I strolled in wearing a pencil skirt and 4-inch high heels and a low-cut lace blouse with a red satin tie ribbon, a patent 3-inch wide belt that clinched my waist into a tiny size 10, and carrying an alligator handbag. I looked every inch a tart, until I asked in my normal voice for my money. He nearly fainted with shock.
Then a friend drove me to the site office and, with a wiggle that would have put Jane Russell to shame, I went to pay the tea boy his money, which again brought the site to a standstill as I picked my way around the puddles with the daintiest steps I could manage and stuck my two fingers up at the foreman with as much girlish charm as possible, to the cheers of all. As I minced, and I mean minced, back to the car I gave a final wave as I heard someone who didn't know what had happened ask who I was. "That, mate, was one of our'od carriers." "Wot, a woman?" "That, mate, was a fella." "F----g hell, you're kidding! Wiv legs like that?" "You'd better believe it."
It was the talk for some time on the different sites. Maybe you've heard the story.
After that I took up painting, because painters work inside and don't lose money when it rains - and you can wear gloves.