There were twenty men working on the building now: common labourers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, men fitting the parquet floors and men feeding fibre optic cabling through conduits. There was a team dedicated to the swimming pool in the basement. The sounds of drills and hammers poured onto the street.
A palisade had been erected up to the level of the second floor. In front of the building was a tunnel to protect passersby as they walked on wooden duckboards. Behind the grey safety netting two men were spraying the walls red.
The man stood on the scaffolding, his head dipped against the sun. He followed the progress of a woman as she walked up the street. He looked over at me – with that sense we possess of being watched – then looked back at the woman. The drilling from within stopped and somebody started shouting. The man turned his head to listen but kept his eyes on the woman. When she passed out of sight he turned, and was lost from sight.
The foreman was wearing a white hard hat and a yellow visibility jacket.
“Good morning, Sr. Ratton. I thought it was you.”
He held out a soft warm hand. His infinitely lined face was covered in white dust.
“Are you here about the accident?” I moved my coat from one arm to the other.
“How did it happen?”
“He was up a ladder. It wasn't his fault." I nodded.
“I'm speaking to the insurers next week.”
“He did nothing wrong. None of us did. It's the ceiling lights; we can't reach them any other way.”
A generator somewhere inside the building cut out. We could hear men talking and moving. Metal banging on hard surfaces. The foreman looked up at the building as if interpreting what this change might mean. Someone shouted out an order. The high pitched rattle of the generator started up again.
“Do you want a coffee?”
The foreman looked across the street. Two men were standing under a red awning smoking. Two beers stood on a table beside them. I didn't know if they worked for me or not.
“Let's go up the road a bit.”
We stood under the shade of a catalpa. Leaves as large and soft as a woman's face.
“Will there be an inspection?”
“For sure. We'll be alright though.”
He rested his coffee on the pavement while he tore open the sugar. He emptied out the packet and stirred.
“Anything I need to worry about?”
“No.” He straightened up.
He looked up the street. Asking himself whether he should trust me.
“Right then. You want to look around?”
The foreman left me in the show flat. The walls of the living room were yellow. They had been painted in readiness for a sale's pitch to a group from China. Two waitresses had served canapés and prosecco. It had seemed then that the building was almost finished. When the pandemic hit interest dropped off. Work slowed, and we overran a few more months.
There were black scuff marks on the walls and dents by the hallway door and around the French windows. Paper bags, Styrofoam takeaway boxes, and plastic bags were scattered on the floor. Where the men had leant against the wall to eat their lunch their dirty work coats had left greasy stains. The walls would have to be repainted.
The foreman explained what had been done and what was left to do. I nodded. But his words fell like rain. The grand plan of which I had believed I was the architect had not ended. It had never existed.
I walked up the hill, the smooth wet calçada melting like burnt butter beneath my feet. Alfredo did not go back to the village where we spent the summer as boys but he often returned there in his paintings. The sea he painted was yellow, and the sand as black as night.
Men were playing cards in the Jardim França Borges. They had taped cardboard to the table to provide a dry surface and a place to keep score. I joined the onlookers.
“What are they playing?”
“Copas." A man with soft shoes, and worn Cords. As he spoke, he held one hand against his jaw as though he had a sore tooth.
The men at the table had wiry, dull hair and beards as thick and coarse as wire wool. They wore caps and glasses. Two were chewing, one had a small cigar in his mouth. The four men in the watching group were all retired, all younger than me. The dealer had thin black hair combed flat. His skin was blemished and weathered and he played with exaggerated gestures. He threw his cards down with a flourish and won the round. Some of the men laughed. A new line was added to the scores.
Feral young men in baggy trousers and puffa jackets. One was black with slender dreadlocks, two were white with scruffy beards and pale arms. One was no more than fourteen or fifteen. They joked, jostled, stood close to one another, always moving, showing their worth, bigging themselves up. They smoked. A car arrived and two of them broke off. They needed numbers here to protect their patch, at all hours of the day. It was a good patch and they were young and ready to defend it.
“All right?” I nodded. He handed me my keys. I placed a note in his open hand.
I drove past the building again, the leather steering wheel warm in my hands. The foreman was standing outside talking to a woman with a clipboard. She pointed to several places, listened to his answers, and took notes. They did not turn, and did not witness my exit.
The men will be paid, the building finished. They will move on to new sites.