The days flew by, and the stone fire surround went higher and higher. The higher it became, the more sorry the state of it became. From experience, I knew that - by looking at the chipped joints on the small blocks - when each block was laid against the other, the chips would be magnified x2, and so the filled joints would look bad - really bad. If he had spent a little more money and sent me to Paris, then I would have chosen him something that would have looked good.
Ray, my helper (the nice, black one), worked steadily on beside me, and we would have some conversations which really threw things into perspective for me, on many levels. It took him a while to trust me, but I was definitely on his side, and he came to understand that after a while. This is how the first conversation went, after the first day.
"So, where are you from?"
"I'm from England."
"England - that's in Europe, ain't it?"
"Do you have any black people in England?"
"Yes, they have been there for hundreds of years. These days, they are mostly descended from West Indians who came over in the late 1940s, so are mostly 2nd or 3rd generation British."
"Uh huh. So do you have any black friends?"
I begin to talk about my black friends back home, and he seems to begin to get a picture - albeit a hazy one - of how 'his sort' might fit into Europe. Bear in mind this was around 20 years ago, when the notion of a black President in the White House was unthinkable, especially in the Southern States.
One day, the other 'Ray' came to see me and, taking me to one side said, "Tomorrow is 'Martin Luther King Day'. I don't know if you want to work or not, but we sort of let 'them' have the day off - it keeps 'them' happy. You can work if you want to, but you won't have a helper, so it's up to you."
I told him that I was going to take the day off too.
A couple of days previously, white Ray had made a last-ditch attempt to be friendly with me by taking me to a down-town restaurant for lunch, and we had now had enough of each other. The restaurant waitresses all wore tiny mini-skirts, and the management had introduced a system of overhead wires way over their heads. They had to attach the bills and orders to clips which ran along these wires, then leap up to push them in the direction of the kitchen. The result was that - every time someone made an order, they would show a great deal of leg and underwear as they pushed the bills along the wires. Ray was transfixed.
I commented that every one of these girls was extremely good looking, and I was surprised that they all went through this act in order to make a living. Ray explained the situation to me:
"The wage they are paid is extremely low, so they survive on tips. If they are ugly, they don't get any tips. Simple. It's good for the management and it's good for us customers."
I began to utterly despise this man, and he knew it.
Usually, black Ray's father would come to pick him up after work in the afternoon. He was a wonderfully relaxed man (it was only the black people who were relaxed in this place), and also extremely entertaining. Someone asked him what he would do if he was rich, and he bent his knees slightly, then brought his flattened hand from behind him in an upward, graceful curve, imitating a jet plane taking off. "Man, I would be outta here like that!"
His son, Ray, worked with me one saturday afternoon, and stayed on late so that his dad could not pick him up. I said I would take Ray back to his house, on the other side of town, and this is what I did.
We drove past the main entrance to downtown Orlando, then further out. As we drove, beautiful lanes appeared with moss hanging from the trees, and the houses became more and more charming. They were all white painted, and made from lapped wood, with pretty porches out front. The streets were clean and well spaced, and I began to think that if this place was in the Southern Counties of England, the property would be worth a fortune.
"Do you live here Ray - is this where you live? It's beautiful."
"Yeah. This is where all the poor people live." By 'poor' he meant 'black'.
I wonder if he believed me when I said that I would rather live here than the soul-less lakeside dwellings nearer town?
to be continued