One day the phone rang and it was my father-in-law. The news was this: Roger had died. Cancer. I hadn't known.
There wasn't much I could say or do. He was thousands of miles away in Iowa and I was in my back-to-back in Leeds. Those two mid-west summers on the rooftops with the stink of tar in my nose and the shingles too hot to touch already seemed like something that had happened to another person. I wore a shirt and tie to work now.
It began in 2000 when I was a skinny student on exchange in Stockholm. One freezing February night, I met an American girl at a party. She was impressed by my capacity for schnapps and we became inseparable. As the end of the academic year loomed came the question, "Will you come back to the States with me?".
I was desperate for love, and I said yes. That's how I ended up in northern Iowa, looking for a job.
It was her father who asked around and found me employment – a roofer named Roger lived just down the street, and Roger needed help. "We call him Whiskers," he said. "You'll see why." And so I did.
I went out to meet this Whiskers, feeling nervous. Roofing was not my idea of a good job; I played guitar in arty rock bands and read poetry. Nevertheless, I was determined not to let down my future father-in-law.
I found him working a few doors down from his own house. Over the coming months we'd work all over northern Iowa and southern Minnesota, but that day he was on a hometown job.
"Are you Roger?" I called up to the figure on the roof.
He crawled over to the ladder and swung a pair of creaky, chopstick legs on to it before slowly descending. "You're the English boy," he said when he reached me.
At this point, Roger probably took a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket and lit up – it's what he always did when his hands were unoccupied. He was very thin, he sported a huge, white beard of the kind more usually seen on wizards or members of ZZ Top, and he was working construction at least 10 years past the point when most men retire. I soon discovered he was recovering from a bad car crash and could no longer lift his arms above his shoulders. Did medical bills keep him at work? I never pried, but it's a fair bet.
He bore it all with good humour. I only heard him swear once, and that was in Norwegian: Faen!
He set me to work immediately. A mountain of old shingles had been thrown down behind the building. I got a pitchfork and a wheelbarrow and the instruction to "clean up that there mess". I dug in and was sweat-drenched in seconds.
I must have done the job more quickly than expected, because when I popped my head over the top of the ladder and told him I was finished, he shuffled to the edge and checked for himself. Then he laughed and said I looked like a coalminer. I held out my arms and saw it was true – I was covered in filth.
"I'd better get more work clothes," I said.
I was hired.
Every morning we'd load Roger's minivan and set off, trailing tobacco and coffee fumes. (The only liquids I ever saw him drink were classic Coke and black coffee.) As we drove, he told me stories; of how he visited England with the Air Force: "The first thing I saw was a brand new Chrysler with the steering wheel on the right-hand side!", and about old-timers who could erect a perfect barn with no better gauge than a set square. Everything we did was almost as low-tech – all hand saws and hammers – but our roofs were always dead straight.
In 2001, I finished university and returned to the US to marry my girlfriend. Roger came to the wedding and I worked with him again. It wasn't the same – he'd slowed down, I'd put on weight – but we fell into a routine until my wife and I moved to Iowa City. After that we moved to England. I did not see Roger again.
Since then I've got divorced and done all sorts of jobs. But no praise from a superior, no private health insurance, no bonus and no corporate gym membership has ever given me as much satisfaction as the day Roger, sat on a customer's lawn with his bony knees pulled up to his chest, stroked his beard and said: "I'll have to send for more English boys if they all work as hard as you".
'Magnificent Joe' by James Wheatley is published by Oneworld, priced £12.99Reuse content