Decline and Fall
Danger: Men at
Crossing the Line
the other apprentice fitters went to the match Trellie spent Saturday afternoons
in the library. For three years he had been mining the shelves, hacking out
random nuggets in search of that elusive vein of culture. He was working a
meagre seam in the Parapsychology section, squatting on his
haunches to flip through the latest Colin Wilson, when he felt a hand on his
shoulder and a refined voice cutting the air over his head. He looked up half
expecting to see Colin himself but there was this oddly wrinkled character with
thick hair and a deep tan. His mouth was opening and closing over flat bright
teeth like a row of bleached Victory Vs and in his lapel was a pink carnation
which inclined Trellie to believe that he had just dropped in on his way from a
wedding reception. He said he had met Wilson once, corresponded with him
briefly, considered him a ‘frightful fraud’ but hoped that the price of his
letters would ‘augment’ so that he could sell all five and buy one of
Proust's laundry lists. Trellie stood up and felt his legs
tingling under the iron grip of his heavy duty bike‑clips. The man's name was
Neville, a card was being extended, and he owned a signed first edition of
The Outsider which he would be happy to let Trellie handle should he care to
turned up the next day. It was a big house overlooking the park. Inside there
were paintings and statues and plants and a deep, scented silence such as
Trellie had never before experienced. He felt he was nearing his goal. Exactly
what culture was he had only a vague idea. It included aesthetic thrills but
also refined conversation, elegant manners and luxurious surroundings;
everything, in fact, which he couldn't find at home or in the fitting shop.
They drank wine which, to Trellie, didn't taste like port but, mysteriously,
didn't taste like sherry either. Neville seemed to approve of his visitor's
quest which, he learned, had started in early childhood. Trellie had never
liked Tarzan, or Laurel and Hardy, or even the Three Stooges. The films he
preferred had heroes who played the piano brilliantly or could quote long pieces
of Shakespeare without reference to the text. Similarly with Arthur Mee's
Children's Encyclopedia, the only books in the house apart from the Home
Doctor and the Daily Express Book of the Garden. It was the section
entitled Immortal Masterpieces Which Have Enriched the World which gave
him a peculiar frisson. Curiously this wasn't so much a product of the works
themselves, although there were whole sonnets by John Keats and blue-toned
photographs of Michaelangelo's David,
as of the enthusiastic, awestricken commentaries of Arthur Mee.
Surely, he thought if objects like these can move people like Arthur to deliver
such extravagant praise they must be the most important things in the world.
Later he wrote poems; it was easy. Then he started to keep a notebook of his
own ideas alongside those of other great writers.
greatly interested in all this and spoke at some length of his own passion for
the nineteenth century French novel, particularly the Rougon
Macquart cycle of which he gave an extended precis.
Eventually Trellie left in a state of exalted fervour. Poised blindly on the
precipice of culture he was somehow aware of the vertiginous, mind‑warping
prospect before him. His brain buzzed and flashed like a pinball machine as new
cerebral circuits sprang into existence in an attempt to comprehend the
experience. The world outside now had that flat, ordinary feel which he had
come to know for the first time years ago after stepping off the Ghost Train at
Blackpool's Pleasure Beach.
second visit a fortnight later he produced the notebook and read out an entry
which had long puzzled him. The sentences had a peculiar property. Although
they were written in English and although he had rewritten them with the aid of
a dictionary, he still found them completely incomprehensible; they defied
penetration. It had been a deeply disturbing moment in his life ‑ his first
confrontation with philosophy.
has realised considerable progress by reducing the existent to the series of
appearances which manifest it. Its aim was to overcome a certain number of
dualisms which have embarrassed philosophy and to replace them with the monism
of the phenomenon.'
squirmed in his chair, arranging his arthritic hip in a more comfortable
position. He regarded Trellie as he would one of the paintings on the wall.
'Monism of the phenomenon indeed!' he thought, 'Looks really are the only things
worth bothering about, they can even compensate for this tedious adolescent
thirst for culture.' He yawned politely without opening his mouth.
Being and Nothingness by Jean‑Paul Sartre' said Trellie staring straight at
Neville with a look of powerful concentration, a look refined by long study of
books he couldn't understand. Neville sipped his Chateau bottled claret and
gazed up into the corner of the room as if the sight of anything more
interesting would be a dangerous distraction.
'Sartre has a
strabismus, poor fellow. One wonders how he keeps his balance.'
imagined an unreliable French motorbike.
'He lives in
the rue Bonaparte now I believe. I used to stay in a small hotel nearby, the
Hotel Moderne in rue Racine. I remember going there shortly after the war and
presenting the concierge with a bar of chocolate. Her eyes filled with tears.'
'But what does
'Well, its a
philosophical statement.' Neville paused reflectively, 'You see philosophy is
peculiar not only because it uses ordinary words in a special way but also
because it manipulates abstract concepts for which there are no concrete
correlatives. The English are essentially a positivistic and empirically minded
breed disinclined to give serious attention to metaphysical speculation. What
they fail to realise, of course, is that their apparently commonsense view of
the world is itself a philosophical posture no more certain than any other. We
have merely become used to it and somewhat seduced by the success of its
application in science.'
thought Trellie. 'It's just like a book!' He felt a strong urge to turn round
and see if the words were printed on the wallpaper.
correlatives?' he asked, going back to the point where he had lost track.
He felt vaguely
flattered but unenlightened.
really read Hegel before tackling a work like that. It is virtually nothing
more than an expansion of the Self‑ Consciousness section of The
Phenomenology of Mind'.
realised that little of this would impinge on his audience but he liked to
indulge an academic bent and caress complex notions like an actor as they
emerged into language. Trellie felt privileged to be present at their birth;
their meaning, however, remained tantalisingly out of reach. They heard the thud
of boot on football outside; it was a Sunday league match on the park.
'Were it not
for this screwy little poseur' thought Neville, 'I could be standing behind the
rubber plant with my binoculars ogling those lusty thighs.' He gulped again at
'Why do you
read such things anyway?' The working class! What a collection! They imagined
they could pick up culture like a pint pot! Only the other day his cleaning
woman had told him she was going to nightschool to learn Russian.
said that genuine philosophers were perplexed by the world whereas lesser beings
were perplexed by philosophy. Now he is remembered as the man who kicked a
noisy neighbour downstairs whilst extolling the serene resignation of the East
... Excuse me a moment.' Neville got up with difficulty and retired to the
upstairs toilet to fart. Trellie heard it distinctly. At first he could
scarcely believe his ears, yet there it was, a real rasper! It was the kind
which his workmates followed by sweeping an imaginary shotgun up to their
shoulders. If it had happened at home his father would have said: 'See better
now can yer?' But Neville had retired specifically for that purpose out of
deference to his guest. Trellie felt the mysterious abyss opening up once
more. Surely this too was an aspect of culture; one of the tiny elements of
that complex fabric which couldn't be learned from books.
himself awkwardly into his winged armchair.
'I had used to
be greatly interested in philosophy until I discovered something even more
Trellie felt he
was on the brink of a great illumination. This certainly beat grubbing about in
the library. On only his second visit he was about to be led into the inner
chamber, the last secret recess of culture itself. His eyes seemed to be boring
right into Neville's soul.
'And what was
that?' he asked.
he heard right or was this French or German for some esoteric pursuit?
'Come into the
fluorescents illuminated forty seven teapots on a shelf which ran right round
'I thought at
first it was just nostalgia, especially when I found myself strangely ravished
by this bright green creation designed in the shape of a sports car. The
driver's head, do you see, is in fact the handle of the lid. And then I came to
realise that I was entering a relatively unexplored terrain, a land of magical
naivety. As a collector I couldn't help being excited by such a rapidly
appreciating asset, but the artist in me also detected in these domestic icons
an emanation of subdued, civilised joy which no‑one, not even Arthur Mee, had
yet sullied with their critical analyses. These artifacts radiate the creative
delight of simple craftsmen, much, I venture to think, as might the fabrications
of your own young friends in the boilershop. And, of course, they have the
pragmatic solidity of all functional art. We might say,' he added with a
snigger, 'that unlike the propositions of philosophy ... they hold water!'
didn't know what to make of this. It certainly did not fit any of the
categories of culture he had come to recognise. Yet, like a faint echo of his
childhood experience with the encyclopedia, he felt moved by this eloquent
works of art they vary from the wittily inconsequential to the nobly sublime.
Just look at this magnificent Georgian piece, worthy of Flaxman himself.
Unfortunately my cleaning lady dropped it, broke the handle, and crushed some of
that beautiful snarling. Now, I fear, it is both useless and worthless and yet,
as in some ruined Greek torso, one can discern the remnants of greatness.'
the battered relic and tried to feel vibrations.
'I bet Ferny
could fix it.'
'Best welder in
the works. He can do aluminium gearboxes so that you wouldn't know they'd been
'Are you sure?
It is solid silver. Several jewelers have refused even to try.'
'What do they
know about it?'
after Trellie's departure, it was Neville's brain which seethed with
excitement. A fine, young craftsman was about to resuscitate that damaged
masterpiece with a vivifying splinter of his own creative vitality. What was
this mysterious rapport between the working class and the practico‑inert? He
fell asleep in the chair dreaming of Benvenuto Cellini.
man entrusted with this miracle, was nearly sixty. He was fat and hairy and
possessed several attributes which Trellie found disgusting. He spat
frequently, hawking up multi‑coloured gobbets of phlegm with an exaggerated
rasping noise; he broke wind at will and used this gift to punctuate his
conversation; the entire wall of his welding bay was covered with pictures of
naked women, and he had cornered the works Durex market and sold an astonishing
variety of products to customers from every department. He was also famous for
his feats of delicate precision. He seemed interested in the project and even
more interested in Neville as Trellie expounded the cultured environment and
lifestyle of his mentor. Books, statues, teapots, a cleaning woman! Each
revelation pushed Ferny's eyebrows higher up his wrinkled head. He agreed to
accept Trellie's commission and even appeared honoured to be chosen.
collected the refurbished teapot on Sunday on his way to Neville's. In the cozy
gloom of the lounge they unpacked it together, carefully peeling back layers of
the Sun ‑ an issue which seemed to consist entirely of page threes. The
transformation astounded its owner. The crushed panels had been expertly
pressed out and there wasn't a speck of surplus metal to show that the handle
had been silver‑soldered. The whole thing had been burnished and buffed to a
extraordinary! Convey my congratulations to your young friend. And now for some
into the kitchen and returned with it on a salver alongside two bone china cups
and a plate of digestive biscuits.
'Earl Grey ‑ my
never tasted tea quite like it before but, after all, Burke or Boswell might
have drunk from the same source. Perhaps the second would be better. He lifted
the pot again; a thin trickle emerged.
anxiously he introduced a slender corkscrew into the spout and, after
considerable manipulation accompanied by the growing stench of hot rubber,
fished out a black condom which spread its soggy, steaming length across the
tray. He reddened, paled, then lurched towards the stairs. Trellie heard
retching noises followed by a flushing of the lavatory.
A few days
later Trellie got a letter with something heavy attached to it. The text was in
cursive italics framed tastefully by wide margins. It ended 'Thine Neville' and
mentioned a sudden holiday in Hammamet for an indefinite period. Neville looked
forward to 'further stimulating exchanges' on his return. A postscript
rhapsodized over the refurbished teapot and ended with the remark: 'Closer
scrutiny of this eighteenth century masterpiece did reveal one modern accretion
which I take to be spurious. Fortunately it was only glued to the underside and
I return it herewith to your gifted colleague who, no doubt, has many objets
d'art to which it could genuinely adhere.' To the bottom of the sheet was
sellotaped a brass rectangle on which Ferny had engraved in his best Olde
English script: 'A Present from Blackpool'.
Ralph had gone crackers before,
at the age of eight. It had been triggered by the stained‑glass gloom of the
church hall his class moved into after the bright neatness of the infant's
school, and the fear of chaos which sucked him into a panic whenever the teacher
left the room. After the tearful hysteria came the convalescence at home: four
months with his mother and his books, toasting muffins on a black wire toasting
fork, building skyscrapers with the dominoes and playing with his newts in the
sink. Nervous debility they called it then. That wasn't how he felt now but
something, somehow, was going wrong.
'It seems a perfectly normal
testicle to me' said the doctor. Ralph looked down at his pants round his
ankles. What made him say it he couldn't imagine; it just came out.
'Why is a fat man like a Cornish
The doctor looked up in surprise.
The reflector, a purely decorative feature, flashed on his head.
'Because he never sees his member'
said Ralph hurriedly, as though anxious to get it over with. It was as if he
had been momentarily possessed.
'But you're not fat at all Mr.
Relph. Indeed for a man of your age' the doctor picked up his card, 'forty
eight ‑ you're remarkably trim.
'It's thanks to home cooking' said
'Wife watches your diet does she?'
'My mother' said Ralph 'She has a
gift for rendering food inedible'.
'She should open a slimmer's
restaurant. Has it been painful?'
'Then why are you here?'
'It feels...' Ralph searched for
the impressive medical periphrase, 'incipiently pretumescent.'
The doctor returned to his swivel
chair. Ralph pulled up his pants.
'Well that's a new one on me.
Incipiently pretumescent ... hmmm.'
He reached for a block of sick
'Not decorating the hall by any
'Sleeping all right?'
'No problems at work? Threats of
'What is it you do exactly Mr.
'I'm an historian.' Again that
strange compulsion. 'I mean I'm a clerk, in the Export department at Carlisle
The doctor had a bad memory for
faces and an even less distinct recall of his patients' complaints. Medicine
bored him; it was just a messy form of engineering. What really interested him
was sociology; how people lived, what their homes were like, what they ate, what
they spent their money on. The card said he'd treated Ralph six years ago for
influenza. He noticed the address: Lawson street, it was on the estate. That
was the area he most liked to visit ‑ those rooty working class interiors!
'Yes, I remember you'. Now he
was holding his head between finger and thumb, his left arm was stretched out as
if summoning higher powers. 'Bedroom full of books, big dog, upright piano,
foreign dictionaries... '
Ralph was astonished. This man
really did care for his patients. It was a performance which never failed to
impress those who were tolerant of his vocational deficiencies.
'Bust of Augustus on the
mantelpiece in the front room, potted palm five feet high grown from a seed
brought back from Marrakech' and then, his eyes growing wider as if he could
scarcely believe his own memory, 'Mother smokes a corncob pipe!'
'Exactly right. The palm tree
died though ‑ that bad winter.'
'Really? Well come back if it does
start to swell.'
Ralph walked out reassured but
still bowlegged. The doctor scribbled on the card: 'Hypochondria anxiety
induced' and rang for the next patient.
Back at the office Ralph spent an
hour in the toilets with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. It was
modesty rather than fear which impelled him to stick it inside his Fair Isle
pullover before returning to his desk. The boss, Chief Clerk Arnold Waxblinder,
had only recently risen to power and still felt too guilty to discipline an old
friend. Furthermore Ralph didn't like to flaunt his accomplishments. He might
reluctantly slip into a foreign language if there were no English speakers on
the other end of the line, just as he might, if pressed, explain to Arnold the
constitution of the Roman Legion in the reign of the Emperor Claudius. But he
had discovered in his younger days that enthusiastic monologues on history or
foreign parts made people regard him as a freak, a poseur and a snob.
Waxblinder had made the
coffee. Ralph considered it foul; it was currently Mellow Birds made with
powdered milk. He felt he was drowning in mellowness after drinking similar
concoctions for the past ten years. But he didn't protest, not wishing to hurt
'A telephonic communication from
Jenks' said Arnold putting the kettle back into the filing cabinet, 'regarding
that consignment of paradichlorobenzine for Barcelona, could you procure the appropriate Brussels nomenclature
and inform the Overseas Distribution department of same?'
'Jenks phoned: get the Brussels
number for that paradi and tell Brian' thought Ralph. It was a game he liked to
play; to see how fast and how much he could compress Arnold's inflations.
A cup of unusually glutinous
sludge slid towards him. Opalescent globules of fat floated between slicks of
'Additional dried milk' explained
Waxblinder, 'The container was almost depleted, and it is Friday afternoon, so I
inserted it in its entirety. A permissible indulgence I'm sure you will
concur.' They slurped synchronously.
'An unprepossessing prospect' said
Waxblinder staring out of the window at the high, corrugated asbestos wall of
the Packing Shed. 'I doubt if tomatoes will thrive on this window ledge.'
'We didn't last long with our view
of the golf course after old Dekker retired. This place reminds me of school.'
Ralph's voice faltered slightly.
'He seemed to wield some strange
power over our masters. Under his sovereignty we were inviolate.'
'Now we're on our own.'
'A new recruit, a temporary,
reinforcement by courtesy of the Youth Opportunities Programme, joins us in our
'Better than the dole I suppose.'
'Well I wonder. It rather depends
on one's inner resources.' Waxblinder had raised the concept of inner resources
to the level of a mystical power. A week didn't go by without his alluding to
them. 'I, as you know, never pass an evening in the week without completing some
little household repair, even if it is no more than wiring a three pin plug. I
find that the house, the garden and the vehicle provide an unending series of
tasks and that the regular habit of meeting such challenges not only saves one a
great deal of money but also develops one's inner resources in a manner which
more passive pursuits such as reading, listening to music or watching television
cannot do. Armed with this capacity for independent constructive activity I
feel that retirement holds no terrors for me ‑ nor even the dole, I hasten to
'Yes' said Ralph. What he felt
most in need of himself at the moment was ten years' solitary confinement but he
didn't want to upstage Arnold by saying so. After another hour's desultory
scratching in a large ledger Arnold meticulously repacked his briefcase; the
Daily Telegraph, the Tupperware box and the empty powdered milk tin which
would store nails in his garage. Then he checked his Japanese quartz watch
against the speaking clock and accompanied Ralph to the main entrance.
'Poets day' said Waxblinder as
'Piss off early, tomorrow's
Saturday' answered Ralph mechanically.
Since it was Friday it would
be fishcakes ‑ one of his mother's few successes. And since it was the last
Friday of the month Ron would be visiting after tea. Two beams to illuminate
the gathering darkness of life with his mother as she declined into an eccentric
senility. Eating was becoming particularly hazardous. He had got used to
cutlery with old, dried food on it, and white, wispy hairs in his sandwiches but
lately there had been tea made from dried rosemary and lentil soup made from a
packet of birdseed, not to mention dottle in the custard and a peculiar pattern
of whorls and streaks, like a fading Hokusai seascape, on his supposedly clean
plate. After a great deal of thought he concluded that it could only be dried
dog saliva. Rufus was a geriatric Red Setter which drooled continually. Years
earlier, in its destructive puppyhood, it had chewed volume six of
Clarendon's History of the Great Rebellion. That had cost Ralph half a
week's wages. Further cause for detestation emerged in one of his mother's
revelatory reminiscences: 'I said to your Dad that my children were going to
have distinguished names, and even distinguished initials too, because that was
what would appear on briefcases and signet rings. It was about the time that
the Rolls Royce was coming into fashion, George the Fifth had one of course,
possibly two, and I was about six months gone when we were listening to the
wireless and they were going on about names. And I looked down at Blackie, the
Labrador we had at the time, I'm sure she knew exactly what I was saying to her,
and I said to her, Blackie, I said, what do you think we should call him? And
she looked up with those big brown eyes of hers, lifted a paw, cocked an ear,
and would you believe it! ... Barked twice!
Ralph did believe it, and
cursed the whole of canine creation whenever he thought about it. And yet his
anger rarely broke the surface; it seethed, instead, under a shell of
self‑discipline augmented by a sense of personal worthlessness. Occasionally
perhaps a steamed pudding covered in salt or the need to retrieve the current
Guardian from under a pile of rotting fish skins in the dustbin stirred up a
tidal wave of rage. And such was the violence of the subsequent quarrel, for
Mrs. Relph did not take criticism calmly, that the neighbours might easily hear
this student of Goethe and Pascal, this lover of Macaulay and Burke, call his
mother 'a scrofulous, senile, old slag only fit for the knackeryard.' And she,
by way of a response, might label her elder boy, the master of five European
languages and the author of an as yet unfinished two hundred thousand word
historical novel 'a shiny‑arsed, pen‑pushing nobody who'd be lucky to find any
other woman to put up with him.' Then the waves would subside to a ripple and
soon the usual, glassy Sargasso would supervene.
After tea he sat in the middle
room alongside Eamonn Andrews bellowing at ninety decibels from the twenty six
inch TV and read the letter from Roderigo which had arrived that morning'
Roderigo answered his questions on Las Ramblas and the Barrio Chino, recollected
the good times they'd had the year before in Cataluna and complained how
tiresome his mother was becoming now that she had added incontinence to
deafness. Ralph put the letter in a boxfile marked VI. There were five other
files full of similar letters from solitaries with similar mothers in Vienna,
Munich, Bordeaux, Naples, Antwerp, Copenhagen and Basle. Travel was one of
Ralph's escape routes and there wasn't a day of his annual five weeks holiday
which he didn't spend abroad.
Ron arrived at half past eight.
He brought his mother a large box of liqueurs. He used to bring Walnut Whips
until Ralph told him how she had found one under the table and carefully brushed
it onto a shovel and thrown it in the bin. There was the usual interchange
about the kids with Ron explaining yet again that he only had them every other
weekend. After enduring a final bulletin on her arthritis and a check to see if
he was wearing his vest he was allowed to retire to Ralph's bunker ‑ the front
room. Ron had brought a bottle of claret which he introduced as a cheap
supermarket plonk. He knew Ralph would see through that one but his habit of
undervaluing his own generosity had become automatic. The TV had been accepted
as a used cast‑off from a departmental colleague and numerous other items in the
house, from the washing machine to the cut glass fruit bowl had been similarly
smuggled in. Ron didn't feel guilty about his relative affluence although he
had reason to. He was ten years younger than Ralph and had risen cleanly
through the academic system. Ralph might have done the same but the awesome
burden of penetrating the middle‑class world, a burden partially embodied in the
list of expensive things required for the Grammar school ‑ uniform, sports gear,
satchel was too much for his parents. Father was out of work then and said
that if it was in Ralph it would come out anyway. By the time Ron came up to
the same hurdle they were all working. And when father died Ralph willingly
supported Ron through University.
It was only now that the brothers
were getting to know each other. As a boy Ron had always seen Ralph as a
bookish, bespectacled eccentric, fastidiously neat, eerily detached. And since
by now he was thoroughly bored with sociology and quite disenchanted with the
academic world he found in Ralph a perfect guide to his latest passion ‑
literature. Ralph's tonic enthusiasm blazed in comparison with the dreary
lectures he had occasionally dropped in on, and what he lacked in rigour he made
up for in range. Frequently Ron recognised that the text he was struggling with
in English had been absorbed decades earlier by his mentor in the original
German or French. Ralph refused to consider these accomplishments as in any way
comparable with Ron's academic achievements. He had that reverence for
institutional learning common to the intelligent working class and imagined
oak‑panelled staff rooms with erudite, quotation‑loaded conversations, fuelled
by unlimited supplies of Port, bouncing between chintz armchairs and leather
sofas. Ron described an introverted clique of dreary status‑seekers. The
younger specimens claiming to absorb knowledge almost osmotically, without
effort, while secretly devouring every obscure journal they could lay their
hands on: their elders emerging infrequently from committee meetings to damn
with faint praise any challengers to their out‑dated ideas. Ralph, he
concluded, was more like his own ideal than three quarters of the faculty of
Social Science. He had only recently learned of his brother's literary project
‑ the massive historical novel. His own creative inclinations, which Ralph
enthusiastically encouraged, Were crystallising, but the subject was more
personal. Ron produced six sheets of double spaced A4, perfectly typed on the
department's golf ball, and read:
'I could hear our dad coming up
the back yard, hear his boots clacking on the slate‑blue, diamond‑patterned
tiles, and the ticking of his three speed as he wheeled his Rudge into the
coal‑shed. I felt I wanted to run for it but felt ' at the same time, that I
had to stay; it was, after all, only partly my fault. Ralph was upstairs, as
usual, sticking pins in the Daily Express map of World War II, the one
with the silhouettes of tanks and planes in the corner and rows of black
soldiers ending invariably with a soldier who had been split clean down the
middle. The war had finished six years earlier but it was the only map of
Europe they had in the house. Ralph liked to measure distances between all the
major towns and note them down in an indexed book. My mam glared at me and
said: ‘You stand there and take what's coming to you!’ Dad came in smelling of
sand and iron and cigarettes, and hung his big, black overcoat on the nail under
the stairs. On Thursdays he looked forward to his favourite pork chops. He
glanced expectantly at the oven and took off his bike clips. I had only been
asked to keep an eye on Snowball and hoped he would understand but I felt a
shiver run through me when my mam blarted out, just as he was rolling his
sleeves up for his wash in the old, brown sink: ‘Dog's had thi chops Frank.
I've made you a nice tater pie instead.’'
It was yet another colourful
fragment from his growing mosaic of childhood reminiscence. Ralph listened and
laughed. The detailed precision of Ron's memory delighted him and he found it
strange that even now, forty years later, he could still be hurt by learning of
his parent's low opinion of him as a child. It was from an earlier piece of
Ron's that he had discovered they called him 'That one' when he wasn't there.
The present offering went on to describe his father's gambling and his mother's
great gift for the withering nag. Ralph chortled and squirmed and another
bottle of claret materialised from inside Ron's mac.
'You always took dad's part' said
Ralph when he had finished.
'I admired the old chap.'
'He could be a monster you know;
lazy, extravagant, selfish, feckless, dictatorial.'
'He had a lot to put up with. She
was always going on at him. Christ! Those rows!'
'But she was the one who kept us
on the rails. We would have finished up in the workhouse if it hadn't been for
her. I've been thinking about it a lot since you started reading your pieces.
Your allegiances are quite the opposite of mine even though we experienced the
same events. I wonder if it isn't your bad marriage which is at the root of
this paternal bias. I realise that the historian cannot fail to bring his
prejudice to his material but my own recollections incline me to believe that
the old man', he paused for effect and took a swig at the wine, 'was verging on
the clinically insane, and that if he hadn't died prematurely of pneumonia would
have finished up in an asylum.'
'Mad!?' Ron didn't know whether to
laugh or feel outraged. 'How can you even suggest it?'
'You remember his moods surely?'
'They didn't last long. He would
storm out, bang a few doors, perhaps throw his dinner on the fire, unless, of
course, it was pork chops, come home drunk, kick the dog ‑ the usual domestic
'I remember them more vividly.
They were more extreme than you seem to think. He used to sleep on the couch
night after night; remove himself completely from mother's company even to the
extent of coming out to eat only at night like a giant mole. We would listen to
him grubbing and rooting in the kitchen after we had gone to bed, looking for
the food she had hidden, guzzling, if he failed to find something more
substantial, whole pots of jam or tins of condensed milk. One such mood,
complete with this apparatus of bizarre behaviour, lasted no less than six
weeks. And, by way of escalating reprisal, she would take the food to bed in a
pillowcase and he would hide the valves out of the wireless set. Then he buried
the handle of the mangle in the backyard and she cut the backside out of his
overalls. Neither of them would even remotely allude to these goings on in the
truculent, laconic intercourse of the day. But the great feud, the one which
lasted six weeks, ended with an explosion into cathartic violence when he
exploited her passion for birds. He set mousetraps baited with bread on the
lavatory roof and arranged the seven sparrows he caught in a pie dish and put it
on the table saying that if a man had to hunt for his supper after a hard day's
work it was coming to something and that Snowball had better look out if he got
really hungry. It was about that time that I began to suspect that he wasn't
'Are you pulling my plonker
'On my honour Ron. I feel it
would be a betrayal of the academic ideal to which we both subscribe if a
lecturer in the faculty of Social Sciences at one of the country's largest
redbrick universities was knowingly misinformed in such matters.'
'Six weeks!? Wireless valves!?
Mousetraps!?' Ralph was so deadpan that Ron still couldn't help being suspicious
of all this.
'What worries me' Ralph went on
lugubriously, 'is that we two, as the unfortunate recipients of these deranged
genes, must inevitably exhibit symptoms ourselves one day. My natural
temperament, I've always felt, has been one of modest self‑effacement and
responsible restraint, and yet now, after years of virtuous self‑sacrifice, I
feel impelled to ask where this course of honourable altruism has led me. I
find myself removed to a stygian office at the back of the block, working for
the odious Waxblinder, a man I taught to do the job, and trapped, domestically,
in a geriatric cul‑de‑sac in the role of male nurse. I sense the writhings of a
secret self struggling for supremacy, an imperious demand to break these chains,
to assert the primacy of my needs for once.’
They had both drunk more than
usual and when Ron made the ritual request to hear some of Ralph's own work, a
request which Ralph had always denied, he was amazed and gratified to see him
produce a green, paperback triplicate book with 'Vol XII' on the cover.
'Perhaps just a paragraph to give
you the flavour' said Ralph leafing through its three hundred tissue thin pages.
'Theobald, marquis of Camerino and
Spoleto, had defeated the garrison of the castle and sentenced the prisoners to
the customary castration. But the sacrifice was disturbed by the intrusion of a
frantic female with bleeding cheeks and dishevelled hair. ‘Is it thus’ she
cried, ‘that ye wage war against women whose only arms are the distaff and the
loom?’ Theobald denied the charge saying he'd never, since the Amazons, heard of
a female war. ‘And how’ she furiously exclaimed, ‘can you wound us in a more
vital part than by robbing our husbands of what we most dearly cherish, the
source of our joys and the hope of our posterity?’ A general laugh applauded her
eloquence; the savage Franks, inaccessible to pity, were moved by her ridiculous
yet rational despair and with the deliverance of the captives she obtained the
restitution of her effects. As she returned in triumph she was overtaken by a
messenger from Theobald who inquired what punishment should be inflicted on her
husband were he to be taken in arms again. She answered without hesitation: ‘He
has eyes, and a nose, and hands, and feet. These are his own and these he may
deserve to forfeit by his personal offences. But let my lord be pleased to
spare what his little handmaid presumes to claim as her peculiar and lawful
Ron couldn't help admiring
the supple, if somewhat old‑fashioned style but the subject appeared
outrageously arcane. Ralph sat staring into the distance remotely. Ron got up
and looked over his shoulder; the page he had been reading from was blank. He
took the book and riffled through it; all the pages were blank.
'Its Gibbon' said Ralph flatly.
'You memorised it!?'
'Must have done.' He took another
swig at the wine. 'I read Gibbon every night before I go to sleep. I've read
the entire history many times. What a stylist! His prose is a miracle; his
transitions are superb. You should try it Ron. Insight and observation may
validate the scientific treatise but the literary text stands on one quality
alone mastery of language, the aesthetic dimension, without that it relapses
into anecdotal garrulousness. You are now ready for this development.
Ron was intrigued; was it all an
elaborate hoax, a stratagem to avoid reading his novel? He recalled the other
odd features of the evening on the way home. Ralph was eccentric but this was
unusual even for him. Why had he sprawled in his armchair with his right leg
over the side and half his fly buttons undone? And why, after having read the
label on the bottle, had he repeatedly referred to the claret as an excellent
Madeira? It was disturbing.
Monday began with Arnold
Waxblinder inculcating the virtues of bourgeois self‑improvement in his
transient helper from the Y.O.P. Inner resources were his theme reinforced by
practical example. The morning had been devoted to the benefits and varieties
of do‑it‑yourself double gazing, the respective prices, the economies of energy
saving, the details of assembly, the price of glass, the optimum air‑gap, the
prevention of condensation and the alternative plastic systems utilising
polystyrene and perspex sheet. The new recruit disguised his boredom believing
that a good report might get him a permanent job. Ralph worked silently in his
usual industrious manner but when Arnold finished and took up his pen once more
Ralph noisily flourished a copy of yesterday's Le Monde and after a brief
'While we're on the topic just listen to this' read out a half page article in
fluent French, on the new solar powered steam generator which had just been
installed outside Marseilles. A profound silence followed.
'Was that French?' asked the new
'Time for an infusion of caffeine'
said Waxblinder opening the filing cabinet.
During the break Ralph
appeared agitated and when Arnold went to wash his cup he poured his untouched
offering onto an Amaryllis which Arnold was cultivating on the window ledge.
The boy, as yet unversed in the etiquette of the permitted diversion, began to
press Ralph for ideas and instruction as a way of heading off yet another
desiccated monologue from Waxblinder. And Ralph, who for twenty years had
refused to be drawn further than a sentence on the weather launched into an
analysis of the philosophy of history.
'It was that foggy Teuton, the
Nibelung of Philosophy, G.W.F. Hegel who said that the only thing we learn from
history is that we learn nothing from history ‑ an uncharacteristically
transparent remark. And this superficial cynicism was echoed forty years later
by no less a figure than Alexandr Herzen who said that history was the
autobiography of a madman. His contemporary, the priapic prophet of Yasnaya
Polyana, Leo Tolstoy, defined it similarly as a deaf man answering questions
which no‑one had asked. Personally I incline more to the grandiose notions of
Collingwood and Vico who see history as a unique hermeneutic device, the key to
our understanding of the world.' Waxblinder was beginning to feel uneasy. He
scowled, scraped back his chair and went out slamming the door loudly. When he
returned forty minutes later Ralph was still lecturing. Now he was pacing up
and down the small office with one hand clutching his lapel.
'What then do we make of the
greatest of them all? I speak, of course, of Gibbon who claimed no more than
that history was the register of the crimes and follies and misfortunes of
mankind. Condemned out of his own mouth you might think, and yet it is from him
that the spirit of the age, the zeitgeist radiates most purely. How
quintessentially eighteenth century is his mordant sarcasm towards Christianity,
that pernicious enfeebler of the Empire. He is the English philosophe,
Diderot, D'Alambert, Voltaire and D'Holbach all rolled into one. And who, at
that time, was our class‑ridden nation of entrenched reactionaries exalting as
the finest embodiment of English sensibility? Johnson! The bullfrog of
Lichfield'. At this point Ralph stared directly, accusingly at Waxblinder. 'That
lexiphanic windbag! That ponderous celebrant of the dull and the dutiful! That
establishment, toadying lickspittle grovelling for his state pension,
brown‑nosing round the ample posterior of George III! Today we read Boswell
while Johnson's costive, clotted prose justly moulders in obscurity. But Gibbon
continues to delight; his luminosity waxes. The Roman Empire was the pretext
for an excoriating commentary on his contemporaries. And so, even today, there
might be, in some hidden stagnancy of our society, another such crystal
distillation of the present age and all its ills, disguised, possibly, as an
historical novel fashioned in neglected isolation by an anonymous clerk.'
Waxblinder, by now, was
thoroughly shocked. In the past, under old Dekker, Ralph had responded to the
lightest touch on the reins; a slight cough at one thirty was enough to
terminate the lunch‑break, and a discreet shuffle of papers after coffee in the
afternoon would set his head down for the rest of the day. But this! It was
grotesque! Waxblinder had rationalised his own digressions as somehow relevant
to the general education of an engineering clerk, but these outpourings on
history and half hour readings in some foreign gibberish could only be seen as
dangerous, subversive indulgences. Arnold resolved to speak about it the next
day. But the next day Ralph didn't turn up.
He stayed in bed writing.
The doctor came in the early evening and, after scrutinising the stacked volumes
and fingering the bust of Augustus as a boy suddenly seemed to notice Ralph.
'Ah yes! The testicle!' he said
breezily, 'And do we now have actual tumescence?'
'It feels like a balloon' said
Ralph. The doctor pulled back the bedclothes.
'Looks normal.' He lifted it
gently. 'Feel anything?'
'No, strangely enough.'
He put a thermometer into Ralph's
mouth and a stethoscope on his chest.
'Just felt like a day in bed I
'I've got things to do. The
office is beginning to interfere with my work. I know I'm not respected there.
They don't understand.'
'Johnson and his snivelling
secretary Boswell. All day long he drones on interminably about double glazing
or his dictionary or the immortal classics or changing the prop shaft on the
mark III Cortina while that sycophantic spaniel writes everything down as though
it were the word of God.'
'A personality clash?'
'More than that. I've put up with
it for thirty years but now my work is reaching a climax. These distractions
are too much. I need peace and solitude.'
'The chemical giant I think you
said ‑ Carlisle's?'
'Well you just have a good rest
old chap. I'm sure you deserve it.' He picked up his bag and had a last look
round. 'This really is a damned fine collection! I ought to read more. Keep
meaning to. Can't seem to find the time.'
'Well I must get on doctor.' said
Ralph pointedly terminating the interview. He picked up his gold rimmed
half‑frame glasses and the green paperbacked triplicate book which had been
lying on the table.
'Quite' said the doctor, 'I'll
call again tomorrow.'
The next day, as the doctor
was coming down the stairs, he met Ron. They talked in the front room.
'Do you do much fieldwork these
days?' asked the doctor wistfully. 'I find proletarian life‑styles
fascinating. Only last week I had a remarkable case of malnutrition ‑ a
building site labourer, lived in a hovel, slept on a mattress on the floor, rat
droppings in the kitchen, mould in the loo, subsisted entirely on sausage rolls
and Guinness. Quite extraordinary. Couldn't recall when he last had a bowel
movement. Now that I admire. The English fear constipation more than nuclear
'How is Ralph doctor? Nothing
serious is it?'
'No. Just nerves.'
'A breakdown? He has been a bit
strange lately. Does he need psychoanalysis?'
'Do people still believe in that
sort of thing? I wouldn't recommend it. No, we'll soon have him back in
harness with a daily dose of chlorodihydromethylphenylbenzodiazepinone.'
'I think that's easier said than
'A bit strange you say?'
'As if he'd been taken over by
someone else. He seems to think he's Gibbon.'
'The long‑armed Asian ape? Good
God! Yet this might explain the palm tree. Was he disconsolate when it died?'
'No, Edward Gibbon the historian.
I looked him up in Britannica. Apparently he died of a swollen testicle ‑ a
hydrocele. Perhaps Ralph has schizophrenia.'
'I doubt it. What do you think? I
rang his firm today. Couldn't contact Johnson or Boswell but spoke to a very
sensible chap called Backslider. He maintained that Ralph was deficient in
inner resources. Recently he has been giving quite uncharacteristic lectures on
bullfrogs, disrupting office routine and apparently telexing sales offices
abroad, in Spanish, telling Roderigo he was being poisoned. Bizarre what? I'd
really like to see what goes on in those places. Do you ever organise visits to
coalmines and car factories?'
Ron asked the doctor to let him
know if he could do anything to help, and the doctor asked Ron if Durkheim was
still read and if there had been any studies on the inner city riots. Ron left
with one of the green triplicate books which his mother had managed to smuggle
out of Ralph's room. It was Vol V and each page was covered in tiny black
italics. Surely this would illuminate Ralph's dark depths. It was a week before
Ron managed to identify that racy scrawl as Esperanto much less get it
Ralph meanwhile had never
been happier. As the twilight deepened and the autumn rain battered on the
windows he listened to the news from Paris on his short wave radio and spent two
hours writing rapidly, in a notebook marked Vol X. Then, sipping hot cocoa with
milk, but without a skin, from the best family china, he took down his idol and
read for the umpteenth time, yet with the same hypnotic attention as when he
first read it, chapter forty ‑ the account of the Byzantine Empress Theodora,
complete with its hilarious, lubricious Greek footnotes.
Ferny sat in a cloud of ozone practising fillet welds behind
Henderson's screens. The process fascinated him; the crackle of the current,
the pool of bright metal moving in total blackness. He lifted his rod when he
felt Barrow's hand on his shoulder; the lilac light went out.
the skiving get?' said Barrow.
shoved up his eyeshield. Under its crust of slag the weld cooled into a perfect
'Henderson? Trap three.'
Getting down on his knees in the toilets Barrow could see, under the bog door,
Henderson's boots which still bore their distinctive traces of red lead. One
day, when he had fallen asleep in the dinner hour, Wogga had painted them and
tied the laces together. Then he'd dropped a bin full of scrap iron right
behind Henderson's head. Henderson invited such assaults; he was a bit naive, a
bit too serious, although everyone agreed he was one of the lads.
'Enderson!' Barrow affected an army sergeant's bellow. 'The shareholders aren't
paying you sixteen quid a week to abuse yourself over pictures of naked women in
company time! Just get yourself out here lad or I'll kick you up the 'ole so
'ard you'll be shittin' out the top of your head!'
silence was broken only by the sound of a turning page. Barrow ran the tap.
Henderson listened apprehensively. Water started showering over the bog door.
Henderson plunged out.
the fuck! A bloke can't even improve his mind in this place without somebody
dirty bastard!' Barrow pulled the magazine out of Henderson's overalls, flipped
through it and stuck it back.
fixed for a booze up next Friday?'
it in aid of?'
aid of owt. You don't need an excuse do you?'
have to tell Brenda something.'
walked in, attracted by all the shouting. As the amenities attendant he was
justified in considering the hardware his responsibility. They called him Gobby
because he had no teeth; he wore them only for weddings and funerals.
up?' said Gobby.
from Crosfields was telling me about this new club what's opened in Manchester ‑
the New Luxor Club its called.'
Lukfor Club?' said Gobby.
good night it is. They've got strippers on.'
'Ftripperf!' said Gobby.
'Strippers!' said Henderson.
booze until two o'clock in the morning.'
o'clock!?' said Gobby.
only a dollar for membership and two bob for a supper ticket.'
about transport?' said Henderson.
dollar?' said Gobby.
get a minibus for thirty bob. What do you reckon?'
Strippers eh? I'll have to tell Brenda something though.'
you down then.'
put Henderson down on the back of an engineering drawing.
about you Gobby? Do you a bit of good mate. I bet you've not had a hard on
since VE night.'
to Barrow but itf me bowlf night.'
we've got floodlightf now.'
fecond int league. I couldn't let ladf down.'
Barrow?' said Gobby, 'are you takin' t'piff?'
right then Gobby luv. You'll just have to get Henderson to tell you all about
it when he comes back. All we need now is another eleven to fill the bus.'
go' said Henderson, 'and don’t forget Sikorski.'
Sikorski was a queer hawk: he was Polish for a start. That wasn't his real name
but at least it did begin with the same letter as his real name which was
generally considered unpronounceable. Even the foreman called him Sikorski.
His Christian name was unpro-nouncedable too. He wore a pair of pince nez which
he reckoned had been with him all through the labour camps of Kazakhstan and the
Second World War, which he got into by walking to Palestine to join the RAF.
Nobody knew just how much of Sikorski's stories to believe. He was never caught
out bullshitting in areas where he could be checked, but, on the other hand, he
never seemed to take anything seriously. He had a trick of saying something
apparently very profound, pausing to let it sink in, then opening his big mouth,
full of oversized horsy teeth, and laughing his head off. He was articulate to
the point of eccentricity, probably the result of being married to a
school-teacher and having a passion for Victorian novels.
Barrow found Sikorski and Fleet the student apprentice in a corner of the
Instrument Workshop. Fleet was spending some time in each department; he'd
already done six months with Barrow in the Fitting Shop. Sikorski was sitting
on a tool box eating meat paste butties and drinking coffee out of a pint cup
emblazoned with roses. Fleet sat on a bench reading a book. It was baggin
Don't you lot ever do any work?'
'Greetings Barrow' Sikorski looked up. 'The increased mental strain of our
profession necessitates, shall we say, a concomitantly longer period of
this rubbish he's filling your head with?' He looked at Fleet's book.
'Nietzsche.' said Fleet.
you' said Barrow.
thought you sneezed?'
the bloke's name you ignorant puddin.'
puddin?' Barrow put on a tone of deep hurt. 'Is that the way to speak about the
man who taught you all there is to know about the Salt Plant centrifuge gearbox?
Here, give us a butchers.' He took the book and read: 'Nietzsche was born in
Rocken, in the Prussian province of Saxony, on October 15 1844. His father,
Ludwig Nietzsche, a Lutheran minister and the son of a minister, was thirty
that very well Barrow, but I saw your lips move.'
got time to hang about here muggin up on old Kraut head-cases. On to the real
reason for my visit. It just so happens we're having a do, and you two
gentlemen, on account of your superior breeding, have been fortunate enough to
get on my short list.'
described the attractions of the New Luxor.
it in aid of?' asked Fleet.
birthday' said Barrow. 'It's next Friday, October 15. Your mate Neechy would
have been 118 if he'd lived. He is dead in't he?'
that's worth celebrating then in't it?'
festival of Dionysus!' said Sikorski in ironical wonderment.
too!' said Barrow. 'Better bring a spare pair of binks Sikorski. What you're
going to see will probably melt them crappy Polish bottle ends!'
them both down and left. That Sikorski! thought Barrow, he's unbelievable! He
could talk for half an hour without anyone knowing what the fuck he was on
about, yet any workshop get‑together and he was there straight away: bowls,
darts, cricket matches, booze‑ups! And a bloody good sport he was as well. Get
him and Stanier together and we won't need any comedians!
Ignoring the bell and its notice 'Please ring for attention' Barrow slipped
under the counter and into the gloomy body of the stores. At the centre of this
maze of racks was the office, or rather the cubicle, of Ernie Hardman. Sikorski
called it the Temple of Aphro-dite. From floor to ceiling, on all three sides,
were sellotaped pictures of women. Hardman obviously had a preference, not to
say fetish, for big tits. Even the most grossly inflated five gallon dugs with
areolas the size of dustbin lids failed to jar his aesthetic sense. His pursuit
of size knew no limit. In the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet, always kept
locked, was his collection of hard‑core. Ernie, reading, didn't notice Barrow
creeping up on him. Barrow got close enough to make out the print over his
shoulder. Together they silently, synchronously read: 'His hand moved
feverishly over the smooth silky border of her stocking tops and on to the soft
resilience of her magnificent thighs ...' Taking a breath as silently as
possible Barrow bellowed out the next sentence as though he were addressing a
throbbing member forced itself urgently against her...!'
Ey!?..Bloodyell!!' Ernie jumped violently, spilling tea over a pile of
You dozy bugger! What's the bloody game sneakin in like that!? Jeezus I nearly
had a flamin heart attack!'
Ernie? I could have loaded half the stores onto a ten ton truck and you wouldn't
piggin tea now an all!'
know how you get away with it Ernie, honest I don't.'
with it?! I'll tell you how I get away with it. Who the hell d'you think'd do
this job for eight quid a week? Cooped up in here all day, no winders to look
out of, no‑one to talk to. Can't go out for a walk round like you whenever I
feel like it! Get away with it he says!'
homely though in't it Ernie? Family photos on the walls. This IS the missis
here in't it? This blonde piece with the big knockers?'
would you like to be starin at steel bulkheads all day?'
more Ernie. I've come to offer you something better than all this paper
rubbish. I've come to offer you...' He leaned close, staring hard into Ernie's
wide open eyes. '...the real thing!'
Stanier's face took on a look of concern as the pitch of his mechanical saw
altered from a low, rasping grunt to a higher, skidding squeak. Barrow offered
could do with more skilly on that Jud.'
I don't want that stuff splashin all over t'place!'
it gives you cancer of the scrotum.'
sounds a right load of balls.'
imagine a company of this size exposing its workers to such a risk though can
grinned but refused to take the bait. He switched off the saw and took a new
blade from a nearby locker. Inside the locker door was pinned a photo of
V.I.Lenin. Next to it was an unfaded patch about the same size where J.V.Stalin
had been. Stalin had been taken down following the criticism of the Cult of the
Personality at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. As his
body had been transferred from the Mausoleum to the Kremlin Wall so Jud's photo
had migrated from the locker door to his tool box. Some reckoned Sikorski had
talked him into it; others thought Jud had moved it just to have Sikorski on.
Lenin looked up inquisitively with a gaze of penetrating comprehension; it was
one of the 1917 photographs. He seemed to be saying: 'It’s that 316 stainless
Jud, wears blades out in ragtime.' Jud turned off the coolant valve and looked
closely at the six inch diameter bar in the machine.
this bloody 316 stainless' he said, 'wears blades out in ragtime. This is the
third I've had in today.'
have the old one off you mate, they make good scrapers.' Barrow crouched down by
the machine and put the new blade in. He knew Jud was a sick man, ever since he
had been gassed ten years ago on the Phosgene. He had difficulty breathing.
His face was a mass of broken purple veins. Stanier ran through once more the
story of how the accident had been set up by management.
think I’m a bit cracked in here Barrow, you know. Not about this; I don’t go
blabbing it to everyone, I’ve got more oil in my can. I know it’s a serious
matter and I know I can trust your discretion as a fellow trade unionist. But
some of these young uns! Harold McMillan’s told them they’ve never had it so
good and they’re running around in cars, up to the eyeballs in HP. They’re
getting as much as eighteen quid a week on bonus and they think the sun shines
out of Hodgkin’s arse. They don’t want to listen to me, but it’ll change Barrow.
They’re living now on the fruits of our struggle. They haven’t had to go through
it like we have, but their turn’ll come! That’s the only real teacher Barrow:
struggle, confrontation! Its a dialectical necessity. They won’t read Marxism
but they can’t avoid living it! Their turn’ll come!’
Barrow needed one more to fill the bus. He knew just the bloke and planned to
detour on his way back from a job on the Glauber Salt plant. As soon as he
walked into the Carbon Electrode Machining Shop with his labourer Owen and his
apprentice Trellie, he heard Screawn shout above the noise of his lathe:
Barrow! Here a minute!'
it was next to the Chlorine Production Unit the average temperature in the shop
was eighty degrees. Screawn was an extra-ordinary sight: carbonized, purple and
glossy, hair stood on end, with sweat tracks down the side of his face, he
looked like the cover of a science fiction magazine. They reckoned he wore
nothing under his overalls. He liked to grip Barrow about the new starters in
the Bagging Plant.
fag?' said Screawn.
that behind your ear?' said Owen.
brain. What's behind yours?'
'Fuckinell! You got out the wrong side this morning!'
the outside is the wrong side.'
one a gem' Barrow offered him an Embassy tipped.
don't want them coupons do you Barrow luv?'
you saving up for? A mechanical cunt?'
activities were well known: he was the works' ram.
already got one; it's fixed between the wife's legs. Fuck me! I tried it this
morning! No kidding, it was like sticking it between two house bricks! Talking
of cunt though...'
normal' said Owen dryly.
seen that one on the stitching machine with Big Irma?'
horny Barrow luv. Just left school, fifteen or sixteen. Should see her skirts!
What a leg!'
'Stretches right up to her arse does it?'
flesh though in't it Scraggy' said Owen, 'Think of all the mither you'd have to
go through to get your end away. Is it worth it for a few hours' pleasure?'
if she's only that old she's not going to be interested in a dirty old get like
you' said Barrow. 'Sounds to me like she's more in our Trellie's line.'
looked uncomfortable. He glanced at the big clock at the end of the shop hoping
to flush Barrow into an early retreat.
greedy' said Screawn spreading his hand palm downward in a gesture of altruism.
'I'll let Trellie here break her in. After all its a big jump from candles to a
hampton like mine.'
like a gentleman' said Owen
you say Trellie? Shall we get Scraggy to send her round Saturday night?'
I think I can fit her in.' Trellie tried to play along. it was the only way.
fit you in though!' cackled Screawn. 'That's the question.'
it then Scraggy. I've been getting a bit worried about Trellie lately. He's
wanking so much he can't hold a chisel steady these days. What he needs is a
good, steady supply of young, fresh, succulent, virgin hole.'
Barrow!' moaned Screawn lifting his leg off the floor, 'I'll get a hard on!'
reminds me. Next Friday we're going to a strip club in Man-chester; I suppose I
can put you down?'
they left Screawn held up a polished black thumb. Suddenly, as if it had just
occurred to him, he shouted:
not taking Trellie as well are you?'
make it' said Barrow, 'He sees his married piece on Friday nights.'
behind him, flexed his arm and winked with his whole face. Screawn started to
laugh, stopped, and then raised his eyebrows.
he is an’ all!' he bellowed, projecting his own obsessions onto innocent young
going on inside Fleet’s head? That day, as usual during the dinner hour, he sat
on a flaking length of creosolted pine and read Nietzsche down by the canal. But
why Nietzsche, that lonely, loony prophet of the Superman? Sikorski had
something to do with it but it wasn’t that simple. At first he’d fed Fleet his
own passions: Jane Austen, George Eliot and Trollope. Then Sikorski brought in
Joyce; volume one of the two volumed Hamburg Odyssey Press edition of Ulysses.
At the end of the week Fleet was asking for volume two. Sikorski was stunned.
He’d never been able to read Joyce, and what he had struggled through confirmed
his impression that Lawrence had been right in calling it ‘old fag-ends and
decided to test his prodigy further. Nietzsche. What better to subdue this proto
proletarian polymath than the dense, allusive ironies of Nietzsche? Writing of
such compact rapidity that even Freud found it bewildering. Fleet struggled with
the text. The meaning came and went like the sound of a distant brass band on a
windy day, but what he did understand intoxicated him. As with Joyce, in which
there must have been a hundred words which weren’t even in his dictionary, he
was gripped spasmodically by the transfixing sensation of a great mind setting
up reverberations in his own. Nietzsche’s manic tone illuminated his grey,
factory existence like sheet lightning.
It was as
much an emotional response as an intellectual one; a response which Sikorski
hadn’t reckoned with. He observed Fleet’s reaction with alarm, admiration and
amusement. Sometimes he felt like a hedgesparrow watching a cuckoo bursting its
nest. He tried to flatten Fleet by probing his comprehension of such Nietzschean
mysteries as the theory of Eternal Recurrence but he remained uncrushed like a
religious zealot in contact with the source of some life giving truth:
idiot demands total understanding’ he said with an eerie poise, ‘I’ve reached a
point where I recognise that anything I can understand straight away isn’t worth
It was a
remark worthy of Sikorski himself; he laughed out loud.
Stanier could lend you Das Kapital, such a passion for Teutonic mysticism should
be indulged to the full.’
some stuff off him but it doesn’t touch me here.’ Fleet put a hand to his heart
imagine’ said Sikorski, ‘that Vladimir Ilyich was aiming for a higher organ.’
said Fleet, ‘the print on those pamphlets reminds me of the Watchtower’.
Sikorski, well, Fleet had come to the conclusion that he was either a genius or
a phoney; if such divergent options can be called a conclusion. Perhaps the
thing he admired most about Sikorski wasn’t his knowledge, or the erudition, and
certainly not the taste which he so often disagreed with, but the style. The
elegant ironies of his latest mentor against the honest, dogmatic simplicity of
Stanier whom he had spent so much time talking to in the Fitting Shop.
At the end of the afternoon, as Barrow was getting his moped out of
the bike sheds he saw Henderson crackling bluely on the Caustic Shed roof.
some overtime then you grabbing get?' he shouted.
practising my fillets' said Henderson.
strip club trip ‑ tell Brenda it's in aid of Neechy's birthday'
Neechy'. Barrow bumped over the wet rails and headed for the time office.
Henderson turned to Ferny who was squatting on the vent fan casing holding a
bunch of number eight rods.
that new starter on the horizontal borer'.
through his violet, slag‑spattered eyeshield he struck the arc again.
Barrow drove the bus while Screawn entertained the occupants with one of his
'So I was
visiting me mate in hospital with a broken leg. He'd fell off his bike and got
run over by a horse and cart...'
had a bulge in his jacket pocket. Nobody could guess what it was and attempts
to find out were resisted violently.
this note back to my mother he says. All right I says and I takes the note...'
wore a bow tie. They asked him if it was one of those that went round and
round. He said it wasn't and that it was only to be expected that people from
their impoverished cultural background should be surprised by such sartorial
next week I'm there again, and again he asks me to take a message to his
mother. She lived on her own; the old man had died years ago ... '
the rigger looked even bigger in his oatmeal coloured jacket than he did in a
boilersuit at work. The bus had sagged noticeably when he got on. They had to
put little Jimmy Traynor next to him as the only person who could fit on the
same double seat. Fred's strength was a legend and it was rumoured he was once
conned into trying to lift himself off the ground by standing in a dustbin and
pulling up on the handles. Newton's laws of motion remained undefeated but Fred
did rip the bottom out of the bin.
time we gets talking; has a couple of brown ales out of the fridge. Then she
says its her seventieth birthday next day...'
Brimelow was on the bus. He had a glass eye, done on tanks in the war. There
was some speculation about whether he could get in for half price. The general
consensus was that it was worth a try.
fucking years old! Didn't look bad though, sort of well preserved. I had nowt
else on at the time so...'
immediate future filled Fleet with dread. He'd never been to a strip club
before. He'd heard that the women came down among the audience and stuck their
tits in your face. The prospect worried him. It would have been bad enough on
his own but with two hundred blokes watching! He'd agreed to go on a mad
impulse: it was Nietzsche's fault ‑ only the day before he'd read: 'For believe
me, the secret of harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the
greatest enjoyment is ‑ to LIVE DANGEROUSLY!' And you couldn't get much more
dangerous than this.
took her upstairs to give her birthday present...’
for every ten years was it Scraggy?'
for yourself Tich. She was ready for it as well. Still juicy an all. Not bad
a bit of the old stuff mate!'
the next day.'
still treadin?!' Hardman was incredulous.
could get it like.'
lying bastard Screawn!'
turned the bus into Erskine street. Someone had chalked Foreskin street above
the nameplate. A boy appeared from behind a pile of rubble on the demolition
after your bus mister?'
you cheeky little get!' said Barrow. They piled out noisily.
There was an alcove just through the main door where membership forms were
signed. A glance through the previous entries revealed that recent visitors
included Hitler, Pope Pius XII, Doctor Crippen and the Duke of Edinburgh. The
auditorium itself was filled with tables. Barrow's had been reserved but, since
it wasn't near enough to the stage, he switched the card with one nearer. The
place was beginning to fill up. Sikorski gazed round beaming:
perfect locale in which to celebrate the old misogynist's birthday, eh Fleet?'
busy trying to make his seat inaccessible. He was disturbed by the corridors
running down to the stage. The bouncers were grotesque; ugly and fat. It would
have been no surprise to learn that they had Schraeder valves instead of navels
and got pumped up every night before the show.
the ale in.'
Walker's is it?'
each in the kitty ought to be enough for starters.' A waiter in an off‑white
coat approached. He had the anxious, hard‑boiled look of someone who relies on
tips for a living.
it to be gents?'
pints of bitter.'
hovered indecisively, as if such a complicated order needed to be put down on
electric organ was already sounding chords. The drummer finished off his beer.
Jackie Carlton, the compere, bounded onto the stage, microphone in hand.
evening gentlemen. Welcome once more to the New Luxor Stag Night. We've got
some marvellous strippers for you tonight. I discovered one of them myself.
She was doing this fantastic act in Liston's ‑ you know Liston's ‑ the only
place in Manchester where the whores give Green Shield stamps. One of them gave
me the eye as I was getting in a Pimm's Number One. It's no use you looking at
me luv I said, I've only got sixpence. That's all right she said, I've got
change. Anyway there was this fantastic act! A young girl comes on stark naked,
juggling with a walnut. To finish off she throws it over her shoulder, does a
handstand, catches it in her cunt, and cracks it! ... then her grandmother comes
on and does an encore with a coconut.'
incoherent sneer of abuse came from a tiny waiter serving near the stage.
Garth the head waiter. If anyone wants a head Garth'll get him one.'
the news in Welsh. Stand up Garth, lets have a look at you.. .Oh, you are stood
nice coat you've got on Garth. Do they do them in white? If he turns nasty grab
him by the knackers. Our first act this evening is a charming young singer
who's just finished a season at the Leningrad Conservative Club. I want you to
give a big hand to Miss Judy Jackson.' Miss Jackson came on to mild applause and
the odd shout of 'gerremoff!' Before leaving her to it Jackie engaged her in
you've finished your act go and lie down in my dressing room. If I'm not there
in five minutes, start without me. By the way that's a nice perfume you're
called Come to Me.' Jackie sniffed vigorously.
doesn't smell like come to me.'
energetically. No‑one really listened but they were still too sober to be
you fancy that Fred?'
sooner have steak and chips.'
off to polite applause.
our first stripper, an eighteen year old virgin straight from Paris with a forty
eight inch bust. When she stands sideways she looks like a dead heat in a
Zeppelin race. You needn't clap, she will create her own applause as she comes
on.' The lights were turned down and in the glowing core of the stage, to the
music from The Man with the Golden Arm, a huge blonde in a shimmering green
dress pranced up and down whisking a stole in artistic figures of eight.
Everything stopped; the urinal was deserted. Someone at the back whistled.
Barrow turned to survey his charges.
'Ferkinell! Look at Ernie!'
at the end of the table, had his eyes pressed into the sweaty rubber cups of a
pair of ex‑Navy ten by fifties.'
a squint Ernie' Someone made a playful grab.
your fuckin hands to yourself!' he hissed desperately.
dalliance over the last two items of clothing brought shouts from the audience,
whistles, cheers and farting noises. When she finally obliged there was a long
'Fuckinell!’ said Cyclops.
eye full Bert?'
spontaneous burst of clapping broke out. She whirled to the back of the stage,
a golden blob of sensuality caught in the warm spotlights. The organ swelled to
a climax. Standing against the vertical slit in the curtains she removed her
G‑string and froze in accordance with the dictates of the Watch Committee. The
drum rolled and the lights snapped off. In the gloom she could still be seen
groping for discarded clothing. Then her naked buttocks vanished into the
pair of knockers!'
never feel both of them at once. I reckon you'd just have to wrestle with one
at a time.'
hard on Ernie?'
next round in Barrow.'
going for a slash.'
she wasn't a virgin though.' said Henderson.
have had enough dick to put a handrail round Australia.'
they all do a turn, these strippers.'
Jud Stanier walked past the front of the stage Carlton leaned over.
on to that suit, they'll be back in fashion someday. Hey! Who took the bolt out
of your neck?'
disappeared through the swing doors.
have sworn that door opened before he reached it!'
the door there was a five yard queue to the bogs. The old cinema toilet had
been painted all over in red emulsion. The straining patrons slashed
inaccurately as soon as they got near the stone. The floor was awash to a depth
of half an inch. Even here the jokes filtered through above the gushing and
gurgling of stretched bladders.
Drunkenness was setting in. Everything got louder and the only time there
wasn't a queue outside the bogs was when the stripper came on. An ageing
housewife with a caesarean scar, described as a voluptuous twenty year old
brunette, was followed by a statuesque black who rotated tassels on her nipples
clockwise, anticlockwise, and in both directions at the same time. A Welsh
comedian was heckled off the stage. Half his jokes were met with jeers or were
completed by jokers in the audience before he got to the punch line. Chants of
'Off! Off!' began to swell along with a concerted rendering of 'We'll Keep a
Welcome in the Hillsides'. He left in confusion but with acrimony.
Carlton's urbane calm was undisturbed. As he walked on a huge drunken lout
stood up at a front table shouting:
Garth! Where are you, you idle little twat!'
looked over the top of his glasses and allowed his stomach to sag outwards in a
pose of affected nonchalance.
don't you pull your foreskin over your head, have a piss and drown yourself ...
Garth, would you mind serving this gentleman?' Garth scurried across with noisy
is now being served gentlemen, by Sultan our resident chef. Sultan,
incidentally comes from a very famous tribe of cannibals. In fact he tells me
he brought his son up in the jungle. There's quite a few of them over here now,
only last week he passed his best friend in the street. He spent some time in
Bradford before he came here but he couldn't find anywhere to stay. He knocked
on one door and a fucking great coon answered with a pitchfork in one hand.
What's that for? said Sultan, d'you work on a farm? Hell no man, says the coon,
ahs changin de beds. There will be a break of half an hour before the second
half of our show so when you've finished your hotpot why not have a dabble in
Sikorski brought Jud's hotpot to save him the walk. Fleet didn't feel like any
even though he'd been farming his pints out ever since the second round. The
body of the hall looked like a carcass stripped by vultures. On the bare ribs
of the tables and chairs hung a few boozers among the debris of empty bottles.
A few yards away a boy sprawled unconscious, his best suit soaked with vomit, a
few yellow cubes of half digested hotpot still sticking to his chin.
workers at play eh Jud?' Sikorski dipped his bread into the hotpot. 'Surely
Doctor Marx couldn't fail to endorse the spectacle as one of pure proletarian
culture. By the workers, for the workers; passionate yet ephemeral. The
dialectical negation of our hard‑wrought, soulless, enduring bourgeois art.'
watched in amazement as he sopped up this liquid sludge. Bow tie, pince nez,
his language was capable of the subtle nuances of a Henry James character, yet
here he was, eating like a pig. Did he do it on purpose to be more proletarian
than the proletariat? There was certainly more gurgling and slurping than
appeared entirely justified. Stanier, in contrast, ate fastidiously with the
puritanical strain Jud my friend! The whole English left is infected by it.
Marx can pause in his labours and momentarily forget the agony of his carbuncles
in the arms of his housemaid; Engels can cohabit and relish a good wine while so
doing, but the good, grass‑roots English radical cant even look at a magnificent
spectacle like Natasha without the spectre of Milton or John Wesley rising
an old boot.'
though' said Fleet, as if this virtue excused all defects.
things too simply Jud, through those rose coloured glasses you pick up each year
with your Party card. She's a celebrant of the physical, a cultural
revolutionary subverting us with her Dyonisian sensuality.' Sikorski waved his
bread enthusiastically, its gravy‑ rimmed tooth‑indented edge was the banner of
the new morality.
slag, in it for the money. You know that as well as I do Sikorski. Christ! You
continentals would see significance in having a piss!,
indeed. Why, even here, in the overcrowded New Luxor latrine, we see the
microcosmic breakdown of man's inhibitions under the impact of scarcity.'
there's the jokes' Fleet chipped in.
The only genuine working class art form left! An oral tradition stretching right
back to Beowulf and Sir Gawain!'
sexist, prejudiced crap! The desperate product of our mutilated humanity!'
laughed though' said Fleet.
condense mysteriously out of the amorphous proletarian experience, polished by
anonymous spirits, the Homers of the centreless grinder and the lathe, and
transmitted intact without a word ever being written down.'
cobblers! Anyroad there's nowt artistic about strippers' Stanier went on. 'You
don't think they do it for nowt do you? The fact that they're working class
girls and working class blokes doesn't make it working class art. Paying a
dollar to see this lot is as artistic as buying fish and chips in a back‑street
chipper. In fact its a bloody sight worse ‑ its degrading! It shows how
bankrupt man‑woman relationships have become under capitalism. The bloody cash
nexus Sikorski! Never mind all this bollocks about subversive revolutionaries.
There's no dignity anymore ‑ no reverence ‑ its bloody decadent!'
we find ourselves together supporting this institution.' Fleet observed.
who's over‑simplifying?!' Stanier almost welcomed the charge. How many times
had halfwits at work criticised him for having money in the bank or trying to
buy his own home. They expected Communists to live in a bloody barrel like
Diogenes, and give all they had to the poor.
d'you think I am? Some kind of religious hermit shutting himself off from the
world, keeping his soul pure? I'm a dialectical materialist, a scientific
socialist; my kingdom's on earth. I want to absorb as much of the totality of
the working class experience as I can, not just the central, basic, economic
exploitation, none of us can escape that, but the other bits too; the
'Metaphysical twaddle Jud! Dialectics, totalities, what gibberish! Is that all
you see here? The economic base reflected in the superstructure?'
interjected Fleet, 'to rephrase that rather abstract notion in words what your
average worker can understand, Natasha's economic baseness is reflected in the
public exposure of her mind‑boggling superstructure.'
impossible to have a serious discussion with you two.'
reading on the canal bank the other day in the baggin break when I came across
this.' Fleet pulled out a strip of paper and read: They put on something even
when they take off everything. Woman is so artistic.’
repeated it at their request.
thought eh Sikorski! Could Trollope have said that?..or Lenin?'
paradox' retorted Sikorski, 'You imagine every obscurity is profound.'
true! Women are never as naked as men! Its a physical impossibility. They
really do seem to put something on.'
called make‑up' said Stanier.
Even here? All over?'
you dozy pillock! You don't think that flawless bronzed flesh is the result of
three months in the south of France do you? These old boots are as grey as you
and me. But a load of make‑up and a few orange floodlights ... and there you
Nietzsche may be right Fleet. An impenetrable, trans-parent veil defying
possession by vision alone. And this surely would explain the strange
activities of those eminently cultured commandants at Auschwitz and Dachau who
read Goethe daily in between amateur performances of Beethoven's late quartets.
Yes! They peeled back the skins of their living victims, not out of vulgar
sadism, nor even mundane medical research, but out of pure philosophical
curiosity! A practical investigation of Freidrich's sacred text!'
put down a half raised round of bread in disgust:
Sikorski! Some of us are still eating!'
Heinrich Himmler watched with relish the inner organs of Jews and Poles' mused
am, trying to educate you two, show you that all this is just one more mechanism
for manipulating the proletariat, and what do I get?'
Mumbo jumbo! A load of half‑baked mystical bullshit about women!'
incapable of aesthetic wonderment Jud' Sikorski turned on his best, awestriken
tone. 'Are we really so impoverished that we can no longer feel, even faintly
under the horny carapace laid on us by our mindless toil, that great, Grecian
glorification..' he savoured the alliteration, 'of the physical! What we see
here is as stirring as the Elgin marbles. More so! They move!'
hell! In ten years from now these places will be closing down from lack of
custom. Its just a bloody gimmick! Elgin marbles! I don't know what's worse,
woman as slave or woman as goddess. They're both aspects of the same attitude ‑
hatred. I reckon you two might be a pair of closet homos.'
were already funnelling back into the main hall. The organ resumed once more
its vague wandering amongst unrelated chords. New kitties filled the ashtrays;
waiters were in demand. The audience, far from collapsing after six or seven
pints and a day's work which had begun at half past seven were just getting
warmed up for the second half.
key event in workshops’ outings emerged only with the re‑telling as the action
of memory selected, embellished and finally raised like a brass rubbing the
blurred past into sharp definition. So there had been the famous booze‑up where
Haynes had lost his false teeth honking up out of the bus window. And the darts
match where Sikorski had hit a wire and stuck one in the barmaid's arse and
Screawn had grabbed her and offered to suck the wound clean. And the mid‑summer
bowls tournament when that mad bastard Ferny let the landlord's parrot out and
they had to chase it for two miles with sacks and jackets. Before the night was
over it was on the way to becoming Hardman and his ten by fifties, Sikorski
duped for a double brandy, and the wrestle with the bus.
were just outside Glazebrook when the back tyre went down, on that stretch of
road without lights, footpaths or even habitation, an almost unique geographical
feature in the forty miles between Liverpool and Manchester. Stanier had told
them, on the way out, that this was where it had all started, the Industrial
Revolution, right here in South Lancs. And that Engels had predicted, as long
ago as 1844, that in a hundred years' time both cities would meet at Warrington
in one vast manufacturing complex. Yet it was still possible to see owls from
that road, and things like hedgehogs, foxes and stoats.
was sabotage. The nail, propped up against the back wheel by the juvenile
protection racketeer, had finally worked its way in. Barrow noticed the
steering going soggy but, thinking it might just be that last round of shorts,
kept going. Then Ferny, who was over the back axle, said he could feel the rim
hitting potholes. Nobody took any notice and there was disgruntled cursing when
Barrow stopped to take a look. The flat was plainly visible in the glow of his
fag lighter. They laughed; all except Sikorski and Fleet.
stuff it with grass.'
flat at the bottom.'
could blow it up with his gob.'
Barrow! We're not going to be late for work on Monday are we? I wouldn't want to
was glad they'd stopped. He fumbled drunkenly with his flies.
piss on the wheel you stupid little twat! I've got to get that off!' Barrow
rummaged under the back seat; no jack, no wheelbrace, just the spare and an old,
open‑ended bed spanner two sizes too big. This provoked more laughter as they
crawled under the seats in a mock desperate search.
Fleet was amazed at their buoyancy. It was pitch dark, no traffic; there wasn't
even a phone for five miles. Three o'clock in the morning with a long cold walk
in front of them and all these daft sods could do was laugh! It was serious! To
hell with living dangerously, he'd had enough of that for one night. Rapidly he
went through all the options. The situation was obviously hopeless. Why hadn't
Barrow checked the bloody tools before he brought the bus out. It was typically
bad planning; they couldn't organise anything! The only person with a comparable
grasp of the situation seemed to be Sikorski.
you reckon Sky?'
shrugged and projected his anxieties onto Stanier.
only hope a car comes along. But what about Jud? He's in no state to walk far.'
you two whingeing at?' said Stanier briskly, 'The lads'll sort something out.'
Barrow snapped a branch off a nearby hedge, wrapped an old rag round it and
dunked it in the tank. He lit it and handed it to Hardman.
just stand there Ernie, like a Sister of Mercy on blob, hold this so we can see
what we're doing.'
said Big Fred, 'Let the dog see the rabbit.'
spanner's a mile out!' said Henderson trying it on the wheel nuts. 'We're
Hendy! Never been on a big job then? No wonder you're only a boiler‑maker!'
might do it Barrow' Cyclops handed Barrow two half crowns. Barrow squatted
alongside the wheel and used the coins to pack out the jaws of the spanner. He
slacked the nuts off carefully, keeping his left hand on the spanner head to
detect any signs of slip.
fucking dog's knob!
up a strategic position on the end of the back bumper. Ferny, Henderson and
Screawn grabbed a handhold where they could.
A loud cheer cut through the night. The back end of the bus sailed up in the
air and hung there. Barrow whipped off the wheel.
all right lads?'
your time Barrow chuck' said Fred.
put his hand under Henderson's crutch.
started warbling in a squeaky voice:
think I've done myself a mischief!'
dropped. They were back on the road.
Sikorski brightened up. Fleet wondered how it had all been done; they'd just
grabbed intransigent reality and wrung its neck. And what had he and Sikorski
been doing? Looking on in despair like, as Barrow would have put it, two spare
pricks at a wedding. He'd seen this time and again in the works; jobs which
daunted him or seemed impossible were ripped into and disposed of by some kind
of Dyonisiac energy. What did Herr Nietzsche have to say about this? Not much
as he recalled. How many wheels had old Neechy ever changed? Was there a
connection between the will to power and this mysterious superiority over
intractable things? He was too boozed and tired to work it out. The were into
the suburbs of Warrington, civilisation of a kind: sodium lights, phone boxes,
garages, houses; the familiar paraphernalia of urban life. The new Nietzsches
were singing an elaborately disgusting epic, Barrow was prodding the accelerator
in time with the beat, little Jimmy Traynor looked like he might soon be sick.
DANGER: MEN AT WORK
There was a cold war between
Barrow and Broomie which sometimes got hot. They were opposites. The only
thing they had in common was a job in the fitting shop at Carlisle Industrial
Chemicals. Barrow, as the best engineering brain on the premises, got all the
technical jobs while Broomie, as the worst, worked the drill. This was only one
rung higher than sweeping the floor, which he did when he wasn't on the drill.
And yet it was Broomie who
had pretensions to culture, always wore a tie, pressed his overalls, brought in
pot plants, read the Daily Mail and invested drilling with the
responsible complexity of a brain surgeon's trepanning operation. Barrow, in
contrast, was an insouciant vulgarian who bared his hairy chest even in winter,
sang dirty songs at the top of his voice, sometimes dangled red rubber tubing
out of his overall crotch and affected an avuncular concern for Broomie, twenty
years his senior, which Broomie had come to distrust. Nevertheless Broomie had
to admit that some of Barrow's advice was well‑founded, like the time he'd
charged through clouds of boiling coolant to stop him boring a one inch hole in
stainless steel at 2000 revs. But there were other occasions when he suspected
he'd been set up, like when Barrow had insisted on an eight sixteenths hole and
had Broomie searching frantically through his stock and rowing violently with
Broomie's single talent was
for scavenging. The day, in this respect, had started well. As he approached
his machine he noticed a pound note sticking out from under the rubber mat.
Greed obliterated any speculations about how this could have got there; his
immediate concern was to keep at least one of his steel‑toe‑capped size nines
over it until everyone had gone out on the plant. When Barrow called him over
he covered it with a six inch flange.
'Keep this to yourself Broomie for
Christ's sake. Its not really, your turn. If one of the other labourers found
out I'd be lynched.' He cupped his hand round Broomie's ear and leaned
closer. 'It's a parcel ‑ feels like a jacket.' The old shop fore-man, now
retired, sent in his cast‑offs for general distribution.
'Where is it?'
'I've hidden it on plant. Bring
it in later ‑ on the quiet like'
'Right. Good thinking Barrow.
These greedy sods don't appreciate good stuff anyway.'
They were interrupted by a
muffled rumble from the amenities area followed by an agonised bellow. Ronnie,
the new apprentice, had opened his locker and nearly got knocked over by a
bouncing deluge of old rubber boots.
'The Phantom strikes again!'
The first time had been three
months ago just after he'd started in the shop. Then it had been screwed
elbows, joint rings, stud couplings, valve bodies, gland packing and pump
impellers stuffed into that vertical coffin shaped container which should have
held only his personal effects.
He guessed somebody had a key
so he changed the lock. But a few weeks later it happened again and this time
the dirty swine had included a dead hedgehog. He considered complaining to the
Health and Safety Executive on account of this rotting corpse being adjacent to
his sandwiches but settled for the foreman who merely issued a general caution.
His next lock would be unbeatable, he thought ‑ until today.
A small crowd was already
winding Ronnie up to new heights of rage.
'How's the bugger getting in?'
'He must be a bleeding genius!'
'I reckon its a master skeleton
key.' The notion was taken up.
'Course! That's it ‑ a master
'Bloody skeleton key?' shouted
Ronnie on the edge of hysteria, 'How could it be?' He opened his hand to reveal
to those who pretended they'd never seen it before the Unbeatable, Impenetrable,
'A combination lock!' There was a
silence while they gave a good impression of hard thinking.
'He must have hit on just the
right combination' said Barrow pursuing the problem with remorseless logic.
'With five soddin digits!' said
Ronnie. He was doing an HNC at night‑school and rarely missed an opportunity to
instruct his less fortunate colleagues. Only last week he'd spent all afternoon
trying to convince old Barney that screw cutting a left hand thread in Australia
was no different to doing it here.
'That means one hundred thousand
combinations' he went on, 'Who could possibly try all those positions?'
'I've only managed forty eight
'Have you tried lying on top?'
'Fuck me no! Forty nine!'
'If you set up one every fifteen
seconds' continued Ronnie remembering the calculations held done at the time,
'It'd take four hundred and sixteen hours to do them all. That's over seventeen
days working twenty four hours a day!'
'Well how's he getting in then?'
'I'm blowed if I know' he said,
pressing the steel sides yet again in search of a sprung seam. 'But I'll find
out if it kills me!'
As they drifted back to work
Barrow took an acrobatic dive over Broomie's flange.
'Aaaaaaagh! Jeesus Broomie that's
a hazard that is! Nearly had a lost time accident there!' He moved to pick it up
but Broomie was out of his cupboard so fast he banged his head on the doorframe.
'Just leave it. You've got better
things to do than clear up after me besides its covered in oil, you'll get your
'Ugh!' said Barrow in exaggerated
horror 'We don't want any of that sort of thing.'
Soon the place was empty.
Broomie walked to the door as if taking the air, then dashed back to the drill.
The exposed corner of the pound note did indeed have the familiar green whorls
and even what looked like a picture of the Queen. The rest of it, however,
shouted in big red and yellow letters 'Win a thousand pounds in the fabulous
Nescafe Grand Prize raffle!'
Towards the end of the
afternoon Barrow and his team, a labourer and an apprentice, came out of the
Benzene Hexafluoride and passed through the Bagging Plant on their way to the
brew hut. The Bagging Plant was a cavernous steel‑framed building with high
grey windows; sparrows flitted in its vacant upper regions. Down below forty
massive stitching machines clattered and whirred, each one operated by a woman
in a blue smock. Big Irma was in charge. She had Barrow's parcel ready and he
paid for it by going into an enthusiastic clinch. Irma's vast rubbery lips
jammed up against his like a plumber's squeegee; Barrow's grimy hands sank into
her bulging buttocks; pelvic oscillations ensued. A human uproar sounded above
the mechanical din. The embrace collapsed with great, stagy gasps on both
sides. As his team left by the far door Barrow moved over for a private
conversation with a young redhead in the corner.
Later he arrived at the
baggin hut declaiming poetry.
dark and hairy slit
Divided by one inch from shit
How men could wallow in thy piss
And call it everlasting bliss
I'm fucked if I know!'
His filthy tin cup looked as if
it had been filled with dark mahogany wood‑stain. He poured in condensed milk
and three spoonfuls of sugar. This glutinous fluid was gulped greedily.
'Getting anywhere with that one?'
asked Owen the labourer.
'Getting anywhere? Am I getting
anywhere? Just ask me if I'm getting anywhere!'
'I've fucking cracked it Owen luv!'
'Not before time either. You've
been working on it for months.'
'Worth waiting for though. What a
'Has she got a sense of humour
though' asked Trellie the apprentice, 'Can she cook?'
'Do you fancy poking Fanny
'What's been the big delay
anyway?' said Owen.
'Its her old man; mad jealous he
is; never lets her out. But he's also crackers about fishing.' Barrow gave a
great cackling laugh and rolled over backwards along the bench. 'And tomorrow
night...him and his mates....are driving down to South Wales ... for their once
a year...ALL NIGHT SESSION!'
'Jammy sod!' said Owen.
'What if he comes back?' said
'Are you on? Definitely? Round
there? Straight on the job? Up to the maker's name?'
'Fuck me no! She's a nice girl
Owen, not one of your Cock and Trumpet scrubbers. We've only known each other
thirteen weeks four days nine hours. I merely find myself in a position to take
her out for a slap up nosh in one of the district's most expensive restaurants
... And afterwards, inflamed by our brandy liqueurs...who knows?'
'What about the missis?'
'Can't take her as well. Be too
'Well I hope you've got a good
'I'll bring my best gear into work
and you can tell her I'm working late on the evaporators ‑ perhaps all night.'
'I'll tell her you're working like
a dog ‑ a thoroughbred stud Labrador.'
'You could leave your stuff in
Ronnie's locker' said Owen. They laughed.
'Who the hell is the phantom?'
'Christ Trellie I thought you
knew' said Owen, 'Its this black bastard here!'
'But how d'you do it?'
'Here's my key' Barrow fished out
of his tool bag a ground down nail punch.
'You could pick a cheap padlock
with that but what about a combination lock?'
'You don't even touch the bleeding
lock. You use it to knock out the hinge pins on the door.'
'The hinge pins! Ferkinell!'
'Best get moving' said Barrow 'Broomie's
waiting for his jacket'. He got up, threw his dregs on the floor and picked up
Broomie felt faint when
Barrow walked into the shop with the package bulging blatantly out of the front
of his overalls.
'Into the cupboard quick!' he said
looking round anxiously.
'How will you get it home? You
can't be seen on the bus with it.'
'Christ no!' Broomie travelled
regularly with one of the other labourers; they even got off at the same stop.
'I'll walk it!'
'That'd be best. Pity its started
Broomie got drenched but
reckoned it was worth it. When he got in he took off his boots and shouted for
the scissors. His wife watched as he opened the parcel on the spotless kitchen
table. In it was one of the filthiest coal sacks ever to come out of the power
station. Damp black grit was compacted into its foul‑smelling fibres. Big Irma
had cut a hole in the top and two in the sides and, as a nice afterthought,
stitched a label just inside the neck which read ‘Specially tailored for Albert
At night‑school, in the
corridor, Trellie bumped into Ron. He couldn't help explaining the hinge‑pin
trick. It was a rare pleasure to have his brainy fellow apprentice hanging on
his every word. They had a long talk about Barrow, the redhead and the jacket.
Ron retired reflectively into his hydraulics class.
There was a lot of shouting
next morning as Broomie struggled into his overalls: remarks about the jacket; a
real withering barrage. Somebody handed him a coalsack tie. Broomie kept his
trap shut with difficulty. The shop emptied as usual; only Ron hung back. He
fitted extra‑long hinge pins and mushroomed over their protruding ends then had
a chat with Broomie. The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Late in the
afternoon Barrow had a phone call from the Glauber Salt plant but when he got
over there no‑one knew anything about it. By the time he got back everyone had
gone home. He plugged in the kettle and brewed an extra strong tea. First he
slipped into his frilly white shirt then carefully knotted an expensive silk
tie. Bending slightly he combed his glossy black hair in the mirror taped to
the wall. One last admiring glance then he straightened and took a swig.
Strange! He scarcely got a mouthful.
He tipped the half pint cup
further and felt, with growing rage, a spreading warm wetness on his chest. The
empty shop resounded with a howl of despair. He sloshed the remaining tea
savagely against the wall and looked closely at the cup. Just under the
overhanging enamelled steel lip someone had drilled four adjacent holes. It was
a trick he remembered from his days as an apprentice ‑ he'd tried it himself
twenty years earlier. Surely Broomie couldn't have dredged that one from the
depths of his spastic consciousness. He pounded it flat with a seven pound lump
hammer, ripped off his shirt and went home. He felt a bit like President
Trueman on learning of the Russian Atom bomb.