While 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 visit.
Trellie 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.
Neville seemed 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.
On his 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.
'Modern thought 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.'
Neville 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.
'Its from 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.'
Trellie 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 it mean?'
'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.'
'Jeesus!' 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.
'No concrete correlatives?' he asked, going back to the point where he had lost track.
He felt vaguely flattered but unenlightened.
'You should 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'.
Neville 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 the wine.
'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.
'I'm interested in philosophy.'
'Schopenhauer 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.
Neville lowered himself awkwardly into his winged armchair.
'I had used to be greatly interested in philosophy until I discovered something even more rewarding.'
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.
'Teapots' said Neville.
'Teapots!?' Had he heard right or was this French or German for some esoteric pursuit?
'Come into the library.'
Hidden fluorescents illuminated forty seven teapots on a shelf which ran right round the room.
'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!'
Trellie 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 enthusiasm.
'Like great 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.'
Trellie took 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 welded.'
'Are you sure? It is solid silver. Several jewelers have refused even to try.'
'What do they know about it?'
This time, 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.
Ferny, the 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.
Trellie 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 dazzling finish.
'Quite extraordinary! Convey my congratulations to your young friend. And now for some tea!'
He scurried into the kitchen and returned with it on a salver alongside two bone china cups and a plate of digestive biscuits.
'Earl Grey ‑ my weakness!'
Neville had 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.
'Not leaves surely?!'
Frowning 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 borough?'
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 Ralph.
'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 notes.
'Not decorating the hall by any chance?'
'Sleeping all right?'
'No problems at work? Threats of redundancy?'
'What is it you do exactly Mr. Relph?'
'I'm an historian.' Again that strange compulsion. 'I mean I'm a clerk, in the Export department at Carlisle Industrial Chemicals
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 Arnold's feelings.
'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 metallic grey.
'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 labours.'
'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 add.'
'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 usual.
'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 tiffs.'
'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 all there.'
'Are you pulling my plonker Ralph?'
'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 property.’'
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. Cultivate Gibbon!'
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 recruit.
'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 suppose.'
'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 war.'
'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 done.'
'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 translated.
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.
'Where is the skiving get?' said Barrow.
Ferny shoved up his eyeshield. Under its crust of slag the weld cooled into a perfect herringbone pattern.
'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.
'Now then '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!'
The 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.
'Ey! What the fuck! A bloke can't even improve his mind in this place without somebody interferin'!'
'You dirty bastard!' Barrow pulled the magazine out of Henderson's overalls, flipped through it and stuck it back.
'How you fixed for a booze up next Friday?'
'What's it in aid of?'
'Not in aid of owt. You don't need an excuse do you?'
'I'll have to tell Brenda something.'
Old Gobby 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.
'Boof up?' said Gobby.
'My mate from Crosfields was telling me about this new club what's opened in Manchester ‑ the New Luxor Club its called.'
'New Lukfor Club?' said Gobby.
'A real good night it is. They've got strippers on.'
'Ftripperf!' said Gobby.
'Strippers!' said Henderson.
'You can booze until two o'clock in the morning.'
'Two o'clock!?' said Gobby.
'It's only a dollar for membership and two bob for a supper ticket.'
'What about transport?' said Henderson.
'A dollar?' said Gobby.
'I can get a minibus for thirty bob. What do you reckon?'
'Aye! Strippers eh? I'll have to tell Brenda something though.'
'I'll put you down then.'
Barrow put Henderson down on the back of an engineering drawing.
'And what about you Gobby? Do you a bit of good mate. I bet you've not had a hard on since VE night.'
'I'd like to Barrow but itf me bowlf night.'
'Bowls?' said Barrow.
'Aye, we've got floodlightf now.'
'We're fecond int league. I couldn't let ladf down.'
'Second?' said Barrow.
'Ey Barrow?' said Gobby, 'are you takin' t'piff?'
'All 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.'
'Ferny'll 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 time.
'Fuck me! 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 recuperation.'
'What's this rubbish he's filling your head with?' He looked at Fleet's book.
'Nietzsche.' said Fleet.
'Bless you' said Barrow.
'I thought you sneezed?'
'That's the bloke's name you ignorant puddin.'
'Ignorant 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 one...'
'You read that very well Barrow, but I saw your lips move.'
'I've not 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.'
He described the attractions of the New Luxor.
'What's it in aid of?' asked Fleet.
'Neechy's 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?'
'Well that's worth celebrating then in't it?'
'A festival of Dionysus!' said Sikorski in ironical wonderment.
'That 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!'
He put 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 large audience.
'His hot throbbing member forced itself urgently against her...!'
'Wha!? Ey!?..Bloodyell!!' Ernie jumped violently, spilling tea over a pile of requisitions.
'Barrow! You dozy bugger! What's the bloody game sneakin in like that!? Jeezus I nearly had a flamin heart attack!'
'Sneakin Ernie? I could have loaded half the stores onto a ten ton truck and you wouldn't have heard.'
'Spilt me piggin tea now an all!'
'I don't know how you get away with it Ernie, honest I don't.'
'Get away 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!'
'Very 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?'
'Well how would you like to be starin at steel bulkheads all day?'
'Say no 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!'
Jud 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 an observation:
'You could do with more skilly on that Jud.'
'Gerrout! I don't want that stuff splashin all over t'place!'
'They say it gives you cancer of the scrotum.'
‘Aye. It sounds a right load of balls.'
'Can't imagine a company of this size exposing its workers to such a risk though can you Jud?'
Jud 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.
'It’s this bloody 316 stainless' he said, 'wears blades out in ragtime. This is the third I've had in today.'
'I'll 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.
‘They 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:
'Hey Barrow! Here a minute!'
Because 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.
'Got a fag?' said Screawn.
'What's that behind your ear?' said Owen.
'A brain. What's behind yours?'
'Fuckinell! You got out the wrong side this morning!'
'To me the outside is the wrong side.'
'Every one a gem' Barrow offered him an Embassy tipped.
'You don't want them coupons do you Barrow luv?'
'What are you saving up for? A mechanical cunt?'
Screawn's activities were well known: he was the works' ram.
'I've 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...'
'Subject normal' said Owen dryly.
'Have you seen that one on the stitching machine with Big Irma?'
'Real horny Barrow luv. Just left school, fifteen or sixteen. Should see her skirts! What a leg!'
'Stretches right up to her arse does it?'
'S only 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?'
'Anyroad 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.'
Trellie looked uncomfortable. He glanced at the big clock at the end of the shop hoping to flush Barrow into an early retreat.
'I'm not 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.'
'Spoken like a gentleman' said Owen
'What do you say Trellie? Shall we get Scraggy to send her round Saturday night?'
'Oh aye. I think I can fit her in.' Trellie tried to play along. it was the only way.
'Can she fit you in though!' cackled Screawn. 'That's the question.'
'See to 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.'
'Don't Barrow!' moaned Screawn lifting his leg off the floor, 'I'll get a hard on!'
'That reminds me. Next Friday we're going to a strip club in Man-chester; I suppose I can put you down?'
As they left Screawn held up a polished black thumb. Suddenly, as if it had just occurred to him, he shouted:
'You're not taking Trellie as well are you?'
'He can't make it' said Barrow, 'He sees his married piece on Friday nights.'
Owen, behind him, flexed his arm and winked with his whole face. Screawn started to laugh, stopped, and then raised his eyebrows.
'Perhaps he is an’ all!' he bellowed, projecting his own obsessions onto innocent young Trellie.
What was 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 cabbage stumps.’
He 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:
‘Only an 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 reading.’
It was a remark worthy of Sikorski himself; he laughed out loud.
‘Perhaps Stanier could lend you Das Kapital, such a passion for Teutonic mysticism should be indulged to the full.’
‘I’ve had some stuff off him but it doesn’t touch me here.’ Fleet put a hand to his heart melodramatically.
‘I imagine’ said Sikorski, ‘that Vladimir Ilyich was aiming for a higher organ.’
‘Besides’ said Fleet, ‘the print on those pamphlets reminds me of the Watchtower’.
They both laughed.
As for 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.
'Doing some overtime then you grabbing get?' he shouted.
'No, just practising my fillets' said Henderson.
'Hey! The strip club trip ‑ tell Brenda it's in aid of Neechy's birthday'
'Neechy?' shouted Henderson.
'Bloody 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.
'Must be that new starter on the horizontal borer'.
Peering through his violet, slag‑spattered eyeshield he struck the arc again.
Barrow drove the bus while Screawn entertained the occupants with one of his stories.
'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...'
Hardman had a bulge in his jacket pocket. Nobody could guess what it was and attempts to find out were resisted violently.
'Take this note back to my mother he says. All right I says and I takes the note...'
Sikorski 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 elegancies.
'Anyroad 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 ... '
Big Fred 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.
'This time we gets talking; has a couple of brown ales out of the fridge. Then she says its her seventieth birthday next day...'
Cyclops 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.
'Seventy fucking years old! Didn't look bad though, sort of well preserved. I had nowt else on at the time so...'
The 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.
'So I took her upstairs to give her birthday present...’
'An inch for every ten years was it Scraggy?'
'Speak for yourself Tich. She was ready for it as well. Still juicy an all. Not bad a bit of the old stuff mate!'
'Seventy years old?!'
'Seventy the next day.'
'And still treadin?!' Hardman was incredulous.
'When she could get it like.'
'You lying bastard Screawn!'
'Ey up! We're here!'
Barrow 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 site.
'Look after your bus mister?'
'Fuck off 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:
'The perfect locale in which to celebrate the old misogynist's birthday, eh Fleet?'
Fleet was 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.
'Lets get the ale in.'
'It isn't Walker's is it?'
'A quid 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.
'What's it to be gents?'
'Thirteen pints of bitter.'
He hovered indecisively, as if such a complicated order needed to be put down on paper.
'And have one yourself.'
The electric organ was already sounding chords. The drummer finished off his beer. Jackie Carlton, the compere, bounded onto the stage, microphone in hand.
'Good 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.'
An incoherent sneer of abuse came from a tiny waiter serving near the stage.
'That's Garth the head waiter. If anyone wants a head Garth'll get him one.'
'That was the news in Welsh. Stand up Garth, lets have a look at you.. .Oh, you are stood up.'
'That's a 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 chat.
'When 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 wearing.'
'It's called Come to Me.' Jackie sniffed vigorously.
'It doesn't smell like come to me.'
She sang energetically. No‑one really listened but they were still too sober to be abusive.
'How do you fancy that Fred?'
'I'd sooner have steak and chips.'
She went off to polite applause.
'And now 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!'
Hardman, at the end of the table, had his eyes pressed into the sweaty rubber cups of a pair of ex‑Navy ten by fifties.'
'Give us a squint Ernie' Someone made a playful grab.
'Keep your fuckin hands to yourself!' he hissed desperately.
Natasha's 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 silence.
'Fuckinell!’ said Cyclops.
'Got your eye full Bert?'
A 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 darkness.
'What a pair of knockers!'
'You'd never feel both of them at once. I reckon you'd just have to wrestle with one at a time.'
'Got a hard on Ernie?'
'Get the next round in Barrow.'
'I'm going for a slash.'
'Want a lift?'
'Have one on me.'
'I bet she wasn't a virgin though.' said Henderson.
'She'll have had enough dick to put a handrail round Australia.'
'I bet they all do a turn, these strippers.'
As Jud Stanier walked past the front of the stage Carlton leaned over.
'I'd hang on to that suit, they'll be back in fashion someday. Hey! Who took the bolt out of your neck?'
Jud disappeared through the swing doors.
'I could have sworn that door opened before he reached it!'
Beyond 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! Garth! Where are you, you idle little twat!'
Carlton looked over the top of his glasses and allowed his stomach to sag outwards in a pose of affected nonchalance.
'Why 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 servility.
'Hotpot 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 our casino.'
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.
'The 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.'
Fleet 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 spoon provided.
'Slags!' he said.
'That 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 within him.'
'She was an old boot.'
'Big tits though' said Fleet, as if this virtue excused all defects.
'You see 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.
'She's a 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!,
'Yes indeed. Why, even here, in the overcrowded New Luxor latrine, we see the microcosmic breakdown of man's inhibitions under the impact of scarcity.'
'And there's the jokes' Fleet chipped in.
'Ah yes! The only genuine working class art form left! An oral tradition stretching right back to Beowulf and Sir Gawain!'
'Racist, sexist, prejudiced crap! The desperate product of our mutilated humanity!'
'You laughed though' said Fleet.
'They 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.'
'What 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!'
'And yet we find ourselves together supporting this institution.' Fleet observed.
'Now 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.
'What 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 superstructure!'
'Metaphysical twaddle Jud! Dialectics, totalities, what gibberish! Is that all you see here? The economic base reflected in the superstructure?'
'Or' 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.'
'Its impossible to have a serious discussion with you two.'
'I was 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.’
He repeated it at their request.
'What a thought eh Sikorski! Could Trollope have said that?..or Lenin?'
'An empty paradox' retorted Sikorski, 'You imagine every obscurity is profound.'
'But its true! Women are never as naked as men! Its a physical impossibility. They really do seem to put something on.'
'Its called make‑up' said Stanier.
'What? Even here? All over?'
'Course, 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 are.'
'And yet 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!'
Stanier put down a half raised round of bread in disgust:
'Jesus Sikorski! Some of us are still eating!'
'Mr Heinrich Himmler watched with relish the inner organs of Jews and Poles' mused Fleet.
'Here I 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?'
'Hot air! Mumbo jumbo! A load of half‑baked mystical bullshit about women!'
'You are 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!'
'Bloody 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.'
The lads 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.
The 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.
They 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.
It 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.
'We could stuff it with grass.'
'Its only flat at the bottom.'
'Fred could blow it up with his gob.'
'Ey Barrow! We're not going to be late for work on Monday are we? I wouldn't want to miss that.'
Hardman was glad they'd stopped. He fumbled drunkenly with his flies.
'Don't 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.
'What do you reckon Sky?'
Sikorski shrugged and projected his anxieties onto Stanier.
'We can only hope a car comes along. But what about Jud? He's in no state to walk far.'
'What are 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.
'Don't just stand there Ernie, like a Sister of Mercy on blob, hold this so we can see what we're doing.'
'Aye!' said Big Fred, 'Let the dog see the rabbit.'
'This spanner's a mile out!' said Henderson trying it on the wheel nuts. 'We're fucked!'
'Jeez Hendy! Never been on a big job then? No wonder you're only a boiler‑maker!'
'This 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.
'Just the fucking dog's knob!
Fred took up a strategic position on the end of the back bumper. Ferny, Henderson and Screawn grabbed a handhold where they could.
'Say when Barrow luv.'
'One!..Two!..Threeeeeee!' 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.
'Are you all right lads?'
'Take your time Barrow chuck' said Fred.
Traynor put his hand under Henderson's crutch.
Ferny started warbling in a squeaky voice:
'Ooooh! I think I've done myself a mischief!'
The bus 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.
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 the storekeeper.
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!' somebody shouted.
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 skeleton key!'
'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, Unpickable.
'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 myself.'
'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 hands dirty.'
'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
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 body!'
'Has she got a sense of humour though' asked Trellie the apprentice, 'Can she cook?'
'Do you fancy poking Fanny Cradock?'
'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 Trellie
'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 expensive.'
'Well I hope you've got a good story.'
'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 the parcel.
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 raining.'
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 Broome Esq.’
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.