Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Wrecking Ball

Times were hard and work was scarce when I was offered the chance to apprentice in a radiator factory. I was told the first three months were a trial. I practically jumped at the chance. The first morning I tuned up for work was bitterly cold, the wind drove the rain with a vengeance. As I approached the factory I knew something was wrong. It was already after eight and the gates were still closed. No cars occupied the yard, the factory was eerily silent. Near the main gate a shiny new Mercedes sat with its engine running. Behind the steamed up windows a fat man sat cocconed in an expensive suit. As I approached the man powered his window down. A fat finger dangled a huge bunch of keys in the rain soaked morning air. I tried a dozen keys before I found the one which would open the giant padlock securing the gate. The powerful car to swept into the yard and stopped before the roller-doors of the factory. Another padlock, another maddening search for a key. By the time the car drove into the shelter of the main building I was soaked to the skin. Inside, the factory was as silent as a graveyard. It didn't take a genius to know that this place needed no new apprentices. The fat owner heaved himself out of his car, leaving it running without a care for the wasted petrol.

“Dirty morning,” the boss said, nodding to a puddle that was gathering around my feet.

“Soft enough,” I said. “Am I in the right place?”

“You are if you want to work,” he said, looking at me like I was dog shit he was about to step in.

“I want to work alright but what kind of fitter do you need here?”

“It’s like this, boy. I need this place gutted. I get apprentice wages financed by the government. You get paid, I get this place ready for the wrecking ball and everyone is happy. Do a good job and I might, might, consider keeping you on in one of my other plants.”

“It's not what I had in mind,” I said, not liking the situation one little bit. This fat twat was using me.

“I don’t give a fuck what you thought,” the fat man growled with the authority of cash in his voice. “If you don’t want the job, there are a hundred more waiting to rip my hand off for it.”

 “I didn’t say that- Boss,” I mumbled into my boots. What other option had I? I needed the work. The fat man glared at me for a while before he walked further into the building. It looked like I was hired. 

“Right, not much to this. A trained monkey could manage it,” he said waving at the air around him. “Everything has got to go.” On all sides lay abandoned machinery and rubbish. “When you’re finished, the only thing left should be holding up the roof.”

In the middle of the factory floor stood a selection of skips and a small mobile generator. The boss pointed out the skips for metal, rubble, timber, recycling and landfill. The Generator was needed to run the power-tools needed to destroy this place. The power had been killed, which was just as well because I didn't fancy being fried while I stripped the copper wiring from the walls. I got the distinct impression that the only reason the power was off lay in the greedy nature of the boss...not concern for my safety. 

“Right, I'll see what you've done by Friday,” the portly prick said as he walked back to his car, leaving me with the bunch of keys.  I was about to unlock the tool shed when the horn blared from boss's car standing idling at the gate. It looked like I was going to get even wetter before I even got to start this shitty job.


The first week passed without incident. I found out more about the boss. He was a hell of a shady guy. Rumor was, he'd picked up the factory pennies. He was selling all the metal for scrap, which would replace any money he'd spent on the place. My wages were being footed by the taxpayer and once this was all over the slovenly toad would end up with a prime piece of industrial real-estate, free and clear. Trucks for the metal skip always came on time but the others were often overflowing before the boss would shell out for an empty.  The worst thing about working in this industrial mortuary was the endless loneliness. 

Finishing time on Friday came and went without sign of the boss...or my wages. Five turned into six, it was nearly six thirty by the time the boss's car drew into the yard. The boss looked over the progress before begrudgingly slipping his hand into his pocket.

“Three hundred,” he said

“Three fifty boss.”

“Right,” he said. Turning his back on me and fished out a wad of notes six inches thick. He peeled off seven notes and reluctantly handed them over. The feeling of cash in my pocket was a strange sensation. The backbreaking work was soon forgotten. I went out that night and blew a hundred quid without thinking. What else would a young man do? I woke the next day with a blinding headache and regret digging its way into my wallet.

Weeks passed and I was nearly finished with the main building. I turned my attention to some office buildings at the back of the complex. One building in particular caught my eye. It had a rusting pipe sticking out of an air vent...and that just was't right. The door had a new padlock, one of much better quality than any other around the factory. I tried every key on my bunch but none would open it. In the end, I forced a window at the back of the building open and slipped inside. The first thing I noticed was how tidy this place was compared to the rest of the factory. Each room had been cleared of rubbish and left neat as a pin.

Inside one door sat a battered reclining chair with blankets folded neatly on the seat. Close by sat a metal barrel mounted on concrete blocks. The barrel had been modified to make it a stove. It had a metal cooking plate on top and a flu-pipe that vanished out the wall vent. It was a very neat job, the person who made it had skills. The back of the room was covered floor to roof with shelves made from planks and breeze blocks. Every available space was filled with books, all well-thumbed and loved. I found a larder with a tins of food and a blackened saucepan. In the next room was a small bathroom, a bucket of fresh water standing by the sink. Any fool could see this was someone’s home but the question was, whos?

Over the coming days,I kept an eye on the office building but I never saw anyone coming or going. When Friday came around I thought about telling the boss what I had found. That was until he tried, yet again, to stiff me out of money by arguing over the hours I had worked.  It was the following week that I saw smoke wafting from the pipe sticking out of the office wall. At lunch I walked around the office and saw that the padlock missing. I pushed open the door and quietly entered. The air was warm and I could hear a fire crackle in the barrel-stove. A man was asleep in the recliner with a thread-bear blanked pulled over his legs. It was hard to judge how old he was, he could have been anywhere from fifty to a hundred. I walked a bit closer and noticed his face was very pale and covered in sweat. The man was not just asleep he was passed out. I tried to wake him but he only let out a low moan and buried himself deeper into his blanket. I could feel the heat pulsing off him, he was very sick. I thought about calling an ambulance but in the end I decided to wait. 

I loaded up the barrel with timber and put a saucepan of water on to boil. I fetched my lunch from the main factory and made a mug of milky tea. I touched the cup to the man's parched lips and helped him take a sip. His eyes fluttered open as he swallowed the warm liquid. He looked confused to begin with but thirst overcame his befuddlement. He sipped at the tea and when it was finished he hungrily ate my sandwich. I gathered timber for the home made stove and made sure it was fully loaded before returning to work. Twice that afternoon I stopped by the office building to refill the stove. The man seemed to be improving. He still slept but sweat no longer beaded his brow.

That night I lay awake thinking about an old sick man sleeping in a derelict factory. The next morning, as soon as I got to the factory I went to check on him. The padlock was still missing from the door so I knocked gently and pushed it open. The old man was leaning over the sink washing his face. He jumped when he saw me and regarded me with frightened eyes.

“You’re feeling better I see,” I said with a smile. The man said nothing, he was frozen to the spot.

“I was here yesterday,” I said nodding towards the large pile of sticks stacked near his fire.

“I thought I imagined that,” said the man in a cultured voice. “Thank you,” he added. He dried his face and pulled his jumper over his head. After a long worried silence he asked, “Are you going to make me leave?”

“Not me mate,” I replied. “You were here first.”

He smiled and said, “Tea?” It was an invitation I was glad to accept.

It turned out that, Pat, had been the caretaker for the factory up to the time it closed. He was nearly sixty and no one would give him another job, they all said he was too old. Soon his money ran out and his rent ran into arrears. He had been thrown out on the street and had even spent a few nights in a homeless shelter but Pat said it was safer being on the street. With nowhere else to go he returned to the place knew best, the factory. 

Four years he had been here before the place had been sold. He'd kept the fences mended and the kids out. During the day, he went to the library, he loved books. He survived by going to a soup kitchen and doing odd jobs at a local church. When I told Pat what the boss had planned for the factory he was devastated. I tried to reassure him that it was months away yet, but it was a lie.

In the days that followed, Pat was always gone from the factory long before I opened up the main gate, but he started appearing shortly before lunch. He lit his stove and boiled water for tea. I think he liked my company, I sure as hell liked his. We would eat lunch together as I had started to bring some extra sandwiches along. Pat insisted on buying coffee sugar and milk for the two of us. 

“I like to pull my weight,” he said. Pat told me about his passion for reading and all his favourite books. He even helped me out during the day by holding ladders and sweeping up after me. I once offered him some money but he looked offended and refused it. “This is my home,” he said, and walked away with his head bowed.

It took longer and longer to fill the skips until at last there was nothing left to tear down. It was a terrible day when I had to tell pat the wreckers were coming. He looked shattered. 

“Are you alright Pat?” I asked.

“Aye lad, the smoke got in my eye. I knew it had to come,” he said, his voice heavy with despair.

That Friday, Pat selected his favourite books and packed them in a battered suitcase. He waved at me from the gate and trudged away into the misty evening. I felt like a traitor. That night at dinner, I couldn't eat a bite.

“What’s the matter son?” asked my dad.

I told him about Pat and what had been happening. 

“ something about it,” dad said with a smile before taking his mug of tea into the sitting room. Its was grand to say such a thing but what the hell could I do? Come Monday morning the wrecking-ball was going to swing against the factory and Pats home would be gone. If I told the boss about Pat I was sure he would want to charge him back rent. Having said all that, dads are generally right...I had to do something. 


Monday did come and I opened up the gate as normal. A huge crane was waiting with it's two tonne wrecking ball swinging. The boss's car glided into the yard, the first time I had seen him before a Friday. 

“I'll take the keys,” he said holding out his hand.

“Won't I need them to lock up?”

“No need lad, this job is done,” he said, pocketing the bunch.

“What about my apprenticeship?”

“Come over to my office next week, or the week after.  I'll see what's going,” he said. He never took his eyes off the wrecking ball as it began to swing slowly away from the factory wall. I knew there would be no job, next week or any week for that matter. I walked out the gate as the ball struck the factory for the first time. I felt the impact tremble the ground under my feet.

I checked two public libraries before I found Pat engrossed in a book. The battered suitcase was resting under his chair.

“Hi, Pat.” 

“What are you doing here lad, you should be at work.”

“The pig of a boss let me go.”

“Don’t worry lad, you’re young. There will be other jobs.”

“True enough. That's why I'm here. I have small job, cleaning out a shed, but it is a two man thing, do you feel up to it?” I asked.

“Of course I am. Lead on McDuff,” he said with a happy smile, yanking the battered suitcase from under the chair.

It was only a ten minute walk from the library to where we were going. "This is the place," I said and went up a drive way of a house and down along the side of the building. At the bottom of the garden was a good size shed built against the end wall.

“Why don’t you make a start, Pat, I'll tell the woman of the house we're here,” I said, turning around a walking toward the back door of the main house. I pushed open the kitchen door adn went to sand beside my mother as we watched the old man open the door to our garden shed. 

The battered suitcase slipped from his fingers as he stared into the little building . My mother patted my arm and said, “Give him a chance to get used to it, then bring him up a cup of tea.”

When I pushed open the door to the shed with two steaming mugs of tea in my hands the inside was cosy and warm. Pat's barrel stove glowed happily in the corner and its maker stood motionless before it. Close by sat his battered recliner and a new single bed...freshly dressed. The back-wall was shelved and held as many of Pat’s books as I had managed to salvage from the factory. My dad had helped and we worked night and day to make the shed ready and move everything from the factory before the wreckers could arrive. 

“Do you like it?” I asked. The old man said nothing but caressed the spines of his books resting on their new shelves. Pat was a man with pride and he might think I was doing this out of pity. I caught myself holding my breath. 

“Thing is Pat, we were going to add an extension. I thought you might be able to stay here in exchange for working on the job. If you don’t want to take the job, I won’t be offended.”

Pat turned and rubbed a tear from his cheek. “Oh, I'm up to it lad. Don’t you worry.” His smile split his stubble covered face in half. I passed him a mug of tea and backed out the door.

“You might need to look at the stove, it seems the smoke is getting in your eyes again,” I teased. I left Pat make himself at home, in his home, at last.


Kathleen Rothenberger said...

Awww, how wonderful. Brought more than one tear to my eye, as well. Once again, Squid, you've hit the bull's eye with your words. Straight to the heart.

Ellen M said...

You did it again, Squid! Made me cry...a wonderful story, as usual!