by PS Brooks
Alone in a shipyard machine-room, Eddie Curran packs his tools into an ex-Navy canvas bag. They are spread out randomly on his work-bench. As he takes up each one, he flicks off bits of swarf and filings with a worn-down paintbrush, wipes off any grease with a cotton rag and places them neatly inside, all facing the same way.
His workmates just throw theirs in. They also taunt him for his meticulousness, which – to their constant irritation - he applies equally to his work. But today is payday, and they all left the permitted ten minutes early to go and queue at the wages office. These few moments of solitude are usually a welcome break from the relentless mickey-taking and mock camaraderie that live in the place. This time though, their ghosts linger on. Right now he feels like crying, like a loved one has just been taken away. His guts are in knots. A dark cloud spreads across the white light behind his eyeballs.
He folds the rag neatly, like a clean handkerchief, slips it into the side pocket of the bag and sets off to collect his money. Behind the sliding window-pane, the wages clerk waits patiently for him. As he goes up to sign for his pay-packet, the foreman steps out from the shadows of a covered stairwell:
“They want you upstairs, Eddie.”
By the time the two of them reach the half-landing of the concrete staircase, the tool-bag weighs more than an engine. A sudden breathlessness takes hold. There is a pounding at his forehead, behind his knees, down at his achilles. He drops his tools outside the doorway and walks into the familiar office, place of countless warnings. The Departmental Manager, a couple of nervous lackeys behind him for support, is sat at his desk, empty but for the trappings of a dismissal.
“Wednesday was one time too many, Eddie.”
“He started it.”
“We know. We also know he never laid a finger on you. For goodness sake man, you knocked him out cold. We have to let you go this time. Here are your cards and your holiday scheme. You can pick up your week-in-hand next Friday. Or send the boy.”
A time-served Marine Engineer twelve years with the same firm, and this is it. Not even a thank you. The blunt and bloody stabbing rips through his heart to the place that hurts the most. Like millions of other skilled men the world over, his adult life has been defined, dignified, almost exclusively by the quality of his work. Only the foreman can even approximate to an understanding of the way he feels. Back at the foot of the stairs, he shakes Eddie’s hand.
“I’m sorry, lad. We’ll miss you. Good luck.”
As he passes through the shipyard-gates, Eddie curses his forefathers, a long line of bareknuckle prizefighters from Southern Ireland. Ever since his youth, he’d known there was trouble in his blood. That’s why he was punchy, wasn’t it?
Arriving at the front door of their small terraced house, he dries his watery eyes and braces himself. Though he’ll wait until young Harry goes to bed before telling Mam.
This is 1932. He is 38. And it won’t be easy.
That evening after supper, Eddie walked the path of their long narrow garden to do some thinking. On the far side of the boundary fence, he fought through a tangle of brambles and weeds and clambered up the railway embankment. He sat himself down on some gravel with his elbows on his knees, and let his jaw fall on to the palms of his hands. Over at the steelworks, a shunter jostled its family of freight-wagons into order. The distinctive sounds of clank and screech punched a hole through his quiet introspections. No work there. They too were laying off men, by the thousand.
He gazed down the track towards the goods-yard. The wagons, piled high with molten slag, glowed blood red against the night sky. To one side of them, number two arc furnace spewed yellow and orange. In the distance, across the river, a million stars twinkled on the steaming towers cylinders and pipes of ICI’s giant new chemistry set. He took in the view, at once familiar and shocking. Just another industrial sunset: toxic, squalid, and beautiful to behold.
Time to consider his own estate. A hundred and forty feet. Not bad, but not big enough for sentiment either. This was going to have to feed a family and generate cash on top. His plan came quickly. He’d clear the wild patch immediately below him for a hen-coop and a pig-sty. He’d extend the vegetable patch to take in the lawn and the flower-beds. And the flagstone yard just outside the kitchen window, he’d have to dig up some of that for a couple of new flower-beds. Mam liked flowers. With his savings, his store of potatoes and the paltry means test, he reckoned he could last six months, one winter, before his first harvest.
He’d already spoken to one of his brothers about taking some timber from the vicarage that was under demolition a couple of streets away. Albert was supervising the work and they were only burning the stuff. So the rest of the weekend, he and Eddie took enough to build the animal houses, and then they cleared the wild patch, with Harry carrying away. Sunday evening, he wrote to another of his brothers, Percy, a stockman on a farm just outside Guisborough, asking him if his employer would be interested in selling twelve laying hens and a sow.
The following week, he stepped straight into a routine. Mornings, he’d dress up in his third best suit, waistcoat and watch included, and ride off on his bicycle looking for work. He’d return for lunch, then spend the rest of the afternoon and evening till supper-time down in the garden with his crops and his animals.
By the early-Summer of ’33, he had some fine produce, a good reputation and a nice little round. But still no job. Sometimes, after cycling up to twenty miles into the Cleveland Hills, knocking on dozens of doors, he would tell his story to Mam and Harry, trying hard to conceal the tears he brought home with him.
One afternoon in July, Eddie was summoned to the back kitchen door by a shout from Mam. As he walked inside, she whispered:
“The Means Test Man is at the front door.”
Wiping his muddy hands on a wet cloth, Eddie went and invited him in, showed him to the kitchen table and nodded at Mam. She slipped into the parlour and closed the door behind her.
“ I hear you keep hens.”
“Aye, about that.”
An awkward gangly young man, in his mid-twenties maybe, sat before him. Eddie surmised from his dress and demeanour that he was one of those grammar-school types who’d been unable to get any further; so he’d taken a job as a Civil Service clerk for the security and the nice pension. He pulled a regulation HMSO notepad and an impossibly short pencil from the inside pocket of his tweed jacket and began scribbling, mumbling out loud as he did: “… one each a day… times seven… a shilling and sixpence…” Eddie disliked him already.
His computations complete, the man looked up:
“Mr. Curran, I’m afraid we will have to stop your allowance.”
After a brief silence, Eddie beckoned. “Come wi’ me, son.”
Eddie took him outside and led him down the path, through the neat square vegetable-beds edged with railway sleepers. Nature’s most bounteous month had showered the the garden with new growth and crops. They had to duck by the bean-canes, shuffle sideways past the fruit-bushes, step over errant shoots and leaves.
When he arrived at the hen-house, Eddie squeezed inside and picked up one of his birds, in that firm gentle way that hen-keepers do. Cradling it in one arm, as it clucked away softly, he stroked the top of its head, tickled under its chin with his forefinger, and wrung its neck.
The Means Test Man went white. When the flapping and jerking had ceased, Eddie let go of the bird and though a collective panic had set in, making the job of catching them that much more difficult, he went on to despatch the rest in the same way.
“Hens? What hens?”
He left them in a pile and strode past the Means Test Man. The young fellow, clearly unaccustomed to slaughter, threw up over a corner of the cabbage patch and followed on behind, clutching a handkerchief to his mouth. As they passed through the back kitchen, he lingered a while, then called out:
“Do you think I could have a glass of water, please?”
By now, Eddie was waiting at the open front door with his back to the wall, his arms extended, the question already answered.
“Now. About my means test?”
“Oh, that’s fine, sir.” he stuttered, through his handkerchief. “Your allowance stays.”
“Mam!” Eddie shouted inside, as the man disappeared down the street, “We’ve a long night ahead. There’s twelve boilers to pluck and draw for market tomorrow.”