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 was just a trial. I practically jumped at the chance. The morning I tuned up for work was bitterly cold, the wind driving the rain with a vengeance. As I approached the factory I knew something was wrong. It was 8am and the gates were still closed. No cars occupied the yard, the factory seemed dim and silent. Outside the main gate idled a shiny new Mercedes its engine running to keep the fat man behind the wheel warm. The power window slid down and a huge bunch of keys was dangled in the rain soaked morning air without a word. I tried a dozen keys before finding the right one to open the giant padlock.  I swung in the gates allowing the powerful car to glide into the yard before stopping at the main 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 a silent graveyard of rusted metal. This place needed no new apprentices. The fat owner heaved himself out of the car leaving it running without a care for the wasted petrol.

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

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

“You are if you want to work,” said the boss looking at me like I was some 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 an apprentice wage refunded by the government. You get paid, I get this place ready for the wrecking ball and we are all happy. Do a good job and I might, might, consider keeping you on in one of my other plants.”

“This was not what I thought I was signing up for.” I said not liking the situation, I was being used.

“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 would rip my hand off for it.”

 “I didn’t say that- Boss,” I mumbled into my boots. What other option had I, I needed he work. The fat man stared at me with a sneer before walking away. It seemed my answer had always been a forgone conclusion.

“Right not much to this, a trained monkey could manage it,” the boss said leading me deeper into the factory. “Everything is going,” he waved at the mountain of abandoned machinery and rubbish filling the huge space “when you’re finished, the only things left should be holding up the roof.”

In the middle of the space was 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 to run the tools, housed in a locked metal shed, as all the power was killed in the building. Just as well, I did not 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 will call see how you have done on Friday,” he said walking back to the car leaving me with the bunch of keys.  I was just about to unlock the tool shed when the horn blared from the gate. It looked like I was going to get even wetter before I began this shitty job.

***

The first week passed without incident. I found out more about the boss, he was a shady guy and that was for sure. I learned he had picked up this factory for next to nothing by greasing some bent politician’s pocket, he was selling all the metal for scrap, which would just about cover the money he spent buying the place. My wage was being footed by the taxpayer and the boss would end up with a prime piece of industrial real-estate, free and clear. The lorry’s for the metal always came on time but the other containers were often overflowing before the boss would shell out for an empty.  The worst thing was working by myself because the boss was too tight to employ another person to help with the clearance. That first Friday finishing time came and went without sign of the boss or my wages. Five turned into six, it was nearly six thirty by the time the shiny car pulled 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 fishing out a wad of notes six inches thick. He peeled off seven notes from the hundreds he had, handing them over reluctantly. The feel of cash in my pocket was a strange elation. The backbreaking work of the last five days was soon forgotten. That night I went out and blew a hundred of the money, what else would a young single man do? I woke the next day with a blinding headache and regret digging its way deep into my wallet.

 

The weeks moved by, I was making progress in the main building. I soon began work on the office buildings that lay at the rear of the complex. One in particular caught my eye. It had a pipe jutting out of an air vent. On the door hung a brand new padlock, much better quality than all the others 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 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.

 

One door was closed over but it was not locked. Sitting in the middle of the room was a battered reclining chair with blankets folded neatly on the seat. Close by was a metal barrel mounted on concrete blocks. The barrel had been modified, making it into a stove with a solid metal plate on top to act as a cooking surface. The pipe that vanished out the air vent was clearly the smoke stack. A small door had been cut so the fire could be set and fuelled. It was a very neat job, the person that had done it had skills, that was for sure. 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 few tins of food and a blackened saucepan. In the next room was a small bathroom, a bucket of fresh water standing by to be use either for washing or flushing the toilet. So this was someone’s home but the question was, whos?

 

I kept an eye on the office building but never saw anyone coming or going. When Friday came around I thought about telling the boss about what I had found. That was until he tried, yet again, to stiff me out of money arguing over the hours I had worked.  It was the middle of the next week when I saw smoke coming from the pipe sticking out of the wall. When lunch time came I wandered over to the office block and found the padlock missing from the door. I opened it quietly and went inside. The air was warm as the fire in the barrel crackled. In the recliner chair slept a man who was somewhere between fifty and a hundred, it was hard to tell. He was swaddled in the blankets but his face was very pale. I got a bit closer and noticed the man was shivering and sweating, he was not just asleep he was passed out. I tried to wake him but he just moaned and buried himself deeper into the blankets. I could feel the heat pulsing from him, he was burning up. I thought about calling for some help but in the end decided to see what I could do myself.

 

I loaded up the barrel with timber and put a saucepan of water on to boil. I fetched my lunch from the main factory. Using the water I made sweet milky tea and managed to wake the man. He looked confused to begin with but at last he took some sips of tea and ate one half of a sandwich. He was still very sick. During my lunch break I gathered timber for the home made stove. I made sure it was fully loaded and burning well. I left the man some cool water close at hand as well as the other half of my sandwich before going back to work. Twice that after noon I stopped by the office building to refill the stove. The man seemed to be improving and was sleeping better now, the sweat no longer beaded his brow.

 

All that night I thought of the old man sick and sleeping alone in that place. The next morning as soon as I opened up the main factory I made my way to the office. The padlock was still missing from the door. I knocked gently and pushed it open. The old man was leaning over the sink washing his face. He jumped and stared at me with startled eyes.

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

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

“I thought I imagined that,” said the man in a cultured voice. “Thank you,” he added. He dried off his face and pulled his jumper over his head. He said nothing for quite a while but ticked and fidgeted uneasily. At last he said “Are you going to make me leave?”

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

He smiled and said “Tea?” waving his hand in an invitation to sit which I was glad to accept.

 

It turned out that Pat, that was his name, had been a janitor for the factory before it closed down. 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 could not meet the rent. He ended up on the street. A councillor had tried to get him into a homeless shelter but they were worse than the streets, full of druggies and drunks. With nowhere else to go he returned to the place he worked for over 30 years. Pat had been living in the office block for 4 years. He kept the fences mended and the kids out. During the days he would spend his time at three library’s moving from one to the other passing a few hours at each. He loved books. Once a day he would call to the old age home for soup and a cup of tea. A local priest paid him to do odd jobs around the church and between this and his pension Pat managed to survive. 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.

 

Over the weeks that followed Pat was always gone long before I opened up the main gate but he started appearing shortly before lunch. He lit his stove and boiled up the water for tea. Each day I would join him and we would eat lunch together. I had started bringing extra sandwiches with me but 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. Sometimes he would even help me out during the day, holding ladders and sweeping up after me. I once offered him some money but he looked offended when he refused. “This is my home after all,” Pat said.

 

It took longer and longer to fill the skips until at last there was nothing left but the walls holding up the roof, just like the boss had wanted that first day.  When I could put it off no more I told Pat the wreckers would be coming the following Monday. Pat looked about the room he had called home for years and his eyes got a bit misty.

“Are you alright Pat?”

“Aye lad, the smoke must have gotten in my eye. I knew it had to come one day.” He said, his voice heavy with despair.

 

That Friday Pat selected some of his favourite books and packed them with his pot, clothes and food into a battered suitcase. He waved at me from the gate as he trudged off into the evening. I waved back but felt like a traitor. That night at dinner I could not eat, which was very unlike me.

“What’s the matter son?” asked dad.

I told him the story of Pat and what was going to happen on Monday.

“Well if I was you I would do something about it,” dad said with a smile before taking his mug of tea into the sitting room. It was grand to say but what could I do? Come Monday the ball was going to swing and Pats home would be gone. If I told the boss about it I was fairly sure the only thing that fat pick would do is try and charge Pat back rent. Having said all that, dads are generally right, I had to do something. 

***

Monday did come and as I opened up the Gate a huge wrecking crane rumbled into the yard followed by the boss in his fancy car.

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

“Wont I need them to lock up tonight?”

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

“What about the apprenticeship?”

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

 

I checked two library’s before I found Pat engrossed in a book about Roman History, the battered suitcase resting under the seat of his chair.

“Hi yea Pat,” I greeted him.

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

“The pig of a boss let me go, the job is finished apparently.”

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

“True enough. That is why I am 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 but Pat would not let me help him with his case. At last we got to the house. We trudged up the side of the house which opened out to a big garden with a good size shed built against the end wall.

“Why don’t you make a start on the shed Pat, I will tell the woman of the house we are here,” I said.

I pushed open the back door and walked over to my mother who was watching the old man walk down the path to the garden shed. We saw Pat open the door and stand like a statue, looking inside. The battered suitcase slipped from his grip and fell to the ground. My mother patted my arm and said “Give him a chance to get used to it, why not bring him up a cup of tea.”

 

When I pushed open the door to the shed with two steaming mugs of tea it was cosy and warm because the barrel stove glowed happily in the corner. Close by was the battered recliner but also a single bed with freshly dressed blankets, the wall was shelved with as many of Pat’s books as we could fit. My dad had come with me on Friday night and emptied out Pats old room taking what might be of use. We had worked from dawn into the night over the weekend making the old shed dry and warm.

 

“Do you like it, Pat?” I asked. The old man said nothing but caressed the books that rested on the newly built shelves.  I knew he could reject the place, his pride might not allow him to stay.

“Thing is Pat, we need to extend it. I thought you might be able to stay here in exchange for working on the job. I wanted to add a bathroom and shower. If you don’t think you’re up to the job I won’t be offended.”

Pat turned rubbing the tears from his cheeks “Oh I am up to it lad. Don’t you worry.” His smile beamed from his stubble covered face. I handed him the 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 closed the door and left Pat make himself at home, in his home.
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