There was a knack to it, like there is to most things. Dan Matlock had picked it up in an hour or so. On the first day, the owner had let him struggle. See if he could work things out for himself; if he was savvy enough to ask for help if needed.
He pointed Matlock to a loaded pallet and asked him to handball half of them onto another.
Sacks of potatoes.
By the time the job was done, Matlock had the hang of it.
Dan Matlock had been out of jail a month. He was trying for a quiet life, not least since he had been involved - if not exactly responsible - for the death of two men in the week of his release. Since those two had been involved themselves in the murder of Matlock’s father Joe, though, he wasn’t getting any ulcers over worry about their souls. They’d been local gangsters. There might have been repercussions, but any threat of that seemed to have passed. Secondhand word had got back to Matlock that fair was fair, and no-one had got what they didn't deserve.
The closest thing Matlock had ever had until this week as a steady gig was debt collecting. Chris, a friend from way back, had come into money and had set herself up as a loan shark. Small-time stuff. Like running a catalogue, selling Avon. Near enough. And Matlock collected for her on debts overdue. But there wasn’t much doing right now, and what with the last few weeks causing ructions, some time away from that line of work was no bad thing.
This was day four of the new job. Not quite halfway between Loweth and Grimsby on the eastern scarp of the Lincolnshire Wolds. You turn left off the main A16, and that takes you to Luthborough. Not much more than a passing place with a few houses. But there was a link road that’d take you north-west out of the county and towards the A1 north at Bawtry, and there was this place too. County Potatoes.
Truth was, they sold onions and carrots too, but spuds were the main business. A warehouse with three aisles: two for taters, the third shared by the other produce. All sold by the sack.
This is what Matlock learned on his first day. A sack of potatoes weighs fifty-six pounds. Half a hundredweight. Four stones. With one hundred and sixty stones in a ton, that meant you shifted a ton every time you clocked up another forty sacks.
You can move a fair few tons of King Edwards a day by hand.
That was the job. Potatoes came in either ready-bagged, or - just as likely - loose in pallet-sized wooden cubed hoppers. County Potatoes sold them on. Bulk stocks for greengrocers, chippies and hotel restaurants. Occasionally, a lorry-load for export out of the county, even overseas. A few times a day a sack of spuds got lifted into the boot of a car for domestic use, or for corner shops to sell on by the pound. They had a van for local deliveries. A forklift for unloading flatbed trucks and for pouring the crates of loose taters into the hopper above their bagging machine. There wasn’t much to it.
Best of all, it was mostly outdoors work.
The agreement was that this short week - the long Easter weekend was coming so there were only four working days - was a trial. If it all worked out, then there’d be something more permanent arranged. Just so there’d be no concerns either way about being let down, the job was cash in hand, paid daily. Suited Matlock fine.
After two years inside, Matlock appreciated the flecks of rain in his face, the wind in his ears. The view, also: out front, the rise of the Wolds and the oncoming weather over the hills from the west; out back, the drop-off of the last of the slope to the floodplain, and - fifteen miles further out - the North Sea.
The fella who ran the place was Lol. Maybe sixty, balding, braces stretched over a gut barely held in place by his checked shirt. Blue factory trousers and rigger boots. Lol didn’t do much except operate the forklift and take the money. He spent the rest of his time in the warehouse office. Taking orders, arranging for deliveries. Pencil in one hand and a ledger before him. Phone forever wedged between head and shoulder.
Lol was coming over. You didn’t need to look to know. Boots clumping like he was Boris Karloff, wheezing like the thirty a day he smoked were catching up on him faster than Frankenstein’s creature had ever shifted. Lol didn’t smoke in his little cabin. Always came out at least as far as the warehouse doors, as though the fresh air counteracted the carcinogens.
Lol didn’t talk much. A nod, then he’d light his cig, then he’d smoke it. Then he’d go inside.
All that was fine with Matlock too. What were they going to talk about, anyway? Football? Women? Telly? Lol was happy to stand in the mizzle, smoke his smoke, then get back to the phone before he got properly wet.
Not much was moving. No traffic. No wind to encourage the cloud.
‘There,’ Lol said.
Lol held a finger up. ‘There.’
A bird cry. Faint, but distinct nevertheless. It might have been a word. Curly. Split into two separate syllables. Cur-lee.
Matlock let Lol tell him.
‘Curlew, that is. Don’t often hear them this far inland. Should be on the beach, him, sticking for lugworms on the water’s edge.’
They listened for a while, until the bird’s call was lost to distance.
‘Didn’t know you were a birder,’ Matlock said.
‘Common knowledge. It was, once. We got taught birdsong at primary. Big old wind-up record player with a pile of seventy-eights. We all had notebooks. The idea was you kept a diary of what you’d heard and seen over the weekend, and make a little report in the class on Monday morning. Old Mr Lock’d then play us the calls of the birds we thought we’d seen. Show us slides of what they looked like.
‘And not just birds neither. Leaves from trees, sketches of different grasses and sorts of bracken. Fish, if anyone’d been fishing. Small animals. All of it.’
‘We didn’t get any of that,’ Matlock said.
‘Wide Range Readers. That’s what we had. A load of story-books. Most of the stories were about the children of cavemen. And calligraphy. Our teachers were very into writing in italics with a fountain pen.’
‘I’ve still got the notebooks,’ Lol said. ‘Mum kept them along with the school photographs and all that. I found them when we were clearing out her place after she left.’
‘Better than having rusty penmanship.’
Lol lit another ciggie. Matlock pulled the hood on his waterproof over. Lol didn’t seem to be minding the wet. No, it wasn’t that. Something else. He wanted to say something. But he couldn’t find a way to raise the subject.
He’d come round to it. If it was important, he’d say so. If not, not. He had all day, then they’d be shut over the long Easter weekend. Back open Tuesday, assuming Matlock had passed his four-day work trial. He couldn’t think that he hadn’t.
Then a van pulled into the yard. A bloke got out and asked for a couple of sacks of whatever was cheapest. Matlock loaded him up, Lol took the money, fetched him his change, then went back inside out of the weather, which was worsening. A few minutes later the phone rang, but it got picked up on the second ring.