I had been feeling a bit out of sorts. By Thursday lunchtime I’d completely lost count. I never lose count. I kept a tally going at all times. For instance, on Monday the tally reached nine-hundred and fifty. A personal best. On Tuesday, it was eight- hundred and twenty-nine. A poor effort to drop into the low eight-hundreds. Something was amiss. By Wednesday I wasn’t entirely sure and had to check the card I marked with a bit of pencil stub. Was it eight-hundred and eighteen or nineteen? I couldn’t remember.
And if I couldn’t keep tally how was I going to make up my quota? And if I couldn’t make up my quota how was I going to get paid?
By Thursday, I gave up tallying by mid-morning but continued working til we shut for the day.
Hadn’t I kept tally? Galt asked me.
I did. I kept it in my head.
‘How many today then?’
‘Nine-hundred and twelve,’ I said.
‘Nonsense!’ he said. He was well aware I’d been two shy of the nine-hundred-mark.
Since when did Galt even care how many I did? Cheeky bugger. He’d had his eye on my job for a while.
But to be shy of nine-hundred had been the trend all week. I was normally right up there close to the nine-forties or higher. I’d been shaving a second or two off the total count for a few years. I was going to be the first man in history to nail a thousand! And I had been on track to get it, too. I was like clockwork. You could have set the time by me.
Galt had been playing catch up for the whole of last year. He was always lurking about. When he first started work here I’d kept my eye on him. Now that lad has potential, I thought. He’d been a skinny little runt but he learned fast.
I’d catch him watching my technique from the side of the factory floor. I didn’t mind. I was so far ahead of the game I didn’t think I had anything to worry about.
He’d filled out a bit in the last few months. Apparently, he’d been lifting weights. And the added meat no doubt helped. But I’d been at this for years. The kind of strength I had in my arms and legs had been honed and chiselled over a decade or two. It wasn’t possible to build the kind of strength I had in just a few months – and you couldn’t do it lifting weights anyway.
Black Angus whistled when he saw Galt’s tally card.
‘Better watch out Hamish! He’ll be after your job soon enough!’
Black Angus was another old hand like myself. Born with a hammer in his hand.
Of course, everybody worried about automation, but I had no faith in it myself. You didn’t get that kind of attention to detail from a machine. You didn’t get that kind of customer care. When me or Black Angus swung the hammer, the job got done right.
You could rely on us. We were born to the trade.
Even Galt, though I hated to admit it.
It was lucky that this Thursday I’d been alone with the beasts for an hour or so.
I’d missed one! I haven’t missed one since I began years ago. In the early days, yes. During my apprenticeship under McIntyre. But not since I’d officially begun as Floating Hammer thirty-five years ago. It was a matter of pride. I swung the hammer and the beast went down. Until Thursday, anyway.
I hadn’t been feeling myself that day at all. But my game had been off for the whole week. It was all Galt’s fault. Ever since he moved into the spare room in my place. My wife had suggested we rent it out. Make ourselves a bit of cash on the side. And Galt had needed somewhere to stay.
‘Galt needs somewhere,’ I said.
‘Galt?’ She thought he was staying with his wife.
He’d told me she’d gone back to her village. It had been on the cards for a while, apparently.
‘That could work out perfectly, couldn’t it?’
I agreed it could. Flora liked Galt. He was a go-getter, she said. ‘High-energy.’
I didn’t notice the implication at the time. Galt moved in and made himself right at home, his too-young spouse apparently not having taken to the role of hammer man’s wife. Be that as it may, when I came in from a shift, Galt’d often be sitting there in my kitchen on my favourite stool, or on my favourite chair in the living room, drinking my beer out of my cool box.
‘Hey,’ he’d say, ‘it’s the big man.’
I would just grunt, go to the cool box and pop the cap on a beer. I’m not the sort of person who feels like chatting right after work. But having Galt around did mean that Flora minded her Ps and Qs around me a bit more. Normally she’d be on at me to go and have a shower straightaway. She complained that I smelt of slaughter.
And it was true. I’d have the blood ingrained in my fingernails, dried bits and pieces on my face and often in my hair too.
Of course, if I wore the regulation overalls it’d be less of a problem. But I didn’t like to wear the regulation overalls. I found them restrictive and I like to have a good, free motion when I swing the hammer. Besides, it was the way I’d always done it. The regulations about overalls were only recent and were supposed to be binding but nobody bothered, except new apprentices. We had inspectors come around once in a while but I just put overalls on the morning we’d been told to expect them. Black Angus didn’t wear them either because he was allergic to something in their synthesis. It brought his skin out in an itchy and angry -looking rash.
Galt wore them, though. At the end of the day, he could just be hosed down, and it all drained off.
Flora asked me how my day had been as usual.
As usual I told her it had been fine.
Galt laughed. ‘He’s not a great talker, the big man, is he?’
On a shift, I generally liked a bit of banter, a bit of back-and-forth with my comrades. And my sense of humour was as good as anybody’s, I liked to think.
‘Well, if you’re determined not to have a shower just now,’ Flora said, ‘it’d be considerate to at least take that gory shirt off and come and sit with me and Galt at the table.’
So there I was, sitting in my undershirt at my own table, my own wife looking me over disdainfully.
‘A fine figure of a man!’ Galt said. ‘Look at that physique.’
I suppose it was fair to say I’d put on a couple of pounds in the last year or two. But underneath that extra layer it was all hard muscle.
Flora pushed a plate towards me. ‘Try not to get any of that chest rug in it,’ she said. Galt laughed.
My plate was piled high with potatoes, cabbage and great glistening slabs of chops. I wasn’t hungry, but I forced down a few of the spuds and some cabbage with a knife of melting lard over them.
Galt tucked into his own, wolfing down his meat liberally sprinkled with salt and black pepper.
‘I suppose we’re not saying Grace,’ Galt said with a wink to Flora.
‘I don’t think we need to thank God for this meal,’ she said. ‘The workers shall provide! Not wanting your chops, Hamish?’
I told her I’d have some later.
After they had eaten their chops, Flora cleared the plates away and went to the pan and got some custard and steamed treacle sponge, dolloping it into bowls. She handed one to Galt and sat down to one herself. Pointedly, she didn’t give me one. And she knew I loved custard and steamed treacle sponge!
‘You won’t get any dessert, not till you’ve eaten your pork chops.’
Galt continued spooning the custard into his face without looking up.
I excused myself and took my plate of chops off down to the bottom of the yard to potter around in my shed. I could hear them chatting and laughing as I went down the path. It was my habit to go there when I wanted some time alone.
Now I was thinking that it might have been a mistake to offer Galt room and board. He seemed to have his feet pretty well under the table. There was no doubting that the extra money from rent would prove useful. And Flora seemed happy enough with this new arrangement. I could hardly complain – not when Galt had been my suggestion in the first place.
It was the icing on the cake: my tally had dropped at work and now I wasn’t to get any custard and steamed treacle sponge?
Things are definitely awry if you come home from a hard day’s graft and your own wife won’t allow you any custard and steamed treacle sponge.
Here I was, avoiding sitting in my own house. An exile in my own backyard. Well, at least I could feel at home here, with my old rickety wooden deck chair, radio and view out of the grimy window. The slaughterhouse, a granite slab, was visible only three or four fields away. The pigs rooted away contentedly in the mud of Bernard’s lot next door, unaware of the fates of their cousins in the building beyond. I walked there every morning and home again every night as I had done, man and boy, for forty years or more.
Bernard had four or five of them he bred for meat. When the time came, he’d select one and get me to do a homer for him. That was usually in October. It was April now and they still had plenty of growing left to do. Usually, I just waited till hunchbacked Bernard and his wife were out, swung a leg over the fence and did the business. Luckily, their daughter Susannah was away at college too. She had a soft spot for animals, Susannah did. But I knew she had a bigger soft spot for me too. She called me ‘Uncle Hamish’, even though I wasn’t her real uncle. It wouldn’t have done to carry out the job in front of her – I’d always hated to see her upset. When they came home from work there’d just be one less piggy to feed.
The job hardly took more than a minute or two. I didn’t take any money for it. Bernard’s wife usually gave me some sausages to say thanks. They were great, his wife sausages.
I don’t know what came over me, that day. I’d been sitting in my chair, on the hut porch with my leftovers on my lap, picking at the meat and on this occasion, I tossed the cooling potatoes over the fence for the pigs. Of course, they weren’t going to let that pass them by and sure enough, they gobbled them up straightaway. They squealed and grunted and jostled each other to get at them. Next, I tossed over the cabbage.
Now, nothing wrong with that you might think. And you’d be right. Pigs love leftovers. When there was nothing left but the meat, I chopped it up into smaller bits and began tossing them over, chunk by chunk. I thought it was funny I suppose. Feeding pigs on pork.
But it wasn’t funny. It was cruel and it was wrong. The pigs didn’t realise that, though. They’re not the sharpest tools in the box no matter what anyone tells you.
Intelligent animals my foot!
One of them was too slow to nab any of the meat. No matter that I tossed a chunk directly over to it, one of the others would get there first, snout it out the way and wolf it down. That was wrong too. They weren’t wolves, they were pigs and should behave accordingly.
Not that I was annoyed or anything. Quite the opposite. I sat there chuckling to myself, feeling a bit sorry that the slow pig was missing out. But my plate was empty – they’d already eaten everything else. I’d nothing left to give it.
I stood up and stretched myself, yawned and stuck my hand in my pockets. Quite a dull, close day. Then I went into my hut and surveyed my tools. I had a claw hammer on my workbench – not really the sort of hammer for the job – but I took it down and tested it against the palm of my hand. I gave it a thump. It felt good, reassuring somehow. Manly. Next, I walked down to the yard fence, and swung a leg over. Naturally the pigs didn’t bother. They were quite used to seeing me around and sometimes I’d scratch their ears or their hairy chinny-chin-chins through the fence. So they weren’t alarmed when I went over and scratched Chip’s ears. Bernard hadn’t given them names of course. They were destined for the table, but I called the small one Chip. Don’t ask me why. Chip was grunting away appreciatively and didn’t suspect a thing, poor creature.
I told you it wasn’t the right tool for the job. Chip made off squealing at high volume, and the rest of them were thrown into a panic. All the racket the pigs were making brought Flora and Galt to the back door, and before you knew it, there was Bernard at his door too.
‘What the hell’s going on?’ he shouted at me. I didn’t have any reply and began backing towards the fence as he advanced down his back-door steps. ‘Get away from those pigs,’ he yelled, ‘or I’ll cave your head in!’
Bernard was normally a placid little hunchback, so I was taken aback somewhat by the pure white heat of his rage: he really did look capable of violence. The upshot of it all was that I had to retreat into my own house in short order.
Flora refused to speak to me for the rest of the evening and Galt expressed concern at this worrying trend in behaviour.
The next day was my birthday but Flora had evidently forgotten all about it. When I tried to cuddle her the previous night in bed she had stiffened and turned her back to me. All the same, I’d thought she might have at least made me a card but when I went down to breakfast she didn’t even say happy birthday. There was no card on the breakfast bar. There was no present waiting for me either. Galt had left several hours before for a morning shift.
Still, I wasn’t concerned: I felt sure she’d have arranged something for later, a surprise party or maybe she was planning to present me with a special gift. It was a special birthday after all. It was my half-century. Pretty special – to me at least. But all this last week she’d been behaving oddly. Distant. We’d never been especially affectionate on a day-to-day physical level, holding hands or hugging and kissing in public. I’d always been uncomfortable with public displays of affection. I can say with some certainty that Flora was too. It hadn’t been the done thing when I was growing up. Of course, nowadays you could hardly walk down the village street without your vision being assaulted on all sides by young people making an exhibition of themselves.
But this was different. And now, on my birthday, to receive no present at all! That was downright strange. I asked if she was feeling all right, as she handed me a cup of tea. But she just shrugged and carried on with her chores. Flora was responsible for the upkeep of the house. My job was to bring home the bacon. Which, I have to say, I’d been doing pretty successfully for years.
The previous night’s debacle seemed to have left a residual bad taste in her mouth. Bernard had taken some placating but in the end he’d calmed down and agreed not to call the constable. The conferencing that went on outside my house while I sat indoors involved a fair amount of shouting but eventually everyone had calmed down. I think that Bernard understood I’d only been trying to help Chip out in a difficult situation.
Obviously, he was the runt of the litter. If things went on the way they were, they weren’t going to work out well for him. I’d only been doing what I’d been doing out of concern for his well-being.
Anyway, Galt had argued that no harm had been done to him, other than a bit of a bump to the head, which he’d no doubt shake off quickly.
‘Pigs,’ he said, ‘are a durable breed. None more so than runts. Why, once he’s gotten over his initial fright, he’ll be gambolling around with the rest of them, happy as Larry!’
Galt’s coarse but upbeat manner seemed to go some way in mollifying Bernard. My wife offered her opinion on the matter, but every word she spoke seemed to grate with Bernard and set him off again.
I sighed to myself as this all went on. I made a mental note, once again, to have a word with Flora about the sharpness of her tongue. It was often the case that disputes and arguments were escalated by her when they otherwise might have been becalmed. Chip was going to be fine, Galt went on, and obviously his feelings were a little hurt right now. But for sure he’d recover, sensibilities intact. He’d seen it happen so often at work too! The animals didn’t stay offended for long ha ha.
I wasn’t sure that that was what Bernard wanted to hear, but somehow Galt talked him down and eventually he went back indoors, promising he wouldn’t involve the local constabulary.
Thank the First Minister that Bernard’s wife hadn’t been home, I remember thinking. There’d be hell to pay if she got wind of it. Luckily, she was still on shift at the hospital up beyond the Seven Villages and wouldn’t be home until after ten. The thought of Valerie and Flora going at it hammer and tongs in the back yard was too terrible a prospect to consider.
Either way, I went to work that evening looking forward to coming home again and enjoying my birthday party and wondering who would be there to celebrate it with us.
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