The coffee machine ruptured and sucked the silver pouch. It delivered a hot spate into my Toffees mug. The phone was ringing at my desk. I found it under invoices that needed paying. No one should answer a phone under invoices that needed paying.
“Regal Chemicals," I said. "How can I help you, sir?”
Then the line went dead. It was strange that someone should put the phone down like that. Taking the headset out of the drawer, I plugged it in ready for the next call, a government official, a low-level civil servant, wanting to know about his order. The computer was slow to start, then a message about a virus appeared. I cranked his order out of the infected computer.
My father phoned.
“How’s the paint factory today, son?”
“I don’t work in a paint factory, dad.”
“But I’ve seen Regal’s paint adverts on TV. You should be proud of working for a company that cares, the mirror-finish doors, the kids, the cute puppies.”
I told him Regal’s image was that of a father painting over his whole house every day with brilliant white paint so that every surface was like a mirror reflecting his wife and children, and pets. That’s the way they wanted it.
My father told me he’d written to Supermart’s CEO.
“We were in their store, and they had teddy-bears in Welsh, Irish and Scottish colours, but guess what?”
“No English colours?” I said.
“Right," he said. "No flag of St. George, and you know why, son?”
“It’s illegal to fly the flag of St. George, that’s why, son. I’m draped in it all the time. They can’t stop me. I send out cross of St. George envelopes. I hung cross of St. George wallpaper. It’s about time. I’m painting the flag on the roof. I need to get hold of your mother to stand at the foot of the ladder, or I’ll have to tie myself up there after what happened last week. You know George Balmain? He fell on the stab-point railings doing his satellite dish. Straight through the heart. And did your mother tell you she has pouches in her colon? They say she needs fibre. The straining’s making her light-headed. As I see it, if the body can’t digest fibre, what’s the use in straining on it?”
He had a point. Next day, I kissed my wife and children goodbye, and set out north for the Regal Chemicals acid plant like I did every day. The road was long and straight and passed rusted absorption pipes, floodlights, gantries, and the hydrochloric acid tanks. I showed my ID. The gate lifted. Coffee. My desk. The phone ringing. The computer flashing a bomb-shaped error message.
“Regal Chemicals," I said. "Good morning, sir.”
“How can I help you this morning, sir?”
“I’m outside your house, and I can see your bedroom window. Your house is the one with green curtains.”
I was thinking about that.
“Are they closed?” I asked.
“Then how do you know they’re green?”
He put the phone down. Why would anyone ring to say that? Then my father wanted to know about my paint factory.
“It isn’t my paint factory, dad.”
“In my day, that factory was an acid plant. They can’t make that kind of stuff nowadays. The north is so much better for youngsters today.”
I hadn’t the heart to tell him. Regal Chemicals had employed him to dig trenches for waste pipes. The day after my sister was born, the thermostat failed, the tanks heated, the acid turned to gas, and escaped through the valves. It sank to the lowest level. He was digging in the bottom of the trench. His nose bled. I’d heard the story of his accident a hundred times, but I still listened.
“Your mother had her new handbag stolen yesterday.”
“We’d crossed town to where I used to wave to my father when I was a little boy. He drove the Edinburgh train north. He’d wave back from the bridge. I can tell you, that area’s taken a hit since we lived there. There are guns now.”
“What the hell were you doing in that part of town?”
“We were waving to a train driver, like in the old days, and then one of these kids ran into us. Another crossed in front, a pincer movement, hooked the bag off your mother’s shoulder. She gave him a clout, but he was away with his mate. We thought it through at home, and went back at night to see if we could find the empty bag. We climbed over the razor wire with your mother wheezing, and we found a hundred purses on the embankment, all empty where they’d just thrown them. So we collected them, a hundred empty handbags and purses at the last count. Would you believe the police never looked? We took the car down there. We’ve a garage full. I’m getting the police to fingerprint every one. We used kid gloves for too long. Those bastards think they can get away with it, but they can’t. We’ve got to get organised.”
Driving south after work, a good sunset hung over the combustion chamber. I thought it looked like another world. I stopped to take a photograph. The light was right. The photograph was like a postcard from Mars courtesy of Regal Chemicals.
Next day, I found a parking slot under the giant base of Regal Chemical’s horizontal cooler, and listened to the valves opening and closing like a blowing whale. My father worked a long time after the accident to get away. He couldn’t hear much because of the ringing in his head caused by acid gas. Jaw disorder followed the headaches. He started complaining of tenderness, a dull facial pain, more noise. His jaw locked open at the dining table. They broke and reset his jaw. He had a lot of pain while eating, and this led to what the doctors called bone noise conduction. This grew into an acoustic neuroma, a small, slow growing benign tumour that pressed against his auditory nerve. He tried surgery but that resulted in more hearing loss.
“Dad?" I said. "What is it?”
“Thought I’d let you know, son. I’m writing to the forty three Scottish MPs allowed to vote in the English parliament.”
“To squeeze them out, that’s why? Have you heard of the Midlothian question, or is it the Dumbarton theory? Never mind. Why should those sons of bitches vote on English matters? We need to squeeze them out.”
That’s how it went. I wondered if it was the noises in his head making him talk that way, or maybe he was just like that.
“What is it?”
“I’m standing by your car. I just placed a bomb under your car, right where you sit.”
I thought about that.
“But you can’t get a bomb under the seat of my car. There’s no metal under the seat of my car to fix a bomb to. It’s a glass fibre body.”
“Right…well, but all the same.”
He was a hopeless malicious caller. Only I could get a hopeless malicious caller.
The computer took a nosedive. A spider walked round the screen taking chomps out of files. The coffee tasted of almonds. Facilities taped off the machine.
Next day, the phone was ringing, but I couldn’t find it. Someone had put it on the windowsill--outside.
“Your mother saw a vampire today.”
“A man came to fix the washing machine, and she noticed his teeth. The man said he had them inserted permanently because he’s a theatrical entertainer. Seems there’s plenty of people out there prepared to pay a man to dress up as a vampire. He said he’d quit the washing machine business, and take up full time entertainment if he had a business partner. We struck a deal. I’m going to handle the business side of things. What do you think, son? It’s going to be great. Transylvanian Leisure. I’m investing a grand.”
The computer restarted itself.
The malicious caller’s voice was thin and distorted, as though he was speaking through a rolled up newspaper.
“I’m outside your house. There are flames at the windows. I can see your wife and children. They’re screaming to get out.”
I thought about that.
“But my children are at school. My wife’s at the hairdressers. I just talked to her.”
He was useless. The computer locked into restarting itself. I made sure no one could put the phone out of the window. I wrapped the cord around the desk leg. My father rang. My cousin had come off his bike riding to work.
“He got a job in the city with a German bank. I told him if he wanted to work for a German bank he should, because there’s no question about it, at the end of the day, when you weigh it all up, who won the bloody war? The bloody Germans did, that’s who. They’re going to have to reset his leg. Look, I joined the National Defence Association yesterday. Have you heard of them?”
I could hear the rapid clicking of his jaw starting up.
“No dad, I’ve not.”
“Well you should. They’re doing a lot of good work.”
“And I joined the Sons of King Arthur, and the Freedom for the English People, and the Ultras. They came round with pieces, guns, bloody great guns.”
I was sure his jaw would lock open again, as though he’d chewed on a needle.
“They’re a paramilitary organisation with white hoods. They call themselves the Children of Albion. About bloody time someone took a stand. That’s what you are, son, a child of Albion. At least you’re not working in a damned acid plant like I had to, at least you’re in an office. I bet your house has doubled in value by now. You’ll be moving on soon? Boy, has the north changed since my day?”
“Dad, look, can I get back to you?”
“Your mother had a bad turn, son.”
I had to see her. Next day, I took imodium, and that made me thirsty. I took another with a good shot of whisky, and then I was standing outside their house looking at the fence, and the lawn. Dad looked older again. He looked older each time.
“How is she?” I asked.
She was sleeping. I had nothing to worry about. I shouldn’t have gone all that way to see them.
“The doctor gave her diazepam, or is it tamazipan? She fell. She was climbing the bedroom wall like Spiderman. I called an ambulance. They didn’t have one available. They sent an electric truck they use for moving paperwork between buildings. Her feet stuck out the back. It was low on charge. I could have carried her there quicker myself. She couldn’t speak for a day or two, but she’s much brighter now, sitting up in the hospital, numb down one side. She wants to know how you’re getting on. She’s very proud of you, son. She’s been telling the whole ward. We’re both very proud of you. On the day you were born, we flew the flag of St. George out of the window, the English flag, the proudest day of our lives. Did you know that, son? Did you know that’s how much we wanted you to do well, son?”
It was true, they had always been very proud of me.
Someone came to take away my computer for essential repairs. I stared at a bourbon biscuit left exposed where the computer had been.
“But I’m standing right behind you.”
I put the phone down. I turned round. My failed malicious caller had an ID card clipped to his blazer pocket, the words Securicon Plc in grey and blue with some kind of swoosh below. It was an inside job, a set up. The removal of my computer was a sign. No computer meant no job.
“What is this?”
He invited me to the fifth floor. I couldn’t argue. The fifth floor was no secret. It was lined with dark wood veneer in the way I imagined a gentleman’s club would look like in London.
“These photographs you’ve been taking of the plant.”
I never meant to take photographs of anything sensitive. He opened a door onto the roof. The roof was puddled. A breeze made a grey aura across the puddles. The plant hissed and creaked all round.
He pointed at my photograph. The pink and blue sunset made a silhouette of the intricate steelwork. The ladders and service ducting combined like sacred filigree. I was proud of that photograph.
He held it up, and rubbed his finger over it.
The photograph, the fine carving, the spires, the pinnacles, the corroding medieval latticework, a message from the north, dissolved beneath his finger.
(First published in Transmission 4 Jan 06)