This was the first short story I’d ever written, and the first to win a prize. It’s part of the anthology, Through Other Eyes. I am reproducing it now because it’s part of my Rhobin’s round robin post for May, 2021.
I needed a summer job, so lied about my age, and was employed by Sims in their scrap metal reprocessing plant.
It was a great experience for a boy. I had to melt lead and tin into ingots of solder. I was given a bin of lead and a bin of tin, the two being equal in weight. I waited for the half-full cauldron to heat up, then I had to empty the bins by carefully dropping in one piece of metal at a time. The stew had to be given a stir every few minutes until all the lumps had dissolved. Moulds were filled by opening a tap at the bottom of the cauldron. This half-emptied it.
Then I had to get old Jack. He’d bring a pre-weighed bin of tin and one of lead on his trolley. We’d off-load the bins together, then load the still hot ingots onto the trolley. At first I had to fold the gloves double, so that four layers of leather protected my hands from the heat. By the end of summer, I could pick up an ingot with the gloves worn normally. Even now, I can get a casserole out of the oven with bare hands.
That was one lesson of that summer: handling hot objects. There were a few others — looking busy when there was nothing to do but wait, fitting into the rough but friendly world of working men, and seeing a man die.
His name was Ted. He operated the power guillotine, and took his job very seriously. All safety measures were observed, his area was always neat and tidy, and everything was done by the clock. He seemed ancient to me, perhaps fifty.
George was Ted’s best mate, and no two blokes could have been more different. George was like a handful of mercury. He was always cheerful, with a voice that carried over the sounds of that enormous hall. He seemed to be everywhere at once, which is where he was needed, being the maintenance man.
He worked well but without show, with always time for a yarn. Lunchtimes he spent talking to Ted, and they left together at knock-off time. But George’s main delight was in devising practical jokes. Everyone was wary of him, yet he caught people out time and again. We workers had to have lunch and smoko at our workplaces, while the office and supervisory staff had a tea room. This caused some resentment. One day, George went into the tea room while “They” were sitting at the table having a cuppa. He was supposedly checking the urn. He had a handful of tools and materials with him, including a straight length of copper pipe. They didn’t notice that he brushed the end of this pipe against the spot where each rear chair leg touched the floor. But when they tried to stand up, they couldn’t shove the chairs backward: each was glued to the floor!
His best trick, the Digital Extractor, nearly got him fired.
Over weeks of stolen moments, he made a wonderful-looking device. It was a metal-sheathed cube about six inches a side. The front had a grey plastic instrument panel, with two switches, two knobs, a couple of dials with needles that moved as you turned the knobs, and a recessed hole in the middle with a red button in it.
The device had DIGITAL EXTRACTOR printed along the top. The hole had PRESS printed above it in a semicircle. George put this thing down somewhere and walked off.
Tim, the man in charge of the aluminium furnace, went to investigate it. He clicked a switch up and down. No effect was visible.
He turned a knob and saw the needles swing with satisfying synchrony. And then, he pressed the button.
He leapt into the air, letting out a howl that stopped all work. The Digital Extractor certainly worked — Tim pulled his finger out of the hole very quickly indeed in response to the electric shock from the button.
Unfortunately, that was the day when the Boss decided to pay one of his infrequent visits. He walked around in his neat suit, with the foreman trotting around him like a sheepdog. They came to the Digital Extractor, which was the only new-looking thing in the place. “What’s this?” asked the Boss. “Oh it’s a new…” started the foreman, but he was saved from telling a lie. The Great Man, being literate, realised that the button was meant to be pressed. He did so.
George didn’t actually lose his job. Perhaps he was too good a maintenance man.
There were plenty of other little tricks he played. A toilet seat said very loudly, “Get off me, you bastard!” when somebody sat down. The controls of the forklift worked back to front one morning: up was swapped with down, left with right, forward with reverse.
But not all of George’s tricks required extensive preparation. His last joke was simplicity itself. He put his closed left fist into a glove, said loudly, “Right, I’ve had it. I’m going off on compo!” and shoved the fingers of the glove under the descending guillotine blade. The fingers came off. George whipped off the mutilated glove, held up his open hand and said, “Hey look, they’re still there!” Then he noticed that something was wrong with his best mate. Ted had gone a horrible blue. He was clutching his chest with both hands. Slowly, his body became twisted and bent. He took a staggering step, then collapsed. External heart massage was unknown then. Ted died before the ambulance arrived.
This was more years ago than I care to remember, so why think of it now? Well, my Aunt Lillian was getting too frail, and we had to place her in a nursing home. We picked a nice one, and organised a family roster to ensure a visitor every day.
As arranged, I went on the Friday. As we chatted — at least, she was chatting, while I pretended to listen — I noticed the fellow in the armchair next to hers. He was a shrivelled little old man, drooling at the mouth. He kept repeating an odd sequence of actions. He held up his clenched left fist in front of his face and looked at it for a while. Then he opened his hand, looked at the fingers, and mumbled, “All there. Hey look, they’re still there.” Then he dropped his hand in his lap, but only for a minute or two before doing it all again.
The young nurse in attendance noticed my interest. “He does that every minute he is awake,” she said. “Hey George, your fingers are still there, aren’t they?”
“Still there,” he muttered as if echoing her parody.
George? George from Sims! It had to be him. I squatted on my heels to get down to his eye level and looked him in the face. “G’day George! You used to work at Sims, didn’t you?”
He lifted his left fist in front of his eyes and looked at it.
“Hey George, remember those jokes you used to play?”
He opened his hand, looked at it, said, “All there. They’re still there,” and dropped his hand into his lap.
“You’re wasting your time,” I heard the nurse say behind me. “He’s been like this for years and years.”
I ignored her. “George. Remember the Digital Extractor? That was a beauty! I bet the Boss never had a thrill like that since.”
George lifted his left fist and said in a voice like a rusty wheel, “Yeah, that’s all very well but what about me fingers?”
The nurse behind me gasped in amazement. The pattern was varied, perhaps broken.
“Yes, Ted died after that one, didn’t he? But George, he must have been heading for a heart attack anyway…”
He spread his fingers. “Me fingers are still there. But Ted died!” He started to cry. Great tears ran down the stubble of his wrinkled cheeks.
I said, “George, your joke was just a trigger. If you hadn’t done it, he would have had a heart attack driving his car, or drinking at the pub with you, or at home with his missus. It would have happened anyway.”
He kept crying. To give him privacy, I turned back to Aunt Lillian.
She had been an interested spectator to all this. “You ought to set up as a psychiatrist, Frank,” she said.
“Well, I’d have to limit my patients to people from my past.”
We chatted on. Suddenly, a weak but steady voice spoke behind me. “Hey mate. You. What’s your name?”
I turned around. George had dried his face on his sleeve. He was sitting up straighter. There was a look of alertness on his face. Faded blue eyes looked directly into mine.
“Frank Jensen,” I said. “You wouldn’t remember me. I was at Sims only for the school holidays.”
He held out his right hand to me. We shook hands. “Frank, young mate, I owe you a bigger debt than you can know.”
I went back to visit Aunt Lillian the following Friday, but someone else was sitting in George’s chair. I asked Aunt Lillian about him.
“Oh, funny you ask. He died that same night, in his sleep. The nurses said he had a smile on his face.”