5. Meanwhile, back in Scotland… - Book One - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Despite his egalitarian principles, McAllister knew when, as the owner of a small custom-engineering workshop, it was best to withdraw himself discreetly from the shop-floor to the quiet seclusion of his office upstairs, and leave the men to sort out their differences for themselves. The new foreman - Mikey, he called himself, though privately McAllister doubted it was his real name - would just have to cope. These were hard men, and it took a harder one to master them. But it was bad luck for the American to have run into Geordie McGeown, liquored up and, as ever with Geordie, nursing some obscure grudge compounded of four parts muddle-headed street-corner demagoguery, three parts whisky, two parts the effects of an elementary school education which had been long on instilling the duty to hate Papists, and short on teaching logical thought, and one part who-knew-what.
Policy notwithstanding, McAllister left the office door open a prudent sliver. Quiet-spoken Mikey was one of the shortest men on the shop-floor, looking five years younger than his asserted age, whose favourite expletive “Gosh darn it” contrasted almost comically with the salty, curse-laced argot of the Glasgow foundries which was the native tongue of the men around him. If this went the way McAllister feared, he might have to intervene in person. If it came to that, of course, Mikey would be finished as a foreman, and would be the laughing stock of Clydeside to boot; the foreman who needed the factory owner to wipe his bottom for him. Nevertheless, McAllister was a humane man, and wouldn’t stand by and see black bloody murder done on his premises.
And in any event, Mikey had been placed under his protection by someone whose claims could not be denied.
He’d been surprised to get Davey’s message after so many years; more surprised to find his old friend proposing a clandestine meeting.
They’d met in one of the quieter galleries at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in front of an exuberant mid-Victorian picture of the launch of The Great Eastern which Davey privately considered both an affront to local pride and something the artist might have brought off better had he served a proper ship-building apprenticeship, or at least been told a few home truths about displacement of large vessels in water.
They’d greeted each other with the restrained surprise of two old acquaintances meeting by chance in a public place after a separation encompassing more than mere years and the difference between the poorer and the wealthier quarters of the city, and after the best part of an hour’s chat it had seemed natural for them to repair to a quiet tea-shop to continue their recollections of long-dead people, and places since changed beyond all recollection.
Which was when Davey had sprung it on him.
“Ye’ll maybe have a space for another skilled man, Andrew?” he’d enquired, between one reminiscence and another.
McAllister had blinked. Year on year throughout the Depression he’d juggled one thing and another for endless weeks, scrimping, cutting back, tramping round a seemingly endless succession of boardrooms full of overly well-fed, silk-hatted men wearing cold, profiteer’s smiles; coaxing, bullying, cajoling or downright begging commissions out of companies who were all battening down hatches for the duration and had no work to let. But he’d done it; when the gloom started to lift and the hammers’ sound came back to the shipyards of Clydeside it was said of McAllister & Smalley that they’d never laid off a man if the owner could prevent it, and that he’d cut out his tongue before he let it give the order to make redundancies.
But that was well in the past now, and, besides, the vast empire of shipyards, foundries, rolling mills and assembly lines owned by the international conglomerate Davey answered to these days could swallow up McAllister & Smalley and all its workforce a thousand times over, and barely notice the difference.
Davey, however, wasn’t one for asking favours lightly. Nor for making mysteries where he needn’t. McAllister had considered the matter with due care.
“Has he any experience bossing men? I’m no hiring hands just the minute, but my foreman’s broken his leg; they say he’ll be in hospital a month or more. And there’s no-one I’d care to promote from the floor - especially not if I then have to demote them once Richards gets back in harness.”
Davey had given a disapproving cluck. “Man, that’s no way to run a business. Leave yourself short of a foreman, because you’re soft to an injured man, and his family, and prepared to keep his job warm for who knows how long? And no doubt you’ll be seeing to the hospital bills, also. I wonder you’ve not fair ruined yourself years ago.”
He’d laughed; it was an old, old argument between them and neither of them had given an inch of ground in fifty years. And Davey, reluctantly, had smiled too. And McAllister had agreed to meet his engineer, and see if he might, perhaps, do to take Richards’ place for a few weeks.
The man was an American, which was a surprise; McAllister had watched a flood of skilled workers sail from the Clyde in the opposite direction, and only a mere trickle came back. Yes; there was some mystery here. There was something about the man’s demeanour. He had the air of someone whose life’s mainspring had been broken, and when he thought McAllister’s eyes were off him he allowed his mouth to relax into lines which somehow conveyed an infinity of quiet desperation.
He was polite and quiet, though, meeting McAllister’s tricky technical inquisition with the well drilled air of a Sunday schoolboy rattling off his catechism. And his hands were good; strong, square-tipped, calloused. Not someone afraid of hard work, McAllister had decided. And as for anything else; well, McAllister had never been one to pry into another’s secret. If Providence chose that he should know about it, then Providence would enlighten him in its own good time.
He told Mikey to start as foreman tomorrow.
And his first two days had been a success; the hands had taken to the novelty of being bossed by Yankee Mike, and he’d politely answered, or deflected their endless stream of questions; yes, it was true that in America there were cafes which actually opened early enough to serve you breakfast; no, he’d never actually met Jean Harlow, though he’d seen Katharine Hepburn once, stepping out of a car in front of Macy’s; oh, he just fancied seeing Europe and working his passage was the only way to do it, and it wasn’t as if he’d got family in America who were missing him, so he could please himself how long he took to do it.
And his work was all McAllister could have asked for. In Mikey’s hands a lathe could sing, and a welding torch all but turn somersaults. And he had an instant eye for when a mod would work, and where it wouldn’t. And a bottomless fund of ingenuity.
The more McAllister saw of him, the more he pondered. A mystery there, for sure. He was not, in the least, the calibre of man one ever expected to see in a small workshop on Clydeside, even one as respected for its workmanship as McAllister & Smalley.
And Geordie McGeown, unfortunately, was.
McAllister pushed the door slightly wider. No-one down on the shop floor was looking up towards him. The silence - the chatter of the lathes and the turning of the screws were so much background as not to count as noise for any of them, though visitors declared themselves deafened within seconds - was heavy, ugly. A number of the men had stopped working and were grouped round Geordie and Mikey in a rough circle. He made a mental note to quarter-hour the lot of them.
Mikey’s voice rang out across the workshop with cold authority.
“And what do you call this, Geordie?”
Geordie squared his shoulders.
“Man, some foreman y’are. Pure gone in the head, ye must be. Nae doubt that soft coca-cola ye Yankees drink instead of honest whisky’s rotted your brains for ye. D’ye not recognise a weld when ye see one?”
He swayed closer, leaning in towards Mikey’s face. Mikey held his ground. His voice was level.
“Sure I recognise a weld when I see one, Geordie.” He paused, chewing his gum meditatively. “And, Geordie, I know a heap of shit when I see one, too. And you don’t get to guess which one I think this is.”
There was a collective indrawn breath around him. Geordie lurched even closer, to within an inch of Mikey’s face, and let loose a stream of obscenities, touching upon everything from Mikey’s (presumed) parentage, to the (presumed) professions of his sister, mother and all his female relatives of lesser degree. Mikey rocked back slightly on his heels, and waited for him to run down to a stop. He put his head on one side, and looked up at the other through sparrow-bright dark eyes.
“Well, Geordie? And what’s all that got to do with the price of butter?”
He picked up the tangled lump of metal from the bench, without discernable effort though McAllister knew it must have weighed twenty pounds or more.
“I don’t care you were doing this on piece-work rates, Geordie. I don’t care if your best girl was waiting for you to take her to the flicks tonight, and you were rushing to get through your quota before the hooter went. I don’t care if you thought I was a soft-headed idiot who’d pass crap like this because you don’t expect me to take on half the shop on my first week.”
He exhaled, and thrust the metal hard at Geordie’s chest, driving the other man back against the bench.
“What I do care is that what I’m holding here, Geordie - what you decided to apply your half-assed excuse for a precision weld to - is the blade for a de Laval steam turbine. Jeez! Have you any idea of the sort of psi this weld’s going to have to stand up to in use? Have you? Ever seen a boiler burst, Geordie? Ever seen human flesh that’s been boiled off human bones? Ever heard how a man screams who’s had that happen to him? Well, multiply that at few times, when it’s a disintegrating de Laval you’re playing games with. That’s the price of shoddy workmanship, Geordie. And metal doesn’t make excuses or play favours.”
He tossed the rejected blade over his shoulder, without looking where it fell. Two of the watching hands scrambled aside just in time. He started to roll up his sleeves.
“We’ll finish this outside, Geordie. Now.”
As a small gaggle of men moved, mesmerised, behind the combatants towards the door to the yard McAllister got up and, moving like a cat, pulled his door closed with infinite care. Somehow he rather thought his rescue efforts would be superfluous to requirements. And he had a lot of paperwork to get through. And it was nice to have a bit of time when the shop-floor was quiet for him to do it.
It was three hours after the closing hooter had sounded when he finally descended from the office. The machine shop was deserted - no, there was a pool of light at the end of one of the workbenches. He made his way over to where Mikey sat, surrounded by sculptured hunks of precision-machined metal. He had one in his hand, and appeared to be scrutinising its weld through a jeweller’s eye-piece. He was so absorbed that it took McAllister’s hand on his shoulder to alert him that he was no longer alone. Then he swirled round so fast that McAllister reflexively fell back a pace. Mikey raised his hand in front of his face in a rueful gesture.
“Jeez, sir, I’m sorry. You startled me.”
McAllister let the ghost of a grin cross his lips. “We’re out of hours now, laddie. Just McAllister will do.”
His glance dropped to the bench. The hand that had been supporting the rotor blade as Mikey inspected it was beginning to swell; it looked puffy round the knuckles and the skin was broken.
“Wait here a moment.”
He’d always made a point of having a well-stocked first aid room handy to the shop-floor; the arnica and the bandages were easy enough to find. Mikey accepted the first, but refused the second.
“Cap - I mean, someone I used to work with - said the men needed to think you didn’t bruise or cut like any other man if you wanted to lead them. No matter what it took to keep up the pretence. With a bit of oil and grease on my hands in the morning I doubt they’ll see it’s hurt. But a bandage would be a dead giveaway, Mr - um - McAllister.”
McAllister nodded, acknowledging the point.
“Did he fight dirty?”
Mikey nodded. Then he gave the first real grin McAllister had ever seen on his face.
“Mind you, so did I.” He paused. “That gave me the advantage. I was expecting him to, but he didn’t expect it of me.” There was another pause. “I’m afraid you’re out a hand. He - um - decided to ask for his cards.” He paused again. “At least - I - um took the liberty of interpreting it that way. People aren’t all that easy to understand with their two front teeth half-way down their throat.”
The shy grin broadened. McAllister returned it with interest.
“Good. The Dear knows he’s been a problem this many a month, but I’d have not have thought he’d stoop so low.” He looked down at the turbine blades on the bench. “And these are all his batch?”
Mikey shrugged. “Maybe. I pulled all we have for checking, to be on the safe side.”
McAllister gulped. There were forty-seven blades in stock; he’d signed off on the stock-check not forty minutes ago.
“Man! You’ll be here half the night!”
There was a shade of bitterness about the other man’s mouth. “That’s OK. There’s no-one sitting up waiting for me to get back. And I like working. Easier than thinking.”
McAllister got to his feet. “Well, I’ll be leaving you to it. The sooner you get back to it, the sooner you’ll be done.” He paused. “But if you give me leave, I’d be honoured to have your company tomorrow evening. We have a kind of club who get together every Thursday; have a wee bit of supper and listen to a lecture or have a debate.” He waggled a finger. “Oh, you’ll hear everything from red Bolshevik revolution to someone who reckons he’s drawn the only original blueprint for the New Jerusalem, but they’re good lads, too, among all their blether, with some fine brains among their crazy notions, and there’s always room for another good engineer. I’ve never found a good engineer yet who was a truly bad man, ye ken. There’s truth at the very heart of the science. Anyway, laddie, ye’ll be very welcome.”
Mikey looked - momentarily taken aback. Then he ducked his head, in a quick acknowledging gesture. His voice seemed, somehow, remote.
“I’ll think about it -sir. Goodnight.”
As McAllister pushed out through the workshop door into the fog he took a last glance back at Mikey bent over the rotor blades on the workbench, peering through his jeweller’s eyepiece again. And it struck him - fanciful as the notion sounded - that he had never seen anyone so lonely.