THE WORK ETHIC – Part one
Short story: 6396 words
In three parts to accommodate Blogger.
“SO THAT’S it, after less than two years?”
“I was wrong. You turned out to be just what you are – a plumber.”
“A good plumber,” he insisted.
Having pressed the red symbol he looked at the mobile with distaste. Wound down the van window and tossed it into the layby, saw it bounce, and again, into a puddle. Just to make sure he drove the van over it. The hell with plumbing.
He was on the edge of the forest; half a mile ahead was a hotel said to be in all the restaurant guides. At the reception a coolly groomed blonde – who bore more than a passing resemblance to Vriony – scrutinised him neutrally. “I’ve had bad news,” he said. “I’d prefer not to go home tonight. You can take charge of my credit card but I have no change of clothes just in case that’s a problem in the dining room.”
He felt rather than saw her eyes pass over his navy-blue boiler-suit, pausing to read “Arnie. Plumb perfect.” on the breast pocket.
“We could lend you something,” the blonde said with some kind of central European accent.
“I’m a plumber, for goodness sake. Correction: I was a plumber. As of today I resigned.”
He sat down to dinner wearing black slacks and a plain white open-necked shirt. Since the youthful waiters were similarly clad he felt, with them, younger than his actual forty-two. Stuffed heart as the evening’s special led him to his second pyrrhic gesture of the day. Imagining champagne would gee him up he ordered a bottle. Instead he became morose. The heart – quite delicious – lay quarter-eaten on his plate as his head drooped and he considered, for the thousandth time, the two events that had shaped his profession and then his marital status.
Realised too he shouldn’t have used “bad news” with the receptionist. Minutes ago he’d noticed the sommelier in deep discussion at the far end of the dining room with a man in a suit, both glancing anxiously his way. Perhaps his solitariness was seen as a prelude to suicide. He raised his hand and the sommelier, discretion incarnate, came over.
“Look the food’s perfect but I’m not used to champagne. My stomach’s upset. There’s half a bottle left and anyone who fancies it can have it. If you have something I could take – Milk of Magnesia if all else fails – I’d appreciate it. Then I’m off to bed.”
The Settler tablets had been a ploy and remained untouched on his bedside table. It was only as he lay between the sheets he realised how tired he was.
He woke early, disinclined to take breakfast and even more resolved not to return home. The house was technically Vriony’s; they’d sold his large flat for an exorbitant sum, split the cash and he’d moved in. The designed elegance had pleased him right up to yesterday, but he knew now – among other things – he wouldn’t be able to pass by the small table in the hallway with its Georgian silver tray for visiting cards.
“You can’t put the car keys there,” Vriony had said in the first week. “This isn’t Mr Darcy’s Pemberley,” he’d replied. “Who says it isn’t?” she’d said, touching his cheek.
Charming then, less so now.
Back in his boiler-suit he drove the van aimlessly round the forest, avoiding signs that pointed to the decaying town nearby. An hour of this and his hunger developed in full force. Knowing only too well the genteel yet hopeless tea rooms at the town’s centre he stopped at a caravan serving all-day breakfasts on an industrial estate so sordid that “estate” had to be self-mockery.
The weather was warm enough to sit outside on alarmingly flexible plastic chairs and eat a burger and chips under the columns of the old railway viaduct. The surroundings were alien. His plumbing customers had included couples “looking into” indoor swimming pools; here he was reminded of other, more marginal, ways of making a living.
Most of the viaduct arches had been acquired as impromptu workshops and his eye was drawn to a car-repairer, Myfi’s Motors, with its subsidiary slogan: We Service The Carriage Trade. He himself had only just discovered slogans and had reckoned he might well improve on Plumb Perfect.
By now the burger was gone and his early start had left him languid. Myfi’s forecourt offered half a dozen cars, reminding him that as an ex-plumber he no longer needed a van even if Myfi’s range looked too elderly for any part-exchange. Five were dilapidated fleet cars, the sixth, very low and almost hidden from sight, was not immediately identifiable. Since he felt no obligation to finish off his truly horrible instant coffee he sauntered across the road.
Self-adhesive lettering on the windscreen proclaimed the car to be a 1995 TVR Chimaera which may, or may not, have justified the second line: “A classic!” He wondered if there might be a special technique for getting into the driving seat; the car’s roof just about reached his breast-bone.
Only a supreme optimist would spend real money on such a car. Or possibly someone who was emotionally disturbed. Through the open double doors he saw twin legs protruding beneath an ancient Land-Rover scraped down to the bare aluminium in many places. “Is Myfi around?”
“I’m Myfi,” said a clear Welsh soprano.
“A woman,” he said, immediately regretting his crassness.
“Short for Myfanwy. Look I’m working three spanners with only two hands. Can it wait?”
“Just idle chat, really. What’s your best price for the TVR?”
He laughed. “Sounds interesting. Look I can hang around.” A thought struck him. “You fitting a new exhaust?”
“My sympathies. Those rusted screws, those paper-thin brackets. But then you won’t be trying to save everything, as I was at age eighteen. You’ll fit new bits and pieces.”
“That’s what you think,” snorted the voice. “The owner’s a hill farmer. Those boyos don’t like spending.”
Clinking noises slithered from under the Land-Rover as he walked round the workshop, aware of something odd but not able to put a finger on it. Ah yes: the tidiness.
He took a chair, no doubt for those who liked to watch the act of car repair. Noted a small pile of magazines which included Private Eye and Spectator, rather than worn copies of Sunday colour supplements. Surprised but not tempted he returned to the protruding legs with their Totector boots and wondered what the other end looked like.
Ten minutes later she slid into a view on a flat bogie-trolley, stood up neatly and opened the Land-Rover door. “Be with you in the minute,” she said. The starter groaned and the cement-mixer knock of a very old diesel eased into life.
Two squirts of the accelerator and she turned off the ignition. Slammed the door shut behind her, stood in front of him, hands on hips. “Plumber, eh. I saw your van. What does a level-headed laddo like you want with that fool TVR?”
Two things stood out: her face covered – perhaps permanently – with an oily brown sheen and a body which resembled that of a male athlete, not muscle-bound like a boxer or weight-lifter, but smoother and better proportioned as if through swimming or skating. A body clothed in an already filthy orange boiler-suit, sweat running down her cleavage towards a grubby strip of bra. A moderately magnificent structure spoilt by an even filthier John Deere baseball cap worn backwards.
“I’m a resigned plumber,” he said. “Needing to do something romantic.”
“Plumbers never resign. They make too much cash.”
“If you prick us do we not bleed?”
She laughed, showing brilliant teeth. “A plumber who’s read a book. Next door there’s a machine that does better coffee than the caravan.” It was her office, just as neat as the workshop, and it even ran to water-colours of the Brecon Beacons. With no apology Myfi lit a cigarette, inhaled profoundly and contrived to make this procedure look healthy.
“Why did you resign from plumbing?” she asked.
“I don’t know you well enough to say.”
Myfi shrugged. “Since you’re interested in the TVR I’d say women trouble. But you’re right, it’s not my business. So here’s the situation: for two and a half grand you can take the car away, but you’d need a low-loader. It’s not driveable.”
“And the other negotiable option?”
“You could finance its rebuild with me. I don’t have the cash to do it off my own bat.”
“The mains sound OK but I’d need to check. I’d be inclined to strip the gearbox. The fuel injection needs a heart transplant but it’s the brakes that’ll cost the most – I suspect total replacement. Rebush the suspension for good luck and then find out why the steering feels like chewed string. I could strip the genny but a refurb would save time and money.”
He nodded. “Mega labour costs, then?”
Her expression changed, her eyes focused on something beyond her office. “I want to see it running.”
He spoke quietly, sensing vulnerability. “What are you saying?”
She inhaled on the cigarette, her breasts squeezing in the cleavage. Somehow she looked heroic and he felt ashamed of his talk about resigning from the labour market. She said, “I work six days a work and charge peanuts. Still my customers complain, especially when something else goes phut a week later; they whinge and pretend I’m to blame. That Land-Rover is twenty-six years old; it doesn’t deserve my efforts. There’s no fun in what I do.”
“What will the TVR cost?”
She smiled wanly. “The fact is I don’t know. It’s a very low-volume car and I may be into hidden costs – special parts that cost the earth. You’d have to trust me because I’d need cash continuously.”
“And all for a whim of mine.”
“A whim of mine, too.” Her eyes now refocused. “I suppose I ought to ask you what you’d be hoping to get out of all this. I mean if you want a car why not buy one? Two years old, still on warranty, zero risk.”
A moody silence enveloped them both. He asked, “Is it just the challenge you’re after? The sense of achievement?”
“Not quite. I started mechanicking before I left school. Saturday mornings at the local garage near Merthyr. Changing oil-filters, checking tyre pressures, trying my hand at guessing what was wrong. Cars are a finite world and that suited me. A world where I could be boss. A world of customer ignorance which I could resolve. I did well at school but I couldn’t stand the thought of uni. All that talk, all those opinions, nothing ever put right.”
The phone rang and he saw her shoulders droop when the earpiece started quacking. “No, I’d expect it to fail the MOT with a hole in the foot-well... Yes I know it’s only nineteen years old but... It’ll need welding up with... Oh, say an even hundred... I really can’t see doing it for less...”
A full minute of sustained quacking, during which her shoulders straightened and her expression became sterner. “Mr Davies... Mr Davies, hush now. Hush. Here’s the problem. Even if I did weld the floor I couldn’t guarantee the MOT. It’s structural, you see... Is a hundred pounds a lot of money? By all means phone around.”
Myfi put the phone down and reached for the Marlboros. Pushed the packet away. “What was I talking about?”
“Your life in garages. Why you want to see the Chimaera running again.”
The phone call had had a bad effect. “The hell with it. Take it or leave it.”
“Hey, I’m not Mr Davies.”
“No, you’ve got cash and you reckon you’re working on my soft spot.”
He was horrified by the transformation. “Is that how you see it?”
“You’re a feller aren’t you?”
“What the hell’s that got to do with the price of eggs?”
She stared at the wording over his breast-pocket. “Gentleman plumber,” she sneered. “Gentleman wanker. People who do real work don’t resign. Most get fired. Your squeeze has given you the brush-off and you see that car as a tart-trap. I won’t be party to it.”
Continued in THE WORK ETHIC – Part two