THE WORK ETHIC – Part three
THE FOLLOWING day, with no other repairs booked, they pushed the Chimaera into the workshop, Myfi unhitched the bonnet and they moved the winch cradle over the front end of the car. His role would be to watch, learn and hand over tools before the engine was lifted out. But in the way of things an elderly women, in tears, walked painfully into the workshop and announced she’d locked herself out of her Suzuki Swift, a mile and a half away.
“At least it’s a newish car for once,” said Myfi. “This sort of thing is to be expected. I’ll probably end up doing most of the TVR work in the evening.”
He looked at a list he’d compiled. “If you’re happy I could step in here. The convertible hood is torn in a couple of places. It’s just a suggestion but how’d it be if I removed the frame and took it to a specialist in Gloucester. Ordered a new hood. The point is it’s no big job, doesn’t require your skills at any point.”
Myfi was escorting her new customer to the aged tow-truck. She turned and looked him up and down as if measuring him for a suit. “Go large on WD40,” she said. “Sod’s Law says the rusted bolt you shear is always the one-off.”
That evening he was able to support the gearbox as it was detached from the engine and he transferred it single-handed to the jig. “Your aim being to make yourself indispensable?” Myfi said, amused.
“I’m starting with the donkey work. If I watch carefully I may be able to help you when things get trickier.”
An hour later he went out and brought them both fish and chips.
Most of the work that week was done in the evenings. Late on Friday, after a Chinese takeaway, Myfi lit a cigarette and sat down on her stool. “You seem to be working to an agenda.”
“Does that worry you? More important – I should have asked earlier – does having me around worry you? A feller?”
“What would you do if I said yes?” she asked, interested.
“Write you another cheque for five hundred. Give you my email address. Go back home.”
“That’s sort of noble. Given the way your ex has treated you.”
“Noble? You’re saving me from evenings watching telly.”
Saturday was spent on a stream of small jobs for customers who simply turned up. Bodge jobs: a window jammed up permanently for someone who didn’t care to pay to have the winder re-engaged; a broken seat-frame re-welded. With Myfi installing a set of re-tread tyres, he removed a defunct battery crusted with white deposits from a Hillman Avenger, put in a new battery and insisted on charging £12.50 for labour – to the tune of much Welsh argument. When they finally closed the doors and Myfi moved to switch on the lights over the Chimaera, he waved his hand. “That’s enough for today. If you’re up for it I’ll buy you a steak at the Harvester. You don’t have to if it’s a social step too far but there is something you need to see at my B&B.”
“I thought you slept out in a tent.”
The pair of them crowded into the small bathroom. “Feel the rad,” he said.
“Cold,” said Myfi.
“Feel it down at the bottom.”
“Yet the system’s been switched on for a couple of hours.”
Now he opened the door of the cistern cupboard. “What’s that buzzing noise?” asked Myfi.
“You tell me.”
Myfi squatted down, felt the various pipes but clearly only as an aid to thought. “The pump’s not pumping,” she said.
“But there was a tiny bit of heat in the rad.”
“Conduction flow, up from the boiler.”
“Let's say convection. And the buzzing?” he asked.
“These kind of pumps don’t have blades as such, a sort of enclosed vane. I’d say the vane’s come off.”
“A new pump.”
“A long job, then? The pump being part of the whole system.”
“You mean draining? Surely not in this day and age.” Myfi looked closer. “This is the pump. I’d expect to find – Yup, here they are. – a couple of isolating valves. Close them down. Stick a pan under to catch the few drips. Change the pump.”
“Apart from convection, ten out of ten.” He smiled. "It proves we're sort of related."
Myfi stood up; they were only a foot apart. He said, “How about the Harvester.”
“Give me an hour and a half. Swarfega and I have a lot of work to do.”
He got there quarter of an hour early and spent the time wondering what tone to adopt. Decided that hinting at greater closeness would be a mistake. Better the brisk exchanges that prevailed in the workshop: a sort of meritocracy based on his money and her skills. He hoped like Hell that straying away from car repairs wouldn’t overface her.
Jeans emphasised her derrière, already observed and appreciated, but that was where display ended. The thick towelling blouse was quite loose and reduced the contours of her breasts to mere suggestion. Not that he should be considering such matters.
The brown sheen had finally disappeared from her face, leaving behind a pale complexion that wasn’t entirely surprising given the subterranean atmosphere of the workshop. She asked for a shandy with the possibility of a glass of red to follow.
“A hard day yet you seem pretty fit” he said. “Certainly muscular.”
“I used to swim before opening the shop. But that made for a very long day. The work itself is exercise.”
He wished she’d ordered something stronger than a shandy, a drink that would relax her and encourage a flowing conversation. It seemed important not to be asking questions.
“With plumbing it’s often a matter of contortion. Working in confined spaces. It doesn’t feel healthy but I suppose it better than sitting at a computer. Or standing talking to sixth-formers about Hayek.”
“That’s right.” Her face now animated. “I keep forgetting there was a life before plumbing. Wasn’t that a ballsy decision?”
He laughed. “I don’t know about ballsy; it was forced upon me. They closed the school, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher and economics is one of those marginal subjects that’s likely to be cut when times are hard. It was amazing really, what friends I had saw plumbing as a social step down. A class thing. I saw it as a new world: ditching theory in favour of real work with an end-product. A practical, varying, self-reliant world with – let’s not mince words – better job security. The only drawback was the length of time it might take to qualify but I had some ideas about that. For one thing I was good at passing exams, even those based on manual skills. For another, teaching had given me administrative experience: handling bumf, understanding the law, writing applications, the sort of work born-in-the-wool plumbers are often weak at. During my apprenticeship I was able to trade that for more advanced training, fast-tracked to squeeze in the experience.”
She’d been watching him with what he realised was admiration. Subtly their standing with each other had reversed. She said, “The world on a string, eh? I can see things in that light now, the way things are organised, but as a teenager it was all from the inside. Hands first then brain. Slow progress, often not in the way I needed to go.”
She leant forward. “Not that I’m complaining. It was all a magical mystery tour and what I learned stuck. The knowledge was solid. And I remember the exact moment I knew I’d made the right choice. An electrical fault, they’re always the trickiest; and this was long before laptops did diagnosis for you. A tiny short-circuit, but where? My boss had worked half the morning and still couldn’t track it down. He was on the verge of putting in a new alternator on the off-chance; but it’s a good job he took his lunch-break then because a new alternator wouldn’t have done him any good. I took over and I had it in ten minutes. A bolt in the starter motor had been over-tightened, causing a crack that propagated to the insulation.”
From then on the going was easy. Time after time she broke off from her steak to tell of some other triumph, the meat cooling, ignored in her eagerness. One glass of red became three as he filled in the rare cracks with his own achievements, able to slip in questions here and there without any suggestion of an interrogation. Seeing a two dimensional sketch turn into three dimensions.
“You know,” she said, laughing breathily, “I’ve gone a whole week without ever calling you by name.”
“It’s a British failing.”
“Yes, but I know your name. It’s on your front pocket. Arnie, you’re Arnie.”
A finger alongside his nose, he laughed back. “Nice of you to say that. And you say it well. But it was dreamed up to hide my real name. A poofter’s name, someone once told me, and I’ve never liked it ever again.”
“Oh, you must tell me. You must, you must.” And it was as if she were demanding anything he cared to imagine.
“I can’t. You don’t know what it’s like to have a name like that. Yours is so beautiful. It should always be said in full, Myfanwy. See, I’m even saying it the Welsh way.”
Both drew back as dessert was served, a fruit salad for Myfi, bread and butter pudding for the man presently nameless. Would he like cream? Would she like ground ginger? Coffee afterwards? No. Tea? A digestif? Keen to catch the tail of her good-humour he waited impatiently, then turned to face her.
Only to see someone else. Shockingly, the mood had gone. Her mouth, previously open in laughter, had slackened into accusation. Her eyes hard and unfriendly. “No more sweet talk,” she said tautly. “Just answer me the one question that matters. What are you doing in this town? Why did you pick on me – specifically me? No more about cars, or marriages breaking up. I want the truth.”
The suddenness of it left him breathless but not for long. Drink had made him decisive, possibly reckless. “I needed something to latch on to.”
“What does that mean?”
“Someone to be with. Who recognised my world. Talked my language.”
“You mean someone to - ” Not daring to cover her mouth he nevertheless brought his hand close, very close, and that final, hideously predictable word remained unspoken.
He said, “Please, please not that. Not because it’s not true. Years ahead it could be. Or perhaps never. But now it has no force. If you like, it isn’t a priority.”
“So what is the priority?”
“The things that happened this week. Those usual humdrum things: work and more of it. You continuously, me just a little. Work that would be a mystery to anyone else. Work which resumes tomorrow, Sunday. When the heads come off that V8 and you start finding out what it’s worth. Inspecting, measuring, comparing.”
He stopped. “Because you will, won’t you?”
She stared, saying nothing.
“Oh there are other projects. The injection system, the brakes. The clutch! – we’ve never talked about the clutch. But the engine is at the heart, isn’t it? A V8, two banks of four – you and me. Bound by work: our language, our heart-beat. Not that you need telling. You recognise it by instinct, you’ve responded, I’ve watched you. Close by.”
She stammered. “It sounds... quite mad.”
“No Myfanwy, it’s history that’s mad. And cruel. Repeating itself.”
“And there’s trust.”
“There is indeed. Forget dessert. You’re knackered, I suspect you spend a lot of your time knackered. I’ll pay the bill and walk you home.”
At the entrance to her tiny flat he said, “Tomorrow, when we break for coffee, I’ll tell you my name. My real name.”
Her smile was ghostly. “A poofter name – it can’t be that.”
“You’d better believe it.” He said, moved by the irony.
HAVING encouraged her to have a quick breakfast on Sunday he’d asked for her keys so that he could open up the workshop. This left him waiting. He switched on the light over the Chimaera and sat on the stool she used on the few occasions when standing up over a car wasn’t necessary. Time passed, then more time. Church bells rang and he stopped looking at his wristwatch. For the first time he was assailed with doubt. At work she was decisive, even as that other wounded self she had taken the fight to him. He tried not to imagine how it would be if she didn’t arrive, tried to concentrate on the work she was capable of. Superstitiously he looked away from the open door and when finally she touched him on the shoulder from behind he was reluctant to believe the delay could have affected him so much.
“Sorry I’m late. I didn’t wash my overalls last night,” she said. "Sheesh, must have been different, shittier oil. Two long washes this morning and the stains are still there. See my arse."
He said nothing, still believing the worst. Reluctant to turn and face her. Heard chinking as she sorted through the spanner drawer.
“First the left cam cover. We’ll gap the clearances and write them down, they may tell us something when we’re into the cylinders. You can do the gapping. Find yourself the feeler gauges.”
He started to get up and was astonished his legs trembled so much.
“Now who’s knackered?” But she said it gently.
Starts at Part one