Toeing the line, p.1
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       Toeing the Line, p.1

           Leigh Barker
 
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Toeing the Line
Men at Work

  (Episode 2)

  Toeing the Line

  Copyright 2014 Leigh Barker

  ISBN: 9781310339332

  Toeing the Line

  The battered green lockers lining the far wall of the maintenance workshop fitted right in with the rest of the décor: neo-dump. The two walls on either side of the lockers were lined with heavy wooden workbenches littered with junk from a hundred repairs, both recent and historic.

  The lockers had three backless bench seats lined up in front, chipped and shining from a hundred years of polish by oily boilersuits. And next to these stood a single wooden chair, freshly painted in green, and shining clean and bright with not a chip or scuff in sight. This anomaly sat stately in front of the only locker flaunting a bright silver padlock and a nameplate positioned exactly in the middle of the only dent-free door.

  The oily seats were occupied by three of the five maintenance fitters whose pride and joy the workshop was supposed to be. Nick and Smiffy sat with their overalls pulled up to their knees, watching Gonk struggling to pull his over his beer-gut. He was bald and fat, which is bad enough—allegedly—but being next to Smiffy just accentuated his manly curves. Smiffy was so stick-thin his clothes hung off his shoulders like a coat hanger, making him look a whole lot older than his forty-two years. Maybe late sixties. He could have worked as an extra in a concentration camp movie or a living dead true story, except that his thigh muscles bunched up hard against his overalls. So there was the evidence, clear for anyone who could read the signs. A cyclist. But not your everyday pedal-to-work type cyclist. Smiffy was a hill climber. A member of that rare breed who spend their weekends touring the country looking for mountains. And then racing up them. There is no treatment for this. No medication or mind straightening. It’s a sport. Done for fun. God, there is such a thing as too much. Somebody should have told him.

  Turns out, Nick had done just that, on many occasions. “Insanity, mate” was the phrase most often used, but alas, it fell on deaf ears. The riding up mountains with his bony ass in the air continued unabated. It was fun.

  Gonk was too fat to ride a bike, and suicidally too unfit. And at thirty-six, way too old to be Nick’s gopher and fetcher, but life deals the hands, and those without friends in high places have to play the cards they’re dealt. Or so Gonk would say. Frequently. And of course, Gonk wasn’t his name, it was what Nick called him because, basically, he looked like one. His mother would have called him Eustace, if she’d still been around, God rest her soul, which was presently sunning itself in a retirement home in Spain. He used to be a teacher — geography, allegedly. But that was before the ill-fated school trip to the mountains. It hadn’t been his fault, just a combination of bad luck, bad weather and… okay, one or two little drinks, but let’s not go there, it didn’t contribute in any way to what followed. Despite what the tribunal said. But they’d been out to get him. People are like that. They resent success, good looks and charisma.

  In a practiced move, Gonk breathed in and zipped up his overalls, smiling at Nick for approval.

  “You losing weight there, Gonk?” Nick said, pointing at the overalls straining across his barrel gut.

  Gonk looked down. “Yeah, change of diet.”

  “You went for it, then?” Nick said. “Having a lettuce leaf with your burger and fries?”

  Gonk nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah, it’s the greens, you see. They cancel out the burger.” He grinned. “Read it in Reader’s Digest.”

  Nick stood up and zipped up his overalls with no problem, but being regular weight and fit is part of the bonus of being twenty-seven. Time would level that advantage.

  The conversation about the merits of dietary balance was suspended when the workshop door opened with a screeching plea for lubrication, and Luigi stepped in, looked around, and sighed sadly. He grunted a response at the round of “mornings” from the boys and walked tiredly over to his immaculate locker. Another day with these morons was more than he could bear. For the briefest moment, an image of his beloved Lake Como formed in his mind, but he pushed it away. No point thinking of home. This… place was his home now and had been for the past thirty of his fifty-five years.

  He opened the pristine locker, took out a carefully folded duster, and wiped the green chair.

  He’d married a beautiful English rose, who became an angry thorn bush. But that road had no turns and no exit ramp. He was where he was. And that was trapped in a life where happiness was a vapour trail in the sky, pointing away to Italia.

  He shook the duster, refolded it, and placed it on the top shelf of the locker, on the left of the shelf, an inch from the front. He checked the cleanliness of the chair.

  “What’s the matter, Luigi?” Nick asked with a heavy frown of concern. “You afraid you’ll get pregnant?”

  Luigi scowled at the world’s most irritating man, took out an immaculately pressed and folded pair of overalls from the locker, and sat down slowly.

  The workshop door screeched open again, and a woman of a certain age stepped in. She was smiling absently and seemed to have not a care in the world. Her grey hair looked as though it had been in a battle with a wind tunnel and lost, and her white apron had samples of today’s menu on display.

  “Open the big door, boys,” she said and clicked into this universe for a moment. “Jessie’s outside with your tea, and it’s raining cats and dogs.”

  “Mornin’, Mrs. T,” Nick said and stamped on his boots, crossed the workshop in four strides, and pulled open the sliding metal door to reveal a Mrs. T clone. “Mornin’, Jessie,” he said, stepping aside to let her wheel in the tea trolley.

  “Morning, boys,” Jessie said. “What will it be, Nick?”

  Nick smiled. “Tea with two sugars. Same as it’s been for the last year since you started, Jessie.”

  Mrs. T stepped up to the trolley, took the big double-handed teapot, and smiled an absent smile. “Was easier at Global Air.”

  Nick shrugged. “If you say so, Mrs. T. But a job’s just a job. Same… sugar, different day.”

  “Didn’t have to take the tea out in the rain, though, did we?” Jessie said a little wistfully.

  “No,” Mrs. T said with a shrug. “But we had to put up with Dickie Marks.”

  The old ladies nodded together. “We showed him, though, didn’t we?”

  Nick smiled gently. “How’s that, Mrs. T?” He’d heard this story once or twice.

  “They wanted to get rid of one of us,” Mrs. T said. “One goes, we said; we both go, we said.”

  Gonk and Smiffy stepped up for their tea.

  “What’s this, Mrs. T?” Gonk said, with a little smile. “You regaling us with tales of happier days at Global Air?” He winked at Nick and took his mug of tea.

  Nick smiled at Mrs. T. He couldn’t help liking her, but what was there not to like? “Yeah, Mrs. T and Jessie used to keep the wheels turning at the airline.” He raised his mug of tea in salute. “Keeping the check-in working at peak efficiency is the most important job there is in an airline. Keeping the passengers moving through.” He appeared to consider it for a moment. “Except maybe for the pilot. Him keeping them in the sky, as it were.” He smiled again, warming to the story. “Those baggage belts can be lethal, right, Mrs. T?”

  She remembered the time her apron strap had caught up in the belt and almost dragged her to an untimely end. “Those bag rollies could do you a serious mischief.”

  “Still,” Nick said with a shrug, “happy days, right?”

  Jessie woke up. “I used to like that one. I liked that Fence boy. He was all right.”

  “Fonz,” Smiffy corrected.

  “No, dear,” Jessie said, “I left it in me bag in the staff room, so it can’t be mine.”

  Ni
ck had been down this road before, and it led to no sane place. He changed tack. “Better here, though, right, Mrs. T?” He wasn’t speaking Russian, but he might as well have been from her look of bemusement. “Manufacturing is the lifeblood of the economy.”

  Which was like telling a toddler that Keynesian economics had been largely discredited.

  “We make sex toys,” Smiffy said, bemused.

  “We manufacture sex toys,” Nick corrected. “And without us, the poor consumer would have to buy imports. And who would want that?”

  “So why did you leave the cushy life in Global Air and come to this dump?” Gonk asked, genuinely interested—but he’d only heard the story a few times, so still expected a twist.

  “Turns out,” Mrs. T said, “they wanted to get the catering from house sources.”

  “Outsource,” Nick said as a reflex.

  “No, thank you, dear,” Jessie said. “I like my bacon in the oh naturail.”

  “No, Jessie,” Gonk said, pleading with his subconscious not to paint the picture. “He means it was outsourcing they did to you.”

  Jessie chuckled. “Nobody tried that with me for long time, dear. Cheeky thing.”

  Mrs. T gave her a scolding look. “Let the boys drink their tea, Jessie. And don’t start all that brazenness again.” She shook her head. “You remember old Mr. Philips from accounting?”

  The boys shook their heads.

  “No,” Mrs. T said with a long nod. “You wouldn’t.”

  Okay, that cleared that up.

  “You can’t take her anywhere, you know?” Mrs. T said.

  They knew.

  “You want a bun with that?” she asked, pointing at Nick’s tea.

  “No, thanks,” he said, raising his mug. “I’m going for breakfast in a bit.” He sipped the tea and clicked his teeth at the tannic taste of stewed brew. “Any news on your husband, Mrs. T?”

  “What’s the matter with your husband?” Gonk asked.

  “Dunno, dear.”

  “But…”

  “Mrs. T has lost her husband,” Nick said.

  “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” Gonk said. “What was it?”

  “Dunno,” Mrs T said, “can’t find him.”

  Gonk’s face screwed up in a frown, and he looked at Nick for support.

  “Lost,” Nick said. “As in, misplaced. Gone.”

  “Oh,” Gonk said. “The police looking, are they?”

  “I don’t think so,” she said, offering Nick a tea top up and receiving a head shake in answer.

  “Why aren’t the police looking?” Gonk asked, totally bemused.

  “Dunno, dear, I pay me taxes.”

  “That’s not right,” Gonk said, clearly annoyed at the lazy police. “How long has he been missing?”

  She thought about it for a moment. “Err… 1987. I think.” She smiled, turned, and followed Jessie and the tea trolley back out into the rain.

  Gonk shook his head slowly and slid the workshop door closed. One of these days he was going to visit reality, but that day seemed a long way off. He sighed heavily and joined the boys leaning against the workbenches and watching Luigi, who’d finished putting on his immaculately pressed overalls and had stowed his new work gloves one in each of his trouser pockets. They watched as he took a white duster from the locker, bent down, and polished a pair of shiny black boots until they were… shinier.

  Smiffy picked up a hacksaw, looked at it as if it was an alien artefact and put it back down. It was one of those tool-things, clearly. “Has to be time for breakfast by now,” he said, easing his tired shoulders and heading for the door, but Gonk nodded towards Luigi, and breakfast could wait.

  “Breakfast, Luigi?” Nick asked, pointing at the door.

  “I told you to stop bloody calling me that,” Luigi said. “My name is Mister Sabatini. And I’ve told you every day, I don’t want breakfast. I eat before I come to work, where I then work.”

  Nick smiled. “Luigi’s on a pasta diet. Pastanother plate of spaghetti.”

  That wasn’t funny. Well, okay, Gonk laughed, but he’d laugh at a traffic accident.

  Luigi looked daggers at Nick, but didn’t say what came to mind. He’d get his one of these days or there was no god, which of course he knew already. “I’m not slinking off to the canteen as soon as I arrive at work. And there’s no way anybody’s going to see me with you lot of… whatever… wasters… deadbeats… things!”

  So, that told them in no uncertain terms.

  He took a step forward to sweep out of there with his dignity and integrity held high. But his left boot didn’t move, and he lurched over, grabbing the locker for support. It too lurched, as if to join the fun. He hopped backwards, grabbed the locker with his other hand, and steadied it before it dumped all his carefully arranged belongings onto the oily floor.

  “This is your bloody daftness, isn’t it?” He glared at Nick. “You pratt!” He bent down and untied the unmoving boot. “I’ve a bloody good mind to report you to management for damaging company property.”

  The boys headed for the door and breakfast.

  “Nails?” Gonk asked, throwing a quick look back in case Luigi was arming himself.

  “Nah, epoxy. Nails are so… common,” Nick said and licked his lips. “I think a full fry-up for breakfast this morning, don’t you? God knows we’ve earned it.” He stepped over the door frame and into the rain. “Another morning of graft and sweat. And are we appreciated?”

  The door clanged shut before the boys could confirm that they were, indeed, not appreciated.

 
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