Steven Michael Photography and Art
He was always the first one in and the last one out; much like his father and grandfather before him. But this was final: he was the last one. He took one last tour of the mill; ambling painfully, hunchbacked, along the gangway above the blast-furnace. He’d long become impervious to the torrid heat of the molten pit, and even though its fire continued to rage, it had begun to feel very cold.
The mill was closing down. The site had been decreed unsafe; a vast monument to mass-production, rotting from the inside: much like himself. His trembling hands clutched to the rail as he observed, one last time, the theatre of toil that had been his sole place of work for over forty years, since he was sixteen years old. He felt a lump in his throat and a tear in his eye. He turned to leave, resisting temptation to look back as he did so.
He collected his belongings from a locker room: an old, handed-down flat cap and a leather rucksack. He took his time walking down a number of corridors that led to various offices until he came to the longest corridor of all. At the end of this dim, joyless passage there appeared a great light. It was like a vacuum sucking him out into a different world; maybe it was a re-birth.
As he approached the light, his stigmatised eyes became aware of something that bore a resemblance to a guard of honour. A phalanx of men, mostly smiling, lined both sides of the corridor. He looked at many of them as he passed. Some of the men were suited. They smiled the most. The others were garbed in fluorescent jackets over flame-retardant suits and most seemed to have masks covering their noses and mouths. He had never been given a mask. At the brink of the light, he was met with one final suit. The gentleman offered his hand and appeared to say something to him. He could not hear a word. The only noise that registered was the perpetual tinnitus that had become the soundtrack to his days. Had he known, he would have appreciated the irony that the asbestos employed to protect his ears, had served in condemning both him and the brute of a building where he’d spent the bulk of his waking life.
In the last few seconds before being cast out into the cold light of day, he submitted to the temptation of looking back one last time. Back down the line, he saw the men again; the shepherds of his departure. All strangers; he knew not one. He attempted to speak, but no words came. Then he turned to leave.
He walked out into the cold of the jobless world. The town was shrouded in a mass of grey sky. It was impossible for him to tell apart nimbi from the belching of smog from the mill’s many chimneys. As the cold air greeted his lungs, a violent fit of coughing ensued. He bent over double, retching and wretched. It would pass. He then moved through the town, a man without a plan. Walking through a park, he passed mothers bringing their children home from school. They were all strangers.
Down through Market Street, he passed many old shops; most of them were boarded up and left to rot. He remembered the hustle and friendly bustle of the old market place. Now all there was in its place was the carcass of an old industrial town, abandoned, left to fend for itself. He craved the warmth and air of familiarity. Now, every day would be the same: a quest for purpose. How did he spend his free days? In the pub! Of course, he should go there, as he would each weekend, drinking away his hours before returning to his meek wife who knew him as Albert.
He went to the pub and waited patiently at the bar. His shrunken frame was dwarfed by the large and the young. He waited. No service. He saw a collection of photos on the wall behind the bar. There he was, in as clear a vision of black and white as any truth could proclaim: a young, tall fast-bowler, the pub’s finest; of very true, rambunctious Yorkshire tradition. That’s how he wanted to be remembered. Not that anyone would ask him about that now; he was now nothing more than a nameless curio on the wall and a mirage at the bar. He surveyed the faces in the pub. No other mill-workers were there, only strangers in strange clothes. He departed wearily.
He continued to walk until the bruised sky turned black. He would get a drink at home. He had whisky; a Christmas present from his son, who had left for a high-flying job in London and failed in his endeavour to bribe his father from the penury of dirty, carcinogenic labour. They no longer spoke. For him, his son had perverted one of nature’s abiding laws: to provide for one’s own until the bitter end. He could not tolerate dependency on anyone, not even his own kin.
He came home. Waiting for him on the kitchen table was a bowl of stew, prepared dutifully by his wife. It was now cold. She had gone to bed. From a cupboard, he produced the bottle of whisky his son had bought him. He left the tumblers undisturbed. He quietly walked up the stairs, taking care to avoid the squeaky floorboards. On the landing wall he saw more photos. It was his son with his wife and her family. He saw only strangers.
He went into the bathroom to wash his face. Before doing so, he took several deep belts of whisky from the bottle. He then succumbed to a crippling fit of coughing. He collapsed over the edge of the bath. The bottle smashed on the floor. When he came to, his hands were covered in blood, but it did not come from the broken glass but from his mouth. He told himself that every day would be like this. Just get used it and don’t make a fuss. This was him now; too young to retire, too old to start again: a victim of life. He clambered to his feet and clasped the sink with his shaking hands. He looked into a mirror and saw only a stranger looking back at him.
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