Frontispiece to Part II of  The Plate Shop

THE PLATE SHOP

 

FIRST DAY

 

1

 

           The darkness gave way to a brown dusk, and a small face formed: the faded offering face of Marilyn Monroe. But all her gaze met, as the cold morning light advanced, was an enormous building, like an old hangar, choked to the roof with machinery. In front of her a rigid watching insect figure slowly condensed into a cap and goggles, and a leather apron, hung from a corner of iron. Nothing stirred; it only grew colder, and a sweat of dew came out on the cold steel plate. A thin mist crossed the receding humps and towers of grey machinery.

           The light increased until the grimy windows of the workshop were white with sun, and the mist gathered to a horizontal blade, then disappeared. From dazzling points in the walls, pencils of light came in. Colours came out in the machines, which stood clear in all their different shapes: an upshooting wiry machine was all run and whip and gleam of tough silver threads; a square red casing stood rigid at attention, severe, burning in upright fire. Beneath a soaring tree of girders sprawled a long low humped and curved machine—deep–green, enormous—like a dangerous armour-plated creature asleep. In the girders above, a fat amber cable curled among the leads like a snake asleep among vines.

           For two hours the sprinkled freckles of light inched down the girders and cowlings and went out on the concrete floor, while the machines faced each other. And still the faded lovely face of Marilyn Monroe, smiling, dimly sparkling, offered herself to the empty air, to the drills and presses, and to the enormous shape that had come clear in the centre of the Plate Shop: which just was, without joint, seam or interruption, a steel mountain, a huge smooth cone of iron.

           There was a roar of cars, and a light ticking of free-wheeling bikes, then a paradeground tramp of boots moved round the walls. The side-doors were dragged open in a jagged scrape, and banged back echoing on the walls: and the first plater stood in the doorway, and shuddered as he came into the cold shop. The platers after him stood chatting in the entry, as they shook free of donkey-jackets and satchels.

           The platers dispersed down the long chilly avenues, and a haggard, angular man began a slow, pausing climb up the sheer wall of the shop. Half-way to the roof he changed to a ladder with a protective cage round it: so he worked his way up like an ant or a fly, till he reached a wide bridge of machinery that spanned the shop. He clambered into a little cockpit slung under the crane; there was a thin quicksilver spinning and whirring of cogs up there, a thin wire of sound, and then in a soft large reverberation the entire machine began to slide gradually forward: the long claw, which hung down from the crane with the stretch and grab of an arm, swung slowly as it trailed in mid-air.

2

           In one place, in the concrete cliff of the shop's wall, there was a dingy square wooden panel, and snap, it was banged up, and an old man leaned out as though he had been there all night. His eyes started from wide, dry, lashless lids: his skin was grainy and brittle: he was parched and arid like something bricked up in the wall breaking out at last. He glared down the shop, but when he saw the platers were all a long way off, he relaxed; he withdrew and then, with a fresh light in his old face, he just pottered about in his hole. The walls of his office seemed to be made of compressed bales of old rags, and there was a curious dim light, brightening upwards towards the top, as though the room were under water.

           'Morning, Mr Petchey!' A plater came up to the hatch, nervously cheery, and the old man was instantly harassed with overwork. He only muttered ‘Saville', and stuck a donkey-clip of tickets at the plater. While Saville filled them in, the old man leaned forward and watched him do it from close to, fiercely. He snatched the spidery tickets when they were done, and with one arm began with difficulty separating folded blue drawings from the crammed shelves. While he grumbled on the job, another plater arrived: tall, but stout all down his tallness, with a face all curves, humorous, clever and libidinous, and a bald pink head which he carried as though he had to show it off as something extraordinary in waxing and polishing. This plater did not know what nerves were, he came banging up to the hatch, crashed his fist down on the counter with a steelworker's disdain of wood, and bawled out 'Shop! Shop! The man, I say!' The nervous plater gasped, 'Careful, 'Lias, he's here! '

           The old man slid to the counter smooth as if he moved on wheels, his dry eyelids hunched round the beads of his eyes; he muttered `Trigg.' It seemed that the surname was the only word he could bring himself to say, as the all-in-one summary of his contempt.

           'Morning, chief!' the new plater cried, and calmly wrote out his tickets. Then the two platers lounged across the counter, gazing offhand at the black glove hanging out of Petchey's right sleeve, a glove too small to hold a real hand. While Petchey worked with difficulty, they laboured to provoke him. 'Ah, Nutty, isn't he bonny at the crack of dawn! How do you do it, sunshine? Been at the Phyllo-san?' From the depths of the Drawing Stores, Petchey exploded, 'Clear off, hop it, go on, get out of it, you pair of mangy bleeding sods! ' But the platers stayed lolling on the counter and he went on getting the drawings: they said the same things every morning, and all three felt braced. The routine row, first thing, was like starting the day with a small whisky.

           Petchey came back to the counter, flung down the sheaf of drawings, and checked them off against the tickets; but now Trigg was fastidious and held up tattered oily drawings by one ear like dirty nappies. '0o, narsty drawing, I'm not having this.' The old man lost his temper and shouted he would go on strike, and bring the whole works to a standstill.

           'Go on strike?!' the platers shouted. 'You can't go on strike!'

           'Who says I can't go on strike?'

           'Werl—it wouldn't be official, would it?'

           'Wouldn't be official!' the old man repeated in cumbersome derision. Leaning out of the tight wooden frame, with the watery light brightening up the ragged shelves behind him, he shouted and swore at them, he would shut up shop and let them all go hang; there would be ructions, there would be hell to pay; he insisted on it till it seemed he wanted to do nothing so much as to brick up the tiny hatch there and then, and seal himself completely into the blank concrete wall.

           The row they were making drew in a nearby plater: he came forward, holding a length of cable that trailed off into the shadows behind him, shouting at the old man, 'You'll be fucking lucky if you get time to strike, daddy-o. We all will.'

           'Here, Lloyd, what do you mean?' the old man shouted. But the other two platers nodded seriously, at one with Lloyd, while he harangued them as though they disagreed. 'It's all cut and dried, all in the bag, you know that, don't you? Do you reckon we got months? Do you reckon we got weeks? We'll be bloody lucky if we've got a day!'

           The platers nodded, and their eyes roved to the end of the shop and beyond as though what the bag had in it, was not only themselves, their machines, the factory, but the sunlight outside and everything it fell on. Lloyd shouted on, so that it seemed only his fear come real when suddenly he gasped and went down. A monster, a black snake, had got him: he rolled back and forth on the floor, and writhed like a man dancing, while the black coils whipped and spun round him. The serpent swerved and corkscrewed, and shook his arm furiously where it bit him; his white surprised face kept swinging into view. But the bald plater jumped down and grabbed the writhing fat black body, and gave it a great yank. As he jerked it back, the head darted round in mid-air to catch him, but he ducked, and it fell on the floor and lay quite dead there, completely still now, a red piece of skin at its minute jaw. Trigg traced the cable back to its end, and pulled it from the socket, explaining over his shoulder, 'The silly arse! He hadn't switched it off.'

           Lloyd sat on the floor, dead white, holding up his hand and gazing at the small wound. Petchey chuckled from the hatch, 'Made him jump, did it?'

           'You silly bugger! ' Trigg kept saying to Lloyd, as he helped him to his feet…

Illustration to The Plate Shop

© 2019 by John Harvey, jrh49@cam.ac.uk 

Novelist, art critic, literary critic and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge

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