by Arthur Mackeown
Wilfred Biggs was chief glassmaker of Caxton’s Glassworks. His bread and butter was wine glasses, but he could also make yards of ale, paper-weights, bubble-filled vases, and tiny prancing horses. Sometimes, when there was a special order, he would amaze us with enormous brilliantly-coloured fish as good as anything the Italians ever did.
He was a bit of an artist in his way, although he wouldn’t have thanked you for telling him so. Working-class chaps like us thought Art was for sissies, and Wilf was a man’s man, well over six feet tall, with a black beard and a beer belly and a deep, harsh voice.
The only thing he respected was hard graft, and he always said the same thing to a new arrival in his shop: “Forget the foreman. It’s me as hires ya, an’ it’s me as fires ya, so ye can either shape up or get out.”
He nearly fired me before I’d even started. This was my first job, and when the foreman told me to be there at 6 a.m. sharp I thought he was pulling my leg. I finally wandered in at 6.45 and the foreman was not pleased, but I soon learned he was the least of my worries.
“What time d’you call this?” he said. “His Nibs’ll ’ave your guts for garters.”
“You’ll find out soon enough. Come on.”
The foreman led me down onto the shop floor, and over to a group of men working around the open mouth of a brick furnace. Sweat was pouring down their faces, and their shirts were soaked with it. He pointed to a large, bearded man seated at a work bench, where he was doing something mysterious to the foot of a wine glass.
The glass was attached to a long metal tube which he kept spinning back and forth along the arms of the bench as he worked. He didn’t seem to notice us but one of the workers did, and shook his head slowly.
“That’s Wilf,” the foreman said, and chuckled. “Your new gaffer, God ’elp you.”
He went off without another word and I just stood there until Wilf looked up and saw me.
“What the bloody ’ell you gawkin’ at?” he said.
“You’re my new ‘boy’, aren’t ya?”
“Then get to work,” he snapped, “or you’ll be out on your arse afore you can say Jack Robinson.”
That was Wilfred Biggs on a good day.
* * *
Ten years later I was still with him, which was quite a feat, though I say it myself as shouldn’t. No-one else had stayed the course except old Stefan. Stefan was from Czechoslovakia, wherever that may be. His English was so bad he missed most of the curses Wilf hurled at him when he was in a foul mood, which was probably why they got on so well together. Stefan always worked with a large mug of Guinness beside him, and could blow wine glasses even faster than Wilf.
I was what we called the blocker, and it was my job to draw molten glass from the kiln for Stefan to blow in the mould. Of all the jobs in the works this was the hottest and hardest — at least I thought so, and to prove it my hands and forearms were covered with the burn scars that are the blocker’s trademark.
There was also the ‘boy’, but he didn’t count. He was low man on our little totem pole and Wilf never let him forget it. Everything he did was wrong, even when it wasn’t. Most of Wilf’s ‘boys’ were lucky if they kept their jobs for a month, and the last one had left in tears after only a fortnight.
No-one expected his successor to do much better. His name was Jimmie, fifteen years old, and just out of school, a skinny, spotty little kid with round plastic specs whose lenses were always dusty. He also had a black eye, and wouldn’t tell anyone how he got it. Josh the foreman knew the family and said it was probably a present from his old man, who liked to knock him and his mum about when he’d had a few beers.
Jimmie was so quiet in his first few weeks that some of us thought he might be a bit dim. Mind you, he did his job well enough. Most of his time was spent collecting the bowls, or wine glasses, or whatever we were blowing that day, and popping them in the cooler.
Before the break he made tea and fetched cheese rolls from the canteen. At the end of the shift he stayed behind to sweep up, and put the still-hot blowing irons in cold water to crack off the surplus glass. You didn’t have to be a brain surgeon for any of that.
* * *
Despite his bad temper Wilf had a sense of humour. At least, he thought he had. Always ready for a laugh at someone else’s expense. His idea of a joke was to send one of the youngest, greenest apprentices out in his lunch hour to buy rocking-horse paint, or Guinness-flavoured crisps, or left-handed screwdrivers. It wasn’t only Wilf, of course; most of the other gaffers did it as well. Just like hazing in the army. Something all of us had been through, even Wilf. If you played along you’d be accepted as one of the boys; if not, you’d be in for a hard time of it.
Wilf started in on Jimmie on the poor kid’s very first day. The moment the whistle blew for lunch he said, “I need a favour from you, my lad.”
“What’s that, then, Wilf?”
Wilf gave me a nudge in the ribs. “Rockin’-’orse paint,” he said.
“You ’eard. I want you to run down t’ High Street and get me some.”
“Rockin’-’orse paint?” said Jimmie.
“That’s right,” said Wilf. “An’ make sure it’s spotted.”
“Ain’t got no money.”
“Don’t you worry about that,” Wilf answered. “Bloke down paint shop’s a mate o’ mine. ’E’ll give it you on account.”
Jimmie scowled. You could tell from his face that he knew Wilf was having him on, but he didn’t know what to do about it.
“Go on, then,” said Wilf, “and don’t be late back, or you’ll catch it from foreman.”
Jimmie made it back with two minutes to spare. The foreman, who was a mate of Wilf’s, saw him clocking in and said sternly, “Cuttin’ it a bit fine, aren’t you? You won’t last long around ’ere if you don’t pull your socks up.” Then he winked at Wilf.
“Well?” said Wilf. “Where is it?”
“’E ain’t got none,” answered Jimmie. “Says ’e’ll ’ave another batch in next week.”
Wilf sighed. “Again?” he said. “I shall ’ave to take my custom helsewhere if ’e can’t do better than that.”
He thought this was very funny, and burst out laughing. So did the rest of us, because we knew he expected it. Jimmie just looked at the floor without a word.
* * *
It didn’t take long for Jimmie to get into Wilf’s bad books. Not because of anything he did wrong; in fact, he turned out to be one of the best ‘boys’ we’d ever had: always on time, always willing, never broke the wine glasses on the way to the cooler. And he never seemed to resent being sent down to the High Street once a week to look for rocking-horse paint, or even Guinness-flavoured crisps. Perhaps if he’d answered back Wilf might have let up on him. Even I had jibbed at Guinness-flavoured crisps, and Wilf seemed quite pleased that I’d stood up for myself.
But not Jimmie. He just looked at the ground when Wilf laughed at him or hauled him over the coals because of something that wasn’t his fault. Then he went off and did whatever he had to do without a word. Perhaps it was his home life that left him so timid. It was obvious he wasn’t having an easy time of it. Sometimes he turned up with a new black eye, or a bruise on his cheek. Once he had a bandaged hand, and said he’d fallen off his bike.
One day, he didn’t turn up at all. The foreman overheard Wilf cursing him, and said, “Don’t you ever read the paper?”
“Only the ’orses,” answered Wilf.
“His old man’s been nicked.”
“What for?” I said.
“Beat up his mum’s boyfriend, didn’t ’e?”
“Bad?” asked Wilf.
“Dead,” said the foreman.
* * *
Jimmie was back three days later, arriving early, just as he always did. He put the kettle on and began heating up the blowing irons. None of us knew what to say so we all looked at Wilf for a lead, but he seemed as nonplussed as the rest of us.
In the end we just started work in silence, like on any other day. We were making wine glasses that morning, and it didn’t take us long to fill up the first tray. Then Jimmie put on his asbestos gloves, picked up the tray, and carried it off towards the cooler.
Only he never got there. He stopped suddenly, lifted the tray above his head, and smashed it down on the stone floor. The glasses exploded to smithereens, and Jimmie started kicking the hot shards in all directions.
“’Ere, what’s this?” shouted Wilf.
Jimmie turned and stared at him. He was shaking and crying, and his face was dead white. “Ain’t no such thing as rockin’-’orse paint! There ain’t! There ain’t!” he yelled.
The foreman started to say something, but Wilf silenced him with a wave of his hand.
“You’re right, Jimmie,” he said. “There ain’t no such thing as rockin’-’orse paint. ’Course there ain’t.” Then he pointed at the mess on the floor. “Now you just get all that cleaned up sharpish. That’s comin’ out your wages, that is.”
And that was that. No more was ever said. We all followed the trial, what there was of it, through the newspapers and weren’t at all surprised when Jimmie’s dad got just 18 months for manslaughter with diminished responsibility. Jimmie didn’t wait around for him to come back home, of course, and I can’t say I blame him. He moved into digs in town, and swopped his glasses for contact lenses and a Beatles haircut. And Wilf... well, he was soon back to his old grumbling self, but he never shouted at Jimmie or any other ’boy’ again.
* * *
When Wilf retired last year I took his place, while Jimmie got promoted to blocker. He’s still not as good as I was, of course, but he may be one of these days. He already has a nice collection of blisters, so he’s off to a good start. We’ve got a new boy who’s no better or worse than any of the others, and he doesn’t seem to mind at all when I send him off for left-handed screw drivers or Guinness-flavoured crisps. In fact, he seems to quite enjoy making up excuses as to why he can’t find any.
The only thing I never send him out for is rocking-horse paint. That doesn’t sound as funny as it once did.
Copyright © 2011 by Arthur Mackeown