Archive for the ‘short story’ Category

greasy handsAll the sex in all the world could never compete with the feeling I experienced some years ago in a single, solitary moment, which was seared in my memory for all time and now resides at the forefront of my consciousness.

It happened when I was in the final year of my apprenticeship as a syringe-handler at a waste dump in South Wales. The dump lay at the bottom of a U-shaped valley in the rural hinterlands of Pembrokeshire. No-one could say how long the dump had been there, but a continuous inflow of material over time had created a monster.

From a distance one could see a vast, undulating expanse of greyish brown material filling one end of the valley. As you got nearer, it became possible to pick out rusting cars, smashed computer screens, mangled bikes and rotting hi-fi systems piled into peaks; a scene of pure technological carnage.

Just inside the gates of the dump was the ‘Homestead’ – a beaten-up caravan with a couple filthy sofas in front of it, plus a perforated oil drum with a fire continuously billowing acrid smoke. This was our office, canteen and bartering area. I will now describe to you my fellow workers…

Boz was the boss man. He didn’t talk much but pointed at the sky and waved his hands a lot. When he did speak, after half a bottle of whisky or so, he would inevitably begin discussing the intricacies of The Directives, the mystical set of rules which governed our strange trade.

My guru in the art of syringe-handling was Sweep, an ex-biker who had grown too fat to ride his beloved motorcycle, which stayed tethered to a crane. The sight of the chained-up Harley was a double source of pain to Sweep. Originally there had been two bikes, but a year previously one of them had vanished overnight. The culprit was never found, but we were all certain that the thief had come from a rival dump in the next valley. Making up our team was a gangly ex-youth called Crow.

The mystical rites of the syringe-handler’s graduation ceremony were well established. At the stroke of midnight, in front of the blazing oil drum, I would be anointed with sump oil and a rusty bike chain would be placed around my neck. Next, I would climb, blindfolded, to the top of a ceremonial tower made from three fridge-freezers and stand on one leg for precisely seven minutes. After this ceremony, and a two-hour group meditation, I would be an anointed syringe handler, and would finally be allowed to wear gloves.

It was all down to The Directives that we had to behave in this way. No-one would even think of questioning it. Boz was the sole authority on this arcane body of rules. It was unclear whether they were written down or memorised; but he could sometimes be seen absorbed in the four-inch thick, leather-bound volume that he kept in a safe in his caravan – he never let us look at it.

Our clients were many and various – bereaved families offloading the house contents of deceased relatives, bankruptcy agents dispensing with the unwanted contents of defunct businesses, then there were tradespeople – builders, gardeners or mechanics getting rid of what they couldn’t bury, burn or sell. All the waste had to be inspected, sorted and dispatched to various parts of the site. This was the theory, but often it was simply piled on top of the ever-expanding mounds.

The continuous inflow of material had necessitated the construction of ‘Molly’. Welded together from assorted crane and car parts, and standing over twelve feet tall, she was based on a mediaeval catapult of the kind used to throw rocks at castles. Using a concrete-filled oildrum as a counterweight, Molly could hurl items the size and weight of a washing machine deep into the interior of the dump, and keep our forecourt clear.

Visitors were free to roam the network of tracks that snaked through the dump, searching for treasures which they would then haggle for at the homestead. If a punter turned up in search of a particularly obscure item, Crow would go ‘off road’ to hunt for it. This was where his slender frame was a distinct advantage, allowing him to clamber easily over the precarious hills of twisted metal, which reached twenty feet high in places.

Crow would often enter the body of the dump, squeezing through gaps to enter a dark and rusty netherworld. The haphazard accumulation of material had created voids and corridors that only he could navigate; and like an intrepid caver, he would make his way to some of the oldest, remotest regions. Eventually he would return, greasy and grazed, with military helmets, wind-up gramophones, grandfather clocks, stuffed parrots…all manner of strange riches.

Sometimes Crow would disappear for days pursuing his own obsessions, with only an occasional wisp of smoke in the distance giving us a clue to his whereabouts. He told us he had created his own dens within the dump, lighting them with oil lamps and furnishing them with precious items he had found on his journeys as a scrap-mole.

I had been involved with this strange trade for three years, although for I never made any money from it – I handled syringes purely to relax. All the while I had been working on a secret venture of my own. I have always been a wine lover; not a connoisseur, but an enthusiastic consumer. And one night, while I was in the midst of a reverie brought on by a particularly fine Sainsbury’s Pinot Noir, an idea occurred to me.

Rare wines are extremely valuable, with the oldest and most sought after vintages fetching thousands at auction. None of these so-called ‘antique’ wines are ever consumed, of course – not only are the beverages usually undrinkable after about thirty years, anyone stupid enough to open a bottle would literally be pissing away a fortune.

Just like paintings, antique wines are investments – and well worth faking. A wine forger can safely fill his bottles with any old plonk. The challenge lies in creating convincing bottles, corks and labels, which have to pass rigorous authentication tests.

And so it was that when I decided to embark on a career as a wine forger, I conducted my initial research into the history of European inks. I discovered that the most valuable wines, from the Dordoigne vintages of the seventeenth century, have labels incorporate keratine, a red pigment produced from the crushed antlers of the Bolivian Harlot beetle. To fake such a bottle I would have to obtain exactly this pigment.

Unfortunately, there were no longer any Harlot beetles available. Extensive logging of Bolivian rainforests had led to the virtual extinction of the species in its native country. However, there was a ray of hope. According to the Zoological Review, two live specimens were still in existence in a zoo in Copenhagen – tantalisingly, a male and a female – raising the prospect of a continuing supply of the precious pigment. I wrote to the zoo’s director – could he tell me if the Harlots had produced any offspring? Dr Carlsson wrote back informing me with regret that the male had shown no interest in the female for at least five years and they were now resting on seperate twigs. All attempts to get the male aroused had failed.

Temporarily thwarted, I placed my project on hold. Meanwhile, life at the dump rolled by. Every month there was considerable excitement, as a van marked ‘Medical Waste’ would pull up and sweep and I would get busy with our chosen specialism, fishing out the syringes and valuable items before shovelling the rest into deep trenches which we dug by hand. Spades would have made the job easier, but The Directives would not allow it.

Then one morning, a vintage American car rolled up to the homestead – a beautiful 1950s Pontiac. As we all gathered round to admire the elegant vehicle, out stepped the driver. He was a thin man, even slighter than Crow, of an indistinguishable age somewhere between twenty and forty. He had a spaced-out look in his eyes, and through shaky lips he told us his story

He had won the car in a card game in San Jose a year previously and had it shipped to the UK shortly after. Ever since then he had been using it for his work as a bubblegum machine repairman. He then told us the reason for his disquiet – the car was haunted. Soon after he had got it, he had started noticing all sorts of rattling noises coming from the car, even when the engine was turned off. The dashboard instruments would also move of their own accord. But despite several investigations, no garage had been able to find anything wrong with the car. I’ve had enough, I just want rid of it, the man said, you can have it for £50.

We had had some bargains in our time, but this took the cake. Fair enough, said Boz, and pressed five tenners into the man’s hand. As soon as the deal was done he seemed to glow with relief. Oh, by the way, he said, there were three boxes of Needlework Monthly on the back seat as well. Boz explained that The Directives forbade us from accepting any paper – we couldn’t even have it on the premises. We gave him a wheelbarrow and pointed out the direction of the next valley, and he set off with the magazines like a man starting out on a new life.

The Pontiac was one of our best ever bits of booty. Not a rattle nor a haunting tone did we ever hear. After a couple of weeks work it came up a treat, and it was jointly agreed that the car be awarded to Sweep, in consolation for his lost Harley. And can you guess what I found in the glove compartment? I’ll tell you what I found in the glove compartment…some gloves.

This story was the first time I used what I suppose could be called ‘automatic writing’. For the first page or so I simply sat down and put down the first words that came into my head – a bit of thought came into play later on. The first paragraph is a kind of red herring. It is implied that some great revelation will occur later in the story but it never does. The “feeling I experienced some years ago in a single, solitary moment” never appears; it is simply at method of hooking the readers attention. The word ‘sex’ will always help to do that as well.  The dump is probably a combination of things. When I was small, my dad used to take me along on his visits to scrap yards looking for car parts and that seems to have merged in my imagination with TV footage of landfill sites and third-world rubbish tips. Modern British waste processing facilites are nothing like Boz’s dump of course…

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