ARTHUR – Saved by the Vandals

Arthur was a wily bushy caught in the city by the Depression.

Arthur always wore a hat, slightly angled, a relic of times past. His hat peaked at what might be said was a jaunty angle, just sufficient to barely cover the hidden rogue.
In the plaster mill, shafts of light pirouetted down through the ceiling gaps and holes in the roofing iron where once there were nails. The ever present dust swirled as it tracked the light to it’s resting place amid the machinery and stacked product. But in the electrified areas of the plant men could be seen working away bagging and storing one hundred weight bags of plaster in hessian sacks.

Arthur stood amongst this as a lord in his manor, and though dusty it was his. He had come as a young boy and never really left. The second world war had swept over him as an adolescent, and somehow he had remained safe on the home front. He was never for war and felt the unease that in generations to come would be called protest. Somehow he had made it through, was now the foreman and nearing the end of a career.

He had his share of the young whipper snappers, erstwhile bosses sent his way. They came cock sure from uni to get a taste of factory life, his life. They were never certain if they should stand or sit at the feet of this plaster making guru.

Briquettes piled high in heavy wooden bunkers, dripping stalactites of congealed water. Doused with the fire sprays if the bunkers caught alight, this was the only after hours worry Arthur allowed himself. The briquettes fed from the wooden bunkers to a series of augers across the bunker bases and eventually fed through the underfloor coarse auger into the kettle firebox. It was an impressive place. Arthur was the custodian of an infernal industry where heat transformed the gypsum into plaster, the rate of heating producing varying grades of plaster.
The plaster mill forecourt lead one way to the cobbled lane way. Worn from the traffic of years the lane way cambered from both left and right to the centre taking the water flow to the Tinning Street drains. The forecourt entry, stage-like projected towards the front of the building. A brick office against the street wall looked inwards, though windowless. Lil Toner, now was that Ms, Mrs or Miss, sat there; she’d sat there for ages. Phil Haley the manager, always Mr Haley, would come and go, his office always locked. There was a foreboding sense that maybe he was the Phantom of the comic strip but in modern day managerial disguise. He was clearly a boss for the Kingswood Holden car he drove had metallic paint. It was a dead giveaway, in a time when metallic paint was a symbol of the well-to-do. In the car boot were boxes, cardboard boxes some tatty, but all stuffed full of files, important files of course, for why else would they be in the boss’s boot?
Arthur had seen all types come and go. Though many he feared, few he respected. His sense of self came from the assurance that in his domain he ruled supreme. He commanded respect. He had seen anything that mattered and ignored that which didn’t.
There were times he had wondered why this was so. They came and learned or so they thought but unlike him they never stayed.
This new kid was different, he genuinely seemed to want to learn. However, the previous trainee, Peter Renkert didn’t. He had a lisp and an attitude to match. Arthur noted that Peter would unbuckled his trousers to relieve himself and leant against the urinal wall with one hand on the paint bricks above whilst urinating. A shock of blond locks, stylish in age, flowed to close to his shoulders. For Arthur though it was all too much. He was short back and sides kinda guy, who attended the barber fortnightly in Sydney road. The hair dresser, a Greek had been there as long as Arthur, but they exchanged few words. Wogs were tolerated. They cut hair cheap after you’d trained them.
So the new little chinaman stood there awaiting Arthur’s instructions. Together they ran over the importance of making sure the firebox was clean, that the intermediate hopper was empty and the dust residue vacuumed out ready for the weekend.
The little chinaman caught on that the briquettes in the hopper needed to be left full, ten tons full. Broken and crumbling brown coal, the briquettes glistened black. Arthur droned on, he was used to folk not listening. Arthur had “had his day”, but in his domain he was still ‘the man.’
“Make sure the water is on and test it through this by pass, the pressure must be full-on for the flooding to happen, if an alarm is raised”
As it was Friday night Arhur left early for the weekend. Arthur went for his bread and meat, a daily chore grafted to his life like skin. The younger chinaman stood there to lock up. He took the keys in his hand and walked through the darkened alleyways twisting past the machinery, quiet now. The machines awaited the pitter patter of soft mouse feet to make their night’s abode on their warm casings.
The large ill-fitting corrugated iron sliding doors rolled effortlessly closed on well greased tracks and this was but one of those myriad clues Arthur had told him of when running a factory. The younger man heard him say,
“Laddie, now make ye sure that you get that ne’er-do-well Johhnie Portello to grease these tracks, it’s his damn job and strike me if he weekly receives the greaser allowance.”
The young chinaman stepped over the broken bags reminding himself to get them sorted the next day and stepped back onto the podium floor. The Bates packer stood silent. He had slaved away with the scrawny Maltese bloke that day at the packer outlet. They’d stood waiting briefly as the hundred weight bags crashed to the rubberised conveyor and feed along to be stacked six high on the hand trolleys. He’d found it damned hard to counter balance the trolley to overbalance it through its centre of gravity to put the weight on his arms. At 672 lbs this was twice his weight and two and a half times the Maltese guy’s weight. However, the Maltese bloke handled the task with aplomb.
Two hours and his arms ached in a way a boss’s arm should never. Maybe RSI was something to whinge about, but this was physical, very physical and he couldn’t just get it together. He imagined his sweat might still be there, somewhere in the dust, as he kicked his way through to the front door, switching off the lights as he closed up for the weekend.

Two am. Was that the phone down the hall ringing? It seemed so, not a dream. Padding through the hallway past the accumulated possession he found the phone and on it the fire brigade
“We have a report of smoke from the plaster mill in Tinning St, your number is here as the after hours contact, are you Mr Poon”
I might very well have been but didn’t want to be.
“This happens sometimes,” the officer explained.
“Well kinda often, but before we waste time going to see, is there anyone in the plant right now or can you go see, mate?”
“Can I go see?” I wondered to myself.
“There’s no one in the plant” I replied, so the ‘ I’ll go see’ option firmed quickly as the option of choice.
” Yeah, ok I’ll head in and see if there’s a real issue, mate. Thanks for calling, if I need ya I’ll call,” I tried to sound nonchalant but my heart raced.
It’s what you’ d call a fair distance from Ringwood to Brunswick, but at that time of night and racing to a possible fire, seemed to me the perfect excuse to give any interrupting speed cops.
Fumbling for the keys, the door I had so blithely closed on it’s greased tracks stuck in it’s frame. Putting my shoulder into it I shoved it open into the billowing, acrid wetty fumes of smouldering briquettes. A few light switches would be handy I thought but having rarely used them in the daytime, they weren’t about to be found in obvious places this night. The few lights I got on roughly guided me to the kettle bunkers, the steel welded bunker bases sizzling the drips of water falling on them. It was a sauna, steam billowing out and up through the roof. I felt my career following. Finding the valve Arthur had said needed to be turned full on, I was astonished to find it fully closed
“Faaarrcccckk” I shouted to no one in particular.
There was no time to do a Kepner Tregeo problem solving analysis and action plan here I guessed. This was the way we were trained to problem solve in our office bound roles.
Turn on the valve and quench the smoulder.
Heavy sprays of rain drenched the bunkers, cascaded down on me and quickly formed rivulets in the dirt floors. We were all awash. The smoke subsided after two hour. I sat in Tinning Street on the gutter catching my breath.
When I closed up in the dawn glow I figured it was a very near run thing.
I checked into the plaster mill on Sunday, no smoke, wet floors and the pungent smell of some burnt timbers.
On Monday, Arthur asked me how the weekend went.
I said “Ok”
He said ” Well make sure you got a good story to tell Mr Haley why we won’t be working this week.”
” Why?” I asked ” Let’s light up and get the show on the road”
Wryly he looked at me, lips curling in a half smile .
“We got no dry briquettes, the kids got in over the weekend and turned the sprays on.”
“Ah” I thought,” saved by vandals”.


Leave a Comment

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s