Thursday, 6 December 2012
Right Hand Man.
Back in the 80's I worked as a labourer in a sawmill. It was an old building filled with dust and rats and ancient machines with minimal safety guards that had somehow slipped under the radar of Health and Safety officers.
It was a small company owned by a Victorian style mill owner who looked like Baron Greenback from Dangermouse.
Underneath the mill there were a maze of dark dungeon like cellars filled with old rusting machinery and heaps of sawdust that fell from the band saws and industrial planers on the shop floor. Whenever I went down there rats would scurry off into the darkness.
What we laughingly called a canteen was also down in the cellar, a small room with an old fashioned, free standing, wood burning stove which was the only heat source in the building. During our breaks we would sit around this on boxes or a couple of old car seats that had been ripped out of an old Morris Marina, drinking strong loose leaf tea made by Tommy.
He was a Glaswegian who had come down to Yorkshire 20 years ago although instead of his accent mellowing it had become so Scottish that none of us knew what the hell he was saying half the time, it sounded like grunting in a Scottish accent.
In the middle of winter in 1985 we were gathered around the stove, chatting, smoking and occasionally spitting a mouthful of tea on the stove just to hear it sizzle when the metal sliding door clanged open and Mark came stomping back from the toilet with a copy of The Sun in his hand.
"Shut the door" everyone shouted at once as the icy air followed him in.
"Alright, simmer down", he said as he pulled the door closed behind him.
"Bloody hell, that's taken the edge off, you can't beat Linda Lusardi on page three".
One of the machine operators called Rob looked at him and shook his head.
"Every bloody morning breaktime you go to the bogs to draw one off, it's embarassing".
"Yeah", I added, "can't you wait to get home before you start dragging yourself around the room"?
Mark just laughed and tossed the newspaper towards us.
"Fuck off, I don't want to read it now, it's probably got spunk all over it" I said
"The sports pages should still be safe but better read it quick before it soaks through".
We finished our break and made our way back to the shop floor.
Rob turned to Mark and said:
"Boss wants that stack of 2 x 6 nearest the gates loading up and bringng down to The Pig".
Mark gave a thumbs up and walked out to the timber yard where he climbed up into the cab of the huge side loading fork lift truck he drove, starting the diesel engine.
Rob started to prepare The Pig. This was the oldest machine in the mill, a planer 15ft long, 5ft high and so old that it still ran on leather belts. Inside it were two large steel drums that rotated at high speed which Rob now fitted razor sharp cutting blades to and calibrated them to the desired length.
A large metal hood fitted over the drums with a fan inside that would draw the majority of the wood shavings up and out of the machine and along a steel pipe to a container outside. Often when someone was walking past they would throw a handful of loose wood chippings into the machine just to hear the sound of them rattle away up the pipe.
While Rob was prepping the machine I guided Mark's side loader down the concrete ramp that led from the timber yard into the saw mill until he was able to lift the stack of two hundred 20ft rough cut planks down next to The Pig.
Rob didn't hang around and started up the machine, beginning to feed the planks through the planer.
I waited on the other side to grab the newly planed planks, now as smooth as glass and heaved them onto wooden battens that I had placed on the floor, making sure they were placed neatly so the stack wouldn't become unstable as it grew.
Mark stood back and leaned against the side loader, rolling a cigarette. Conversation was impossible due to the noise of machinery and both Rob and I wore ear protectors.
Mark finished rolling his cig and stuck it unlit between his lips then pulled his gloves on.
We were all given yellow safety gloves to wear, yellow wool reinforced with plastic webbing but most of us didn't wear them, taking pride in how hard and calloused our hands became. They couldn't save your hands from splinters as these would pierce right through the gloves.
With Mark being outside in the yard in winter most of the time he needed them. Just as he was about to climb back on the loader he tossed a handful of sawdust that had collected near his loader pedals at The Pig. There was a loud THWACK and his right arm shot up into the air so he looked like a school kid trying to get the teachers attention.
He looked at me and I could see him mouth the words "Fucking Hell. That was close".
He looked over at Rob who had become very still and was looking up at Mark's hand.
I could see there was a line of red dots across Rob's face and realised it was blood.
I followed his gaze and could see that Marks glove was no longer yellow but bright red, the fabric shredded and hanging down his wrist. I tried to speak but nothing would come out.
Rob calmly hit the emergency stop button on the Pig and walked towads Mark, "Best keep your hand in the air and I wouldn't look at it if I were you" he said.
Mark immediately lowered his hand and looked at the mess. There were a series of deep slashes across all of his fingers except the middle one. This was gone from the second knuckle and blood pumped from the stump in little squirts.
Rob ran for the first aid box and yelled for someone to call an ambulance. I didn't know what to do so reached over to try and staunch the flow of blood by clamping my hand over it.
"Don't fucking squeeze it you stupid twat" he screamed then sat down hard on the ground, holding his wrist and staring mesmerised at the wreck of his hand as the colour drained from his face.
"What am I going to do" he began to whisper over and over as shock began to take hold.
Rob who had returned with the first aid box knelt down next to him and said gently:
"You're going to be wanking with your left hand for a while".