We didn’t say good-bye before you came to resemble a hundred other people I used to know. As I moved through the tunnel, long and damp as it always was, painful to my hands and knees, I never wondered if I’d see you again. I took it for granted. Today. Tomorrow. Just like any other day. It never occurred to me to doubt it. There are things a person learns to count on. If learning is the right word. The work whistles. The sirens. The way the rat water in the tunnel always smells of hair and animal skin. The comfortable coziness of lightning and thunder rolling far off over the North Sea.
I should have noticed that the sirens didn’t go that morning. But I didn’t. I only realized it when my mind began to wander as I made my way. Not the way it is supposed to happen. The sirens are there for a reason. Keep moving. Don’t dawdle. But without the sirens in the morning the world is too quiet and, in the resulting quiet, the mind comes awake. Thoughts drift. You are the victim of images and memories. Which is dangerous.
I admit I later wondered if the missing siren was, in itself, a warning. A kind of marker. Something that was trying to get my attention. Trying to tell me I would never see you again. A signal. A sign. But the opposite of sirens.
By the time I came to near the end of the tunnel, knees wet as usual, relieved to inhale a low puff of outside air, physical like plasma in the dim light, I was sure someone was going to get the sack for this. Or did I hope that? Hoping for something to make a little excitement to break up the day. Visions of a poor fellow worker, hat in hand, being sent away for missing his time and not running the sirens. Letting the side down. Letting minds wander. How will he explain to his wife? What will he do? I did feel sorry for him, of course. Later.
At last I could see the portcullis separating the tunnel from the rich, blue world beyond. Always the great anticipation of finally being able to stand and stretch in the courtyard, where the morning fires were already blazing. The gatekeeper, her torso wrapped carefully in linen bandages, sat on the other side of the portcullis peeling an orange, a difficult process for her because of her deformities. One hand had but two fingers, and these were thick and resembled a lobster claw more than a human hand. And the other hand had all its fingers, but they were reddish and crippled with something like the crooked spurs of arthritis. Her work with these hands made her pudgy face squeeze together in hungry concentration, just on the verge of impatience and rage, as if she hated that piece of fruit. As if eating it would be a justified act of torture on it for all its reluctance to yield. Because of her struggle she didn’t notice me waiting for her to open the gate. I waited on my hands and knees, knowing that oranges were hard to come by. A part of me wanted to offer her assistance. But I recognized that sometimes offers to help are sometimes seen as subterfuge. It isn’t always a good idea to offer help to someone. They could take it as sarcasm. It could be taken as an insult, or an attempt to seduce them. I could hear others coming towards me down the tunnel.
Just when, with reddened face and slits for eyes, it looked as though she was going to throw the offending fruit onto the slag heaps, a small rip in the orange came open. Instead of using this opportunity to continue to peel it, however, she pushed the rip against her mouth and began to suck at it, making a tremendous mess on her face, her strange hands, and her shirt. And sucking noises a mouth makes, being something that made my skin crawl, were all I heard as I closed my eyes, unwilling to see more. Her name was Agatha, so she devoured the orange much as a small animal would, pushing her lips and tongue and teeth inside the thing to bite and rip and suck the meat out of it, spitting the seeds toward the pile of those men who died on the night shift, stacked against the chain link fence waiting to be taken away. When she did this she caught sight of me, at last. And I was able to scramble through and to my feet, stretching and heading straight for the fire.
These fires, a hard industrial truth, were a workingman’s small measure of comfort in the morning chill. There were several of them in the courtyard. We gathered, warming ourselves in as the rain, the constant, unstopping rain. The flames, red and yellow in the dew, spiked and jumped whenever the rain made contact. The play of elements and the low, whispering voices. Cold and wet but somehow fine, we spoke of common things. Work things.
Always the talk about whether or not the engineers should allow crews to work at night. You hear it every morning, just about. But it’s all to no effect. One says it’s too dangerous for so little being accomplished in those work hours. Another says that’s why the pay is so much higher at night. Everyone says the same thing for the same argument in the same old way. I’d stopped arguing about it. As only a drainman, my opinion wasn’t one many would bother to consider. It went on like this until it came close to the time to report and sign in.
These were the times I thought about you, too. When the men were in their work clothes and the blue rain fell into the red flames and nothing was ever settled by mere words. It’s such a menial job. A low position. The crane operators, the engineers, the other crews. None of these men bother too much about you when you are only on a drain. But I never looked for status or position. You said it was something about me that you admired.
RW Spryszak is Managing Editor at Thrice Publishing. His book Edju was published by Spuyten Duyvil (NY) in 2018. He has had work appear in small litmags since the 1980s including Slipstream, The Lost and Found Times, Version90, and many others. He can be found hiding at www.rwspryszak.com Image: Carrefour de collecteurs (Paris Sewers), 1861