Saturday 15 June 2019

'Afternoon Men' by John King

The house remained the same the day we bought it to that day I, being the last to leave, closed the door and never went back.

My Dad chose the house as he could come home for lunch.

I don’t think then many engineers at manufacturing plants came home during the day, even for forty minutes.

We had our meals in the kitchen. The centre of this room was the boiler. This came alive according to the thermostat, seasonally adjusted.  It filled Winter silences, punctuated Spring conversations, whooshed along with Autumn reflections. I wasn’t there in summers.

Adjacent was my Dad’s chair, a deckchair. I liked the way he sat there after lunch, a post prandial cigarette before returning to the factory to make things. Sometimes he looked out in front of him as if staring out to sea or competed with the boiler with stories of machines being made to be exported across the globe.

It was all perfectly calibrated, home, lunch, cig, back. 10 minutes each way in the Morris.

Then came the lunch when he never went back.  The cigarette was lunch.

I knew something was wrong with the world the way he walked into the kitchen that day. I heard the car draw up in the drive, He didn’t make it past the boiler to the table.

The smoke was rising from the deckchair.

‘Everything cool, Dad?’ I said. I wasn’t long back from University, I wasn’t studying engineering.

He lit another cigarette. It was 1250. This was serious. He should have had the salad, he should be back in the Morris, he should…

‘Everything alright, Dad?’ I said

‘It’s over,’ he said.

The boiler shuddered.

‘25 years.  A good run?’

It was one of his expressions and this was about him.

The deck chair enveloped him, would he ever get up again, the sea rise into the kitchen?

‘Doors close, doors open, Dad,’ I said. He looked at me. He had spent more years at the factory than I had on the planet.

I modified my approach. ‘You said the order books were full. That new supersonic jet for the RAF, locomotives for the Indian Railways.’

‘Automation. Entire draughtsmen department. Gone.’

I have never seen a man so defeated. This was my Dad. He had to get up, pack up the deckchair, create the post-industrial life.

The world was never the same again, retirement unimagined. a transition unattained.

Only three years later I returned to clear the unrenovated house. I looked through old photographs.  Interlaken, Zermatt? Somewhere like that. In the background there were people skiing, sports clothes covered in logos, white teeth. In the foreground, Dad in his tweed winter coat, flat cap. He used to criticise me for not smiling in photographs. I let this one pass.

I don’t know where that photograph is now.

The boiler was too silent to comment. It must have been late Spring. I folded up the deckchair and walked into the garden.

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