15 October, 2014

#SpecialFeature :: #ShortStory - New Shoes For Trumpy By Neil Grimmett

Now Presenting:
*** SPECIAL FEATURE - October 2014 ***

New Shoes For Trumpy By Neil Grimmett

The first time I saw him was in our changing room. We were coming in on mornings - early mornings. The nightshift were already dressed in their civvies and lying on benches or sagging against walls looking ashen and mean like vampires that have failed to feed and sense the approaching rays of dawn. He stood there, red-faced, brown-suited and uncontaminated. Union lawyer or a top official, I marked him down for, come to see one of the nightshift before their sense of reasoning returned. We get them visiting this periphery of the explosive factory every once in a while. They treat it as some big act of bravery to get this close. A bit like those people you see in the B movies who leave their safe city and head off into the wastelands for kicks.
Then this character doesn’t fit the role. He is too old for a start. These union bigwigs give up corporeal existence at thirty and float around in a cloud of political ambition way above the heads of the proles that put them there in the first place. This guy was an old fifty, plus some. The red, ruddy face wasn't a healthy golf-course-glow, but a rage of protest. And, what had appeared at first like a firm egg-shaped head, became one of those shells that form soft and can barely contain their attempt at life. His eyes stared out from deep inside as if drowning, with the ripples from earlier struggles refusing to calm.
I guessed by now that he was our new boy. We had been waiting for a replacement, following the rare dismissal of a production worker a few weeks earlier. A young man with a family who had actually constructed a ball out of some plastic explosive he’d been making, and kept on bouncing it against a wall to convince himself it was safe. Rumour stated that he’d only been sacked for getting the mix wrong! Our description of the factory: “If England’s the arsehole of the world; then this place must be ten miles up it.
He opens his locker where his kit is neatly laid out with his own number embroidered on every single item of clothing. I watch him admiring the stitch work, probably thinking how considerate and welcoming it is of them to have made such a neat job of it. Someone will enjoy telling him that it has only been done so thoroughly to give it a slight chance of surviving long enough to identify his remains when all the other recognizable bits have melted or are up in the ether trying to defy gravity.
The rest of our shift arrive. Nobody has anything worth repeating and do their best not to notice the arrival. I’m changed and getting my ear bent by my opposite number coming off nights. ‘Old lady,’ they call him because he never stops worrying. But he showed me the ropes when I came here, and helped get me made up to chargehand in record time, so I still show him respect and listen.
The shift room is divided into aisles by rows of old, steel lockers and benches that turn into beds at every chance. At one end there is a counter, behind which, during dayshift, some semi-invalid with the inappropriate title of ‘attendant’, passes the time until his pension is due. I'm sitting on the counter trying to find any space for a word of my own and keeping an eye on our new star. He is down to his underwear and I notice what bad shape he’s in. A once big man shrunken on the inside only. He is wearing these white, baggy long johns and string vest. We have got a load of old soldiers on this rota, and some of the sights you see when they get undressed make him look pretty respectable, so that is not the reason the two lads sitting near are tittering away.
This pair are in love. In this place, doing what we do, you have to stay friends. Each man may well turn out to be your saviour. No enemies are allowed. Any sign of friction and the antagonists get moved to different rotas. But these characters have decided to go all the way. They ignore everyone else and spend their time whispering and sneaking off together given half a chance. We've taken to splitting them up on the plant. But in the shift room or canteen, nobody gives a damn.
The reason they are having hysterics is because of the safety clothing. We are not allowed to have any zips or buttons on anything in case they make a spark or drop off and contaminate the chemicals. Everything is fastened with loops of cloth. And there is a knack to using them; one this man hasn't got. Worse still, he's coming up with his own way of doing it which rings a warning bell somewhere deep in my survival instincts. I can't bear to watch.
"Excuse me," I say to the Old Lady and go over to him.
"I'll show you," I offer. I undo his mess and loop him up properly. He is going a little redder in the face and I can feel the boys making gestures behind my back. As I do it, I get the feeling he thinks I am his valet or something that makes me wish I’d left him alone. "Thank you," he goes, in a too loud, posh voice that turns heads and makes me move away quickly in case there is more to follow.
Chargehands are issued with bicycles. So I’m sitting in the foreman's office with the other two on this rota, getting the day's instructions before our crews arrive on foot. When they finally do, the new man is not with them. He will be lost. New men are not trusted or welcomed; no one wants to risk getting stuck with someone who may turn out to be careless, or worse: a coward. At first, they are left to look out for themselves and prove their worth. The trouble is, this factory is spread out over a vast area. All the buildings are hidden in the middle of huge earth mounds to make sure in the event of a major explosion that their insides will only go upwards. They are reached through blast-reducing, zigzagging tunnels that are full of the most uninviting darkness and sounds imaginable. From the outside everywhere looks the same, apart from a different hieroglyphic-type symbol above the portal into our netherworld. It takes the few who stay about a year to understand the layout, and even then it is easy to go wrong.
They will have enjoyed losing him. He’ll probably be wandering around the maze of cleanways that are used to move chemicals from one plant to another. The foreman makes a few perfunctory enquiries about him, then lets it drop. The new man’s name is Harry. “When Harry turns up,” the foreman states, “you can take him along with your crew.” He says this without daring to look up from his register at me. I don't bother to reply as I’d already known I was going to get lumbered with him. The other two chargehands have been here for decades and would create merry hell if the foreman had tried it on with them. My crew start to mutter their grievances while everyone else is grinning in relief.
New men are bad news all round.
Harry arrives just before tea-break. One of the day workers leads him along like a donkey on a rope. This day worker is riding his bike so slowly that Harry is having to take half steps not to leave his rescuer behind; though he still looks out of breath and beat. I put him on loading with my one of the lovers - a payback for their earlier fun - and watch to see how Harry is carrying the scars of his week's induction to the factory.
A part of the training is to be taken out to the burning ground and given a demonstration of what some of this rocket propellant would do if it was freed of its constraints. Coloured Plasticine that can suddenly scream like a banshee and burn brighter than a supernova is a great lesson; especially as it is from only a small handful of the stuff, viewed from a distance, and soon you are going to be surrounded by mountains of it. I recognize none of the usual fears in Harry; it makes me grow cold.
Our shift canteen has more rules of etiquette attached to it than any of those great old manor houses you are always being invited to step inside via the TV these days. All of them unwritten; all of them rigid. Each long table belonged to a certain section of the factory. Each area on that table belonged to groups of men, joined either by conversation, choice of newspaper, or depth of contemplation. At the ends of every table the card schools played. Virtually all the seats carried their invisible name tags and purpose. It was impossible to know where to go at first and you got moved time after time without politeness or guidance. If there was nothing better to do you could watch the new arrival, standing out in his gleaming kit and bobbing up and down like a player in a game of solitary musical chairs.
But there was one area that no one strayed. A place so obviously out of bounds that it might as well have had a warning barrier flashing around it. In the far corner of the canteen, on a different size and coloured table, sat the owners of this territory. Small and huddled, with white hair, white skin, silent movements and a speech of whispers; playing a game of cards with its own rules, and a mystery to any distant onlooker.
The Nitro Men. They had arrived fourteen months back to oversee the opening of a new, experimental explosive plant that none of us had been desperate or crazy enough to volunteer for. Though to them, that unstable and potentially deadly environment must have seemed like a rest home. Their half-tamed beast would not have tolerated any of the indignities normally dished out here. Nitroglycerine was made on a hill so that gravity could inch it slowly and gently to its birth. It did not take kindly to company’s greed or country’s necessity. One of the old guard here told us of a nitro explosion during the war years. How the blast had shot upwards, then gathered itself into a ball and came fisting down, riding the earth for revenge at its creation. It had reached the gun-cotton cathedral and presented the nimble-fingered beauties inside with a fire bath and glass shower in payment for their patriotic service and prayers.
These men were left alone in their silent dream-like existence. We gave them peace and hoped never to be in their presence when the awakening came. Harry, though, recognizes none of this and leaps next to them, crashing his tea-tray down with a noise louder than they could have ever expected to hear and live to tell. Everyone in the place stares at him, and then at us, as if he is our responsibility. I manage to catch Harry’s eye and, hoping that no one else notices, beckon him to an empty space at our table. 
"Nearly ended up with the bloody OAPs," he yells. Which to be fair is what they do look like - and I’m not about to explain that most of them are young enough to be his sons.
He watches us eating our sandwiches and packed lunches as though he is witnessing some tribal ritual for the first time, while he chain smokes his way through a pile of cigarettes - which you have to buy individually at the counter - and drinks black coffee. He holds the cigarettes in a delicate, exaggerated way and appears to drift off with each breath of smoke to some distant, more refined, locale. One of the passing men gives him a nudge for a light. Harry looks puzzled for a second and then catches on, but instead of holding the thing out, he drops it on the table for the man to pick up and use. Matches are not allowed and there is a safety lighter on the wall - which means taking a slight walk. Once you are lit you attract every tired moth in the place. I watch Harry go through the same routine a few times before realizing that his hand is shaking too much to be able to hold it out for anyone to use. Why? That would be hard to guess. You’re never certain how people will react to being here. Most of those that arrive like heroes don't make the first week. We've often had them run away, hair and skin a whiter shade of pale, on their first day.
Food is finished and dirty packs of cards, along with the money bags we wear strung around our necks and tucked out of sight, start to appear. Gambling is not officially allowed. But what is any game worth without a few stakes to risk? Especially here where fate rolls the dice every day. The school I’m in plays euchre. They say about this game that the only way to learn it is to pick up the deck. It is so deceptively simple no amount of watching or reading will get you there. We are down to three players and you need four. It is cut-throat with three and most of the subtlety goes out of it. Harry watches us for a time and then states: "What you really need is a fourth." As if we didn’t know!
I have this theory about cards. You can tell a lot about the deeper side of a person by the way they play their hands. I told this to my wife one day after we had been playing whist with some friends and getting trounced. She disagreed, claiming it was all down to the stars and, besides, she never knew what the hell I was going on about anyway these days and next time she was going to partner someone else; if she ever played again. So it is only my theory.
Harry is my partner but he plays like I don't exist. He keeps trumping my ace leads. I'll explain. If the other side are going to win an ace lead, then they will have to be unable to follow suit and need to trump it. If, when it reaches your partner he is unable to follow and it is still winning, there is no point in him wasting a trump and offering the chance to the last player to take both trump and ace. Not unless there is a good reason or no choice. Harry does it three times and for nothing. So I tell him. It makes no difference. And if he wins, even though I would have done so without his waste, he grins and chuckles as if it were the greatest thing ever. The pair we are playing against love it, as they are starting to sneak into the lead. Then one of the onlookers, who likes to sit watching and offering free advice, starts calling him Trumpy. And the nickname sticks.
At the end of his first day he walked up the long road and through the gate like a regular member of the crew. Then, as we stood waiting for the green, ex-prison service factory buses, he roared off in a sleek-looking sports car without casting us a second glance. The tales began immediately: he was a bankrupt drinker, a compulsive gambler, someone who had fallen from Civil Service grace and was paying penance. Any amount of reasons as to why a man of his class could end up here, and at his time of life.
Whatever. He had come; and he stayed. Pretty soon his ways became another part of the tedium that existed in this secret world locked inside its security dome. But there were a few things that only I seemed to observe; a few things that were odd about the parts making up the whole. Maybe, it was just that since coming to work here I’d began to take a special interest in the manner that certain elements combined, and the end results of those combinations. Explosions and implosions as often innocuous chemicals commingled. And the games men under stress invented, both to mask the fear and deny what we were really doing.
Whatever the reasons, I know what I saw.
The main, worrying thing I noticed about Trumpy was that though he tackled everything with complete confidence, he was unreliable. No matter what job you gave him he would mess it up. In some way, like that first day with those straps, he would go about it in his own fashion rather than asking. By rights, it is required of the chargehand to report anyone he considers to be a risk. In high explosive buildings, the chargehand's word is law regarding members of his crew and safety of operation. It is just another way of passing the buck, ready for when something goes wrong. For when the TV crews are gathering at the gates, there are widows wailing, and the only way of finding the remains of the dead is through the hunger of birds flocking and fighting over carrion.
I should have had him removed but did not have the heart for it. What made it worse was the fact that you couldn't tell him anything. He had it firmly locked in his mind that he was right and you were just too dumb to follow. Trumpy also liked to argue the point. Not in that loud, blustering manner that would have appeared to fit his character and told me the message had struck home and he was trying to save face; but in a convincing salesman fashion, attempting to sell me on the idea. I would try and explain that this wasn't the best product to start getting experimental with and walk away before I really let him have it. Recently, my father had been diagnosed as having asbestosis and demoted to light duties in the factory he’d served for decades. I could not help visualizing him in Trumpy’s position getting bollocked by someone of my age and it held my tongue and hand.
Then there was the way the younger men on the plant interacted with him. They would run around, fetching his fags and drinks during break time, take over any of the really dirty jobs as though they were below him, and let him have a bike if ever there was one to spare. And never once did I hear him say thank you or see him do a single thing to help any of them get their work completed. It was as though he expected nothing less and it was your privilege to serve.
The last thing, though, was the strangest and creepiest. We had a woman come on to the shift as part of a team carrying out a study for a new government incentive to produce more weapons of mass destruction for less bucks. Most of the men spent a lot of time talking ‘dirty’" and staring at porno books, making out that women were only good for one thing and that they wished there were a few to pass around on nightshift. But the moment one actually intruded into this all-male environment, everything changed.
Swearing and farting stopped, the books went back to their hiding places. It was all "dear wife this"; and, "let me get the door for you" with clean shoes and shirts tucked in. Once, when the rest of my crew were in a building and I was out in the remote control room watching them bumbling about on the video link, I switched the intercom up full so the speakers would echo my voice through the cathedral-like vastness of the rocket-pressing room. “Move your fucking arses, you bunch of cock-sucking geriatrics,” I yelled, “or this missile will be laying in there like a limp dick when the baloon goes up!” I knew she was in there with them and only did it for the crack. They came out blushing like a bunch of schoolboys and were desperate to warn me so I wouldn’t make the terrible mistake again.
Trumpy, though, was the opposite. Usually, he never joined in any of the talk or stared at any of the magazines and made out that it was all disgusting and low class. Now, he seemed to resent the way the men were behaving. You could feel that something was eating away at him and that he hated her presence. He would say disgusting things about  women every chance he got when she could hear him, or else tell vile and obvious jokes that even normally would have made no one smile. It was as if he had to keep her uncomfortable or blinded by throwing handfuls of sand in her eyes in case she saw something we had not. After she was gone, he told one of the youngsters who said she had been beautiful, that she was, and good in bed, but a true gentleman never discussed a lady behind her back and winked. Of course the idiot believed him and told everyone.
Time moved on and Trumpy plodded along. Never really unnoticeable: never really noticed. Though his private life remained a secret, which in this factory was a minor miracle. Sometimes, one of the jumped-up shift chemists would ignore the rest of us and chat away to Trumpy like he was an old friend. Maybe he was.
When the end came, it came like this.
It was a slack period. Perhaps there was even peace in the world! So we were trying to kill time instead and appear busy doing nothing. Sweeping floors and sweeping floors. I decided to have a little fun with our tractor driver, ‘Champion the Wonder Horse’. He was a perfect candidate for what I had in mind.
Every few months we have to give urine samples, which along with the blood tests, helped keep tabs on how much poison we were ingesting. The sample bottles are picked up by anyone that is available and left in the changing room with our numbers written on them. Rumours abound about what has been put in the bottles without ever being detected. But I for one, still gave mine properly and tried to believe there was a genuine concern about our health. I wait for Champion to visit me on his rounds. I tell him the foreman has been looking for him and wants the sample bottles collected. The Wonder Horse is still a bit green and I can see that he’s really buzzed about the idea of getting off the plant and driving past all the neat gardens and pretty office girls on the way to the surgery, so I add: "Tell nurse it is for Rota Two, and remind her to include a couple of the large jam jars. She knows why!" Wink wink.
 He drives off, full of the job.
Now the sister on duty this week is called Bloody Mary on account of the fact that she is one of the ‘old school’. No messing or idling tolerated. The only possible reason for being admitted to her surgery is that you are dead, or well on the way to needing the factory chaplin at least. Once, someone dropped a small anti-tank missile on their foot and was carried into her. “Bruising,” she said, and taped a piece of polystyrene to his tootsy for support and sent him back to loading the train. The next day his own doctor found that he had broken it in two places and would probably hobble for the rest of his life. So, as it is nowhere near the time for samples, and Champion the Wonder Horse is more than gullible enough to give her the wisecrack about the jam jars, there ought to be a lot of tape and polystyrene flying around shortly.
Trumpy trooped off to the foreman's office earlier on a private matter. He comes back grinning like Humpty Dumpty. I have to go to the tailor's shop, he says, waving a chit in the air. The shoes we wear are heavy leather with steel toecaps and they cripple you. If you can swing it you can get excused wearing them and get issued with a pair of lightweight, officer's brogues. This is what Trumpy has gone and done. I’m pleased for him. One of the old guard must have shown him the dodge. None of the youngsters - including me - know how the scam works. If they have decided to take him under their wing, at least the rest of his passage through here will be as smooth and safe as is possible.
The rest of my crew have gone for tea and I am falling asleep at the stand-up desk trying to invent something to put into the logbook. For company, I have a rack full of rocket motors that have enough power to send me and a good portion of the country into oblivion with just the smallest encouragement, it is almost too tempting. A bit like being in a cave with a sleeping dragon that may or may not decide to wake if you dared a touch of its golden scales. But my they do look pretty…
Once we lifted a huge, atmosphere-breaking missile for inspection and managed to get the slinging wrong. The chains below the crane slipped and shards of red hot steel sprayed down past the open ends of the rocket. According to all the available science it should have ignited and Catherine-wheeled us on a journey to the stars. Good luck; bad luck. It is the only equation to balance the facts sometimes.
I hear a different type of roar as the tractor arrives back. 
It is really a big, sophisticated forklift. But, as some concession to the surrounding countryside that we are contaminating for centuries to come, it is named after what should really be working here.
I imagine, that after his brush with Bloody Mary, Champion is going to be spoiling for a little revenge. I pick up one of the fire buckets ready to cool him down. He is a fat swine and surely intends to disregard my rank. He comes in through the door and looks shattered; white and drained as if he’s given blood for us all. "Trumpy's dead," the Wonder Horse neighs.
I think there is more to this guy than meets the eye. I was expecting a brawl and he is going in for the psychological approach.
"Sure," I say, "so is Buck Rogers but he'll be back next week, don't you worry."
Then I can see that he is not joking. If he is, he deserves an Oscar because there are tears streaming down his bloated face. Champion tells me he called into the canteen on his way to the surgery and Trumpy had arrived on his way back from the tailor's and just dropped down dead. Champion blurts it out over and over, as if I ought to order Trumpy back to life or something.
And that was it. Trumpy was dead. With all the magnificent ends possible to envisage in this hell hole, he had gone, standing at a counter waiting for coffee; his new shoes not even laced. All anyone seemed to recall about it was the noise his head had made as it hit the floor; a softness that did not justify the amount of blood released.
The funny thing was though, that instead of this being the end, it was the true beginning. All the realities came rushing to fill those shoes.  One of the day workers went out to his house to make a bid for the car. He had learnt that Trumpy's wife did not drive and thought there might be a bargain in the offing. As it turned out the car was like its former owner: an illusion, worn out and rotting, just holding together for appearance's sake.
Anyway, I'm not going to tell you the tales this creep managed to carry back to the wise-after-the-event nods and winks of the factory floor. But I know this now: there is no place you can hide. Even here. Even dead. Someone always finds you out.
I suppose that is what Trumpy knew but preferred to take what he could while it was going. Laying his cards out of turn and enjoying each trick for what it was worth. While we go on walking down tunnels and opening doors. Never sure what is waiting and always afraid.


About the Books
A young couple arrive on the Greek island of Crete and begin prying into the execution of a beautiful English woman during the German occupation sixty years before. They enter a labyrinth of forbidden love, betrayals, murder, greed and vendettas, old and new. 
Then they disappear. 
A feisty Scottish woman and an irascible, Zorba-like Greek form a reluctant allegiance in a desperate attempt to find and rescue them. They both have very different motives for their involvement. Their search will take them to hidden rituals, ceremonies, remote gatherings, famous monasteries and villages abandoned after decades of vendettas. To the remote island of Gavdos and finally back to a place that, “Even God does not know exists”. 
They will encounter characters good and evil; some modern and pragmatic, others ancient and magical. 
All the time they are being stalked by the sons of man who seeks to complete the crimes of his father and sate his own greed and insane desire for vengeance. These men are more animal than human and have been raised in the remote mountains for the sole purpose of carrying out the brutal will of their father. 
The mystery of the real, hidden Crete runs deep, and THE THRESHING CIRCLE explores some of the myths and romance while not shying away from its often violent nature. 
By the end choices will have to be made. If such actions are really possible on an island where many Cretans still believe that: “The Cycle of Blood”, can never stop flowing.

The Hoard is a thriller set in the secretive, dangerous world of a Royal Ordnance Factory; a vast, surreal place full of some of the most volatile elements on the planet. 
Thirty years before the main story, the nitration house at the ROF in Bridgwater exploded in a fireball that could be seen for miles around. The entire crew was killed, and the source of the explosion was never found; authorities claimed that the charge in the nitrator had gone critical and that the chargehand was unable to stop a lethal cook-off. But Gunner Wade, the man the nitration crew sent for help that day knows differently: they were murdered; and he was branded a coward. 
Now Byron, the son of one of the victims, enters the sprawling Gormenghast-like compound of the top secret factory to discover the truth about his father's death. But what he finds in the dark heart of this world is a hidden hoard of super-high explosives; illegally produced and drenched in the blood of those killed to conceal its existence. As the threat of discovery mounts, Byron finds himself at the centre of a struggle between good and evil; both to prevent a destructive force from being unleashed again and to bring the sadistic mass murderers who killed his father to justice. He is aided by an unlikely alliance of helpers, including the beautiful widow of a murdered chemist and Gunner Wade. Against them are the original perpetrators and their new legion of evil acolytes. 

Inspired by a massive explosion that killed six men at the real-world ROF Bridgwater facility in 1951 - no cause was ever found - The Hoard is a gripping, grim novel that offers a glimpse into a self-contained apocalyptic landscape scarred both by the birthing of the materiel that fuels war, and the hearts of evil men who would do anything for greed.

About the Author
Neil Grimmett has had over eighty five short stories published. In the
UK by among others: London Magazine, Stand, Panurge, Iron, Ambit, Postscripts Magazine, Pretext etc. Australia, Quadrant, South Africa, New Contrast. Plus stories in the leading journals of Singapore, India, France, Canada, and the USA, where he has appeared in Fiction, The Yale Review, DoubleTake, The southern Humanities Review, Green Mountains Review, Descant, The Southern Review, West Branch and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. He has appeared online in Blackbird, Plum Ruby Review, Tatlin's Tower, Web Del Sol, In Posse Review, m.a.g., Word Riot, Blue Moon Review, 3AM, Gangway, Eclectica, The Cortland Review, Segue, The Dublin Quarterly , Ducts, Sugar Mule, Mysterical E, Thuglit and over thirty others. His stories have also appeared in the anthologies: ENGLAND CALLING, BOOK OF VOICES and Italy’s ISBN’s Top International Stories. He has made the storySouth Million Writers Notable Short Story list for the last three years. In addition, he has won the Write On poetry award, 7 Oppenheim John Downes Awards, 5 major British Arts Council Awards, a Royal Society of Authors award and has been awarded two major grants from the Royal Literary Fund.  He has been signed over the last ten years by twelve of the leading literary agents in both the UK and USA. His current agent is Jon Elek at United Agents.
His first thriller, THE THRESHING CIRCLE, was published on Amazon KDP Select. Followed by the second, THE HOARD.

1 Digital Copy of The Threshing Circle & 1 Digital Copy of The Hoard up for grabs for International Readers!
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