The knife screamed when I pressed it into the grinder. I soon had it squealing. 2000rpm, that’s what it said on the plaque next to the On button. There was nothing I didn’t know about this sharpening business. I’d been doing it all week, since they took my driving licence off me. I told McCabe straight away. I think he appreciated it. Maybe he forgave me, although it struck me that he didn’t quote a line of scripture. He had a verse for every occasion. So did I. It was usually a total non sequitur, but it managed to shut him up. I knew he liked a drink. Perhaps there’s something in the Bible that says too much whisky is good.
Another perfect job. I pressed the Off button and laid the knife on the pile. Someone was standing in the doorway. I couldn’t make out who – sunlight was streaming over his shoulders. He just stood there, perfectly still, the silhouette of a statue. At first I thought it was McCabe, or that mate of his, Sergeant Bilko, who was always turning up unannounced.
‘Alright?’ I said.
The figure stepped inside. It wasn’t McCabe. It wasn’t Bilko, either. I didn’t know who it was. He looked like Jack Nicholson – no, younger. Oddbod, but taller. That was it, a tall, adolescent Oddbod. His eyes roamed the workshop and fell on the pile of knives. He licked his lips.
I was sweating.
‘Is Mr McCabe here?’ he said, slowly. He sounded like he had memorised the question.
‘He’s not in here, mate,’ I said. ‘Have you tried the house?’
He came closer and started prodding near the grinder.
‘You’d better not touch that,’ I said. ‘It’s a hair trigger.’
‘Is Mr McCabe here?’ he said.
I gathered up the knives and placed them behind an oil drum in the corner, taking care not to damage the blades. We’d had a few Youth Opportunities kids coming round. Time wasters. This boy was something else entirely. I’d noticed the lump in the top of his forehead. It was like a baby’s fist with a ladder of stitches in it. Post-op. I wasn’t taking any chances.
‘Have you tried the house?’ I said. The door was on the other side of the workshop. Having put the knives out of reach, my aim was to get to it.
‘I’m here for a job,’ he said. ‘They told me about a job.’
What were those fuckers down the DHSS thinking about? Fair enough, everyone was supposed to take care of everyone else, but what were they doing sending the likes of this to a farm? Didn’t they realise it was a hazardous environment?
‘The laddies are up the field,’ I told him. ‘Maybe Mr McCabe’s waiting for you.’ I managed to get to the door, and air. ‘Come with me,’ I said.
McCabe was round the side of the big shed, fixing a window that had recently had a ball kicked through it.
‘Mr McCabe,’ I said. ‘Someone here to see you.’ I didn’t bother hanging around to explain anything. I knew nothing, and that’s the way I wanted it to stay. I went back to the workshop. A minute later, McCabe marched in and started poking about on the bench.
‘Dang things,’ he said. ‘Where are those blessed knives?’
‘Eh?’ I said. I’d just put them on top of the oil drum. McCabe spotted them. He picked one up and ran a thumb across the blade, like a true professional.
‘That’s a bit blooming sharp,’ he said. ‘I’ve told you before...’
Oddbod was in the doorway. McCabe handed him the knife.
‘You have got to be joking,’ I said.
‘Folk come here to work,’ said McCabe. ‘Not to footer about.’
Oddbod began slashing at shadows. I gave him plenty of room. ‘Mr McCabe,’ I said. ‘I really think you should reconsider.’
‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘He’ll be careful. Look, he’s a fully grown man.’
I was left to get on with it. I leaned on the oil drum, thinking. I heard the Subaru getting fired up. A couple of seconds later it flashed past the window. I went outside. The yard was empty.
I’d been keeping myself to myself in the workshop. There was a lot of stuff that needed fixing, a lot more stuff than there had been the previous week. The summer was only three months long, and I knew it was in my interests to make myself invaluable. Unsackable. A lot of broken machinery was lying around. I’d broken most of it on the Monday when everyone was up at the field. McCabe just nodded when I told him about the dire state of affairs. ‘It’s a good job you lost your licence, then,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get Chas to do the driving.’ He had warned me about oversharpening the knives; they were for cutting cabbages, but the laddies knew the risks. Chas, the only one who had facial hair that didn’t look like a burst cushion, had shaved his chin with one of the thinner blades as the boys looked on jealously. They were more impressed with Chas’s stubble than with my skills at the grinder, but that’s teenagers for you. Working on the farm was something to keep them busy. More than that, it gave them thirty two quid to blow in the Auld Toll on Friday nights.
I was bored. I looked at the machinery. There was a lawnmower that I’d told McCabe was well and truly knackered. All that was wrong with it was the spark plugs – I’d unscrewed them. And there was a disc harrows that needed greasing. As far as McCabe knew, the discs needed replacing. I’d told him I would save him a packet by sharpening them. His face had lit up. I still hadn’t worked out how to remove them from the frame.
I was turning into a compulsive liar.
So what? It was only for the summer. Next year I would be in full time employment in a bank somewhere, wearing a suit and making a fortune. But there was something going on in the back of my mind, something to do with conscience. I didn’t like lying. It had nothing to do with damnation and Hell, which were McCabe’s points of reference, but I knew it wasn’t right. Maybe I had spent too much time studying Philosophy; Philosophy loves hypocrisy, and McCabe was full of it. You could find him and his crowd down the precinct every Saturday morning outside Boots, giving it maximum New Testament Repent to the shoppers. It was difficult to tell who was the leader, McCabe or Sergeant Bilko. You wouldn’t have wanted to sign up, it all looked very curious indeed. That was the point, though. It was a strange kind of proselytising. They were spreading the word, they were telling everyone about the Way, the Truth and the Life, but they didn’t want you in their gang. The Bowhouse Brotherhood, that’s what they were called. I don’t know if that was their real name, but everyone in town called them that. They were famous. Notorious. Of course they were – the precinct was stowed at weekends. They used to bring their kids to work beside us. I’d been coming here since my first year at Uni, and there were always new faces. Young faces. They brought them here to instil the work ethic, while in the evenings Sergeant Bilko introduced them to the adolescent delights of Famous Grouse at McCabe’s house, a grand old pile round the back of the workshop. An infidel breaking bread in front of them was not to be countenanced. They ate on their own at dinnertime. McCabe once went into a spasm when I opened a crisp poke next to him.
The Subaru was back in the yard. McCabe came into the workshop. I was blowing on a spark plug I’d just had time to pick up.
‘How’s it going with the repairs?’ he said.
I tutted. ‘Bit difficult, chief,’ I said. ‘But I’m getting there.’
‘Good,’ he said. ‘Eh, can you come with me a minute?’ He took me to the far end of the yard. ‘There’s something wrong with this,’ he said. It was the John Deere. Nothing to do with me, nothing malicious, at least. It needed diesel. It had been needing diesel since Friday, when I parked it. I climbed inside and turned the key in the ignition. The fuel gauge said ‘E’.
‘Just leave it to me,’ I said. ‘I’ll fix it.’
The laddies were playing football next to the shed. It looked strenuous. The grass was up to their knees. I noticed that iron bars had been fitted over the window. Chas was sitting on the roof of the diesel tank, smoking.
‘You want to watch that,’ I said.
‘What?’ he said. ‘Diesel isnae flammable.’
‘Not that,’ I said. ‘You’re supposed to be driving.’
Chas laughed. He put the spliff to his lips and toked hard. He held it. He looked at the sky. It was getting cloudy. ‘I think I’ll take the afternoon off,’ he said.
‘Where’s the new guy?’ I said.
‘What new guy?’
‘The boy that came round this morning. I thought McCabe took him up the field.’
‘He must have taken him up the Overflow,’ said Chas. ‘He didn’t bring him anywhere near us.’
He had been left up there all by himself. He was probably one of those slow lunatics who did whatever you told them until you told them to stop. Or broke them. Like a machine. Whatever. It wasn’t my problem. I went back to the workshop. I was flicking through an old copy of the Sun when Chas staggered in, giggling. He sat on the floor in front of the oil drum and got his tobacco pouch out of his trousers.
‘Two spliffs at dinner time?’ I said. ‘Are you going for the record?’
‘Me?’ he said. ‘No, I’m a Scotsman reader, me.’ He burst out laughing then got back to building his joint.
Footsteps in the yard. I looked out the window. ‘Hey up,’ I said. Chas ran into the toilet and stuck his head under the tap. McCabe was examining the Subaru. He gave each tyre a perfunctory kick, then looked over at the workshop. At me. I turned to see Chas lying on his back in front of the oil drum, his arms and legs splayed out. He was making stuttering noises in the back of his throat.
McCabe walked in. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ he said.
‘I had a dodgy Pot Noodle,’ said Chas.
McCabe looked at me. ‘A what?’ he said. At first I thought he was joining in the banter, but banter wasn’t his style, not with the likes of us. Maybe he was, actually, unaware of the existence of Pot Noodles. I knew televisions were anathema to him, he’d probably never seen a commercial in his life. Well maybe accidentally, down the precinct; Radio Rentals was round the corner from Boots. But didn’t his lot go shopping? Right enough, shopping was women’s work. They seemed to have that kind of thing worked out.
‘It’s dehydrated food particles,’ I said. Chas made a small yelping noise. He tried to turn it into a groan. I managed to keep a straight face. ‘Loads of salt,’ I said, ‘something which, as you know, is really unhealthy.’
‘It jolly well looks like it,’ said McCabe. ‘He’d better take the afternoon off. Clear a space for him up the back there.’ He looked at his watch. ‘I haven’t had my dang lunch yet,’ he said. He looked at Chas. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘I’ll drive the laddies back to the field.’
Chas coughed at the ceiling. ‘Thank you, sir,’ he said.
I ducked into the toilet and turned on the tap. Hopefully, it covered the sound of my laughter.
I didn’t clear a space for him. I watched him skin up. We spent the afternoon shooting the shit, until we heard footsteps in the yard. We knew it wasn’t McCabe. He didn’t drag his feet. It was Oddbod. He stood in the doorway. He was grinning. He had the knife in his hand, buffing it up on the leg of his jeans. ‘I cut myself,’ he said. He showed me. The back of his left hand, all the way across to the base of his thumb, was hanging open like a tin of salmon. A ripe bead of blood plopped onto the workshop floor. The dust hissed.
‘Jesus Christ,’ said Chas.
‘You shouldn’t say that,’ said Oddbod. Metal scraped denim. ‘You shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain.’ McCabe had wasted no time with the brainwashing, it seemed. Whatever, I wasn’t going to argue with him.
‘Have you looked at your hand?’ said Chas. ‘The Lord would be taking his own name in vain if he saw that.’
‘I cut myself,’ he said. He sounded proud, like he’d just passed an induction test instead of proving what a useless bastard he was.
‘You’ll be needing a jag,’ said Chas. I was impressed. Despite the two joints, he was still capable of connected thought. Oddbod raised his hand to his nose and sniffed the wound. Then he licked himself. ‘I’ve seen dogs do that,’ said Chas.
‘If you want to lay the knife on the bench,’ I said. Oddbod did as he was told. Of course he did. ‘Come on,’ I said. ‘We’ll see if McCabe’s in. He’ll take you up the hospital.’
‘Aye, get it seen to,’ said Chas. ‘Before Lobotomy sets in.’
‘Eh?’ said Oddbod.
‘Come on,’ I said. Oddbod was smiling a lot, but I didn’t want to find out how far his sense of humour went.
We walked round to the house. I’d seen lots of cuts on the farm. I’d suffered a few myself. I knew the score. The dull thud, the shock, then, after a few seconds, the blood. It was when the bleeding stopped that the pain started. His hand must have been gowping.
A car passed us in the driveway. It glided to a halt in the parking space. Sergeant Bilko got out. He clocked the boy, then the hand. ‘What the blazes happened to you?’ he said.
‘We’ve had a bit of an accident,’ I said, and was ignored. Oddbod’s shoulder was gripped and he was pushed up to the door. Bilko rattled the knocker.
After a moment, McCabe’s head appeared, immersed in a halo of soup fumes. ‘Alec!’ he said. ‘Blessings to ye.’
‘And to you, Graham,’ said Bilko. ‘Sorry to get you up from your lunch. Scotch broth?’
‘Aye,’ said McCabe. ‘The woman makes a rare pot.’
‘Though not Pot Noodle,’ I said, and was ignored.
‘Anyway,’ said Alec. Sergeant Bilko. He jerked a thumb at Oddbod. ‘Have you seen the state of this?’
McCabe stepped outside. ‘Aye,’ he said. ‘It’s another of these DHSS referrals.’ He shook his head. ‘One tries to do the decent thing.’
‘It’s Brother Daniel’s laddie,’ said Bilko. ‘Didn’t he phone you?’
It took me a second to get it. McCabe seemed to be struggling. He scratched his head then patted the linen napkin that was hanging from the throat of his shirt. There was still no mention of a first aid box. Protection from soup stains and positive employee identification seemed to be more important than industrial injury of a criminally negligent bent. ‘Well, I’ll be...’ he smiled. ‘The last time I saw this yin he was sitting on a po!’
Oddbod raised his hand to his mouth and licked the flap of meat.
‘Holy God in heaven!’ said McCabe, and reeled back against the door jamb. It was at this point that my presence in the company was acknowledged; my employer’s eyes.
‘Now, now,’ I said. ‘No need to take the Lord’s name in vain.’ Oddbod nodded, which I found encouraging. I was in need of allies. I could see where this was going.
‘You cheeky..!’ said McCabe. ‘I...I told you about those knives. I’ve been telling you for weeks!’
‘Oh, come, now, Mr McCabe,’ I said. ‘I’ve only been on the grinder since Monday.’
‘You know what I mean!’ he said.
‘I take it you’re the student,’ said Bilko. ‘You mouthy young so and so. I’ve heard about you.’
‘Indeed,’ I said. ‘And we’ve all heard about you.’ I swear his glasses steamed up when I said that. Maybe it was the soup fumes.
McCabe made to put his hand on Oddbod’s shoulder, but stopped short before contact was effected. His front teeth were nibbling furiously on a stubborn grain of barley. ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me,’ he said. ‘Mark 10:14,’ he added, his voice trembling.
Sergeant Bilko Hmmm-Hmmm, Hmmm-Hmmmed his endorsement.
‘Aye,’ I said, ‘And too many cooks spoil the soup.’ It wasn’t quite the non-sequitur I was going for, but it did the trick. The conversation was over. McCabe, his napkin flapping, ushered Oddbod into the sanctuary of the house, and Savlon. Bilko followed. The door slammed shut in my face.
McCabe knew I was lippy. That’s why he employed me. I was a foil for his biblically barbed comments, he regarded me as a challenge. But was being cheeky a sacking offence? It all came down to who exactly Brother Daniel was, and McCabe’s relationship with him. Could he risk sacking me? Any idiot could learn how to sharpen a knife, maybe even Oddbod, but I was the only one on the farm who knew how to fix the broken machinery. By the end of the afternoon, there was a lot more of it. Most of it was lying in bits, strewn over the area in front of the oil drum; Chas had, in the end, decided to go home. The damage was rather more substantial than loose spark plugs.
Who was I kidding? The problem – the real problem – was that I was beginning to believe my own lies.Oddbod’s knife was on the bench. I gave it a good wash under the tap. I pressed On and pushed the blade into the wheel. It didn’t scream; it didn’t even squeal. It whined. It was still sharp. Sharp as a razor. Too sharp by half.
* * *
This story first appeared in Gutter.