A Moment of Silence

All day long the roaring and grinding of cutting machinery filled the air. It made a constant clattering background to the cracks, and the bangs, and the knocks and the tap, tap, taps of joiners, working at their benches in the hand-tool-room next door. The raucous noises drowned the softer sounds of sanding and scraping and planing and rubbing and sweeping. And it masked the voices of the men, talking and joking and cursing among themselves.

Even Jake the sweep, who could not hear, sensed the racket all around him, as he shuffled along the gangway, bent almost to the floor, pushing a soft wide broom between the benches and muttering to himself, stopping from time to time to gather piles of wood shavings and stuff them into paper sacks that stood propped against the wall.

The day the noise stopped dead, the sudden silence took the workshop by surprise. A truncated shout of 'Oi!', hurled above the din, hit the high tin roof with an embarrassed yelp. For an instant in the unaccustomed hush, as the searing whine of the spindle-moulder left its echo whirring in the air, forty workers paused, and forty pairs of eyes were drawn towards the place where the noise had ceased. Had someone pressed 'Emergency'?

Some men hesitated, then eased their grip on hammers and planes and chisels and saws and laid their tools aside to listen. Others turned to face the sound, scattering piles of shavings at their feet, and stood with hands and faces tense, as drifting sawdust settled on their heads and arms and worn-out boots.

The door of the office stood ajar. Frankie the clerk stood at the threshold startled and alert, with his mouth agape and his arm and a foot half-raised as if to step outside, as he watched the foreman, or Bob the Boot as he was called, hurry across the workshop floor heading towards a knot of huddled backs gathered around the spindle-moulder.

Bob the Boot was hurrying? Really? That stiff-backed martinet who daily paced the gangways with his steady measured gait directing menacing glances at all who incurred his wrath? Bob the Boot himself was scurrying, watched by his lugubrious clerk. Indeed, he was almost running, with his elbows jerking in and out and his red face puffed and shiny as he halted, panting, by the group of men.

Two apprentices lads, walking in steady rhythm across the room, bearing a heavy door between them, stopped as one, and let their burden down, and stared. They looked through the brown and yellow dust that rose in clouds above the sander. They peered around the piles of half-made window frames and doors that were stacked against a wall, and towards the place where the spindle-moulder stood. That was Terry's place - their mate. Something had happened. Had there been an accident? The two boys listened tensely, their faces wide with fright.

Young Peter, another lad, who did not have a mate, stood at a workbench by himself. He saw Jake's advancing broom and stepped aside. He glanced up cautiously, cast his eyes around the room and saw the backs of men all turned away from him. Warily he raised his head until he could see the backs of the apprentice boys as well. They too were turned away from him and towards the machine-tool-room. Realising with relief that for once their attention was diverted, Peter allowed himself to sigh and almost to relax. He would have this moment, however brief, without their endless japes.

Even Jake, sensing the stillness, knew something had occurred. and, for a moment, stopped his game of hitting Peter's ankles with his broom. Raising his head, he glared across the room from under heavy brows, muttering darkly to himself, and then resumed his task of pushing heaps of shavings around the workshop floor.

The older men began to shuffle with unease, and to sharpen blades with firm deliberation to quell their thumping chests. They rubbed their calloused hands on wood-stained clothes and fingered tools and oddments in their pockets. They opened and tied, and tied again, the slender strings of the aprons around their bellies. They shook their heads and pursed their lips and leaned across their neighbour's bench and hissed, 'I knew it,' and 'Didn't I tell you?' and 'I told you this would happen.'

Toby stood nearby, absently stroking his smoothing plane with his three-fingered hand. He rubbed and slapped the tool lightly against his palm, caressing the blade with his sensitive stump where his forefinger once had been, feeling its sharpness and smoothness, as his eyes roamed around the workshop, taking in the dirty rooflight panes in the corrugated ceiling, blackened and dimmed by years of sawdust and grime, and the benches all in rows and the gangway where caustic Jake was scrabbling under Peter's bench. Toby laid the plane aside and raising both his hands, he signed to Jake, 'It's one of the young 'uns, Jake. Young Terry I reckon. Can you go and see?'

Two benches away, a wiry man straightened his back and pushed out his chest and ran both his hands down his apron with thumbs pointing outwards. Out of habit he glanced quickly up to see if Bob the Boot was watching before fidgeting sideways towards Toby's bench. If there had ever been a time when Dan had walked directly across the workshop floor, now - after forty years - nobody could recall it. Dan moved from bench to bench only in nifty half shuffles executed during the half-seconds when Bob the Boot was looking the other way.

'What did I tell you...?' Dan muttered to Toby, wagging his head knowingly from side to side. 'What did I tell you...?' he signed to Jake who was shuffling past, trailing his broom behind him, to sniff out the news for Toby.

'What did I tell you..?' Dan repeated to Ben the painter who, sensing things amiss, had just stepped in from the painting shed next door. He sauntered through the doorway casually, brush in hand, as if in search of fresh supplies of paint, or turpentine or stain, or perhaps a finer grade of glasspaper, for all the world as though some special task had caused him to appear among his mates at just that very moment. A grime-encrusted paint pot dangled from his arm, and his once white boiler-suit, splashed and streaked with every shade of paint enclosed him like a freakish clown from head to foot, except for gaping buttons open down his front, showing a vivid gash of red pullover, old and stained and full of holes.

Together they watched and waited, Toby and Dan and Ben the painter, creating a huddle of gossip and warmth against the news that some youngster's life was blighted; that another mark would be added, against the hundred and twenty years that the three men shared between them.

A faraway siren grew louder and stronger until it drew up and stopped in the timber yard outside. An ambulance had arrived. The door of the workshop opened and a shaft of brightness flooded in across the dusty floor, lighting up a thousand particles that floated in the air as two figures hurried in, silhouetted black against the blinding light outside.

A pale-faced youth emerged from the huddled group, with one arm crudely wrapped in a blood-stained sling. It was the tall apprentice, Terry, the one who wore his blue check shirt carelessly unbuttoned down the front, the better to show the gold medallion on his chest; it was the newly married one who, it had been spread about with glee, had tried to make a date with the new girl in the office.

Peter saw with some regret that it was not the worst of his tormentors who was injured. This fellow's casual contempt hardly rated with Peter, on the scale of the cruelties he endured daily from the bully boys.  

Yes, it was Tall Terry but, for a moment at least, it was a badly frightened Terry without his normal swagger. His thin face looked aghast and his new moustache stood out jet-black like a startled insect clinging to his whitened skin. Unsteadily he walked between Bob the Boot and a pretty nurse, past the workbenches and his gaping mates scarcely aware of their titters and the stage whispers of, 'Cor, that's a bit of alright, then,' and 'Some fellas have all the luck,' that followed him outside. As Terry stepped into the light, the door closed behind him and the workshop was returned to its dingy gloom once more.

A subdued hubbub quickly rose and spread around the room drowning the whine of the ambulance as it died away in the distance. The spell was broken. Men began to move from bench to bench, spreading the news and enjoying the break, before The Boot returned. Word sped round the shop: Terry's lost a finger. Which one? Right index? Bloody hell, all of it? Yes, the whole of it. Cut clean off, it was. How did it happen? How do you think? He had it coming, bloody fool - Bloody. Geddit? Ha Ha! - Wouldn't use the guard. Everybody knew. We'd all seen him. And the Boot had told him time and again.

Jake had found the bleeding member rolling on the floor. All mucky it was and covered in sawdust. He had stepped on it without realising. Who saved it then? Jake did. Jake the sweep? Yes, gave it to the nurse. Heads nodded sagely. All agreed and all repeated, Terry was lucky, very lucky. It could have been his hand. But there you are. Young people today. You can't tell 'em anything. They know it all, they do. Now when I was a lad...

Still - poor Terry. Had anyone told his wife? They looked towards the office where the doleful Frank was speaking on the phone and peering out through a hole he had wiped in the dirty windowpane. Frank was sending a message. But did you see his face? Wasn't it a picture? He couldn't move. Rooted to the spot, he was. Just as well too. Can't stand the sight of blood, our Frank. Remember the time passed out? Did he really? He did indeed. Fainted clean away. The time that Toby here was cut.

And Toby shows his mates the stump and tells the tale once more. How he had walked into Frankie's office holding his sliced-off finger in the air. Like this, see. And blood was running from his hand and down his sleeve. Next minute Frank was stretched out on the floor. He'd hit his head and had to go with Toby, in the ambulance, to have his head stitched up. 'It's true. Go on, ask him. Ask Frankie to show his stitches.'

Ben the painter moved casually around the workshop, brush in hand, as though some task had brought him here. From time to time he stopped by someone's bench to hear again the much repeated tales of other times when other boys or men had cut a finger off, or even two. Once a man had lost his whole arm, squashed in a machine. Terrible. Terrible it was. Blood everywhere. No guard at all. It shouldn't be allowed. And Ben strolled on as another man recalled another day like this when silence fell and punctured the monotony.

Ben passed two apprentice youths whispering behind cupped hands, wide-eyed and shaken at Terry's loss which could so easily have been theirs. They bent their heads as if to hide their eyes and sniggered at their magazines and nudged each other knowingly.

Two other lads resumed their walk across the room, carrying a door, but their former rhythm was disturbed as, glancing across at Terry's place and seeing each other's frightened eyes, they stopped and joked and wiped their sweaty brows and started up again.

Seeing Peter on his own, Ben stopped to share a tale with him. He told the story of the splinter still embedded in his palm after twenty years. 'Look Peter. See my hand here, see underneath my skin?' Obediently Peter looked where Ben was pointing. 'Those doctors don't know everything...' Ben was saying as Bob the Boot returned and Frankie in the office raised his pen to write.

Quietly Ben withdrew and Dan slid sideways back to his bench and the joiners picked up their tools and carried on where they left off. Once again the sawdust rose in clouds and the air was filled with cracks and bangs and knocks and tap, tap, taps. Once again the raucous cutters drowned the softer sounds of sanding and scraping and planing and rubbing and sweeping as Ben the painter walked slowly back to his shed and Peter shrank once again behind his bench and Bob the Boot began to walk with measured steps back and forth between the benches.