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To quote Jean Paul Sartre:
“I would have taken the job in the tampon factory…
But I knew there were strings attached.”
[private]December 1978. London smelled like a city gone bad. Rubbish had been turned into towering, tottering architecture on the streets; the stacks of black plastic bags cushioned the traffic noise and blocked out light from shop windows. The smell was bad, but not unbearable. The rats were big, but not monstrous; I walked from Euston to Victoria and nothing bit me but the cold. I caught a train to Croydon and found the building on Mitcham Road easily enough. A grumpy receptionist sitting behind a desk festooned with silver tinsel took the Biro out of her mouth just long enough to point it at the cubicle where the interview was to be held.
“You’re early,” she said blankly.
I still wasn’t used to the English accent. Everything sounded sarcastic.
Mr. Longley wore a loose wedding ring that slid back and forth on his finger like a bead on an abacus, and when he reclined in his swivel chair, his neck disappeared into the striped material that was part shirt, part optical illusion. He looked up from his notes and was clearly surprised by my youth.
“Oh!” he said, his eyes dragging over my body like a stoker’s rake. “You’re quite … splendid. Please do sit down.”
I noticed the framed photo on his desk; it showed a debonair and rascally gent with a spotted tie, trimmed moustache and a large toss of wavy hair. I wondered if it was his father, or perhaps a lesser known villain from Edwardian vaudeville.
Did I mention I was stoned? Two lines of speed and a hefty joint in the smoking carriage.
“So, Jack,” he said, “you have worked in the nuclear power industry before?”
“Yes,” I replied, “I worked for a French uranium company back in Ireland, exploration, that sort of thing.”
“Parlez-vous Francais?” he asked.
“Oui,” I responded nonchalantly, “un petit peu.”
He was impressed, but what he didn’t know was that he had just witnessed the usage of my entire French vocabulary.
“You are familiar with Calder Hall?”
“Calder Hall,” I replied, “yes, of course.”
In my mind I saw a great, stately pile occupied by Mr. Toad. A nearby lake and a rowing boat contained an excited Ratty and Mole packing up for a fishing trip. I was incredibly stoned.
“We need somebody to oversee the drawings for decontamination systems at Calder Hall. Also there is a cladding maintenance issue, straightforward stuff, five millimetre stainless steel. You’ve worked with that?”
“Absolutely,” I replied, my teeth parting slightly to allow the giant lies to escape.
Then he moved off in a completely unpredicted direction. “I’ve never been to Ireland,” he said, “a lot of British people are put off. The political thing, you know. Things are difficult.”
I agreed. Things were difficult.
“You don’t have any …?”
He was too polite to finish the question, but I shook my head anyway, assuming he was referring to evil political affiliations, “No, no,” I said, putting on what sounded to my own ears like a West Brit accent, “I’m from the Republic,” as if that explained anything.
“Yes, yes,” he nodded with a combination of embarrassment and complete geographical confusion. “You’re miles away.”
“Miles,” I echoed.
He decided to return to a more comfortable topic. “I should give you a little info about the company. What you see on this level is a little less than a third of our operations. We’re spread over four floors in the building. Upstairs, engineering, downstairs, civil. We’re the technical boffins. You’re the second new man. Raymond over there joined us about four weeks ago. Wife left him. Messy, messy, messy business. You are not married, are you?”
“No,” I said.
“I expect you have a girlfriend?”
“No,” I said, thinking about the young woman who had just dumped me off the top of a cliff, “I’m as free as the day I was born.”
The temperature rose slightly in the cubicle. He stubbed out his half-smoked Rothman and lit another. We had a moment of silence as he searched for words to cover his desire.
“We’ll soon be changing the project name,” he said, “but it’s just a PR exercise. Around here we’ll continue to call it Windscale.”
A mushroom cloud parted inside my head. The recruitment agency had said very little about the job. They had simply referred to it as a very prestigious life-changing opportunity; I’ll say. What could be more life-changing than a giant outlet pipe that crapped, like Godzilla’s arse, great radioactive turds into the Irish sea?
“Sellafield will be the new name.”
“Sellafield,” I said, nodding my approval. Sell-A-Field. It sounded so harmless, like something a farmer might do if he were strapped for cash.
Mr. Longley continued to talk, but my mind was somewhere else. I had a mental image, enhanced by the amphetamine sulphate and the hash, of a giant atomic shock wave blasting across the ocean, picking up trawlers and ferries, flinging saltwater and mackerel into the heart of the Irish midlands. I pictured drowned cats and floating coffins, pulled from the soil like loose fencing pickets. I watched partially fried dogs yelping on half-submerged rooftops while men and women, as ragged as their migrant forbears, crawled with exhaustion on islands of bobbing debris. I saw a perfect globe of brilliant light, flashing like hot magnesium, eating up all the colours in the world, swallowing everything, even shadow. All this was accompanied by a vicious percussion, so sharp it punched nail holes in your eardrums and blew out liquefied cortex in one long, uninterrupted squirt.
Only a moral dwarf would even consider taking a job like this.
“What’s the salary?” I asked brightly, confirming the absolute banality of evil.
“Starting at eleven thousand a year, and please call me Chris.”
My heart jumped for joy and then another couple of rocky speed crystals dissolved. It felt like somebody was making temporal lobe popcorn, with too much butter. My eyes opened wide and sparkled and a grin flashed on like a spotlight. Mr. Longley took this behaviour as a small flirtation. He lost his way with words and grasped at the first notion that drifted into reach.
“I g-g-go to the theatre, sometimes,” he stuttered, “the West End. It’s rather fabulous.”
This harmless statement actually came to my ears, deciphered and translated: “Are you interested in sodomy?” it said.
I said yes, yes, I was. I liked it very much. I admitted that I grew up in a small town and we didn’t have a whole lot of it – theatre. I couldn’t be sure about the sodomy.
“Theatre is wonderful,” he said.
I nodded with enthusiasm, keeping a lid on the opinion that theatre is nothing but fat people in wigs with loud voices. Or was that opera?
“We must go sometime …” he said, “together.”
“Oh yes,” I replied, “we must.”
Another crystal popped.
He asked me questions about my home life in Ireland. Was I enjoying London? How long had I been here? I told him only a week and he trilled. “A week, oh my goodness, you are seeing everything through such new eyes, new eyes!” He stared into my new blue eyes and transmitted a bright red laser of lust.
“I have to ask you about secrets,” he said, a little breathlessly, his hushed words trailing off and vanishing mysteriously in the air.
“Secrets,” I echoed, wondering if he was about to quiz me on my frequent use of narcotics or my dismal academic results. Prompted by my blank expression, he slid a printed sheet of paper across the desk.
“Official Secrets,” he said.
The page was densely written and repeatedly photocopied until the words bled together like melted wax. The large print at the top of the page referred to the “1920 Act”. Chris Longley unscrewed a fountain pen and I signed without trying to decipher the molten gibberish.
“I think you will be happy here,” he said.
I put my free hand on top of his and said yes, I thought I would be very happy.
He pointed to the dapper gent in the photograph. “Tom Tuohy,” he explained, “your fellow countryman – well, he was born in the UK to Irish parents; a personal hero of mine.”
He went on to tell me the Tale of Tom Tuohy in all its fabulous detail, a story so outrageous that only a crazy Paddy could be at its centre.
During the great Windscale fire of 1957, when it looked like the whole place was going up in smoke, site manager Tuohy was the man who saved the day, keeping that corner of England forever England and not some white-hot piece of airborne fallout. He pulled on his protective gear, climbed the burning reactor and peered into its very heart. He listened to its breath as it sucked in air from every corridor. He patted its heaving hungry belly and then made the decision to shut off the cooling fans and pump in thousands of gallons of water.
“Outrageous!” exclaimed Chris Longley,. “This was eleven tons of uranium, burning at over a thousand degrees Celsius. The concrete shielding was withering under the extreme heat. As you know, molten metal causes water to oxidise. Hydrogen, explosive hydrogen, expanding into every nook of the cauldron! Tom Tuohy ordered the evacuation of the building, but for himself and the fire chief. He turned on the hoses and miraculously the inferno was extinguished.”
Chris Longley took out his handkerchief and dabbed his cheeks which were now quite rosy, giving the impression that he too had been standing close to flame. He was breathless as he asked me, straight up, if I thought I could fill Tom Tuohy’s large, probably radioactive, shoes, and I said “Yes sir,” without the slightest hesitation.
He looked into my core, past the smouldering amphetamine fire, through the pressurized cloud of unshakable confidence and into the fast-breeding madness of a 20-year-old who was ready, willing and able to light the fuse and burn up the world. We shook hands. I turned and left Chris Longley’s office, knowing that his eyes were all over me, but I didn’t care. I now had something special, something beyond all credibility. I had something that half of Ireland would kill for.
I had a job.[/private]
Barry McKinley's play Elysium Nevada was nominated in 2009 for Best New Play at the Irish Theatre Awards. He is currently editing a collection of short stories drawn from his late-1970s London diaries. He attends the National Film School in Dublin where he is studying for an MA in screenwriting.