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At three minutes past ten, lightning struck Harry. He’d stood up from the jigsaw to go to the loo but folded to the floor like the air was let out of him all at once, urinating his best grey trousers as he fell. He came to and looked up at the flimsy foldaway table from his new position on the terracotta tile; the puzzle was still intact, at least. Harry reached up but nothing happened, as if his right side had been deboned, his body draped across the floor like a sleeve without an arm.
Engineering Marvels of the World, the jigsaw was called. Five thousand pieces and only one bit left, three wooden lugs pointing to the oceans and continents of an eighteenth-century map printed on the acrylic tablecloth.
“It’ll keep dementia at bay, you know,”Jim Scanlon had advised in his haughty drone. “At least for the time being.”
But two months later it was still incomplete. Not because it was difficult, of course, but because the Miniature Steam Railway Committee had taken up days of his recreational time with their eternal prevarications about the proposed website. They’d bickered endlessly over who should be trusted with the work, whether the budget should come from the coffers (versus a fresh fundraising effort) and whether including steam-engine schematics might lead to the site being hacked by a foreign actor. Agreeing to cast a vote at the next gathering – as soon as Maurice Golding’s prolapse had settled – Jimmy Scanlon had brought up the issue of hacking as if to place a final, insurmountable hurdle for Harry to straddle. After twenty-six years as a waterworks manager, Scanlon thought himself a de facto authority on infrastructure security, and he could yammer on for hours – resuscitating the last wheezing minutes of any meeting – about the finer points of fifteen-character password generation, or end to end webmail encryption.
“A foreign actor?” Harry had sighed. “Like who? Bela bloody Lugosi?” which had triggered a collective gasp of affront before the vote was voted back another month. He silently prayed for whoever landed the contract but took heart that God would likely meet the committee long before having to help deliver a website.
The vessel in his head doused a lifetime of skills as Harry’s world was engulfed in a large swirling blackness that spread from the centre of his vision outwards. His right-arm had caught the back of the chair on the way down, sending out a hairline fracture across his ulna, and he’d uttered a small, “Oh,” but it was drowned out by a tea mug shattering a moment before him.
Lying down, Harry covered the length of his kitchenette, feet wedged awkwardly up against the cream cupboard with mahogany coloured trim that hadn’t been updated in seventeen years, but which he’d kept perfectly maintained – oiling and occasionally cinching the hinges, shellacking the handles – as he did with everything else in his flat. There was little in the world, he found, that couldn’t be kept functional with a little bit of elbow-grease.
Tall despite his slowly dissolving bones, Harry had lost an inch in recent years and tended to stoop, but he still pushed six feet lying flat. His frame had become gangly and had finally relinquished, in his late sixties, the thick-set strength his body had alloyed from decades in a workshop wrangling sheet metal. The subcutaneous fat in his face had gone, leaving slack skin hung like a wet sheet over a clotheshorse; his light brown eyes had turned milky-blue and in place of his beard, sparse white stubble poked through the mottled serrations of his chin, in random baby-brush tufts. Harry had never been one for smiling, so instead of deepening any laughter lines and crow’s feet, as it had, irritatingly, with Jim Scanlon, old age had repaid Harry’s seventy-three years of stoicism by carving deeper the upturned horseshoe of his mouth, fixing his demeanour like a final, macabre portrait.
His head pounded rhythmically like metal through a press, in time with the dripping tap above him, and he groaned, partially in pain, but also because the tap-washer needed replacing and he’d meant to do it yesterday but had been distracted. Tomorrow is Monday, the hardware shop wouldn’t open until ten, some remainder of him recalled.
Smith had rung at four the previous evening as Harry was writing his to-do list begging him – badgering him – to see the doctor. It was the third time since Monday.
“But I can drive you!” Smith had pleaded.
“Just leave me in bloody peace, will you?” Harry had growled, slamming the receiver down with a ring of protest. He tried to breathe but the air was thin. Walls of fading white woodchip loomed over him and the ceiling pressed down. He loosened his cloth tie and opened his collar, mopping his pale brow with a white and blue handkerchief he kept in his trouser pocket, and sitting heavily by the phone. Less than five minutes later, it rang again.
Julian Smith had been Harry’s apprentice in the late seventies. He was viewed as one of the more talented of the recent intake – bright, reliable, keen, and deft with a soldering iron. At sixteen, his long eyelashes and floppy blonde hair distracted from a nose that outpaced a face still shaped by feminine youth. But his soft skin was thick in other ways, and he was too transfixed by bending and fettling to be bothered by the daily assaults of banter and ribbing from the older workshop men. Smith could tell a level from a grinder and crucially, he made a cracking cup of tea, which put him into the rarefied graces of both lads and management and league division one of the apprentice pool. When Smith looked at metal, he saw the regular patterns of atoms that could be moulded and shaped into tools and vessels that made the world more navigable, and Harry would tut and sigh disapprovingly at his loftiness, tossing him a pair of callipers and scowling about his lack of diligence.
“That measurement’s ten-thou of an inch out. If you paid more attention to tolerances than poncing about with the bloody stuff you might make a half-decent turner, one day.”
But even when, three years into his employment, Smith became the gaffer, he would stop quietly to watch Harry work, transfixed by the magic of his movements, so natural in this place filled with smoke and filings and gritty talk: Measuring, marking and cutting. Assembling, screwing, testing and rebuilding. Harry didn’t so much move around the metal as flow, like molten solder.
“Can you not go and bother someone else?” Harry would breathe without looking up from whatever sheet he was marking. Even later, despite the fancy degrees and charterships, Smith would ask for Harry’s advice, would show him his drawings for a technical opinion, and eventually started inviting him for dinner. He was in his mid-fifties now, had his own family, his own fabrication company.
“God knows what keeps him lingering around,” Harry occasionally complained to the mirror.
Harry had stared at the ringing phone, the bell hammering, his head spinning, for seconds that stretched and sparked like beads of weld, before expelling a loud huff and yanking it off the hook.
“Was I not clear, Smith? I’m busy.”
“You know you should get a mobile, Aitch,” said Smith, the soft Edinburgh accent still apparent after four decades away from home. Harry’s mouth opened for the bait but quickly clamped shut, twisting into a helpless smile that snuck into the pause between them. He knew Smith had sensed it and there was a warm chuckle on the other end. Harry stood up from the old, hinged chair that was kept oiled and waxed next to his hand-made telephone table and he nipped the bridge of his nose, clamping his eyes shut against a swirl of dizziness.
“Never. You’re incorrigible, you know that?”
“Why don’t you come over for a bite to eat this evening? I could pick you up at six.”
Harry opened his eyes slowly and noticed with irritation that the cuckoo clock on the wall had stopped. Maybe the company would be good for him; maybe a hot dinner would sort him out; he could show Smith the plans for the steam engine they were restoring at the club and pore over them, ask his opinion for a change. Maybe he should finally tell him about his will.
“Not tonight, son. Bit busy. Maybe next week.” He dropped the receiver gently back onto its cradle, cutting Smith off before he could object and talk about doctors again.
Harry was found by accident, and he would have passed away quietly there on the cold kitchen floor, the clink, clink, clinking of the galvanised lamppost outside playing a percussive lament to his demise in the stormy gusts, had old Maud from the upstairs flat not noticed that there were still two pints of semi-skimmed milk on his doorstep. Harry never forgot to bring the milk in anymore, and now she had to steal hers from two doors down. They had children who were up before six, and they caught her in the act far more often but were forgiving, and Harry would nod approvingly from behind his curtains. He was more fortunate still, today, because she never went out in the rain, not since slipping on the outside stair last year and breaking her nose in the fall.
Won’t stop her sticking that nosey beak through the letterbox, though, Harry had ruminated, but since then he’d paid for an extra pint in his subscription and had arranged for it to be delivered to her doorstep. Anonymously, otherwise he’d never get rid.
The drizzle had been hanging like a prelude to a migraine since dawn and looking out over the estate in the half-light, the sky appeared to have gone sour and curdled into a scramble of pebble-dashed concrete. The last of the leaves had been torn away and dumped into shaggy, sodden drifts along fences, leaving the trees bare and fractal and vascular. The rain started to lash, fighting through the cracks around the edges of his house. Harry had heard Maud’s frantic shuffling as she put on her coat, and shoes with wooden heels long shorn of rubber, clip-clopping unevenly down the concrete stairs as she clung onto the frozen banister for dear life. This kind of bold expedition was only warranted when the EuroMillions rolled over, as if any amount of money could rescue her now.
He’d seen the letterbox flapping so he wiggled his toes – the only things he could still wiggle – and he heard Maud running back up the steps. He would have laughed if his head wasn’t hurting so much. The cuckoo clock still showed the precise time that he’d hung up on Smith, so Harry estimated it was about twenty minutes before an ambulance arrived, pulling up at a soft idle, its silent blue light intermittently casting the monochrome street in vivid freezeframes. It was actually thirty, and by then he couldn’t move anything.
“Harry?” she’d croaked when she returned. “You in there, love? The ambulance is on its way.”
She’d used her spare key to let them in and stood to the side of the doorstep, clutching the neck of her Mackintosh against the relentless wind as the paramedics wheeled him out, and he watched her innocently pick up the two pints of milk. Let her, I’ll get some more this afternoon, he tried to think, but the words jumbled into a wall of foreign alphabets.
The ambulance was slow, there was something lazy about it that made people get out of the way quicker, as if it was in its own bubble of halting time. As cars pulled over, arcing hisses of brown spray were sent in waves onto the opposite carriageway causing the drivers to swear at the inconvenience, at the interruptions to their time-lapsed lives.
Somewhere far away, Harry felt a softness enveloping his hand, something he hadn’t experienced in a long time. It electrified whatever synaptic impulses were left and someone nearby whispered, “I’ve got you.” He tried to move his lips and tell the voice that he was fine, to ask where he was, but his mouth had been glued shut. No matter. He remembered his father pulling him back as he leaned out of a window. “I’ve got you,” he’d said.
Harry was still clinging on when the ambulance turned onto the slip road, although by now what little remained of his agency was fading like an unfixed photograph. Hundreds of miles of myelinated fibres and countless billions of synapses curled and withered like burning threads, and the road behind him disappeared into an endless, impenetrable fog. Fields the colour of weak tea segued into clotted rings of terraces and semis, and memories flashed as dark blood breached cellular barriers like the flood water outside, sediment solidifying in microscopic cracks, rendering the tiny spaces where thoughts lived uninhabitable. The rain had stopped, for now, and there were fluffy, pinkish vortices appearing in the murk that allowed shafts of straw-tinged sunlight to pierce the churning, lumpen sky, offering hope of a drier afternoon.
As one of these shafts fell through the window of the ambulance Harry took a few quick breaths and exhaled, freezing himself between two thoughts. In one, a rush of steam as he rode the train with his dad, held by his belt as he leaned out of the window. In another, the day he found him lifeless, Mum pressing helplessly on his chest like a set of broken bellows. Left with Dad’s toolkit, he discovered that none of the tools could fix him. Life went on: For sixty-three years, fifty days, ten hours, three minutes, and fifty-four seconds.
Back at home, Maud was making Harry a milk pudding, for when he felt better; it was her favourite, and a secret recipe to which she had added a tablespoon of Bristol Cream that had been in her cupboard for seven years and that she kept for special occasions. She’d even wound his clock. Smith, two miles away, was foil-wrapping a plated-up roast: Mohammed and the mountain, and all that. He had decided to take his eldest son, Max, to meet Harry, whether Harry liked it or not; Max was studying for an engineering chartership and happened to have a special interest in steam engines. The Miniature Steam Railway Committee had decided to push the vote, and had despatched the new deputy chair, Jim Scanlon, to go and see Harry and smooth things over. They each arrived within minutes of each other and found Maud tidying Harry’s flat, as she had done weekly for years, and they took comfort in talking about steam trains over heaped spoons of milk pudding late into the night. On the way out, Max placed the final piece into Harry’s jigsaw and Smith noticed a book with Scanlon’s name written on a post-it note, tacked to the corner: It was a third edition of Cybersecurity and Modern Warfare. The clock cuckooed obediently ten times as they closed the front door gently behind them. Smith noticed just how beautifully the hinges swung. Then it started to rain again.
About the author: Chris Bogle is an emerging writer and filmmaker from the North-East of England. My short films have screened internationally at BAFTA recognised festivals and I am an alumnus of the Edinburgh International Film Festival talent lab. I have an MA in filmmaking and am about to embark on a PhD in creative writing and a first novel. My primary interest is fiction and stories about characters on the margins of class, ageing, masculinity and the nature of work. I have a young family and enjoy surfing and living near the beach.