A game turns serious
Wilfred Biggs was Master Glassmaker of Caxton’s Fine Crystal, just outside Birmingham. His bread and butter was wine glasses, but he also made yards-of-ale, bubble-filled vases, paper weights, tiny, prancing horses, and enormous, brightly coloured fish with gaping mouths. All of it by hand, of course. There was none of that machine-blown rubbish at Caxton’s. He was actually a bit of an artist in his way, although he wouldn’t have thanked you for saying so. Working class blokes like him thought art was for sissies, and Wilf was a man’s man, well over six feet tall, with a black beard, a beer belly, and a deep, harsh voice. The only thing he respected was hard graft, and he always had the same little welcoming speech for a new arrival in his shop: “Forget the foreman. It’s me as hires ya, an’ it’s me as fires ya, so ye can either shape up or get out.”
Given that, it was pure luck he didn’t fire me on my very first day. I was only sixteen, you see, and had thought the foreman was pulling my leg when he told me at the job interview to be there the following morning at 6.00 am sharp, or else. When I did finally wander in it was almost 6.45, and the foreman was furious. His name was Mr. Wallace, and he looked ready to bite my head off.
“What time d’you call this?” he yelled. “His Nibs’ll ‘ave your guts for garters.”
“You’ll find out soon enough. Come on.”
Mr. Wallace marched me down onto the shop floor, and over to a group of men clustered round the open mouth of a brick furnace. The heat from the furnace was tremendous, but the men were used to it, working at the double while sweat streamed down their faces and soaked the backs of their shirts. The centre of all this activity was an enormous man seated on a wooden bench, where he was shaping the foot of a wine glass with swift, sure hands. The glass glowed bright orange, and was attached to a long metal tube which he kept spinning back and forth along the arms of the bench as he worked. He appeared too busy to notice us, but one of his workers did, and shook his head slowly at me, as if to say: ‘You’re in for it now, my lad.’
The foreman nodded towards the chap on the bench and chuckled. “That’s Wilf,” he said. “Your new gaffer, God ‘elp you.” Then he went off without another word, and I just stood there until Wilf looked up and saw me.
“What the bloody ‘ell you gawkin’ at?” he snapped.
“Got a name, ‘ave yer?”
“Arthur? What kind o’ poncy name is that?”
“Dunno,” I said.
Wilf sighed. “So you’re my new ‘boy,’ are ya?”
“Then get to work, or you’ll be out on your arse afore you can say Jack Robinson.”
That was Wilfred Biggs on a good day.
Ten years later I was still with him, which was quite a feat, though I say it myself, as shouldn’t. No-one else had stayed the course except old Stefan. Stefan was from Czechoslovakia, wherever that may be, and his English was so bad he missed most of the curses Wilf hurled at him when he was in one of his moods, which was probably why they got on so well together. Stefan could blow wine glasses even faster than Wilf, and he always worked with a jug of cold beer beside him. The more he drank the faster he blew, and he sent one of the younger kids across the road to the pub several times a day for a refill. Sometimes he took over from Wilf at the bench, and would bellow out arias while he worked.
As for myself, there was no time for arias, even if I’d known any. By then I was what we called the ‘blocker,’ and it was my job to draw molten glass from the kiln for Stefan to blow in the mould, as well as the little blobs Wilf used for the stems and feet of the wine glasses. Blocking is the hottest and hardest job in the entire works: ask anyone who’s tried it. You work so close to the surface of the glass that the heat burns the hair off your forearms, and your hands are covered with the blocker’s trademark of blisters and old burn scars.
Mind you, there were worse things at Caxton’s than burning your hand. Being one of Wilf’s ‘boys’, for instance. The ‘boy’ was low man on our little totem pole, and he was never allowed to forget it. Everything he did was wrong even when it wasn’t. Most of them were lucky if they survived a month. The last one had stormed off in tears after only a fortnight, and no-one expected his successor to do much better. His name was Jimmie Brown, fifteen years old and just out of school, a skinny, nervous, spotty little kid with round plastic specs whose lenses were always dusty. The first time we saw him he had a black eye and wouldn’t tell us how he got it. Josh the foreman said it was probably a present from his old man, Frank, who’d worked for Caxton’s years ago until he got fired for being drunk and fighting on the job. We all remembered Frank, especially the way he liked to boast about how he kept his better half in line by smacking her over the head every now and again. From the look of Jimmie he hadn’t changed very much.
Whatever the reason, Jimmie was so quiet during his first few weeks some of us thought he was a bit dim. Mind you, he did his job well enough. Most of his time was spent doing the things I’d done when I started out: collecting the bowls, or wine glasses, or whatever else was being blown that day and popping them in the cooler, or making tea before the break, and fetching cheese rolls and fags from the canteen. At the end of the shift he swept up, and put the still-hot blowing irons in cold water to crack off the surplus glass. It all sounds simple enough, but a job like that is no joke when you’ve got Wilf breathing down your neck. In a way I suppose I pitied Jimmie, but I was still glad it was him, and not me, any more.
Despite his bad temper Wilf had a sense of humour. At least he thought he had. Always ready for a laugh at someone else’s expense. His favourite joke was to send one of the younger, greener kids out in his lunch hour to buy daft stuff like rocking horse paint, or left-handed screwdrivers, or Guiness-flavoured crisps. It wasn’t only Wilf, though; most of the other gaffers did it as well. It was something we’d all been through, even Wilf. If you just grinned and took it in good part you’d eventually be accepted as one of the team. If not, you’d be in for a hard time of it.
Wilf tried it on with Jimmie on the poor kid’s very first day. The minute the whistle blew for lunch Wilf told him: “I need a favour from you, my lad.”
“What’s that, then, Wilf?”
Wilf nudged me in the ribs. “Rockin’ ‘orse paint,” he said.
“You ‘eard. I want you to go down t’High Street an’ buy me some.”
“Rockin’ ‘orse paint?”
“Thas right,” said Wilf, giving me another nudge. “An’ make sure it’s spotted.”
“Ain’t got no money, ‘ave I?” answered Jimmie. You could tell from his face that he knew Wilf was having him on, but he didn’t know what to do about it.
“Don’t you worry about that,” said Wilf, who knew all the excuses. “Bloke down paint shop’s a mate o’ mine. ‘E’ll give it you on account.”
“Ain’t no such thing as rockin’ ‘orse paint,” Jimmie mumbled.
“There is if I say there is,” said Wilf, “so you get going, and don’t be back late, either, or you’ll catch it from foreman.”
Luckily for him, Jimmie made it back with two minutes to spare. The foreman, who was another mate of Wilf’s, saw him clocking in, winked at us, and said sternly, “Cuttin’ it a bit fine, aren’t you? You won’t last long around here if you don’t pull your socks up.”
“Well,” said Wilf, “where is it?”
“Ain’t got none,” answered Jimmie. “Says ‘e’ll ‘ave another batch in next week.”
Wilf shook his head. “Again?” he said. “I shall ‘ave to take my custom elsewhere if ‘e can’t do better than that.”
He thought this was very funny, and burst out laughing. So did we all, because we knew he expected it. All except for Jimmie, who just looked down at his feet and didn’t even smile.
To everyone’s surprise Jimmie turned out to be one of the best ‘boys’ we’d ever had, always on time, always willing, never dropping the wine glasses on the way to the cooler. Not only that, it was the custom in those days to allow the ‘boys’ to try their hands at a bit of glassmaking themselves during the tea breaks, and Jimmie took to it like a duck to water. The gaffers would often wander round the works while the boys were practicing, looking to poach some of the more talented for themselves, and they soon noticed Jimmie when he started turning out some very nice tea glasses and ash trays. It was obvious almost from the start that he had the knack, something you were either born with, or you weren’t. Not that it did him any good. The other gaffers knew better than to try pinching anyone from Wilf Bigg’s team, so he stayed put.
Even Wilf was impressed by Jimmie’s performance. He never told him so to his face, of course, simply carried on as usual, bullying and yelling, and hauling the poor kid over the coals for every little thing. Sometimes he sent him out again for another tin of rocking horse paint. And Jimmie, he just shrugged his shoulders and went off as if he actually expected to find one. Heaven knows what he really did on these little excursions. Probably sat on a bench in the park, eating his sandwiches, and watching all the girls go by. That’s what I used to do.
Six months later he was an accepted member of the team. He even got a raise. He earned every penny of it,too. This didn’t stop Wilf’s moaning and groaning, but it was more an act than anything else, because Wilf knew when he was well off. Only, there was still what you might call a ghost at the feast: Jimmie’s old man, of course. Remember that black eye? Well, that was only the start. What I said about Jimmie’s always getting to work on time wasn’t entirely true. Every now and then he didn’t turn up at all for a couple of days. He was never away long enough to need a sick note, but he usually returned with a new bruise on his face, or a plaster on his forehead, or a bandaged wrist. One time he came back with all three and said he’d fallen off his bike.
None of this mattered to Wilf. He was still on the poor kid’s case morning, noon and night, and it’s easy to see why. Jimmie was so—what’s the word?—meek, that’s it; a born whipping boy. Perhaps, if he’d shown a bit of gumption, Wilf might have let up on him, just as he had with me when I finally told him to take a running jump at himself. But that wasn’t Jimmie’s way, so when Wilf laughed at him or made some snide remark, he just shrugged his shoulders as usual, then went off and did whatever he was told without a word.
The last of Jimmie’s disappearances occurred just before Christmas. Wilf blew his top that time, because we’d just received a large wine glass order—meaning an increased piece-work rate as well as a nice fat bonus—and all hands were needed on deck. When the foreman heard Wilf cursing he said: “Don’t you ever read the paper?”
“Only the ‘orses,” answered Wilf.
“His old man’s been nicked.”
“What for?” I said.
“Beat up his mum’s boy friend, didn’t he?”
“Bad?” asked Wilf.
“Dead,” said the foreman quietly.
Three days later Jimmie was back, arriving early, just as he always did. He put the kettle on and began heating up the blowing irons, all without saying a word, or even looking at us. None of us knew what to say, either, so we looked to Wilf for a lead, but he shrugged his shoulders. In the end we started work in silence, like on any other day.
Everything went normally until we finished filling the first tray with wine glasses, which Jimmie picked up and carried off towards the cooler. Only he never got there. He stopped suddenly, lifted the tray above his head, and smashed it down on the stone floor. The glass exploded into smithereens, and he started kicking the hot shards in all directions.
“ ‘Ere, what’s this?” shouted Wilf.
Jimmie turned and stared at him. He was shaking and crying, and his face was dead white. “Ain’t no such thing as rockin’ ‘orse paint! There ain’t! There ain’t!” he screamed.
The foreman started to say something, but Wilf silenced him with a wave of his hand.
“You’re right, Jimmie,” he said. “There ain’t no such thing as rockin’ ‘orse paint. Everyone knows that.” Then he pointed at the floor. “Now, you get that mess cleaned up sharpish. The whole lot’s comin’ out your wages, don’t think it’s not.”
Jimmie’s little lapse was never mentioned after that, even though the entire works followed the trial. It didn’t last very long, and no-one was surprised when Frank got just 18 months for manslaughter with diminished responsibility, which meant he’d be out in a year if he kept his nose clean. Jimmie didn’t waste any time moving out of the family home before he got back, and I can’t say I blame him. He moved into digs in town, and swopped his glasses for contact lenses and a Beatles haircut. As for Wilf…well, he was soon back to his old, grumbling self, but he never shouted at Jimmie, or any other ‘boy’, again.
When Wilf retired last year, guess who took his place? That’s right: me, of all people. I’m Master Glassmaker now, and Jimmie’s my blocker. It’ll be a while before he’s as good as I was, but he already has a fine collection of blisters, so he’s off to a good start. There’s a new boy, as well, who’s no better or worse than any of the others, and he doesn’t mind at all when I send him off for left-handed screwdrivers, or Guiness-flavoured crisps. In fact, he seems to enjoy making up stories as to why he can’t find any.
The only thing I never send him out for is rocking horse paint. That doesn’t sound as funny as it once did.
Published by Bewildering Stories Magazine