London Diary - 5th November - 1979
At lunchtime, I left the drawing office with Don and we sat in his car on the Uxbridge Road. We smoked up a couple of blazing joints and talked the inevitable nonsense. Don is a squatter; he lives in an abandoned hospital with a wife and three children. “We have our own ward”, he said to me once, “named after Alexander Fleming. Come around and check it out”.
“What are the visiting hours?” I asked, and then we both laughed.
I will reply, “The sick Fuch”.
“The flyer that lost his voice?” - The dumb Fuch.
“The flyer that ran off and found religion?” - Holy Fuch.
And so on. -- When you’re stoned it’s positively hilarious.
We went back to the drawing office at half past one and Don’s desk was gone. Not moved, gone, and the space closed up as if he had never been there at all. Don was so totally out of it that he had difficulty imagining his existence as it had been only two hours earlier. He kept saying, “This is peculiar” and “how am I supposed to respond to this?”
I sent Don back to his car.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll get things sorted out”.
I went to see the chief engineer, Alan Mack. Alan has a boxy office, heated to extravagant temperatures by a giant cast iron radiator. He leaves sweaty prints on everything he touches. Nobody ever shakes his hand.
“What happened to Don’s desk?” I asked.
“Bad show. Heave-ho.”
He actually talks like that.
“Did he do something wrong?”
Alan touched his nose with an index finger. “The hush-hush boys were here,” he said, referring to Security.
“And they took Don’s desk?”
“Silly sod, buggered himself.”
Alan closed the door to his office and explained. Apparently, Don was attending anti-nuke rallies, and this was very bad form when you worked in the atomic industry.
“Peace chappies have gone to war with us,” Alan said.
“Is there no way he can come back?”
Alan shook his head.
“I thought the English always gave a man a second chance.”
“No”, he said sadly, “that’s the Americans. Now follow me, old bean.”
I followed Alan down through the busy drawing office and into the lift. We went up to the fourth floor and the model room. The entire Windscale/Sellafield complex, miniaturized and made from pale blue cardboard and Foamex, sprawled out before us on twenty five hundred square feet of pristine white linoleum. Like a fat, sweaty Gulliver, Alan carefully stepped over the buildings. He took a two-metre pointing stick from a hook on the wall and planted himself firmly in the middle of the Irish Sea. He waved the stick over Cumbria, like some deranged magician and then finally pointed it at the golf ball dome that shielded the UK’s top atomic secrets.
“I’m giving you the conveyor system in the AGR, boy.”
“Isn’t that Don’s area?” I asked
“This is promotion, old bean. Promotion! More buttons too.”
“What’s the Gaelic for money?”
“Airgead,” I replied.
“Arry-gid. I like the sound of that. You’ll be getting more arry-gid.”
“How much more?” - I could feel I wasn’t doing a great job of defending Don’s interests.
“I should say an extra one pound fifty per hour, old boy.”
With the tip of his stick, Alan lifted the cardboard dome and exposed the Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor. He revealed an aluminium ball, wrapped with tiny red and blue pipes.
“You’ll be handling the spent fuel rods; uranium dioxide, as black as your Irish heart. You know what that gives you, old bean?”
“More fucking power than the PM. Use it wisely.”
Under the hard fluorescent lighting, his laughing face looked distorted and deviant. He pulled the mini reactor out on the tip of his stick and tossed it across the room in my direction. -- They say that if you spend long enough working in the nuclear power industry, eventually you will have your Strangelove moment, and this was mine.
I caught the reactor and fired it back. Alan swung the stick and smacked it into the Firth of Forth.
“Howzat!” he roared in pure delight, and he was no longer a middle-aged man in a ratty cardigan, but an excited schoolboy, cocking it off a splice at St. Peter’s of York. His eyes sparkled because it was all a game. Everything. His father owned a small shirt factory, somewhere up North, and it took years of careful saving to send him to Cambridge, to an ill-fitting world of books and buggery where he descended into the well-dug grave of civil engineering. He was angry at everything, but he hid it beneath a smile.
“What was your college in Ireland like?" he once asked.
When I explained that it was a small, concrete institution where car mechanics and bookkeepers learned how to wield wrenches and sharpen pencils, he seemed envious. I had nothing to live up to.
He hung the two-metre stick on the wall and said, “You’ll speak to Don. Tell him he’s not coming back."
The suggestion came out of nowhere and I was surprised.
"Don considers me a friend," I said.
“Rotten show, I know, but somebody has to stick his finger up the budgie’s arse.”
He plodded off through the Lake District and then stomped over the Yorkshire dales on his way to the exit.
He paused and looked back at me. "You see it as treachery, and of course that is precisely what it is, but you should take a page out of the English copybook. We see perfidy as a routine daily event; it's like shopping for groceries or changing your socks - although come to think of it, sock-changing in England is more of a weekly event.”
As he closed the door he shouted back, “Think of the arry-gid, my boy. Think of the arry-gid!”
Left alone with my conscience - bad company at the best of times - I reassembled the damaged reactor and prepared for the fallout that would shortly follow.
Don was sitting in his car on the Uxbridge Road, staring fixedly out the window at a woman in a sari who was slapping a child on the legs. I got into the passenger seat and he immediately asked me about the ‘situation’.
“I tried my best”. I said. “Cutbacks, you know.”
With unexpected violence, and absolutely no warning, he slammed his head against the steering wheel. The horn beeped and the woman in the sari dragged her child to safety, where she beat him some more.
“My wife is a darling,” he said, “This is going to break her heart. What do I do? I'm thirty-two years old.”
"You still have a little time left,” I said.
We both laughed, but it was a flat sort of laughter, the kind you hear at a funeral, or coming from a bank manager's office.
Don pulled a joint from the glove compartment.
I shook my head and said no, I had a job to get back to; I didn't tell him that it was his.
“Maybe I should come with you and have a little chat with Alan Mack. If I told him about my situation …”
“Not a good idea,” I said, perhaps a little too hastily.
Don squinted at me, as if he sensed something amiss. He lit the joint and sucked back the smoke. His mind was evidently spinning.
If it really had been a case of cutbacks, why would they keep me and dispose of him? With his striped socks and frayed lapels peppered with dandruff, he was not a pretty sight, but he was better at his job than I would ever be, and he knew it.
“Let's play one last game of Flying Fuchs,” he said, unexpectedly.
"I really have to get back to the office,” I protested.
“Come on,” he insisted, “for old times' sake.”
It seemed mean to deny him this one little thing.
“Okay,” I said, “shoot.”
“What was the name of the flyer that fell and couldn't get up?”
Don stared into my eyes with the beginning of a smirk on his lips.
"I have no idea." I said.
“It’s a good ‘un,” he said. “Think about it.”
We said goodbye. I headed back towards the office on Delamere Rd. The rickety Zephyr engine started up behind me and a tyre screeched against a kerbstone.
“The flyer that fell and couldn't get up?” I said aloud.
I looked back and the Zephyr was gone. The woman in the sari and the child were gone. The wind twisted some crisp bags up into the air outside the Hamborough Tavern. A small group of children in grey school uniforms walked over the canal bridge laughing at each other, tossing a plastic bag filled with oranges, back and forth between them. When it landed in the gutter they walked away, pretending it wasn't theirs.
I crossed the bridge with quickened step, but paused for a moment and looked at the bag of oranges. Something flickered. I saw instead a fallen man in a persimmon tunic, prostrate and motionless in the middle of a sawdust ring. Up above, an empty trapeze swayed back and forth. The other Flying Fuchs clustered around on the wires and looked down at their fatally wounded companion. And then I got it. Yes I did. I understood exactly why Don was smirking. It all made sense in an instant. It was I. -- I was the man who lost his grip and tumbled to his doom. I was the man sprawled in the dirt, the flyer that fell and couldn’t get up.
I was the Lying Fuch.
© Barry McKinley, 2013
Barry McKinley was nominated in 2009 for Best New Play in the Irish Theatre Awards for his play Elysium Nevada. 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.
David McGrath has worked it out that between Daniel Day-Lewis and himself, they have a combined total of three Academy Awards for Best Actor, four BAFTA awards for Best Actor, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, three Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, and two Golden Globes.