Viewpoint Signage Ltd was a shit place to work in many respects, but it suited a man of Derek’s temperament. The basic criteria for employment were that you turned up semi-regularly and did the job without chopping your own or your colleagues’ fingers off. The job was hacking bits of aluminium into circles, triangles or rectangles and laminating them with reflective material according to whichever road sign was required by council or contractor. Short of pushing drugs on the premises, thumping the works manager or driving the firm’s van into the MD’s Jaguar, it was impossible to get fired.
Derek had got fired a lot in the past. Sometimes, over a pint after work, he’d casually recall the fight, the petty theft or the dalliance with the boss’s daughter that got him the chop. I’d dismiss most of these recollections as beer-soaked bullshit (though not to his face) and figure absenteeism and poor performance as the real reasons. The petty theft thing, though…
The barney that finished it all for Derek happened in the mid-90s. I was twenty-something. I’d left school with an across-the-board set of piss-poor grades and blagged my way into an office job. Eight hours a day with a tie strangling me and the stuck-up pricks with degrees and ambitions to own the place in five years taking the mick because of my broad working-class vowels and slang-driven sentences. Didn’t matter that I’d spent all the hours I’d skived off school with my head in a book, didn’t matter that I was reading Dickens while they were thumbing the ink off the Daily Mail or Viz; I talked like my dad talked because I didn’t see that working a milling machine and working a keyboard were really any different, whereas they did and it put their backs up.
I chucked it after a year or two. Being a thorn in their side was its own reward, but one day I walked into the bogs, took a leak and stood looking at myself in the mirror as I washed my hands afterwards. I saw looking back at me the face of someone who was only fooling himself.
I took the first job in manufacturing that came along: Viewpoint Signage Ltd, where you had to be catatonic to fail the interview. I was there four, five years, maybe. Pretty quickly, the days started bleeding into each other; then, faster than I could reckon it, the months and the years were doing the same. One day I was pushing a broom around and fetching and carrying, then I was operating machinery, then I was doing the odd local delivery in the van, then I was standing in the boardroom and Derek was grinning and clapping.
We’d had a spectacularly good year and the MD had gathered everyone – sales, contracts, all the shop floor staff – around the big shiny board table. My mind wandered for a bit, trying to determine if it was oak or mahogany. I started paying attention when I heard the word ‘million’. Because that’s why he’d gathered us there: to announce that Viewpoint had, for the first time in its trading history, achieved a million in turnover. There was a brief silence in which we shared a collective and disbelieving thought: a bunch of no-hopers like us helped make a million quid?
Then Derek took a step forward, hands bashing together like he was at Glastonbury and his favourite band had just kicked in with their biggest hit. ‘Fucking brilliant,’ he said, grinning. ‘Fucking brilliant. When do we get our bonus?’
This emboldened a few others to nod and grunt.
The MD fingered his tie irritably and shot a shifty glance at the finance manager who took his cue and explained in a lot of hot air and fancy-sounding corporate terms that turnover and profit were not to be confused. Which left a lot of us wondering why they’d made such a big show of telling us if it wasn’t money in the bank after all.
Derek didn’t hang around to think about it that long. He stomped back to the shop floor and by the time the rest of us had dragged our heels after him, he’d hauled three massive sheets of aluminium onto a cutting bed and slammed the blade through them multiple times so that even a 300mm warning triangle couldn’t be salvaged from what was left. He was lining up a fourth, muttering, ‘If I can’t have it, they can’t fucking have it,’ when Stew, the works manager, roared his name and went charging over.
Stew was in his fifties and if you wanted to be polite about it you’d say he was portly. He sat in a clapboard office near the loading bay and shuffled papers all day and communicated by the tannoy. As long as orders went out on time and nothing got nicked, he turned a blind eye to trips to the pub on lunch break and cards played for money in the storeroom. We did our job, he did his and it suited us that he seldom needed to leave his office. So this was the first time most of us had witnessed him out of his natural environment. To see him, head down and running full tilt (well, full tilt for him), sweat beads cascading like water droplets from a dog shaking itself after a plunge into a stream, was to witness something surreal and almost comedic, and be rooted to the spot by it.
Jed from stores was the first to shake off inertia. He later told me that his sister was a nurse and the way Stew looked corresponded with her description of a patient who’d had some kind of seizure. Concerned for Stew’s health, Jed launched himself into a flying tackle. Unfortunately, he aimed at the patch of concrete floor just vacated by Stew’s bull-like bulk. The ‘crump’ sound of Jed hitting the floor and the inventive spiral of curses that bubbled from between his mangled lips alerted Derek. He spun round and put his fists up, and what he’d been muttering he now started shouting: ‘If I can’t have it, they can’t fucking have it!’
Stew gave momentary consideration to this reasoned line of debate and countered thusly: ‘You fucking twat, I’m gonna tear you a new one!’
Derek’s nerve seemed to break and he turned and grabbed a broom that was leaning up against the machine. He spun it, trying to get the bristle end between him and Stew. But the action was clumsy and it flipped out of his hands, the handle catching him in the face. ‘Oooo, ya fugger,’ he slurred, as if his tongue was swollen. I guessed he’d bitten down on it. His discomfort, though, was immediately superseded by the realisation that Stew was likely to pile-drive him onto the cutting bed and he jinked left.
Stew, obviously coming to the same conclusion and weighing up the sheer pleasure of doing it against being had up on an ABH charge, swerved right, with the result that they ran slap bang into each other.
That was when the fight really started.
In films, when two blokes have a fight it’s all square jaws and gimlet eyes, traded blows and teeth only unclenched when one or the other spits blood. In real life, it’s swung fists that miss, kicks that succeed only in unbalancing the aggressor, and a degeneration into hair-pulling and a twisting of facial appendages that makes the Three Stooges look like Jet Li.
That’s how it was with Derek and Stew, and it had me howling with laughter. Didn’t take long to sweep across the shop floor like a Mexican wave. Naturally, for two blokes intent on twatting each other, being laughed at did nothing to soothe Derek and Stew’s sensibilities. They redoubled their efforts, as a result of which the fight reached even more delirious heights of absurdity. And when it seemed like we’d somehow have to staunch the laughter before we pissed ourselves or required sutures down our sides or just plain ran out of breath and expired, I walked into the middle of the melee and pulled them apart.
Or rather that was how it played out in my imagination: application of one hand to Derek’s collar, one hand to Stew’s, sharp separational movement, life goes on, everybody laughs about it tomorrow.
What actually happened were several dozen applications of the fist to my arms and upper back, Doc Martens to my shins and kneecaps and backs-of-the-hand to the side of my head, all compressed into the fifteen seconds my brain spent debating which course of action would do the least damage to me reputationally: withdraw laughingly from the scuffle, or join in.
As it was, I threw up both of my arms – protectively, to be honest, but someone later said it looked like a scene from Rocky. so I was happy to go along with that – and screamed blue murder. Some said they couldn’t make out what I was screaming; others said they could and hadn’t expected it of a quiet lad like me. Whatever. It did the trick. Derek’s fists fell to his side at the same time Stew’s did. Their shoulders slumped. They backed off from each other. Stew went to his office, mopped his face with a handkerchief and busied himself with paperwork. Ten minutes later, Derek knocked and entered and from where I was watching at the laminator, they looked like shadow puppets: exaggerated hand movements, emphatic body language. Eventually Stew got up, pushed past Derek and stalked across the shop floor in the direction of the main reception and the sales office. Derek went to the bog and punched out the mirror. I found him with a bit of rag wrapped round his knuckles.
‘Sorry if I smacked yer, youth,’ he said. ‘I were aiming for that lummox.’
‘Reckon I’ll get the push?’
‘Stew’d have to tell the boss why. He’d get the shove as well.’
‘Yeah.’ Derek spat philosophically into the dirty sink. ‘He’ll make it awkward for me, though.’ Pause; hefty sigh. ‘Fancy a pint, youth?’
‘What, on firm’s time?’
So we hustled out the side door, down the yard, turned left and five minutes’ walk saw us at the pub. ‘My round,’ he said, putting a hand on my arm before I could even pretend to reach for my wallet. His was a newer and bulkier item than I’d expected. I couldn’t quite tell from the way he was holding it, but it looked like the leather was embossed with initials. Very flash for someone as rough and ready as Derek. I should have twigged.
He paid with a crisp twenty and invited the barmaid to have one herself. We grabbed a table near the window and he gazed at the barmaid as we talked. Half an hour later, when I knew I had to go back if I still wanted a job, I left him rehearsing some abject chat-up line. We didn’t talk about anything of consequence and I expected he’d be at work the next day, everything forgotten about and business as usual.
I was back at the laminator ages before Stew reappeared. The tannoy barked and I found myself summoned to his office. Shelves behind his desk held box files, lever arch files, technical manuals and a dog-eared copy of the Traffic Signs Regulations & General Directions. ‘You’re a smart lad,’ he said. ‘Did some office work, didn’t you?’
‘Any thoughts about going back to that?’
‘You sure? There’s a position coming up for junior estimator. I could put in a word.’
I thought about it. I thought about wearing a tie and forcing my accent up a notch during phone calls, calling people ‘sir’ and sounding like a BBC presenter. I thought about the way the lads on the shop floor would look at me; what Derek would say.
I politely declined.
Next day, Derek wasn’t at work and Stew was cursing him for his absconded wallet and the fifty quid in it. We were all really fucking sorry for a bloke who had fifty quid in his wallet a week before payday. Though I did spend most of that morning wishing I’d stayed a bit longer at the pub and tapped Derek for another pint or two.
NEIL FULWOOD was born in Nottingham in 1972. He is the author of the film studies book The Films of Sam Peckinpah. His short fiction has been published in Quantum Muse and The British Fantasy Society Journal. His poetry has appeared inThe Morning Star, Butcher's Dog, London Grip, Prole and The Stare's Nest. He is the co-editor, with David Sillitoe, of More Raw Material: work inspired by Alan Sillitoe, forthcoming from Lucifer Press in autumn 2015.