Carl the Cockroach.
By Mike Aston.
“…Yeah, Curl, he’s officially a retard. We’ve got paperwork to prove it and everything.” Carl lights his cigarette, and tilts the packet toward me, enquiring with raised eyebrows.
“Heath?” I take one, and light it. “He’s two. How the fuck can they tell that early?” We lean against the wall next to the works entrance, looking out at the collection of affordable cars tucked neatly into little marked out boxes on the carpark.
“Three. And he can’t even talk yet.”
“He might just be a bit slow. Doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with him.”
“Nah, mate, It’s not just the talking. I got a bollocking from the bird that runs the nursery…”
“The one with…?”
“… the great tits, yeah. He’s been biting the other kids. The parents have been… Has that drain cover been nicked as well?” Most of the drain covers on the trading estate had been taken, presumably to be melted down for scrap by Gypsies. Dangerous Brian had blown his front tyre when he’d driven over an exposed drain a couple of years ago, and had declared war on “The robbing Pikey bastards”. He had spent the following three nights sleeping in his car, with a cricket bat on the passenger seat, just daring a gypsy to pull up on his carpark, looking to thieve any more of his drain covers. In fairness, Dangerous had actually calmed down a lot since they took out a chunk of his brain, along with the tumour that had taken residence there. Dangerous drifted through the remaining six months of his working life in a permanent state of inebriation; alternating between recycling his favourite fishing anecdotes, and reminiscing on his Sunday league days.
“Pikeys, man. They’ll lift anything.” I flick the freshly blackened match across the carpark, it drops straight into the exposed drain. “Get in! Maybe he just doesn’t like other kids.”
“He don’t know they’re there, until they’ve got a toy he wants.” Carl runs a hand over the receding grey stubble barely covering his head. “Oh yeah, remember I told you that he’d fucked the T.V?”
“Driving toy tractors across the screen. You might have mentioned it once or twice.”
“We had to buy a new one, so I say to Shell, I’m putting this cunt on the wall where he can’t reach it.”
“So we get this telly; 55 inch, it’s beautiful, Curl. I put it up, right, and we’re sitting there and everything’s fucking sweet, watching the Villa, like, then Bang! This fucking tractor comes flying across, right into the screen.”
“Ouch. Can’t you just take the tractors away?”
“He’d just find something else to wang about. It’s bad, kid. I don’t know if I can deal with it. I’m telling you, if he can’t function in society by the time he’s eighteen, I’m taking him over the cut and drowning him.” He flicks his own cigarette. A wind kicks up while it’s in mid-flight, sending the butt on a curved path, and bringing it to rest on the spot where Bernie had run over the cleaning lady two years before.
I loved Bernie Mansell, I had never worked with anyone like him. He was a highly skilled machinist, but at the same time he was terrible at his job because he always had better things to do in his head. Bernie’s exploits were absolutely legendary, like the time he made a drunken pass at his own mother-in-law… on his wedding day; or the time he turned up to a very formal dinner for the company M.D’s retirement, dressed as Spongebob Squarepants. No? How about the time he drilled through his own penis while putting up shelves? Some of the lads called him “Mongol”, which I didn’t really like; not from any particular sense of moral superiority, but because Bernie’s daydreaming was a consequence of wanting more from his life than drilling holes in bolts for a living. He had refused to become just another drone. Just like I did… Do… Just like I do. Bernie had the last laugh though, he met a very wealthy woman from California on Second Life, and had since married her and moved to Santa Barbara, where he now spends his days pottering around with various, insane Bernie-style projects; my favourite being his proposed Pukka Pie shop on the Las Vegas strip. Because a hot Balti pie is just what you want when the mercury is tickling ninety.
“A bit harsh, maybe?” I avoid eye contact, blowing smoke straight up into the air. Spend enough time with Carl, and you’ll learn that he lacks even the most basic social filters. It pops into his brain, it comes out of his mouth. “I’m telling you, he’s just a bit slow. How many autistic kids do you remember going to school with, can you even think of one?”
“Nah, Curl, but they didn’t know…”
“Bullshit. So suddenly they’re all over the fucking place? We’ve got six kids between us on this shift…” Carl has his two lads, my two, and Scotch eggs has two boys. Both of them are autistic; but then that’s typical Scotch, always has to go one better, the ginger prick. “…Are you telling me that half of the population is autistic? It’s bollocks, kid.”
“Easy to say when you don’t have to spend the rest of your life looking after the retard.” Carl takes another cigarette from the packet. I look at my own which is only half smoked. “Oh, shit! Did I tell you what he did the other day?” Carl’s face brightens. It always did when he had a story to tell, and Carl the Cockroach told some of the best. I smile anticipating the inevitable. “Ewan wouldn’t let him have the racing wheel to play Mario-Cart, right, so Heathy went up into Ewan’s room, and pissed all over his Skylanders.”
“Oh my God!” I try to keep a straight face, but I’m soon laughing and Carl joins me with great enthusiasm. “That’s amazing.”
“The missus didn’t think so. We didn’t find out until we were putting them to bed so they’d been soaking in piss for quite a bit. She scrubbed them, but they still stink. Heathy don’t give a fuck, mate.” I smile every time Carl mentions his wife. He once told me she’d had a dirty dream about me, so naturally I mention it every chance I get. I open my mouth to do so…
“What are you doing out here?” Roland the Rat-boy’s head appears through the open work’s entrance. “Get back inside, your shift doesn’t end for another ten minutes.” Rat-boy had been allocated the name within five minutes of his first day. His front teeth were far too long, and rested on his lower lip, resulting in a permanent double indentation. He hid away his shifty little eyes; eyes that never missed anything he could use against you, behind the thick lenses of his blue framed glasses, which hooked over the very large ears that jutted out from either side of his very round, but flat-topped head. Aesthetically he was the perfect hybrid of human and shaved rat. Yes, he’d been given the name within minutes of entering the shop floor, but what we didn’t know was that he would spend the following ten years earning it. When you make your living in a pokey little shit-hole of a factory in Dudley, you do whatever you can to breach that boredom barrier and get yourself through the day. This might be by staging tests of masculinity with the other lads; like who can push the forklift truck the furthest with the break on; or finding out who can build the most effective projectile-firing-weapon using only items that are around their machine; or the limb numbing dead-arm contests, where you take it in turns to punch each other in the arm until one of you gives in and has to buy lunch for the rest of the week. This is how we made our working lives bearable, but these were also the things those verminous little eyes would see. And everything those eyes saw, Dangerous Brian would know about.
“And yours doesn’t start for another ten minutes, so wind your neck in, Ratty.” My cigarette is reunited with the match in the drain. Two for two. I’ve been doing this for too long. Carl’s leaves his fingers, and flies in Ratty’s general direction. It strikes the doorway just above his head, raining hot ash onto him.
“Yeah, fuck off, Rat-boy. You ain’t my supervisor, you big eared prick.” Carl the Cockroach presents Roland the Rat-boy with a couple of fingers. Ratty’s face burns red, then disappears back into the factory. “Fucking nob-jockey. Day I leave here, I’m gonna put his teeth right for him… Shit, that the time? I’ve gotta punch out, the missus is picking me up this morning.”
“Give her my love.” I laugh.
“Thin fucking ice, Curly Watts.” Carl runs through the factory entrance, and I follow at a more leisurely pace.
I enter the locker-room, and am immediately slammed by the thick atmosphere of stale, sweaty ball-sack that has bookmarked the beginning and end of every one of my working days for the last fourteen years. Kebabs is in there, beautifully named because he does nothing but pretend to look busy, walking round-and-around the factory very slowly all day, like a pillar of kebab meat rotating in the chippy. He’s peeling the lycra cycling suit from his hairy mid-fifties body. The suit is soaked through with sweat.
“Morning, Curl. Have a good one last night?” Kebabs places the offending item of clothing on the radiator to dry.
“Same old shit, mate.” I hover by the door to the shop floor, to enable a quick getaway once we’ve concluded our morning routine. “Going to the game this weekend?” I quickly realise that I’ve just commenced what could be a protracted conversation. I wince slightly, and privately berate myself as Kebabs takes me meticulously through his plans for Saturday. I feel the hairs in my nose begin to burn, as the cycling suit cooks nicely on the radiator. Kebabs, wearing only a pair of black socks, and grey briefs with dark pools forming in the undercarriage, stands with his foot perched on one of the benches in the centre of the room. His briefs had long since twisted into a thong during his ride to work, and he doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to correct them.
“Thank fuck that one’s over.” Carl pushes his card into the slot in the top of the machine. It beeps.
“I’ve got to get off nights, man.” I do the same. It beeps again.
“You’d miss the money too much, kid.”
“You mean my missus would. Fancy a pint this afternoon?” We exit the building and step out onto the carpark.
“Can do. I’ll meet you in The Cross at about half-two.” Carl the Cockroach looks across the carpark, and sees his wife, Michelle, and the boys. One of the rear doors opens, and Heath drops out. He charges across the carpark to his dad. “Heeyyy, Little Heathy!” Carl darts forward the last few yards and scoops him up, making jokey choking sounds as Heath clings to his daddy’s neck for all he’s worth. I look over to Michelle. She waves at me, so I reciprocate with a wink, and grab my crotch. Her face goes red. She tries to hide in her phone. She is unsuccessful. “Oi! You wanna fuck off, mate.” Carl calls over his shoulder, laughing as he joins the rest of his family in his own affordable car.
In this part horrid – part hilarious short story Michael Aston provides an intimate portrayal of life in a factory. This results in a story that is full of laughter and joy, and full of exhaustion and bitterness. What springs forth in this piece is an often over-looked, working-class, masculine realm – a culture and community of bravado, banter and unfiltered expression, but within that is a brotherhood that is able to laugh at itself, regardless of the weight of the topic at hand. What Aston does brilliantly in this piece is express the kind of socio-political rhetorical experiment that male working-class cultures take part in – where the seemingly offensive or politically incorrect fuses with humour and good intentions, allowing them to tackle issues of race, disability and gender politics in a way, and with a lens, that is rarely given the intellectual scope it deserves. Yes, they may be silly. Yes, they may say things we don’t want to hear. They also raise questions about life that many other commentators don’t think to ask.