From a stand near the end of the corridor I select one of the less filthy umbrellas and give it a light shake to unstick the fabric. I believe the umbrellas were Henning’s idea. My colleagues used to be roughly divisible into two camps: those who believed it was better to have a full head of hair and those who believed it was better to be bald. Henning is bald and occupied the former camp. One morning last year he came in with a bright red burn running from between his eyebrows, over the top of his cranium and down almost to his neck. Everyone else was greatly amused by this, but Henning was not and two days later the umbrellas appeared. He was the first of us to realise that hair verses no hair was the wrong question to be asking.
The door at the end of the corridor is warped slightly from the heat; there’s a gap at its base, so I can see the faintly steaming liquid leaking in even before I prise the thing open. It always smells of hot oil here because we’re near an enormous piston that takes power from deep under the ground and sends it into a flywheel in the next hall that’s the size of most people’s houses. From there power is taken off using crown wheels and sent via about a hundred different shafts and belts throughout the rest of the facility.
As the door scrapes back towards me, sluicing a little wave of oil ahead of it, I’m greeted by a view of the piston corridor. The rear end of the piston’s cylinder is above me and to one side. It’s made of black iron and is fully twenty feet in diameter, lying on its side like a fallen tower from some great castle. A connecting rod the size of a tree trunk protrudes from its centre, crosses the corridor above my head and disappears through the wall. With an interval of about five seconds, it slides first into the cylinder and then out again with a noise like a wave breaking that makes the corridor tremble. On every power stroke a certain amount of hot oil comes out with it and showers the floor. Someone has handily laid out a series of blocks to act as stepping stones along the length of the corridor so that engineers can pass by without having to dirty their boots in the half inch deep slick. So sophisticated we are round here, I think, as I step daintily onto the first block and totter along with my umbrella.
Every time I’m here I wonder why someone didn’t fix up a gutter or even just a board underneath the connecting rod to catch the oil . I suppose it would have taken effort, and that can always be spent somewhere more pressing. Besides, Henning’s solution does provide a certain ad hoc utility. I deploy my umbrella as I approach the mid point and listen to the pattering of droplets overlaid with the thunder of the piston above me. The smell is almost overpowering, the noise almost deafening, the steam almost blinding. Speaking of which, there was a story doing the rounds recently about an engineer from one of the outlying departments who’d had cause to visit us one day. The story goes that this unfortunate fellow took a fairly nasty burn to the back of the neck and was so panicked that he tripped on the walkway, banged his head and knocked himself spark out. I heard he’d been lying there directly under the connecting rod in the old, gummy oil, semi-conscious for most of a minute while receiving a fresh round of burns every ten seconds into the bargain. Now he was lucky not to get blinded.
At the far end of the corridor is another door, with a stand beside it. I deposit the umbrella among several others and continue on my way, through several more halls, up a flight of wooden steps (the third and fifth are the rotten ones) until at length I arrive outside the final door. A small sign on it reads “Does your foreman know you’re here?”. Obviously that’s for the lower orders of the Company. Not me. Not for engineers.
Some effort is required to open the door, as though it’s aware I’m trying to get out and would very much like to stop me, but suddenly it swings aside and the coolest, sweetest early evening air falls upon my face. There’s a breeze, the sort that always seems to trickle hither and thither along shorelines. Up here, at some height, the sound of the sea reaches me across the town; it’s not too far away. I step out and close the door, savouring the feeling of shutting in the dirt and noise behind me, and take a moment to breathe deeply and survey the view.
I’m facing towards the sea. It’s hidden, unfortunately, not by the houses and sheds of the town, because most of those are below me, but by the high encircling fence beyond them, and the cliff beyond that. It’s not a very high cliff, admittedly – ten yards, perhaps – but it’s enough to make us feel psychologically as though we’re on an island, even though we can’t see it here inside this circular fence.
There used to be an outer-outside in my life too a long time ago, but I turned my back on it along with childhood itself, although doing so was nothing I noticed or chose consciously.
I recall the sea, but now I only get to hear it.
I walk to the edge of the small metal landing upon which I stand and peer back and up. A vast, shapeless timber building blots out the sky. It occupies most of the centre of the town. Chimneys protrude here and there from it, along with spurious bits of metal and wire that must briefly have held purpose when they were placed there, but which now, thanks to the passing of time, more resemble growths that the structure has put forth by its own initiative. Sometimes I swear the place develops every now and again in some subtle way, even though no one is ever visibly at work on it. (In fact, the whole place exudes an air of almost wilful dilapidation.) My colleagues feel it too, I’m sure, although we don’t talk about it. I see them staring at things occasionally, old fragments of the building, as though they’ve only just appeared. Not something we worry ourselves with, you understand.
The weak northern sun is dipping low as I descend the metal stairs to the ground, and the air is getting cold. Normally I wouldn’t be outside so early, but this is an unusual occasion. Tonight a colleague of mine is throwing a dinner party. Reminding myself of this fills me with dread. Josephine’s coming too though, which should be interesting for her, and after all, if I’m dreading it, how on earth must she be feeling? I must hurry home. I expect she’ll be nearly ready by now. I’m always the one holding us up on the rare occasions we find somewhere to venture forth to. I’m always the one taking too long to wash. I quicken my step at the thought of taking a good hot bath. Water’s what I need, lovely cleansing water.