The Life of Henry Fuckit
35 Henry's first day at the Dockyard
In a slow hand, well-rounded and striding forward, Alf Whitehead wrote out the timetable for the day. For every day.
"There are nine intervals, either end of each being announced by The Sirens. That makes ten times a day that The Sirens sound." He looked at his watch. "In about half an hour we'll hear the 9.30 siren. That's when we take a half hour tea break."
Henry was puzzled. He was seated behind his new desk in the office that he was to share with Senior Stores Officer Mr Alf Whitehead. Mr Whitehead was standing at the window looking down on the Dockyard through the large expanse of glass.
"But we've been reading the paper, drinking coffee and chatting since I arrived this morning. I don't understand, when do we start work?"
The storeman, a portly man in his early fifties with receding grey hair and an upper lip which, over the years, had been allowed to run wild and was now covered with a huge tangle of overgrown moustache, turned to look at Henry, his face suddenly rendered grim by a veil of non-comprehension. Then the light of understanding returned, he snorted and resumed his contemplation of the naval scene.
"You're very new here. It's quite natural that it will take you a little while to acquire our way of seeing the world. There's a lot to learn. You see, to start with, it doesn't matter what we actually do, it's when we do it. Between 7.30 and 9.30 we work. If we choose to drink a cup of coffee in that interval, then it's work."
"But…" Henry remained nonplussed. "I mean, how do we justify it?"
"Good God, boy! Justify it?! If you can't justify it there's no hope for you. You shouldn't be here. You shouldn't be on the planet." He paused, trying to control his impatience. "Look, if we are drinking coffee it's because we're testing a victual. Commander Wolfaart has complained about the freshness, or staleness, of the instant coffee. We are conducting tests on different batches of Nescafe to determine which one it is that fails to meet naval standards. We are consulting the newspaper in order to find out when that French freighter will be docking in Cape Town - you know how urgently the shipment of submarine parts is required. We are in conversation because I am briefing you on important matters concerning the efficient running of this store. Get it? Really, if you can't justify your existence then you are bereft of imagination. But don't worry, I'm sure you don't fit into that pitiful category. You'll soon pick it up and become adept in…"
A telescope on a tripod stood before the big window and he now began a slow sweep of the open sea beyond the harbour walls. "Ah, here he comes. Should be back in time for tea."
"Bergson. Mr Bergson is very fitness conscious. Goes for a two kilometre swim three times a week, come rain or shine, summer and winter."
"Jeez, isn't he worried about sharks?"
"He doesn't swim from here, for Goodness sake!" He was appalled at the suggestion. "The harbour water's filthy. No, he gets taken in a naval launch out into open waters and is accompanied all the time he is swimming!"
Henry was struggling to see how the Director of Stores was able to justify this activity but he decided to refrain from questioning Whitehead further.
"Come and take a dekko at The Sirens. The light's catching them nicely. Yes, you'll soon become adept in the appropriate use of your faculties."
Henry got up and stooped before the telescope. From behind the Heavy Plate Shop a steel tower soared two hundred feet into the air. He found the tower, focussed, and then followed the latticework upward to the clock-face.
"The siren's inside the clock."
Atop the timepiece was a platform on which stood the famous statuary. The two female forms, mythological mutants, half bird, half woman, were naked above their feathered tails and legs.
For several minutes he examined them in the minutest detail. "You know, there's something familiar..."He straightened up and turned to his new boss.
Whitehead was standing with hands behind his back surveying the activity on the ground. He spoke a little absentmindedly: "They're modelled partly on the 4th century BC Dipylon statues in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Also partly on Playmate of the Year for 1964 and 1967."
"Of course! How could I forget?! I must've masturbated a hundred times to both centrefolds. Gee, I can't wait to hear the siren sounding. Five minutes. Hope it's not an anti-climax."
"Yes, it's an impressive sound. A pretty basic mechanical device - consists of a disc with evenly spaced holes around its periphery. Rotated at high speed it interrupts at regular intervals a jet of compressed air driven through an orifice, resulting in a succession of puffs of air. When the number of puffs per second, governed by the speed of the rotating disc, is sufficiently large to produce the required periodic sound wave, we experience the characteristic acoustical effect." Henry sat on the corner of his desk, one sandalled foot swinging back and forth as he watched the minute hands of the clock move closer to 9.30. Whitehead's voice had become matter-of-fact, almost apathetic. "You know, The Sirens have come to control our lives and without them our lives would be destroyed by Chaos. They are the tyrannical Keepers of Time and measure out our fate with exact precision. The precision with which they measure out our fate, so tyrannically, is absolutely essential and, essentially, there can be no doubt…" Henry was beginning to notice this manner he had of leaving his thoughts unfinished, then reboarding the train a little later and finishing the journey with a careless burst of speed. "Yes, the precision with which time is measured is of concern to all but no more so than to the likes of us. It could be said that we are students of time. Some of us are professors of time. Time can be said to flow like a river, a constant stream that is instantly beyond reach, and without recourse to… Good God! Don't tell me that monkey has reversed our forklift into the dry dock!"
The Central Store was a large four-storey building situated in a line with East Gate and slightly elevated on a slope above the dry dock and the two rows of workshops which flanked it. Ground Floor received and distributed stores and often buzzed with activity. Heavy trucks arrived laden with crates, forklifts did the offloading, and parcels and packages were manhandled onto the DY Stores Van for delivery around the yard. A score of men scurried about under the supervisory glares and shouts of the Chief Receiving Officer and the Chief Despatch Officer. The building was serviced by a windowless concrete staircase and two lifts. The large heavy-duty cargo lift was for Stores and non-Whites while the smaller 'Whites Only' lift was for the exclusive use of the administrative staff who occupied the top floor. It was there on the Third Floor that tons of documentation (five carbon copies of everything) were processed each week. First Floor and Second Floor carried the bulk of stock items packed into endless miles of numbered racks and bins. The Senior Stores Officer, Central Store (Whitehead), and the Assistant Stores Officer, Central Store (Fuckit), occupied a wood and glass office at one end of the Second Floor. It was spacious enough for two desks, one large (Whitehead's), one small (Fuckit's), two office chairs - one fully-reclining executive (Whitehead's), one standard clerical (Fuckit's) - a steel filing cabinet, and a free-standing rack for stationery. On the far wall behind Whitehead's desk hung a portrait of the State President - an aged farmer with brutish features photographed in his Sunday best. To the left of the President was a Goodyear Tyres calendar with all the weekends and public holidays ringed in red. To the right was a placard with a message in Skeletal Roman capitals:
Of course there was a clock. The expanse of glass before which Whitehead was standing faced out over the dry dock and the quays, the breakwater and the Eastern Mole, across the ruffled bay to the mountains. In the opposite corner of the Second Floor were toilets and a washroom. Nearby, hidden behind some racks, were six lockers and a trestle table with two benches: it was here that the labourers, four monkeys and two baboons, had their tea breaks and lunch.
"Good God! The bloody monkey must have been an inch short of the edge! Better not let that ape Kloppers see him." Henry had already gleaned that, in Whitehead's vocabulary, monkeys were Coloureds, apes were Afrikaners, baboons were Blacks, and all three were regarded with evenhanded disdain. "As I was saying, before I was so rudely distracted, time can be considered to flow like a river. Now, if we accept this analogy as a point of departure, we find ourselves faced with a conundrum. Are we afloat and moving with the current, or are we on the bank? To put it another way, is time a duration in which we experience life, or is time a succession of instants marked by the ticking of a clock?"
"Fucked if I know." Henry, about to sit down again after jumping up to witness the disaster, was disappointed that the forklift hadn't gone over the edge. "Hey, is that it? Jesus!" Again he was on his feet. It began with a moan and rose in strident overtones to a tormented screeching wail that sent shivers up and down his spine. Then it fell and died away with a despairing groan.
At one past three, after the siren marking the end of the afternoon tea break, Henry rose to his feet and restlessly strode up and down in a state of nervous agitation before the window. Abruptly he came to a halt in front of Whitehead's desk. The older man had just started Cities of the Plain, the seventh volume of Marcel Proust's 'In Remembrance of Things Past'. He looked up in mild irritation.
"It's absolutely essential that we get some clarity on my position here. Right at the outset I must make my attitude quite clear and you must then tell me whether you think I can be accommodated."
"Damn it! There'll definitely be no room for accommodation if you persist in interrupting my concentration. This is an important document. I can always have you transferred, you know. Well, alright. What is it?"
Henry dragged up a chair and sat down before his senior, his folded arms on the desk in front of him, his knees bumping the other man's. Rapidly Whitehead reversed about a foot or so. "I suffer from a debilitating disease." He said it with such intensity that Whitehead felt compelled to press a button on the arm of his chair and go into a forty-five degree recline. "Don't worry, it's not contagious. It manifests itself as an allergic reaction and I experience increasingly acute bouts of nausea, sweating and panic attacks. The observable symptoms are somatic but the existentialist anguish is entirely psychological."
"And do they know what causes this disease? What brings on this allergic reaction?" Whitehead had a healthy interest in diseases, especially in those of the mind.
"The aetiology has never been investigated and consequently the cause is unknown. However, evidence suggests a functional disturbance of hypothalamic equilibrium. As to what brings on the attacks themselves there can be no doubt whatsoever. It is the contemplation of a routine existence - the logic of which, once deciphered, is usually so banal as to induce in one a feeling of revulsion - it is this appalling prospect of passing one's days, hours, seconds in the unending pursuit of a hollow inanity which gives rise to the horrible symptoms. Do I make myself clear? Do you understand? Do you realise that if you required me to do even half an hour's work fiddling about with bits of paper relating to Naval Stores, waves of disgust and self-loathing would soon have me shaking like a leaf and vomiting on the floor? HAVE YOU ANY IDEA WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT?"
Henry shouted the last sentence angrily for Whitehead was staring at him in goggle-eyed astonishment.
"Yes, yes, yes. Understand? Do I understand?" He jerked upright from his reclining position and spurred his executive chair up to the desk. Leaning forward, his face was thrust aggressively towards Henry's. "Haven't you been listening, boy? Are you defective in sight and hearing as well as intellect? God, give me strength!" And with this prayer he sank back, his face flopping like a badly beaten sponge cake. Alarmed, Henry sprang to his feet and hastened to the bottom right hand drawer of his desk in search of emergency medical supplies. He had had the foresight to bring with him in the plastic carrier bag, along with his lunch, a two-litre Wittzenberg jar of Vrotters laced with brandy. It was still more than half full and after taking a long swig - what assistance could he render if he too were to fall down faint? - he splashed a small quantity of the life-giving liquid into the slack mouth behind the bushy moustache. Whitehead spluttered, gulped, coughed and then burped.
"What is that stuff? I'm going to stink like an old dronkie just crawled out of the gutter." Henry took another swig, put the jar back and resumed his seat. "Don't ever do this to me again; I haven't the constitution for it. Now, I'm going to explain the way things work here, in plain and simple language, and then I never want to discuss it again. I'm surprised Mr Bergson didn't make it quite clear to you."
"I've never even spoken to the man. Let alone met him. Don't really know who or what he is."
"Well, goodness gracious me! We've both been labouring under a misapprehension. Can't understand how this has happened, but at least it now makes sense." Whitehead was visibly relieved and his manner towards his new assistant became far more affable.
"You see, us Dockyard Storemen are a rare breed. Mr Bergson, the Director of Stores, in collaboration with that pervert Captain Nelson, is very particular about the selection of suitable personnel. The wrong type of personality could cause mayhem. Imagine if you enjoyed doing a good job, were ambitious, hard-working, couldn't abide slovenliness and sloth, believed in productivity and efficiency, and followed a strict moral code which forbade the squandering, misuse, destruction or misappropriation of Naval resources. The consequences would be disastrous for the rest of us. No, what caused the little misunderstanding between us was the fact that no one has explained that you are not expected to do any work. You mustn't think of this as a job - rather, it's an interesting pastime, a hobby. You are going to be paid, not very much, admittedly, but you are going to be paid a liveable salary nevertheless, and in return the only requirement is that you heed the call of The Sirens."
Henry was still not quite convinced. "So you think I'm the right material, do you?"
"I most certainly do. Just look at you. You couldn't care less about your appearance, for a start. Long matted hair, heavy shapeless beard. Shorts, T-shirt, sandals, and there's a hole in your pullover - that's your idea of dressing for work. You are intelligent, well-read, offensively curious about everything, highly imaginative and an easy liar. Your morals are loose, you are disrespectful and you are irreligious. Correct me if I'm wrong."
"Spot on so far. You're a good judge of character, I can see that. So I'm of suitable calibre, am I? But what worries me is the possibility of boredom. How is it possible to cultivate one's intellect, one's free spirit, cooped up in this little hok of an office day in and day out?"
Whitehead gestured in a wide arc towards the window, then got to his feet. He stood looking out, his hands behind his back, right hand clasping left thumb.
"Have you ever been on the bridge of a ship, Fuckit?"
"Actually, yes. About a year ago I applied for the position of first mate on an oil tanker that had docked in Cape Town. The incumbent officer had been admitted to hospital with liver failure."
"First mate? I didn't know you were in the Merchant Navy."
"Neither did I. Anyway, the interview was conducted by the Captain up on the bridge. Very high up on an oil tanker - helluva good view. Didn't get the post, of course. Started asking me all sorts of tricky questions. I could see he didn't believe I had been second officer on the Queen Mary and began to get all technical, attempting to trip me up with the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea. He caught me on a trifling technicality: for the life of me I couldn't remember the correct relationship between red lights and green lights, port and starboard, left and right. Ended up threatening to have me pumped ashore if I wasn't off his filthy ship in two minutes. PUMPED ashore! Cheeky bastard."
"Alright, be that as it may. So you have an idea of the commanding view one gets from the bridge. Well, when I stand here looking out, I often feel I'm on the bridge of a great ocean-going vessel. I can survey the entire Dockyard, all of Simon's Bay, the sweep of mountains right round to Muizenberg and to the east a large expanse of False Bay. I mark the sun's passage across the sky and the infinite variety of colour and light. I watch the seasons come and go, I never tire of the ever-changing weather. Sometimes in summer the wind drops away in the night and the morning is calm and the cool breath of the sea wafts up to me. The sun glistens on the ripples like on the scales of a fish and the smoke form Marine Oil Refinery rises straight up before gently drifting away. Then in winter I watch the dark clouds massing on the mountains and feel the mighty northwester begin to buffet the building. Whitecaps are everywhere, spray is in the air and the sea heaps up. The edges of waves break into spindrift and foam is driven in long streaks. I see the stone pines and the tall cypresses above Glencairn cemetery bending and buckling, seabirds are hurled past like scraps of paper and the air is filled with the roar of the wind." Whitehead had straightened his shoulders, inflated his chest and was breathing deeply.
"Sounds like Force Nine or Ten on the Beaufort Scale." Henry shared the man's appreciation of the elements and was already looking forward to monitoring the weather from this vantage point. "It must be exhilarating up here in a storm. And then you've also got your telescope. I suppose you watch all the ships coming and going."
"Yes, but I'm afraid there's not much of that any more, now that the Royal Navy no longer calls here. Our tin-pot fleet can hardly be called a navy. I've seen some hilarious examples of bad seamanship though - really entertaining. No, I use the telescope mainly to study human behaviour. There are a lot of men working in this dockyard and there's a lot of strange goings-on to be followed. I can spend hours at a time engrossed in the scurrying and scuttling, clambering, creeping and crawling of artisans and labourers, not to mention sailors and officers." And so saying he fixed his eye on something taking place in the Dry Dock. The SAS Kruger had been brought in for a refit early that morning and the pumps had nearly completed their task of emptying out the dock. A sizeable crowd of men had gathered on the caisson and adjacent quaysides. All were looking downward in rapt concentration.
"Mr Fuckit, open the window, lean out and give one long and two short blasts on this whistle, will you?" Intrigued, Henry obliged. The crowd looked up and then all looked down again. Except for one man with a clipboard. He hastily wrote and then held up the message for Whitehead to read. "Ah, excellent! A shoal of mackerel - wonderful fish on the coals, if they're freshly caught, in good condition. Let's get down there chop-chop and get one of the monkeys to clean a few for me."
"So you don't have to stay in the store all day? You can go out if you want to?" They were in the Whites Only lift descending to ground level.
"Good God!" Whitehead couldn't quite believe the extent of Henry's ignorance. "Some days, many days, I don't spend more than ten minutes in Central Store. The Dockyard consists of one hundred microcosms, each with a fascinating life of its own. I tell you, you'll never be bored here." They emerged from the building and strode briskly towards the far end of the Dry Dock. Already they could see the men in the shallow water beneath the buttressed, propped and stayed frigate. They were scooping up the flashing silver bodies into plastic crates and stacking them on the wide concrete step that ran round the bottom of the dock. As they approached the crowd at the quayside Whitehead spoke again. "Tomorrow morning I'm going to give you an introduction to the structure and function of a naval dockyard as well as a general outline of stores control and where you will fit into the system. I must warn you though that certain parts of my presentation will contain material likely to cause offence and induce emotional distress. I suggest you pop into a pharmacy on your way home tonight and get yourself an anti-emetic, something like Avomine or Stemetil, just to see you through the morning."
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