45. Winkle picker

“For fuck’s sake, Winkle, wake up!”
Winkle woke up.
His machine was a mess.
A mail pack had got jammed in the main feed, and dozens more were snarled up in the machinery.
Someone had hit the stop button, thankfully.
Winkle yawned, scratched himself, and slowly started to pick chewed up paper from between rollers and cogs.
This happened a lot.
Winkle had narcolepsy.
He would fall asleep at any time, anywhere.
He’d been found in the canteen, in the toilets, draped over pallets in the warehouse, snoring in cupboards.
He’d fallen asleep stood up, in the middle of a conversation.
Winkle was also a compulsive gambler.
He walked to work most days, not because he didn’t have a car, or that it might be dangerous to drive with narcolepsy, but because he’d usually blown his petrol money on the horses.
One time, when the grand national was on, he went round the factory telling everybody he was running a sweep.
None of the regular staff trusted him, but he managed to convince some contractors to buy in.
These contractors were cable pullers from Newcastle.
Cable pullers are tough as a dog’s head. It’s a brutal job.
Winkle took their money, stuck the lot on an outsider, each way.
He lost.
He had to stay off work until the cable pullers had gone back to Newcastle.
They’d have pulled his arms off, if they’d got hold of him.

This particular week, Winkle was on nights.
He had managed a rare win at the bookies over the weekend, and the petrol gauge was out of the red.
He finished his shift, clocked out, hopped in the car and drove away into the darkness of the early morning.
Down the road, turn left, drop down to the traffic lights and…
Then he woke up.
The car behind had pipped his horn, bringing Winkle back to consciousness.
He rubbed his eyes, put the car in gear, and set off.
“Didn’t see the lights change, huh?”
Winkle almost crashed with fright, and jerked his head around to look at the man sitting in the passenger seat.
He’d never seen him before in his life.
They drove across the junction in silence, the man looking calm, Winkle looking panicked and sweaty.
He was trying to think of something to say.
“Turn left here.”
Winkle jumped at the sound of the mans voice, but did as he was told.
He didn’t want to get hurt.
“Where are we going?”
His voice was dry, croaky. He didn’t sound brave.
He didn’t feel brave.
He was shitting himself.
“Take the next right up here, past the pub.”
Winkle did as he was told.
They were now in a rough area, but because it was so early, the streets were deserted.
“Pull up here.”
Winkle was shaking with fright.
The man slipped his hand inside his jacket, and Winkle squeezed his eyes shut praying that he would fall asleep before he was stabbed.
He didn’t like the sight of blood.
“how much is that?”
Winkle opened his eyes.
“On the meter. How much do I owe you?”
It suddenly dawned on Winkle what had happened.
He’d been asleep, and this guy had presumed he was a taxi waiting for a fare.
He squinted at the mileometer.
“Eight quid, mate.”
“Here’s a tenner. Keep the change.”
The man got out of the car and walked away.
Winkle let out a long, shaky sigh of relief.
He looked down at the ten pound note in his lap, and a small smile spread across his face.
Ten quid.
There was a horse running at the three thirty that afternoon.
It was a dead cert.
He rubbed his hands with glee, started the engine…
And then he woke up.
It was daylight.
Kids were kicking a football against his car.
The engine was dead.
The car door was open.
The tenner was gone.
Winkle sighed.
He got out of the car, locked the door, and started walking home, the mocking laughter of the estate kids ringing in his ears…

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