Stepping into the plate room is like stepping into another dimension, similar to our own but somehow…flawed.
There’s a subterranean feel to the place, a dark industrial grotto where nothing is quite right.
The faintly acrid odour of developer and fixer in the warm damp air, a constant hiss of idling compressors, the tartrazine light leeching colour, depth, life.
Stacks of wafer thin aluminium plates hide in brown paper packets, awaiting their exposure to the brilliant blue light that will change them forever, give them a brief few hours of glory on the presses before they are discarded, crushed, recycled, reborn.
Kegs of clear chemicals on the stained linoleum by the developing machines, a faint whiff of piss and and a strange brown fluid dribbling from a cracked tank lends a feeling of incontinence to the place.
A neglected abandonment.
One of the yellow fluorescent tubes flickers.
It has flickered for days.
Fading amber plastic covers to the windows, warding off the offending ultra violet side of the spectrum – only the infra red is welcome in the plate room.
Decades of dead flies on the window sills, carefully clipped articles from the York newspapers on the walls.
Press clippings of football glories that have been dead longer than the flies.
Parchment-like newspapers bearing dates from before my birth.
In the plate room the brightest colour is yellow, the darkest colour is black.
In between, in the sepia shadows, something moves.
A frail figure crouches over a murmuring radio.
A pair of rusty pliers are there to change the station, but they are never needed.
A twisted coat hanger for an aerial, picking up the results from York, Doncaster, Cheltenham, Aintree.
Weasel listens, then scribbles in the margins of his Racing Post.
His fingernails are bitten to stumps.
His handwriting is a beautiful flowing script, written in cheap biro.
Weasel’s skin is the texture of his paper clippings, the colour of the plastic on the windows.
He puts down his pen and delves into a bag of broken biscuits from the market, pops one into his mouth, crunches carefully with weak teeth.
He picks up his pen and scribbles again; names, odds, riders, trainers.
The plate room is his world, but that battered radio brings him the thunder of hooves and screams of ‘goal’ from the Outside.
“Brought you a cup of tea, Weasel.”
He ignores me.
“Three sugars and full fat milk, just how you wanted.”
Weasel frowns, scribbles something about Haydock Park.
I leave him to his notes, the static murmurs, broken biscuits.
As the door closes behind me, I hear Weasel.
Always the same.
Creeping through the stygian gloom with paper thin sheets of metal for the presses, squatting in the shadows, listening, scribbling.
But he did change.
He go thinner.
I brought Weasel his tea, saw his gaunt cheeks, more gaunt than usual.
Thin, sinewy wrists that reminded me of the dried reptilian ankles of overcooked poultry.
“Here’s your tea, Weasel.”
He wasn’t writing in his paper.
The radio was on, the paper spread out.
But he wasn’t writing.
“You alright, Weasel?”
“Tired. Just tired.”
He looked more than tired.
He looked ill.
I sat next to him.
Thought of something to say.
“The pension bloke is in this week, Weasel. Why don’t you see him? See what your options are?”
He shook his head.
“No point. I don’t have a pension.”
That shocked me.
Here’s a man in his fifties, worked all his life, no pension.
“How come you don’t have a pension?”
“I won’t see retirement. None of my family have. I’ve got life insurance, you know, to make sure the wife is looked after, but I’ve no need for a pension.”
He said it quietly, calmly.
“My old man, he used to drink in the club at the end of our street. He’d leave work, walk past our house and tap on the front window to let mi mother know she should put tea on. Tap tap tap. Just like that. Mi mother’d look out for him, listen for that tap, then she’d put the chops on and boil the spuds, ready for when he got in. One day, he tapped, and she got cooking, but he never come home. She sent me up the street to fetch him, but when I saw the copper and the ambulance I knew he were dead. He’d gone up to the bar in the club, ordered his pint, and the lass pulled it, but when she looked up he’d disappeared. She looked over the bar and there he was, laid out, dead.”
“Bloody Hell, Weasel. That’s hard.”
“It’s how it is. I’d rather go like that than with something like cancer. That’s what did mi mother, and mi brother went with a bad heart. It’s in the family. We don’t live long, our lot.”
I didn’t know what to say.
Six months later, Weasel put down his pen, switched off his radio and told Soulless Boss he was going home, he felt ill.
They ran the tests, took blood and urine.
Turns out it was cancer.
They put him on chemotherapy.
While Weasel got treatment, I made plates.
I entered his world.
Reprography is a fairly isolated job, but platemaking is like solitary confinement.
Hour after hour, day after day, the hiss of the compressor, the flash of blue light through the yellow air as plate after plate is exposed, developed, punched, stacked.
Cyan, magenta, yellow, black.
I turned to the radio for company.
Listened to the cryptic names of horses.
While the plates exposed and developed I’d sit in the shadows, listen to the click and whirr of machines, hear through static the hooves on turf.
I’d try not to look at his shoes.
Weasel always changed his shoes when he got to work.
Took off one pair of black shoes, put on an identical pair of black shoes.
The black shoes lurked by the desk, pining for they’re owner.
Not knowing if they’d ever be worn again.
I wasn’t going to try them on.
Weasel came in to visit.
He looked thin, weak, but fairly chipper.
The treatment was working.
Everyone was pleased.
They patted him on the back, speculated on when he might want to start work again.
I didn’t say anything.
I remembered what he had told me, about his family, about his dad.
On his way home he passed through the plate room.
Nodded to me.
“See you later, Lucifer.”
“Yeah, see you, Weasel.”
I didn’t see him again.
The cancer hadn’t gone.
It had only been gathering it’s forces inside his slight frame.
It always amazed me that something so powerful can be raging in such a feeble body.
The disease consumed him, stripped him to nothing, ate him from the inside.
It made me wish that he had died at a bar somewhere, waiting for a pint.
Eventually the word came round.
I went into the plate room, turned off the radio with the pliers, stared at those shoes.
I picked up the shoes, unplugged the radio.
I put them in the back a forgotten cupboard and locked the door.
Took the key.
Then I went to see Soulless Boss.
“I’m not doing plate making anymore.”
I returned to my computer in the corner of the white painted studio, in the light, in the cold air conditioning, in the silence.
And started to type.
Blog North Awards
The stories I hear.
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