I found Reg fascinating.
Proper old school, white bread sandwiches with grey meat every single day, heavy coat whatever the weather, didn’t queue by the punch-clock but polished his print press with a rag until the final bell, Brylcreemed hair and a comb in his pocket. He always wore a shirt, pressed, and I reckon he’d have worn a tie too only ties are banned in print factories in case they slip between speeding rollers and decapitate their wearers.
He kept two rags on the go, one dry, one coated with spirit. The spirit soaked rag was used for wiping away spilled ink from the metalwork, the dry for buffing. His machine was always clean. He kept track on which rag was which by holding a rag up to his nose – he’d close his eyes and inhale, then he would lovingly buff the cyan-smeared steel till it shone.
Jock was his assistant, loading the paper while Reg ran the machine. His fastidiousness grated on Jock, who’d mutter constantly and shake his head for the full eight hour shift.
Once, I saw Reg sniffing carefully at a rag, checking for spirit. Jock lost his temper.
“It’s a fucking rag, Reg, not your wife’s knickers!!”
Reg lowered the rag from his nose. He looked shocked.
That was it. One word. Jock looked meek. He’d overstepped a mark. Reg began to polish the metalwork, the machine chattered, Jock loaded reams of paper.
Reg inked the rollers like he was icing a cake. There was love in those colours, each one carefully applied with a thick knife, even, constant, spreading to a fine film across the roller, onto the plate, then onto the paper.
At ten thirty he drank tea like it was nectar. Sipping, smacking his lips, staring upwards at the high dirty windows where you could see a sliver of sky, the only hint of the day outside.
Reg never ran his print press at full speed. Cardboard Supervisor pulled his hair out, urged Reg to speed it up, churn it out, get onto the next job, but no. Reg ran it at three quarters maximum, saving the bearings, extending roller life, never straining the motor, printing impeccably.
Then Jock came around with a tin.
“Here, Luci, we’re collecting for Reg. He retires at the end of the month.”
It came as a bit of a shock. It was like saying a bridge was retiring, or a rock was changing jobs. It didn’t sound right.
“Retiring? Why the Hell is Reg retiring? What the fuck is he going to do? He lives for that print press!”
“He’s sixty five. He can’t work on, can he? He ain’t got nothing but this place, it’s true. His wife’s a raspberry.”
“A raspberry. You know, raspberry ripple. A cripple. He has to do all sorts of shit round the house. I reckon he comes here for a break.”
“Not the most politically correct thing I’ve heard, Jock, but I get what you’re saying. Poor Reg.”
“I know, Luci. I’m a bit worried meself. It can kill a bloke, the shock of retiring. Don’t get me wrong, I reckon this place is a shit hole, but just quitting it, why, it can kill a bloke. At least you know where you are here.”
Jock looked worried too, but then he saw me watching and looked away.
“Ah, fuck it, Luci. It’s his own fault, isn’t it? You can’t let this place become everything, can you? He’s always been a boring old cunt, to be honest. He drives me fucking mental sometimes. He’s more of a machine than the fucking print press. Nah, he’s made his bed so he’ll have to fucking lig in it.”
Jock stomped away. I didn’t say anything.
As the month went on, Reg played on my mind. Even in his last days of work he never changed his routine. Rain or shine. Impeccable, unshakeable, dependable, and yeah, fairly dull.
What the fuck would he do without his routine?
It got to the point where I couldn’t take it any longer.
I had to ask him.
Reg was inking the rollers with that effortless technique of his.
He looked up, as if broken from a light trance.
“Hmm? Oh, hello Lucifer. How can I help you?”
“Don’t worry, I don’t need anything. So, you’re retiring in a day or two?”
He didn’t stop inking those rollers.
“Aye, that’s right. Two days to go.”
“Listen, Reg, I don’t really know if you’ve got any hobbies, interests, stuff like that. What are you going to do with your time off?”
Reg stopped inking, laid down the ink knife. He smiled.
“You know something? I really admire the music of Nina Simone. It really is the most wonderful sound, you know? I like being outside too. Just in the garden, I’m happy with that. I like being in the garden, with my lovely wife, listening to the music of Nina Simone. And you know something else? It will be pleasure not to have to come to a dirty old factory again, not to have to listen to the chatter of this machine again, not to have my only view of the sky through that dirty little window up there. If I’m honest, these last two days will really drag.”
He went on carefully inking the roller, left to right, right to left, and even spread across the whirring surface.
I patted his back.
“I’ll say goodbye now, Reg. I don’t reckon you’ll be visiting the factory again, will you?”
“Not if you paid me, Luci. Goodbye then.”
I walked off.
I passed Jock. He was shaking his head, staring at Reg.
“Look at that boring old fucker. I’ll give him six months.”
I didn’t say anything, just hummed a tune. Jock frowned.
“What you humming?”
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, Jock. By Nina.”