193. Could be Worse.

Past a machine and another machine, one spitting letters into a hopper, the other choked with chewed up paper and hissing like a feral beast.
Past the gaping lockers filled with tea bags and stained mugs and coffee rings, socks full of holes, tired underwear in L, XL, XXL, talcum powder and Lynx Africa, drawings from children pinned to the inside door alongside clippings of tits and arses, a calendar from 1998 with a girl from September holding open her hairy snatch on a beach, smiling, colours fading.
Past rows of filthy windows looking into forgotten workshops illuminated by flickering fluorescent tubes, machines gathering dust like defeated robots from a half forgotten invasion.
A human face.
Dead white skin, lank black hair falling over empty eyes. He sits at a battle scarred work bench littered with the detritus of a thousand makeshift repairs, his chin resting in his hand,  elbow propped amongst swarf and solder, screwdrivers and spanners. He reminds me The Thinker, a bronze sculpture by Auguste Rodin.
I sometimes wonder what The Thinker was thinking.
I wonder what Stu is thinking.
Stu is just sitting there, staring into nothing, utterly blank, not moving.
I feel a weird ache in my chest. Stu shouldn’t be here, in this factory I mean. He’s a bright lad with a lot of potential but he took a wrong turn, said yes when he should have said no and suddenly found himself trapped amongst the idiots of this world who drag you down, hold you back, convince you there is only defeat and that victory is a myth.
In the right place, amongst the right people, Stu would have thrived.
In the wrong place, amongst the wrong people, he has withered.
Now he sits with his head in his hand, thinking… what? Maybe thinking about how things might have been, had he only said no to a job that wasn’t right for him, right for anyone.
I push open the door into the workshop.
Stu doesn’t move.
I walk over to a filthy kettle, empty it. I turn a tap and let the water run clear and fill the kettle. I find two of the least cracked mugs and rinse them as best I can, drop a corner shop tea bag into each mug and scratch a couple of scoops of sugar from the bottom of a tattered bag of Silver Spoon.
A shuddering fridge holds various science projects studying stages of decay and a half bottle of full fat milk. I slop some into one cup, not mine. I learned long ago to skip milk as it was always sour, always curdled. Always.
I bring the cups over to Stu.
Stu blinks. He glances at me, glances at the mugs.
He sighs, says, “I’d love one.”
He looks down, reads the instructions on the back of a bottle he’s holding on one hand.
I shuffle the mugs in amongst the crap on the workbench. We sit in silence for a bit, silence apart from the thundering of the machines behind the grimy glass.
I try think of something to say. I remember the last time I saw Stu he mentioned that his girlfriend was pregnant.
I say, “How’s your lass doing? She’s pregnant, isn’t she?”
Stu sighs again. “Well, yeah, but no.”
“What… What do you mean?” I’m worried I might have said the wrong thing.
“We thought she was pregnant, you know? But then she went for a load of tests and it turns out she wasn’t pregnant.”
I say, “Oh.”
Stu says, “She had cancer.”
I say, “Oh fuck.”
“She was still living in Nottingham, you know? We met online and some weekends I went down there and other weekends she came up here, yeah? So she couldn’t travel so much, because of being ill, so I was finishing my shift and driving down there but she’s only got a small flat, so I’d help her out but she needed her rest so when I got her sorted out I’d drive back up here.”
“Jesus, Stu,” I said. “That’s brutal. I mean, you were really excited about the baby and then, well, this happens. Shit, it must have been really hard. I mean, really hard. How are you coping?”
Stu just shrugs. He hasn’t touched his brew. He holds the bottle down by his side now. I can tell that something isn’t right. I tread carefully.
I say, “Look, Stu, if you need to talk to anyone, you know, I’m here…”
“I was driving to Nottingham and back most nights,” he continues, like he didn’t hear me. He stares out the window but he looks like he’s staring out of a car windscreen. “Sometimes I was driving five, six hours a night. She’d lost her hair at this point and was wearing this cheap wig or a turban thing. It made her look weird. She was always tired. I did my best, did whatever I could. The thing was, the treatment wasn’t working. The cancer was spreading. There was this treatment in America that the doctors reckoned might work but it  wasn’t cheap – tens of thousands. Well… I mean, what do you do? So I remortgaged my house.”
I see the fingers of Stu’s hand whiten a little where he holds his chin, like his suddenly tightened his grip. They relax again, he sighs again.
“I gave her the money, twenty thousand. We both cried, it was pretty special. I mean, you don’t often get the chance to save someone’s life, do you? I didn’t care about the money, I only cared about her. It made me feel good, giving her the money. I wanted to. I couldn’t go with her though, to America. The treatment would take a month and I couldn’t get the time off. Besides, I couldn’t afford it. She flew out two weeks later. I didn’t hear from her much, but I expected that. The treatment made her really sick. I wrote to her every day and I did get a letter back, but that wasn’t a problem. I just wanted her to get well.”
I really don’t know what to say. It all sounds so… dark. A horrible place to be in. I’m not always on the same shift as Stu, and I know he’s had some time off lately, with stress, I heard, but fuck me, this is a stressful situation.
I ask him, “The treatment… did it work? How is she doing?”
He taps the bottle on the desk absent mindedly. “She said it worked. She was cancer free. When she came home I took her out for a meal to the best place in Nottingham. She looked so well! She caught the sun, gained a little weight. She still wore the wig but she told me her hair was growing back again. It was like, it was like coming out of a tunnel, you know? We could finally start getting on with our plans, on with our lives. Not long after that she went to the doctors, and they told her she was pregnant, really pregnant. I was amazing news.”
Amazing news, but Stu didn’t look happy.
I cautiously said, “And how did that go…”
He shook his head. “That’s when the cancer came back. She had to take more medicine and she lost the baby. We were devastated, of course, but I just wanted her to be well. I went to the bank again but couldn’t remortgage, so I put the house on the market. I sent her the money and she went back to the states. Another month.”
I’m shaking my head, flabbergasted. “Fucking hell, mate,” I pat his shoulder. He gives a small, sad smile.
“The police contacted me a week later. They had bad news.”
My stomach lurched. Oh God.
Stu glances at me. “The police had been aware of her for a while. They’d been monitoring her bank accounts, things like that. She wasn’t pregnant, never had been. She’d never had cancer. She was a confidence trickster. A crook. I wasn’t the only bloke she’d fooled. She lived with her long term boyfriend in that flat in Nottingham. Whenever I drove back to Leeds she’d give him a ring to let him know the coast is clear. She was just cutting her hair short and sticking a wig on top.”
I feel a bit sick. You hear about these stories on telly, but him telling me like this, it was just grim.
I say, “What about… what about America?”
Stu shakes his head. “She went to Disneyland with her boyfriend for a month. Twice. No wonder she looked tanned and healthy. She’d been swanning around Magic Mountain with her fella while I was worrying myself sick here in this shit hole. Honestly, Luci, shit just happens to me. I’m a jinx. A Jonah. Bad news.”
I shake my head. “No, mate. Don’t think that. Things look shit, I know, but it’ll get better. Maybe they’ll recover some money from that rotten bitch – she might have some of your money in the bank…”
“No. She’s disappeared. Did a flit, no-one has a clue. They reckon she might be in Spain but they aren’t really looking too hard. I lost everything.”
I try not to look to hard at the bottle in his hand but I’m starting to worry. He hasn’t touched his tea. I start to think I should say something, tell someone, but the door opens and Bear walks in. Bear is the maintenance manager, he’s Stu’s boss. Bear is carrying a Black & Decker jigsaw. He walks over to us, looks at the mugs of tea.
I whisper to Bear, “Stu hasn’t touched his brew.”
Bear looks at Stu. “Have you told him?”
Stu shakes his head. Bear sighs. He picks up the mug and gently lifts it to Stu’s mouth. He drinks, some tea dribbling down his chin and across his fingers. He doesn’t move his hand.
Bear puts down the mug, plugs in the jigsaw and fires it up. He then proceeds to cut through the workbench. A few lads from the shop floor hustle in, pissing themselves laughing.
Bear carefully cuts the workbench around Stu’s arm until the piece of wood falls away… firmly attached to Stu.
Stu sighs. The lads are crying laughing now.
Stu holds up the hand holding the bottle. I can now see that it once contained Superglue.
Stu’s hand is firmly glued to his chin, his arm firmly glued to the bench, his hand firmly glued to the empty bottle.
Bear slaps him on the back and pulls him to his feet. “Come on, lad. Let’s have you down A&E and get this shit off you.”
I splutter, “How the fuck did you manage that, Stu??”
He sighs one more time. “Like I say, Luci – shit just happens to me. I’m a jinx. I’m bad luck.”
Bear laughs. “It could be a fuck of a lot worse!”
I say, “How??”
Bear lumbers out of the door, pushing the incapacitated Stu ahead of him.
Bear shouts over his shoulder, “He could have tried to take a piss before the glue set!”


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