by Sarah Smith
Apprenticed at fourteen; he never minded the early starts. Mornings, he shrugged his jacket on and pocketed his piece box. At the corner of Braehead Cottages and Mid Street, he wrapped his muffler close to his throat. Salt winds flew furiously from the links – coursed along vennels to smart his face – a tireless dawn ambush.
In the factory, blue overalls hung loose on a wiry frame; lavvy-brush hair and jug-ears stuck out in permanent surprise. He studied the older men, deep in concentration at their workbenches, paunches solidifying. They taught him to gouge, whittle splinters from slabs of wood, layer each colour anew. Showed him how to inlay brass rods and pins, to coax and guide the design.
The blockcutter learned his trade. Entombed by day inside the linoleum work’s redbrick edifice, he filled his lungs with North Sea scour when the factory gates haemorrhaged men at the end of each shift. The blockcutter paid his dues – ducked into public houses, stole behind warehouses – every week, a surreptitious shilling to the union.
Summer after summer burned out. In the trades’ fortnight, the blockcutter packed his haversack. Hiked with his pals, cooked fish on an open fire, bedded down beneath canvas. Inhaled woodlands of pine.
Under leaden skies, he trained with the local harriers in the evenings and at weekends. Thin gutties slapped the ground, greasy cobbles giving way to clifftop paths on the Ravens’ Craig. Exhausted afterwards, the local freesheet pinned him down, arms folded over his numbered bib in the team photographs. A ribboned medal that he lacked the funds to get engraved.
From noise and filth and stench great rolls of linoleum issued forth. Covering the floors of Europe and America. Spreading out – a new modernity – the same patterns repeated in tenements, terraces, bungalows. The blockcutter watched as streets were named for powerful men. Heard success toasted on whisky breath in oak-panelled boardrooms.
Today, a few of the old blocks have been dusted down; moved before the linoleum works were demolished. They hang, reverentially, in the foyer of the former office buildings. Luxury apartments now; each one with its own generous parking space off the wide, gravelled driveway.
Sarah Smith’s writing has been published in New Writing Scotland 30 & 34, 50GS, Leaf Books, Duality, Gilded Dirt and From Glasgow to Saturn. She has an MLitt (Distinction) in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow and a New Writers Award (2019) from the Scottish Book Trust. She blogs at sarahsmithwriter.wordpress.com and tweets @truesarahsmith.
Photo provided by the author.
Audio read by the author.