Paul Tobin has kindly submitted a piece of work for reading. It would be great if as many as possible could give it a read and make some helpful comments. It’s quite a long piece, but there are several scene breaks, so you can dip in and out if you don’t have time to read the whole thing in one go. Lots of support for both Paul, and the blog would be brilliant.
” It began with a phony chop. I know that these days such things are relatively unimportant. People pay prime, for the organic and the scientifically grown – then the top pound was for Chinese, so you needed a chop. Oh, I see, you don’t know what a chop was? It was what a gentleman used to sign documents, to seal papers, rather like a Tory signet ring, but older and, let’s face it classier. Oh, you’ve not heard of a signet ring either, no matter.
Well a chop is, was, usually made of ivory, soap stone will do at a pinch but when you’re making bricks, genuine pu’erh bricks – “my dear boy-just look at that chop indentation-fairly screams quality,” but you need machine quality steel. No, not mild steel, it will pit too easily. Listen if you’re going to go to the trouble of getting a chop made then pay the extra-you can always sell it after the job, if you have to.
Anyway I had a design, knocked it up myself, from memory. Time was when you could get the real thing pu’erh by the chest full. Not like today…
It was mainly straight lines. These are relatively simple on a shaping machine, if you can find a halfway decent turner to operate the brute for you. Yes, I have some experience, I once ran a machine shop in Jakarta, before it fell, but that is another story.
I knew what I wanted I just didn’t know who could help me. I walked down between the docks and the edge of the city. Near the Unbalanced land I thought I’d found what I was after, a small place. Fading paint on the sign. McNulty & Son, Engineering established 1936.
I’m talking about ’56, or there abouts, this place didn’t look as if it had been painted since the elder McNulty had taken it over. You can tell when a machine shop is on the slide. It’s quite easy, rust. Yes, rust. If the place is doing well then there is no time for the material to oxidise. Delivered, turned and out the front door as swift as the wind. Here I could see there was some bar mild steel in the yard and that was flaking with red rust.
I was hazarding a guess that since & Son had taken over business was none too brisk. The machine shop was silent for one thing, it was eleven thirty in the morning and the place should have been humming. Flat belt drives turning, the old capstan lathe spinning on a high rev, while on a super slow feed a tungsten bit cut a buttress thread. The coolant splashing the swarf to the lathe bed. Ah, here I am reminiscing for the old days back in Jak, this won’t get the pigs in as my grandfather Walter used to say.
I need intelligence, so I made for the local pub. That’s right, back in the 50’s there were still some licensed premises about. I know they didn’t have long, once the mighty Dragon fell it all changed and not for the better.
It was called the Queens Arms. Yes, a strange name indeed. Refers to the coat of arms, toffs in the heydays of the Tory Misrule would have their coat of arms painted on their shield and on the livery of the common soldiers. The ones who died in their scores so the Tories could lord it over us. Just swopped one bad master for another if you ask me. I know you don’t want to hear politics, you want to hear about the phony chop.
It was a dirty. An ill lit place. I surveyed the bar and settled for a pint of bitter. Never drink halves the working man will not take you seriously if you do. It doesn’t matter how well you know their trade, if you can’t drink a pint, and then another one, you’re effete and you’ve lost their respect.
The barman had one of those faces you don’t see so much these days, their owners are usually in re-education camps. The red nose and the broken veins that colour their cheeks means they bear the mark of their Sin. They are always the first to be rounded up, poor buggers.
I bought this one a pint of his best ale and over that and the next one he told me about the area. Essential war work, the ships and the factories needed these small engineering firms to machine spare parts. Keep the war effort on track. The grin on his face told you everything you needed to know. As long as he could have a bevie when he liked he didn’t care about who slaughtered whom.
I kept him talking, feeding him the right reply. Trouble was he continued since all that’s left is China the work has got less. Bloody long way away, China. Doesn’t help the men round here, they need work too.
Take Jack McNulty. Who I asks, no interested. The bloke what owns the nearest workshop, good turner, they tell me he’s an even better draught’s man, but can he find work? Can he heck as like. Lays off the men, next thing he’ll be selling the machines one by one. Death by a thousand little defeats. Not right, not right at all.
There, I had all the information I needed, and all for the cost of a couple of pints of execrable beer. I paid the man and left wiser than I had entered.
Now how to play McNulty? I was not confident of the direct approach: “Hello my man, I see you are on your uppers, I have a proposition. Make me this chop.” No, he could stave off the debtors with the purse he’d get from The Church for turning me in.
I needed a different tack. By the time I had watched three cargo barques sail up the delta I had my strategy.
There was no one in the office. The lone pine desk was piled with paper. I did not bother to glance at the demand notes but moved through to the workshop. It was as you would expect, three lathes, one a large capstan, nice machines, especially the capstan. Two shaping machines, big brutes, they were just what I needed. Considering the parlerous state of McNulty’s finances I was pleased to see the machines were all oiled and looked well maintained. None of them were new but they had been well looked after.
Them machines ain’t for sale, says this voice behind me, more Lancashire, as was, than Fenian. I turn, smiling. I can assure you sir, I am not in the market for purchasing them, well maintained as they are. No sir, I am looking for a skilled turner.
He snorts, tells me I must be the only person on the delta who is and what is it I would be needing a skilled tradesman to do?
I looked into those eyes, half disbelieving, half hungry and thought I have the measure of this man. There was a pause, I weighed up my alternatives, and began. I am an importer, essentially a middle man. I ensure that things from there reach here safely and that a reasonable profit is made by the sender and the deliverer, as well as there being something in it for me. However, at times, things do not prove to be as simple…
The space hung between us, thick, silent, close for a March day. I looked into those eyes, I fancied I could see the hunger swallowing the disbelief.
He spoke: “If it’s not the buying of a machine then exactly what is that you are looking for?” I had him. Desperate times make for strange companions.
I move my hands, an outward gesture. “A small job, a mere bagatelle to a skilled turner like yourself. I need something manufactured. Shaped to my design and no questions asked. Cash of course, half up front.” I draw a wad of notes from my pocket. I’m not a violent man, for me it’s the first move of the stupid and the last of the incompetent. I live outside of the law, in the places where you must be honest to survive. I thought I had McNulty’s measure.
I need a chop I tell him. So big, nickel steel, or vanadium, matters little, but, with the lettering clear enough to imprint.
He nods his head. Eyes calculating, the manufacture, the money, the ghost of a chance I’m The Church. Never happens. There are enough sinners out there, recidivists to a man, The Church don’t need to resort to the flim-flam. Civilians like McNulty don’t realise this. It helps The Church keep the sheep in line. I watch the money eat all doubt out of his eyes. The window to the soul eh, McNulty’s was an overdrawn bank account.
What’s that involve he says, cutting to the chase, no preamble about what a chop is, just tell me the processes. Easy, I smile, machined square, two and a half by two and a half, say three and a half, four long. The real work is the design in one end. It needs to look like this. I pull out a rice paper design. Not that easy I think, difficult but not impossible for a trained turner.
I can do most of it on the shaper, but this curve here, he points, will take the time. Does it have to be a curve? Can’t it be a line, like this, hand moves diagonally over the paper? No, I reply. When you are working with tradesmen you have to quell that impulse they have to make to make the job simple. Remember, you have the ideas, the concept, machine monkeys, like McNulty, have the skills to make it work. It’s your vision not theirs.
He shrugged, said it would be expensive. I had him. The need for lucre, the lure of the puzzle, both had snared him. He’d not worked in a long time and this would tax his skill. I was beginning to understand how he had got in this state. Lots of talk on technique but not a word on the price.
Then as if he was reading my mind, he tells me it’ll cost. Now, this is the time to play it close. If you shrug and say alright, then they will assume you have unlimited finance. They will work the head and jack up the cost, so much for this, extra for that. How much are you thinking?
He pauses, then verbalises his reckoning, so much the steel, so much the shaping, so much the finishing, stops looks at me. I interject at that point. Let’s round it up, say twenty five? This wrong foots him, he thinks I’ll query the accounting. In reality he’s cheaper than I had allowed for. I pull out the money, half now, half on completion. He nods. We shake. His had is rough and dry and his grip faltering. I can almost feel him adding it up, a fortnight’s wages for one of his workmen, if he had any. Easy money…
Then he asks the question, when do I need it by? I smile, there’s no time like the right time, I tell him, and that time is now. Shock and surprise cover his face. Why wait I continue, you’ve no jobs on, I need the chop and you need the cash. And you won’t have the chance to sell me out I silently add.
There is a pause, then a shrug, and its all business. What about this rod? Mild steel will pit my man; I need vanadium. What’s in the metal store? Surprise again, he hadn’t pegged me as a manufacturer, more a middle man on the skim.
Takes the keys at his belt, I follow him into the workshop and a small door, steel shod, shiny, strong, secure. He sparks the carbide lamp and in the light we see a fair collection of steel, a brass screw at least seven inches across, lovely work. He holds a nickel bar, before I get the measure of his stock, tells me it’ll cut quicker and is nearly as strong. I know this, hold out for thirty seconds while I clock the contents, this is the nearest, it’ll do.
I like to watch a skilled man work. There is an economy of effort, no action is wasted and he has a knowledge of his trade that imbues him with patience. For example, he keeps the bar long, though shorter it would be an easier fit on the marking out table. Checks with me that the details of the design, that chop need not be square to ten thou. The feel is all I tell him, it needs to look the business. So that means clear lines, the character even, precise.
He nods, sets to it. The shaper’s cutting arm begins to removes metal. Swarf curls off the bit, he lubricates from a small can. There is power here, naked, implacable strength. The sort that has battered the world into the pattern, it thinks in its delusion, is the real world. Ah, I see, you understand that this metaphor is The Church conquering the world. Yes, I know I said no more politics, but this is my story.
Suffice to say McNulty makes the chop. It was as good as I needed, better in fact, and that set me thinking but more of that later.
I pays him the remainder of the money. We shake again and I am outside by the water. Late afternoon on the river. The sun nearly set. A golden sheen on the delta. At times like this, the place could be beautiful, no time to gawk. I need to be elsewhere, just in case.
I reflect on the afternoon, as the transporter carries me and the homeward bound shift over the mighty Mersey. There is mileage in this man. His skill could be put to a profitable use. The question is the degree of his hunger. How far will he go before he fears and calls The Church? How do I get him in over his head to seal his lips?
The chop worked a dream. The only tricky moment was alighting from the transporter, a pair of keen eyed watchmen. The last thing I needed. I just smiled and showed them my ID, kept eye contact and was through.
I took me the rest of the day and into the next to compress the tea but by the end I had a realistic facsimile of pu’erh-as long as you didn’t know the real stuff. I sold it to a thin man. All eager and no questions asked-but I told him anyway. As I have said before if you live outside the law then you must be honest. He caught on quick did Parkes. There was a split second when I thought he was going to go crazy eddie on me but that passed when he realised exactly what I was telling him.
Played right he could sell the bricks on as quality stock, no one had seen pu’erh for years and they would bring him a good return. I sold him the chop and the cheese press as well. Warning him the scam would wear out its welcome if played too often or too free.
Let me tell you what I have learned in my travels across this troubled globe. The Church has contaminated our very thoughts, the closer you are to it the greater the grip it exerts on your mind. Look at any newspaper, what do you see? Beyond the propaganda that exhorts us to strive harder to bring down the Empire of The Dragon, you look no further? I shall tell you.
You see the same story, endlessly repeated. You see a parade of violence. Man beats wife, wife murders man. Neighbours row then neighbours brawl, man kills man. Need I go on? I have realised what all this violence is, though you may not like my conclusion. Every person in the world who is not an agent of The Church is oppressed by it. We people of Albion, of Europe as was, are the closet, but everybody is trying to live within The Church’s twisted dreams. Their illogical vision is our reality.
The strain of this builds up inside and eventually some people explode, the frustration of their existence, their anger at every little humiliation or injustice they have ever experienced erupts. But, and this is the important part, where is it directed? Is it directed at those who have caused this distress? No. It is turned on their neighbours, their family, never on The Church.
That is what I mean when I say it exerts a grip on your mind. To fight The Church is unthinkable. Our very thoughts have been tainted by their false reality. I have given this great thought, as I say it is only the people who are furthest from the contagion who stand a chance of defeating it. Those I call the wretched of the earth. The people who are further from the centre, the peasants, those who bear the mark of Cain on their skin, those who are judged to be less than human, they are the only hope of mankind.
Told you that you would not find the idea attractive, but those are the only people who can save us. They are the only people who stand a reasonable chance of becoming free.
I mean to say, look at the Catalans. A noble people, with a culture and a history that is centuries older than The Church, they could throw off the yoke of oppression. They have before. They bested the castillian downpressers and burned Madrid to the ground, liberated their fellows on the other side of the Pyrenees. So why are they not doing so today?
I shall tell you. It is because they are too close,. They have become entwined with the oppressor. Barcelona is now the workshop of the world. They are ensnared. It is a question of how they view the world. They grow up within The Church’s logic, they are imprinted with their place in The Church’s scheme of things. Psychologically they cannot break that control.
The further one is from the reach of The Church the more chance one has of defying them. The more people grow up in their own culture, the less they have to unlearn. But such people need help, and the likes of us can aid them. I was back in Albion for a reason, not just to sell tea to poor workers. I had a plan. Technology is hoarded by The Church, the whiter your skin the more chance you have of accessing it. The Dragon was different, the Emperor ran a meritocracy. If you had the skill you could go far, nor was there shame if you did not, you still played your part and had worth. That is why it took The Church over a hundred years to bring it down. The Tao makes for an enlightened population. People fought hard because they had an investment in what they would lose. And they had seen the place reserved for them in The Church’s brand new white world.
When I was in Java, before the fall, I had acquired certain information from a rather obliging chap. He was, as I knew from the outset, an agent of the Blue Lotus. He had sounded me out exactly as I had McNulty. The only problem was that the island had fallen quicker than he had expected. More quickly even that I had imagined it would. I had been half way through the order when I had to disappear. I left two days before the fall. In Singapore I bought a new identity from Patel on the promise of returning with something very useful to him.
This set of plans in my possession, if discovered would make the whole pu’erh gambit seem very small beer in deed. I had the design specs for a hand gun, Dragon tech, very simple, very effective. The Blue Lotus had thought that arming the populous would slow down the bully boys of The Church, it did not. It simply made them more vicious. Mine had not been the only shop turning the things out.
I had returned with a crop of tea, nothing special, but better than the locals were used to. The chop had increased the profits greatly. I had enough lucre to live comfortably for a year, but I knew what I had to do and I was in debt to Patel and that would never do.
I could arrange passage on one of the tramp vessels that continually called into the port as they scrunted a living on the edges of The Church. I estimated that with enough cash to lubricate palms I could get back to Singapore without trouble. 56’ was a lull in hostilities, everyone knew that The Church was gearing up for a final showdown with the Dragon. We also knew that unless the Dragon had something special up its sleeve then it too would fall.
I thought that if Patel could get his hands on the right technology then he and his zealots could slow down The Church. Selective assassination of key staff was a possibility. I should explain Patel, not his real name you understand, would not deal directly with the Dragon. As I was saying, we turn in on ourselves rather than fight the downpresser. It was something about the difference in religion, to Patel the Dragon was as heretical as The Church. He would however, buy the technology off a third party, namely yours truly. And I owed him.
It rained all the next day, a Tuesday. I sat in the lounge of my hotel watching the water run down the window and thinking the thing through. I was sure I had my man. He had crossed the line by making the chop. From now on it was a question of degree, of how long he would spend in the re-education camp if discovered. And once he started on this particular endeavour he would never come out.
How to sell it to him? How to fire him with the beauty of the design? How to get him to focus on the technical aspects rather than upon the end use?
I wanted twenty five or thirty. As they used to say back in the days of the bad old Tory Misrule, might as well be hung for stealing a sheep as a lamb. Not that I subscribe to killing other creatures to live. I think that we should aspire to raise ourselves up from our bestial beginnings but that is neither here nor there.
That Wednesday I went back across the river. I loitered, as much as a man of my build and demeanour can loiter that is, near to the workshop. I spent some time looking into the window of a pawnshop that was further down the road. Like the pubs they would soon be swept away, usury is a sin. Though if I am honest, I would agree with that, it demeans a fellow to make his living off the need of others-makes him like a Tory if you ask me. But I digress.
As I half looked at the sorry collection of items in the dirty window of the shop I saw two men, burly brutes, leave the workshop. I can spot a debt man anywhere, it is a skill that proven useful in my line of work, more than once. They had that look of limited horizons, the sort who have been failed by every system. The type of men who delight in violence.
I walked slowly down the street and entered the office. McNulty was sat at the desk, his eyes fixed on some distant point, as if trying to work out how it had all gone so terribly astray. I could have told him. This area was too far from the main action, the fat days were over. If he could relocate to Java or one of the other new territories then he could make a decent living. But he could not. He would go down with the rest of them when this area was finally Balanced. He would end his days in a workhouse, or camp.
I stood silent, waited for him to realise I was there. Eventually he saw me. He snorted, you again. I echoed his words, me again.
He was strangely talkative, defeat does that to some. You want another of them Dragon markers he asks. I shake my head, no. Well, he continued, I need a lot more than thirty quid.
How much more?
More than you can get me.
Two hundred pounds more? I know I told you that it is better to let them name their price but I could tell this man was beyond all that. He was on the ropes and slipping to the floor. I had him.
Who do you want me to kill?
It wouldn’t cost that much to have that done I thought. But I wanted his mind off end use and so I told him I had an engineering task that would test even his skills. Even in his dilapidated state this hooked him. Here was a man with a pride in his skills.
Two hundred pounds you say?
I nodded, Two hundred pounds.
I smiled, took my cane and pressed the side of the handle, the compartment opened and I removed the rice paper. Flattening the set of plans I laid it before him. The exploded drawing, each of the separate component parts, clearly drawn on a separate sheet. As I said it was a lovely set.
His eyes took in the details. He did not seem to see beyond the design.
I’d have to make each piece, there’s no way I could get any ready-mades without questions being asked, you know that, right?
I did not, I had suspected this, but did not know it. I nodded.
The helix on the inside of the barrel, now that is going to be difficult.
He was off on the problems, solving them in his head.
How much do you need up front? I want him in too deep to turn back. Already his musings would earn him a year or so in a camp, even if he turned me in today. Not that he was about to do that, I was his possible ticket out of this mess.
A hundred would do it.
Better that you give them twenty five today and arrange to give them the rest on Friday. He looked puzzled. That way they will assume you are selling off the stock, or a machine. Keep them out of the workshop or they will start to ask questions.
He nodded. When do you want this by?
These, I want more than one.
Thirty. He repeated the number. Come on, I told him, you have to solve the problems how many you produce, once you have made a jig you can turn out countless pieces.
Thirty will take some time.
I agreed that it would. Then set to keeping him focussed on the problems by asking if he had enough materials. I suspected he had. It was not the materials he was worried about, it was that helix. I knew what he meant, I had questioned the need for it, but I had realised that if the weapon was to be effective it needed to be accurate. This was not for use in a fire fight, it was an assassination tool.
He looked me in the eye and said; if I am to do this I want to know your name. I smiled, you won’t believe me but I am Elston Gunn.
I know, it was an alias, then all names are. How does a name begin to chart the inner self? But I digress.
That first afternoon McNulty, or Bernard, as he told me to call him, identified materials and amounts. At four thirty he stopped. He wanted reassurance, asked me again if twenty five pounds would hold off his creditors. I assured him it would and we left the workshop. I had my reasons for accompanying him, his mental state was frail and this dependency on myself would make him less likely to turn me in, to punch my card as the local argot has it.
As we walked back he began to tell me the tale of his business. It was as I had expected, the good days had fizzled out as The Church subdued more of the globe. He had thought of seeking his fortune in the client nations, but realised it was a young man’s game, not that there was anything to keep him here now.
That evening under the gas light he turned off the first thirty bolts. Over the following two days he turned off the different parts, not quickly, but with that economy of effort which is the sign of the true tradesman. Friday he paid off his debt, by then he was lost in the problem solving.
His solution to cutting the helix was I have to say, elegant. He designed a series of long cutting tools and laboriously made the rifling. It took over two weeks to produce the finished items, once he had made the jigs and the gauges the work progressed quickly.
I made my plans to leave. I went to see Parkes. I had not realised when we met that he was a high up in a local gang The Auigburth Saints, but as they controlled the dock traffic I had no choice. I made my way to the Black Cat snooker hall to sort out my passage.
Let me tell you about Parkes, and before you ask that is his real name, at least it was the name I knew him by. He was, is, one of those thin men, the kind who look like they are holding it all in by sheer will power, as if they can never give in to their desires. The sort who eat the minimum, the sort who never drink, the sort for whom life boils down to how much you can exert control over yourself and your surroundings. There was this contained side to him, like the serrated edge on the side of the sharp blade, the kind that slips in easy enough but creates real damage when you try to remove it. Yes, that was what Parkes was like, a lethal weapon waiting.
He looked at you with those cold eyes, the thin lips and straight mouth that never smiled. I expect he has gone far in his own little world. He is proof for my argument, he was capable of rebellion, of causing The Church a great deal of trouble, but he did not. Such a thought would never occur to him. He wanted power over his environment only he could not see beyond his own nose. That will be what brings him down if it already hasn’t done so.
He paraphrased my questions: A secure berth on a safe ship. Then he looked at me, as if he was weighing my value. I suspected he would not sell me out to the Balancers or the Watch, he would lose face if he did that. A steamer and some trusted men to move your belongings…
He named the price, high but not unreasonable. We did not shake hands.
They have a saying on the delta, a rather colourful one, dobbing you in it, and while I have no idea where it comes from I was acutely aware that it could happen any time. When it came it did so from an unexpected source, but there again, had I expected it I could have taken steps.
McNulty was not a drinker, but he was a social creature. He liked to interact with his fellows and since he had laid off his employees, all three of them, he had taken to dropping into the Queens Arms for a social drink. My red faced friend behind the bar had noticed his absence and knew of no new projects in the area. He began to ask around which confirmed his suspicion that there was no new work. He needed to ingratiate himself with the City Watch, his type always do, they are too vulnerable not to do so.
I found out all this later as I was leaving. Parkes told me, all part of the service he said. The Saints controlled that side of the delta, not the City Watch, mind you the Saints also controlled the Watch.
I realised it was to do with face. Parkes couldn’t have people running their mouths off to the Watch. He needed an example that could be found on the other side of the delta, dead. I suspected he did it himself, his kind would do so to instil fear into their minions.
I was not sorry to leave. It was not a part of Albion I knew, nor really cared about. Thirty hand guns, packed into five wooden crates, bound for a religious zealot who was peddling his own version of reality. But that is another story.
What? Oh, McNulty. Well, that’s the interesting part of the tale. He made thirty one pistols, what I had discounted at the time as spoilage turned out to be the thirty first. As I sailed off, glad to be bound for sunnier climes, he set to plotting. I read about it when I was Singapore a year or so later. There was an old paper wrapped around this shipment from Albion, I wonder if Parkes sent it. Anyway it seems a debit man had been murdered by his colleague, nothing too surprising there you would say and you’d be right.
Save that this one had been shot with what the Balancers were saying was a Dragon gun, apparently the bore was different to a Church hand gun. Not that you could ever get hold of a hand gun. The penalty for possession was thirteen years in a camp. Anyway Alfred Hugget of Deirdre Avenue had been killed the day after I had sailed. Shot in the stomach and then in the back of the head. The strange part was how had someone gotten hold of a Dragon gun? Neither the victim nor his assassin, who it turned out was his partner, had ever left the area.
However, the Watch found homemade ammunition in John Walton’s room. Of course he swore that he’d never seen it. But who would believe that? Possession, as I said was thirteen years in a camp. The trial appeared to be a perfunctory affair. The only person who believed in his innocence was the accused himself. He was hung as I arrived in neutral Singapore.
The murdered man was of loose morals, according to the newspaper he had been cohabiting with a married woman, one Emily McNulty. This was evidence of their ungodly and heretical life style according to the newspaper editorial, which continued by demanding that the whole of the delta be Balanced as soon as possible.
I think you must agree that this proves my theory. We, the oppressed, turn in on ourselves, we damage those close to us, not the ones who downpress us. “