Old Iron by James Clarke
09 Nov 2016
James Clarke’s short story “Old Iron” was nominated by PEN South Africa for the 2016 PEN International New Voices Award, along with Beatrice Willoughby’s poems “The Mad, Sad, Rad Collection“. PEN Afrikaans nominated Frederick J Botha and his story “Please Help, God Bless”.
Read “Old Iron” below and our Q&A with Clarke here.
‘Ou ysters! Ou ysters!’ he shouted, as they came clip-clop down the street. The horse brought the buggy to a standstill alongside us. We were in the driveway, Willie’s nose in his satchel, looking for the Vernier calipers.
‘Dammit,’ he said. It was early and still cold, and he was already wheezing, before we’d even left.
‘Should I go look?’ I said. ‘Maybe you left them on the board?’
I peered into the back of the bakkie to see if it might be there.
The horse snorted, switched its tail as the cars drove past. ‘Ou ysters, Meneer? Nothing for us this morning?’
He had on a dirty white cap that sat lightly on his head, as if underneath it he was hiding an apple.
Willie pulled his head out and scowled at the man. ‘Niks nie. Same as yesterday and the day before. I gave you everything last week. Go ask someone else.’
I pretended to cough. It always embarrassed me when Willie was rude to people.
‘No offcuts maybe, Meneer?’
‘Niks beteken niks. You want to take my bakkie? Here, come, take my bakkie you can melt that down get yourself a five rand.’
The man looked surprised. Slowly, then with raising his whole body, he began to laugh, a long wheezing cackle like you hear from the drunks by the Drop-In. He flicked his stick and the horse heaved away the buggy in a long slow rattle that merged with his laughter.
For the last few weeks while we’d been clearing the workshop, the carthorse man had been coming. The closure, the clean-out, the whole thing was out of the blue: one morning Willie had come in to work and said that he was dying. ‘You’re going to be unemployed soon. If you want to leave now to find a new job, that’s fine.’ He needed some kind of treatment and it was going to cost. I thought he was joking—Willie likes strange jokes sometimes—but he insisted it was the truth. ‘I’m a sick old bugger, but not like that. I wouldn’t joke about something like that.’ And then when he got serious I believed him, because he knew what had happened to my parents—that was why four years ago he’d given me this job.
But the sale had him the moer in. Sometimes he’d look at a tool he’d owned and used for fifty years, fiddle with it, heft it as if its weight would give him a clue to what it was worth. When eventually he set down a price in his ‘bible’, a notebook he carried around with the prices of everything, he’d curse like a man defeated in a bargain.
Willie had always been a kind of solid substance, cold but reliable—like a piece of old iron. Every Christmas he’d give me a couple of hundred extra to buy something for my grandma and little brother, Chris. ‘Between you and me, I don’t believe in God,’ he said one year. ‘But Christmas happens either way and you’re going to need money.’ That was how he was, matter-of-fact, no bullshit.
To sell up the workshop, he’d called some people—‘resellers’. The way they swaggered around the workshop and made jokes to one another, they looked to me more like a bunch of school bullies. First they’d come for the big machines. The machinery was old but good, but they kept using the age to beat Willie down on price. The Schaublins were expensive, everyone knew that, but they fetched very little anyway, and Willie clenched his jaw. ‘So if it’s old it’s worth nothing? They know it’s cheap at the price. No bloody decency is the bloody problem.’ I could tell he was furious, and by the time they’d worked their way down to the Emcos he’d been worn thin. ‘If you can’t offer me a fair amount, get out.’ Evidently the buyer thought Willie was pretty funny, because he only smiled and told his ‘boys’ to reverse up the trucks. Even if Willie hadn’t relented and let the stuff go, already more than half the workshop was gone.
Then Willie came in one morning and said, ‘No more.’ No more clearing out. His eyes were shining, like when you’ve been sharpening drill bits under the fluorescent lights too long, except he hadn’t been sharpening drill bits. Maybe you’ll say it’s selfish, but I was relieved. Willie always used to tell stories about his days as an apprentice and tell me what a damn shame it was that the tradition was dying out. I was one of the few who was willing to stick it out, and he was one of the last of the old timers, and without him I didn’t know where I’d go or what I’d do.
Against my fingers the padlocks were like blocks of ice. The fluorescents flickered as I passed the drill presses to the board where the Vernier was kept. Unfinished jobs lay on the bench. The order book was almost empty, and we both knew why: people had started going to Aubrey Isaacs up the road where you could buy a whole replacement gear for nearly the same price we charged to repair one. Isaacs drove past the workshop every morning, first in his Toyota, then later his Mercedes, but Willie didn’t seem to notice, or, if he did notice, didn’t seem to care. He arrived at seven every morning, had his coffee break and danish at eleven, lunch at one, and left at five—every single day. Even as we were emptying out the old iron, the bits-and-bobs Willie had kept, he had me doing the last jobs in the book, brazing in new blanks to be toothed later in the gear cutter.
There it was – the vernier. He’d left it next to the job-cards and a half-drunk cup of coffee. I put in my pocket and hurried back. Willie already had the bakkie started and the heater on full blast.
‘Where was it?’
‘By the job-cards’
He shook his head as though to say, ‘And now I’m losing my mind too?’
A few minutes later the wheezing started. I didn’t know what was killing him exactly; he hadn’t told me. The first time he’d spoken about it was also the last time. Whatever it was, I was sure he’d got worse in the last month. For example, right then, when he tried to turn his neck to see out the back, I heard him make a groaning sound. Quite a pathetic sound, and hard to ignore. But that was what I was supposed to do: ignore it. Once I’d made a comment about his breathing, but I learned fast not to do it again – he wasn’t shy about letting you know when you’d crossed the line. I remember he had this huge drive gear in the vice and was hand-filing a tooth in it, squeak squeak squeak. It’s tiring work, let me tell you. Anyway, what happened was, he was out of breath and I saw him rest against the vice, pale like he might faint or something. I switched off the lathe and offered to help.
‘See that lathe over there?’ he said.
‘Ja,’ I said.
‘Well it’s not going to run by itself.’
After that I just let him wheeze and wheeze until finally he’d pretend he needed the toilet and go off to catch his breath. After all, I was just an employee, and it was ‘none of my bloody business’.
We drove in silence along the N1, the sun coming up on our right above the factories; then Brackenfell, Kraaiftontein. The auction was being held on a farm in Joostenbergvlakte. He’d seen the ad and called me the night before. When the phone rang, grandma was helping Chris with his homework—‘Adverbs are?’ ‘I know this one,’ he said, but I could tell he was lying. Little shit had been out behind the carpark with his catapult, shooting squirrels.
‘Jacob. Can you be here early tomorrow?’ Willie said.
‘Okay. How come?’
‘We’re going to an auction.’
‘I want to see how much I’ll get for your organs on the black market,’ he said, deadpan as ever. Then, ‘We’re going to buy some tools.’
That was all he’d told me. I’d never pretended to understand Willie. Maybe that’s why I’m the only apprentice left. Even Quentin got an offer for a job from Aubrey and came in one morning embarrassed to tell Willie he’d accepted, even though he hadn’t finished his first year as an appy. But despite everything, I couldn’t leave him—even then as I knew he’d finally gone crazy.
My breath had made a patch of steam on the window, but I was still creaking with the cold like an old robot. I rubbed my hands together and sniffed. We’d turned off the highway into farmland, cows alongside the road and the smell of grass that’s just been mowed coming through the window. Fog was floating over the road and as we passed through it I heard his wheezing again, this time louder. Eventually it grew so bad that he had to pull over.
‘This weather. Man. Fucks the breathing.’ He coughed, hands still hanging on the wheel. I waited, not sure what to do, hoping it would stop. He lifted his hand and pointed into the back.
Something I couldn’t hear. In a hurry now, I went around, opened up. Under his old army sleeping bag, which he used as a tarp, he’d hidden a gym bag (as if he ever visited the gym!). There wasn’t a pair of Nike’s inside it, but an oxygen tank.
‘Here.’ I held out the mask. ‘How much?’
He plugged the mask onto his face and opened the tap. It hissed into him. After a few minutes he was breathing slower, steaming up the little see-through cup. As I watched this happen I felt the urge to shake him and punch him right in his face. He’d thought to bring an oxygen tank—when had he gotten it?—but hadn’t bothered to tell me.
‘Let’s go back,’ I said. ‘You need to be in a hospital.’
Above the mask his eyebrows raised. I went to his door and looked in through the window.
‘No,’ he said, face straight ahead, stock-still. ‘We’re going to this bloody auction.’
‘Alright. But there’s no way you’re driving us.’ My voice surprised me. It sounded sharp, loud. He breathed heavily into the mask, and for a second I thought he was going to put foot and drive away without me.
‘I’m sorry, those are the rules.’ She had bleached hair, rough as Labrador fur, and blue nails which just then she was tapping on the melamine desk that supported her massive tits. We were in what I guessed had once been a voorkamer, now empty except for two bookcases stacked with files, her desk, and five different shaped and sized office chairs against the wall. Two men were staring at me and Willie as he argued with the girl.
‘Yes, I know, you just said. But I don’t have the money, and I’m here, so what now?’
She cleared her throat. ‘That’s the rules. I’m sorry. I don’t make them.’ The rule was that you had to put down five grand just to bid, but Willie didn’t know this and we hadn’t drawn the cash money. We most probably had maximum five-hundred between us.
‘Apparently…’ said Willie. He looked me in the eye for the first time since I’d forced him out of the driver’s seat, then quickly looked back at her. ‘Maybe you can tell me who does make the rules?’
‘I do.’ The voice came from behind us. It was a short man in a polar neck and mirror-black shoes that clicked on the tiles as he came over. He looked more like he was about to measure you for a suit than to sell you machinery. As he came close I could smell the stink of his deodorant. He stank almost as bad as the bleached woman.
‘Who are you?’ said Willie.
‘I’m the auctioneer. What’s the problem?’
Willie explained. I wasn’t listening to his words but his breathing. Slowly it had returned to normal.
One of the men in the corner lit a cigarette and watched. The thing I remember about him, he had a parrot—at least I think it was a parrot—perched on his shoulder. Every so often it would nibble on his ear and, without evening flinching, he’d turn his head just enough that it would let go.
‘Here’s what I’m going to do for you,’ the auctioneer was saying to Willie. Willie was told to find ‘collateral’ in place of the cash. Having nothing else, he suggested the Opel bakkie. They peered at it through the window and and the man cleared his throat. ‘Ja. That’ll be alright.’
A huge warehouse stood at the end of the path, the doors open and men milling around inside. A Mercedes 4×4 pulled up and parked. It had a custom numberplate, ‘CA DUMILE’. Two men climbed out. One was small and carried a clipboard and the other was big. The big one wore a suit.
Willie coughed weakly. ‘I hate bloody auctions.’
As for me, I’d never been to an auction before, but the face of each person in the warehouse had its own expression of concentration, nervousness. All except the big man. His head was like a glazed clay pot, shiny and expressionless.
We passed through the warehouse, looking at everything—everything in it, all the objects, were so weird that it was like being in a museum. At the front was a machine for making toilet paper, and a roller with guillotines to separate the long roll into the familiar size; bandsaws for cutting meat, several chests of tool-drawers, generators, modular shelving, a pneumatic twenty-ton press, several arbor presses, and there, right at the back, Willie’s Colchester Chipmaster, Emco 10, and Schaublin 12 inch lathes—everything that only two weeks ago he’d sold. I looked at him and I saw the corners of his mouth turn up slightly at my surprise. We crossed to the opposite side of the warehouse where the machines were standing. There, alongside the lathes, was his tool cabinet, Willie’s initials engraved in the parallel clamps hanging on the board, W.M.F..
‘I don’t get it,’ I said. Voices on the other side of the warehouse went loud, then soft.
Willie smiled, became serious. He cleared his throat. ‘Listen here, Jacob. I want you to understand something. You get to a certain age, people start telling you to do things. It’s not like when you’re young. When you’re young you do what you like. If you feel like bunking school to go fishing, to go the movies and kiss your girlfriend or whatever, you go. But when you’re old, people want you in a home. You know? Not just your children—everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are, to them you start to look like something that shouldn’t exist anymore. So they try to pretend you don’t exist.’ He paused to catch his breath, but I didn’t interrupt.
‘Maybe this makes no sense at your age, I don’t know. What I’m saying is, is that this is not just stuff.’ He pointed at the Colchester and then sort of petted it. ‘It’s not just stuff. It’s not just business. Maybe it is to them,’—he pointed in the direction of the door—‘But not to me.’
With his thumbnail he scraped a streak of dry grease from the tailstock barrel. He looked disappointed, and I could tell he felt he hadn’t said what he’d wanted to. One side of his moustache curled up as he smiled at me, as though to say he’d given up talking. ‘Let’s go see about the bidding,’ he said.
What did it mean? I didn’t know, and I didn’t have the time to ask him what he planned to do with the machines if he won the auction. We only had a month left on the lease at the workshop, and Willie couldn’t even lift a hammer. But somehow—I don’t know why—somehow it didn’t matter. To him this was his chance to fix something that he’d allowed to break, to make repairs, to put everything in order.
The auctioneer carried a portable amplifier, which looked like our workshop fan, and a gold microphone. Several men stood by the toilet paper machine. The big man, I saw, had found (or brought?) a chair and had sat himself on it, his assistant next to him looking with a frown at something written on his clipboard. The auctioneer looked at his watch, fiddled with the microphone. It crackled on. ‘Welcome to Coetzee Auctioneers at our Joostenbergvlakte premises. We will now begin the bidding starting with lot 1a.’
Before Willie could even look at the list, the auctioneer had launched into a stuttering banjo riff of prices that settled, stayed, then flew on again at the nod of a head or the flick of a finger. In any case, it was twenty minutes before the bidding on Willie’s machines began. During that time this happened: on the items like the toilet-paper roller, there were two bidders, and it went after only a few seconds. On the machine tools like the arbor presses, the big man’s assistant did the bidding, always checking first before raising the price. Why he didn’t do his own bidding I couldn’t say, but when he bid, he won.
Eventually lot 34c arrived. The auctioneer started, and everybody was nodding like crazy. Not thirty seconds later I realised we’d already reached the price Willie had sold the stuff for. I nudged him but he waved me away. What was going through his head? Everyone but the big man had dropped out. I felt I had to do something, to stop the man from bidding Willie into bankruptcy. But everything happened so fast, it was like watching something galloping off a cliff. By the time the auctioneer had yelled ‘Sold!’ into the mic and Willie had won, the price was more than twice what the machines were worth.
We were silent as we drove. When I’d gone for the driver’s door Willie hadn’t even made a comment. He’d reclined his seat all the way, opened the oxygen and fallen asleep, limp as if he’d been knocked-out flat by a fist.
The forms he’d signed sat on the dashboard. What was he going to do? I felt scared, as though something terrible was just around the corner. I was angry and desperate at the same time. I thought about going to the flat, picking grandma and Chris up, and driving the four of us until we got out of South Africa, across the border into Botswana or somewhere. I wanted to escape this whole crazy place, get out, get away from greedy men and their fucking money. We could plant seeds and grow vegetables, live off the land…Ridiculous! I slammed my hands against the steering wheel.
Willie woke up.
‘Where should we go?’ I asked.
He coughed. ‘To the workshop,’ he said. ‘Take the route along the M5. There’s still work to do.’
I said nothing. We always drove that way and I thought I knew why. Either for my sake or his, he wanted to avoid driving past the corner where my parents had been killed.
‘Stop,’ he said. We were just past the station. ‘You get out here. I’m going home now.’
‘My wallet’s in the workshop,’ I lied. I didn’t want to leave him. He was pale, thin.
He pulled out forty rand from his breast pocket and shoved it into my hand. ‘That’ll do you for a couple of danishes and tomorrows ticket too,’ he said.
Chris had turned a corner of the lounge into a sandpit. We live in a small flat without even a communal garden. The parks are dangerous, so Grandma sometimes lets him do this when the weather is bad. But this time it’d spilled over and my boots crunched as I walked to the kitchen. ‘Christopher!’ I shouted. I found him in grandma’s room in front of the TV. ‘If you haven’t done your homework,’ I said, ‘I swear… you’re not going to watch any more TV for the whole month.’
He stared at me.
‘Where’s grandma?’ I asked.
‘At the shop,’ he said. A dribble of snot was running from his nose. I went over to grandma’s bedside table and pulled a tissue from the box. ‘Come here,’ I said. He squirmed as I wiped away the snot. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
He spent ages cleaning away the sand. I watched him over the top of the newspaper that gets delivered free on Thursdays. I never read it, but today I needed a distraction and TV seemed hypocritical. Anyway, there he was on page five, the man from the auction. ‘Local Business Wins Employee Award,’ the headline read. The article stated that Mr. Dumile Vika had recently been nominated for the Development Award. It listed growth figures of his company and featured words from an employee: ‘Mr. Vika is good to us. He looks after us.’
With the side of my sleeve I rubbed the window and peered inside. Willie had never been late before, but it was already eight and he hadn’t come. The danishes in my bag were still warm from the bakery and my stomach rumbled, but I was not going to eat without Willie. It was cold, and I folded myself up against the wall, sort of hugging my knees.
After a while I found myself for some reason thinking of a night, years ago, when Willie was over at my parents’ house for dinner. It must have been just after his wife had divorced him because he came around alone. Willie was older than my father but they’d worked together at some point, I don’t know where, and my parents had invited him around. Anyway, Garlick, our cat, had climbed up the curtain during supper and pulled the rail right off its hooks, and my father and Willie were on chairs putting it back up when Willie made this drawn-out fart. Chris was still small at the time and I remember looking at him and both of us trying not to laugh. We thought it was the most hilarious thing, but my father didn’t seem to have heard. Willie pretended like nothing had happened. We went back to the table and ate our suppers. Then my mother, who I was sure had heard, started talking about her church group or something, and all I can remember thinking was how stupid it was that we all hadn’t just laughed about it.
My hands wouldn’t warm even as I rubbed them. Then I heard him coming, clip-clop down the street. Like a sign in front of the sun, he looked down on me. My knees were stiff with the cold and I imagined how sore it must be for the horse to trot on tar all day. I waited for him to ask me what I knew he was going to ask, but he didn’t. ‘Where’s the old man?’ he said instead.
He looked ahead, coughed loudly and spat over his shoulder into the street. It was disgusting.
‘I’ve got nothing for you,’ I said. ‘No iron. Geen yster.’
He nodded slowly. With his stick he flicked the horse. I watched the old thing drag the buggy into the traffic, cars driving wide to overtake.
‘Hey,’ I shouted after him. ‘Come back tomorrow!’