Gasometer, Bradford, East Manchester
Gasometer, Bradford, East Manchester
Victoria Mill
Victoria Mill

The gasometer rose and fell like a barometric pressure gauge although, of course, it had nothing to do with that, nor really with Philip’s moods, but he had always felt that it had an affinity with both.  Sometimes when he passed it on the way to work in the mornings, as today, a sulphurous smell from it joined those of other chemicals in the air, rising from all the industrial plants nearby.  The gasometer was in view from his bedroom window and, as a child, he had thought if it was up it would be a good day at school and if it were down, a bad one.  His imaginary friend, whose origins lay somewhere in ‘Stig of the Dump’, had lived in it for a number of years and he had played inside its echoing depths with Sid on many fancied occasions before drifting off to sleep.

He walked on through, towards the factory unit he worked in the offices of, its angled, corrugated lines of metal roofs purely functional, unlike the old Victoria cotton mill nearby, the chimney of which boasted a spiral staircase you had views all around from the top of.  It was closed and empty now but his grandad had worked in it and told the story.  The mill had been a forbidden adventure playground, a beacon to try to get into during Philip’s young boyhood, but the tower was always deemed too spooky to venture up.  Occasionally, as with playing in scrapyards, there were accidents, sometimes fatal, spoken of sombrely in school by the headmaster but in spite of these, the children were never successfully warned off.

This morning, the gasometer was halfway up, its round dome within the circular, meccano-like struts giving no indication either way of how his day would be.

“Well, you’re not much help,” he told it, going on by.

Philip hoped he would catch a chance to speak to Fay, the pretty one most of them, he thought, liked at work, and he felt her half smiles back at him were encouraging.  Only, the thing was, yesterday he had passed her on the corridor by the clock machine with Tony standing very close in front of her, almost touching and exuding that stance of ownership which suggested that there was something between them.  And yet she had given Philip, over Tony’s shoulder, a conspiratorially intimate glance which was tantalising.

It was hard to imagine going from this mutual desire and craving in courtship to the flat lines of how relationships in the adult household worked, Philip felt.  Yesterday, his dad had come home with a suit he had bought unsupervised in a sale.  His mother had pronounced condemningly that he looked ‘like a parrot in a sack’.  His father had attempted to puff his chest out over his beer belly and said,

“Looks a treat, that, Lily!” before taking himself off down to the Liberal club, the place of which his wife said,

“He’d rather sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ with all the old soaks down there than see in the New Year with me,” on a more or less annual basis.

There were pictures of them prior to these days, pre Philip, Gillian and Diane, when they were young, smiling and fit, often bicycling together, sometimes his dad with the local amateur rugby team, the remains of which he still met up with down at the Liberal Club.  They were recognisably the same as that young couple and yet entirely different.  Philip told himself that he’d never get ‘like that’, even though commonsense told him that his parents would never have imagined being ’like that’, either.

Walking on, head unshielded in manly fashion from the morning drizzle, he also found it impossible to imagine Fay ending up ‘like that’.  Fay was the superior kind and she carried it off so that somehow, she convinced you that she was, although she came from the same streets as all the other girls who saw no reason to hide the coarser grain, all up front attitude and sexual lip.  Not that Philip wasn’t open to that too because that was good, flirtatious fun, the kind that led to things.  Nor was it that Fay appeared unattainable, although she was seen as a tease by those she disdained.  She just seemed ‘better’, worth chasing after and to recognise a similar worth in Philip himself.

Trying to impress her one time, he had talked of saving up for a motorbike he would take her for a ride on, which had become part of Fay’s semi-mockery with him, so that when he arrived in wet from the rain, as today, going to clock in past the clerical desks where she sat, she’d say,

“Still walking to work, then?” with that derisive half smile which he found irresistible, so that it was almost worth a soaking to elicit her response.

After that small exchange, the morning in his part of the works went on as usual for a couple of hours.  Then at the desk in front of him, his impatient colleague Kevin (universally acknowledged to get away with murder because he made people laugh) was responding as usual to a customer telephone complaint by putting the receiver down on the desk and flicking ‘V’ signs at it, while the angry voice continued quacking at nobody.  Eventually, Kevin picked the receiver up again, said,

“Hello?  Hello?” a few times, as if he couldn’t hear anybody and then banged the phone down, announcing that he was going for a fag break.

Philip joined him, this being an opportunity to slip past the girls again, one or two of whom might come out with them as well, even, on occasion, Fay, smoking daintily as if this, too, were somehow beneath her.  Today, though, it was Maggie and Sharon who came out and the ceremony of lighting up was used to cup hands between them, delicately touching and exchanging assessing, interested looks, like couples dancing.   

“Have you seen Fay’s ring?” Maggie asked Sharon, once they were all successfully smoking, who shook her head.  “You will!  Wedding’s next Summer, she says.  I wonder if she’ll invite us?”

“What, us?  You’re joking, aren’t you?” responded Sharon.  “She can’t see far enough down her nose to say hello to us in the office!  I saw her out in town last week and she just turned her back on me, stuck up cow!”

“Fay’s engaged to Tony?” Philip exclaimed, shock making him break the workplace protocols of young male indifference to all talk of marriage amongst the girls.

“No!  Nobody from here!” said Maggie, as if this were laughable in relation to Fay.  “Tony’s not even in the picture.  Don’t tell me you like her as well, Philip?”

Philip looked aside, annoyed that he had given himself away and didn’t answer, because it was for the boys to look as if they had the pick of the girls (even if they absolutely didn’t) and not the other way around.  The two girls exchanged the kind of glance which made his cheeks burn because he knew all the girls would now be discussing him fancying the one who excluded them and who was also engaged elsewhere, ensuring that their teasing of him would take a baiting turn.  Unexpectedly, Kevin came to his rescue.

“Of course he doesn’t, don’t be daft!” he asserted.  “Only Tony’d be soft enough to fall for all that up herself crap!  Right, Philip?”

“Right,” Philip agreed, trying to regain lost ground, even though his own foundations had shifted so unexpectedly and he felt humiliated, shown up.

When they went back in and by the girls’ desks again, he was aware of Fay’s shining hair and neat profile turning slightly towards him but he didn’t look back, ignoring her and feeling dreadfully hurt and foolish for his assumptions that Fay had subtly shown interest in him.  The rest of the day dragged on and when he left to go back home again, his walk by the gasometer found its dome was sunk flat, hunkered down in its centre, as empty and hollowed out as he felt himself.

“You were right,” he told it.  “It was a half full start to the day and downhill for all the rest of it.”

The gasometer, Philip found, was rarely wrong.  When he went into the small house, whistling pressure cooker steam from  the kitchen was venting the smell of stew and vegetables through all the rest of it.  It was noisy, his father and mother busy shouting at each other, not angrily but in the way they generally conversed, one upstairs and one down.  Philip felt ordinary, parochial, beneath notice.  An image of Fay, never cooking but dining out graciously with some well-heeled husband, entered his mind.

“Oh, hello, love?  Had a nice day?” his mother asked, seeing him come into the living-room.

“It was all right,” he answered, as noncommittally as ever and Philip slumped on the couch with his sisters, waiting until his tea should be ready.  

The fallen dome of the gasometer visible to him through the window waited, like Philip himself, for the pressure to rise again.

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