Bread on the Water
By John Pilling
“Cast your bread upon the waters
For you will find it after many days”
Conscious of a gentle nudge and a murmured “voting soon old boy,” Lord Shaw of Bryntiron opened his eyes and straightened up in his seat in the House of Lords. Smiling his thanks at the octogenarian hereditary peer sitting next to him he said.
“I was far away then…far away and long ago, when it all began.”
“Oh yes, I know that place” his neighbour said “I go there quite often myself, much nicer than nowadays.”
On a cold grey Monday morning, Michael Shaw stood at his machine on the factory floor of the Bryntiron steel works with a smile on his face.
“Safety guard up…right hand in…remove stamping into the bin…left hand position new sheet …both hands out…safety guard down…press the button bringing the five-ton weight of jackhammer slamming down.”
After nearly five years he could have done it in his sleep, indeed it sometimes seemed to him that he had spent most of his working life in a sort of waking day dream. Not today though…today was different, today he had a future. Michael had a natural talent for numbers and for the last couple of years had been saving hard for the money to pay for an accounting course sponsored by his trade union at the local technical college…a qualification that he hoped would give him the chance of a new beginning away from the factory floor. For the fiftieth time that morning he touched the breast pocket of his overalls confirming the presence of the wad of banknotes…just over five hundred pounds…enough to pay for the course and support himself.
He felt the scream before he heard it, a jarring discordance in the background roar of machines, and he was running towards the source before the second shriek. He knew what he would find but it was still a gut twisting moment when he saw the pulverised bloody mess in the machine and the ashen faced man on his knees before it. Fast as he had been, others were there before him and he watched in sick horror as the injured man, now swiftly losing consciousness, was eased down onto a makeshift stretcher and hustled away to the first aid post. After helping to cover up the gory mess ready for the cleaners, Michael walked slowly back to his machine making his mind up to see the union convenor as soon as his shift was over. It wasn’t the first time he had seen such accidents and it was certain there would be more, given the production targets the men had to meet… the sooner he was off the factory floor the better.
As he entered the union office, the convenor was just putting the phone down, his face grim.
“Nothing” he said. “Man loses his arm and they don’t want to know… bastards.” Taking off his glasses he rubbed his hand tiredly across his face and turned towards Michael.
“Sorry about that mate, what can we do for you?”
“I wanted to see you about the accounting course…but, what do you mean about that injured man.”
“He was on piece work…he’d disabled the guard so he could work faster … the accident was his own fault, the company’s not responsible…so, no insurance money and no compensation.”
“Couldn’t we say the machine was faulty? We could all swear to it” one of the other men in the office called out.
“They’ve already had it checked out…anyway we all saw it, someone would talk… it’s a right bloody mess.”
“Then what’s going to happen to him?” Michael asked.
“I don’t know, he won’t be able to work for months…God knows how his family will manage…we’ll hold a collection of course but it won’t raise much… you know what it’s like nowadays, no one has much to give.”
“I have.” Michael said impulsively. Pulling the wad of money out of his pocket he explained about his savings. “If you start the collection off with this he’ll have more than enough.” For a few moments there was silence in the room then the convenor said.
“You’d do that…for a workmate…what about the accounting course?”
“I can save up again…just delays things a bit that’s all.” There was silence again in the room, then the convenor said quietly.
“You know, there’re a lot of drawbacks to this job but every now and then…” Getting to his feet he came over to Michael and shook his hand.
“Thank you lad,” he said “You won’t regret it…I’ll make sure of that,”
Over the next few days Michael became aware of just what that meant. Word of his action had spread quickly and everywhere in the factory he was greeted with nods and smiles, men stopping their work to shake his hand. In the little pub he favoured near his lodgings, men he hardly knew competed to buy him drinks murmuring their appreciation as they did. Even the local paper ran an article about worker solidarity quoting the gratitude of the injured man and his family.
Three weeks later, Michael was asked to call in at the union office where he was handed an envelope containing confirmation that he had been entered on the accounting course …fees waived by the technical college.
“That’s not all” the convenor said smiling “When you’ve qualified, there’s a job waiting for you at the union head office…I have a feeling you’re going to go a long way.”