Playing Your Hand

The first time I saw him was in our shift room. We were coming in mornings—early mornings. The night shift had already changed and they were lying on benches or sagging against walls looking ashen and mean as hungry vampires sensing the approaching dawn. He stood there: red-faced, brown-suited and uncontaminated. I marked him down for a Union lawyer or a top official, come to see one of the night-shift before they got their sense of reasoning back. We get them from time to time. They treat it as some big act of bravery to get this close. Something like those people you see in the B movies, who leave their safe city and head off into the wastelands for kicks.

Then the picture goes wrong. He is too old for a start: these union bigwigs give up corporeal existence at thirty and float around in a cloud of purple gas. He was an old fifty-something. The red, ruddy face wasn’t a healthy glow but a rage of protest. And what had looked like a firm egg-shaped head became one of those shells that form soft and can barely contain their attempt at life. Eyes stared out from deep inside as if drowning, with the ripples from earlier struggles refusing to calm.

I had guessed by now that he was our new boy. We had been waiting for a replacement following the rare dismissal of a madman some weeks before. A guy that had actually made a ball out of some plastic explosive and kept on bouncing it against a wall to convince himself it was safe. Rumor stated that he’d been sacked for getting the mix wrong. Our description of this place: If England is the arsehole of the world—this place must be ten miles up it. We took anyone.

He opened his locker and his kit was all neatly laid out with his own number embroidered on every single item. I can see he is admiring the stitch work and probably thinking how considerate and charming it is of them. Someone will enjoy telling him it is done so that they can identify his remains when all the other recognizable bits have melted.

The rest of our shift arrive. Nobody says anything worth repeating and they do their best not to notice the arrival. I am changed and getting my ear bent by my opposite number coming off nights. ‘Old lady,’ they call him, because he never stops worrying. He showed me the ropes when I came here, and helped get me made up to chargehand in record time, so I still take the time to listen.

The shift room is divided into aisles by rows of old, steel lockers and benches that turn into beds at every chance. At one end there is a counter, behind which during day-shift some old leftover passes the time until his pension, with the inappropriate title of ‘attendant’. I’m sitting on this counter trying to find the space for a word and keeping an eye on our new star. He is down to his underwear and you can not help but notice what bad shape he is in. A once big man shrunken on the inside. He is wearing these baggy, white long johns and string vest. We have got a load of old soldiers on this rota, and some of the sights you see when they get undressed make him look pretty respectable—so that is not the reason the two lads sitting nearby are giggling away.

These two are in love. In this place, doing what we do, you have to stay friends. Each man could just be your savior. No enemies are allowed. Any sign of friction and the players get moved to different rotas. So this pair have decided to go all the way. They ignore everyone else and spend their time whispering and staring at each other’s every move. We’ve taken to splitting them up on the plant. But in the shift room and canteen, nobody gives a damn.

The reason they are in hysterics is because of the kit. We are not allowed to have any zips or buttons on anything in case they make a spark or drop off and get into the chemicals. Everything is fastened with loops of cloth. And there is a knack to using them: one this man hasn’t got. Worse than that, he’s coming up with his own way of doing it which rings a warning bell somewhere deep inside me. I can’t bear to watch.

‘Excuse me,’ I say to the Old Lady and go over.

‘I’ll show you,’ I say. I undo his mess and loop him up properly. He is going a little redder in the face and I can feel the boys making gestures behind my back. And there is something about him that makes me wish I had left it alone. ‘Thank you,’ he goes, in a too loud, posh voice that turns heads and makes me move away quickly in case there is more to follow.

Chargehands are issued with bicycles. So I am sitting in the foreman’s office with the other two getting the day’s instructions before our crews arrive on foot. When they finally do, the new man is not with them. He will be lost. New men are not trusted or wanted: no one wants to risk getting stuck with someone careless or who may turn out to be a coward. At first they are left to look out for themselves and prove their worth. The trouble is this place is spread out over a vast area. All the buildings are hidden in the middle of huge earth mounds. They are reached through blast reducing, zigzagging tunnels that are full of the most uninviting darkness and sounds. From the outside everywhere looks just about the same. It takes the few that stay about a year to understand the layout and even then it is easy to go wrong.

They will have enjoyed losing him. He is probably wandering around the maze of clean ways that are used to move chemicals from one plant to another. The foreman makes a few perfunctory enquiries about him and then lets it drop. His name, it turns out, is Harry. When Harry turns up, says the foreman, you can take him along with your crew. He says this without daring to look up from his register. I don’t bother to reply as I had already known that I was going to get stuck with him. The other chargehands have been here decades and would create hell if he had tried it on with them. Some of my crew start to mutter and everyone else is grinning.

Harry arrives just before tea-break. One of the day workers leads him along like a donkey on a rope. This day worker is riding a bike at a pace only they can manage and Harry is taking half-steps so as not to leave his rescuer behind. Even so he looks out of breath and beat. I put him on loading with my one of the lovers —’ pay-back for their earlier fun — and watch to see how Harry is carrying the scars of his week’s induction to the place.

A part of the training is to be taken out to the ‘Burning Ground’ and given a demonstration of what some of this stuff would do if it was given its freedom. Coloured Plasticine that can suddenly scream like a banshee and burn brighter than a star is a great lesson—especially as it is from only a small handful of the stuff, viewed from a distance, and soon you are to be buried in a mountain of it. I recognize none of the usual fears in him—and it makes me grow cold.


The canteen probably had more rules of etiquette than any of those great old manor houses you are always being allowed to step inside via the TV these days. All of them unwritten; all of them rigid. Each long table belonged to a certain section of the factory. Each area on that table belonged to a group of men joined either by their conversation or silence or a newspaper. At the ends of every table sat the card schools. Virtually every seat in the place carried its invisible name tag and purpose. It was impossible to know where to go at first and you were sure to get moved time after time. If you had nothing better to do you could watch the new arrival, standing out in his gleaming kit and bobbing up and down like a player in a game of solitary musical chairs.

But there was one area that no one strayed. A place so obviously out of bounds that it might as well have had a warning barrier flashing around it. In the far corner of the canteen and on a different sized and coloured table sat the owners of this territory. Small and huddled, with white hair, white skin, silent movements, and speaking in whispers, playing a game of cards with its own mysterious rules.

The Nitro Men. They had arrived fourteen months back to commission the new great experiment. To them this place must have seemed like a rest home. Their usual beast would have stood for none of the indignities dished out here. Nitroglycerine was made on a hill so that gravity could inch it slowly and gently to its birth. It did not take kindly to company’s greed or country’s necessity. One of the old guard here told us of a nitro explosion during the war years. How the blast had shot upwards, then gathered itself into a ball and came fisting down, riding the earth for revenge at its creation. It had reached the gun-cotton cathedral and presented the nimble-fingered beauties inside with a fire bath and glass shower in payment for their patriotic service and prayers.

These men were left alone in their silent dream existence. We gave them peace and hoped never to be in their presence when the awakening came. Harry recognized none of this and leapt next to them, crashing his tea-tray down with a noise louder than they could have ever expected to really hear. Everyone in the place looks at him, and then at us, as if it is our responsibility. I manage to catch his eye and, hoping that no one else notices, beckon him to an empty space at our table.

‘Nearly ended up with the OAP’s,’ he yells. Which to be fair is what they do look like—and I am not about to explain that most of them are young enough to be his sons.

He watches us eating our sandwiches and packed lunches as though he is witnessing some tribal ritual for the first time, while he chain smokes his way through a pile of cigarettes — which you have to buy individually at the counter — and drinks black coffee. He holds the cigarettes in a delicate, exaggerated way and appears to drift away with each breath of smoke to some distant, more refined, place. One of the passing men gives him a nudge for a light. Harry looks puzzled for a second and then catches on, but instead of holding the thing out he drops it on the table for the man to pick up and use. Matches are not allowed in this place and there is a safety lighter on the wall—which means a slight walk. Once you are lighted you attract every tired moth in the place. I watch Harry go through the same routine a few times before I realize that his hand is shaking too much to be able to hold it out for anyone to use. Why, would be hard to guess. You are never certain how people will react to being here. Most of those that arrive like heroes don’t make the first week. We’ve often had them run on the first day.

Food is finished and dirty packs of cards and the money bags we wear strung around our necks and tucked out of sight start to appear. Gambling is not officially allowed. The school I’m in plays euchre. They say that the only way to learn this game is to play it. It is so deceptively simple that no amount of watching or reading will get you there. We are down to three players and you need four. It is cut-throat with three and most of the subtlety goes out of it. Harry watches us for a time and then says,

‘You need a fourth.’

I have this theory about cards: You can tell a lot about the deeper side of a person by the way they play their hands. I told this to my wife one day after we had been playing whist with some friends and getting trounced. She said it was all down to the stars and, that she never knew what the hell I was going on about anyway these days and, that next time she was going to partner someone else—if she ever played again. So it is only my theory.

Harry is my partner but he plays like I don’t exist. He keeps trumping my ace leads. I’ll explain: if the other side are going to win an ace lead then they will have to be unable to follow suit and need to trump it. If when it reaches your partner he is unable to follow and it is still winning there is no point in him wasting a trump and offering the chance to the last player to take both trump and ace—not unless there is a good reason or no choice. Harry does it three times and for nothing. So I tell him. It makes no difference. And if he wins, even though I would have done so without his waste, he grins and chuckles as if it were the greatest thing ever. The pair we are playing against love it as they are starting to creep into the lead. Then one of the onlookers who liked nothing better than to sit watching and offering free advice, starts calling him Trumpy—and it sticks.

At the end of that first day he walked up the long road and through the gate like a regular member of the crew. Then as we stood waiting for the green, ex. prison service factory buses, he roared off in a sleek-looking sports car without giving us a second glance. The tales began: he was a bankrupt drinker, a compulsive gambler, someone who had fallen and been sent here to disappear. Any amount of reasons as to why a man of his class could end up here, and at his time of life.

Whatever. He had come, and he stayed. Pretty soon his ways became another part of the tedium that existed in this secret world locked inside its security dome. But there were a few things that only I seemed to observe—a few things that were odd about the parts that made up the whole. Maybe it was just that since coming to work here I had began to take a special interest in the manner that certain elements combined, and the end result of that combination. Explosions, implosions, the coming togethers and partings dreamt-up as we deny what we are really doing. But I know what I saw.

The main thing being, that though he tackled everything with complete confidence, he was unreliable. No matter what job you gave him he would mess it up. In some way, like that first day with those straps, he would go about it in his own manner and never bother to ask. By rights it is up to the chargehand to report anyone that he considers to be a risk. In high explosive buildings the chargehand’s word is law regarding members of his crew and safety of running. It is really just another way of passing the buck, ready for when something goes wrong. When the TV crews are gathering at the gates and there are widows and the only way of finding the remains of the dead is through the hunger of birds flocking to carrion.

I should have had him moved but did not have the heart for it. What made it worse was the fact that you couldn’t tell him anything. He had it firmly locked in his mind that he was right and that you were just too dumb to follow. Trumpy also liked to argue the point. Not in that loud, blustering manner that would have appeared to fit his character and told you the message had struck home, but in a convincing salesman fashion, nearly managing to sell you on the idea. I would try and explain that this wasn’t the best stuff to start getting experimental with and walk away before I really let him have it. I always ended up visualizing my father in his position getting bollocked by someone of my age and it shut me up.

Then there was the way he was with the younger men on the plant. They would run around after him, fetching his fags and drinks at break time, taking over any of the really dirty jobs as though they were below him, letting him have a bike if ever there was one to spare. And never once did I hear him say thank you or see him do a single thing to help any of them get their work done. It was as though he expected nothing less and it was your privilege to serve.

The last thing was the strangest and creepiest. This one time we had a woman come on to the shift as part of a team carrying out a study for some new body of the government. Most of the men always spent a lot of time talking dirty and staring at porno books. Making out that women were only good for one thing and that they wished we had a few to pass around on nights. But the moment one actually intruded into this all male environment, everything changed.

Swearing and farting stopped, the books went back to their hiding places. It was ‘dear wife this,’ and ‘let me get the door for you’ with clean kits and shirts tucked in. One time when they were all in a building and I was out in the remote control room watching them bumbling about on the video link, I yelled down the intercom for them to hurry it up, throwing in as many swear words as I could muster. I knew she was in there with them and did it for the crack. They came out blushing like a bunch of school boys and making faces at me to let me know the terrible mistake I’d just made.

Trumpy though was the opposite. Usually, he never joined in any of the talk or stared at any of the magazines and used to make out that it was all disgusting and low. Now, he seemed to resent the way the men were behaving. You could feel that something was eating away at him and that he hated her presence. He would say disgusting things about women every chance he got when she could hear him, or else tell vile and obvious jokes that even normally would not have made anyone smile. It was as if he had to keep her uncomfortable. After she was gone, he told one of the youngsters who said she had been beautiful: that she was, and good in bed, but a true gentleman never discussed a lady behind her back and winked. And of course the idiot believed him.

Time moved on and Trumpy plodded along. Never unnoticeable: never really noticed. His attendance was good and his private life remained a secret, which in this place was a minor miracle. Sometimes one of the jumped-up shift chemists would ignore the rest of us and chat away to Trumpy like he was an old friend. And maybe he was.

When the end came, it came like this.

We were on a slack period. Perhaps there was even peace in the world. So we’re trying to kill time and look busy. Sweeping floors and sweeping floors. I decide to have a little fun with our tractor driver. He was a real candidate for what I had in mind.

Every few months we have to give urine samples, which along with the blood tests, helped them keep tabs on how much poison we were ingesting. The sample bottles are picked up by anyone who is available and left in the shift room with our numbers written on them. Rumors abound about what has been put in the bottles without ever being detected—but I for one still do it properly. I wait for the tractor driver to visit me on his rounds. I tell him the foreman has been looking for him and wants the sample bottles collected. This driver is still a bit green and I can see that he is all excited about the idea of getting off the plant and going to the surgery, so I add: ‘Tell nurse it is for Rota Two, and remind her to include a couple of the large jam jars. She knows why.’ He drives off, full of the job.

Now the sister on duty this week is called ‘Bloody Mary’ on account of the fact that she is one of the ‘old school’. No messing or idling tolerated. The only possible reason for being admitted to her surgery is that you are dead. Once, someone dropped a rocket on their foot and was carried into her. Bruising, she said, and taped a piece of polystyrene to his hoof and sent him back to loading the train. The next day his own doctor found that he had broken it in two places and would probably hobble for the rest of his life. So as it is nowhere near the time for samples and he is gullible enough to give her the wisecrack about the jam jars, there ought to be a lot of tape and polystyrene flying around shortly.

Trumpy had taken himself off to the foreman’s office sometime back on a private matter. He comes back grinning like Humpty-dumpty. I have to go to the tailor’s shop, he says, waving a chit in the air. The shoes we wear are heavy leather with steel toecaps and they cripple you. If you can swing it you can get excused wearing them and get issued with a pair of lightweight, officer’s brogues. This is what Trumpy has gone and done. I am pleased for him. One of the old guard must have shown him the dodge. None of the youngsters know how to work it—including me. If they have decided to take to him, his passage will be pretty smooth.

The rest of my crew have gone for tea and I am falling asleep at the stand-up desk trying to invent something to put into the logbook. For company I have a rack full of rocket motors that have enough power to send me so far with just the smallest encouragement. It is almost too alluring. Like a sleeping dragon that may or may not decide to wake. One time we lifted one of them for inspection and managed to get the ‘slinging’ wrong. The chains below the crane slipped and shards of red hot steel sprayed down past the open ends of the rocket. According to all the available science it should have ignited and Catherine-wheeled us into atoms and ash. Good luck: bad luck—that is the only equation you have sometimes. I hear another roar as the tractor arrives back.

It’s really a big, sophisticated forklift, but as some concession to the countryside that we are contaminating for centuries to come it is called after what should really be working here.

I imagine that after his brush with Bloody Mary he is going to be spoiling for a little revenge. I pick up one of the fire buckets ready to cool him down—he is a fat swine and probably intends to disregard my rank. He comes in through the door and looks shattered—all white and drained. He is hardly inside when he says: ‘Trumpy’s dead’.

I think there is more to this guy than meets the eye. I was expecting a brawl and he is going in for the psychological approach.

‘Sure,’ I say.

Then I can see that he is not joking. If he is he deserves an Oscar because there are tears streaming down his bloated face. He had called into the canteen on his way to the surgery and Trumpy had arrived on his way back from the tailor’s. He just dropped down dead, he blurts it out over and over as if I ought to order him back to life or something.

And that was it. Trumpy was dead. With all the magnificent ends dreamed up in this place, he had gone standing at a counter waiting for coffee—his new shoes not even laced. All anyone seemed to recall about it was the noise his head had made as it hit the floor. I guess no one had thought it that hard.

Now the funny thing was that instead of this being the end it was the true beginning. All the realities came rushing to fill those shoes. One of the day workers went out to his house to make a bid for the car. He had learnt that Trumpy’s wife did not drive and thought there might be a bargain in the offing. As it turned out the car was like its former owner—an illusion. All worn out and rotting, just holding together for appearance’s sake.

I suppose Trumpy preferred to take what he could while it was going. Laying his cards out of turn and enjoying each trick for what it was worth.


Projected Letters is a literary magazine dedicated to publishing the best new and established writing from around the world.