A Short Story from the November 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard
Trevor was in the office, standing by Eileen's desk. He was giving her the detailed costs of the glazing in the shop extension that the company had just finished building. Through the windows he could see into the glazing shop where his men were working. Old Len was tidying the racks of glass at the back of the shop, moving large sheets around with the speed and safety which came as second nature after years in the trade. Jack, helped by young Adrian, was trimming large sheets of plate glass on the cutting table for a set of shop windows.
Although they must all have heard the small street door open, none of them looked up at the head that peered inside.
"Bloody 'ell! Excuse my French," Trevor said to the two women in the office. "It's one of them."
The head was certainly unusual - old-fashioned even. It belonged to a man about thirty-five years old, but he had long blond hair down around his shoulders. It did not look very clean or tidy, and it was made worse by the large brown bloodstain on the cotton scarf he wore as a headband. And Trevor had seen him only the evening before.
Eileen did not get up to look. She said, "What do you mean, 'one of them'?"
"Oh, sorry, that convoy of hippies, or whatever they are, that went along the bypass yesterday. The police broke them up - didn't they just!"
The manager came out of his office looking redfaced.
"Have you got an estimate for me on that Collinson job yet?"
"That's the factory rooflights? I gave you an estimate last Thursday."
"You know I can't give that to head office. They made it clear that it's got to be a cheap job. Old man Collinson's a friend of our Company Chairman. He wants to do him a favour. Can we do it?"
"The only way we can cut the price any more is by underpaying the men. You know that."
"I'm not concerned how you do it. Can it be done? Can I tell them yes - or not?"
Trevor was used to being cornered like this, and he had evolved his technique for getting out of trouble. Even so, he began to sweat slightly as he tried to respond coolly.
"Well, I'll ask them, of course."
"All right, but time's getting short. He wants to know today."
"All right! I'll ask 'em."
"If you want my opinion, you 'ask 'em' too much. You should try telling 'em. You're the foreman!" He turned back into his office and shut the door.
"Yes, sir." said Trevor quietly, narrowing his eyes slightly as he looked at the blank door. He could have given vent to his anger in front of Eileen, the accounts clerk. She was a mature woman of about forty-five, and she had no more love for the boss than Trevor had. But young Caroline, the manager's secretary, shared the office, and she would tell him every wood.
The hippy was standing inside the door, waiting for someone to notice him. He was wearing wide bottomed blue jeans, faded almost white, but yellowing on the thighs, and an embroidered blue jean jacket with the sleeves torn out and the torn edges fringed. His bare arms were almost covered in tattoos.
After several quick glances in the direction of the office, Len turned round and came forward. "Yes?" he said.
"What's the cheapest glass you sell?"
"Horticultural - greenhouse glass."
"How much is it?" The man's accent sounded to Len like Tyneside.
"Well," he puffed, rather impatiently, "it partly depends on how you want it cut. But it works out about fifty pence a square foot."
The hippy nodded thoughtfully. Then he asked, "Do you sell any flexible sort of putty? Y'know - stuff that stays a bit rubbery."
Len was frowning and making little grunting noises in the back of his throat. "What's it for?" he asked.
"Well - a bus."
"A bus! Oh, no! You want rubber mouldings for that. And safety glass."
"Yes, I know, but . . . " He looked very embarrassed.
From inside the office, Trevor could not hear what was being said. It was obvious, however, that this was another messy problem and he wanted to avoid it if possible. He checked a sudden urge to go out and get rid of the man. He would probably have been rude to him - just because the manager's spite still rankled. The man looked embarrassed, on the defensive. He probably would not have fought back. Trevor had taught himself not to pass these things on to his men. but he realised that he was still capable of doing it to a customer, a perfect stranger.
Eileen got up and went over to the filing cabinet, only so that she could see into the workshop. "What a scruff!" she said. Len was coming towards the office. There was no escape. Trevor struggled to decide what his attitude towards the man should be, in front of his own workmen, when in the next few minutes he would have to ask them to do several hours of unpaid work.
"Trev, would you have a word with this chap, please? Apparently, he's got broken windows in a bus." Len would not look Trevor in the eye. He was ready to slip away, once Trevor had accepted the problem, but Trevor would not let him. As he walked slowly across towards the hippy, he turned Len with him, asking, "Has he been to a windscreen firm?"
By now, the man could hear the question. By now, Jack and Adrian were hardly pretending to work at all. They wanted to see - and particularly to hear - what was going to happen. As Trevor looked at him, the man answered the question.
"They won't do it. It's out of date. The bus is twenty years old. And it would have cost an arm and a leg." He looked round at their expressionless faces, his body getting ready to leave, defeated. Then he added, "Anyway, it's not just the bus - all the vans - eighteen windows, side windows, all together."
"You're from that 'peace convoy' aren't you?" Trevor said. He frowned round at the others. They were frowning, puzzled.
"I saw your windows get broken - yesterday, wasn't it - up on the Common?"
"What happened?" Adrian asked.
"The police wrecked us," the hippy said.
"I don't believe you!" said Adrian. He looked to Trevor for support.
"It's true," Trevor said. "A lot of people besides me stopped and watched it."
"Where was this?" Jack asked curtly, groping for the reasonable explanation which, he was sure, was there, somewhere.
"On the bypass - Bentley Common," said Trevor.
"Oh, well, that's it, isn't it?" said Jack. "There's no camping allowed on the Common. There's always trouble over that."
"We weren't camping," said the hippy. "We weren't even going on there. We were heading south. The police diverted us on to that piece of land. We didn't know what for, to begin with. They just blocked the road and directed us on to the grass. Then the Transit van opened up, and they all jumped out with their truncheons and smashed everything they could get at."
"Including your head, by the look of it," said Len.
"Yeah," he said, looking at the floor and scraping it with the toe of his boot. "They were dragging the babies and the girlfriend out. And I thought I could stop them."
Adrian was incensed. He turned on Trevor. "Why didn't you people try to stop the bastards?" The older men looked at one another, knowing that his question was unfair, but unable to answer it properly because they felt a certain amount of guilt.
"Anyway," said the hippy, beginning to turn away at last. "I won't waste your time. I can see that it's nothing like shop windows." He nodded towards the cutting table where Jack and Adrian had been working.
"Well . . . " Jack said loudly, making the hippy pause, but not quite knowing what he was going to say next. All three men looked at Trevor, and he looked from one to the other with a worried expression on his face, remembering the Collinson job again. " . . . where's your bus now?" Jack asked eventually.
"Up on the Common. Where else? We can't really move. I think we shall be breaking the law if we take the vans on the road in that state."
"You're breaking the law by stopping overnight there," said Jack.
"What did you do last night?" asked Len. "It poured with rain about two o'clock, didn't it?"
"You can say that again!" said the hippy. "We just kept mopping up."
"Have you got the dimensions of these windows?" Trevor asked. The man pulled a piece of paper from the breast pocket of his jacket and handed it to him.
"Christ almighty!" Trevor said. "This is about two hundred quid's worth!" He stared at the paper for a minute. Then he refolded it and put it into the top pocket of his khaki overall. Then he said to the hippy, "You realise that ordinary glass just won't do for this sort of job, don't you? It's got to be safety glass - which we don't stock - or else perspex, which is damned expensive". Trevor continued to look him straight in the eyes. The hippy did not know quite what to do. His eyes searched Trevor's face for a clue to what was in his mind.
"You've got a bank account, of course," Trevor said, nodding.
"I've got a cheque book, but . . . "
"That's what I meant," said Trevor. "So if we could manage to find some off cuts of plastic and some sealant filler and could come out, say, this evening, you could pay on the spot by cheque, couldn't you?" He raised his eyebrows to encourage an affirmative answer.
"Well - yes."
Trevor looked at Jack and Adrian and Len. Their faces were totally devoid of expression. They were going along with it.
When the hippy had gone, still not quite certain what had really been agreed, Trevor told them about the Collinson job.
"They've got a f***ing cheek!" said Jack. "They want the 'favour' to come out of our pockets, not theirs. That's about twenty hours unpaid overtime each in that."
"Yes, it will be," Trevor agreed, "but, in these circumstances, you'd be prepared to do it for the basic pay, would you?" He looked round at their reactions. Jack opened his mouth, blinked, and then shut it again. A wry smile dawned. Then he clapped his hands together and said, "Right! Let's get that van loaded up and get out to Bentley Common. We've got an emergency job on."
Adrian looked at his face, trying to be sure what line he was taking. Jack looked the young man in the eyes and said, "I don't know what the company will do if that cheque bounces."
"Now that would be very unfortunate," said Trevor.
"It's your arse they'll kick, Trev," said Len.
"Yes," said Trevor thoughtfully, "it usually is."