In the Museum
By Kostas Peroulis
Translated from the Greek by Joshua Barley
At dawn they would come across the plots of land — about fifty of them in all — through the main gate, and start to gather the coal off the slopes. They clambered up the black mounds on hands and knees, clearing the rooftops and the enclosure fence, up onto the peaks to rake the coal. From there they could see the cars and trolleybuses going along the road to Piraeus. Then they would tumble down to the bottom and clear the way for the wagons that took the coal to the retorts.
The purpose of the photograph, which covered the whole wall like a giant poster, was to make you feel the extent of these coal piles. They stretched for half a kilometre in the courtyard and another two or three in the neighbouring plots, where the bars had now been built. The men looked like little children on their slopes. His grandfather had got him work there just before he died. He pulled some strings and they hired his father, but since he got cancer and died straight away, the junta respected the arrangement and gave him his father’s position even though he wasn’t yet eighteen. He cleaned tar for ten months in the scrubbers and then asked to be transferred to the forge, but his grandfather died and they put him straight into his position in the retorts. All the temporary workers scrambled to get his position. Strikes had been permitted again and as much as Karamanlis ground on, everyone knew that PASOK was going to get in. In the end the union brought in their own man – positions weren’t hereditary any more, they said, like they were under the junta. He replied that they had been hereditary for the last hundred and fifty years, going from father to son when the father died of cancer. He was nineteen years old and considered the retorts tombs. And all those miserable workers – what role models they were! Forty years living inside Gazi with no tomorrow, their only ambition, if they got a raise of a hundred or so, to go up in droves to the cafés on Athinas street after work. He saw them in his house every day at the dinner table, and he had decided that he would make something of his life. He would go up in the world. His grandfather made fun of him – ‘you’ve got a brain, a degree, land, why not find some rich girl from the glass factory across the road…’ He had a friend who upped and left one day, went to work in Perama as a welder and bought a car in five years. When he asked to be transferred to the forge, the welders who fixed the faulty pipes kicked him out so he wouldn’t see, but as he pretended he was scraping off the tar he had a little mirror to look back at how they were welding. When they got wind of this they sent him out to cut pipes on the lathe. But he would sneak in at the changeover without them seeing, get the holder, start up the electrode and weld whatever rubbish he got his hands on. He had a talent for it. When they put him in the retorts, though, his hands got burned. They wouldn’t do for fiddly jobs because fire surged over them for eight hours a day – he had to unseal the caps, flare up the gas and shove the poker into the bowels of the retorts, three metres deep at a thousand degrees Celsius, to draw them and make the coal fall into the carts until it was all gone. Then the stokers filled them up again with fresh coke brought by the wagons. He would lose his position if he didn’t go, because the union made out that they agreed to send their own man to the forge and he would go to the retorts. He put some cash together and bought women’s creams from Ermou, and as soon as his shift was over he’d take the light railway to Piraeus and from there the bus to the general Angelopoulos factory in Schisto. He’d got in there as an assistant nailing crates in the evenings, so that he could see the welders working on the boilers next to him. He got a hundred drachmas for nailing around five hundred crates. Once he got his cash he would hide in the yard, and after closing time he would turn on the electrode and weld metal, seeing how it melted and bound, where it split – on his back and upright in all positions, with various lengths and thicknesses, electrodes and pastes – until he’d slip under the fence and take the last bus home. When Angelopoulos caught him at it one night he was impressed and sent him to a welder for a year – only upright, though, they wouldn’t teach him to do it on his back – with the same wage as the crates.
After Gazi closed and anyone who didn’t have their hand in with PASOK was fired and started going further south for work, he rented a worker’s house in Tavros. In the mornings he went across the main road to the scrapyards and welded. He did that for two or three years, wherever he found work – he wasn’t going to go back into a factory, dead or alive, back to the railings, pipes, aluminium, boilers, constructions – and when they shut down the factories and then the scrapyards that took orders closed too and everyone moved further out, he lived in Rentis, finding regular welding work with Malevitsi. He wasn’t even thirty and he was getting the same as a permanent coal trimmer in the retorts. He met contractors there. He bought a leather jacket, changed into it after work and fell in with them when they knocked off. They went for coffee and he made connections. Soon he left Rentis for his first job on a boat. A contractor who was building a platform for a ship-owner took him on with twenty others – a one and a half million euro contract in today’s money. Inside the manholes he learned right away to work on his back. He got a hundred and fifty thousand drachmas that month, while his father was on eighty before he died, for most of the manholes on the old tankers are forty centimetres high and you have to crawl from compartment to compartment with the electrode, wedging yourself in. Once, on an oil tanker, he had crawled twenty metres in a manhole, between the levels, to find a pipe with his torch. No light or air could get that far. No one from the shipyard had ever been in there. He welded in the dark on his back even though it was at sea in the Aegean in August. The whole boat was made of scrap, melted down and recast, along with its rust. The sheet metal was torn like cigarette papers. It was a woefully low manhole, no room even to put the mask on, and he bent the holder so it wouldn’t catch on the ceiling, and held the electrode ten centimetres from his eyes for the flame to drip onto the perforated sheet. He welded the whole boat like this in three days and nights, with five-metre waves, working through the storm without sleep, to finish before they landed in Turkey where they had a contract to give the boat to the freighter. He’d got fifty thousand drachmas in three days. He wasn’t going below thirty euros an hour now, three hundred a day. He’d made a career for himself, and apart from the cars he’d bought a plot of land by the sea and put fifty thousand in the bank. Then he bought a plot in Drapetsona, where he’d gone after Rentis, and built a three-storey house for his children in Aspropyrgos – there, between Perama and Eleusis, since the contractors wanted to give him a fixed contract at the shipyard to do the outside of the boats, where the joins can be seen. Now that the Ship-building Zone has been closed his phone is ringing like mad and the contractors let him choose who to employ. He went to a five-hundred-tonne tank and took on thirty five welders, half of them sixty years old like him, to complete their revenue stamps. They needed the work. ‘Leatherman got me my pension,’ they would say. That was his nickname, after the jackets he wore. At the end of the day he went and changed into his car in the car park, since there’s nothing worse than finishing work, leaving the Zone and not becoming a new person.
In the corner, high up on the wall, a loft had been put in. He climbed the stairs and emerged above the retorts. A few people were there, who he hadn’t seen from down below. There was a couple at the back, a man of about thirty and a young woman who was reading him a caption about the excursions the union made. The whole loft, a metal construction of about twenty square metres, was dedicated to the workers. Railings had been screwed in around the edge and photographs of them stuck on the inside. He looked at the young man, who was chubby and bearded, with a scarf around his neck. He was looking at the pipes that drew the gas above the retorts towards the condensers, rolling a cigarette. The woman turned and looked out of the window at the courtyard where people had started gathering for the concert. Glass had been put in everywhere and the soot scraped off the firebricks. Back when they had been working, they would break them deliberately to let the cold in. Music began playing outside and the two of them gave a start. They turned around at once to leave and he made them jump as they hadn’t noticed him. They crossed the loft, passed him and went down the stairs, leaving him on his own. He looked at the photographs for a bit, black-and-white ones of workers in rags from the fifties. The captions were all about illnesses, poverty, strikes, Easter parties in the gasworks. Chocolate box pictures. In his time they wore blue overalls, stamped their attendance and had the little forklifts to load the wagons. The whole unit was around thirty stremmata, twenty buildings and the gasholders, and they’d shoved half a dozen photographs in the loft.
He turned around and went down the stairs, past the retorts and out into the courtyard. The young people were drinking beers on the grass and a band was playing some modern rubbish. There still weren’t many punters. Dalaras was on later. He didn’t feel like staying after all. He wanted to go, he had work to do, he was taking a seminar to get certified, since they were hiring welders in Korea and China now. Ship-owners were queuing up for building contracts. Forty euros an hour, all expenses paid. Welders from all over the world were flocking there, Italians, Dutch, Scots, Americans. They put one or two Chinese next to you to learn, but he knew how to not let them see at the crucial moment. He went out of the gate, between the hot-dog stands and turned onto the road to Piraeus. He crossed and went up towards Thiseio. After the Sacred Way he cut into the side-street above the ruins with the tombs. He quickened his pace, coming out onto Asomaton street, went past the little church and into the square, almost at a run. He got on the Megara bus just as the driver switched the engine on. He sat down and took off his leather jacket. There was no one at this time of day, everyone coming back from work had already gone. He bought a ticket. As the bus turned through Psyrri and went out onto Kavalas street he closed his eyes. He was out of breath from running. If he’d missed the bus he’d have had to wait another half hour. He had left the car for his daughter and made his trip on the bus. He should get her a car of her own now she’s turned eighteen – a Smart perhaps, second hand. There was no traffic and the bus went straight out into Haidari. The driver had some quiet pop music playing, lulling him to sleep. Images swirled in his mind. That time when they’d gone up to clean the chimneys and one of them from the forge had fallen twenty metres and broken in half on the stone base. Why did he remember him now? He was always coming in stoned, making trouble. One of the lads. At some point he opened his eyes again. The sea was on his right. There was a breeze now, ruffling the surface a little. He must have slept for a minute against the window. The bus sped soundlessly above Skaramanga. Where the sun was setting it was like a dream. The shipyards with blue cranes above the gentle waves. The Elin petrol reserves among the barren hills on the other side of the motorway. The PetroGaz reserves. The quays jutting out into the sea, with the small oil tankers waiting to load in front of the refineries in the harbour of Hellenic Petroleum. On these little boats the manholes didn’t stretch more than five metres and sometimes the sun came in and he could see it from the depths of the tank. He would open the covers, crawl inside, lay down the sheet and turn on the electrode. He’d lift up the holder and see the soft steel of its core melting and pouring into the crack, the paste ever so gently spilling over on top and cooling as he pulled the holder a couple of centimetres. He welded millimetre by millimetre like a surgeon with his eye fixed on the welding essence, consumed by the heat in a blinding white light. For ten hours he thought of nothing, nothing went through his head, he just looked at the blue beam flickering with sparks behind his mask, completely alone in there with no need to utter a word to anyone, with no sound but the generator and the electric discharge, all his muscles tensed, without a single thought, until he finished the crack and dragged himself through the manhole to the next tank.
Suddenly they turned and the sea disappeared as the road went through Aspropyrgos. He had to tell the ticket collector that he was getting off. They went up the flyover at the junction and for a moment the whole of the city appeared like a photograph, behind the scrapyards and the factories. From his veranda he could see down here to the motorway. They descended again abruptly and came out at the steelworks. Manesis had closed it and maintained only the unit in Volos, which accepted half the salary. They had kept up the strike unrelentingly for nine months, and in the end the courts convicted the ringleaders and the police arrested them. Let him make a museum out of it and sell tickets, the bastard. The rest of Aspropyrgos, though, was buzzing, full of refineries and factories – small and large ones, dirty ones with broken glass, but living ones, and between them apartment buildings, warehouses and schools, offices, petrol stations, life. He had to get off, otherwise they would go towards Eleusis and at the next stop he’d have to walk half an hour back on the motorway.
Originally published as Στο Μουσείο, from Αυτόματα (Antipodes, 2016)
Michalis G. Kallimopoulos
Los Athens (2012)
Watercolour, acrylics, on paper, 33.4 x 22.5 cm