Susan said she’d talked to the girls at the hairdressers, they’d heard the same, there was to be work, the conflict had escalated; the shipyards were to be reopened. I thought of Billy, he’d said he wanted to see the world and I had agreed, it’s good for a boy to travel. But I knew it wouldn’t be long before those predatory recruitment officers would be stalking the tenements. Those anchor adorned uniforms had never left the office, barely seen the ocean, ‘navel officers required’, ‘engineers required’. I’d be there, faking a smile while he signed his name, one of their fat hands resting on his shoulder overseeing the boy’s commitment; you’re doing the right thing son, while Billy glances in excitement from the page to me over his other shoulder. I’d be watching, struggling to maintain my false grin then grimacing behind the officer, that’s my son actually.
It’d been six months since I’d worked.
‘We can’t afford soap’, Susan said,
‘I need a new coat’, she said.
My greasy overalls hung stiff on the back of the bathroom door where I’d left them all those months ago. Nearly all the calluses on my hands had softened. But there was to be work. The shipyards were to be reopened. I took the bus to meet my old boss, Ian, for coffee. My head rested on the window as I passed newsagents’ A-frame headline boards, ‘war’ and ‘Argentina’ dominated the nationals, ‘shipyards’ on the locals. Ian was a short and fat, were he a few inches smaller he could truly be considered round. All my memories of Ian recall him fiddling with his moustache while looking up and down from blueprint to machinery with puzzled eyes. He’d hit hard times too, his chin was red from using cheap razors for too long but now his eyes were bright and rapid, not only did he have contracts, he could subcontract. He told me they needed me. Pulling a jumble of scruffy papers from his inside jacket pocket and flattening them between steaming cups,
‘Ah yes, next Thursday is your team, go down to the yard, they’ll have an office set up.’
He hastily collected them up. With my contract details was an order form for an unfathomable quantity of paint, the colour column specified ‘Battleship Grey’.
I arrived back from the meeting with Ian, Billy thundered down the stairs upon hearing the door. He told me that I’d never guess what I had already predicted.
‘Son, I’m happy for you, just promise me you’ll be careful.’
‘I will Dad, we’ll be home for the summer anyway, and I’ll have earned enough money to take you and mum away for a holiday.’
I forced the smile that I had been preparing while scanning his young and narrow shoulders for the imprint of a fat hand. He told me that all his friends were going too. My smile sank as I thought of their worried mothers scrubbing dishes beyond clean. I thought of their proud fathers too, several of whom would be washing their overalls ready for my instruction while assuring their wives that everything would be alright after all. Where does national pride come from in a nation that has nothing to be proud of? Does it seep into our skin through the ink of a tabloid newspaper? Did we forget how two generations of fathers’ and sons’ unopened Christmas presents accumulated while the years of pine needles were swept away?
They’d set up a temporary office, the walls were thin and I could hear the cacophony of excitement and masculine reunion from outside. I wished they hadn’t painted it grey though I wouldn’t have much preferred navy blue. All lined up, resolute, single file, uniformed in hard hats and overalls. Deakin was in the queue,
‘My boy signed up on Tuesday, he’s shipping out Sunday.’ I overheard.
‘I took my boy to sign up myself.’ I heard another.
I give a few ‘hello’ eyebrows to a few familiar faces and each one that I recognise distracts me from the running total I was keeping in my head. I give the statistics names and faces. Ian is already seated at the desk at the end of the line. He is stroking his moustache with a Biro and leafing through a pad of forms.
‘You need yours here and theirs on this one underneath.’
He makes two sharp horizontal gestures with the pen at the base of the top form though the Biro remains capped.
I nod and hesitantly relieve him of the pen as he pulls back a chair. I take my seat while surveying the length of the queue from this new position. All at once the black and white of the paper blurs and I see the world constructed in a hierarchical pyramid of dotted lines and signatures. I wonder which direction the pyramid would fall without its base. Again I think of Billy, and I think of the ships outside in the docks soon to be on their way out to the South Atlantic, a swarm of silent killers sensing mobilisation. I see the barrels raise their ugly grey heads. I hear the mechanical drone as they move upwards and swivel. And I feel like a dot on which his signature is signed.