Losing Helen

John Burnside

Back in the 1970s, when my mother was still alive, she got me a job at the fruit and nut processing factory where she worked. It was a good job, clean and fairly light compared to the steel mill where I’d been employed the previous summer and, like all food-related work, it had its perks. My favourite nuts were almonds, which I would send through the fryer in illicit batches, mostly for personal consumption, and it didn’t hurt, during the first few days, to hear from some of the older women that almonds were thought to enhance sexual performance. Amused and incredulous as I was, I ate them by the handful for several weeks, then noticed that I had gained eight pounds and quit cold turkey. I hadn’t realised a body could suffer withdrawal symptoms from giving up nuts, but I had a difficult week, towards the middle of August, when I dreamed of those pale, ridged lozenges dripping from the end of a conveyor belt in a bright slick of oil and salt.

There were other perks, too: it was easy to smuggle half-pound bags of salted peanuts out to the loading bay, then pick them up later to sell on or pass round at parties, and the company was good, the majority of the employees being older or middle-aged women. Best of all, the company operated a limited shift system, so there was no night work, just six-till-two and two-till-ten, with an hour’s worth of breaks over the eight hours for food and – for the handful of men who operated or maintained the larger machinery – tense and brilliant bouts of table football in the bare pink and white canteen that overlooked the road. All the men played table football: it was peer-pressure mandatory, like reading the Sun. I didn’t enjoy it particularly – I didn’t enjoy real football for that matter – but I soon developed the proficiency not to embarrass myself in a game of doubles. After all, I was a student, in name at least, and I couldn’t appear to be lacking in any of the manly virtues. The jury was still out on my sexual performance, but I kept goal with the best of them and occasionally dazzled with an explosive winning shot from my own goal line.

Women didn’t play table football; for them, the canteen’s main attraction was the newly installed fruit machine. On Fridays, some of them would break open their neat little pay packets and pull at that machine for the entire half-hour of a meal break, sometimes winning, mostly just standing with their eyes glued to the display, figuring out the odds, looking for a nudge, trying to predict the next win. This happened mostly on the back-shift, when things were quieter and nobody made too much of it if a break got extended slightly, whether in an attempt to win something back, or just to empty a last handful of change into the machine and have done with it. These women who played the machine were older than most of the others; sometimes their daughters would be in the room, watching from the corner of one eye, embarrassed, but joking with their friends about how much money the old girl could save, if she would just stay at home. Nobody ever tried to intervene, though, even when one of the day-shift players stayed on, and the best part of a week’s pay disappeared into the dim clunk and whirr of machinery. Everybody in that canteen knew what it was like to need a win, one way or another, and just watching somebody play with such total conviction, no matter how ill-founded, kept the possibility of winning in the air, a soft, dark presence in the room, like a tacit agreement, or a common memory.

Because the men on shift were so few, I often had to play table football to make up a four, but the rest of the time I watched the fruit-machine women. It fascinated me that they could keep coming back after they had lost so hard, trotting back and forth to the till to get change, then jamming the money into the slot and waiting, grim-faced and strangely calm, while the wheels turned. One day, during my first week, I watched as a thin, grey woman called Wee Ellen won the jackpot, and everybody was pleased for her. At her next break, though, she came back and played away her winnings, losing with such consistency, and with such breathtaking calm, that it seemed as if money had nothing to do with what was going on. It was a ritual, a magic act: Wee Ellen could make great fistfuls of coins appear, as if from nowhere, and she could make them disappear just as easily. It had something to do with time, I thought: everybody covered for the afflicted woman for as long as her money lasted, and she herself was granted, for a few intense, possibly everlasting minutes, the privilege of being off the clock in a temporal limbo, while her workmates carried on packing, or eating doughnuts. To lose a very large sum was the ultimate achievement. This usually happened on a Friday, when the wages were given out: the losing player would be talked about all weekend, then treated with an oddly detached and not altogether kindly reverence for several days after that. Nobody ever won big and kept what they won, but if they had, they would have been envied, despised a little, and bitterly ignored. To lose big, however, was to be marked out as holy, at least for a while.

Though an outsider, I felt that holiness from the first, and I thought I understood it. I loved to watch as the women came and went, feeding money into the machine, or standing around a player, looking on in silence as she moved into the dark zones of loss. Wee Ellen, Betty G., Margaret, Agnes, Betty Turner. They were the hard core: married women in their fifties who really had nothing to lose. I loved to watch them, and though I was not alone in this, I preferred to believe that nobody else understood their games as I did. The other people in the canteen weren’t really privy to the women’s secret world, but I fancied I knew what they were doing and, just by watching, I got to share in their magical relationship with time. In this, I also fancied I was alone, one of life’s canny observers, one of the sensitives; but I was wrong. One bright, back-shift afternoon, when all the doors and windows were flung open for the least hint of a breeze off the grass, I noticed that someone else was watching the fruit-machine women – not with the usual half-amused, half-suspenseful air, but locked in with the same reverent fascination that I felt, the same sense of privilege. She was sitting by the window at the other end of the canteen: cradling a salt-white teacup in her hands, her elbows on the table, her round, very white face reflecting the glare off the road, she looked like she was lit up from inside, and from the moment I looked up and noticed her, she was aware of me, though she didn’t acknowledge the fact for the longest time. It was a test, I think: if I had looked away, if I’d pretended I hadn’t seen her, she would have let it slip, but after a moment, when I didn’t turn away, she lifted her chin slightly and gave me a faint but complicitous smile, holding the moment just long enough before turning back to watch Betty G. feed her last two coins into the machine. I didn’t know who this girl was and I didn’t even find her particularly attractive, or not in the usual way, yet there was something about her manner that drew me in, and over the next few weeks she became, as the one alternative to the absolute tedium of that particular workplace, the object of my first real and lasting infatuation. I found out later that her name was Helen Watson and that, though everyone in the factory thought of her as a student, she had dropped out of university earlier that year and was still wondering what to do next. It was a decision she never had to make, but that didn’t stop her from coming to the conclusion, some time during that summer, that whatever she elected to do, it wouldn’t be what she wanted.

This is a story I am telling myself, though I have no idea why. Nothing happens in this story, or nothing much: boy meets girl, to some extent, though not in any significant way; boy meets girl and girl dies, yes, but not in a way that makes for a good story, or not one with the beginning, middle and end that a good story requires – by which, of course, I mean one of those stories that can be told aloud, a public event, something more than a mere dream. Boy meets girl and girl dies: but girl dying had nothing to do with boy and, had girl not died, boy would have forgotten her as easily as he forgot all the other girls he met and liked in passing and didn’t weave stories around for the next thirty years.

I didn’t see Helen again till the end of that week. It was a Friday morning; I was sliding down the ladder on the side of the building, my hands and face and the front of my white boiler suit covered in husks and dust and sticky masses of the thick, pungent grease – a heady mix of groundnut and lubricating oil – that everyone referred to as ‘peanut butter’. I had been on the ladder that ran precariously up the side of the building, cleaning out the extractor fans, my body pressed hard to the wall, one arm reaching blindly into the depths of the machinery, gouging out thick, salty layers of grease and compacted husks from the huge metal rotors. It was one of the least attractive of the routine maintenance tasks I had been assigned, almost as bad as cleaning the glazing tanks – an occasional hour or so of dredging dead starlings from the still pools of glazing oil in the roof, then carrying them out to the dumping ground behind the loading bay for disposal. I disliked both jobs, in principle at least, though there was a certain grim satisfaction in locating every last bundle of softened bones and feathers in the glazing tanks and hauling them out, the necks flopping, the eyes stitched shut, the feathers a slick of oil and faded neon. The fan cleaning was riskier, though, and it was probably relief that made me celebrate its completion by performing an extravagant fireman’s slide down the ladder, my hands barely touching the safety rail, free-falling for a few precious milliseconds before I hit the ground below, landing on my feet more often than not, though not always as gracefully as I would have liked. This was what Helen witnessed that Friday morning: a sudden rush of white overhead, then a boy in clumpy work boots tumbling like Icarus from the sky, his feet hitting the tarmac with a thud before he staggered towards her, only just managing to stay upright, his hands and overalls spotted with husks and grease, a stupid grin on his similarly besmirched face. She had come outside to sneak a cigarette between official smoke breaks; the women did that sometimes, though they usually slipped out through the swing door at the far end of the packing room, while another woman kept a lookout.

She must have been miles away, thinking she’d found a quiet spot where nobody would find her for ten precious minutes, so when I dropped to the tarmac a few feet away, she was genuinely startled. I hadn’t seen her either, or not till the last moment, but it felt oddly natural that she was there and, for a moment, I imagined she had intended this encounter. The notion pleased me, and I smiled. ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I didn’t see you there.’

She smiled back. Though she was away from the women’s domain, she was very easy in herself, confident, not pretending to be shy, or hard-bitten, the way some of the unmarried girls did when they were out of their territory, though she wasn’t flirting either. ‘What the hell were you doing up there?’ she said, apparently amused.

‘Cleaning the fan,’ I said.

‘Ah,’ she said. ‘So you’re the one.’ She looked me up and down. ‘Well, you’re still in one piece, at least.’

The remark took me by surprise, but I had to laugh. She was referring to an incident a few weeks earlier, when the fan had come on suddenly just moments after I had pulled my arm from the rotors. This wasn’t supposed to happen: according to health and safety procedures, there was only supposed to be one key to turn the fans off and on, and that was lodged securely in the pocket of my overalls while I was on the ladder. Health and safety procedures were of no consequence, however, to the zealous chargehand who was working that shift: keen to impress the bosses with his production figures, he’d noticed that the fan was sometimes left in the off position for longer than necessary when the underling charged with its maintenance stayed out in the yard for an unscheduled cigarette break. Though I didn’t smoke at that time, I’d done it myself, getting comfortable up on the ladder and gazing out over the wasteground beyond the loading bay, soaking up the touches of green along the ditches that ran behind the industrial estate, the free flight of gulls or crows over the muddy fields of willow and rushes, the high blue of the summer sky. There’s nothing like factory work to make a soul appreciate the outdoors, even in its humblest forms.

Unknown to me, the Zealous Chargehand – I forget his name, but he lives on as a type, like the Prodigal Son, or the Unfaithful Servant – had secretly cut his own copies of all the keys, including the key to the fan, so when he came along and found the fan switched off at a time of day when he thought it should be running, he’d produce the unofficial key and start the thing up. It should have cost him his job, but it didn’t – mostly, according to the gossip, because his mother was having an affair with the factory manager. As for me, I had experienced a moment of strangely exhilarating shock when the fan suddenly kicked in with a great rush of noise and motion, like an aeroplane propeller, just a second after I’d extricated my thin, white arm from the tangle of blades, and it had taken me a while to realise what had happened. I’d been angry for a moment, but anger doesn’t last long in factories – where the practical joke is one of the few defences against an altogether crushing boredom – and by the time I learned what the Zealous Chargehand had done, I had slid down into a cold, hard resolve to get my own back. Back then, I was a keen advocate for the healing power of revenge and I was soon plotting a riposte that came a few days later and involved a Sortex machine, a loose wire and a compressed airline.

Now, with the recollection not so much of my own close shave as of the Zealous Chargehand’s ashen face and faraway eyes as he lay stunned in the dust and shadows behind Sortex No. 3, I gave her a big grin. ‘Yep,’ I said. ‘That was me.’ I was still basking in the notion that I could have died – a delicious idea to anyone who has ever done manual work – had the Zealous Chargehand, now universally referred to as The Idiot, found his key a moment earlier. The fan would have torn my arm out of its socket and ripped it to shreds, but that would only have been a beginning, for the sheer power of the machine would have thrown what was left of me out and away from the side of the building, tossing me into the air like a rag doll. It was an idea that I hadn’t been able to put out of my mind for days afterwards, but it was an idea that made me feel contented and strong, not invulnerable, but oddly indifferent. Now, with a carefree smile on my face that spoke volumes about my devil-may-care personality, I was joking about it all with this smart, confident girl – and that felt good. Of course, under the circumstances – a Zealous Chargehand hovering once more by the stopped fan, a sneaked cigarette break that had gone on for far too long – we couldn’t linger, but this chance meeting was the start of something, the step that came after that brief exchange of looks in the canteen a few days before, and led on to – what?

Not a romance, as it happened, and nothing like love. Not strictly a friendship either, or not on my part. It was nothing at all really, just an accidental meeting between people detained against their will and better judgment in a place where neither of them belonged. They should have seen that nobody belongs in a place like that, but they couldn’t see the others, they could only see themselves: young, moderately clever, hopeful, bored. Had we not been so bored, we might never have met; had she not been transformed by death I would have forgotten her long ago. As it happens, however, I have held her in my memory for thirty years and there is no explanation for this other than the fact that, five weeks after that first encounter, she went home and died, without a word of warning, while her mother and father watched television downstairs with the sound turned down low, so their daughter, who had come home from work that day complaining of a pain in her back, could get a good, long sleep.

Every story is supposed to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and it doesn’t matter what order they come in, as long as they’re there. One of the things that makes a memory different from a story is that it might well come with a beginning and an end, but the middle tends to blur or even vanish altogether. The beginning and the end have more urgent claims on the attention, even in the most inauspicious of circumstances – the day-shift in a food-processing factory, say. Any first meeting is the occasion for a romance that might last a lifetime, a thin, subliminal stratum of scents and sounds that can be awakened years later by the faintest stimulus – even if the moment came to nothing. Meanwhile, any and every ending, especially if it involves a death, is easily transformed by the imagination into a defining moment, the point to which some enduring bitterness, or widescreen tragedy, or fond self-regard traces its poignant origin. The middle of this memory is much like any other: a series of snapshots, half-remembered conversations over lunch or tea breaks, fleeting glances, smiles and half-smiles, assumptions, hopes, doubts. Sometimes those conversations were intimate and private – as far as such a thing was possible in that setting – though they were more often conducted on the run, with interruptions and asides from our fellow workers. Sometimes the entire exchange would take place through intermediaries, a strand of significance winding its way through an otherwise banal stream of banter or gossip, a conversation inside a conversation, an argument within an argument, private references and in-jokes bouncing across the surface of public discourse like skipping stones that the others barely noticed. Or one of us would be pinned down in the canteen by Bob, the factory’s homespun philosopher, and the other would come to the rescue, jumping in on a debate about the existence of God, or the future of the Labour movement, with a smart remark or an absurdist digression.

Helen was particularly good at that, perhaps because she saw herself as contrary, one who questioned what other people took for granted. At some point – whether it had been months or years before, I never knew – she had decided to ignore the givens, to seek out the neglected beauties and wonders. She wanted to learn a way through to the things other people didn’t appreciate, the music and books, the habits, the moments they barely noticed. I often suspected that this was a discipline she had decided to practise the way other people practise yoga or ballroom dancing. She was appalled by how readily the people around her – people who had more reason than most to question the way the social machinery was put together – were entrapped by what they had been told. At the time, she seemed smart; yet now that I am more than twice her age, I am surprised that I didn’t see how naive she was, or how frightened by a life that had just moved away from her, leaving her stranded among people that she probably liked, after a fashion, even as she acknowledged that all of them, including me, were as much strangers to her as she was to them.

We were strangers; I see that clearly now. Nevertheless, over the next few weeks, in a rough-and-ready way, we became friends. By default, as much as anything, we were thrown together, and there were times when we were alone in that canteen, two against the world. That wasn’t enough, though – not for a boy just out of his teens in a town where young men barely talked to women, much less befriended them. I wasn’t particularly attracted to her – in the way that most of us use that term, most of the time, which is to say, sexually. In that era, however, for boys of my class and background, everything was sexual – which meant that, sooner or later I had to do something more than just talk. Something else – something more – was supposed to happen. That was the law that governed any meeting between people of our age, in that place. Something is supposed to happen and if it doesn’t happen by itself, the boy has to make it happen. Part of me recognised that this law wasn’t quite right, and I waited for as long as I could, but the other part of me was convinced that I was supposed to make my move. One Friday, towards the end of my shift, we were sitting at what had become our chosen table by the window in the canteen, talking about Mexico. She had a thing about Mexico, some half-baked plan, I suppose, that involved going to Oaxaca and disappearing into the desert for a while. She was talking about that, about the desert and the Day of the Dead, while I waited for the right moment to say what I wanted to say, and she must have sensed something – my tension, the weekend coming up, some muffled trace of need or desire – because she suddenly stopped talking and gave me an odd, almost baffled look.

‘You’re too young for me,’ she said.

‘What’s that?’

‘You were just about to ask me out,’ she said. ‘And I wanted you to know that you’re too young for me. Besides, the last thing I need in the world right now is a boyfriend.’ She looked away, and I knew she was about to get up and go outside for a cigarette. Back then, you could smoke indoors, but she didn’t like to. She preferred to stand out on the loading bay, or in the grey angle of concrete and dust under the extractor fan.

‘I’m a year younger than you,’ I said. ‘That’s all.’

She turned back and gave me a tight little smile. ‘I’m not talking date of birth here,’ she said.

I didn’t know what to say. I was hurt, probably, but I wasn’t going to admit that, not even to myself. ‘OK,’ I muttered, finally. ‘That’s fine.’

She shook her head wearily, and I had the idea that she had been through this type of conversation a few times in recent months. ‘I like you,’ she said. ‘I like talking to you and stuff.’ She studied my face, her expression cool, slightly curious. ‘It passes the time,’ she said.

‘Gee, thanks.’

She laughed. ‘You know what I mean,’ she said.

‘Do I?’

She shook her head slightly. ‘See what I mean?’ she said.

‘What?’

She stacked her cup and saucer on top of her plate and stood up. For a moment, I thought how plain she looked, not at all the kind of girl I wanted to go out with, then she turned slightly and she looked different again, a strange beauty lighting up her face. She smiled. ‘Too young,’ she said; then she carried her crockery to the table by the serving hatch, set it down and disappeared. I knew where she was going and I could have followed her, but I didn’t. In some dim corner of my mind, I understood her and it occurred to me that I hadn’t really wanted to ask her out, it was just that I didn’t know what else to do. It was the done thing – and to most girls of her age, in that place, at that time, to have done otherwise would have seemed insulting.

I didn’t see her again till the following Monday. She was in the canteen when I got there, sitting with Erica, the half-German girl from quality control. When she saw me, she smiled, but I wasn’t sure if the smile was for me, or just a reaction to something Erica had said. Not that I cared, at that precise moment. I was hungover still, and desperate for fried food and a cup of sweet milky tea. I didn’t know what Helen did at the weekends, but it had to be better than my nights out at the Strathclyde bar, drinking with old schoolfriends and trying to avoid the odd flying glass. Naturally, because my evenings were so dismal, I suspected her of a complicated and exotic social life. I couldn’t help but imagine her in the clothes she didn’t wear to work, the dresses, the shoes, maybe a hat. I imagined her taking long walks in the countryside with her secret lover, an older man, perhaps, with a wife who didn’t understand him. Sometimes I hated her for that. I didn’t hate her for long, however, because two days later, on a warm but perfectly ordinary summer’s day, she left the factory at the end of the day-shift and, without saying a word to any of us about how she felt, went home to bed. It was four in the afternoon by the time she got there; when she got in, she told her mother she had a bit of a bug and, with a cup of milky tea in one hand and a book in the other, headed upstairs to sleep it off. Her parents looked in on her twice that evening, but they didn’t want to disturb her. In the morning, when she didn’t get up at the usual time, her dad went in and found her dead, her tea untouched on the bedside table, her book – I have often wished that I knew what she was reading – face-down beside her on the bed, as if she had paused to think about what she had just read, and was still considering it somewhere, far away, in a place where her thoughts could never again be interrupted.

Meanwhile, in the world outside, life went on. When I look back, it seems odd to think that this continuing life included me. Bored, oblivious, passing the time of a daylight that no longer included her. At the factory, we didn’t hear the news until two days later – the Friday of that week, in fact, the day when the women stood in gangs around the fruit machine to throw away their pay. I’d looked for Helen on the Thursday, but I hadn’t worried at not seeing her. Towards the end of the day – I was working a double, so I stayed on till ten – somebody told me that ‘my girlfriend’ hadn’t turned up for work that morning, but that didn’t worry me either. Naturally, it didn’t occur to me that she might be dead. When I did learn what had happened, I felt an odd sense of having been betrayed, not only because I found it difficult to believe that someone who was so alive could go home and die, in complete silence, while her parents did the dishes or watched television, but also because she died while I was still playing what I understood to be the accepted courtship game, which made everything that had actually happened between us – all the conversations and minor but significant exchanges of likes and dislikes, of doubts and notions – seem like the preamble to something that never occurred.

After a while, though, I could see that her death was a gift, of sorts. With her gone, everything was simpler: our friendship was purer, clearer, more romantic, fraught with possibilities, the courtship game not entirely cancelled out. Later that night, walking over to the Strathclyde at the end of the back-shift, I stopped for a bird that was singing in a tree on Corporation Street, singing for no reason, or so it seemed, beguiled by the amber streetlights, or maybe the soft yellow glimmer in the record shop across the square. It was always a relief to get out of the heat and walk away in the cool of the evening, but that night I experienced more than the familiar satisfaction of having a shift behind me, more, even, than the pleasure of being out in the dark, on my way to friends and alcohol and music. There was no reason it should have been any different from any other night, but that night everything felt like a promise: the air, the tree, the bird, the spots of light here and there around the market square, all of it was more than usually present, like a promise or a pledge that was being kept, moment by moment, against considerable odds. I have nothing special to say about that moment, other than the commonplace factual details: for example, it had rained for a while around seven o’clock, but was now clear, with only a faint dampness to the air, a soft, sweet dampness that was mostly green, but had this faintly silverish thread of song running through it for no reason; or I could say that there was something at the far side of the square, some cluster of shadows around a doorway, which I couldn’t make out, but sensed as a vague benevolence in the night – yet as odd as it sounds, and though it was in part genuinely grim and in part self-consciously tragic, my mood, for this one, mildly epiphanic moment, might be best expressed in the common or garden and painfully trivialised phrase happy to be alive.

Much of the time, the dead are with us, more present on so many occasions than we give them credit for. At night, I get up and wander about the house, listening to their voices, seeing them as they once were, and the old religious idea that being is a gift seems more acceptable to me than it usually does in the plain light of day. I spend as much of my time as I can being alone, but I never feel completely alone unless the dead are there, in their uniforms and aprons and Sunday best. I know most of them well, but why Helen should appear in their midst so often is a puzzle to me. We were never lovers, or even very close friends; we never actually touched – yet I remember her alongside my most cherished ghosts and I cannot envisage a time when I will forget her. She comes unbidden, like my mother and my infant brother and my near mythical grandfather, immense and graceful in his black coat, his massive, skilled hands still seen through a child’s eyes. Compared to them, Helen is nothing to me – yet she comes, and she is not alone, for there are others who, by whatever logic memory would work in a more controlled world, should not be there. Like those others, she is not really part of my life. She is a story, nothing more – but maybe this is why we tell ourselves stories, in order to work out why we remember some things more than others, why some events live on in the mind, why some faces and voices persist for decades, to be resurrected in the dark by an insomniac who wakes knowing he has lost something on the way, but has no idea what it is. Which means, of course, that the story I am telling is not about this dead girl after all. It’s not about her life or her death; it’s about what I lost and how, whatever that lost thing might be, it resembles her in some way.

A week after she died, the women were back at the machines: Wee Ellen, Margaret, Agnes, the two Bettys. I see them in my mind’s eye as clearly as if they were here and, although they do not come unless I summon them, I feel a warmth – a fondness – for these phantoms that I can’t quite manage for my resident ghosts. I think at the time I was offended by the way they moved on after Helen walked home and died. I was irritated by the sound of the slot machine and their voices going back and forth, hushed in speculation or raised in the grim humour of the sworn loser’s banter. For a couple of days after we heard the news, they had been softened with curiosity and a sense of mortality, but they had quickly shifted into that steady routine of life goes on. I think each of them, in her solitary moments, wondered about Helen for weeks or months after she died, but there was nothing to say when they were together, or nothing more than the usual snippets of shorthand: it’s a queer thing, who’d have thought it, the poor girl, all her life in front of her, her poor parents. I see now that, though I mistook it for indifference, the rest was tact: they didn’t want to appropriate her, they wanted to let her lie. It’s a tact that I wish I shared, sometimes, because whenever I look back and see a girl made beautiful by memory and regret smoking in an angle of the loading bay, or sitting on the grass, her head tipped to the sky, I know that whatever it is I am mourning, it isn’t her. It never has been. If I knew what it was, maybe I could let her go, just as Betty G. and Wee Ellen let her go and got on with their lives, feeding their wages into the slot machine and watching the brightly coloured wheels turn with no show of anticipation or regret, and no real concern as to what they would do with their wins and losses when they came, all things being equal, and things lost more equal than most.