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.

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