The Night Shift

Somewhere up north – after hours travelled on lamp-less back roads and head-lit motorways, Services flashing past like apparitions and hedgerows blotting out the last sliver of sunset, flat out, foot to the floor in the transit borrowed for the night (or the day after or before) – there’s a place that’s arrived at called ‘home’.

Noon. A mirage, an image, an unreachable ideal, a yearning that won’t budge until it clouds everything.

Mid-afternoon. The foreman falls into a trap lain with daydreams and errors, “Grimes, piss off home, you’re good for nowt today” and he’s away like a greyhound out of the traps.

Home by three, down the back lane, over the fence, fingers in the gutter above the door, spare key found, no-one’s in. Good. Quick brew, then up to bed, explain later how the job finished early so they sent you home: Friday so the boss wants away too, you see.

“Jesus Christ, what you doing lad, practising for the mastication Olympics?”
Her eyes think they heard differently and shoot a glance, and then check back, embarrassed at the thought of the thought.
No time to savour the tinned veg and Fray Bentos, just get it down as fast as.
“And how come you were already in…not skiving off again are you?”
Explain how the job finished early so they sent you home. And how the boss likes to be away on a Friday, you see.
“I’ll bloody well check, lad…I’ll bloody well….”
“Leave him, pet…”
Voices trail away and he’s back there, the only voice he can hear is the voice of soul.
Marvin, Otis, Johnny and Jimmy, Edwin and Earl and Rose and countless unknown yet familiar voices, painting pictures of love lost and love found in a place a thousand miles away from here. Steel Town, The Motor City, Wheelsville, The Windy C – he wanted to be there, standing side by side on the production line telling them how he understood and kept the faith every weekend because, just as they sang to escape the grind, he listened and danced to escape the grind. It wasn’t all for nothing, Curtis.

Half Seven. Coronation Street, its brass theme a soundtrack to a mirror image of how things are, told from the heart but with no soul – at least not as he knows it.
Come on clock, tick tock tick tock tick away the hours, minutes, seconds. She’ll be up by ten with the rollers in and Mills & Boon by the bedside lamp and a small glass of mild, and then lights out in fifteen, the ale gone straight to her giddy head. He’ll be in the Hound, throwing rude looks to the maid and arrows at the board, kicked out onto the damp cobbles come a quarter to midnight, slipping and fumbling back to the dog house where he sleeps every Friday night.

By now he’s an hour on the road in the back of the Transit that the driver ‘borrowed’ from the yard. The tales that motor could tell! Truman & Sons Labouring Services travelling to Detroit and Chicago, Los Angeles and New Orleans for a night out. Cities go past. That’s Philly and now Virginia and ladies and gentlemen please remain seated as we pass through Georgia, down into the Carolinas and onto Florida. Five runaways heading into the black night: they could be anywhere on earth as the tape player fanfare heralds the statement, “If that’s what you wanted…”. And this is what they wanted.

Minds wander back to home, the others in bed, unaware, then morning. “Where the bloody hell is he?” and “I’ll throttle the little bugger”. Vacant and deflated, hollow shells returning from another plane, crashing down to earth like a fist on the kitchen table. Shuddering and shrugging – It’s worth it, all of it. At last the final turning and now the butterflies and the tightening in the jaw and then like an athlete before a marathon, the steely concentration. Passing around the gum, double check for membership card – heart freezes, blood drains, quickly, silently (“shit, shit…thank God, there it is”) regain composure and file out via the back doors, stretching and bending away the aches of the journey. Handshakes, acquaintances re-made and then a coy glance: there it stands, glowing under a rain-misted night – its letters spell Casino but the word reads home.

Joining the queue, the chattering, the accents, Britain represented here in this fine drizzle midnight outside an old Dance hall far from where most of them have come from. Talk of first labels, pressings, kung-fu moves and ways of dressing. Chips and pop and records to swap and “them from t’other lands” would descend and “No pushing at the back” and “have you got your card this week ” and let’s get some of that talc over here, please! Say Cheese. Click click. This Is England but not as they’d tell it in the new issue of Jackie.

Once inside (at last) lads would say “My life is Northern” whilst girls twirled with knickers flashing under mum’s old curtains, made pleated by hours after work at the machines, cotton bobbins bobbing and fingers speed sewing so as not to miss the queue-front come midnight. Patchwork vested shovel shufflers and shit shifters would raise a clenched fist to the heavens as if to stick one up to all that this wasn’t and could never be. The only Bay City they were interested was a West Coast dream where the Golden Gates opened up possibilities that didn’t exist in their lifetime.

For 8 hours through the night whilst the rest of the country slept (except those on the night shift and those on this night shift) the beat went on, mercilessly. Crammed into a sauna-hot mass of stomping and clapping and chewing gum chomping the individual became both the whole and a single part of the endlessly pounding mechanics of a machine hungry for motion, as if it’s life depended on it. Fuelling the furnace was nothing but the loudest, blackest, most soulful strains of fury, passion, love, rage and fear colliding with the feet and hearts and minds of those out there on the floor. You weren’t coming home in the morn’un…you were there already, son.

Drop kicks, back flips, splits and spins. Hands to heaven, palm on heart, cross my path and I’ll let you know about it, dance with me and you’ll soon know not to. Claps and cheers, sneers, men’s tears, women have no fears about the pub dregs trying to paw them because it’s clear they aren’t here and have no place here. It was pure and simple – you and the music, nothing else. That square metre of floor was yours and yours alone.

One week the famous flocked in fur and fashions to be seen on the scene and the TV cameras arrived to spy and capture a lie about how this ‘disco’ was a home to the stars for as long as the fad lasted. The media came for the breakfast table scandal about how much assistance your son could handle and fathers would squint at the smudged shot and ask “Is that my lad?” and then turn over for the tits and the racing and to light a fag. “Make us a brew, love”.

Were the wives up north all overweight? The slimming pills the lads brought each week slowly gave way to harder and harder fuel (no unleaded in those days) until the troops began to fall like cattle, some in battle, some before and others after. In the heat of a new day the clammy night dried to powder under mid morning sunlight beaming through patterned nets and the blood felt full of pins.
“Can’t lose my head”. Cannot Lose My Head.
Lying in bed, sheets wet, “You not up yet?”.
“He’ll never get up ma, he’s been to heaven and now he’s in hell”.
A shell.
A shell that fell last night. Out on the floor. Getting his kicks.
Bombs in his head and now he’s bombing in bed.
“Wednesday, I’ll rise on Wednesday, ashen no doubt, but rise I shall, now switch the world off and let me sink away please, ma. I’ve been somewhere that I can’t leave but need to get back to, fast.
As soon as possible