Samurai by Robert Hopkins
Ten stories have been shortlisted in our Legends of the Fall short-story competition. We will publish two a day this week and reveal the winner on Friday
What the judges said about Samurai
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne Samurai is a story about the workplace. The writing is direct, the characters strongly drawn, the atmosphere of the woodcutting organisation very well conveyed. Perfect opening line. This is quite an enigmatic story, and I liked that. There is a bit of ambiguity about the relationships of the protagonist and Roman to Dita, and the story is not wrapped up. Also I liked the use of the samurai swords as a sort of image symbolising the cut-throat practices of the managers in the workplace – and, I guess, by extension symbolising post-Tiger life in general.
Donal Ryan A completely realistic rendering of the tribulations and micropolitics of the workplace: disdain for the boss, internecine resentments and petty betrayals, everything heightened now and more keenly felt.
When I first got off the tools I was happy about it. I’d been climbing and cutting trees for 16 years, and, man, was I tired of it. Every Monday morning when I sat in the truck I said to myself there has to be a better way than this. So when Benny fired the sales manager and offered me the job I jumped at it. He dragged me into the snug in the Four Seasons after work one Friday and gave me the talk. Play your cards right and one day you shall dwell with me in paradise. After 16 years of graft it felt like a battlefield promotion. I almost fell down on my knees in front of him in the snug, like some knight in a chapel getting handed his spurs. Benny slung his arm around my shoulders and jerked his head at the rest of the crew getting hammered at the bar.
“ What you have to realise,” he said, “is you’re not one of them any more.”
For a while life was grand. I’d make my sales calls in the mornings and spend the afternoons on site, helping the men. The business was making money, the crew were happy, I could finally afford a place on my own. I rented a one bedroom flat in a gated complex off the coast in Dún Laoghaire. First thing I did was mount brackets on the walls and hang up my collection of swords. They’re all I have to show for the last 15 years: them, a bad back and cracked knees from all the climbing. I’ve a couple of 18th-century rapiers, a cavalry sabre from the American Civil War and some cheap imitation Japanese katanas. I’m always shiteing on about them, so that’s what the lads in work called me. Swords.
One morning Benny called everybody into the office and said in the present conditions changes had to be made, and he cut everybody’s wages by 20 per cent. Nobody liked it, but what could they do? Everybody read the newspapers. A lot of people were losing their jobs. Later, down the pub, we turned to Willy for an explanation. He knew Benny the longest; he had been with him from the very start.
“Recession my bollocks,” said Willy. “It’s that Polish tart Dita. She’s fucking mesmerised him with that 25-year-old fanny.”
Roman, our Polish driver, gulped his Guinness and nodded.
“You right,” he said. “When Polish woman gets power is bad for everyone.”
That night Benny called me and explained the new deal. As long as the crew brought in four grand a week my salary would remain untouched. I’d even get a bonus. The men would just have to tighten their belts.
“I’ve people calling me looking for work every day,” he said. “If they don’t like it we can always replace them.”
They didn’t like it. When I’d arrive on a job I’d be met with hostile stares. Like I was the one who’d taken the money out of their wallets. Gareth, the new man, was the only one with a civil word left for me. He’d spent the last 10 years working in the office of a cement factory, and, man, was he eager. Fresh out of the wrapper. A demon for the work. Had romantic notions about it, though. You know, getting back to nature, all that shite. He hadn’t realised yet that this job was all about introducing Mother Nature to the business end of a wood chipper. Looking at him dragging branches around the side of the house, I knew I was never going back on the tools. Mindless labour is all it was. A life wasted. You end up in the knacker’s yard like that poor horse Boxer in that book Animal Farm. Bosses take better care of their tools than their men. It doesn’t cost anything to replace a man.
The lads wouldn’t see Benny from one end of the week to the next. On the rare occasions he turned up on site all he’d talk about was how bad the economy was.
“This country’s fucked,” he’d say. “The politicians and the banks have screwed everyone.”
He said it again and again. It was his mantra. Willy saw right through him in a second. He started calling Benny the Recession.
“Here comes the Recession,” he’d say when Benny’s fifty grand worth of Hilux rolled up on a job site.
One evening after work I dropped into the Four Seasons to see if the boys were there. I spotted them drinking at the end of the bar and walked up behind them before they noticed me.
“Swords does fuck all now,” said Willy to Roman. “Ever since he got that sales job he isn’t worth a duck’s fart.”
“He manager now,” said Roman.
“Every time I see him I want to shove that clipboard down his throat,” said Willy.
Fuck them I thought as I left the bar by the back door. Benny was right. No more mister nice guy.
I started spending my afternoons in the office during the week. If Benny was out I’d pretend to do paperwork when really all I was doing was drinking coffee and chatting to Dita.