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.
“Why does everyone hate me?” she said, seated in Benny’s swivel chair beside the computer. “Is it because I am Polish?”
Someone taped a sheet of sandpaper to the door of the office. It was coarse and brown, and printed across the top of the sheet was DITA. Underneath was a logo of a bulldog’s head. Benny went batshit.
“Priority number one,” he yelled down the phone, “find out which of them did it and fire him. Just do it.”
It must have been Willy or Roman. Probably both of them. The sandpaper was from Poland, but taping it to the door sounded like Willy. I knew he hated her guts. He resented the fact she didn’t sweat for her money. One time on a job a contractor saw Dita sitting in the Hilux, waiting for Benny to finish talking to the client. She sat completely still, utterly unmoving, her head angled to one side, her arms folded across her stomach.
“What does she do in your company?” he said.
“She’s the minister for blow jobs,” said Willy.
“Have you found out which one of them did it yet?” said Benny in the bar of the Four Seasons one afternoon.
“I’m working on it,” I said.
“It was Roman. I know this,” said Dita, who was seated beside him. She placed her hand on the muscle of his inner thigh and squeezed. “Back in Poland he wouldn’t dare give such trouble.”
I stared at her grip on his leg. They must have had sex that morning. Benny was so relaxed. He was the star of the bar, sporting a woman half his age. But she wasn’t relaxed. She was angry. I didn’t understand. The company was making more money than it had in the Tiger days. Benny had divorced his wife, and there was a diamond on her ring finger that almost covered her knuckle.
The next day Benny received a phone call from a motorist who claimed Willy had cut him off in the company truck. When he caught up with him at the traffic lights and complained Willy jumped out of the cab and threatened him with a machete.
“I’m very sorry about that sir,” said Benny. “You can be sure I’ll take appropriate measures immediately.”
He put down the phone and began laughing. Uncontrollably. Couldn’t stop.
“Willy’s a psycho,” he said. “Arsehole picked the wrong bucko to be messing with.”
We decided Willy couldn’t be trusted running the work sites. He was a skilled climber but not very good with people. What we needed was a canary. I pulled Gareth off the crew one day and bought him lunch in the Wishing Well in Milltown.
“Benny’s very impressed with you,” I said. “He wants you more involved in the day-to-day running of the job.”
“What about Willy?” he said.
“Say nothing to Willy. You know what he’s like. We need you to make sure the paperwork’s done, deal with the clients. If Roman or Willy’s acting up we have to know.”
“Do I get a pay rise?”
“Play your cards right and in six months Benny promises you’ll be foreman.”
I bought him a few pints and talked up his future. Gareth’s meteoric rise through the ranks. Young men love that kind of shite. Buy them a carvery and slap a badge on their chest and they’ll work all day for frigging peanuts. I know I did.
I bought a new sword. A Japanese katana from the 17th century. I had to get a loan from the credit union. It cost me five grand, but it was worth every penny. Holding it in my hand, it made the other swords feel like clumsy toys. Given its age and pedigree, I knew this sword had killed people. I couldn’t shake the feeling it was somehow alive. The samurai used to say a sword lives in its scabbard. I hung it over the fireplace and took it down twice a week to clean. It was a task I looked forward to. A katana comes apart like a piece of Ikea furniture. You unwrap the silk cord from the handle, a wooden shaft covered with mottled stingray hide. The blade slides out of the handle. After removing the hand guard and the blade collar you’re done. Holding it carefully, with silk scarves wrapped around my hands, I could feel the perfect balance between the blade and the tang. It had a lethal, reptilian grace, like a venomous snake, something cold that could wake in your hands and twist and bite you.
Every couple of weeks I took Gareth out for a few pints in town. I’d settle him down in a quiet corner and pour some drink into him. Take the hood off the cage and let the bird sing. Roman had a notebook in which he kept track of the unpaid hours he was doing. Willy was smoking dope on the job. He was also the one who had taped the sandpaper to the office door. They were doing nixers together on the weekends and making plans to start their own business.
Every Friday evening I’d drop into Benny’s office and give him the takings from the week. I’d watch his eyes light up at the sight of the money. He’d watch mine ignite as he peeled off a few notes and handed me my bonus. One time no one answered when I rang the bell, but the door wasn’t locked so I stepped into the porch. Inside it was dark. I walked down the hallway and into the office. It was dark there too, the last bit of twilight fading out around the window, leaving the rest of the room striped in half-shadows. I could hear Dita on the phone upstairs, talking to somebody in Polish. I stood by the window waiting for her to finish, smoking a cigarette and watching a beggar work the passing trade crouched in his spot beside a cash machine.
Upstairs Dita’s voice grew louder and louder. It sounded like she was complaining about something. She usually was. I don’t know a word of Polish, but the way she was shouting it was the first thing that came to mind. The tenor of her voice rose and she was biting her words off, and whoever she was talking to wasn’t getting a word in. It got to where she was roaring and I was thinking take a fucking breath will you when suddenly there was silence – maybe the other person was speaking – and it went on for what seemed like a long time. Then I heard muffled grunts and groans, a sob, then a flurry of them, and before I knew it she was bawling upstairs and I was frozen to the spot with a warm, oozing feeling in my chest, like I’d woken up in the middle of the night in someone else’s house and had no idea how I got there.
After a while she slowed down. She began to snort and blow her nose. I heard her clear her throat and spit. That broke the spell. I crept off the chair and slipped out the front door. I had to get away before she realised I was there.
I bought some tatami straw mats, and in the evenings I would clear the kitchen floor and place a rolled-up tatami on a target stand and practise my sword cuts. First you have to soak the mats in water for several days, to give them a weight that resembles that of human flesh. Then I’d slide a length of green bamboo through the middle of the mat to simulate bone. I’d slice up the tatami mats for an hour or so, dressed in a black kimono, with a sweatband around my forehead, looking like Mullingar’s answer to Chuck Norris. There are twin grooves along the sides of a katana, and if the orbit of your stroke is right the air rushing through the grooves should make a high-pitched whistling. I’d slash and cut until I was hot and sweaty, my shoulders aching from the weight of the sword in my hands. But I could never make the blade rend its note from the air. Still, the word “samurai” didn’t always refer to armed warriors. When first used it described those who wait on, or accompany, the higher ranks of society. Like a butler or a maid or even, I suppose, a sales manager.
I told Benny I knew who’d left the sandpaper in the office.
“It was Roman,” I said. “He seen it in a hardware shop in Poland on a trip home and brought it back.”
“Get rid of him,” said Benny. And he told me exactly what to say.
That Friday I phoned Gareth. Told him to get Roman to meet me in the office after work. The place would be empty. Benny was taking Dita on a shopping trip to London.
When Roman arrived I was sitting in Benny’s swivel chair, drinking coffee and browsing through a trade magazine. He looked tired. His face was blackened from exhaust fumes, his hands and arms were smeared with sawdust-coated patches of pine resin and a trail of tiny evergreen needles followed him in from the front door.
“Gareth say you want me,” he said, and he smiled.
“Work’s after getting real slow,” I said. “ We have to slim down to a two-man crew. Now this is only temporary. We’ll take you back on as soon as things pick up.”
He just stood there. Didn’t say a word.
“I know things are tight, Roman. They’re tight for everybody. It’s this recession. But you’ve worked here long enough to be able get the dole. Sign on for a few weeks and hopefully more work will come in.”
He shook his head.
“I need job,” he said. “I’ve wife and two kids in Cracow.”
“It’s only temporary,” I said.
He stared me at me.
“Tell me truth, Swords. Is this about the sandpaper?”
“Don’t be silly,” I said. “Nobody gives a shite about the sandpaper. That’s water under the bridge. This is just simple economics. Money in and money out. We can’t afford to payroll a three-man crew right now.”
He stood there silently. He didn’t say a word, but his face sort of crumbled, and I immediately wanted to take it back, to tell him that it was all right, there had been a mistake, that he could have his job back and forget this conversation had ever happened. But it was too late. You can’t run a business like that. It would have been easier if he had yelled at me, lost his temper, thrown a fit. But he didn’t. He hung his head and stared at his dirty hands. After he left I felt queasy. My legs were shaking, so I sat down in the chair and lit a cigarette. He’ll be all right, I thought. Toughen the fuck up. You’ll never get through life with a soft heart.
I was driving past the office a week later and I saw Dita sitting on a chair by the window, reading from a book that lay open on the table beside her. Benny, on the phone, was standing behind her, his arms gesturing wildly as he talked into the air. She looked so poised and watchful, like the statue of a cat sitting guard over the entrance of a Pharaoh’s tomb. As I passed she looked up and saw me. She gave me a tiny nod. It was the ghost of a bow, a near imperceptible tip of the visor.
Robert Hopkins is a Dublin author whose short stories and essays have been published in the Stinging Fly and on the Someblindalleys website. He is studying English literature and history at Trinity College Dublin