The metal mountain
FICTION:For most of his 20s, John Healy lived a violent and brutal life as an alcoholic vagrant in London. During a stint in prison, he learned how to play chess, subsequently gave up alcohol and became a top tournament champion, before venturing into writing. In 1988, Faber published his autobiography, The Grass Arena, to critical acclaim, and it won the JR Ackerley prize.
Following a bitter dispute with his publishers, The Grass Arenawas taken out of print until being reproduced in the Penguin Modern Classics series in 2008. The only other book published by Healy is on chess tactics. A documentary about Healy's life, Barbaric Genius, is screening next Saturday, February 19th, at the Lighthouse Cinema in Dublin at 2pm, as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, after which there will be a questions and answers session with Healy and Paul Duane, the director of Barbaric Genius. This excerpt is from The Metal Mountain, one of several books written by Healy, which are as yet unpublished. The book follows the struggles of an Irish emigrant family in 1950s London. In this excerpt, the eldest son Michael finds his first job and a sense of purpose in a scrap-metal yard that processes metal left over from the war effort. This is Healy's first work of fiction to be published in more than 20 years.
THE SPRAWLING MAN-MADE mountain of mangled metal rose up over a hundred feet towards the sky. It was twice that in breadth and more than 500 yards long. On rainy days it glistened and the sound of drops falling on that mass of metal echoed across the railway siding like a drum tattoo. On foggy days it was at its most intimidating.
But now, on this blazing hot afternoon, the huge cataract shimmering in the heat appeared bent and warped. Curved by the relentless glaze of the August sun, it sparkled with almost heavenly lustre. This iron escarpment, streaked throughout with variegated coloured metal objects of every conceivable size and description, had provided the country with the munitions to fight the second World War. Facing arrogantly in all directions, it announced its prerogative, by refusing to acknowledge other possible worlds, full of the knowledge of its own grandeur as if it were somehow self-effulgent, shining by its own light, instead of being a mere speck, a tiny black mirror reflected in the orb of the sun.
In a clearing at the base of this freak landscape called the salvage pit, four lengths of iron railway track, driven vertically into the ground, acted as a stanchion for a small roof of corrugated iron. The sides were left open to the wind. Under this reinforced lean-to the farrier plied his trade: a weather-beaten, work-hardened old man whose hair stood out in grey shocks, as he worked the lever on a crude cutting machine. The work - as a couple of missing fingers from his left hand attested - was not without its hazards.
A jumble of loose metal lay on the floor of the lean-to, amongst which a bomb, presumably a dud one, lay angled, its nose sunk into the ground. The bomb’s fin stuck up in the air menacingly, like a shark’s dorsal, from the middle of the mottled cylinder, on which someone, perhaps a child, had daubed a swastika. The lethal-looking thing evoked amusement in callers, rather than fright, although most still gave it a wide berth. So here the farrier worked. First, he would take hold of one of the pieces of metal, heft it on to the floor, and slice it in two, manually working the lever in similar fashion to a guillotine. The cut-up metal was then thrown in a heap to the side of the shed to await collection by a lorry, which called once a week and took the waste metal to a foundry to be melted down and recycled. The farrier was in need of an apprentice or labourer to drag suitable pieces down from the mountain of war-surplus metal, since his last helper had been injured - he had broken his back when he fell from the mountain. The local paper reported the incident after the boy died from his injuries the following day.
Rust-flaked dust blew on small winds as he worked from one end of the salvage pit to the other, swirling around the lean-to until finally drifting to the ground, where they spread their ochre carpet a little thicker every day. At night the guard dog’s barks echoed around the mountain challengingly; by day, it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.
“Need any help, mister?”
The voice behind him made him turn. He devoted a full minute to inspection. “Naw,” he drawled. He believed that strength was a quality of bulk and brawn. The kid who stood before him now appeared to have neither.
“I’m looking for some work. Need a job, see,” replied Michael, refusing to be fazed. The farrier let go of the chunk of metal he was about to slice and turned around fully to face the lad, his shifting feet giving rise to little puffs of dust. It was not lost on him, as he took out his tobacco to make a smoke, that, size apart, the kid seemed to have an air of sternly controlled energy; as if somehow or other he carried victory in both fists. He looked like he could cut iron with his teeth. The farrier drew the smoke deep into his throat, considering.
The kid was looking past him now, up at the metal mountain, as if seeing it fully for the first time. It was as if Michael, in the process of assessing the size and scope and perhaps the monotony involved in the endless labour of slicing up the mountain into manageable pieces, had briefly forgotten the farrier. Michael leaned against the battered remains of an old Victorian bath that had once been lavishly ornamented. He went to turn one of the taps, but the dreadful heat made it impossible to touch with his bare hands.
Michael’s eyes suddenly focused on the old man’s. “Pop,” he said, “ever thought of doing something else?” The question was unexpected. For a second, the farrier lost his purpose. “There’s something else?” he replied, opening his eyes wide in mock amazement.
“I hope so,” said Michael, shaking his head in feigned concern.
Yet he could not overcome his wonder at the heap of metal. There was something magical about it, like the mystery that surrounds the obelisk, the labyrinth, the pyramid and the tomb. “I bet there’s snow on the top of that bastard,” he said with a touch of awe.
The summit towered black in the shadow of a sudden cloud. But it was not long before the sun’s golden rays touched it once more. Then the light seemed to explode, ricocheting off the mountain, cascading down its metal flanks. Bits of tin caught the light and winked while facets of innumerable prismatic edges picked it up, and sparkled like uncut diamonds. From jagged encrustations higher up, many coloured lights hopped and sparkled like a million blazing stars.
The farrier smiled, and Michael knew that the old man’s sternness was feigned. “Why don’t you go up and see?” he said.
“Yeah. I might just do that, Pop.”
“Here – take these gloves, and if you manage to reach the top without breaking your neck, throw me down a few pieces to be getting on with here,” he growled, turning back to his machine.
Michael sprang forward to run the gauntlet of the sun, whose heat was reflected in the metal many times. He jumped across a narrow chasm, landing on top of an old Ford 8. Zigzagging upwards he leaped another gap, and came down on top of a lorry cab. He wobbled, regained his balance and moved on. He was more cautious now because he could not be completely sure when leaping if his landing place would hold. But, face set in dreadful purpose, his confidence soon returned and he leaped from car to rusted water-tank to mangled rail, lurched, righted himself, then climbed or descended ridges of iron and steel. He passed obtrusive elbows of corrugated tin that whipped and slashed, while ducking to avoid pricking beneath bowers of barbed wire. The world had begun to exist in oil, rust mould and glare, in metal torment with the iron eating into his ankles.
An engine block hung precariously from a ledge above him. The sun’s reflection of its copper corseting struck him full in the eyes. As he fell, two crows, dark shadows on a sheet of sweating zinc, watched disinterestedly until goaded into a lurching run before taking to the sky. A ridge of iron cut his fingers as a result of him using it for support. In his small-boned hands, his strength might now be questioned while he remained disguised within his slim frame. Heat melted in deadly waves on metal buffed raw by time and elements, while any moisture that dropped from the summit was immediately consumed by the boiling tin. He was assailed by harsh smells where oil had mingled with battery acid and lay stagnating in pools of rainwater, distilling a sharp almost indecent scent. There was distaste on his twisted lips as he lay among the molten metal, iron eating into the rim of his jaw. The putrefying gunge worked its way on to his distorted cheek while he listened to the reverberations of his laboured breath.
All over the mountain the metal was bulging, heaving, undulating, taking on grotesque forms. Rust flakes had taken on the colour and texture of hot ash. Failure flared up at him in this limbo, caught between the summit and the base. His mind retreated from this thing it had so foolishly undertaken, and the torments of the flesh persisted as he tried to ease his galvanised limbs.
He ran his tongue over his scorched lips, and would have licked the gashes on his racked body but in his writhing he might have toppled right back to the start of his ascent.
The boy took a deep breath, roused himself and began climbing, or stumbling over the blazing ridges, which shone in a dazzling dance of light. From time to time his smouldering eyes glanced up from out of their charred sockets at the mountain’s summit. Plumes of dust rose like smoke as he continued his slithery journey, clambering over the bulbous metal’s treacherous smoothness in a pair of worn boots shod with tremendous nails, while the mountain continued to rise, tearing at ankles as he climbed around tangles of wire that threatened to enmesh him. He grappled with unorthodox angles, clawing, hauling, groping frantically in the vibrating light. Where paint had blistered on moss-encrusted aluminium, thorns sprang up beneath his fingers, and the chipped surface was terrible.
But the youth finally reached the summit and was initiated into secrets he had never suspected. Because he had visualised it otherwise, his weary, bitter face began to glow with joy. The sky was a blaze of gold, gilded with silver clouds that were yet manifold in their variety. The light from this radiant cluster poured forth in cascades of shimmering exaltation down the mountain sides, the scintillating sparks set off by the sun’s rays, striking a million little mirrors of tin filtered sensually through the brutal imagery. In the burnished light, the vulgar gloss became illuminated. Time is annihilated by such intimate glimpses. As atoms danced, filling the air with pinpricks of light, a shiver of recognition ran through the youth. And in that moment he experienced such enchantment at the vast silence, a peace so deep that anything that was not peace melted into it. There is a moment when silence no longer resisted rushes into the mind and one lets go inch by inch of the desperate clutching. That moment seemed to last forever and the permanence of iron was a myth.
Michael ran, giddy-legged now, along the uneven metal crown, stopping in the middle, erect and proud to survey his new domain. He glanced forward into a region where possibility crystallised great clusters of ball bearings into precious stones, and out of this would grow the purpose of his being. He stood against a slab of shadow, remote and present too, his eyes fixed on future pleasures among iron and steel that had turned to light and shadow, strangely silhouetted against the rim of the sky, in a smell of oil and battered metal. He was like an explorer walking into a landscape that might prove a mirage.
The born observer is never self-conscious about his method. If you asked him, he would say that he merely makes as little fuss as possible and keeps his eyes open. Michael Docherty was such a one. Like the wolf, he moved now across the face of the metal landscape, soft and wary. He knew that this mountain contained infinite possibilities. He knew more by instinct than by cold reason that if he searched properly he would find gold or precious metals. Some held that all metals would be gold if they could but were prevented by the impurities of the earth.
He began immediately, lured by a pleasure that was as hard as pain into making sure that his boss never got a moment’s break, because he would never leave old Pop without a surplus of metal to be cutting up, while he himself searched high and low from morning till night for precious scraps. Not the obvious kind, such as bronze, gun metal or heavy lead, which, quite apart from their weight, are far too bulky to transport. Michael found himself thinking more of certain types of screws; castors; electric cables of thin copper wire; others full of aluminium, warped and twisted, lying amongst the rusting iron like coiled reptiles; wooden doors with brass locks and hinges; and grey-blue pipes, sheets and lumps of zinc that were easily cut into small pieces. He found some old ammunition boxes, and into these he sorted the metal by type.
In his constant search for precious metals, Michael learned to avoid pretty patches of flowering shrubs and grass like quicksand. Wherever birds and wind had carried seeds, treacherous oases had sprung up, usually in hollows full of crushed and broken debris, red-rotten with rust, which the slightest pressure would turn to powered dust, plunging the unwary to the rusting depths below.
He learned from experience to feel with the foot before putting weight on it. Finding himself wedged in holes and crevices that turned out to be too narrow, he had to crawl back feet first, using everything he could to get a hold: knees, elbows, back or buttocks. Eventually he became as sure-footed as a mountain goat when clambering around the metal mountain, and as slippery as an eel when crawling into and out of the crevices beneath it. His was a slow labour, a matter of eye, time and tenacity.
This iron world, with so little evidence of civilisation, fitted perfectly the shape of what he felt was missing from his life: total acceptance of the present moment; harmony with things as they happened; friendship with the inevitable. Viewed thus, the whole mountain took on a permanent grandeur. But sometimes, even iron lost its substance, and flowed, whispered, and took other forms.
Michael bent to pick up a piece of gold or perhaps it was a bit of brass. The sun was low, its light ate at the mountain’s ridges and wind blew under tremulous sheets of aluminium. The hammer was warm in his hand from long holding. There was a menace of uncertainty in the air as he approached the thing that crouched beyond the shadows. The wind veered and slammed hard at the mountain’s surface, the sun had become curiously veiled but allowed enough light to penetrate the entrance to the cavern to reveal the serpent – a twisted piece of copper tubing tensed like a viper ready to strike.
In the jargon of the trade, an iron monger’s apprentice was known as a “cradle rocker”, on account of the fact that as rocks and roots and stones hold the soil of a mountainside together, so too did the burned-out shells of old cars and lorry cabs serve the same function on the metal mountain. The test of a good cradle rocker was how to overcome the difficulties of extracting the cars and lorry cabs (which were usually wedged upside-down) from the entangling metal mass that held them together without causing an avalanche. Great skill was needed, delicacy of movement, and, of course, brute strength.
Michael soon realised that, like any mine, sooner or later he was going to have to go deeper into the bowels of this one to locate the precious metal, where in summer, crawling beneath its iron crust would be like entering an airless oven, and in wintertime, an arctic cave. One fine morning, Michael laughed when old Pop ordered him aloft to get one of the cradles with the admonishment “not to rock himself to sleep in it”. The big, black Buick lay wedged upside down on its roof with its wide chrome bumper intact and turned inward like the horns of a bull. Michael stepped back from it to establish the correct angle for levering. He sunk the crowbar at one side of it and levered with all his might. He had to judge precisely when to keep his feet flexible and when to keep them nailed. By probing and wrenching when his hold was good he managed to free the cradle; then he got his hands under the chassis, planted his feet and heaved it forward, causing the veins to stand out on his arms. When he’d got his breath back, he walked forward, kicking any loose metal out of his path and stamping his makeshift runway flat with his foot.
He stretched out his arms, took a deep breath and, by pushing and shoving, he manoeuvred the Buick cradle along, every so often going from side to side to apply the bar, so that it zig-zagged slowly forward, furrowing a ditch in the loose metal beneath. Eventually he reached the edge of the mountain. He angled the cradle into the tilting position, careful never to lose control until he was ready. Then, with the roar of a conquering lion, he shouted: “Timber!” and with one final push, sent the shell of the car, accompanied by the grim notes of clashing metal, plummeting downwards. For a minute or two, the noise was deafening, until the mangled mass came to rest at the bottom. Then there was a death-like quietness, until old Pop appeared in the middle of the salvage pit. “Hoi, hoi!” he shouted in mock anger. “You might have killed someone wiv that effing car.”
Michael laughed back: “Why didn’t you warn me the brakes were so bad?” The simplicity of it was making him enjoy himself. All day long he wrought at the iron until the sun plunged behind the metal mountain, and the first star sparkled white in the purple coppery sky.
Pop’s young apprentice kept him well supplied, fetching down from the mountain such huge, barbaric chunks of metal that he had to use the bolt cutters on them before he could even attempt to put them under the guillotine. And yet old Pop couldn’t help feeling a little guilty. He shook his head as he placed a piece of metal on the ground. He could not understand the almost desperate savagery with which the young lad went about his work and suddenly he was reminded of the Book of Psalms: “He rageth and again he rageth, for he knoweth his time is short.” He sighed as he remembered asking: “What is the rush?” and the boy had replied: “I don’t want to waste time.” But the old farrier could only smile because here time did not exist. You may watch the clock tick or the sun rise and set but that is not time. That is simply movement.
Whenever strangers look at the mountain they find only a structure of unbelievable chaotic pattern. And yet the only way to renewal lies through destruction. The mountain must be melted down into formless iron before it can be moulded into new shapes. The future balanced on such fragile foundations and a past clotted with angry blood. With these sombre thoughts the farrier, with steady hand and hopeful eye, resumed his work, striking the metal with his hammer so that it chimed and sang and gleamed with a sinister splendour.
The farrier pulled the guillotine’s lever down. Even when, at random intervals throughout the day, he’d watched Michael through binoculars, nothing about his apprentice’s actions gave him cause for doubt. Nor should it – for Michael had spotted the binocular case the first day on the job. Whenever the old farrier took a notion to put the glass on him, Michael would either desist from mining his claim altogether on that day, or he would work harder on the blind side of the mountain, where it gleamed in a splendour of enamel, separating the precious metal from its less exotic relations on the far side of the hill; he had become addicted to the alchemy of plucking petals of the sun.
In spontaneous freedom, the sun created its own reflections in the infinite prism of those honest objects that made up this gigantic sculpture, which had not yet learned the dishonesties of art. In the aluminium sunset, Michael swung on the pendulum of attraction and aversion. Once he had been close, so close he might have touched with his breath the innermost and indestructible essence. He still used the word god, but sparingly. It showed in his face, which had begun to look shrunken, searching for scraps of pleasure or fulfilment. But Michael could not gather his strength together enough at one point for the validation, security and love it was seeking. Though normal enough desires in themselves, they now seemed to the youth superhuman accomplishments.
The Grass Arenais published by Penguin Modern Classics, £9.99