Phosphate Rocks, Part 4: Meet Fat Willy, Smart Sandy and Becksy…

In the last of four extracts from Phosphate Rocks, by Fiona Erskine, meet Fat Willy, Smart Sandy and Becksy...

Friday, 25th June 2021, 4:55 am
Fiona Erskine
Fiona Erskine

A Ruptured Hose

It was during the unloading of the Eylenya – a ship later beached at Chittagong and broken up for scrap by Bangladeshi workers – when the incident happened.

The Eylenya was one of the fast boats that sailed from Holland, bringing sulphur straight from the petrochemical refineries of Rotterdam. The skipper of the Eylenya, Captain Jan Bosma, a phlegmatic native of Middelburg in Zeeland, was a regular visitor to Edinburgh.

Phosphate Rocks

Inside the ship’s hold, the flakes gleamed bright yellow and smelt bad. Sometimes the sulphur caked and set solid in huge slabs that had to be broken up by hand. The stevedores, responsible for offloading raw materials at Leith docks, loathed sulphur. The slightest friction set it on fire and the stench of the gas made them puke – sulphur monoxide, sulphur dioxide, sulphur trioxide – choking and deadly.

Before the stevedores could start offloading, a factory representative boarded the ship to inspect the manifest – the cargo – and agree the offloading plan. Ship crews used to the efficiency of Singapore or Rotterdam were surprised by Leith docks. The stevedores operated only during daylight hours, with prolonged breaks for breakfast, dinner and tea.

For some seamen it made a welcome change from arriving and unloading on the same day. The crew could disembark, walk up Constitution Street and catch a bus to the centre of Edinburgh and the glories of the old town looming over the new. New in 1830 that is.

John always volunteered to carry out the inspection if he was on shift when the ship arrived. He befriended many of the captains over the years. They brought him small gifts, and

he hoarded these trinkets in a large cupboard set aside for the purpose, waiting for an opportunity to distribute a miniature bottle of schnapps, a leather strap or a woven bangle to a particularly deserving team member.

Once the cargo was accepted and the loading plan agreed, the Leith stevedores scaled one-hundred-foot ladders and settled down in the cabs of two huge cranes. Working in tandem to a precise, if unwritten, choreography, they took turns to lower the grab buckets into the ship’s hold, lifting the flakes, and depositing the yellow brimstone into open- topped lorries that sped to the entrance of the fertiliser factory half a mile away.

Streamers of yellow dust fanned through the teeth of the buckets, occasionally catching fire. Ribbons of blue flame sparkled and crackled against platinum skies. When a sulphur boat came in, John always requested an extra man from the factory day crew to stand ready to extinguish the sulphur fires with seawater from a red rubber hose.

Inside the factory, John managed his shift team with an iron fist, assigning tasks and tracking performance with military precision, but the two day teams were controlled by others.

The maintenance crew of welders, riggers, turners, tiffys, sparkies, carpenters, mechanics and fitters were ably managed by Roderick, an energetic marine engineer who responded to dry land with perpetual motion. He paced the miles of factory road, from dockside to ammonia spheres, from sulphur melters to Nitram packing, from workshop to store, a lightning flash of white hair and wisdom.

The services crew managed themselves, contrary to the belief of the blustering, ineffectual university graduate who imagined that workmen could be led from the comfort of an office, and provided the manual labour according to a strict hierarchy.

At the top sat the wannabe craftsmen, those who didn’t make the grade for a full apprenticeship but could drive a forklift truck and speak the lingo. Tolerated as craft assistants, they carried tools, fetched spares, sorted scrap and brought extra muscle, elbow grease or welly as required.

In the middle lay those who unloaded the raw materials or packed the product. At the bottom skulked the greasers.

A fertiliser factory hums with moving parts. As one surface rubs against another it causes friction and wear. Regular adjustment and lubrication prevent breakdown. Gearboxes must be topped up with oil, rotating shafts greased with a thick lard-like jelly, packing injected from the nozzle of a special gun. The greasers performed these vital factory tasks, and not just lubrication, but machinery attendance. The same person laid hands on the same machine every few days.

They felt compressors running hot, heard pumps squealing, smelt burning rubber from slipping drive belts, saw unwelcome flecks of shiny metal glittering in oil sumps. Expert – if unconscious – tribologists, they might be unaware of Stribeck curves and elastohydrodynamic rheology, but the maintenance manager, Roderick, relied on them totally. Not just for lubrication, but for condition monitoring, early warning of impending failure. Despite the pivotal importance of the role, tradition dictated that the job of greaser went to the humblest man.

The three greasers were, each in their own way, a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. Fat Willy had probably eaten all of his, along with many deep-fried suppers washed down

with pints of heavy. His curly hair and ruddy face waggled atop a spherical body propelled by short legs that lumbered from job to job. He entertained colleagues with musical farts and half-remembered dirty jokes. The punchlines were often delivered at the last minute by Smart Sandy.

Fat Willy’s sidekick was the same height but a quarter the girth, a dour bald man wearing a permanent scowl that belied an uncomplaining, obliging nature. Smart Sandy (named ironically) followed Fat Willy’s instructions without question, scaling giant ladders and limbo-dancing under pipes, sometimes to reach a grease nipple, sometimes just for the entertainment of others, oblivious to the laughs and jeers that rewarded his puppet-like antics and ventriloquist dummy one-liners.

The first two kept their distance from the third member of the grease team. Becksy usually worked alone. Perhaps from preference, but he smelt so bad on Monday mornings that no one really cared to find out…

To continue reading, Phosphate Rock, by Fiona Erskine, the novel is available now from Sandstone Press, in paperback, priced £8.99

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