Watching Elisabeth Fall

By Scott Derry

There were gentle butterflies of excitement and dread when Katy Jackson called my name. Across Millfields Road bridge she called again and part of me wanted not to have heard her. I raised my hand and she moved to meet me, sliding between couples and families and over-friendly dogs as she came.

“On your own?” she asked.

I told her I was meeting my dad as I looked the length of the bridge for him, fidgeting from one foot to another, nervous.

Katy’s dad came over and said, “I expected he’d be here by now, Joe. Has he thought on that offer of work on the road?”

His voice was smug. He knew the answer. His offer was barely more than casual conversation; it was almost a tease. He put a worker’s hand on my shoulder, the sort with grime ingrained into its knuckles and beneath its fingernails, and red nicks where cuts had almost healed. They were like Dad’s used to be. They were clean now, Dad’s hands; he’d no need to scrub them before dinner.

Katy asked if Mum was coming and I told her she couldn’t make it.

“I thought everyone would come out today.”

“She wanted to. She’s taken on double shifts since the works closed.” Mum would’ve cussed at my lie.

“Shame,” Katy’s dad said. He didn’t look at me as he spoke, only gazed down on the outline of the new bypass to the town’s south. The houses on Prosser Street and Quarry Street and Stonefield Road had been demolished and the land beneath them flattened, where families and histories had evolved, where soon there would be only four lanes of tarmac and a giant traffic island. The zigzag of wide avenues and crescents and narrow cul-de-sacs was gone, and the trees planted along them in the thirties to improve the air quality, and the mercury lamps which had glowed faint orange through viscous smog. The town was changing. Dad thought she was dying. He preached as much from the stage at the weekly gathering of the ‘No Bypass’ protest group in the community centre’s cold, windowless extension. The Birmingham–Wolverhampton canal emerged from below us and idled through the sprawling site of Bilston’s abandoned steelworks. Half a mile away, on the canal’s near bank, stood the works’ blast furnace, Elisabeth. Her two-hundred-foot-high frame scarred the blue sky as we, the gathered crowd, the mourners, the curious gawpers, the news crews and photographers, waited for her end.

For twenty-five years she’d been a matriarch to our town, functional and proud. For twenty-five years she’d belched and farted as white-hot steel bled from her bowels. All that time she’d listened to the grafters below her, two thousand of them chattering and cursing, some of them sweating and stripped to their waists, others in offices at drawing boards or riding locomotives, and yet more serving lunch or post-shift ale, all helping her produce a quarter of a million tonnes of steel each year. Time had dealt her an unkind hand, a post- industrial tolling of her bell, and those she fed, too. Her death was to be a spectator sport. It was a day of mourning with neither black nor flowers, a public execution before a holiday turnout.

The police closed the road across the bridge shortly after Franco’s ice-cream van pitched up. They taped off the bank down to the canal’s towpath as Franco put out a board promising Big Lizzie specials. Profit from the suffering of others. Thatcher would’ve approved. Dad would’ve cussed. Mum would’ve laughed. Maybe he was with Mum now. Maybe I should’ve been with her if he wasn’t. Maybe one day she could do double shifts again.

Katy nodded towards Franco and asked if we should get a special. She was alive; bouncy and full of vim. Was that normal or had the coming spectacular livened her up like it had the rest of the town? Folk love death; they queue up for a fall.

I confessed I hadn’t any money. “Mum’s job doesn’t pay well.” I was conscious of Katy’s dad overhearing what I’d said. No chance. He was engrossed in talk with somebody who looked semi-official. The two of them pointed into the distance to where the new road would dissect Ladymoor and Springvale, to where more buildings and roads would become only memories pulled biennially from albums.

“I’ll get them,” Katy said. “What’s she do, your mum?”

“She paints enamels at Bilston and Battersea.” This time my lie lay only in its use of present tense. “What about yours?”

“She’s a midwife, though Dad would say that’s what she is, so midwifery is what she does.”

She asked why I laughed.

“Midwifery.”

“What about it?”

“It’s just a funny word. Midwifery.”

“Veterinarian’s funnier. Vet-er-in-ar-i-an.” She spoke like a reel-to-reel tape slowed right down.

“An-ti-dis-es-tab-lish-men-tar-i-an-is-m.” My tape was slower and my voice lower and I elongated each syllable before gasping for breath when I’d finished. Katy yelped with laughter and the elderly lady behind us tutted.

The ice-cream queue shuffled forward a pace and Katy composed herself before drawing breath. She raised her hand in a do not disturb gesture and drawled in elongated syllables,

“Llan-fair-pwll-gwyn-gyll-go-ge-ry-chwyrn-dro-bwll-llant-y-sil-i-o—” Her breathless laughter, like a calling seal, drew a concerned look from the family in front of us and another tut from the lady behind.

“What’s that?”

“Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch? It’s on Anglesey. The school orchestra played there last year.”

“Say it again.”

“I can’t. Not twice in a row.”

“Do they make envelopes wider in Wales?”

“They write smaller.” She paused for a moment, then said, “You know I’m kidding, right?”

There was something about the way she tucked her hair behind one ear. She looked effortlessly cool, like a different person to the girl I barely knew at school. There, she was prim in uniform, her chestnut hair held tight in a bun, shoes practical and devoid of style. Now, her hair was long and wavy and reflected October’s sun, her cheeks glowed, and her clothes were loose and the bottoms of her flares frayed and muddied.

“Are you sad?” I asked her.

“What for?”

I looked at Elisabeth. “That she’s coming down.”

She shrugged disinterest.

“Is your dad?”

“He’s happy with his new job. I think he enjoys being outside after all those years in there. Don’t know what he’ll do when the road’s built.”

The Big Lizzie specials were ice-cream cornets with two chocolate flakes, one inserted vertically representing Elisabeth, the other, leaning against it at forty- five degrees, her escalator. Katy drowned hers in strawberry sauce and multi-coloured hundreds and thousands.

“I heard Beaky Wright’s doing a countdown before they bring her down.”

“Maybe that’s why your dad isn’t here, all too cheesy for him.”

“Five, four, three—”

She giggled. “You sound like Thunderbirds.”

“—two, one.” I mimicked the sound of an explosion, as a child would, before breaking my flakes in half and submerging what remained in the ice-cream.

“You’re not sad about it then,” she said.

“What’s happening’s awful, though if you listened to Dad you’d think it the end of the world. He went on about it all day, every day, when they were threatening to shut her down. They’re killing the town. What about the industry that relies on our steel? It’ll all go if we go. He can’t get work now. He won’t work on the new road on principle.”

“Lakin’s rattled on about it all week at school, said he’ll petition the council about celebrating the town’s industrial heritage, that the men who worked there should be remembered in some way.” She patted her open mouth in a mock yawn.

“I thought you were into all that.”

“What?”

“Good stuff. Stuff for the community. Concerts and that.”

Her eyes widened and she let out a devilish laugh. “You think I’m a goody two-shoes.” She caught me watching her licking her Big Lizzie and my cheeks flushed.

As the crowd on the bridge thickened, dogs were held tight on leads and children’s bikes were pushed and footballs confiscated. A group of boys sat on the roadside wall and threw stones into the still, black cut below. Katy saw me looking around and said, “You’ll never see him now, there are too many people.”

What she’d said about Lakin gave me an idea. “She’s coming down at one, right?”

She nodded whilst her mouth tended to cornet and her fingers to the strawberry juice running on her chin.

“Thirty minutes. There’s still time if I go now.”

“Where?”

“He might be saying goodbye to his dad.”

“Your granddad?”

“Would’ve been. He died before I was born.”

“That’s sad. It’s sadder than a furnace coming down.”

“He drowned down there. Slipped on an icy board shifting coke from the barges. He wasn’t missed until the end of shift. Dad told me he sometimes ate lunch there and talked to him.”

“You think he’ll be there?”

“I think he’d rather be there than here.”

Katy caught me watching her again as she popped the remains of the cornet into her mouth and brushed its dust from her fingers. She said, “Come on then, let’s go,” before ducking below the police tape and squeezing between the bridge’s wall and the bushes at its side.

I called after her. “What about your dad?” She didn’t respond. His back was turned. He was deep in conversation with somebody, likely extolling the virtues of the new road. I decided then, summarily, that I didn’t care for him.

The towpath was punctuated by docking stations where for a century barges had arrived laden with coal and limestone and iron ore. The farther we walked, the farther into the deserted works we ventured, the more eerie the place grew. On a warehouse aside one of the docking stations, someone had painted Bilston Steel is Best. Purple buddleia pushed through old brickwork and weather-worn window frames. Locomotives in canary yellow stood abandoned, forlorn, lost, dead. And towering over it all, and us, Elisabeth; so dark against the sky she appeared as silhouette.

We jogged the half mile in silence until Katy, out of breath, said, “He’s not here. Maybe we should go back.”

“He worked in the furnaces around the next bend. There’s a docking station there.”

“It’s nearly time. We should get back to the bridge.” She stopped and looked up at Elisabeth. “Where will she fall?”

“What do you mean, where will she fall?”

“Where will she fall? I mean, where will she fall?”

“Not over the cut. She’d block the boats. They’ve bulldozed the offices, so there, I guess. We’ll be fine if we stay on the path. Trust me.”

We found Dad sitting on the edge of the docking station with his shoes and socks off and his feet in the water.

“Mum would say, You’ll catch your death.”

He tried a smile but it didn’t come. There was no surprise in seeing his eyes red and a little glassy, and nor was their shame. That he was shaven and dressed in clean, pressed clothes suggested he’d made an effort for his father, for the man who’d never seen his son marry and have children, and maybe, too, for Elisabeth. He jumped up and dried his feet on the soft grass and said, “Sorry I didn’t get to the bridge. I wanted to say ta-ra before that damn road covers the cut.”

“It’s packed on the bridge, Dad. We’ll watch from here.”

“Nah, your mum would go spare if she found out. Come on, we’ll get away before she comes down.”

I looked Elisabeth up and down before we headed back. She’d been a constant companion all my life yet I’d never been this close to her. She was both ugly and beautiful at once; a maze of pipes twisted into irregular plaits, of ladders and platforms, of angles and vertices. But there was no sign now of the character to which Bilston folk referred when they spoke of her. Lizzie’s been on the pop again, Mum would say on hearing her long, echoing, churning noises float across a still night. You’d think she’d have learned her manners by now.

A barge chugged by as we hurried along the towpath in single file, its stern pushed into the water by the weight of its load, its master alternately drawing on a cigarette and hacking phlegm. He doffed his corduroy cap to us and pointed at Elisabeth. “Soon be no work for none of we,” he called over the throb of his boat’s engine. “Unless you knows demolition or road building.”

Dad said, “Be good if a man knew both,” and the man on the barge smoked and hacked more phlegm and gobbed it into the cut.

“There were dozens of we on this trip twenty year back,” he said. “Only me left now. There’s men crying back there.” He hooked a blackened thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the bridge. “Never seen a steelworker cry.”

Dad said, “They’re not steelworkers anymore.” There was no answer to that.

The barge chugged on towards a place where there was still industry, leaving its wake to lap gently at the brickwork below the path.

We were almost back when a high-pitched squeal preceded a broad Black Country brogue crackling through a cheap PA. “Ladies and gentlemen, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. It’s time to say goodbye to one of the town’s most loyal servants. Remember her with fondness, for you’ll never seeher like in Bilston again. Can we have a Black Country cheer for Big Lizzie?” It was Beaky Wright, voice of Beacon FM’s The Black Country and Beyond: from the Beacon to the Wrekin. He elongated Lizzie’s name like a title fight’s announcer. Anticipation filled the air for a moment before fading to allow Beaky to continue. There was feedback again, then, “Okay folks, with me:

Ten. Nine. Eight.”

When the crowd joined in on seven, Katy tugged at my sleeve to stop me following Dad up the bank. She pulled me into the darkness below the bridge.

On three we turned to see Elisabeth for the last time. Katy felt for my hand. “Two. One.” Elisabeth leaned to the side in silence. The explosion sounded after a split-second delay followed by the groan of twisting metal, her final desperate words, her final plea for our remembering, a final call of a mother’s love. She disappeared behind trees on the canal’s edge and the sound of her crashing to the ground rushed towards us and filled the air beneath the low, damp ceiling, where it echoed again and again and again. Dust rose in her stead and the folk above us cheered her name over and over like she was a footballer.

I said, “Dad won’t be cheering, and I hope your dad doesn’t offer him work on the road again.”

“Isn’t he keen to work?”

“He’s campaigned against the road for years.”

“A job’s a job.”

I nearly said, You sound like my mum, but before I could Katy stepped closer to me and held both my hands. She pulled me towards her and kissed me on the lips. It was warm and reassuring at first, then daring. When she slipped her tongue inside my mouth she tasted of strawberry sauce and vanilla. I broke off the kiss and said without forethought, “I lied about my mum.”

“Why? How?”

“She’s not doing double shifts. She’s in the new hospice in Compton. She might have three months, maybe longer.”

I knew it was the truth when she said, “I don’t know what to say, except sorry.”

It was the stumble in her words, the hesitation, and I felt bad for being so direct. I suspected we were both grateful for the dark.

It would’ve been easy for me to cry then, to rest my head on her shoulder and hope she’d put an arm around me and make it alright, but I didn’t know whether I should. So I went to find Dad, wiping my eyes as I climbed the bank.

Katy called after me, “I’ll see you tonight if you want,” and all the time I was at Mum’s bedside that afternoon, holding her bruised and frail hand, stroking her wiry hair and wiping clean her glasses, I couldn’t get those words out of my head. I couldn’t wait. I couldn’t help but keep turning to the clock in the hospice’s comfortable lounge.

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