By Robert Dalvean
He was highly skilled, no doubt of that. His talent went beyond craft and became pure artistry. We in the family thought it was such a pity that he couldn’t find an honest job. My mother, his aunt, used to pause in her ironing when she thought of him, remembering of course to turn the iron so that it didn’t burn the cloth. And ten minutes later she’d still be standing next to the ironing board, shaking her head and muttering, “Poor Ada.”
Ada was her sister, Ada Clootie, and the reason that she was “poor Ada” was that she had only one child and that one had turned out bad.
Well, not really. The trouble was that Manfred Clootie had wanted to be a poet, and, as everyone knows, you can wish until your head falls off and still not get your wish granted. For all I know, he may have had some talent as a writer, but nobody would publish his work. So he concentrated on his one outstanding ability: he picked pockets.
Everyone in the family knew about this activity of his, but of course nobody ever actually said anything. Some things can’t be talked about. My mother’s fear was that he’d be caught and his deeds would become public knowledge. But the powers that had conferred on him the ability to nick wallets seem also to have made him immune to detection.
And yet he should have been caught. He stood out in a crowd. He was tall, gangly, with a an uncombed mop of hair and a big moustache. He was near-sighted, with bulging eyes that had never been assisted with glasses. When he stared, his whole body peered, leaning forward so far that you were amazed he didn’t fall on his face.
I have a literary uncle who once said, “Have you noticed how much Manfred looks like Henry Lawson? I wonder if he does it on purpose – can’t be a poet, so tries to look like one.”
I hardly knew my cousin until he was in his mid-twenties. He had decided to marry. This would not have concerned us if his fiancee had not been the daughter of people my family did not want to offend. They had several rental properties and my father was their favourite plumber.
For some reason, I was detailed to “reason with him.” I was supposed to get him installed in a job and away from other people’s pockets.
“Put it to him ,” my father said. “Tell him he goes straight or we tell the girl’s father about him.”
“Why don’t you do it?”
Manfred Clootie lived in a huge, ratty, rambling house that had been cut up into rooms for people – well, for people like him. When I knocked on the front door, I was sure it was going to fall in. But eventually it was answered by the man himself, who stared at me and then beckoned me in. He led me to his room, which was neater than most of the rooms in that house. He asked me how I was, how various family members were. He must have known my business, because he said as soon as the door was shut, “I am going to marry her, no matter what anyone says.”
I put the family’s view of the matter forward and he smiled.
“I’ve beaten you to it. I have a job.”
“A job? You? But you’ve never had a job.”
“I have, you know. In fact, I’ve just left one. It didn’t go well.”
I said nothing, so he rushed in and said, “But the next one . . .”
“Tell me about the job,” I said. “What happened?”
So he told me.
These are more or less his words.
I knew myself well enough [he said] to stay away from panelled offices, to avoid government buildings. I knew I’d be hopeless in a shop and I couldn’t see well enough to drive a truck. Only the factory remained. I knew I could find work there and be ignored. I wouldn’t have to pretend. Nobody would ask what I was really like. Nobody would care. So long as I turned up on time and did the work, I’d be paid. It was enough.
I had to start work at 7.45 each morning. I didn’t know there was such a time. I’d lost touch with mornings. Morning’s a place where other people live. I moved into morning the way you move into a new house, but I never got used to the place.
I hadn’t been able to find work close to home, so I had to travel. I don’t like travelling. I felt as if my enemies had set out to punish me by making me move from one place to another. But I did it.
I used an old-fashioned alarm clock to wake myself up, and I came to know the full horror of early rising. The air itself seemed unnatural. It was too clear and smelled of nothing. The sound of traffic was indecent. I just couldn’t imagine that persons of good repute would poke their heads out of their lairs before ten-thirty. But now here I was, up at six, running the old and dangerous toaster and the crusted electric jug, fuelling myself with Nescafe and buttered toast. Have you noticed how butter always tastes rancid early in the morning?
There was competition for the bathroom. Often I lost interest in waiting and went out dressed but unwashed, unshaven. Somehow I’d manage to dress myself and then go tumbling down the front steps into the street, almost always on the edge of disaster. I knew that some day I’d fall asleep half way through the descent. Then I’d surely dash my brains out on the kerb, and the world would never know what a treasure it had lost.
Each day I found transport, somehow. I had to take a tram, then a bus. I could never quite remember taking either. And at last I’d come to full consciousness standing next to a machine that prattled brainlessly to me all day long.
The job almost required some skill. I had to stand next to a huge machine, some kind of automatic lathe, which had been set up for me by a tradesman. The actions I needed to perform were set out for me in a document that hung on a frame at eye-level. Nothing could go wrong. Nothing. Clever men had calculated everything, allowed for all contingencies.
I followed instructions and, day after day, machined metal that looked to me like aluminium.
I’d taken the job out of desperation when I was going through a bad period. I had a serious case of thief’s block. I couldn’t function at top professional level. So, you can imagine, I resented being there. But after a few days, the repetitive motions and the sound of the machine and the feeling of actually producing something – making, fashioning – all these worked together to calm my mind. I never did find out what the bits and pieces I turned out were used for. But that didn’t matter, because I was beginning to fall in love with the machine.
But one thing I didn’t like was having kerosene gush over my hands. And I couldn’t stand the smell of it.
You see, when metal is being cut it eventually becomes hot. I knew that. It was one of the few things about the job I did know. I knew too that to cool and lubricate the cutting tools a stream of liquid was needed. What I couldn’t understand was the reason for having two sources of coolant – one dispensing kerosene, the other a milky, water-based liquid. The foreman, a man grey all through – grey hair, grey eyes, grey dustcoat, and another man who had set up the machine had told me always to use kerosene as a coolant. This I did. But after days of diligent machining, I rebelled. I switched off the kerosene flow and turned the tap on the other tube.
Now milky liquid gushed over the spinning rod that I was converting into a tubular artefact that would eventually find its way into the interior of some machine. The huge tray under the lathe slowly accumulated a mass of cuttings. Every now and then someone would come along with a barrow and remove these cuttings so that the metal could be sold for scrap.
Oh it was good not to have that filthy kerosene gushing over the work, making a stink in my nostrils and offending my skin – even at times throwing a few droplets up into my face. The cutting compound was nearly all water, and it did not smell. I liked it.
I was lost in contemplation of spinning metal and spiralling cuttings. The machine soon seemed to be operating itself. I’d stop out the work, tighten the collet, wind back the turret, present a drill to the metal and sigh with pleasure as it bit deep. Then I’d back off the turret and watch as it swung a new tool into position. This would bore out the hole the drill had made. Then another turret retraction, another tool brought into play, and the metal in the collet would take on a form. I felt very much as the gods must have felt on that wet Melbourne Sunday in winter when, bored out of their skulls, they played with earth and fire and water until, quite by accident, they found they had created the world.
I, Clootie the god of all creation, cutting, drilling, turning, facing, parting-off. Manual labor wasn’t, it seemed, such a bad way to make a living after all. I looked at the cuttings coming off the work and found them good. But I could not see them quite well enough. Indeed, it was only by getting dangerously close to the work that I could see anything. I hadn’t told my employers how dim my eyes were. Now, wishing to look more closely as the cuttings grew, and curled and fell away, I pulled aside the coolant dispenser and looked directly at the metal.
I was required to do a very fine facing cut (I know it was a facing cut because I’d been told it was – oh, I love terminology!). I crossfed the brilliant, sharp tool and watched in fascination as a fine, powdery spray of metal particles formed a little cloud. Was this stuff aluminium, that plebeian metal usually forced into the shapes of pots and pans? I’d never feel contempt for a saucepan again. The play of light was magical.
The piece I was machining grew warm. Then hot. I was still deep in meditation when I saw the spark, the glow. Ignition had occurred. I stared at the metal, wondering how it was that aluminium could burn. Then the glow became very bright and the tiny fire that burned before my eyes grew. I reached for the coolant pipe and directed a stream of adulterated water onto the work.
And that was the end of the lathe, the end of the job and nearly the end of Manfred Clootie. Fire fell into the mass of cuttings in the tray, and where all had been dark and formless there was now a great brightness as the burning metal became incandescent.
I was puzzled rather than alarmed. How could metal burn, and burn so brightly. Behind me, hanging on a hook attached to one of the I-beams supporting the roof, was a bucket of water. I think it belonged to the cleaners. I rushed to it, came back to the lathe and threw its contents into the already burning mass of metal in the tray of the lathe. The hot, brilliant, burning mass hissed at me and grew even brighter.
Then the oil seals burned out, and from various parts of the machine oil poured into the only place it could pour – the hot, fiery tray. The flames changed colour. Now they were smoky orange and I was ready to die from asphyxiation. Arms were thrown round me and I was pulled backwards. The lathe roared. Someone came running up with a hose and someone else said, “Don’t use water. It’s magnesium!”
The foreman, greyer now than ever, his day ruined, grabbed me and put a hand on my chest.
“D’y’feel all right?”
By now the flames were eating away at the enamel that coated the machine. The air was full of small white flakes of magnesium oxide. I thought they looked a bit like the flakes that you see in glass snowstorm bowls.
I might have been forgiven. But I think they all realised that I was enjoying the devastation I’d caused. The foreman said, “Didn’t you know what you was machining?”
I said I thought it was aluminium.
“Well, it was magnesium. Someone must of told you.”
“They probably did, but I don’t know what magnesium is,” I said.
“It’s a metal that burns, and it burns better when you put water on it.”
“Was that water? It looked like milk.”
“Jesus, don’t they teach you blokes anything?”
“No,” I said. “Nothing.”
By now, men with wheelbarrows were running to the stricken lathe and shovelling black sand over it. Slowly the flames died. The sand piled up over the ruined machine, and soon there was nothing about it that looked at all machine-like.
I was entranced. Where there had been an embodied order and rationality there was now black, stinking chaos.
“I’ll tell you what you’re gunna do,” the foreman said. “You’re gunna clean it up. I don’t know if we can save it, but we’ll try, and you’re the one who’s gunna try hardest. Get to work.”
“No,” I said, “I don’t think so.”
“What? You done it, you fix it.”
“Does this place work on hourly hire?” I said.
“You know it does.”
“Then I’m giving an hour’s notice. I’d like my pay.”
The foreman quivered, grew pale, looked slowly about him as if in search of a weapon, then he shook his head and slowly walked away. Shortly after, I left the factory with a small brownpaper envelope containing my wages. As I passed through the great sliding doors, now fully open as if to make sure that I really was leaving, a little man darted up to me and said, “Got the arse, didya?”
“No,” I said. “I gave notice.”
“Good thing too,” said the man. “You wasn’t in the union. Weeda caught up with you within a week. Can’t have non-union people just walkin’ in off the streets.”
“In my craft,” I said, “we don’t have a union.”
I turned to leave, bumping the little man with my shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” I said, smoothing the man down as if I’d bumped him much harder than in fact I had.
“Get away from me,” said the little man, greatly alarmed.
Get away I did. I turned and walked down the street, turned into a lane, sprinted down it, turned into a street and only then examined the note I’d had fished from the man’s pocket. Only ten dollars, but not bad for an unplanned hit. The crisis was past. My gift had returned.
“So there you are, I have worked,” Clootie said.
I was at a loss. How to tell him that this was not a successful venture.
“You want to marry, to set up house and all that,” I said.
“Yes. That’s normal. Isn’t it?”
“Yes, it’s normal, but nothing else about you is.”
“I can reform.”
“Of course,” I said, with a great amount of no confidence. “By the way, what is this next job you mentioned?”
“Ah,” he said. “It’s in education – a teaching job.”
“But you’re not qualified.”
He made a dismissive gesture, as if to say: Only an idiot would think that way.
I made my report to the family and my father made his decision. The marriage was definitely not to take place. He told the very young woman’s parents what kind of man their daughter was going to marry and they passed the information on to her.
Her reaction was to leave home and move in with Manfred Clootie.
“They’re not even married,” my mother wailed. My father was too deeply angry for words. He threw himself into his work with such fury that he suffered a nervous collapse that lasted some weeks. It was not a good month for the family.
I returned to my own affairs and gave no more thought to the young lovers until one night, to please my wife, I attended a chamber music recital. During the intermission, my mind far away, I was jostled by a woman who immediately apologised and gave me a smile that temporarily brightened my life. I told her that the fault was all mine and asked her if she was enjoying the evening. She said that she was. And then she simply merged into the crowd and for a moment I was lost.
Then Manfred Clootie stood before me, beaming like a proud parent. In his hand he held my wallet, which he held out to me, saying, “Did you drop this?”
I wanted to hit him, but all I did was snatch back my wallet and say, “You shouldn’t play those tricks on me. Save them for strangers.”
“Tricks? I didn’t play any tricks.”
“You mean you didn’t take my wallet?”
“I certainly didn’t.”
“Then who did?”
At that moment, the woman who had jostled me appeared next to him.
“Oh, no, not two of you,” I said. “Don’t tell me you’re a team.”
“You never did meet Ariel, did you?” he said. “She’s the one who – ”
“Yes, I know who she is – now.”
“She taught me something about myself,” Clootie said. “She showed me that I did have at least one other talent. I couldn’t be accepted as a poet, and I couldn’t work in a factory, but . . .”
“Yes, what? What’s your other skill?”
Ariel answered for him.
“He’s a wonderful teacher,” she said.
My wife returned from whatever socialising she’d been doing and, much to my disgust, I had to make introductions. She was one of the few people in the family who didn’t know about Manfred Clootie and his “profession”. We all chattered away until a bell called us back to our places.
Later, in the car, my wife opened her handbag and said, “What’s this? How did that get there?”
I had to wait for the next traffic light before I was able to read the card she’d extracted from her bag.
It was printed like a business card, which said:
cloot, n. [Scot.] The whole or part of a cloven hoof.
Clootie, n. [Scot.] 1. A small hoof. 2. A name for the devil, ie the cloven-footed one.
From: The Cutpurse’s Lexicon Melbourne 1990, never published but privately imagined by Manfred Clootie, pickpocket, poet and teacher.
“I have no idea,” I said.