..... ...............stories.......





(A Mad Tale)



This story is based on events that took place in my first job after leaving school - which back then was at age 15 (in my case following a year of blissful truancy). It includes fantasy and exaggeration.
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When Dan left school he took a job in a local factory. He was just 15, and did not relish joining the world of work. His job title was 'trainee electrician', but he wasn't in the least surprised to discover this to be a euphemism. It should have read: 'Dogsbody for replacing dud bulbs and other menial tasks'. Fred, who was two years Dan's senior, was assigned to train him - which, being of amenable disposition, made Dan's life so much the easier.

The factory's chief function was the manufacture of rubber parts for the motor industry. It also produced household and sports items - all made from rubber. The site occupied about 50-hectares, and was split in two by a public right-of-way. The smaller, southerly part, contained a dispatch department, various stores and the 'Flock-Line', while the northerly included all the heavy plant: mixing shed, mill room and press-shop - and ancillaries: admin, boiler house, laboratory, surgery, various workshops, etc. At the edge of this section, opposite the huge mixing shed and roughly half-way between the main gate and the electricians' workshop - a distance of perhaps 500 metres - stood a substation.

Inside this substation, at one end, two massive capacitors for power-factor correction hummed softly, almost like someone's voice. The rest of the space was dominated by a long panel, in the centre of which, side-by-side and flush with the surface, were two chunky master-switches - one for each half of the factory. Between these switches, and protruding almost obscenely (thought Dan) at about knee height, was a highly distinctive green mushroom button.

When it caught the sunlight, as sometimes happened first thing in the morning - such was the geophysical angle of the substation and the location of the east-facing side window - this button would shine and sparkle like a polished emerald, or (some might say) a cheap, gaudy Christmas toy. Either way, it stood out boldly, even erotically (thought Dan persistently - while partially submerged, as frequently happened, in one of his vague moments of lustful fantasy).

Above this, and for the entire length of the panel, was a line of ordinary buttons, in pairs of red-and-black, each with their dimly-glowing indicator lamps and destination labels. Then higher still was a row of watt-hour meters without which Dan's close acquaintance with the substation would not have occurred.

These meters registered each department's consumption, and it was one of Dan's tasks to read them first thing every morning. He would record the readings in pencil in a ledger, which was otherwise kept in the foreman's office beside the electricians' workshop.

As for the mushroom button, this had an exclusive function of which Dan was entirely ignorant. Normally, he would investigate such questions, but here he chose instead to preserve the options otherwise open to his frenetic imagination. That is, experience had taught him that truth all too frequently turned out to be disappointingly mundane, and it would be unfitting for such an exotic accessory as this, whose potential for imaginary stimulus seemed so huge, to actually be of no real significance or consequence - as he suspected. Better to preserve the mystery.

As to the purpose of the other buttons and switches, this could not have been more obvious: each provided an independent feed to the various departments, most of which, if not all - crucially - were entirely dependent upon electricity for their function.

And all the electricity came through that little substation where Dan - and while Dan was training, or afterwards when Fred had no other pressing duties to attend to, then Fred too - would every morning read the meters, and where, while they sat together on a big old wooden switch-box musing on their fate, discussing their respective social activities of the previous weekend or anticipating likewise for the coming weekend, or just sitting quietly a moment, taking a short break and bracing themselves for a day of replacing dud bulbs or whatever else Nip the foreman or Tom the charge-hand might have up their sleeve for them, contemplating, joking and so on and so forth - Dan would, now and then, unnoticed by Fred, and in a moment of silence, stare mesmerised at that curious green button, and transitory glimpses of his dream world would flit across his consciousness like a bird surveying undulations in a cliff-face before selecting a nesting site for the season.

But, for some reason which at the time Dan could not quite fathom, it was the whole shape of the button, both the head and the 'stalk' from which it splayed - the two features combined - that most captivated his imagination and, more than any other attribute, gave the button its peculiar and special appeal. Now and then, when he first began going there with Fred, he would walk past and around it and, while Fred was turned the other way, he would examine it more closely, more carefully. The surface of the crown, he noticed, had a beautiful smooth finish like a roulette chip, with rounded edges and equidistant circular grooves towards the centre - where there was a small hole, presumably from a spindle during manufacture. And to add to the overall intrigue, it was labelled - ambiguously, thought Dan - with the curious words 'Earth Trip'. If the truth was known, Dan would have liked to take it home with him and mount it in a panel of its own in his bedroom where he could watch it and, well, fondle it… even touch the back of it, and… maybe even…well… you never know! And then, kind of caressing it, he could dream about all the amazing possibilities that might be assigned to it.

At first, the button's effects on Dan were superficial, equivalent to a mere attention-grabbing objet d'art. But soon - after Fred had been permanently assigned to other duties and Dan spent time alone in the substation - it began to inspire for Dan quite a gamut of possibilities. These only really began in earnest several weeks after Fred ceased to accompany him. Reading meters was perhaps not the most difficult task of his life; and although, absurdly, half-an-hour was assigned to the task, it could actually be completed in less than five minutes.

rocketIf a person has the imaginative wherewithal, Dan reasoned one day while emerging from one of his frequent deep phantasmagorical daydreams, they can take any object that strikes their fancy: a space-age toy car, a rocket-shaped pen… these would be ideal, but a disk-shaped suitcase, an oval bookcase, a square saucepan, a plastic cup painted with little windows… virtually anything of novel design would do if only you had the mind to elaborate, to build one idea upon the next in rapid quick-fire succession until you had before your mind's eye.... well, anything, absolutely anything; and what's more, this 'anything' would be capable of whatever you pleased: time travel, revealing the secret of immortality, creating cities in the sky, building a star system… a galactic empire with him as its founder… its hero!


The Factory

One might wonder that the activities of the factory didn't inspire Dan's imagination too. Well, in fact they did, though in a different way - since unlike the seclusion of the substation, one was constantly distracted and one's senses bombarded with every possible kind of assault.

For instance, the huge press-shop stood roughly central on the site, and was entered through thick heavy-sprung flexible doors which would flap suddenly closed behind you - watch-out you didn't get caught in them or you'd know it! Scrunch! Once inside, you would face - through the incessant smog - a long gangway that ran for as far as you could see, and either side solid ranks of towering hydraulic presses, row upon row of them, seemingly stretched to infinity in all directions. These presses operated at over 100-deg C and steamed profusely from every crack, cleft and crevice. Their operators sweated copiously as they manoeuvred the heavy iron casts in-and-out of the great jaws, ripping away the fuming, fleshy, newly-moulded sheet, and slapping down instead a fresh thick cold piece of uncured rubber which would have arrived earlier by fork-truck from the mill-room and which sat in big heaps between the presses.

All kinds of items were created here from the raw rubber, pressed out and cured in multiples: flippers and goggles for swimmers, brake-peddle pads for cars, grommets, washers, mats… you name it, they pressed it. All day long, and all night, the press-shop echoed deafeningly with the hissing and screeching, of air-pockets constantly exploding from the new hot rubber, followed by sucking, farting noises that echoed loudly as the presses rose and released the pressure on the moulds; then, with a kind of flapping rasp, a few blasts of compressed air freed the new sheet - and a swift flick of the wrist from the operator would fling out a steaming slice of 6-flippers or 12-goggles or 48-pedal-pads onto a heap and then start the next cycle. On and on it would go, day and night, never ending - except for Christmas Day and two-weeks in the summer.

But the banging and thumping as the presses opened and closed, especially when the great jaws containing the moulds came hard together, was formidable; and the vibration would shake the floor, the concrete would judder as though from an earthquake, and it was a wonder the roof didn't cave-in or the building collapse. And all the while steam and fumes from the vulcanised rubber would swirl up and up giving a milky tinge to the atmosphere which was permanently thick with particulates and resinous vapours, so that around and above the presses a surging heat haze would flow, distorting the glow from the endless banks of fluorescent lights that would shimmer bleakly through this pale fog - for like everything else in that building, the lamps were coated in an ever-thickening semi-transparent film of yellow grime.

It was Dan's habit, though less so in unpleasant locations such as the press shop, to drag a job out for as long as possible. Hence he intermittently watched the press operators, observing how they shifted the big solid-iron moulds in and out of the presses with a strange oblivion, over and over, as though they scarcely needed even to see, and each time their hands just getting clear before the press slammed shut: ZONK, Thud, psssssssssss, squeeeeel. EEEEEEEE - Clunk!!! PPPshsh… BBBBrrrrrr…

One day, at no surprise to Dan, a man did get his hand trapped, and liquid rubber was injected under his skin. It oozed right up into his arm, and made his skin go black and puff out like a balloon. Dan was replacing a bulb in the surgery when it happened. He had been joking with the fat bossy matron-like nurse who had a wicked alluring smile. Dan was glad of his work smock at such times, otherwise his situation could have been embarrassing … though maybe… maybe… she might understand. But now the door flew open. The man was very pale and could barely walk when they brought him in. The nurse and the press-shop foreman laid the man out on a bed while an ambulance was called - and all Dan could do (so as to avoid, he told himself, the horrific sight of the man's bloated arm) was, while she leaned over the bed, to fix his eyes on the nurse's huge firm rump, which seemed to dominate the surgery. Like the mushroom button, it seemed to offer a challenge… but for what he couldn't quite fathom.

The Mill-room, which supplied the press-shop's rubber, presented what Dan saw as an even greater hazard. The mills therein resembled gigantic mangles, not unlike those once used for wringing out washing - except these were on an entirely different scale. To scrawny young Dan these machines, presses, mills, etc, were intimidating, and he was inclined to stand well clear when he could. On first sight he stared in trepidation at the great crushing rollers. Covered in black 'gunge' on its way to becoming rubber, each roller was about a metre deep and two metres wide, and rotated inwards at the top, drawing together the various constituents of the rubber: measured quantities of oils and powders and pastes - which the operator lobbed in, a little at a time; then brandishing a stout razor-knife, would lunge at the rubber as if attacking a wild animal; and repeatedly he would gouge out big flaps and turn this greasy mix, blending it until a smooth uniform sheet formed - which he then cut free in big squares. Free of rubber, the surface of the rollers shone like polished mirrors (they were as smooth and perfect as the hydraulic rams of a JCB).

And watch-out that you don't get your hand trapped in the revolving mix! Because you too could be whisked up into the mill with the rubber, and crushed to an inch thick. Just imagine, Dan would say to himself in silent horror, just imagine the gore… how blood would spurt across the mill-room, how bones would crack like fireworks, crunch like gravel, the flesh squelch and seethe and rise up like the rubber under the unrelenting weight of the rollers. It was Dan's specific duty here to test the brakes. Long heavy bars either side of each mill which when pushed - as would happen if the operator got his hand trapped and was drawn up - the rollers would stop instantly. And in testing these brakes every morning, on his way to the substation, he came to know the operators well, and it terrified him that one of them might… well, he could hardly bear to think of it, and strove to direct his mind elsewhere.

Sometimes, instead of sheets, the rubber was cut into strips for the 'Flock Line' on the far side of the factory, where it was fed into extruders: great mincing machines with heaters to soften the rubber before extruding it under pressure through a small opening from which would emerge a continuous length of foam rubber. This was conveyed first under a spray of resin then to beneath a high-voltage 'sieve' where 'flock' (microscopic needles of polyester) fell vertically onto the resin, and finally through a curing oven before being cut into lengths: to be fitted around car windows.

Near the main entrance to the factory, not far from the substation, warehouses received and stored the metre-square bales of latex polymer that was the main ingredient of the rubber. These resembled great clumps of pale-brown elastic bands, all scrunched together. Too heavy for one person to lift, they were stacked by fork-truck into heaps. But the men who worked there would hurl them down as required by the mixing department, and the bales would bounce unpredictably across the floor, so one had to watch-out when they were being moved - because the men were invariably bored and inclined to 'play'; and the more dangerous, the better they liked it - so it seemed to Dan who soon learned to go carefully there. You could wander in, the place quiet and dark, the only light from the door you slid open to enter by, and you'd think the place deserted, when suddenly one of these bales comes flying down from nowhere… immediately followed by a burst of laughter. And then you'd be invited to climb up, lie down on the soft rubber to take a rest, join in the conversation and even enjoy a smoke there amongst these jovial maniacs.


Dan's Imagination

Dan soon became well acquainted with all these departments and their unique customs and peculiarities, some of which were dull and stupid, some mind-boggling, and some intriguing, to say the least, and he acclimatised well to the morning routine of testing the mill brakes then going on to spend a while 'resting' in the substation where he would endeavour to read the meters at breakneck speed.

Here, then, he would settle himself comfortably on the old wooden switchbox, stretch out his legs, lean back against the wall, half close his eyes - but not so he couldn't still just see the all-important button fuzzily in his centre of vision - and drift into realms of other worlds, other planes, other dimensions, other universes.

sphereImages and scenarios that few people could have even begun to conceive would rise and expand spontaneously in Dan's head like billowing clouds. And the capacitors would hum in their soft, friendly, soporific tone, not unlike some far-out cybernetic space capsule might, thought Dan with a little grin, and the minutes would pass, and the fantasies would play, and suddenly, Dan would open his eyes with a start, look at his watch, then leap up, grab the ledger - which he would stuff under his work smock out of sight - and hurry back to the workshop.

Once there, if the coast was clear, he would sneak the ledger back onto its shelf. Otherwise, he would casually enter the workshop and slip it under the bench until the foreman left his office.

And so things continued for several weeks. Then one morning, when he was feeling extra tired after staying up late to watch a particularly inspiring episode of 'The Outer Limits', he sat on the old grey switchbox, gazed drowsily at the button, and as he closed his eyes he drifted into phantasms of an extraordinary nature, as he had never witnessed before - as if he had jumped several stages to a new level of aptitude, as one does in a sophisticated computer game; or as if he had taken a dose of Lsd or mescalin. But Dan needed no artificial inducements, he innately had quite enough, far more than most, for although he had closed his eyes, in his reverie he could still 'see' the button, and vividly. It was in his imagination - though now it sat virtually under his nose, within his grasp, and he leaned forward in the seat - still in his imagination, since the seat had come to resemble, both in appearance and feel, a wide soft-leather sofa - and he reached out to the button which was now centre-stage of a broad curved panel (all plush and futuristic) and with an exaggerated flourish, thrust his stiffened forefinger down onto the button, and whop! "Earth Trip - GO!" he cried.

planetThis was immediately followed by a dazzling imagined flash and a terrific lurch - and he rocked forward then back in sympathy. A moment later he was skimming through the black starry night of an alien planet, bearing down, however, on a landscape so strange, in vivid orange, of sharply defined, brightly illuminated mountains either side, that he could only gawp. And as he swept through the valley between, almost at times clipping a high jutting outcrop of rock as he swerved to follow the contours of this range, his curiosity rising constantly in his mind of what might lie beyond the next peak, the next turn, forcing him on - as he sped along, his whole being seemed to be floating on a higher facet of reality, a condition where mere paradise was the lowest of sensations, for the delight, the ecstasy, the bliss of this experience was to Dan the new and unequivocal reason for existence.

outerThen, abruptly, the scene changed, and he soared like a fighter-jet from one terrain to another now a dark puce-magenta forest with shimmering pools of white and gold, swirling in multiple vortices that continually rose up and devoured one another like ravenous monsters, now a desert of black sand spiralling into turquoise dunes, mile upon mile passed beneath him.


Next agitated swamps of heaving mud sped past, wild listing swells, huge revolving eddies churning and splashing - while Dan, secure in the safe and cosy isolation of his flying saucer which weaved and dipped through these unlikely backdrops, could only gaze and marvel, and watch incredulously as his dreams expanded to encompass more and more...



He had left Earth, and some intrepid corner of his mind began to conjure further minutiae, now of inconceivable new complexity, of unexplored planets: travelling first at awesome speed for several minutes over several immense ravines that plunged to breathtaking depths, blacker than night, then he rose like a darting shadow above mountains of beautiful transparent-white peaks where he slowed at the craft's apogee to view in detail crests spiked with shimmering icicles, delicate as gossamer - as though formed under negative gravity - and which glistened like myriads of giant crystals in the radiance of a silver sun, then he zoomed down to sweep low across vast planes of ultra-smooth diamond-glass that reflected in fantastic angular patterns of untold intricacy every colour of the rainbow and more, so it seemed, all glinting and sparkling like an endless ocean of quivering prisms.


Seas of mercury slopped and yawed, unpredictably surging and swelling, but which the capsule dodged nimbly, and a little later, on a remoter world, far, far beyond its mother star, he witnessed a seething, jittering lake of boiling helium that hovered uncertainly between breaking-up and staying-together, the roughest, most agitated mass of chaos ever, and yet by some extraordinary unknown force it held like a half-exploded bomb, and steamed with the vehemence and intensity of a megalithic cauldron, the edges rising and falling, retreating then climbing, with a broad swift tide.

The craft dipped suddenly, inexplicably, then clipped the surface of this fiendish licking unruly mass, and pitched violently… 'YOW!' he cried, nearly falling off the box, and he woke with a jerk from his daydream. He glanced blearily at his watch. It was 11.20. He leapt to his feet in horror. He'd been there nearly two-hours! Hadn't anyone missed him? Back in the workshop everything was normal. After returning the ledger - luckily the office was clear - he wandered casually in, scrutinised a list Tom the charge-hand had left on his toolbox, of where some faulty fluorescent tubes needed replacing, and made tracks for the store-room. Later, he realised with relief that by some miracle no-one had noticed his absence.
alien warp
So he began to relax, and the next day he read the meters in record time, then once more plonked himself down on the switch box, stretched out his legs, and again squinted at the magic button whose mysterious sun-glinting shades of green eased him gently from the dreary concerns of the present, and sent him instead gliding smoothly into fathomless reaches of outer space - off and away his fertile imagination would bound… out clear of the great galactic plane and beyond. 'There is no limit to anything…' he murmured, with a happy sigh - now contentedly within proximity of the beloved mushroom button.

His was truly a new force of ideas, one he didn't care to share - for fear of ridicule, for one thing, and contempt for another - no-one he knew had even a hope of understanding his way of thinking, of imagining, of daydreaming. It would have to remain his secret, his underground life, his way of escape from the dull enslavement of work - his one consoling oasis in a vast desert of hassle, trivia, futility and waste. Well, maybe he enjoyed several other recreations, but they were real; this, on the other hand, was where anything could happen; here, he and no-one else was in control - unlike the incongruous real world that was so full of limitations and obligations that spoil what would otherwise make for a pleasant congenial life.

The Consequences

Dan's high regard for this button was not altogether misplaced. For while, to him, it had greater potential than was realistically conceivable - at least from any practical view - little did he realise at the time that in reality it actually possessed more power than all the other substation buttons put together.

He discovered it this way: One day, having read the meters, he placed the ledger on the old switch box and begun watching the sunlight dance on the button as he moved. Slowly, he went across to it, shifting slightly this way then that to catch each new angle of reflection. When he reached it he stopped, and without a thought, knelt down and lowered his hand towards the button. Slowly, hesitantly, he touched the top. This sent a minuscule shiver through his spine, of pleasure, of promise… then he felt the shape of the button, moving his fingers around and under it, feeling right back from where the 'stalk' emerged from the mounting and out to where the flange began, and then again round the top, the silky-smooth top like a roulette chip. And as he was feeling this, his extended index finger around behind the flange, his hand caressing the top…. and as if he expected to be suddenly launched into space or some metaphorical equivalent, an adventure of some sort at any rate - what was he thinking of? ...he must have touched the top just a whisker too firmly, and suddenly the button gave a little jerk, like it was about to… but THUNK!

The BANG, which was heavy and flat, was nevertheless so loud that he leapt back in alarm. The button had given way with a tiny jolt, so easily, so gently, so… well, so appropriately (he mused). But for the moment he just stood there like a dummy, the THUNK still resounding in his ears, wondering why everything had gone so suddenly quiet. Then he noticed that the giant capacitors no longer hummed; and the indicator lights had all gone out. An eerie sense of doom pervaded him. What had he done? What would happen now? He decided he'd better leave - and quickly. Get smartly back to the workshop - pronto, rapido, swifto… just GO, and FAST!

But as he opened the substation door he could hear footsteps. ALREADY? How was it possible? Many of them too, and they were running, getting louder, closer… YIKES! What could he do? How could he escape? He looked over at the fire exit that he'd peered through before - out of sheer curiosity. It led to someone's back garden in an adjacent street, a garden that had been neglected for years and was a metre high in thistles and stinging nettles. And anyhow, if he went that way, what then? It was private and he could get into more trouble since the only way out from there was past someone's house and back door and kitchen window, down a narrow passage between two houses to the road. He would be bound to be seen, and phone calls would be made and complaints lodged and he would be hauled up in front of the great chief himself: the Engineering Manager, who always sat in his big office like some unseen tyrannical monarch dishing out orders… old TAS, as they called him (because that was his initials). Dan had only seconds to think, only moments to decide. The sound of voices now, so close…

He was still ruminating when they burst in, five of them. They scarcely paused to look at him, but one said: 'You've done it now, lad!' And another: 'You'll be for it!' And yet another, who grinned and peered sidelong as he passed, 'I knew it was only a matter of time… I'd look sharp if I were you. Tom'll be here directly.' and brushed past as Dan moved aside. Two of them dragged out the switchbox that had served well as Dan's seat for so long, tore open the lid and removed a set of levers and rods, which they began to assemble. Dan turned to watch them. He was too confused, too shocked, to speak or to move. Within minutes they had the apparatus together and dragged it across to the other three who had by then dismantled the gear either side of the offending 'Earth Trip' - ready to fit the switchgear assembly. When this was done on one side, they raised the handle against a ratchet, and two of them together plunged the switch down with an almighty CLONK - this was accompanied by a brief arcing splash… but long before then, before even they had finished assembling the switch, Dan was gone.

Adjacent to where the raw latex bales were stored, and right opposite the little substation, was the biggest building of all, the mixing shed. This was a very long, high structure with hoppers for the powders and oils to be mixed with the latex in precise quantities - according to the kind of rubber required - producing a rubber-base for sending on to the mills for further mixing and processing.

Having finally decided that he would indeed be wise to scarper, Dan had sneaked out into the vestibule and peered along the concrete driveway that ran past the substation. All clear - or was that Tom in the distance striding ardently towards him from the workshop direction? He wasn't going to wait to find out - not bloody likely. In one leap, he darted across the driveway and through a little open-door in the great mixing shed opposite. Now a row of gigantic hoppers towered above him, receding left and right. But he was well used to these, and with Fred's help he had become fully acquainted with a whole multitude of little gangways and alleys that led through this great complex. And so he entered and began weaving his way through. But he could barely see, all around was so dim - then he realised, of course, the mains was off; only emergency lighting. And everywhere was silent and eerie unlike he had known there before. Even the conveyers and hoists had stopped, which normally carried sacks of powder to a high platform for feeding the hoppers, or big square buckets around under the hoppers, stopping and starting unpredictably, collecting so much of this powder or oil, so much of that, in this or that bucket, destined for this or that mill, and you'd have to watch-out because if you didn't remember to dodge these or wait for one to pass, you might receive a good sharp clout that could knock you flying. And that floor was about the dirtiest in the whole place: black with something worse than soot, oily and thick, yet by some curious fluke, not slippery. But it would stick to your shoes all the same, and would rot them something terrible. The men who worked there all had big holes in the tops of their shoes.

So there weaved Dan, half-way in now, with all kinds of intriguing alternative routes open to him at every step; each with its unique cubby-holes and strange little control rooms where even stranger men would be hiding away. But not this time. Where were they? Here he would usually find Fat Joe eating his sandwiches and chocolate bars, or there one might stumble on Tall Bill combing his matted hair or preening himself in a tiny mirror, his face covered in black, or even Laughing Ted reading his 'News of the World', cutting out a joke and fixing it on a pillar with other smudged unreadable clips, and well, there'd be old Jack Flack the greace-mixer, lurking under a low hopper, his teeth and eyes gleaming like fairy-lights, wiping his hands on a black rag then waving and spreading black dust into the air… and elsewhere others too, all endearing characters in their way who manned these curious obscure little stations that were ensnared randomly, so it seemed, amidst this endless maze of scaffold and pipes and trunking and buckets and gantries and... But what? No sunlight, no windows? Just the deafening rattle now and then of a vibrator shaking the powder loose in one of the hoppers, or the whirr from an oil pump, and the ceaseless murmur of fans echoing along the ventilation ducts that ran just about everywhere and finally joined into a big square shaft, wide enough for two men to climb together, that soared through the great muddle of girders and platforms and other bits of ironwork and masonry, to the highest point on the roof where, from the main road outside the factory, could be seen what resembled a giant snail with a fin like a fish which rotated the assembly according to the wind. But now, having darted in a haphazard diagonal past all these weird things, Dan was out the other side and in daylight once more. Whew!

Everywhere, now, that ominous unfamiliar silence. He walked slowly up the yard past the press-shop and out onto the right-of-way. Instead of working, people were standing around in the yard chatting to one another and looking bewildered. Dan's intention was to make himself scarce. He would remove himself to the 'Flock Line': a long low building that ran beside the railway, and the remotest part of the factory. As he stepped in, everywhere was quiet... then - and this was at the precise moment when that switch in the substation was plunged with an almighty CLONK back into the 'ON' position - the fluorescent lights all flickered together and soon everywhere was once more bathed in light as normal.

Then Dan noticed a harsh whining noise, a motor straining. It was coming from somewhere near Line-1. He approached the first big mincing machine. The rubber had cooled in the shaping head, and was coming under increasing pressure. This was obvious just from the noise. The rubber should have been allowed to heat-up first. Some fault must have occurred with the logic, thought Dan uneasily, and nodded to someone he knew on line three. 'Power cut.' They shouted. 'Yes.' Dan nodded back. 'On again now though it looks.' the voice continued. Dan was too preoccupied with Line-1 to reply or go over and continue the kind of banal conversation he was so accustomed to.

A gormless looking bloke was standing by the conveyer in front of the extruder, his back to the control panel. Dan had seen him numerous times before but had never spoken to him. He was fiddling with what appeared to be playing-cards, and seemed to be enjoying a game of patience, laying the cards out neatly on the belt. As he went towards the panel Dan could make out the little voltmeter and ammeter - whose readings, it struck him suddenly, were reversed: that is, the voltmeter read low, and the ammeter high.

The motor was straining now to a high pitch. It really should be turned off, Dan thought, before something gives. (He was expecting a fuse to blow, or even the motor to burn out). But the whine just kept getting louder and higher in pitch. As he went towards the extruder the whine reached a piercing ear-splitting level, as though, it seemed, some limit was about to be reached - as though something was about to explode. Why, he wondered, going quickly now towards the panel, didn't that prick kill the power?

'Switch it off!' cried Dan. The gormless bloke looked up and just grinned blankly. 'If you wan' it off mate, you switch it off.' He bawled hoarsely above what had now become an agonising whistle with an accompanying low growl from the motor bearings… then…

CLUNCH! THWAK! Dan didn't quite see what happened for dust. The whine had instantly moderated, but he was momentarily deafened from the sudden release of pressure, and whatever else had bust. All he saw was a cloud of dust; and the only sound, a ringing in his ears. Then he saw that the extruder-head had gone. A jagged thick edge of exposed cast iron, the colour of graphite - and oozing from inside a gooey black mass of half-melted rubber poured slowly out and was hanging, as it cooled, like a gigantic knob of congealed snot. As he raised his eyes, past the gormless bloke, whose cards were now scattered all around, and whose face and hair was pink with brick-dust as he leaned weakly on the conveyer for support, coughing, Dan spotted a jagged hole in the brick wall adjacent to the control panel - directly in line with the angle of the broken extruder. This had been the source of the second enormous bang, and the dust - which still hung in the air. Dan stepped calmly over to the wall and looked through at the extruder head, which had fallen not far behind. It must have missed the gormless bloke by inches, he thought, swallowing. Although slightly in shock, Dan understood precisely everything that had happened. The meters had resumed their more familiar readings, but there was no sense in leaving the motor on. Besides, where was the foreman? He must have wandered off when the power failed. Dan walked to the control panel and pressed the stop button, throwing the gormless bloke a puzzled stare as he did so. That could, he said to himself, cringing at the thought, have been that bloke's heart lying there on the floor instead of just a thin layer of brick dust…

He turned. Now he was out, back on the right-of-way, taking deep breaths of fresh air to replenish his strength, and sensing the return of his hearing, telling himself that although it was as much the fault of those who'd carelessly restored the power, whatever happened, whether he would be sacked for pressing the mushroom button, or just reprimanded, he would never again act so recklessly, unthinkingly. Even if the Earth-Trip could have triggered from a genuine fault, it would not then be down to him. And he resolved not to allow himself again to remain ignorant about the function of anything whenever possible - especially eye-catching mushroom buttons.

But where now? Back to the workshop? Could he face the scorn, the reproaches, the ridicule… or even the sack? Now or never, he told himself, let's get it over. And he meandered back down the yard wondering quite what excuse he might offer, for one never knew, it might just be believed - or at least, if not exactly believed, he might receive the benefit of the doubt. As he wheeled around the corner into the workshop a great cheer went up followed by broken laughter. What? he thought, Am I a hero or something?

Half the electricians sat around - though not those who'd appeared at the substation earlier, they were evidently still engaged in correcting the problem - and it was, after all, tea break. Then Tom approached, only to be waved aside as Nip, the foreman, waltzed in. After sending two of the electricians off to the Flock Line, he approached Dan solemnly... 'Well?' he sneered gruffly.

Dan began spilling excuses, how he'd accidentally brushed the button with his knee, just by sheer chance. Such amazing bad luck. But what a location for a button like that, and so absurdly protruding too. He'd hardly touched it, he told Nip, who shook his head and stroked his chin, shrugged several times, and eventually responded by telling Dan in clear terms that he'd sailed so close to the wire that any closer would have scorched him out of a job - but this time, though he didn't buy a single word, he'd let the matter drop. Then he went over and began discussing the various consequences with Tom. Nervously, as if by unspoken order, Dan picked-up the usual list of jobs - bulbs to be replaced - and wandered away, heading out of the workshop to the store. For once he would forgo his tea-break with pleasure. But he couldn't help wondering what would have become of him if Nip had thrown him out. Would his life have improved, or what? And he meandered back up the driveway from where he'd just come, dreaming of when he'd finally generate the initiative to FREE himself...