Content Warning: childhood grief for a parent
It were a clear blue day, what with the factory shut for the funeral and wake.
Colin was slumped in the pub garden's swing, his straw hair sticking out every which way despite his mam's best efforts with the Brylcreem. Me and Trev were stood by quiet, our hands lost in the oversized pockets of our borrowed suits. Trev's cheeks had gone red and purple in the heat, his top button still done up and straining against his neck.
Mark came back out the pub with a plate of sausage rolls that he offered round.
"What's it like in there?" I asked.
"Grim," said Mark. "Your Uncle Gareth's lost his jacket, and then he says it doesn't matter compared to losing Colin's dad, and then he starts crying again. Seen it happen three times while I were at the buffet."
"Yeah, well," I said. "Best mates, weren't they?"
Colin grunted, swung himself a bit harder, but said nowt.
"Here, Colin," said Mark, holding the plate out. "Fancy a sausage roll?"
Colin shrugged, carried on almost as if he hadnt heard. Then he got up and stomped to the picnic bench and drank his Coke back in one go, then slammed the glass down so hard we all flinched thinking it'd smash.
"This is shit," Colin said. "Really shit. Shit shit shit."
Well there weren't much to say to that, really, cos he was right, so we stood and picked at the sausage rolls awkwardly.
Colin stared us all in the face. "You know they wouldn't even let me see inside the casket? My own dad! I should have a right!"
"Colin, mate," said Trev, patting him on the shoulder as reassuring as he could. "If they din't let you it's for a reason. We all know what it's like in that factory. All sorts of dangerous stuff."
"I don't know though, do I? Not my thirteenth birthday till next month, so I ain't been shown round yet." Colin suddenly sniffed and wiped away an angry tear. "He'd already got me my workboots. Found 'em in the bottom of his wardrobe this morning when I was looking for the shoe polish."
"Oh mate," I said. "I..." what? How to say anything that wouldn't sound like summat we'd copied off our mams? 'He'd've been proud for everyone in the factory to see you with him, and proud to show you round and have you see where he did his work, and everyone always said he was the best at cloudmaking, a real artist, you could always tell when your dad was on shift cos the sunsets looked like bloody magic'? Colin knew all that, and he'd know we meant it, but saying it out loud would sound stupid. There weren't no good way to say Colin, mate, this is shit, you don't deserve it, but we bloody love you and we'll get through it, alright? Cos no matter how you said it his head was too full of angry buzzing to hear it.
His head and his mouth both, and it kept spilling out, even though he din't mean it to. "You what?" he shouted. "What, Jamie? What can you do? What can anyone bloody do?"
And I dunno, that's a question without an answer at times like this I reckon, but before I knew it my mouth had opened and I'd answered anyway.
"We could show you round, Colin. Us three. Show you where he worked, and how to work the clouds."
Mark looked up surprised, and Trev near choked on a sausage roll, and Colin said "What?"
"Well," I said, trying to work it out cos I hadn't realised I was going to bloody say it, had I? "There's no-one up there today, right? They're all here in the pub, drinking to your dad. And we've all been up, and alright, I've only been a couple of times, but I reckon I can remember how my Dad does the boiler controls, and Trev's dad works the furnace and Mark's dad does the water inlets, so between us we sort of know all the main bits, right? And my Dad got your dad to show me the cloud release lever so I reckon we can get up there and let one cloud out, sort of, I dunno, a goodbye to your dad, summat he'd have appreciated, y'know? Summat he can see from Heaven."
Colin sort of stared, like he hadn't heard proper, then swallowed and nodded and looked away at the cloud factory.
Its squat, lichen-grey chimney stuck out halfway up the hillside, above the terraced houses and the railway station and the grass valley off down the way. The High Street in town ran straight up the hill to the factory, but it were a good twenty minutes' walk. Trev shook his head. "I dunno if we'll make that before they notice we're gone," he said. He looked like he were sweating just at the thought of the climb.
"Mate, you've seen 'em indoors," I said. "They ain't in a way to notice anything. When was the last time any of 'em came out to check on us?"
"Yeah, but," said Mark, "if they do find out, we won't ever get to go back. I got this whole speech off my Dad about responsibility and good character and showing you was sensible if you ever wanted a job up there."
"Aye, I got that," said Trev. "I don't reckon breaking into the factory'd look good, Jamie."
"I know," I said, "I had it from my Dad too. But we've got to do summat for Colin, haven't we? We'll not be long at it. One cloud." I couldn't back out now I'd said it, no matter how uncertain I felt or how worried I was at being caught.
"Let's just go," said Colin, grabbing the last handful of sausage rolls. "I'll tell 'em it was my idea if anyone stops us. I don't care. There's nowt they can do to me that's worse than what's already happening."
He pushed through the wooden gate and set off up the hill, and that din't leave no choice for the rest of us but to follow him.
"It's locked," said Trev, pulling at the double-door handles as if the chain might fall off if he shook it right. All of us were sweating in our funeral suits from climbing in the sun, and our posh shoes were chafing at our heels, and we'd walked all this way for nowt.
"There's gotta be a key somewhere," I said, "or another door or summat. Any of you go in any other way?"
Trev shrugged and leant against the corrugated steel wall, ready to give it up, and Mark jogged up the factory front a ways to look, but there were only the big roller doors and the switch for them were on the inside.
"I don't even know who'd have the key," said Mark. "I can't remember 'em ever shutting down before, not properly with everyone out like this. Even Christmas has a few on quiet shift."
"Don't matter," said Colin, defeated. "It were a stupid idea anyway." He kicked the doors in frustration, rattling the chain.
"No," I said. Hearing how beaten he was then made my mind up. "No, we're getting in. Think, who'd have the key?"
"I dunno," said Trev. "Who owns the factory?"
"I dunno," said Mark. "Not really thought about it before I suppose."
"Someone's got to have a key," said Mark. "Is there an office round here or summat?"
"Only Uncle Gareth's booth at the gate," I said.
"Wouldn't he have the key?" asked Mark. "If he's security it must be his job to lock up."
"He'll have it on him though," said Trev.
"Except..." I ran over to the small wooden booth, hoping, peering through the mucky glass. Yes! "You said he'd lost his jacket in the pub, right Mark? He left it here!" I pulled open the door and patted down the pockets, pulling out a bunch of keys and holding them up triumphant.
We were really going to do it, then. Best hope we didn't get caught and muck our lives up forever in one afternoon.
We ran to the factory door, suddenly worried about getting seen even though we'd been knocking around for ten minutes already. We all yanked at the chains to unravel 'em then piled in, trying to squeeze through the open door at the same time.
The factory was still. There were no-one bustling about between levels and levers, no valves spinning or belts moving or anything at all. Only a warm, low hum and a scent that burned your nostrils to let you know none of it were sleeping, just... waiting.
"It's massive," said Colin, staring up in awe at the main boiler and the chimney above. "I never knew it were so big."
"Right," I said. "Cloudmakin'. Here we go. Okay. Colin, you and me'll go up that ladder there. Where do you two need to be?"
Mark gestured to the far wall, against the hillside. "The inlets are over there if we need more water from the springs. Did you know there's pipes all over the hills? Me and Dad go walking when he's got the weekend off, we're trying to see 'em all."
Trev cut in before Mark got carried away. "Furnace is down below," he said, wiping the sweat off his brow. It was hot in here even without everything going.
"Don't reckon as you'll hear me over there if I need to shout you," I said, "so you two hang about here while me and Colin check up top. We'll let you know if we need more of owt, I guess. Alright?"
"Yeah, alright," said Trev, who sat down on the walkway in relief, leaning against a railing. Mark shrugged in agreement and started looking round, curiosity keeping him busy.
"Come on then," I said to Colin, setting off for the ladder. I stood back when we got there, so he could go first. My Dad'd done the same for me when he'd brought me in, like he knew I'd chicken out if he went first and I had to follow, so he'd stood back as if there were no doubt in his mind that I could do it, and that gave me the courage cos I din't want to let him down. I didn't know if it'd work the same between Colin and me, but I guess we all had to fill in there and hope, now.
"It's pretty high," he said dubiously.
"Aye, it's not so bad once you're going." I left it at that, trying to keep casual.
After a moment he took to the ladder, and I thought of telling him how proud I was of him, but I figured he'd not appreciate drawing attention to it, so I just waited a space of breaths and went up after.
Not that I were thrilled about climbing it myself, mind you.
We gave each other a careful nod at the top, enough to let on that both of us were glad to be done without letting on we'd actually been frightened, even though it were okay to be frightened cos it was really bloody high after all.
"This is where my Dad would have worked?" asked Colin, looking about the platform circling the boiler.
"Aye," I said, nodding at the cloud lever. "He'd have been there, working the release. He was both times I visited. Sat quiet, focusing, like he were listening to the clouds through the handle. He had a little bubble of calm around him, like all the other blokes went respectful when they got near so as they din't disturb him. Reckon they all thought a lot of him, mate. Reckon they loved him a lot."
He stared at the handle. I gave him his peace and went to my Dad's spot.
There were more dials than I remembered. He'd made it look simple, pointing out which ones meant Colin's dad had the all clear for a cloud release, but sat here without him they all looked the same, a good dozen of 'em actually identical, and could I bloody remember which ones he'd said were important? They were all still, though, pointed in different directions, so I figured the system were primed and left sitting in balance.
I looked over the labels stuck down on the red iron control board, lined up beneath each dial. They were all shortened and most of 'em made no sense, but BOIL PRSR and WATER TMP were clear enough, and I figured the thick black line three quarters round were the sweet spot. We needed a bit more of both.
I went to the rail and shouted down to Mark and Trev. "We need more heat and more pressure," I yelled, my voice clanging off all the pipes and iron in the factory.
"How much?" shouted Trev.
"I dunno, a bit?"
"How much is a bit?"
"The needle on the dial ain't that far off!"
"How much does that mean?"
"I dunno! Just give it a bit, alright! And Mark, turn the water on too. Go easy on 'em both, if it's not enough we can give it more after, alright?"
"Yeah, alright," shouted Trev, who trundled off to the ladder that'd take him down a level. Mark ran off down the walkways to the far wall where all the inlet valves were set in a row.
When I turned back Colin was by the cloud release lever, resting his hand on the top, biting his bottom lip.
"How'd you reckon he died, then?" he asked as I walked up.
"Honestly, mate, I haven't a clue. I dunno as I need to know either. What he did while he were alive is more important, right?"
"Do you reckon... he was stood here when it happened? Whatever happened?"
"Colin, seriously..." I reached a hand out for him and he swiped it away. I almost walked away and left him to it, thinking he needed the space, but then I figured he needed the support more, and pulled him in for a hug. It were awkward for a moment--not something mates normally do, is it?--but it felt like it helped, I reckon.
"Come on, mate," I said. "Let's go see if Trev and Mark have done their bit yet, then we can send this cloud up, yeah? Your dad showed me how the handle worked, so I'll show you, and I reckon that's sorta like your dad showing you then, aye?"
"Aye," Colin said. "Aye."
The water and pressure dials had both lifted, and were more or less bang on now. Mark and Trev might not look like much some days but they'd done the job right and we were set to go.
Here was hoping I could do my part so well. Might be the only time I ever did it, after all, if we got caught.
"Right," I said to Colin. "When I give you the nod, ease back on the lever to build pressure in the cloud chamber, then when it's built up enough you squeeze the handle to let it out the chimney."
"How do I know when the pressure's right?"
I tried to remember when I'd had a go. "I dunno, to be honest. Your dad told me when to squeeze. It were about a count of ten after pulling back on the lever, if that helps?"
Colin nodded and gripped the lever, his jaw set. He was set to do his dad proud. Now I had to do my bit.
The dials were all shifting now, not just the boiler pressure and water temperature. I din't have a clue what SB TK3 PR was, nor any of the other SB TKs around it, but I figured it weren't good how much they were dropping. Reckoned we needed to do this fast then shut it all down before owt got dangerous.
I tried to remember which levers my Dad'd used to pass the steam into the cloud chamber. There was AIR MIX and PTICULTS and APERTURE and PRE TEMP and all sorts, and I reckon I'd used 'em all last time, but God knows how much I'd done 'em, I were too carried away with doing it to notice what I were doing. APERTURE and PRE TEMP were somewhere in the middle anyway so I figured they were right. Best not to mess with the other two cos I din't have the foggiest what PTICULTS were and I din't know how much air I should mix in.
So I eased up on PSR RLEAS and watched for the pressure dial to drop as I let steam out of the main boiler, cos it were getting frightful close to that red mark. One of the other dials--ATMO CHAMB--started to rise, so I figured that were Colin's chamber, and I pulled back on my lever to stop feeding it.
The main pressure dial hadn't hardly dropped at all, though. Reckon it'd stopped climbing for a moment, but no more. We'd have to get this cloud out then run down to Trev and Mark and get 'em to wind back the boiler and tank before everything got too much.
"Right!" I shouted to Colin, cos everything were clanking and rattling now, and I had to yell to make myself heard even over the space of ten foot. "Give it a go!"
He nodded, jaw clenched, and pulled back on the lever. I could see him struggle as the ATMO CHMB needle climbed, and I reckon that was how Colin's dad felt the pressure, through the lever. The dial were getting pretty high, so I shouted "Now!" to Colin, but between his concentration and the racket going on I don't know as he heard me, and he kept heaving back on the lever, using both hands now, his arms trembling and his brow sweating in the muggy heat of the factory.
The dial I was looking at had climbed well into the red by the time he squeezed the handle.
I felt it through the floor. Everything sort of hiccupped, and the lever jerked in his hand, and a cough of cloud shot out the chimney. I could see it through the grill over my head, a view of the blue sky and the chimney above. That cloud fair shot out, and another followed it, and another, as Colin struggled with the lever, struggled to hold it steady and squeeze the handle smooth like. There were a whole procession of cloud puffs coming out, and everything inside shook when each were released, and it weren't nothing like the gentle squeezing I'd seen from Colin's dad. The lever were bucking and kicking in his hands, fighting him, and I could see Colin getting upset, like he were failing his dad.
I glanced at the dials and it were all bad news, but I couldn't shut it down till Colin had a good cloud out. We'd gone through all this and he'd never get over it if he din't pull it off. He'd always feel like he'd let his dad down, no matter how much we told him that were nonsense.
So I ran over and grabbed the lever for him, holding it steady so he could concentrate on the handle. And bloody hell it weren't easy, damn thing were trying to right itself like a pole in river mud, and I had to hook an elbow round it to hold it steady.
Colin took a deep breath, and with both hands, squeezed the handle at the top smooth and gentle, easing the chimney vent open to let the cloud out, up to the sky, to float on in memory of his dad for as long as it would.
Then the handle slipped from his fingers, the vent snapped shut, and the lever yanked me forward and shot back upright.
"I can't do it!" he shouted, tears of frustration running into the sweat pouring from his forehead. "I'm not my Dad, I ain't got the knack, and I won't ever get the chance to learn it now he's gone." He kicked the lever. It barely moved.
"There's too much pressure!" I yelled, everything up here still making a right old racket. "If we can find a way to ease it off we can do it right!"
Colin wiped his forehead on the back of his sleeve, the cuff streaked with muck, and we went over to my Dad's station where all the dials were telling us things we din't want to know. Near everything were in the red, except the things that had dropped to nowt, and everything look right out of whack. I din't know what most of it meant, but BOIL PRSR was still rising.
"Colin, go tell Trev and Mark to shut off what they're doing. That's when everything started climbing, when I got them to do their bit, so if they stop it'll give us some breathing room."
Colin looked at the ladder. "No, I'll stay and watch the dials. You know your way round better than I do, you'll find 'em quicker."
"Mate, it's just a ladder. I know it's right high, I don't much like it neither, but I know you can do this. I've got to sort these levers out, I've seen my Dad work 'em before. Go down and shout out for Mark and Trev and you'll find 'em easy enough."
I din't tell him how I was worried summat up here were about to explode, and how I din't want his mam dealing with the grief of losing him too. He'd drag me down the ladder if he thought there were any danger of that happening, but I were determined to see this through and get him his cloud. This was important.
I set myself to working out the dials and levers. There had to be a way to let some of the pressure out somewhere. Summat with VENT in the name, or RELEASE. There was a lever on the right labelled ATMO VENT, so I pulled back on that one.
The needle on the ATMO CHMB dropped to nowt, and the needle on BOIL PRSR went up even higher, and the air suddenly filled with a ringing of bells. I froze, and the letters on all the labels looked jumbled of a sudden, and I couldn't make no sense of 'em. I din't want to press the wrong thing again and make it even worse, but I had to do summat--but I had no idea what, and so this was how I was going to die, I realised, me and the cloud factory and the lads downstairs too maybe, and it were all my stupid idea cos I wanted to do summat good for Colin, summat that'd make this day a bit easier on him and now, well, I dunno. I din't know nothing, then, cos my head were filled with the noise of the alarm bells ringing, and my legs were locked like stone, and there were nowt I would have known how to do anyway, I suppose.
Then my Dad was there pulling on levers, pushing on others, tapping dials and reaching down to wind a handle I hadn't even noticed. The needles all started moving back to the centre, settling down or lifting themselves up, and the bells cut out and I swear I ain't never felt so relieved and guilty and sorry and rotten as when my Dad turned round to look at me then, his face all mixed up with anger and relief and I dunno what else.
"Down the ladder," he said, voice as angry as I've ever heard it, then or since. "Now."
And there weren't no arguing with that.
The other lads were standing with their dads, and Colin looking awkward on his own, and guilty, and I could tell he were feeling like a failure, even though it were me what had failed him, not doing my part right with the pressure.
"What's going on then?" asked Mark's dad of mine as we walked up.
"Go on then, Jamie," said my Dad, turning to me. "Tell us all. What the bloody hell were you playing at?"
I nearly cried then, not cos I were ashamed of what we'd done, but because I needed to say this right so he understood that we weren't just mucking about, we weren't just being kids, it were for summat important. Cos maybe, if he understood that, he'd not think we'd been irresponsible and stupid, and we'd not get stopped from coming to the factory. And maybe he'd see how important it was too. And maybe he'd do summat about it.
I drew myself up and looked him square in the eye. "It were for Colin," I said. "For his dad. To make him proud."
And it took a moment to go through, but then my Dad grabbed me and pulled me in and hugged me close and kept muttering in my ear, "You daft bastards. You utter daft bastards."
Turned out all three dads--mine, Trev's and Mark's--_had_ noticed us missing from the beer garden, and when they saw the clouds coughing out the chimney they raced up the hill in Trev's dad's Cortina. And turns out it were just in time, cos them alarms were bad news, and if my Dad hadnt diverted some of the pressure into the sub tanks, bits would have started cracking open and superhot steam would've filled the place and, well, there wouldn't have been much left of owt after that.
"Why'd you bring him up yourselves?" asked Trev's dad of us.
"Cos, Dad," said Trev, "he en't seen the factory afore. His dad were meant to bring him next month."
"We was gonna work it so he could let off a cloud," said Mark, words tripping over themselves as they fell out his mouth, "in memory, like. It were only going to be the one, honest. I dunno what happened to go so wrong! We were dead gentle with all the levers and that, I only turned the one inlet on, and Trev din't put that much heat in, and maybe I turned a second inlet on when nowt seemed to be happening cos I thought it'd help but it din't seem to make it better at all when I did!"
"Why'd you put more water in?" my Dad asked.
"Well the dials weren't high enough, were they," I said, "neither pressure nor temperature. I figured it wouldn't do no good if they weren't both at the mark."
"Oh Jamie, you silly bugger," said my Dad. "You turn up the temperature and the pressure goes up too, cos the boiler fills with steam. You only needed a little heat. It had enough water in as it were!"
"Oh," I said, and looked down, glum. "I din't realise." It really had been me had mucked it up for Colin.
"You silly sods," said Trev's dad. "You should've said. You should've talked to us before you got into all this trouble."
My Dad looked at Trev's and Mark's then, and he looked like he were deciding summat, and I couldn't tell if it were what punishment we deserved or who to tell or what, so I just said, "Please, Dad," and trusted he knew what I was asking for. Who I was asking for.
He looked down at me then, and back at the other dads, and then he said "Right, boys, we good to do this?"
"Aye, I reckon," said Mark's dad. "What kinda cloud you wanting to let out then, Colin?"
Colin looked up, disbelieving.
"What's them right big buggers, Dad?" asked Mark, already excited. "The ones what make the sky all black and gold and make your hair stand on end and give you lightning? It ought to be summat dramatic for Colin's dad!"
"Yeah, I know 'em!" said Trev. "Cuma... nimbers?"
"Cumulonimbus," corrected his dad. "Typical lads, straight to the top, eh? Too bloody big, though."
"Aye," agreed Mark's dad, smiling wryly.
"What?" I said, angry. "You don't think Colin's dad was worth all that water? You think we'd be wasting it?" I glared at 'em all in turn, challenging 'em, ending on my Dad.
"Jamie," he said, "he'd be worth all the water in the hills if we could boil it all at once. But it ain't about the water, it's about the layers. Cloud like that's got structure to it, and I don't know as any of us here have the knack. Truth be told I don't reckon anyone but Colin's dad had the right of cumulonimbus. There weren't no-one else with his touch, Colin. You should be proud of him."
Colin swallowed, and nodded. "I am. I was, I mean."
Trev's dad pulled him close with an arm round his shoulder. "You said it right first time, lad."
Mark's dad said, "What about some cumulus humilis, then? None of us'll manage the consistency like Colin's dad, but there's not much cheers the heart like row upon row of the little fluffy bastards at sunset."
"What are the feathery ones?" asked Colin.
"Feathery ones?" said Mark's dad. "How'd you mean, exactly?"
"They're sort of... they're high up, and long, with that little flick on the end. Dad always said he was proudest of them, cos they were gentle and subtle and not so showy, except if you knew what you were looking for you could appreciate the artistry. Said a handful of them made a glorious sunset, high enough to catch the colour once the sun'd dipped down."
My Dad whistled inwardly, sucking the air through his front teeth. "Cirrus uncinus, eh? They're tricky buggers, but not much bad can happen if you get 'em wrong I suppose. It'll take you a few goes before you get it, but if you're willing to try, Colin, we'll have a crack."
"Me?" said Colin. "You want me to make 'em?"
"Well," said my Dad. "That were the whole point, weren't it?"
There weren't any prep work needed doing, what with us having filled the system near bursting point, so we all headed up the ladder, dads behind lads, Colin before me again. My Dad showed me where I'd gone wrong and talked me through what he were doing, moving steam and water between the sub-tanks and the main boiler, and how he'd keep a constant supply of steam available by feeding the atmospheric chamber from one sub tank while he refilled another. "Like circular breathing when you're on the tuba," he said, till I reminded him Mam hadn't agreed I could practice for the brass band yet. But Colin said he got it, and my Dad nodded at him, and I could see Colin swell up like a growing cloud.
Once the sub-tanks were ready, Mark's dad took over at the controls so my Dad could show Colin the cloud handle. He'd worked closest with Colin's dad, being on the top platform with him, and he knew summat of how to shape the clouds, though nowt as sharp as Colin's dad'd been. In his own words, "Weren't no-one else had his skill".
I stood underneath the grill and watched the clouds come out as my Dad and Colin worked together, easing the lever back nice and smooth. There was still some resistance in it but it weren't fighting 'em like earlier. When they squeezed the handle, it weren't just about letting the cloud out, it were about working the handle, sometimes squeezing more and sometimes less and balancing it with the lever to give the cloud its shape. You could see it as they finished each cloud: they'd only pull the lever back a little ways as they made 'em, keep lots of pressure in the system to make the clouds thin and high, and hold the release handle steady until right at the end, when they'd pull the handle tighter and haul back on the lever at the same time to give it a little kick and put that tail on the end. Took 'em two or three clouds to get that motion right, but once they had it, they were away. They were proper away.
We were all laid out on the slope outside the factory, our suits covered in dry summer grass. We were looking westward down the valley as the sun turned red and Colin's clouds lit up in gold and crimson. Not a word passed between us as we watched the clouds drift towards the sun, the sun touch the horizon, the horizon explode in bursts of starlings dancing through the air. It all looked and smelt and sounded like summer, like a job well done, like family, and not just the family of being related but the family of being in town and looking out for one another and doing right.
"That were good work, Colin," said Trev's dad, a cigarette hanging between his fingers. "Your dad himself would have been proud of clouds like that."
"So then Colin," said my Dad. "You alright if I bring you up for factory days from here on out? We'd been discussing it in the pub anyhow, but seeing the hand you've got for clouds now it'd be criminal not to have you working up there come five years."
"Aye," said Colin. "Aye! Course I am!" He stood up in the excitement of it, and my Dad couldn't help but laugh.
"Alright, calm down, we're not going back in now. We'll work summat out. Have to see how I'll balance it round my Jamie's days up there."
"We're not banned from the factory, then?" asked Trev, hardly daring to believe I reckon.
"Banned?" asked his dad. "Why'd you think that?"
"Cos you all told us," said Mark, "about having to show we was responsible and sensible if we wanted jobs."
"Way I see it," said my Dad, considering, "you were all being responsible for your mate, and looking out for him. That's important, that is, and I'm proud of you all. So no, apart from you lot needing to talk to us better in future, my only problem is working out a rota for Colin."
"Cant you show us both at the same time?" I asked.
"Not yet, no. I'd prefer only having one of you to keep an eye on at a time, especially after seeing what happens when you end up unsupervised." He wrapped his big hand round the back of my neck and shook me playfully, smiling.
"I reckon we can all weigh in there," said Trev's dad.
"Aye, I don't see why not," said Mark's dad. "If he's gonna be a cloudhand up top, it'd serve him best to see how the whole factory works anyway, get an understanding of the whole process like."
"Sound alright to you, Colin?" asked Trev's dad.
Colin nodded, near dancing on the spot.
"Come on then," said my Dad, hauling himself up off the slope. "We best get back down the pub. Every bugger'll be wondering where we've got to, and Gareth'll be singing soon if we don't get him home. Ain't no-one deserves to suffer that."
We pulled ourselves up in twos and threes, lending hands and brushing off grass and casting last glances down the valley, then set off back for town. The evening were warm with not a hint of breeze, so Trev's dad left his Cortina parked up and we all walked back down the hill in the last light of sunset, laughing and teasing and talking together, and I dunno if Colin noticed or not, but we all made sure he were safely in the middle as we walked, surrounded and watched over and part of us all.
On the surface, this is about clouds--and I'm still disappointed power stations aren't really built to make clouds from their stacks, 30 years after my parents first broke my heart--and it's about grief, as so many of my recent stories have been. It's one more attempt at processing the death of my father-in-law in 2017, whom I still miss every day.
But underneath that, really, it's about toxic masculinity. Somehow, for some stupid reason, contemporary Anglo-American culture has spent recent decades telling men they are islands after all, and that everything must be borne alone as a sign of Great Strength and Stoic Manliness. With the greatest of disrespect: bullshit bullshit bullshit. Emotions are what make us strong, the fire that temper us, and no great work was ever done alone. You, yourself, are a great work: ergo, you can't do it alone. There is a better way, and this story is one try at mapping the route, and it's dedicated to those friends of mine who've been with me half a lifetime and more.
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