“Swarf” by Tyler Keevil
Welcome to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Today we offer Tyler Keevil‘s “Swarf,” a riveting essay about an accident and medical emergency in another fraught time of global recession.
By Tyler Keevil
Hot swarf hit me in the eye, the pain insane, furious, awe-inspiring. The pain was so intense it seemed to take on shape, flare red: shards of fire illuminating my cornea. Inhuman pain.
I cried out, cringed, wilted. I fell to my knees, penitent. I made a variety of gibbering animal sounds. I moved my hand towards my eye, clutching at it without making contact—as if I could draw the pain out through force of will. It was my right eye, and it was tearing and welling and leaking: a stream of water down my cheek.
I had let go of the jigsaw, and it was now winding down, caught in the sheet of metal, the teeth grinding to a halt. The factory floor was silent, empty, still. I had been working late, alone except for my boss, John, who was in his office. The job was a set of four electrical boxes that we were going to ship to Slovakia, if and when we got paid. I was not trained or qualified for that type of work, but I had a good eye for cutting precise lines. And it was the only work we had going. Most of the staff had been laid off. I don’t know why John had retained me. There’d been others with a lot more experience. But I didn’t need full-time, or regular hours, and he could call me when odd jobs came in—like these Slovakian boxes.
I stood up, leaving the saw stuck there in the sheet of metal. I tried to blink, or reverse blink, but my eye didn’t want to open. I had no idea how bad it was. I didn’t know if the swarf had gotten stuck in my cornea or if it had sliced right through and the trickling liquid was not tears but aqueous fluid: my eyeball deflating like a pierced water bladder.
I made my way across the factory floor. I say “factory,” but it was actually a large industrial unit on the outskirts of Newtown, Powys. The Hendre Industrial Estate. The company was DC Electrical, and I had been with it for three years, since the beginning. It had started with an ad in a shop window and some work in my boss’s shed—a shed at the back of his house in Llandinam. There were just two employees, and we rotated since the shed was only big enough for one person at a time. It was cold and lonely, but the work was satisfyingly simple. We were building engine looms and wiring harnesses. John had made his own layout boards: plywood sheets with nails tapped into them and pencil outlines of the looms. We strung wires around the nails, following the pencil lines, and put “crimps” on the ends of the wires. It was like an elaborate version of a child’s toy. We did well at it, for a time. John rented a small industrial unit and hired more staff and then upgraded to this bigger unit on the estate, so we could take on bigger jobs. It had begun to feel like a real business.
Now there were bits of wire and half-finished jobs scattered over the floor. We had a dozen sets of shelving filled with components that we had never and probably would never use. Wincing and squinting, I picked my way through that minefield and over to John’s office, which was partitioned off from the rest of the factory. He stayed in the office quite late. He always put in a full day, even when we had no work. He focused on sending out electronic flyers and offering free quotations and generating more traffic for his website.
I knocked. “John?”
He was in his chair, adjusting a spreadsheet. He swivelled towards me, swivelling a bit too far, and had to pivot back. I didn’t say anything. I just squinted at him, my cheeks streaked with tears—or eye fluid. I still wasn’t sure which.
“Swarf?” was what he said.
He didn’t tell me I should have worn my safety goggles. None of us used them. We didn’t wear earplugs, either—even though the sound of the saw blades on aluminium was blood-curdling, ear-piercing, a banshee shriek that had physical force. Roger, my old boss from the ice barge, would have been furious and disappointed in me. He was half deaf and missing a finger and had always been meticulous about safety gear on my behalf. But at DC Electrical it wasn’t the practice. Partly that was misplaced machismo. But it was also partly a general and hopeless malaise, a feeling of impending defeat. We were like soldiers who simply didn’t bother to put on their helmets before heading into the fray. We expected things to go wrong. Things were going wrong. People were losing their jobs, and companies—ours and others—were going bankrupt. Mortgages were being foreclosed. Banks were failing. It wasn’t just factories, either, and the hard industries. Restaurants, cafés, libraries. All going, or gone. And my wife’s community theatre company as well.
Safety goggles and earplugs weren’t much protection against that.
All of that seems connected to John’s reaction. His expression was not one of surprise, but more like glum resignation: another small tragedy, or minor disaster.
“Let me have a look,” he said.
“I’m sure it’s nothing.”
But it came out strained. My eye was throbbing in its socket.
“Look up at the light,” he said.
John was a tall man. Maybe six-four or five. He was thin and had red, receding hair that he kept shaved short. He wore round, wire-rimmed glasses. He looked at me through those glasses and pried open my injured eye, using his thumbs to pull back the lids. My vision was distorted. His face was blurry, as if underwater. His mouth moved, fish-like.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “There’s a few flecks in there.”
“What do we do?”
He let go of my head, and my eye clamped shut again. I peered at him with the other. He was already gathering his DC jacket—we had company jackets—off the back of his chair.
“I’ll take you to the surgery.”
“You think I need surgery?”
I had visions of them slicing open my eye, draining it, stitching it back together.
John said, “Hospital. We call it surgery, over here.”
“I have to get the seven o’clock train. I’m going to Aberdyfi.”
I was supposed to be joining my wife and her family out there, for Christmas. That’s something I haven’t mentioned and probably should have: it was Christmastime. This all happened on Christmas Eve.
“The surgery isn’t far from the station,” John said. “We should have time.”
He helped me into my jacket and had to partially lead me outside. It was cold, just above freezing, the parking lot striated with sleet. Across from our unit, on the other side of the industrial estate, several workers were leaving the Laura Ashley factory. Most of them were middle-aged women—seamstresses and milliners. I saw them on the way in and out of work, and all I’d ever done was smile or nod. I didn’t know them, but I knew their jobs were going, too. That whole factory was closing after Christmas. It had been around for a long time—the chain had started there—but now it was going. The workers plodded to their cars, hoods up, heads bowed against the sleet. They looked like phantoms, the shadows of people.
I followed John to his car: a purple Astra with a loose wing mirror and a cracked windscreen. We got in and he turned on the lights and they illuminated our Unit: Number 31. The big loading bay door was half open. You could see the floor of the factory, all the half-finished projects and detritus, including the box I’d been working on with the jigsaw firmly planted in it. I asked John if he wanted me to pull the door down and lock it.
“Naw,” he said and put the gearstick into reverse. “Nobody’s gonna steal that shite.”
His car smelled of stale smoke and sour milk.
Our industrial estate was outside the town limits. On the drive in, through filaments of sleet, John’s headlights lit up the town sign: Welcome to Newtown, a new town since 1286. From there we rattled past the sprawling Tesco, which had seemingly sprung up overnight, glowing like an alien spaceship that had just landed, unwelcome and unwanted but completely overpowering, and the McDonald’s, glowing as well—a satellite ship, maybe—the planning of which had triggered a half-hearted and hopeless protest that the Council had overruled.
From there we turned onto the High Street, or what we’d call Main Street, back home. At that time—six o’clock—everything was shut. Several of the shops had been closed down permanently and boarded up with plywood. Red and white “To lease” signs were plastered across the wood, but many of them were peeling, faded. The other stores—mostly discount clothing chains and charity shops—had dark windows, some spider-webbed with cracks. In the bus shelter, a few kids were huddled in a pack. One of them was nursing a two-litre bottle of cider. He saw me staring and flipped us the piss-off sign, his fingers curled like claws, as if lacking the strength to straighten.
“The burnt out ends of smoky days,” John said.
I looked at him curiously. He had never said anything like that.
“What do you mean?”
“Some crap poem we had to learn in school. Always stayed with me.”
The surgery—or hospital—was on Park Street. It was a squat, low structure, built from brick and concrete. It had that Soviet Bloc feel of some of the British architecture from the ’60s, and didn’t look large enough to be a hospital: it was more like a medical centre. A single outdoor bulb glowed above the entrance. John pulled up as close to it as possible, and I hopped out while he drove off to park, his tires peeling rainwater from the pavement. The doors were locked. It was dark inside and seemed to be closed, abandoned. I knocked on the glass and stood hunched in the cold, squinting. Behind me, runoff was drizzling from the awning in a latticework of water. Then something crackled at my elbow. An intercom.
“You have to press the button,” a voice said.
“Oh,” I said.
There was a button next to the intercom. Whoever it was seemed to be waiting for me to press it, so I did.
“Yes?” the voice asked. It was reedy, melodious.
“I’ve got some swarf in my eye.”
“What? You got what in your eye?”
“Swarf. Like little flecks of metal.”
“That sounds serious.”
“I hope not.”
“You better come in.”
There was a pause, and then the lock vibrated, so vehemently that the entire door seemed to shake. A minor earthquake. I didn’t reach for it in time, and it had re-locked, so we went through the whole process again: button, buzzer, grab, and the second time I got it.
As I went in, a light flickered on, possibly automatically. I was at the end of a long corridor that faded into darkness further down. The ceiling was made of rectangular tiles, stippled with lesions, and the floor was a single strip of yellow linoleum, bubbled in places like burnt plastic. The walls were decorated with laminated info-posters about colds, hand-washing, meningitis symptoms, STD testing. There was no reception that I could see, but after a few seconds a door to my left opened and a man padded out. He was portly and moved softly and was wearing a pale-blue uniform. I took him for a nurse or an orderly of some sort, though he didn’t say as much. He simply said, “The swarf.”
“You’ll have to wait for the doctor.”
I couldn’t tell by his voice if he was the same person I’d spoken to on the intercom.
“Is the hospital open?” I asked, uncertainly.
“The A&E is open. The rest of the services shut at 5.30. We don’t have the staff anymore. They’re merging us with Welshpool, next year.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“You may as well come with me.”
He led me to another door further along the corridor, pushed it open, and flicked on the light. It was a basic examining room: padded leather seat, stool, cupboards, countertop, sink. I walked to the centre of the room and turned around, unsure what to do next. He told me the doctor would be a few minutes—there had been a fight in town—and then he left.
I sat uneasily on the padded bench. The faux-leather was torn in places, and pale stuffing leaked out like fungus. An analogue clock loomed largely on the wall, but it didn’t seem to be working: it was stuck at noon, or midnight, and the second hand vibrated without actually advancing. While I waited I experimented with my one-sided vision. It’s not quite true, what they say: that when you lose an eye you have no depth perception. I still had some, but things definitely looked flatter: more like a picture of reality than reality itself.
After about ten minutes the doctor arrived: a petite woman with a prominent nose and dark, short-cropped hair. She was wearing a wrinkled lab coat which had a brown stain over the breast pocket. It might have been coffee. She was drinking coffee from a disposable cup. She settled onto the stool by the table, looking wearily relieved to be off her feet for a minute.
“Tell me how it happened,” she said, the words faintly accented.
I explained about the jigsaw, the aluminium electrical box, the spray of swarf. She listened and nodded and didn’t reprimand me for not wearing my safety goggles. I kept expecting it, from somebody. I was waiting for it, as if the admonition could absolve me somehow, or heal me. But if so, that wasn’t going to come from this doctor. She’d heard enough and seen too much.
“Let’s have a look,” was all she said.
She got me to stand up and stretched a fresh length of protective paper across the examination table. The paper crinkled as I lay back on it. The sensation reminded me of doctor’s appointments as a child: those awkward yet comforting check-ups.
She turned her back and scrubbed her hands in the sink, using a bright pink liquid soap that reeked of disinfectant. The swoosh of the tap dwindled to a trickle, then a drip. Last came the crumpling whisper of paper towels as she dried her hands.
“Long shift?” I asked.
“They are always long,” she said, “and now my colleague is sick.”
“I heard there was a fight.”
“It is true. At one of the pubs. A boy got . . . glassed.” She lingered over the strange use of the noun, then shook her head. “It is not good, in this town. So much violence.”
“I live in Llanidloes.”
“It is better.”
She came to stand over me. I felt calm and trusted her, which isn’t always the case for me with doctors, but she had that capable air about her. From her pocket she brought out an ophthalmoscope and shone it in my bad eye, which she held open with the forefinger and thumb of her other hand. The glare of the light was like a tiny star, right there in front of me, and before the glare I could actually see the swarf: these three dots that floated like satellites across the void of my vision. I was gazing into space, the solar system, the galaxy, eternity.
“I can see them,” I said, reverently.
“Yes,” she said. “At least three pieces. Look left.”
I did. “It’s okay though, isn’t it?”
“It will be. Look right.”
In that direction, I had a distorted view of the clock on the wall. The minute hand still hadn’t moved. The second hand was reverberating in place. As I stared at it and time stood still, the doctor explained that if the pieces of swarf were left in, the salt from my tears and lacrimal fluid would cause the metal to rust, and adhere to the cornea. That could lead to infection and permanent damage. She’d seen it before.
“Jesus,” I said.
“It is best,” she told me, “to deal with these things quickly. You cannot deny it or delay. We cannot help when a bad thing happens—but we must be able to react to it.”
“My wife told me something like that once.”
“Then she is wise.”
She had such a particular way with the language. It was accented but always certain, specific. She switched off her ophthalmoscope and went to the counter. There were drawers beneath it and cupboards above it. She spoke to me as she opened and closed them. She told me there were various ways to remove swarf. One she had learned, and was going to try, was by using a magnet and needle. You placed the needle against the swarf, and then connected it to the magnet, which magnetized the needle and drew out the swarf. But the needle had to be in the exact position. If you tried to line it up after it had already been magnetized, it might pull the swarf laterally across the surface of your cornea, scratching it or gouging it.
“This is bad,” she said. “It makes the risk of infection higher, you see?”
“I see,” I said and smiled at the irony.
She didn’t. She tore open a plastic packet and from inside plucked a suturing needle maybe two inches long. The magnet she got from another drawer. It was a small disc, about the size of a quarter, set within a chrome casing and attached to a butterfly clip. It looked like a basic fridge magnet, and possibly that’s all it was. She laid the needle and magnet out on a medical tray—the kind that’s affixed to a wheeled trolley—and rolled that over to me. She exchanged the ophthalmoscope for a headlamp similar to the type dentists wear. The glare from that was brighter, wider: it obliterated what remained of my vision, as if I were staring into the sun or having a holy revelation.
“Look straight ahead,” she ordered me.
Amid the glare, I saw a rod appear. The needle. It looked enormous. I was helpless, at her mercy. It was ridiculously, dangerously intimate. A slight slip, and that was it: my eye would puncture and split in a burst of ooze, like the eyes we’d dissected in biology class. I remembered, still, the feeling of the cornea bending and then giving beneath the edge of my scalpel. The Frankenstein thrill of it. Playing god with cows’ eyes and pig fetuses.
“Do not move,” the doctor said.
I held my breath. I felt the faint pressure of the needle and heard the click as she brought the magnet into contact with it. I thought I could sense the way the metal hummed when magnetized, since it was still touching my cornea at the time. Then the giant needle withdrew. The headlamp glare strafed away: the doctor was placing the swarf in a petri dish on her tray. The process was repeated again, and a third time—like a blessing ritual. At that point she took off her headlamp and reverted to the ophthalmoscope.
This time, I could see faint halos where the swarf had been embedded. I could see the absence of it. She told me that even in half an hour or so, the flecks had started to rust, and with a disinfected Q-tip she daubed at the rust repeatedly, sponging it away. Her face was very close to mine, and I could make out the pores in her skin, smell the coffee on her breath.
When she was done, she put the Q-tip aside and again peeled back my lids, checking under them, studying the edges of my eyes.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“I am worried that you have blinked some away. That it could be hidden.”
I blinked repeatedly, feeling my eyes water.
“Is that bad?”
“So long as it is not on your cornea, it will not cause lasting damage.” She turned away and then glanced back. “But do not go for any MRI scans, please.”
She laughed, which was eerie and unexpected. I didn’t know if she was joking or half-joking or serious about the warning and laughing more about the foolishness of going for an MRI scan after this. But of course I wouldn’t have thought of it. I knew they were to do with magnets, strong magnetic fields, so I could imagine the outcome, or thought I could: tiny and microscopic particles ripping out through my cornea, my eyelids. A burst of pain.
“How do you feel?” the doctor asked me.
“I don’t know.”
“It is so valuable, your vision.”
She washed the eye with saline, then put a gauze pad over the lid and affixed it in place with medical tape. I was meant to leave it on for at least twenty-four hours. She told me I could sit up, and shortly after, there was a knock at the door. When the doctor opened it, John was standing there. He stepped inside and saw me with my patch and started laughing.
“A pirate,” he said. “Blackbeard.”
“Or Odin,” I said. “I’m all-seeing, now.”
The doctor smiled wearily. She snapped a lid on the petri dish, held it out to me.
“Do you want to keep these?” she asked. “A souvenir, yes?”
I accepted them. Through the clear plastic lid I could see the tiny projectiles, and when I shook the dish they whispered like grains of sand. Mysterious and portentous.
“We should get you to the station,” John said.
He had sobered, perhaps sensing that he had disrupted a different kind of mood. The doctor walked us to the entrance to let us out. John said he’d parked a few blocks away and offered to go get the car. I stood outside, under the awning, and the doctor waited with me. The sleet had turned to rain, which spattered into puddles on the tarmac, making it simmer.
She shook her head. “This country,” she said. “This weather.”
“Sometimes I feel like I’m living under water.”
“In my home, it never rains like this.”
I asked her where she came from, and she said the name of a province in India that I did not know.
“And you?” she asked. “Are you European?”
“I’m from Canada,” I admitted. “Vancouver.”
She gave a curt nod of recognition.
“It is very beautiful there,” she said. “Why did you come here?”
“I don’t really know.”
“Maybe one day we will both get to go home.”
I told her it was nice to think so.
John got me to the station ten minutes before my train. I offered to just hop out near the station entrance, but he said it was better to wait in the car than the rain and pulled up in a disabled bay—or what had once been a disabled bay. The paint markings were starting to flake and fade and were barely visible, so it was hard to tell.
John turned off the headlights and switched on the interior lights so he could roll another cigarette. He was supposed to have quit, and perhaps had quit: he’d promised his wife when they’d had kids, a few years back. But he had recently started smoking at work and his wife must have known, from the smell in the car. If this had caused any problems between them he hadn’t mentioned it. They had bigger issues to worry about, just then.
John thumbed the lighter on his dash and said, “I’m going under.”
He had said things like that before, but I knew this was different.
“Those boxes you’re building,” he said. “I doubt we’ll ever get paid for them.”
“That doesn’t seem fair.”
“No. But it’s happening.”
“We could stop. You don’t have to give me work.”
“Bought the supplies, didn’t I? Not much point in letting it all go to waste.”
“Are you going to ship them?”
The lighter popped. He used it to light his roll-up and cranked down his window. You could hear the rain out there, senseless and relentless as artillery fire. He smoked for a time, and I thought he’d forgotten about my question until he said, “Suppose so. There’s still the chance they’ll pay. And if not, what the fuck am I going to do with them?”
He talked a bit about the supply chain and distribution and things I didn’t really understand. About how one link breaks down, and it has a domino effect. If the Slovakian company had fallen behind in its financing, and couldn’t pay for the boxes, then he couldn’t pay his employees, or the suppliers of the components we were fitting—cables, crimps, timers, trip-switches—and they, in turn, couldn’t pay the providers of the raw materials they used: mining and textile companies. It was a domino effect. You get enough dominos, and you get a recession, or a depression.
“And they all fall down,” I said.
“You’re still paying me.”
“You’ve been with me since the beginning.” He looked sidelong at me. The car light cast long shadows on his face, making him look old and tired. “But there might not be much work after these boxes. After Christmas.”
“You’re too smart for this shite, anyway.”
“I don’t mind so much.”
“What about your writing?”
“I’ll never make anything at that.”
A car swept by, its beams carving out cones of rain. A big puddle covered the street, and beneath the car’s bumper the water churned like the wake of a paddle wheeler, floating by on the deluge.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“Fold my tents. Hope they don’t come for me.” He ashed out the window. He was taking it surprisingly well—but that could have been for show. “Thank Christ the house is in Rebecca’s name.”
Rebecca was his wife. She had trained in marketing and taken a break when they’d had kids. But now she was getting back into it. She’d originally set up a small home-studio in their attic, and had now rented an office in town. She was doing well, John often told us. First with pride and then, increasingly, with a sense of wonder and puzzlement. I didn’t know what, exactly, Rebecca did—and I got the feeling John didn’t quite know either.
“I can look after the kids, I guess,” John said.
He said it with a touch of sarcasm, but not so much as somebody else might have. I glanced at my watch. The train was due. I told him it was time to go, and we shook hands, formally, which we’d never really done before—not even when he’d hired me. There hadn’t been much of an interview. Just a tour of his little shed. It had been a nice shed. I’d always felt safe in that shed. It was work. I’d just arrived in Wales. Any work was good. I was just trying to get by, as they say. I was exempt from any pressures of success or advancement.
“Merry Christmas,” John said, with neither cheer nor bitterness.
“You too, boss.”
I shut the door. He forgot to turn off the interior light, so I could see him clearly as he backed up, then pulled out of the lot: his wan profile, his reddish crown of hair. Cocooned in that glow, he floated to the end of the street like a will o’ the wisp, then faded out of sight.
Tyler Keevil is an award-winning writer from Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of three novels – Fireball, The Drive, and No Good Brother – and the short story collection, Burrard Inlet. “Swarf” won the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for nonfiction.