If Only

Get the door will you, Jack? I’m covered in flour. Not particularly inspiring last words, I grant you, but then Steve didn’t expect them to be his last words. Neither did I, to be honest.

It started out as just another ordinary day: me and Steve were working at Askelby Castle Heritage Windmill, getting ready for the Bank Holiday weekend. In summer we did milling demonstrations – you know, grinding wheat and selling the flour to people who knew somebody who made their own bread.

Steve had been the miller there for years; in fact, he was one of the people who’d worked on restoring the mill from derelict, gradually replacing every bit of rotten wood with fresh timber and getting the whole thing working again. Me – I’d just come back to the area after years away and for want of something to do I’d volunteered to help out over the summer.

We seemed to get along all right, especially as I let him do all the yapping – but to be fair, that was a big part of his job, talking to the visitors about the milling process. And he was the right man for that job: he knew the mill inside out – every nut, bolt, gear, strut, and stone of it. And he loved it. He was fascinated that something so massive as the bed stones and the runner stones could – and did – grind exceeding small to produce the finest particles of flour. His eyes shone as he told people that as big as the mill was, every tiny little part of the machinery had its job to do, and if it didn’t do that job, the whole thing would, in word and deed, grind to a halt. And each tiny little part was so important that it had its own name, handed down from history. The crook string, the damsel, the eye, the mace, the horse, the shoe. He could name them all, and he loved them all, almost as much as he loved himself and other people’s women. He was never short of female company; it must have been something to do with the way he winked at the women as he hoicked a twenty-five kilo sack of flour around.

That day, we were cleaning up after getting everything ready for the weekend’s grinding. We’d got all the merchandise arranged; I’d stacked the one- and two-kilo bags of flour on the shelves behind the till and the ten-and twenty-five-kilo sacks on the floor, so there was just the last bit of sweeping up and polishing to do. Not for the first time, Steve thought he’d keep me amused by telling me his plans for his few days away with his latest girlfriend. Oh, they were going to do this, and they were going to do that – that’s if they ever left the bedroom – and he’d get her back home before her husband came home from whatever conference he’d been at. He wasn’t going to let a little thing like her marriage stop him having a good time. Neither was she, apparently.

We’d just about finished the cleaning when a rat ran from between the flour sacks. Steve started chasing it round the mill, trying to clobber it with the sweeping brush. I’d been polishing the glass pane in the outside door and as the rat ran towards me I threw the door open and out it went. I shut the door and out of habit knocked the bolt across.

“Bugger!” spat Steve. “I bloody hate rats.” He sighed heavily. “Come on then, let’s see what damage the little bugger’s caused. You check the shelf stock, I’ll do the sacks.”

Thanks to the rat, we wouldn’t be getting off home any time soon because we had to check every single item of merchandise for signs of contamination. God, what a nightmare. Had it peed on anything? Had it crapped on anything? Had it chewed through anything? You can’t sell contaminated goods – not if you want to keep earning a living and funding mid-week trips away with your girlfriend.

Steve started humping the sacks about, shifting them to the other side of the mill. Suddenly I heard one of them rip as he grabbed hold of it. I looked up to see the top half of the sack going over his head and the bottom half flopping onto the floor and shooting a snowdrift towards the door. In no time at all twenty-five kilogrammes of fine-ground flour were all over him and all over the floor, floating about in great clouds and heading for every available freshly cleaned surface. For a long moment we just stared at each other in a silence that was only interrupted by the sound of hammering on the door and somebody trying to get in. The bolt was rattling from the pounding of fists. Steve started coughing, sending flour swirling in the air.

And that’s when he said it, in a voice that was resigned to spending the next couple of hours cleaning up again.

“Get the door will you, Jack? I’m covered in flour.”

He brushed himself down, creating more clouds as I walked over and opened the door. I didn’t even have time to speak before I found myself face to snarling face with a man who – with one hand, mind you – grabbed my t-shirt and some skin with it, dragged me outside, bundled me down the steps and threw me onto the grass. He knelt on my arm.

“Are you Steve?” he barked, holding a lit cigarette close to my face. Terrified into dumbness, I shook my head.

“Then where is he? Where’s Steve?” I pointed. The man got up and turned towards the mill.

“Wait! You can’t –” I started, but he was already bounding up the steps.

I don’t remember much after that. The police said I was lucky to be alive. The explosion completely destroyed the mill, along with Steve and the assailant. By dragging me onto the grass below the level of the mill, presumably to give me a good kicking had I been Steve, the man had saved my life. The police said he’d been tipped off about his wife – and told where and when to find Steve – by an anonymous text message from a phone which couldn’t be traced. She’d confessed and taken a good beating for her troubles before her husband had headed to the mill.

If only the man had known about how combustible flour can be. If only he’d seen that demonstration where you take a biscuit tin, make a small hole in one side and put a spoonful of flour in the bottom of the tin. You stick a straw part-way through the hole, put a lit candle in the tin, put the lid back on and then blow through the straw. The flour billows up, ignites, and blows the top off the tin. Brilliant stuff.

If only he’d seen that. Oh, wait. He did. When we were in science class together all those years ago, me and him and his future wife.

If only he’d paid attention in that class.

If only she’d married me and not him.

It’s not only the wheels of God that grind slow but exceeding small.

If only I knew what to do with this phone.

Picture source: Clive Dara