Nice Work

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Excerpt from Nice Work by David Lodge, pp. 147-150

To avoid running the gauntlet of the machine shop again, Robyn made her way back to the car park by going round the outside of the building, but the paths were covered with drifting snow and the going was difficult. She got lost in the labyrinth of yards and passageways that separated the numerous buildings, many of them apparently disused or derelict, that covered the factory site, and there was nobody around to direct her. At last, after about twenty minutes' wandering, her feet soaking wet inside her leaking boots, and her leg muscles aching from wading through the snow, she arrived at the car park outside the administration block, and found her car. She brushed a thick layer of snow from its windows, and, with a sigh of relief, got behind the wheel. She turned the ignition key. Nothing happened.

'Fuck,' said Robyn, aloud to herself, alone in the middle of the frozen car park. 'Bum. Tit.' If it was the battery it must have finally given up the ghost, because there wasn't even the faintest wheeze or whisper from the starter motor. Whatever it was, she could do nothing about it herself, since she hadn't the remotest idea what went on under the bonnet of the Renault. She got wearily out of the car and tramped across the car park to the reception lobby, where she asked the receptionist with peroxided hair if she could phone the AA. While she was dialling, Wilcox passed in the corridor beyond, saw her, checked, and came in. 'Still here?' he said, lifting an eyebrow. Robyn nodded, holding the receiver to her ear. 'She's phoning the AA,' said the peroxide blonde. 'Car won't start.' 'What's the problem?' said Wilcox. 'Nothing happens when I turn the key. It's completely dead.' 'Let's have a look at it,' said Wilcox. 'No, no,' said Robyn. 'Please don't bother. I'll manage.' 'Come on.' He jerked his head in the direction of the car park. 'You won't get the AA to come for hours on a day like this.'

The engaged tone bleeping in Robyn's ear confirmed the good sense of this judgement, but she put down the receiver reluctantly. The last thing she wanted at this juncture was to be under an obligation to Wilcox. 'Don't you want to get your overcoat?' she asked, as they passed through the swing doors into the freezing outside air.

Wilcox shook his head impatiently. 'Where's your car?' 'The red Renault over there.' Wilcox set off in a straight line, indifferent to the snow that covered his thin black shoes and clung to his trouser bottoms. 'Why did you buy a foreign car?' he said. 'I didn't buy it, my parents gave it to me, when they changed it.' 'Why did they buy it, then?' 'I don't know. Mummy liked it, I suppose. It's a good little car.' 'So's the Metro. Why not buy a Metro if you want a small car? Or a Mini? If everybody who bought a foreign car in the last ten years had bought a British one instead, there wouldn't be seventeen per cent unemployment in this area.' He made a sweeping gesture with his arm that took in the wilderness of derelict factories beyond the perimeter fence.

As a subscriber to Marxism Today, Robyn had suffered occasional qualms of guilt because she didn't cycle to work instead of driving, but she had never been attacked for owning a foreign car before. 'If British cars were as good as foreign ones, people would buy them,' she said. 'But everyone knows they're hopelessly unreliable.' 'Rubbish,' said Wilcox. 'They used to be, I grant you, some models, but now our quality control is as good as anybody's. Trouble is, people love to sneer at British products. Then they have the gall to moan about the unemployment figures.' His breath steamed, as though his anger were condensing in the frigid air. 'What does your father drive?' he said. 'An Audi,' said Robyn. Wilcox grunted contemptuously, as if he had expected no better.

They came up to the Renault. Wilcox told her to get in and release the bonnet catch. He opened the bonnet and disappeared behind it. After a moment or two she heard him call, 'Turn the ignition-key,' and when she did so, the engine fired. Wilcox lowered the bonnet and pushed it shut with the palm of his hand. He came to the driver's window, brushing snow from his suit. 'Thank you very much,' said Robyn. 'What was it?' 'Loose electrical connection,' he said. 'Looked as if someone had pulled out the HT lead, actually.' 'Pulled it out?' 'I'm afraid we get a bit of vandalism here, and practical joking. Was the car locked?' 'Maybe not every door. Anyway, thanks very much. I hope you won't catch cold,' she said, encouraging him to leave. But he lingered by the window, inhibiting her from winding it up. 'I'm sorry if I was a bit sharp at the meeting this afternoon,' he said gruffly. 'That's all right,' said Robyn; though it wasn't all right, she told herself, it wasn't all right at all. She fiddled with the choke button to avoid having to look at him. 'Only sometimes you have to use methods that look a bit dodgy, for the good of the firm.' 'I don't think we should ever agree about that,' said Robyn. 'But this is hardly the time or the place.' Out of the comer of her eye she saw a man in a white coat floundering through the snow towards them, and in some intuitive way this increased her anxiety to be off. 'Yes, you'd better be on your way. I'll see you next Wednesday, then?' Before Robyn could reply, the man in the white coat had called out, 'Mr Wilcox! Mr Wilcox!' and Wilcox turned to face him. 'Mr Wilcox, you're wanted in the foundry,' said the man breathlessly, as he came up. 'There's been a walkout.'

'Goodbye,' said Robyn, and let out the clutch. The Renault shot forward and slewed from side to side in the snow as she drove fast towards the gates. In her rear-view mirror she saw the two men hurrying back towards the administration block.

Source: Lodge, D. 1988. Nice Work. London: Penguin Books. pp. 147–150.

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