Alchemy

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Alchemy

by Bill Hartley

As a coal-fired power station nears the end of its life, an elderly engineer finds it hard to let go...

‘We wind a simple ring of iron with coils; we establish the connection to the generator and with wonder and delight we note the effects of strange forces which allows us to transform to transmit and direct energy at will.’

– Nikola Tesla

   The ash race maintained its slow progress moving at walking pace towards the other end of the basement. In its centre a thin line of spent fuel trailed back like a grey ribbon. Where the ash emerged fingers of steam rose as the last of its unspent energy was doused by a water spray.

   It had been in this state all night, extracting the bare minimum of waste from the furnaces above as they remained on standby. At some point one of the operatives would wander through this gloomy basement, an area large enough to be measured like a football field. It was packed with intestinal pipes large and small, which ran across the low lying roof. Only the engineers who installed them could explain the logic of the layout.

   The pipes fed into or drew from the machinery which admitted cooling water to the floor above or sucked out exhausted steam. At present only essential plant was running and emitted a low level growl like a sleeping animal. It was as if this had always been the way. Then gradually things began to change and gradually it began to be roused. The first sign was the appearance of an operative, hurrying through a cloud of steam. The place was old; maintenance kept to a bare minimum and steam drifting about the place created the basement’s own private fog.

   He began to throw switches, hurrying from one piece of machinery to another. It was a sequence he knew well and consequently his route through the basement was the most economic, honed by years of shift work down here. This was now going to be a busy shift and economy of effort would be helpful.

   As he worked: opening valves and checking needles on the large moon faced gauges so the noise level rose. Ten thousand revolutions a minute wasn’t unusual on some of the equipment. Meanwhile the load coming down the ash race began to increase. At the aperture where it emerged the steam was now much thicker; the water jet having to work harder to subdue the heat. The ribbon of ash was now wrist thick as it passed along the basement and would soon grow larger.

   From above came the sound of metal upon metal: the only way to communicate from one level to another amidst the roar of machinery. The operative came to a patch of bright light guarded by railings and looked up to where one of the turbine drivers had signalled. He made a gesture indicating that more water was needed. On the mezzanine above the drivers were working up the mighty blades of their machines, whilst the chain grates fed ever more fuel into the furnaces. The blades fed from the steam, superheated to flesh stripping invisibility.

   The station was now fulfilling its alchemical purpose, turning a product of earth, fire and water into energy. Soaring above the operatives were the giant boilers containing the massive pressures needed to force steam into the turbines. Facing these and high above the mezzanine was the control room. In the control room at his desk sat Arthur, a man now nearing retirement. For many years he had managed the transition of raw power to the Grid. There was a duty engineer in overall charge but Arthur knew the vagaries of his task. A sensible engineer would rely on Arthur’s judgement rather than purely on what the instruments had to say. Arthur could feel the increase of electrical energy in the air.

   ‘Are we close yet Arthur?’ asked Newton the engineer. Arthur knew this was purely for form’s sake; a comment to show who was in charge. When they were ready Arthur would say so.

   ‘Not long now’ he answered.

   Newton took the opportunity to break off and pour a cup of coffee. Although he’d graduated three years ago and was still a relative novice, he resented his role at this dying relic. His eyes were focussed on one of the gigantic 1000 megawatt stations like the one on the estuary. Everything about where he was now smelt of the past. None of the staff he worked with down on the mezzanine was below fifty.

   He looked at Arthur, another example of the ageing workforce, with his thinning grey hair and an ancient cardigan. The man seemed to have no life outside the station, trapped as he was in a three shift cycle: all bed and work. Yet Newton conceded that his almost psychic connection to the operations below could be a benefit. Sure the instruments and gauges might provide the figures but like everything else they were old and recalibrating cost money. Arthur’s instincts were often better. He knew when to pause for a few more minutes, before signalling that it was time to release their power onto the Grid.

   ‘We’re ready’ said Arthur, not even looking up from the console.

   Newton put down his coffee cup and hurried over, taking nominal charge of the process required to bring the station online.

   These days they operated as a back up station; busiest in the winter months when demands on the Grid might suddenly increase. The effect was that the workforce at this old station might be busier than those at the large modern plants. Bringing the station up to full pressure could take some hours and a lot of work, unlike at the large base load stations which ran round the clock and mostly needed only monitoring. The Old Lady was being worked hard for the last few months of her life.

   There next followed the complex routine of transferring the output to the grid. Arthur and Newton busied themselves with moves that though complex to outsiders, were perfectly synchronised due to long established habit. Below it was as if the great turbine sets realised that their efforts in harnessing the superheated steam now had purpose. Back in the day there was wonder that such huge sets could be held down. Now they had shrunk in the face of new engineering and needed to be nursed, with any signs of wear and friction spotted in time. Everyone was sure there would be no annual overhaul this year.

   Newton stood to one side then glanced down at Arthur.

   ‘That’s it then’ he said. ‘I wonder how long they’ll need us’.

   Arthur didn’t look up.

   ‘There was a time when they needed us most days’ he said tonelessly.

   The engineer knew there was little point in continuing the conversation. Like the operatives downstairs Arthur would probably be paid off when the station closed, although he could ask for a transfer elsewhere. Newton smiled to himself, imagining Arthur in the digital world of the modern control room.

   It was though satisfying to see the Old Lady running at full blast, showing what she could do. He looked out of the window straining his neck skywards to see the clouds of steam rising from the cooling towers. Above out of sight, the stack would be smoking. He turned to an interior window looking down onto the mezzanine where the turbine drivers paced between the sets and the furnace beds. Looking upwards he could see the shimmering heat coming off the giant Cornwall boilers. They were wrapped in walkways although in these temperatures it was inadvisable to go there. Those steel cylinders holding in check such massive pressures meant the boilers literally groaned with the effort of containment. This was the Old Lady speaking to those who minded her.

   The surge in demand lasted for perhaps an hour then the phone rang. Newton answered it, tapped Arthur on the shoulder then picked up the handset to call the foreman and order a shut down.

   From his seat in front of the console Arthur could sense as well as see the energy begin to drain away. The connection with the Grid was broken. Outside coal would cease flowing into the hoppers to feed the furnaces. He noticed a fluctuation in one of the needles. Newton spotted it too. He leaned forward.

   ‘Something wrong?’ he asked.

   ‘It’s like she doesn’t want to let go’.

   Newton tapped the glass but the needle remained in place.

   ‘Can’t trust it I suppose. It’s old and worn like everything else in here’. He blushed slightly at this, hoping that Arthur wouldn’t take it the wrong way.

   He ignored the remark. ‘To get the best out of her she needs to be running continuously’.

   ‘I know but that’s not going to happen. The closure announcement can’t be very far off now’.

   The foreman came into the control room. He wore white overalls to emphasise his status. Carter was another of the team who’d spent most of his career here.

   ‘Alright?’ asked Newton.

   ‘Not bad’ said Carter thoughtfully. ‘These rapid start ups and shut downs hardly seem worth it. We’ve spent the best part of a shift generating for an hour’.

   He nodded a greeting towards Arthur.

   ‘Won’t be for much longer I suppose’ he added.

   ‘Have you heard something?’ asked Newton.

   The foreman shook his head. ‘I’m basing it on the fact that we haven’t had a coal train in here for the best part of two weeks, which is about all the supply we’ve got left out in the yard, in the unlikely event of us going back on base load’.

   Newton laughed and nodded downwards in the direction of the turbines. ‘Base load? I doubt those things would stand it’.

   ‘You want to bet?’

   Both men looked round. Arthur turned slowly in his seat to face them. ‘They’ve got years of life left in them. At least if they were properly maintained’.

   The foreman smiled indulgently. ‘Face facts Arthur. She’s about to go on the scrapheap, same as people of our age. You’ve got a choice, look around for a transfer of accept a payoff. Surely you’d be glad to finish work early?’

   ‘I’m staying on’ said Arthur. ‘This plant needs looking after and that’s what I’ve spent all my time doing. I understand this place, inside out’.

   The foreman shrugged and raised his eyebrows. It was something he couldn’t refute. Arthur would sense through the vibrations coming up from below what the gauges would tell him a few moments later. Even Newton had come to rely on this, asking Arthur before taking readings. Arthur might even resort to first looking out of the window, watching the extent of the steam vapourising above the cooling towers, then feeling through his fingers the rising pitch of the turbines as they reached generating speed.

   Leaving the control room the foreman poised on the staircase. A window at this elevated position gave him a good view of the coal yard. He saw how the mound of coal had diminished in size. With it the shadows had retreated exposing the steel ribbons of track in the empty marshalling yard. A few weeks ago that yard had been full: wagons awaiting their turn to be unloaded, others left closer to the main line for collection. Now there was the smell of impending abandonment.

   The shift came to an end and Arthur gathered his things, preparing to leave. Smoke now trickled in a thin ribbon from the chimney. Next to them from the cooling towers only the faintest wisp of vapour was emerging. During the last hour of his shift the station had lapsed back onto standby. Deep below the ash race would be a trickle once more and the chain grates reduced to a crawl. On an impulse Arthur turned back. The shifts were completing their hand over in the rest room. Some men were clambering into overalls, others stuffing theirs into lockers. The foremen would be discussing the usual matters: misbehaving machinery or equipment that needed servicing.

   No-one noticed Arthur as he crossed the mezzanine, passing between two Cornwall boilers. He began to ascend an iron stairway. At the first level he was little more than ten feet above the white tiled floor. The next gave him an opportunity to glance down through one of the gaps in the mezzanine, which provided a view of the auxiliary plant down in the basement. Arthur went up to a third, then a fourth level, drawing abreast of the grimy windows on the other side of the building.

   The temperature was Saharan. Here the heat sucked all the moisture out of the air. Across the walkway like giant humpbacks, stood the crowns of the boilers. Arthur could hear the voice of the station. The boilers groaned and rumbled. Even in idleness they still had to contain the enormous pressures required before the station could again start the process of working up.

   He hadn’t been up here in a long time. Usually his ability to commune with the station was adequately handled in the control room. More than ever though, at this stage in the Old lady’s life, he wanted to reconnect physically. Here it was laid out beneath him, the mysterious order of the pipe work, the great steel sheets which made up the boilers and below that the machinery. The others who worked here chose to see but a small part, which covered their particular area of responsibility; turbines, furnaces or whatever. Arthur in contrast, had oversight of it all. She was resting now. Yet he could feel the awesome power that she represented. The Old Lady was awaiting her next summons.

   The news when it came was hardly unexpected. The coal gang working out in the yard had been circulating rumours for some time. They calculated consumption in height. The Alps out back had declined to mere foothills and no new coal train was scheduled. The station manager told senior staff and the foremen told their teams. No-one bothered to approach Arthur. The news reached him by overhearing a conversation between the shift engineers as they completed a handover. After that the talk was all down to future plans.

   He was on duty early the next morning. Outside in the darkness a heavy frost covered the car park. As usual a thin breeze of steam from cooling towers signalled the near dormant state of the station. Arthur took the lift up to the control room. Baker the night engineer was at his desk completing paperwork.

   ‘It’s been a quiet night’ Baker told him, ‘hardly anything to do but just sit here’. He took an unnecessary glance out of the window up at the chimney. ‘Looks as if you people will be doing the same’.

   ‘I don’t know’, said Arthur, ‘it’s a cold one out there. They might need us’.

   Baker rose to his feet and began unbuttoning his overall jacket. ‘Perhaps’ he said sounding doubtful ‘but with a week to go before official closure they’ll have learned to live without us. We just won’t be a factor in their calculations any more’.

   He got up, collected the rest of his things and went to the door, where he stood awaiting Newton’s arrival. Ordinarily a handover might take ten minutes with much discussion but clearly this time Baker had nothing to tell and was anxious to be gone.

   Sure enough when Newton emerged from the lift their conversation took just a few moments.

   He entered the control room. ‘Nothing doing and nothing to tell’ he told Arthur.

   The foreman came in to report. ‘Curious isn’t it?’ he said. ‘Now that it’s almost certain we won’t have anything to do, everyone’s turned in’.

   They went into a side office to do the routine staffing paperwork and returned a few minutes later.

   ‘You were wrong’ Arthur told them. ‘I’ve just had a call. We’re needed’.

   ‘Bloody hell’ said the foreman, starting to hurry away. ‘I’d better get them out of the cabin’.

   ‘I didn’t hear the telephone’ said Newton absently, as he started on his preparations.

   Rising for a moment from his chair and looking below, Arthur could see the station staff coming out of their cabin, crossing the mezzanine to their various positions. Their body language gave off surprise and resentment.

   In the hour which followed things fell into a familiar routine. Outside substantial clouds of steam were now emerging from the cooling towers.

   ‘Perhaps they just want us to burn off the remainder of the coal’ joked Newton, who had come up behind Arthur to check readings on the huge Bakelite gauges. Arthur nodded silently and continued to monitor the growing power coming from the turbines as the station approached full working pressure. He half rose, glancing down once more onto the mezzanine where the furnaces were being monitored by tiny figures in blue overalls. They hadn’t expected a finale but they were getting one. He checked his watch, then felt the vibrations through his fingertips, aware that the time was near. Lifting his jacket from the chair back he slipped it on and went to the door. Newton, busy with more paperwork, failed to notice his departure.

   Outside Arthur was confronted by the full wall of sound. It was very close now. Revolutions within feed pumps and turbines measured the station’s progress as it reached the stage of being ready to unload onto the grid.

   The lift doors opened at the mezzanine. A turbine driver gave Arthur a brief curious glance then turned away. He knew Arthur but seeing him down here was an unusual sight. At the lift doors Arthur paused for a few moments, taking in the activity down the length of the massive generating hall, then he crossed behind a boiler and began to ascend.

   It had been hot during his previous visit but nothing like it was now. He could hear the great boilers tensing as the pressure rose. The air around him literally shimmered. This was heat from nature, unlocked by men. Even though he had been ascending for only a few moments Arthur could feel the dryness in his throat.

   Soon the climb had become an ordeal. No living thing should be up here in such a temperature. The moisture excreted from his body barely dampened his clothing before evaporating. Finally and much weakened he reached the top, feeling dizzy with the effort. Arthur was a sedentary man who had pushed his body hard. He sank down onto the walkway, first removing his jacket to sit on as a barrier against the hot metal.

   Up in the control room Newton was on the phone protesting. He knew he should have confirmed the instructions but Arthur… Arthur had told him and he knew his business. Now he was trying to explain himself; the conversation cut short by someone at the Grid. He looked around for Arthur but his chair was still empty. Newton went out into the corridor, glanced up and down its length, then abandoned his search scarcely before it had begun. He picked up the phone once more to ring below and countermand the previous instructions. A charge hand took the call. Newton could see him below hurrying out onto the mezzanine, shouting his message to the foreman, who instinctively looked upwards and spread his hands in bewilderment.

   It would be some time before the process of shutting down was complete and hours for the radiant heat from the boilers to decline to a near tolerable level. Arthur sat there aloft, feeling the vibrations. From any point in the building he could detect changes in the Old Lady. He was an integral part of her whilst she took this last chance to show her power. Now that absorption was becoming physical. Just as she drew energy from the coal so she was taking the moisture from his body. He would desiccate and remain there, fused and mummified.

Bill Hartley

Bill Hartley is a former soldier who currently works as an archivist for the Mining Institute in Newcastle. He is the author of Hezbollah Wishes You a Safe and Peaceful Journey and From Contention City to Stalingrad. He lives in North Yorkshire.

Photo by Mick De Paola on Unsplash

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