A Vast And Chilly Gasworks

Somewhere in today’s papers I came across the phrase a vast and chilly gasworks, and this reminded me that for ages now I have been meaning to write about the Blister Lane Gasworks. More specifically, I wish to address the time that the manager of the gasworks approached Dobson, the out of print pamphleteer, asking him to write an instruction manual for the gasworks janitor.

The words vast and chilly certainly describe the Blister Lane Gasworks to a T. They describe, too, the manager, a man of huge bulk and cold disposition named Istvan Pan. His moustache was of the Kaiser Wilhelm type, and his eyes were glacial. Interestingly, no one could ever recall seeing him off the gasworks’ premises, and how he lived and fended for his everyday needs was a complete mystery. Equally perplexing was the fact that in his left hand, at all times, he carried a hammer, almost as if it were an extension of his arm. Perhaps it was. So chilly was his manner that no one had the temerity to ask him about it.

Janitors came and went at the gasworks with bewildering rapidity. Some left voluntarily, after a few days or weeks, and others were fired by Pan, often within minutes of their appointment. Curiously, not a single ex-janitor would speak of their experience, remaining steadfast in their silence even when badgered for a scoop by bumptious reporters from The Daily Shovel.

It is against this background that one needs to consider Dobson’s response when he was summoned to the gasworks by Istvan Pan. Unfortunately, we do not know how the pamphleteer reacted, because there is a gap in his journals covering this period. He may have crowed with delight, or he may have shuddered with queasiness, but we are unlikely ever to know, so let’s just crack on and find out what happened next.

Dobson presented himself at the gasworks gate promptly at six o’ clock in the morning on a Monday of blustery gales and drizzle. He was met by a woman so tiny that he mistook her for a female homunculus, and wondered if she had been created according to the Paracelsian recipe of burying a bag of bones, semen, skin fragments and hair in the mud for forty days. Tactless as ever, Dobson wondered this aloud, and had his knee slapped by the tiny woman. Had she been any taller, no doubt she would have slapped his face, but his knee was as high as she could reach. She introduced herself as Mrs Pan, wife of the gasworks manager, and bade Dobson follow her down a very long corridor hissing with gas-jets, at the end of which was Istvan Pan’s office.

As enormous as his wife was minuscule, Pan towered above the pamphleteer as he coldly outlined what he wanted Dobson to do for him. Before appointing a new gasworks janitor, he explained, he wanted to have an instruction manual clearly setting out the janitorial duties, and he wanted it to be written in sweeping, magisterial prose so that whoever took on the job would be properly awestruck. As he said this he flailed his hammer in the air. He went on to say, in a voice redolent of Antarctic desolation, that Dobson had been recommended to him as a writer of sweeping, magisterial prose, and as a man who knew a thing or two about janitordom. Dobson was curious to know who might have made such a recommendation, but just as he was about to ask, Mrs Pan rushed into the office with a stricken look on her tiny face. The pamphleteer was astonished to see Istvan Pan’s cold imperiousness crumple into uxorious solicitude as he swept his tiny wife into his arms and, without dropping his hammer, comforted her, chirping into her ear softly, like a linnet.

Eventually becalmed, Mrs Pan explained why she was stricken. There had been a pile-up on the Blister Lane Bypass, she said, just beyond the gasworks, and fumes and flames were being blown by the blustery gales in their direction. Unless they took action, the whole place could explode in a conflagration like the one that engulfed the Potato Building just after the war. Istvan Pan looked Dobson coldly in the eye and told him that this was just the kind of circumstance where a competent janitor would be a boon, and the pamphleteer could only nod in agreement. Then the gasworks manager turned around and depressed a knob upon his desk and Dobson felt a sudden lurch in the pit of his stomach. It took him a few seconds to realise that the entire vast and chilly gasworks was descending, via the thrumming of some incredible and complicated engine, below the surface of the earth, into a subterranean vault as vast and chilly as the gasworks itself, while above ground, the firestorm created by the Blister Lane Bypass pile-up raged, and raged for days and weeks and months..

For many years now, Dobsonists have hunted high and low for a copy of the legendary “missing pamphlet”, How I Spent Six Months Underground In An Amazing Subterranean Vault Built To House The Blister Lane Gasworks, Together With Mr And Mrs Pan And Their Cat Hudibras. If ever a copy can be discovered, we might learn what happened in that time and, more importantly, why, when Istvan Pan at last pressed the knob to return the gasworks to ground level, his plans to have a janitorial instruction manual written in sweeping and magisterial prose by Dobson seem to have been utterly abandoned. We might learn, too, whether it was giant Istvan Pan, or tiny Mrs Pan, or even perhaps Dobson himself who managed to train Hudibras the cat to carry out all the tasks the manager expected of a vast and chilly gasworks janitor.

One thought on “A Vast And Chilly Gasworks

  1. On reading of the abortive commission of writing a janitor’s manual, or employee handbook, in ‘sweeping and magesterial prose’, I was assailed by mix of emotions. At once I was thrilled and excited at the opportunity that this would have presented had it come to fruition and saddened by the fact that it never came to pass.

    I have read many employee handbooks written in dry and brittle prose. Sometimes the prose was limp and flaccid. Never was the prose sweeping or magesterial. Had history taken a different turn, Dobson may well have galvanised the world of employee handbook publishing.

    I now no longer read employee handbooks (which perhaps explains why I limp from job to job). Instead, I read the assembly instructions of flat-pack furniture like that available at Ikea. Though the furniture is dreadful, a vile cocktail of sawdust and glue, the assembly instructions are compelling, composed as they are of picures. They give a glimpse into what the forerunner of Sumerian cuneiform or Chinese ideographs may have looked like, except that it is printed on paper and not incised on the shell of a tortoise, or pressed into hardened Nile clay.

    Istvan Pan obviously knew what he was talking about when he asked for magesterial and sweeping prose. He used the word ‘janitordom’ (I presume he used this word), and there is a romantic ring about this word, specifically, the German 19th century romantic ring of Beethoven’s 5th.

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