The game was simple.

An old tree trunk had been placed in the corner of the workshop, then someone tapped ten random nails into it—just enough to keep them upright. They called it stump.

The challenger had to hammer the nails until fully embedded. The one with the least number of blows was the winner.

The problem was that in a workshop where everyone used a hammer, it was too easy, so they changed to a cross peen hammer which had a wide straight edge, but again, it was too easy, then, on the third attempt, they got it right.

A bodywork hammer is light, so you really have to swing it to get any force behind the blow, but the harder you swing, the harder it is to land the blow accurately. One side has what looks like an ordinary flat hammer face, the other has a pointed end no bigger than the head of the nails used.

What most people don’t know about a hammer is, it’s perfectly designed to do the job well. It’s not there to be swung in the hope it might connect. Use a hammer right, and it will do the work for you. The secret is leverage. The secret is the swing. And the secret is the whip of the wrist and elbow during the swing. You don’t hold a hammer halfway down the shaft, you hold it at the bottom of the handle extending the leverage. Put them all together and you don’t need to be strong, you just need to be accurate.

The kid was never instructed in hammer technique—no metal worker was—and some of them blattered away with their hand halfway up the handle and their wrist fixed, swinging like idiots and missing most of the time. When they did occasionally land one, there was no power behind it because they were not using the hammer, they were using their arm.

Ten nails, ten blows. That was the target which had never been achieved. The record had stood at unlucky thirteen for the last two years.

It was lunchtime and a small crowd was gathered around the stump, waiting.

“Let, Shaun, have first crack as it’s his first day,” someone said.

“He’ll never do it.”

“You don’t know that,” another replied.

“I’m offering good odds on the newbie.”

“I’ll beat his odds.”

Shaun was the newbie, the unknown kid in a workshop of hardened men used to physical work, so bets were placed at ridiculous odds.

“I just hammer them in?” Shaun said.

“Yeah, just thump them in.” Everyone laughed.

The hammer was raised.

“Not that way, ya eejit, use the pointed end.”

Shaun looked at the hammer, then spun it in his hand like a propellor, stopping at exactly 1260 degrees so the point was now the head of the hammer.

“Give the lad a couple to practice on first,” someone said.

On the assumption it had been done many times before, Shaun said, “No, I’m good.”

He lifted the hammer high, elbow and wrist bent, and ten swift blows later, ten nails were firmly embedded.

There was silence. People looked at each other, then smiled, then everyone cheered—except the two bookies who had offered stupid odds on a misguided assumption.

 “How did you do that?”

“I thought that’s what you wanted me to do,” Shaun said.

Hammers were a big thing in the machine shop. They were used as drumsticks on the anvils, and it all sounded good until Shaun tried it. He had a natural ability with a hammer that no amount of practice or training or wishing would ever allow the others to accomplish. When he lifted a hammer, it was an extension of his arm. It became as one.

The job at Belfast shipyard had originally been for a sheet metalworker, but Shaun quickly progressed from metalworker to diesel mechanic. He was a quiet lad who did what he was told and learned quick. Four years were required to qualify as a mechanic, although they never gave you any formal qualifications, just the fact you had served your time.

Two months short of the four years, the incident happened. Shaun and another lad were using anvils and gas tanks as drums to accompany an accordion, and a guy with a tin whistle blowing an Irish jig, when a mechanic interrupted. He pointed at Shaun. “Hey, little drummer boy, I need ya.”

“It’s lunchtime.” Shaun continued the rhythm.

“Fuck you and your lunchtime. Get over here, you twat, you’re still a fucking apprentice and I’m on target for bonus, and I can’t use the press because the hydraulics are fucked, so you’re gonna hammer a bush out for me.”

“It’s lunchtime.”

“You a fucking parrot? Get over here now.”

Reluctantly, Shaun walked over to the anvil and picked up a sledgehammer. As the mechanic aligned the spring and punch, Shaun said, “What did you get up to last night? Anything exciting?”

In any workshop where a collection of men use their hands, there’s always one who thinks he’s it. The bully. The loudmouth. The one constantly pushing it too far. The one who thinks the rest should look up to him with respect. The one who posts himself cards and flowers on Valentine’s Day then acts all surprised. The mechanic turned and said, “None of your fucking business.”

Shaun realised the potential for trouble and said, “Only tryin’ to be friendly. Sorry for breathing.” He pinched his mouth tight and waited for the spring to be balanced, then his mind flashed back to a similar event when he was just a kid.

In primary schools everywhere, there are normal pupils, and there are stupid pupils, and there are clever pupils. But, sometimes, there is that one pupil who is a natural leader, who garners respect because of attitude or physical prowess, and Easton Cunningham was an impressive specimen.

In fairness, you could have removed the ‘ham’ and made a sandwich, just leaving the ‘Cunning’, which would have been a more appropriate surname because he was a cunning, conniving, calculating cunt of a character who could cause chaos without effort.

Nobody wanted to cross him, not because he was a brawler but because he was a tactician. He could enthral and command because he had politician like qualities, and while every other kid was reading comics, Easton was reading Wordsworth or Byron or Longfellow or Keats, because his father was a pretentious prick who had unfulfilled illusions of grandeur and wanted his son to succeed where he had failed.

Smart kids sat at the front, dumb kids sat at the back, but Easton sat directly in front of the teacher. The number one spot. The spot that confirmed he was better than everyone else. He guarded it like his life depended on it.

In most worlds, he would have been beaten up by other kids because his intelligence made him different, especially as he had a distinctive red birthmark from under his hairline to his eye that made him look like he was wearing an eyepatch, but instead, he had a following, because he called the other kids, men. “Right, men, who needs help with their homework?” “Right, men, hold him down and I’ll punish him.” “You men impress me.” “Together, men, we’re unstoppable.” All while still in primary school. He dictated in his distinctive authoritarian voice, and the plebs followed because he was different on a level they couldn’t comprehend.

When Easton had started school, the kids called him eyepatch or red-eye and taunted him relentlessly, but now, nobody dared comment on his birthmark.

He knew the right things to say because the books his father insisted he read told him.

Winston Churchill quotations? Coming right up. Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain? Of course. Anyone in power, he had studied them and could quote verbatim.

Easton didn’t have a childhood, he had a strict regimen. Early to bed, read for two hours, breakfast, school, homework, homework inspection, read, study, read, impress father. Fail to impress and the cane (a three-foot bamboo rod from the back garden rose bushes) hit the fingers. Always four strokes—two per hand—with a whoosh each time it was brought down. Easton cried inside, but no tear ever materialised, and after it was over, he always said, “Thank you, Father.”

In the number two seat sat Ginger. She with the fringe and exact helmet haircut. The object of Easton’s desire. Clever, but not forced, just naturally smart and nice.

Then she kissed Shaun after class when everyone—except Easton—had left. A pre-adolescent eleven-year-old lip brush where neither knew what they were doing, but it was enough.

The invite was issued and Shaun assumed he would be fighting at lunch break, but no. He should have known better.

“Right, men, hold him down,” Easton said.

Eight minions grabbed Shaun’s arms and legs, flattened him to the ground, and sat on his limbs, giggling.

Shaun remembered how it seemed like Easton jumped six feet in the air before bringing his knees down on Shaun’s belly. It was probably less than a foot, but it hurt like hell. All the air inside whooshed out in one violent whoosh, and when he tried to inhale, he couldn’t. His body wouldn’t work, and the thought of suffocation crossed his mind. He knew he was going to die if he couldn’t breathe. Then a little bit of air got in, then another, then another, until he could fill his lungs again normally. By this time, he was alone. Easton and his entourage had walked off, laughing.

He turned slowly towards the sun and a figure cut some of the rays. He brought his hand up to shield his eyes. Ginger was standing over him. “Sorry,” she said, then she too, walked away.

Exactly ten days later, when nobody remembered the chest jump, Easton was making his way through the fields on the shortcut to his rear garden.

The stone hit him square on the back of the head. He fell forward and didn’t move.

A concussion, ten stitches, and three weeks off school.

First day back, Shaun waited till school finished and walked Easton home on the premise of keeping him safe after the incident and getting on Easton’s good side.

“You’re a decent man, Shaun.” He gave two short nods as if to say, I knew you would be. “I’m sorry about… you know?”

“Yeah, forget it.”

As they approached the spot, Easton said, “It was here I was assaulted by an unknown assailant who was too cowardly to face me.”

“Well, it’s good to see you back.” He paused. “I thought I’d killed you.”

“What? It was you?” The anger in the voice was impressive, but… it was tempered with a tinge of fear.

“You jump on my chest and think I’m gonna let you off?” A friendly grin appeared with a chuckle.

“I’m going to the principal and the police and—”

“Yeah, you do that.” Shaun felt the smile mature. The smile that said, it’s over. “You get me into trouble, and next time I’ll pick a bigger stone.” He pushed Easton hard in the chest. “Much bigger.”


“Yeah, from now on, you and your clowns show me respect.”


“Yeah, good enough.” Shaun nodded as he walked past a confused Easton.

It was called a dead arm.

The guys in the workshop would challenge each other to take a punch to their bicep until someone gave in.

Punch with the flat of your fist and it hurt, but punch on a downward stroke with your knuckles—reducing the area—and it could render your entire arm useless for four or five minutes and leave a bruise as a reminder.

With a little practice (or painful experience), it was easy to learn the exact method to inflict a dead arm.

It was a hard flat punch, but it brought Shaun back to reality. “Fuck.” He rubbed his arm then shook it like he had been dead-armed.

“Hey, daydream, wake the fuck up.”

Shaun rubbed his arm furiously. “Give me a minute.”

“I haven’t got a fucking minute.” He knelt beside the anvil, positioned the punch, then said, “Last night?”


The mistake occurred when the mechanic continued. “Last night, Shaun, I was balls deep in your ma’s ass, banging her like the whore she is.” He made sure the others heard, then laughed even louder and looked around to see if the other mechanics agreed.

Nobody did.

Shaun forced a smile, but inside, his stomach lurched. High up, just behind the ribs, it was like someone had inserted an ice-cold brick, or jumped on his belly. He burped. He remembered Easton.

When the mechanic nodded towards the punch to knock the bush out of the spring, Shaun did his trademark bounce of the hammer off the anvil which rang out throughout the garage six times. Always six. He gently tapped the head of the punch to confirm the target, then lifted the hammer and brought it down on the mechanic’s wrist, just on the edge of the spring, severing the hand which shot across the floor still holding the punch.

The bloody mess at the end of the arm showed a jagged piece of glistening white bone protruding at an odd angle while copious amounts of blood squirted across the floor in time with the rapidly beating heart of the mechanic.

He turned his head towards Shaun, a questioning look on his face, then he slowly turned and looked at his hand, then his stump, then the screaming started.

Shaun looked at the blood and gore and the brick in his chest vanished to be replaced with an overwhelming warm feeling of power, then his face broke into a maniacal grin. He leaned towards the mechanic and said in a low voice, “My ma said she’s swatted houseflies with bigger dicks than yours.”

Afterwards, Shaun swore it was an accident as the mechanic had moved at the last minute after giving him a dead-arm only seconds before. But everybody knew Shaun didn’t miss. He never missed. And everybody knew Shaun had a temper and would shout back at anyone, but until now, nobody had witnessed it physically.

It was recorded as an accident, and although it was reported to the police, the entry in the accident book meant the company had accepted it as such, and the dead-arm was witnessed and confirmed, so no further action was taken.

When the wage packets were delivered on Friday, Shaun was given three months’ severance pay, accrued holiday pay and told to fuck off and don’t come back.

And that’s why at the age of twenty, Shaun opened the garage.