Phosphate Rocks, part 1: He peered through the windscreen and swallowed hard...

Author of Phosphate Rocks, Fiona ErskineAuthor of Phosphate Rocks, Fiona Erskine
Author of Phosphate Rocks, Fiona Erskine
In the first of four extracts from Phosphate Rocks, by Fiona Erskine, the author recalls being a twenty-something, over-educated feminist alone at night in a factory of hundreds of big, rough men...


In early 1988, I was rattling down Leith Walk on my Honda 90 motorbike (0–11 miles per hour in 1 millisecond, although it took longer to get above 11) towards Edinburgh’s dock-

land and the Scottish Agricultural Industries (SAI) fertiliser factory. I could tell what sort of shift it was going to be from the factory chimneys. My last one.

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Phosphate RocksPhosphate Rocks
Phosphate Rocks

Five years previously, when I first informed the deputy manager that I planned to work shifts like the male graduates, he paled. A five-foot-three-and-a-half, sixty-kilo, twenty-

something, cocky, over-educated feminist alone at night in a factory of hundreds of big, rough men... he was terrified for them. So, he appointed a trusted, experienced shift foreman to keep me out of trouble: John Gibson.

Many years and several jobs later, after a skiing accident and an even more bruising first brush with fiction, I was persuaded by my partner in life to write down the stories I

used to tell arriving home from a twelve-hour shift in Leith docks, caked in phosphate rock. I embarked on NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) armed only with the words ‘I remember’, and it all poured out.

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NaNoWriMo is a bit like a Honda 90. You can race ahead with extraordinary speed and exhilaration; tens of thousands of words can be knocked out in a month. Unfortunately, it

took me almost a decade to knock that first draft into shape. The person I found it hardest to write about was John,

my mentor and shift companion – enigmatic, infuriating, charming, capricious, obstinate, kind and wise – until I found a way to illuminate him by putting him centre stage, where he belongs.

Like the shaggy dog stories that John shared to get us through a night shift, not all of what follows is exactly true. Names have been changed because the real people involved are still bigger than me. Dates have been changed because my memory is appalling.

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I am going to pop up from time to time, like the James Gillespie’s High School and Cambridge University educated smart arse I am, to explain some of the technical stuff. You’ll be able to spot me by the thud of Perry’s 4.46-kilogram Chemical Engineering Handbook (Version 6), the motes of dust (atishoo!) and the rustle of its 2,240 pages.

Inspired by Primo Levi, in the style of Dan Brown, this is the portrait of a factory in all its complex, glorious, interconnected, messy entirety. A hymn to the forgotten, the unknown and the misunderstood, this is the story of a fertiliser factory in decline and some of the fine people taken down with it.

I asked John to read this, to see if he wanted to change anything. He refused to even look at it.

‘I trust you, doll,’ he said.


OK, then. Gloves off. Carte blanche.

One: Demolition

The demolition crew found the body. A gale blew across Leith docks, drowning the rumble of bulldozers, squeal of hydraulic scissors, juddering percussion of jackhammers and crash of falling masonry. Gusts of wind whipped the concrete dust into weird shapes: mini tornadoes with tentacles and claws, ephemeral and monstrous.

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The abandoned SAI fertiliser factory occupied a promontory of land reclaimed from the Firth of Forth, a fenced site that stretched two miles east–west and half a mile north–south on the edge of the Port of Leith, Edinburgh’s dockland. Little remained above ground. The offices and stores, tanks and reactors, towers and chimneys had been reduced to shards of broken brick, jagged concrete wedges, spaghetti junctions of metal pipe and beam.

The demolition forces, a phalanx of specialised destruction machines, trundled towards the last remaining structures above the deep-water dock. The mechanised locusts munched through the factory, flattening everything in their wake, leaving behind a wind-blown desert: order to chaos, symmetry to entropy, meaning to insignificance.

Kelly was driving the grapple, a hydraulic excavator with an articulated jaw in place of a digging bucket. Steel teeth chomped through the covered aerial conveyors which had once transported powdered phosphate rock on huge rubber belts to the heart of the factory. The grapple left a trail of carnage to be sorted and shifted.

From inside the ‘hoose’, a cab on a rotating platform above the moving undercarriage, Kelly manoeuvred the grapple gingerly towards the edge of the quay, alert to the sharp smell of seaweed. One false move and the bright yellow juggernaut with its crawler feet and long giraffe neck would topple into the North Sea. Even if he escaped from the hoose,

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the freezing water would kill him before they could fish him out of the shipping channel. Journey’s end.

Kelly attacked the final structure, an elevator tower designed to raise the ship’s cargo from quay to conveyor.


The walls of the intake elevator collapsed under Kelly’s assault and a cloud of rose-gold confetti mushroomed and shimmered above the ruin. As the dust cleared, he edged forward, peering through the grimy glass of the cab at the exposed elevator shaft, grapple poised, one hand on the joystick, ready to rip its guts out.

Something stayed his hand. He couldn’t say exactly what. A lull in the wind? A break in the clouds? The plaintive cry of a gull that sounded almost human? A shaft of sunlight illuminated shapes beneath the metal structure. Scratching his head, Kelly flicked the windscreen wipers to nashing and matched the stroke with a squealing rag on the inside of the glass. He peered through, swallowed hard, and stopped the machine.

Tomorrow: The body

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