Herr Altmann was a small lean man who reminded me of drawings by Wilhelm Busch. He was a Meister from Austria, which meant that he had served an apprenticeship lasting twelve years, and in theory no aspect of the Trade was beyond him.
Somehow he had got himself into debt, and his business had failed. He came to work for Huppertz and we were in awe, but it must have been humiliating for him to become just another man at the bench receiving his weekly wage packet.
He was put at a bench right next to mine, which meant I could watch him going about his craft. Living up to his name, he seemed old and wizened though he must have been in his fifties.
He was a taciturn man with a heavy accent, so whatever instruction I got from him had to be via observation. He worked slowly and meticulously, and I can still see him licking his lips as he fiddled with some delicate construction. His techniques were antiquated. Instead of the proprietary flux which we all used for soldering, he would grind flux from a solid cone of borax in a special ground-glass dish. He wouldn’t use our soldering torches but brought along his own blow-torch. It was not the torch you might find in the hands of someone stripping paint, but the device which had given all blow-torches their name – it had two pipes, one connected to the gas and the other to a mouthpiece into which he blew, so that he could control the intensity of the flame with his breath. From him I learned the use of binding-wire, the thin iron wire that we use to hold things together while soldering them. When he lifted a tiny piece of solder, called a paillon, with his no. 2 brush, he did it so carefully that he didn’t leave a drop of flux behind to dry and stick the other paillons together, making them unmanageable.
This was in the mornings. During our half-hour lunch break he would nip down to the bar at the City Hall Hotel, a sleazy venue with tired old hookers. There he would drink spirits, doubles. In the afternoons he was no good. His hands shook and he made errors which a Meister should have been able to avoid.
One day Huppertz called me over to show me a ring. It was a delicate thing made to hold many stones in little settings around a larger stone.
“Herr Altmann is supposed to be so good. But look at this. The stone doesn’t fit.” He sighed and shrugged. It was the right thing but the wrong size. Two or three days’ work would have to be scrapped.
After a while Altmann stopped showing up for work. Perhaps the booze had overcome him. Perhaps Huppertz had fired him. No explanation was offered.