Sunday, March 10

The Men On The Factory Floor

IT WAS A SPACIOUS Jaguar, and I was sat in the back, sliding down the leather seats. If I wanted to I could not have reached out and touched the other passenger door with its walnut panelling. The three of us passengers were on our way to a factory down in Kent, around the city on the ring road. Chris, a small, stocky contractor who I got along with, was sat in front. When he picked me up outside the train station he stuck his fingers up at me. The gentleman driving I had not met before. He was called Tim and he had severe arthritis in both knees, bowing his legs, painfully causing him to walk a wobbly walk. His nose was swollen with drink and the rest of his features faded into his face. He spoke in a deep voice. His walking stick was in the back with me.
I tried to fall asleep but I was a little uncomfortable with the situation, so I listened to them talking and stared out of the window.
Tim was telling a story about his friend’s wife – ‘And she goes – “I don’t mind him catching the mice but I don’t want him catching the birds, so I’m gonna put a bell round his neck.” So I says, - “You only got deaf mice round here, then?” ’ We all laughed.
The day before had been beautiful. The sun was shining, no clouds, a day plucked out of May and shuffled into early March. It had been so good that I left my coat in the office and went for a long walk on my own and there were many people out enjoying the sunshine, for everyone knew that it would be brief.
And it was.
Our car pulled off one motorway and on to another; a filthy fog stole the distance; large field-hiding puddles, overpasses, campsites, rusty shipping containers. I was drifting off to sleep when I heard the word ‘coffee’. I was asked whether I wanted to go straight to the factory or to stop off and get a coffee. I chose the latter. Chris said, - ‘I’ve never seen you without a coffee.’ I informed him that my day hadn’t begun until I’d had a shower and a coffee. Still, the grey passed by our window.
Service stops are limbos positioned occasionally alongside the motorway. This one was not very popular. There was a grotty hotel and a grotty building containing fast food restaurants, a couple of cafes, toilets and a place to buy the daily newspaper. The place and its carpark were confined by still pine trees; cut off; isolated. We walked inside. All the outlets were arranged in a ring around a hundred plastic chairs that had been nailed into the floor. We exchanged stories and thoughts while we drank coffee and ate entire breakfasts forced into a roll. Then we set back on our way. People were always coming and going at service stops, endlessly in and out, always glum, a little exhausted and in no way excited.
The factory was squelched into an industrial estate; an outbreak of grey on the edge of a pointless town. Maybe we will not be here long. Maybe I will go home early and never have to return to this place. We began our obligations, testing some electrical panels and software on the factory floor. Enlivened by the coffee and my breakfast in a roll, desperate for another cigarette and to get out of there, I worked fast and was alert. The time passed quite quickly. I stole looks across the floor and saw men working in front of stalls, a weak radio living out its days on a dusty shelf, hanging fluorescent lights, men of all ages, no more than a dozen of them. Many of the men looked the same, like twins or quintuplets, only looking down. They spoke not. Once an hour, someone took a cue and relayed an amusing anecdote that had just occurred to him. They all laughed and returned to their labour. At lunch time they smoked with me in the loading bay or congregated in the foul smelling kitchen. There was no point leaving the factory because there was nothing outside. When I spoke to the men it seemed like they had slowly been losing their minds for some time and were now very distracted from everything that was coming out of their mouths.
I wanted to get out of there. It was my say-so when we would leave. At three-thirty – five-and-a-half hours after we had arrived – I said that we should leave. I saw no point in staying any longer. We drove back through the hills and away from the factory. As the men inside had not existed to me before, so they existed to me no longer. They were part of a dream that once fluttered through my mind, then paled and became very hard to recall before excusing itself altogether. Now I cannot see the men at all, but I know they will return to work Monday. I wonder if they drink themselves to sleep every night like I do. They looked like they’ve spent many a happy hour on damp carpets.
We drove back down the grey motorway, this time going under the Thames when before we had elevated over it. There had been an accident in the other lane; every car slowed down to take a look. I fell asleep. When I awoke I tried to compose myself; I thought it was rude of me to fall asleep in front of people I knew through work. Chris, the contractor, said – ‘You all right, sleeping beauty?’ I laughed. I liked him. The conversation from the front came to me in dribs and drabs. I heard Tim recalling the end of his marriage, but I don’t know why he was. For a moment, just a moment, he was very bare to Chris and I – ‘My wife got home and I’d packed her suitcase, it was there, waiting for her and I just said – “Fuck off”. She told me I couldn’t throw her out, but I did.’ Pause. ‘An hour later I heard the key going in the lock but I’d changed all the locks.’ I chuckled. ‘I was sad for eighteen years. Hardly left the house.’ The way he said it was as if she had cheated on him and he was heartbroken but I daren’t ask him.
Tim dropped me and Chris into Chris’ car that was parked just off the motorway. I was sat up front again. His car smelled sweeter, cosier, I felt more relaxed.
Not that Chris needed much encouraging but outside of the borders of an office and contracts and work and obligation and professionalism, he exposed himself to me as a human being, a real person who had a favourite aftershave and friends who called him to find out what time he was going down the gym and a wife who’d just picked up the dog food and a dog that had a skin condition and a daughter who’d recently got out of hospital.
He dropped me at a fast food restaurant and we said good-by.
The restaurant was busy. One man was trapped outside, asking – ‘How do you get in?’ because the door was a pull and not a push. Fatness stood in the queue and dwelled on the menu, minutes deliberating which item to order. I just wanted a coke. Nearby an army of young men cleaned cars, descending upon the dirty vehicle as if they were ants feasting on a discarded sweet wrapper. I watched them. I felt the weather turn its head and look west, where the sun could not be seen, though its light grimly lit the fields of soil, nothing growing, nothing dying. The coke was cold. It felt good down my whole throat and there was nothing to do but wait.

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