I’m standing by the punch clock, staring at digital numbers that, thirty years ago, had been tarnished tin arms on a green dial, their every movement observed almost pathologically by countless men, their lips already wet with the imagined taste of ale.
It is 3.55pm.
Where there had once been crowds of workers huddled around the clock, jostling and piss taking, now there is only me.
The factory is almost empty. Occasionally a tired face in a plastic PPE visor looks up from behind a machine and stares at me with no expression, then disappears again.
The vague yet omnipresent hisses, clicks, rattles and whines of an idling factory drift through the cavernous space, echoing off old machines, broken machines, long dead machines.
I watch the numbers, counting down.
It’s been a strange time, these last few months.
Stay home and save lives, they said.
Come to work and die, said the factory.
So, while everyone has been doing the right thing, I’ve had to do the wrong thing.
Driving along totally deserted roads, pulling in to a near deserted car park, working in a near deserted factory.
I’d drawn the short straw.
As soon as the coronavirus lockdown began, Intense Ginger Bloke started to shout.
It’s what he does.
He’s always either ‘Intense’, ‘angry’ or ‘off the fucking chart’.
He went to a level somewhere between ‘angry’ and ‘off the fucking chart’. Pretty high up there but it’s not unusual for him.
“I’VE GOT CHILDCARE PROBLEMS! I CAN’T POSSIBLY WORK! I NEED TO GET THIS SORTED OUT RIGHT NOW!!’
He stood up and stormed out of the room.
Soulless Boss watched him go with an expression of complete and utter hatred.
We both knew Intense Ginger Bloke’s quandary.
After years of tolerating him, of grinding boredom and acute irritation, his girlfriend had finally left him.
It came as a bolt from the blue to him and came as absolutely no surprise whatsoever to everyone else.
Of course she left you, mate.
You’re a prize arsehole.
When she left, he tried to organise a lads mountain biking trip in his caravan to Dalby Forest with his only friend in the world, but it turns out his only friend in the world already had plans that weekend.
And it turns out those plans were to fuck Intense Ginger Bloke’s ex as soon as he possibly could.
They now live happily together in a flat somewhere outside Morley.
And Intense Ginger Bloke has no friends at all, girl or otherwise.
You really couldn’t make it up.
They have joint custody of their daughter who’s only six, so a couple of days a week Intense Ginger Bloke needs to finish a bit earlier to pick her up from nursery, but with the nurseries closing, he finds himself in something of a quandary, a quandary rippling through just about every working family across the entire country.
But of course, Intense Ginger Bloke is more important, he is special.
He knows that because his mother told him so, all those years ago to explain why no-one wanted to play with him.
Intense Ginger Bloke takes great pleasure in describing the logistical difficulties of shared childcare, as if he’s the only person in the world with such problems, never mind just one of a dozen people on the same room with the exact same problem.
A couple of times a week he has to collect his daughter, drop off his daughter, and that’s that. But his inbuilt awkwardness, his innate ability to turn the simple into a logistical night mare has led to him creating a new elaborate work routine that is sometimes hard to fathom, starting and finishing at times that seem to be dictated by the tides, by the migratory patterns of swallows, by tea leaves.
He has tested the patience of the management to breaking point.
Soulless Boss has had enough of Intense Ginger Bloke’s ways, his complaining, his ranting, his explosions of rage. Soulless Boss has told me in no uncertain terms that he wants Intense Ginger Bloke to die, to have a heart attack or some such in the middle of one of his tirades, to hear a popping sound as he bellows then he would fall silent and just slump to the floor like a puppet who’s strings are cut.
This does sound a bit harsh, but it’s the way of The Factory.
Everyone wants someone to die.
To be fair though, Soulless has a pretty long list.
Intense Ginger Bloke burst back into the room and started to gather his things.
Soulless Boss snarled, “Where the fuck are you going?”
With an expression of excitement and triumph, Intense Ginger Bloke slung his bag over his shoulder and said, “I’ve been furloughed. Got to go. See you later.”
The door slammed.
Soulless Boss said, “Furloughed? What the fucking Hell is that when it’s at home?”
I said, “I’ve no idea.”
This was in March.
We soon found out about furlough.
In April, I was also furloughed.
I got four weeks off work, the longest time I’d had off work since 1988, when I was fifteen and it was the school Summer Holiday.
It was fantastic.
Four long weeks away from that shit hole factory.
Four weeks in the little art studio I’d built for myself in the garden, four weeks of making things, writing things, and recording things.
It was the happiest four weeks of my life.
It flew by.
And it changed me.
After the four weeks, I got called back in.
It was my opposite number’s turn for furlough, along with dozens of other employees.
The staff was cut to a third.
The incoming work fell to half capacity, so everyone still at work was very busy.
And a new rule came into place.
Whoever was on furlough, stayed on furlough.
Whoever was working, stayed working.
I’d been trapped.
Weeks and weeks of just Soulless Boss and me, working together, alone.
But a new spectre raised it’s head.
The squeezed were going to be squeezed harder.
The very second that redundancies were announced, Soulless Boss’s face lit up.
He hissed, “Intense Ginger Bloke!”
And I knew at that second, Intense Ginger Bloke was fucked.
I was glad.
My job was safe in the coming storm of, potentially, the worst recession in history, during a global pandemic.
I was guaranteed a place on the ship, i was going nowhere, I could breath easy.
Names were being whispered, the people first on the lists of the dead, the thorns in the managers sides, the whingers, the malingerers, the troublemakers.
Normally I might be on that list but, at the moment, I was the apple of Soulless Boss’s eye.
I was keeping my head down, getting my work done, being diplomatic.
All very unlike me, I know, but I’m not a total fucking idiot.
But while Soulless Boss was chipper with me, it was a very different matter with the other middle managers.
They cruised like sharks, watching, waiting, hoping for another manager to slip, then they attacked.
Vicious emails, blaming, whispering in the ears of directors, finger pointing.
All hoping someone else would be made redundant, someone else would take the fall so they might continue to survive in the rapidly shrinking pool.
And the other staff, the ordinary lads, all speculating, who was to go, who might stay, terrified. it felt like death stalked the grease stained gaps between the machines, and men trembled at the possibility his scythe might touch them.
And everyone said to me, ‘You’re alright, it’s Intense Ginger Bloke who’s getting it.’
Even Soulless Boss took me to one side, guaranteeing me safety.
It was a Thursday, If I remember rightly.
I had a job on my table, and Soulless Boss was sat opposite me, silently working.
We’d changed the desks around weeks earlier and now I had a view of a beautiful silver birch tree, a tree I could rarely see before due to Intense Ginger Bloke’s pathological need to keep glare from his screen by closing every fucking blind in the fucking office so no-one could see out fucking side, but now I can see my tree.
Throughout the Spring I’d watched a lone blue tit feeding it’s young in the tattered nesting box someone had nailed to the tree years earlier.
It’s busy, clockwork whirring across the car park, beak crammed with caterpillars and flies, back and forth and back and forth.
I’d watched, heart in mouth, as a magpie landed on top of the bird box and, with surgical precision, winkled out a small, blind pink thing with it’s beak and flew away, as the mother chattered outrage in it’s wake.
I don’t know why it didn’t return to finish the job, but soon the blue tit resumed feeding the remainder of it’s clutch and I started breathing again.
And a week or two later, on that Thursday, just before fledging, a jay appeared.
The jay, the pirate of the crow world, garish livery and a psychopath’s eye.
The jay perched on the bird box, stared at me, then picked inside the hole, plucking one fat struggling feather duster of a chick out at a time, flying away with it, then returning for more as the mother screamed.
And soon it was over.
After an hour, the mother entered the box to survey the damage.
She poked her head out.
Then she flew to a nearby branch, and a small, scruffy chick followed.
Together they disappeared into the bushes and I never saw them again.
I watched the empty box for a while.
hen I stood up and walked out of the office.
I walked down the corridor to Cardboard Supervisor’s office.
He was busy sorting out The Chop, who was to stay, who was to go.
He looked up at me and said, “What do you want, Luci?”
And I said, “I’ll go.”
The redundancy package is pretty shit, if I’m honest.
It might last me six months if I’m frugal.
I’ve no job lined up, but then again, you have to choose the right time to jump, and who knows? I might be proved right.
Soulless Boss is furious.
He wanted to bin Intense Ginger Bloke so badly, he had been playing out the scenario in his head for weeks.
He even said to me, “You have totally fucked up all my plans.”
That made me feel pretty happy.
In September I’d have been in the same job for thirty one years.
A lifetime, a life sentence.
Thirty one years and the punch clock on the wall in front of me now reads 3.59pm.
Soulless Boss has gone early because he wants to go watch the Leeds game.
A few people swing by my desk to enquire with bafflement if I’m really leaving, and I simply say yes.
Alone now, I empty thirty years worth of stuff from my drawer into a cardboard box.
Tea making things, a bowl, thirty holiday cards I’d inexplicably saved charting the weeks and days I’d been away from work. Drawings of workmates long gone or long dead, a photograph from a photo booth of an ex-girlfriend that I didn’t want to throw away so I’d kept in my drawer at work for twenty five years instead.
Alone, I carry the box to the clock machine and I find I’m early, it’s 3.55pm, so I wait, and now it’s 3.59pm, and I put my earphones in and hit play on Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road, a song that has kept me going these past couple of weeks.
Don’t run back inside
Darling, you know just what I’m here for
So you’re scared and you’re thinking
That maybe we ain’t that young anymore
Show a little faith there’s magic in the night
You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re alright
Oh and that’s alright with me.
I clock out of The Factory for the very last time.
I walk out and nobody sees me go, carrying my box of ancient history.
I walk across the empty car park and drop the box onto the back seat of my twelve year old Fiat Panda, a car that makes me smile every time I see it, especially when I listen to Thunder Road.
Well now I’m no hero
All the redemption I can offer girl
Is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey what else can we do now
Except roll down the window
And let the wind blow back your hair?
Well the night’s busting open
These two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back
Heaven’s waiting down on the tracks
I get in the car, turn on the ignition, wind down the windows, and head out towards the rest of my life.
Free at last.