44. Ring Leader of the Midnight Zoo

It was 9pm.
I was ready to leave, and Tommy was just arriving.
Tommy’s a good lad, one of the few people at work I’d call a mate.
He was on the night shift.
“Hi Tommy. How’s it going?”
“Oh, hi Lucifer. It’s going… you know…”
“He looked twitchy and tired, like he was just finishing a long shift, rather than just starting.
“What’s up, mate? You look like crap.”
“Hmm. Thanks for that. It’s just that I hate nights, and they’re starting to get to me.”
“I thought it was a steady gig. Get yourself tucked away, do your work, listen too the radio…”
“Is that what you think? Listen, can you spare five minutes?”
I wanted to get home, but Tommy’s a mate.
“Yeah, I’ve got five.”
We went to his office.
Tommy works on the computers, and his office has a long row of large windows looking out onto the factory floor.
He doesn’t look out onto print presses.
He looks out onto the enclosers.
Machines that put bits of paper into envelopes.
Not rocket science.
They’re not run by rocket scientists.
“They’re run by a very odd mix of people.
Very odd.
They call that area The Cabbage Patch, because it populated by rows of vegetables.
Very fitting.
Tommy’s office is pretty cozy.
Tea, fan heater, Radio 4.
“This is nice, Tommy. You’ve got a good set up.”
“You think so?” He didn’t look so convinced,
I noticed that the windows were covered in paper, up to a height of about seven feet.
“That looks a bit of a mess, mate. What’s that about?”
“You’ll see.”
He made me a tea. I didn’t want one, but he seemed to need a bit of company.
I took a sip, and heard a scream.
“What the fuck was that?”
“They’ve started, Lucifer…”
Screaming, whistling, gibbering, howling.
The noise pierced the glass, drowning out the calming sound of the radio.
Something thudded off the window.
Tommy flinched.
“What the fuck is going on?”
“It’s the Cabbage Patch. It’s what they do, all night. It’ll be like this ’till six in the morning.”
He took me to the window and peeled away a sheet of yellowed A4, opening a window to the cabbage patch.
A man in his forties wearing a torn T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms lumbered by, mooing. He was carrying box of envelopes.
A skinny bloke with incredibly rotten teeth was making hyena noises as he fed sachets of shampoo into a hopper.
Elastic bands pinged through the air, fired by a man in his fifties with a slack, vacant expression. They snarled up the machines and got caught among the mailers. If you ever find elastic bands in your junk mail, that gimp probably fired it.
One worker was keeping his head down, trying to get on with his job. He would flinch occasionally as an elastic band stung him on the neck, or when a half witted lummox bellowed in his ear.
“He’s new,” whispered Tommy. “He won’t last a month.”
“Who’s that bloke, over there?”
I pointed at a sneering man in his early sixties with hunched shoulders and dry, gray hair. I could see him talking to a small crowd of lackeys who would bellow with laughter at everything he said. They were stood near a kid who was filling mail bags and trying to ignore their obvious piss taking.
“That’s Hessian. He’s top dog out there, and everyone sucks up to him. He’s a proper bully. They’ve been ripping into that lad on the mail sacks for weeks. He’s a bit simple, but works hard. He got that job through an agency, but Hessian doesn’t like that. He hates agency staff, and does everything he can to make their lives Hell. He reckons agency staff are taking their jobs, but the truth is that they need to hire them, otherwise nothing gets done at night due to all the fucking about.”
A football thumped heavily off the window, right by our faces. Tommy quickly replaced the piece of paper, to howls of laughter from outside.
Tommy shook his head. “That Hessian is such a cunt. I fucking hate him. He properly loves it here, lording it amongst those witless fuckers in the Cabbage Patch. They make my life a misery, chucking stuff at the windows and making animal noises. It sends me insane…”
“Not good, Tommy. You need to get off shitty nights and get back onto days.”
“I wish I could, Lucifer. I wish I could…”

Tommy didn’t get off nights, but Hessian was transferred to days. They were easing him off shifts, in readiness for his impending retirement.
He put in an application to work past sixty five.
He was refused.
He lodged an appeal.
It was rejected.

I was standing in the canteen queue.
It was early. My mind was miles away, daydreaming as I waited my turn.
A freezing cold tin of coke was pressed against the back of my neck.
“Fucking Hell!”
I jumped a mile.
There was laughter behind me.
The deep Hurr-Hurr-Hurr of idiots laughter.
I spun around.
Their was Hessian, with two goons.
“That woke you up, kid!” he cackled.
The goons hurr-hurred again.
Now, I’m not a fighter.
It’s not my thing.
But that doesn’t make me a bitch.
I bent down and whispered in Hessian’s ear.
“You do that again, you scrawny piece of shit, and I’ll ram that can right up your shrivelled arse.”
He didn’t like it. People didn’t talk to him like that.
“There’s no need for that, kid. We was just having a laugh!”
“You’ve had your laugh, now fuck off.”
He fucked off.

No matter how much Hessian protested, they still made him retire.
He was gutted.
He walked around the factory on his last day, shaking hands with people and crying.
I didn’t shake his hand.

A few months later I saw him at a bus stop.
He was alone.
He looked to have aged about twenty years.
It was raining.
He had one of those shitty tartan shopping trolleys, bulging with groceries.
The rain on his gray face made it look like he was crying.
Maybe he was.
Tough shit.

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