“Tra la la la lee.”
A steaming mug of piss-weak tea, a picture of a cute fat hippo on the side of the mug.
On the desk, by the tea, a box.
The box is in sections, a box of tiny boxes, boxes named Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…
In each of the tiny boxes is a jumbled pile of pretty coloured pills.
“Tra lee la lee la”
Near the box there is a bible, a Barbara Taylor Bradford novel, a sponsorship form for an African kid with big eyes and a swollen belly.
A bag of Werther’s Original toffees.
The ubiquitous knackered radio.
Classic FM, turned down low.
This is the Readers Room.
Everything that is proofed is read, everything that is going to be printed is read, every correction is read, every plate that is going onto a printing press is read, everything that is being printed is read.
A steady filtration of checks and double checks, ticked boxes, scribbled margins, highlighted queries.
And who does all this reading?
A reader, of course.
Minty is a reader.
Timid, devout, conscientious, rotund, frightened.
In his roly poly chest beats the heart of a terrified rabbit, a living, breathing personification of the tyranny of the weak.
He will tell anyone who might listen about his impressive array of illnesses and ailments.
Any conversation, no matter how obscure, can be carefully steered back to his blood pressure, a lump in his ball bag, the odd colour of his morning turd.
On one wrist he sports a copper bangle for his joints.
On the other wrist there is a magnet on a strap, fuck only knows what that is supposed to do.
Useless trinkets, talismans for the gullible.
A faded collage of curling sepia paper covers the windows, held together with time-brittled selotape.
This is a strangely popular practice in the factory.
Practitioners say that they do not like to be looked at, to be watched.
The paper is there to stop the watchers.
They never say who might be watching.
One pair of tired eyes constantly peer down on Minty from a dog eared postcard of Jesus, crucified with yellowing tape to the protective screen of beige pages.
Peering down on the meek.
Probably wishing that the meek would harden the fuck up and stop bothering him all the time.
Today, Minty is on the night shift.
People know not to disturb him.
Anyone who ventures into the proof reader’s room is not guaranteed to leave within an hour, and even then they might find that they have sponsored an orphan in Sierra Leon or learned something shudderingly embarrassing about Minty’s wife’s vulva.
No, it is wisest to leave Minty to his radio, his toffees, his dizzying cocktail of prescription medication.
He scribbles away on the printed copies, ticking off lines that are correct, making little squiggles where a space is missing, a comma needed.
All the while tra-la-la’ing along with whatever soporifically soothing lilt is drooling from the radio.
A sip of tea, decaffeinated to stop him getting ‘one of his heads’, a nibble of a Hob Nob, a note in the margin for a line to be moved one millimeter to the left…
Beyond his crazed gerbil’s nest of patched paper there is only darkness in the unlit expanse of the plate room beyond.
But look between the cracks, the gaps, the torn corners of the frail paper on the dusty glass, look carefully, and you will see…
A glittering eye watching Minty.
It fades from view, and in the darkness, there is a sound.
Minty doesn’t hear.
Shostakovitch is playing, and he is busy murdering it with his idiot tra-la’s.
Suddenly, Minty isn’t alone.
Minty squeaks and spins in his chair, chubby fingers flapping over the portion of chunky knit cardigan that covers his feeble heart.
As if from nowhere, Flint and Hugs are with him.
A small dark patch appears on the front of Minty’s cream slacks.
“He’s pissed his self, Hugs.”
“Aye, Flint. He has n’all. Poor Minty.”
Minty hurriedly covers his crotch with the Barbera Taylor Bradford novel.
“H..h..hello, lads. Can I h..h..help you?”
Flint and Hugs look at each other knowingly.
We need a little favour, don’t we, Hugs?”
“Dead fucking right, Flint. A Teeny little favour.”
Minty’s chubby fingers scrabble for the box of pills, finds a little yellow one, pops it between his trembling lips.
W..watch your language, lads. No need to t..turn the air blue.”
After a slurp of tea he seems to calm down.
“What sort of favour? I’d love to help, but the thing is, I’m ever so busy, and…”
Flint takes a large ugly penknife from his pocket and starts to clean his ragged fingernails.
“You won’t let us down, Minty boy. What it is, we want you to scan something for us.”
“Yeah, on the scanner,” adds Hugs.
Minty’s runny eyes dart from Flint to Hugs, from Hugs to Flint.
“I’m not very good at that sort of thing…”
Flint inspects the dark deposit of crap that he has gouged from beneath his nails.
He slips the grim morsel into his mouth, and chews it reflectively.
“Y’see, Minty, we’re doin’ a favour for a little sick kiddy… He’s in hospickle.”
Minty tries to hide his nausea.
“Yeah, hospickle. Where you go when you’re sick.”
“Oh, ha ha! I see. You mean hospital?”
“That’s what I fucking said, you deaf cunt! Hospickle!”
Minty flinches. It’s as if any sort of swearing actually burns him.
“Of course, Flint. Do try to watch your language, though…”
Flint produces an envelope.
“Here’s what I want you to do…”
Minty was alone.
Flint and Hugs had melted into the darkness, leaving him to dry the piss patch from his pants with a fan heater.
The job wasn’t as bad as he had expected.
A poor little sick child was in hospital, unable to see his beloved Leeds United play in the cup final, so Flint and Hugs were making him a framed football shirt, signed by the players. All they needed was a replica of the ticket for the team manager to sign, to go in the frame with the shirt.
“Maybe I was wrong about those two,” thought Minty. “I’ll do this for them, and maybe they’ll agree to sponsor little Mbeke from Sierra Leone… Tra la-la-la…”
Minty got to work.
He scanned, copied, fiddled with the film processor, and eventually produced four small printing plates.
He was very proud of himself.
He toddled to the print press where Hugs and Flint were waiting.
“Here you go lads! Now, let me have those plates back straight away, won’t you? We don’t want those falling into the wrong hands, do we?”
Hugs and Flint try to look as honest as possible.
“No, Minty, that would be a fucking disaster, that would.”
“Tsk! You’ve a potty mouth on you, Hugs! There’s no need! Would you like a Werther’s Original?”
Nobody wants one.
Minty returns to the refuge of the reader’s room, where he is constructing a swear box to collect funds for Christian Aid.
He puts a ten pound note in to make up for Flint and Hugs’ swearing.
“He he! If I charge pound a time for cursing and such, I’ll be able to buy an African village a water pump before Christmas! Tra la-la-le-la…”
Outside, the printing press chatters busily, but Minty fails to notice.
Two weeks later.
10pm. Minty’s house.
Minty worked the early shift that morning, so now he can relax in front of the television with his wife, Sandra.
He makes a lovely pot of tea, puts the biscuit barrel on the tray and carries his precious load carefully into the front room.
“Tra la-la-la-de-da! Here I am, my sweet! Bearing gifts!”
“Ooh, lovely, Minty! You’re just in time. The news is starting.”
“Smashing, Sandra. Let’s see what’s happening in the world!”
“Good evening, here are the news headlines.”
“Police are searching for a team of ruthless counterfeiters after fake tickets flood the market.”
“Riots broke out at the cup match between Leeds and Liverpool after fans were denied entry to the grounds.”
“A ten thousand pound reward has been offered by Leeds United football club for any information that would lead to the conviction of the counterfeiters.”
The tea tray falls to the floor.
Sandra’s second best china service shatters across the Axminster carpet while custard creams bounce to freedom from the upturned biscuit barrel.
“Minty, darling! Whatever is the matter!”
Minty is staring at the television, his pale face twitching and convulsing.
“Shhh…shhh…” he hisses quietly to himself.
Sandra is vexed.
“Minty? Minty? Are you alright, petal?”
“Oh, Minty! Please say something!”
He manages to speak.
“SHHH…SHITTING CHRIST! SHITTING… SHITTING CHRIST!”
“Minty! Stop it! Stop it!”
“FUCKING CUNTING BOLLOCKS!”
“Stop it, Minty! You’re weeing all over your tan slacks! You’ll ruin the carpet!”