The inkjet chatters quietly.
I sip my tea and yawn, while surreptitiously tapping away at the novel I’m writing, my ticket out of repro.
The printed copy clatters into the out tray, and I rapidly hide the document on screen.
Can’t have anyone see what I’m working on.
There’s some sneaky little bastards about.
I check the printed copy in the printer tray.
A shitty leaflet for a cheap shop selling tawdry clothing.
Print run: 150,000 copies.
And of these 150,000 copies, how many will be read?
About thirty seven, probably.
The other 149,963 will end up being shat on by cats and budgies, mauled by nervous terriers, or just shoved into the bin.
I like to think that I’m not bothered, but it’s a lie.
I am bothered.
The waste grates on my nerves.
I try not to think about it.
I take the copy and the job ticket to Soulless Boss, plop it on his desk, and head back to my workstation.
I pull a face, roll my eyes, then turn back to Soulless Boss with my ‘1984-faintly-optimistic’ expression on.
“Yes, Soulless Boss?”
“Did you get a reader to check this?”
“No, Soulless Boss. I checked it.”
“Well get a reader to double check it.”
My ‘1984-faintly-optimistic’ expression starts to creak a little.
“It isn’t a large correction, Soulless Boss. Look, that line of text there…”
“Get a reader to double check it.”
My ‘2010-rather-antagonistic’ expression gets the better of ‘1984-faintly-optimistic’.
“Yes, Soulless Boss.”
I stalk back to my desk.
I decide to wait a bit…
“Just on my way, Soulless Boss.”
I hustle out of the door.
To the Reader’s Room.
It wouldn’t be so bad if Minty was working the shift.
I dislike Minty enormously, he offends me with his brittle fake jollity, his incontinence, his screaming panic attacks, but at least he’s mostly harmless.
I reluctantly approach the Reader’s room, and through the sickly yellow light I can see the tideline of dry paper clinging to the windows.
Where the paper ends, a tangled matt of thick hair can be seen, like that on the back of an old border collie.
On hearing my approach, the hair twitches and lifts, revealing shaggy brows, a baleful eye.
Above the static murmur of an ancient radio, I hear one muttered word.
Here we go.
I grit my teeth, ready for confrontation.
“Morning, Hades. Just got a little job for you to cast an eye over.”
I try to sound breezy, nonchalant.
I sound fake.
Hades eyes glitter at me through his wiry brows.
He looks like the foul spawn of Jack Nicholson and Brian Blessed.
He looks from me, to the printed copy, to me again.
“What’s this… this… shit?”
He sounds revolted.
“Erm… it’s a job.”
Hades growls; a low, dull rumble.
Jobs litter his tatty laminated desk, but spread over the top of them is the Daily Mail.
He looks back at the newspaper, his hands flat over the pages.
He is not looking at the print.
He is looking at his hands.
Hades has a skin condition, vitiligo.
He has a crazed network of pale blotches covering his entire body.
Where there are blotches, there is no pigment.
White streaks flash his wild black hair and beard, his face is a jigsaw of differing flesh tones.
His hands have a dappled quality, like the shadows left when sunlight filters through leaves.
It is those patterns that he is staring at.
His jaw muscles bulge.
He starts to pant.
The dappled hands clench and the newspaper crumples beneath their grip, a picture of the Duchess of York is twisted, a headline about immigrants is torn.
“You see… you see… that’s the problem with this fucking place…”
Then he explodes.
What follows is a torrent of undiluted rage, a vicious unbridled assault on everyone, everything.
Hate belches forth in thick plumes; he is a volcano of vitriol, a Krakatoa of loathing.
I stand back and let the hatred waft over me.
He’s always been like this.
He’s the first person to declare that the nights are drawing in, the days getting shorter, Winter is near.
He has a death hotline, and the news of the passing of a long retired employee is spread with grim pleasure, usually carrying the inference that it’ll be us next, and if not next, then soon…
If anyone on the workforce is fortunate enough to get a promotion, Hades sees it as a bitter personal blow highlighting his own failed career, and the lucky devil who is on the rise will be savaged on the factory floor by him; any little past indiscretion will be dug up and dusted off by the ‘grim reader’, presented as proof that the lucky recipient of an office and a payrise is probably a bigamist, a philanderer, a thief, a buggerer.
A headline in the paper is enough justify his utter loathing of an entire nation or ethnic group.
The slightest whiff of a colleagues happiness is enough to incur the full weight of his wrath.
He has always been like this.
I remember him delivering the news that someone we knew had cancer.
He walked away smiling.
It is the only time I’ve ever seen him genuinely smiling.
Hades has reduced good people to tears with his malicious gossip, backbiting and destructive lies.
He feeds on the unhappiness of others.
The thing is, this isn’t the reason why I dread seeing him, talking to him, working with him.
No. It’s because I’m terrified I will become like him.
Stuck among the churning, whirring cogs of a factory, watching all the other cogs happily spinning away, content with their lot, while inside the bitterness swells, the discontent, the impotent rage.
Who am I talking about? Me, or Hades?
I don’t know. Maybe both.
He’s been in the factory for nearly forty years, I’ve been here for twenty one.
I’m not there, yet.
Perhaps I should look out for the signs, the indicators of the black rot.
Hades does this thing; he collects all the page 3’s out of The Sun and The Star.
He goes around the factory, quietly pilfering the pages out of newspapers and smuggles them back to his lair.
Then he puts all the pages together, creating a giant crumpled directory of cheesecake, a curious compilation of tanned tits and perky arses.
Once, I saw Hades sneaking to the toilets with this strange collection tucked under his shirt.
I waited a while, then I followed.
The toilets were quiet.
One cubicle door was locked.
I made a big show of washing my hands, pushed the toilet door open, pretended to leave, and let the door slam shut.
There was a long, silent pause.
Then I heard him.
“Cunt. Fucking cunt. Fucking bitches.”
“Bloody fucking bitches. Slags. Bunch of fucking slags…”
I’d heard enough.
I left him to swear at the page three girls.
God only knows what else he was doing in there.
Sitting in a toilet, swearing at pictures of teenage girls with their tits out just isn’t normal.
But then again, standing quietly in a toilet, listening to a sixty year old man swearing at pictures of teenage girls with their tits out isn’t normal either.
See what I mean?
I’ve got to be careful.
It’s a slippery slope.
Soon, Hades loses steam.
He has been venting black bile for a good five minutes, and it seems to have worn him out.
The mauled Daily Mail is scattered across the desk in crumpled monotone rosettes, awards for Hades’ display of hate.
And when I look at him, panting, angry about everything, about nothing, I feel sorry for him.
“Here, Hades. Don’t you reckon it’s time you packed it in? Why don’t you fuck this place off and take early retirement?”
He turns his grizzled head to me, fixes me with a bleak expression.
“I retire at Christmas.”
This is good news.
Not only does Hades get to escape, but I won’t have to look at his grim features any more.
“Fantastic news, Hades! That’s only, what, three months away! I bet you can’t wait.”
Hades shakes his head.
Those hands are tensing again.
“You don’t understand. You don’t…fucking…understand. The wife, she’s made me do it. She’s made me retire early. She’s been taking Spanish lessons for the past two years. She can speak it like a fucking native. We’re selling up, going to Spain. I don’t want to go to Spain. Not with my fucking skin.”
He holds up a tensed claw of a hand, the pale albino blotches livid against the curled brown paper on the walls.
“I’ll fry in the sun. I can’t spend more than a few minutes in direct sunlight before it itches, then it burns. But she won’t have it. She said she’s going there, with or without me. I’ve no fucking choice.”
Hades falls silent, lowers his head, stares at the afflicted skin of his hands.
I have to say something.
“Look, if she’s so set on going, and you’ll be so unhappy, can’t you …. can’t you let her go? Can’t you let her go to Spain, and you just stay here?”
He slowly shakes his head.
“I can’t, Lucifer. I can’t stand to be alone. If she leaves me, then I’ll be alone, and I can’t bear that. I’d rather burn…”
He keeps staring at his hands, at his pale skin, his dark skin, the pattern that curse him.
I put the job on the desk and leave.
There is nothing more to say.
Somewhere in Spain there is a villa with a pool, in a bustling resort.
Children play and splash and scream, crickets sing in the bushes, swallows swoop low over the azure waters and steal sips from between the playing youngsters. Adults lounge in swimwear, drinking cold beers, reading paperbacks.
Life is good.
But in the villa, in the shadows, protected by glass and shutters and air conditioning and greasy layers of sunblock; tormented by the muffled screams and laughter, by the tan bodies slinking by, tan bodies impervious to ultra violet; in the cool of the darkness there lurks rage, terrible, lonely rage.
Doomed to an indeterminate sentence in Costa del Purgatory…
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