*Note: this piece was written for a writing group, to be read to a group. Therefore, it’s a little different to my usual writing. When I read out my other work I just sound like I’m talking and swearing to myself…
This incident occurred about nineteen years ago.
A deserted road ran down the side of the print factory, leading to a sad, forgotten industrial estate lined with sad, forgotten units.
I say units, but they were more like corrugated iron barns, rusted and patched, their colours faded by the elements and by neglect, rotting hulks washed up on a cracked concrete beach, lapped by the relentless tides of time.
Crooked tin chimneys poked from hacksawed holes in the rusty roofs, farting bitter fumes into the sluggish air where they would drift a while before settling on the ground as a sinister grey silt, choking even the weeds to death.
The cars abandoned beside the units were as tired as the units themselves, chiefly held together with masking tape and cable ties, snarled curses and muttered prayers, the tape and ties and curses and prayers of the men who worked in the units.
Unit 13 was only different in that it emitted a churning chatter from within, a noise at a pitch that you never got used to, a biting sound, a hook in the ear, digging and probing.
This unit, unit 13, was owned by the factory. Inside, they made envelopes.
To the outsider this seems ordinary. A print factory needs envelopes to put their printed things in, so they make envelopes.
Well, up to a point.
Envelope men are a strange breed, unpredictable.
That was why they were down the road in a draughty rattling shack, rather than being housed within the warm confines of the factory.
Envelope men were risky.
Inside unit 13 the envelope machine hammered and clamoured and stammered, spitting out stuttering stacks of crisp new envelopes, the folds fresh, the gum damp, the ink tacky.
A labourer on one end of the machine pressed a pedal that opened a door in the machine, a machine mouth that released the full force of the machine’s voice, a voice loud enough to make your eyes vibrate, your teeth ache, your hair dance on your scalp. No living thing had such a voice. It was a machine’s voice.
As the machine howled the labourer fed it a great stack of flats, blank shaped sheets the machine would eat, before quickly releasing the pedal to close that machine mouth, quieten that terrible machine shout. The flats disappeared into the metal maw where the machine began folding them with it’s machine tongue, gumming them with it’s machine saliva, stamping them with it’s inky machine teeth, before shitting stacks of envelopes from it’s machine arse.
A shovel pawed labourer crouched by the machine’s arse and grabbed these stacks of freshly defecated envelopes, two hundred deep, and wedged them in a box.
Then another two hundred envelopes, another box.
And he did it again.
He did it all day, every day.
Feed the machine, clean the machine, care for the machine.
Mad Mick cared for the machine. With inky spanner, greasy spike and oil can he strode to and fro along the machine’s body, tightening and untightening, jabbing and poking, lubricating and soothing, and all the while the machine yammered and gobbled and shat, blind to the care and love that it received.
Mad Mick shouted and howled but no-one could hear, the labourers bellowed and laughed, but no-one could hear, all of them deaf to anything but the machine’s mindless voice, howling and chattering, more, more, more.
Twelve hours a day and more, six days a week and more they fed the machine. Mad Mick sometimes worked right through the night, refusing to go home, ramming in flats on one end before running round to scoop envelopes from the other, working like a maniac, wild eyed, wild haired, a gibbering slave to his beautiful, terrible machine.
Smith the forklift driver whirred from delivery truck to the machine in an endless loop, dumping stacks of flats to feed the machine, lifting palettes of envelopes onto trucks, stacking used palettes in a great rickety tower in the corner of the Unit. He worked in muffled silence, his ears carefully plugged and covered by defenders, his face swathed in cloth to keep out the worst of the fumes. On the steering wheel there hung a wooden crucifix. Smith protected himself from Unit 13, body and soul.
When twelve o’clock came, Mad Mick pressed a button on the side of the machine. It stopped eating, it stopped shitting, it stopped shouting. For half an hour the machine died.
The silence was louder than the machine’s voice, a force so powerful it left the labourer’s staggering. They stumbled towards Mad Mick like men fresh from a sea voyage, unused to the calm, and Mick handed out cigarettes and patted their broad inky shoulders and they shouted into each other’s deaf ears.
Smith did not join them. Jesus Smith, they called him, on account of his religious devotion. He wasn’t one of the boys, one of them. He did not love the machine, he hated it, saw their greasy fawning to the machine’s cold needs as something monstrous, idolatrous.
He would not join them in their sandwiches and cigarettes, their smutty sniggerings over The Sun and The Sport.
Removing the cloth wrappings and ear defenders, Jesus Smith walked towards the tower of palettes in an unlit corner of the unit. He looked back at make sure he was unobserved, before ducking through a narrow gap in the palettes.
On hands and knees he shuffled quickly through a wooden warren of his own creation, until the space opened out into a chamber within the heart of the stack. A simple cushion was positioned on the floor for kneeling, a small crate draped with a scrap of green velvet served as an altar, a crucifix lovingly whittled from split planks graced the back of the chamber. The grimy light leaked through the pine slats to penetrate this hallowed place, a haven for the spirit in an industrial Gomorrah, and it was only here that Jesus Smith felt at peace, felt able to turn his carefully protected ear to catch the quiet murmurings of God’s voice.
He lit a tea light with almost theatrical care, painfully conscious of how dangerous a naked flame was in such a place, but willing to take the risk in the name of Christ. With His care, Jesus Smith knew that no harm would come to him. Of that he was certain.
So he prayed, moving his lips silently, eyes half closed, swaying before the cross, listening for His word.
And it came.
Jesus Smith’s eyes clicked open, his heart almost stopped. The voice, THE voice, was here! He listened again, more intently this time, and he heard words.
“Happy birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you…”
It was his birthday! Jesus Smith had almost forgotten that it was his birthday that day. Twenty five years on God’s planet, and at last, the Lord had chosen that day to speak to him.
“Thank you, Lord,” he murmured.
“Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you…”
The voice seemed to be nearer, within the palettes, close by.
Jesus Smith’s joy quickly curdled in his gut. He blew out the tea light on his altar and tried to turn in the tight confines of his chamber, but he wasn’t quick enough.
Strong hands grabbed his ankles and yanked, hard. He fell forward across his altar, scattering the cloth, upsetting the crate, dislodging the crucifix.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU, HAPPY BIRTHDAY DEAR JESUS, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU!”
The flat shouts of deaf men boomed from the tin walls.
He was dragged backwards through the the gap in the palettes until he found himself sprawled out on the floor of unit 13, squinting up into blinding light.
The roller shutter door was open and the dusty noon light spilled into the unit, temporarily blinding him after the meek gloom of his makeshift chapel. He squinted into the light, and could just make out a figure.
Laughter erupted around him.
The figure stepped nearer, out of the light.
“I’ve been called many things, love, but never Lord?” she said, “I suppose there’s a first time for everything!”
First time for everything, indeed.
Jesus Smith had kept himself pure, saved himself for an angel who he had yet to meet, but industrial estates are no places to find angels. Darker denizens dwell where the machines grind and the fumes puke.
The woman stepped out of the light, and he saw her, saw her lace and leather and so much naked flesh, the black and red and quivering pink, a trailing whip and a can of cream.
Jesus Smith let out a low moan and squirmed in the dust.
She smiled a sad, tired smile.
That’s more like it. Now come and get your present, Birthday boy.”
He could not escape.
Men from the factory had drifted along to watch the spectacle, and strong hands held him and stripped him. To the howls and laughter of the watching men the woman rode Jesus Smith like a donkey, whipping his buttocks to make him shuffle faster. With eyes tight closed he felt cream pressed into his face followed by the warm smotherings of her enormous breasts, the heady scent of perfume and cigarettes and sherry on her breath, her nails trailing across his goose flesh, the blood hammering through his pure heart, the stamping boots of the baying crowd, his lips sucking for breath against her slick, slippery skin.
Happy Birthday Jesus Smith.
He fell to the ground, head swimming, thoughts muddied by something new and powerful, unfamiliar and terrifying. He opened his eyes slightly to see money changing hands, crumpled notes and coins from torn jeans and overall pockets, and then once again he was hauled to his feet.
This time the strong hands did not let go.
The cheers became louder, his eyes closed tighter, and he gasped as a blast of cold cream was squirted over his exposed genitals.
And then there was sudden heat. A writhing, tingling heat at his crotch that sucked the strength from his legs and the light from his soul. The clapping and jeering and cheering grew in it’s intensity, a tribal frenzy rising to a terrible crescendo, a godless voodoo demanding sacrifice. Jesus Smith tried to resist with all his strength and all his faith, but his strength and faith were naught compared to the skills of the woman.
The rising within him was unstoppable, guilty spasms of ecstasy wracked his body as the men howled and laughed and screamed. His eyes never opened, but tears squeezed past the clenched lids, tears of humiliation and guilt, one fluid following the other, lost forever.
And then she kissed him. That same scent, roses, smoke and strong wine, a sad, comforting smell he would remember forever as her red lips brushed his salt stained cheek.
“Happy birthday, lover boy.”
And she was gone.
He dropped to his knees, his overalls thrown over him to hide a modesty that was long gone, gone with the woman, gone with the factory men returning to their work, gone with the light as the roller shutter door clanked and clattered closed.
And in the stygian gloom Jesus Smith crouched like a child, his body racked with sobs, moaning and muttering as he rocked back on his heels.
Mad Mick readied the machine, the men got into position, ready to feed, ready to clean, ready to care.
He bellowed to Jesus Smith.
“Get on the fork truck, y’ blubbering puff! What’s up wi’ yer?”
Jesus Smith turned on him, his face smeared with cream and tears and lipstick and shame, “I’ll tell you what’s up!” he screamed. “For what’s just happened I’m going to Hell, y’hear? Hell! I’m damned!”
Mad Mick’s laughter echoed around the rusting hulk, rattled off the body of the machine, gibbered through the palettes.
“Going to Hell? Don’t be fucking daft! You’re already in Hell! Where do you think you’ve working for the last nine years!”
And he stabbed the button and the machine began to howl, drowning out the sobs of the damned, the laughter of the damned the hopes and fears and dreams of the damned and the machine babbled more, more, more…