I’m looking at the dust streaked screen of a primitive computer, half listening to Soulless Boss.
“Press that. No, not that. That. Yes. Now click there there and there. No not there, THERE, for fuck’s sake! Select the paper. No, not that paper, THAT paper. Quantity, Quantity. You don’t know what the quantity is? Look on the job bag! Jesus, I’m going up stairs. Ring me when you’re done.”
I’m not a stupid person, not really, but I can only listen to Soulless Boss with half an ear, because my main focus is on not killing him, not snapping his thin forearm to see the white bones protrude from his hairless skin, not grinding his arrogant face into the keyboard until plastic snaps and fine bones crackle and keys and blood and cartilage intermingle in a dark soup of retribution.
Soulless Boss is ten stone. He purchases his trousers at the correct length and has his wife shorten them slightly to half mast so his brown Clark’s shoes are on show. He wears hair gel and aftershave. He is neat.
I am fifteen stone. I wear crumpled work issue uniform and heavy synthetic leather work issue boots, steel toed. I am balding, I sometimes wear deodorant. I am not neat.
I am a full head taller than him.
Soulless Boss knows I could kill him in a minute but I would lose my job and my wife would be very disappointed if that happened.
So I don’t kill him.
I allow my pent up rage to dissipate, I click the correct buttons with ease and the machine judders to life.
Today, my friends, I am running a four colour digital printing press. As I am sure you’re aware I work in reprographics, on an Apple Mac computer.
I am not a printer, digital or otherwise.
But Soulless Boss, in his wisdom, has decided I can do both.
So I do both.
The machine spits out A3 in batches of three, bang bang bang, shudder shudder, bang bang bang. I check the colour against a passed copy, hold a sheet to the light to make sure the front is aligned with the back, then I stack the paper on a wooden pallet.
For nine hours.
When the machine is hungry I feed it fresh paper and toner. When the machine is poorly I pull its guts out and free the snarled up paper. Every half hour I make a quality check and then I stare into middle distance, listen to the bang bang bang, listen to the shudder shudder, and i wonder what the fuck the sixteen year old Lucifer would have to say if he could see this coming.
The room is filled with paper and machine parts, boxes of toner and waste bins, all the things needed to keep a four colour digital printing press happy.
There is nothing in the room to keep a human being happy, not even a chair.
The walls are paneled in dirty glass, so there’s nowhere to hide.
I’m watching the woman in the room next to me. She’s a supervisor.
I remember her from twenty years ago but I can’t remember her name. She’s just always been about, if you see what I mean. She sits at her desk and stares at the screen, a slight frown of concentration on her face. The screen is tilted so the people on the factory floor cannot see it, they can only see her expression, but from where I’m stood I can see what she’s doing.
Nothing. She’s doing nothing. She moves the cursor about a bit, clicks an icon to open a window, closes it again. She occasionally looks at pictures of her children.
She is very big. Heavy. Her hair is a strange copper colour and long, past her shoulders, while the roots are a pure white stripe down the middle of her crown, three inches wide. Her bare legs protrude from her skirt and they are very thick, lumpy looking, very white, crammed into uncomfortable looking sensible shoes without socks. The shoes are dirty and battered.
I remember her when she wasn’t so big, wasn’t so tired looking. I wonder if she remembers me before I became so knackered.
I make a quality check, pass the sheet for colour and register, sign the form, stack some sheets, glance at her again.
She’s staring at a packet of rice cakes. She looks depressed. She opens a drawer and takes out a toffee, unwraps it in secret, puts it in her mouth while pretending to yawn.
I’m the only one watching her and she doesn’t know I’m watching her.
Still she hides her toffee fetish.
The printer goes quiet and I check it, realise it’s out of paper. I fill it, get plenty of air between the sheets to avoid jamming.
The printer continues printing.
I sense I am being watched.
Through a different window a plump woman is gawping at me. Late fifties. A short haircut that’s easy to wash. She’s some bloke’s wife in the factory… Derek, that’s it. Derek’s wife. I can’t remember her name. Why do I know more men’s names than women’s?
Derek’s wife is staring at me.
I stare back.
She doesn’t react.
Is she asleep with her eyes open?
She stares, slack shouldered, the various rolls of her midriff stacked one on the other, one indistinguishable from the other, beneath the same uniform I’m wearing.
I raise a hand and wave.
Is she dead? Maybe she just died and no-one came to check on her. She’s sitting at a desk but her back is to the desk. She is just sitting, staring at me.
I am unnerved.
Suddenly her office door opens and a worker drops a huge slab of paper on her desk. The paper has been punched out to make cards.
She springs to life.
She swivels in the chair and grabs a sheet, calloused hands deftly pressing out the cards, stacking them, chucking the waste. She works with precision. The soft swags of fat on her back roll gently over her bra strap beneath her shirt, shifting slightly as she works, quivering. Her plump arms wag, dimpled elbows moving like quilted automatons, a machine – a soft machine.
My own machine dies.
I load a tub of cyan toner, reset the machine, hit the start button, make a quality check, pass the sheet for colour and register, sign the form, stack some sheets.
Outside, on the factory floor, men and women shuffle between rows and rows of machines. The cabbage patch. Rows of vegetables. Human vegetables. But glance into their eyes and you’ll see boredom, frustration, sadness, anger. Sometimes just despair.
All in the same boat, a sinking ship.
I hear laughter. Something breaking.
Fucking Amazing Dave rolls past on a pallet truck. He’s wearing a big Christmas pudding bobble hat. In February.
He is undefeated.
He doesn’t see me, even though I wave at him.
I stare into the dregs of a cup of tea left on the side by someone. There is a furry bloom of blue mold forming on the surface. Life.
My feet are aching.
I move my toes in my heavy fake leather boots, feel the sweat between my toes, the hole in my sock over my big toe. I grimace. Horrible. The stripping away of the human spirit, the indignity of a synthetic uniform, surrounded by plastic.
Now there is a man in the supervisor’s office.
He is shouting something, his face twisted with fury. He gesticulates, pointing back onto the shop floor, vaguely in the direction of whoever it is that has in some way wronged him.
His grievance will be petty. It will be overtime, a locker, a holiday allocation, an annoying whistle. Pettiness is all we have left.
The supervisor reaches into the drawer containing the toffees and takes out a form. She fills it in, listening to the man rant.
He is placated.
He leaves the office.
She puts the form back in her drawer.
She treats herself to another toffee for a job well done.
I notice a potted palm on her desk. It looks weird, a green thing in this world of grey.
It’s plastic of course. There are no windows, you see, except windows looking inwards. There is no daylight and anything living withers and dies under the strange fluorescent light used in the factory.
Withers and dies.
The supervisor sees me. She grins, blushes. I’ve caught her at the toffees. Her teeth are bad, bless her. The toffees are taking their toll. I grin back at her. Her secret is safe with me, and with you.
Soulless Boss makes an appearance and stalks about the room, disappointed that all is well.
I ignore him.
He fucks off.
I am being stared at again.
In Derek’s wife’s office Derek’s wife has finished pushing cards out of paper and now she sits staring at me. Her husband, Derek, has joined her. He has an immense belly and no neck. He is grinning like an idiot, which is fitting, seeing as he is one.
Derek’s wife is grinning too. Staring and grinning, saying nothing to one another. Do they think it’s a a two way mirror, like they have on cop shows for line ups? Do they think I can’t see them?
Derek’s wife has a potted palm on her desk too, I notice. It is also plastic, and identical to the one in the supervisor’s office. Are they work issue? Do they come with the uniform?
I think about applying for one to carry with me everywhere.
I ignore Derek and Derek’s wife.
My machine dies again.
I load a tub of magenta toner, reset the machine, hit the start button, make a quality check, pass the sheet for colour and register, sign the form, stack some sheets.
There is another angry man in the supervisor’s office.
He shouts, similarly infuriated to the first man. He gesticulates out at the first man, who stands at his machine, smirking.
The supervisor reaches into the drawer, brings out a form, fills it in.
The second man is placated.
He leaves, and as she files the form away I pretend to be busy. I allow her the comfort of a private toffee.
And hours pass.
Me feet howl, the needy machine’s demands are met. The bloom of mold in the tea cup grows infinitesimally, thriving in the airless environment.
I count down the minutes and hours until the end of my shift.
The door opens on the supervisor’s office. A huge man enters, another supervisor. I can’t remember his name either, Dave or Don or Steve or John. Something.
I’ve seen him around. He has the biggest hands, the biggest feet I’ve ever seen. He’s taller than me, six six or thereabouts. He is enormously fat, his gut the size of a space hopper tucked up his shirt.
He has a thatch of reddish hair like a wig, and his bottom jaw juts like a bulldog’s.
He smells of raw meat. I can’t smell him through the glass, of course, but I’ve smelled him before. A tinny, rank smell. A smell that makes you pull your lips away from your teeth.
He lowers his huge bulk into the chair and talks to the supervisor. She talks to him.
I’m guessing it’s something to do with the two angry men.
My machine dies again.
I load a stack of paper, reset the machine, hit the start button, make a quality check, pass the sheet for colour and register, sign the form, stack some sheets.
I glance back into the office.
I notice Dave or Don or Steve or John’s foot under the desk. He is playing footsie with the supervisor’s dirty, battered shoe.
She smiles at him.
She reaches slowly across the desk, past the screen with no work on it, past the plastic potted palm. Dave or Don or Steve or John reaches out also. Their hands touch, and she passes him something.
He smiles back at her, discreetly unwraps the sweet and puts it in his mouth.
She does the same.
With dirty feet writhing beneath the desk they share secret confectionary.
And just for a second it is the most beautiful thing in the whole world, a stolen moment, a surprising flower blossoming on a plastic potted palm. Clandestine love in a loveless environment, something machines can never comprehend.
I know for a fact that they are both married, but who cares? Love is love and it grows in the most unlikely of places, like mold in a teacup.
I turn away, and the machine falls silent.
The print run is over.
I take the pallet of paper to the cutting machines, fill out the paper work and prepare to go home.
I am on my bike as my car has died and I have no money to fix it but I don’t care because I love my bike.
I squeeze into clammy clothing still slightly damp with rain and sweat, a horrible feeling.
I wait until the rest of my shift leaves, then I follow after, to avoid talking to anyone.
I wheel my bike outside.
It is dark, night time.
It is raining.
I climb onto my bike and pedal home in the darkness.
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