Tuesday, 4 April
Chris stopped to cough
and looked around his new surroundings. Certainly the cleaning
and polishing section was a great deal quieter than the canning
and bottle capping section had been. Chris imagined that if he
could last out another month in his new work place, his ears
would probably eventually stop ringing, and perhaps the migraines
might eventually go away also.
Most of the floor space within
the section was covered by five huge rectangular steel vats, each
vat nearly three metres wide, five metres long, and five metres
high. The first two vats contained over five hundred litres of
concentrated sulphuric acid between them, the third and fourth
vats contained concentrated alkaloid cleaners, and the fifth vat
contained plain water.
Around the side of the vats,
ran a steel walkway, about one metre from the top of the vats.
A pulley system, operated by a control-panel connected by a thick
cable, operated over the vats, to allow large wire-sided cages to
be lowered into the vats in sequence: acid to alkali to
The purpose of the section was
to clean the rust away from bathtubs, hand basins, and other
kitchen or bathroom utensils, prior to enamelling. When Chris
had first started work in the cleaning and polishing section, he
had been amazed at the state of the utensils prior to
"Well, you see, the bathroom
fixture section is only a part-time operation," the foreman had
explained to Chris. "Two months a year, in May and November,
the section takes on dozens of part-time workers, to produce
enough fixtures to last over the next six months.
"The first tubs sold after each
production drive are pretty new and in very good nick. But most
of the fixtures awaiting sale have to be stored out in the open
air, due to insufficient storage space under cover. So, as time
goes by, the fixtures become more and more weather worn, coated
in rust, which has to be virtually burnt off, in the acid
The fixtures that Chris had
first seen, were nearly five months old, and were almost entirely
rust. Chris had been amazed to see a bathtub, which was almost
paper-thin after the rust had been burnt off. The tub received
a thin coating of yellow enamel, and then was sold as a
super-deluxe model tub.
"You'd only need to slip when
getting in or out, and you'd go straight through the bottom of
the tub," said Chris to the foreman, Dean Jacobson.
"That's the risk that you take
if you aren't careful when you bathe," said Jacobson. "We're
actually increasing bathroom safety by selling tubs this thin,
because it teaches people to take a care when
Chris rasped out a cough, then
went back to work. His job was to load the wire cages with
fixtures to be cleaned. The rectangular cages were one and a
half metres wide, two metres high, and three metres in length.
If need be, two cages could be stacked, one on top of the other,
in each acid vat. After the cages had been through the vats,
Chris wheeled the cages through to the enamelling section, to
unload again. The four sides of each cage could be let down to
load and unload the fixtures, although, as Jacobson had explained
to Chris on the first day, "Normally we only lower one side at a
time. If you let down all four sides, it helps you to unload
very very quickly, but the bosses tend to get stroppy about all
the dints that the fixtures pick up, as they bounce across the
concrete floor." After unloading the cage, Chris then wheeled
it back through to the loading area again.
Chris wheeled a cage through to
the enamelling section. Every few moments, he lifted his hands
off the wire cage, to rub his hands upon his jeans. After each
cage was hoisted out of the vats, and lowered onto a trolley, it
was necessary to allow the cage to cool off for about twenty
minutes, because of the tremendous heat of the acid. Each time
Chris took his hands away from the wire, the heavily laden cage
would grind to a halt, causing him to have to give the cage a
shove to get it moving again.
In the enamelling section, a
series of overhead pulleys carried a large number of metal hooks
very slowly around in an elliptical path. Tubs and other
fixtures were suspended upon the hooks, to be enamelled in a
matter of seconds, by one of the half of a dozen women, who stood
around the elliptical circuit, holding spray guns, which were
connected to large kegs of paint. Usually three quick swipes of
the spray gun would see a fixture enamelled, and any streaks or
unpainted spots, could be attended to by one of the other
Chris stopped the cage a metre
away from the elliptical circuit to begin unloading. As he was
about to lift a small hand basin from the cage, he was doubled up
by a fit of rasping coughing.
"You should give up the weed,
kid," said a grey-haired old woman, holding a spray gun in one
hand and a cigarette in the other, flagrantly ignoring the no
smoking signs, that were almost everywhere in the enamelling
"I don't smoke," said
"Wise move," said the old
woman, inhaling deeply upon her cigarette. "I wish I'd never
started up, but, of course, once you start it's impossible to
give it away."
Chris began to take sinks and
hand basins from the cage, and stack them around the floor in
"You might as well give me a
couple of sinks to go on with," said the old woman, tossing her
cigarette butt over toward two large steel drums which had
painted upon their sides, "Danger! Paint! Highly
Officially Chris' job did not
include lifting the fixtures up onto the hooks. But the company
rules forbade female employees from doing any heavy lifting and
since all of the painters were women, Chris was stuck with the
Rasping again, Chris hefted
four kitchen sinks up onto hooks, and stood back to allow the
woman to start spray painting, Instead, she took a packet of
cigarettes and a box of matches from a pocket of her overalls,
and lit another cigarette, allowing the sinks to move past her
toward the next woman, Sighing, Chris lifted three more sinks up
onto the circuiting hooks.
"Sorry, love," said the old
woman, quickly spraying the first of the three sinks, "but I've
got to think of my nicotine dependency. Once I fall below a
certain number of smokes an hour, I turn into a vampire at the
"You mean a werewolf,"
"Whatever," said the old
Chris continued to unload the
steel cage, occasionally stopping to lift sinks, or hand basins
up onto hooks for the women to paint. The lower portion of the
cage was laden with tape and other small fixtures, Chris sighed.
The small fixtures were less of a strain to lift, than the sinks
or hand basins, but were a much bigger nuisance to load and
When the cage was finally
empty, Chris retied the end and began to push the cage back into
the cleaning-and-polishing section. As he pushed the cage
beneath the walkway upon the side of the vats, he was doubled up
again with a fit of coughing.
"You ought to cut back on the
cigarettes," said a voice above Chris' head.
"I don't smoke," said Chris,
looking up to where Jacobson was soaking a cage in the second
alkali vat. "I think it must be the fumes from the acid
"Could be," conceded Jacobson.
"It gets to some people like that, when they first work here,
it's the sulphur in the acid. But don't worry, you'll get used
to it in a couple of weeks or so."
"If I'm not dead by then," said
Chris, drawing a chuckle from the foreman.
"That's true," said Jacobson.
"Better get that one loaded fast, then get back here. I'm
almost done with this one, and it'll make three to
Looking back, Chris groaned as
he saw two full cages at the end of the water vat. Both of the
cages were full of small fixtures, which would take a long time
"Just toss a couple of
super-deluxe tubs into that one," advised Jacobson. "I'll have
to check my requisition book at lunch time, but I think we've
already done all of the small buggers that they wanted done
* * *
"When's that slack bastard,
Leroy, coming back anyway?" asked Chris, as he wheeled the cage,
with two bathtubs, back into the cleaning and polishing
Leroy was the second labourer
in the section. He had been at work the previous Thursday, when
Chris had been transferred to the section, but had not been seen
by Chris or Jacobson since then.
"Whenever he needs the money,"
said Jacobson, directing the pulley toward the cage. "Leroy is
too proud to apply for the dole, but too big a bludger to put in
a full week's work.
So, normally he
turns up to work two or three days a
That way he earns enough for
his rent and booze, and that's about all that he needs to
"Why don't they sack the
bastard and get somebody else?" asked Chris as he connected the
hook on the pulley to the top of the cage.
"They can't," said Jacobson,
hoisting the cage off the metal trolley that it was carried upon.
"No one else will take this kind of work."
"But there are tens of
thousands of people looking for work," insisted Chris.
"There are tens of thousands of
people out of work," corrected Jacobson as he carefully lowered
the cage into the vat of acid, allowing it to settle down slowly,
so that he would not be splashed with acid. "But nobody wants
this kind of work, It's too hard, pays too little, is too dirty,
you breathe in sulphur fumes all days and end up coughing your
And there's always
the danger of falling into an acid vat."
"Couldn't they wash it off you
in the water vat, if they were really fast?" asked
"No way. You can do that with
that poor excuse for acid that they use in the chemistry labs at
schools but that stuff is so diluted that you could almost drink
it. The stuff we use here is high potency. If you fell into
this lot, there'd be nothing for them to drag out, you'd dissolve
in about five minutes flat."
After the cage had settled to
the bottom of the vat, the foreman manoeuvred the pulley by the
control panel, until the hook came free of the top of the cage.
Dunking the pulley hook into first the alkali solution, then the
water, Jacobson said to Chris, "Wheel her down this end, and I'll
load you up. But watch the hook, it'll still be a bit
Chris wheeled the metal trolley
underneath the walkway, down to the other end of the section.
Jacobson lowered the pulley so Chris could connect the hook to
the top of the nearest cage, and then hoisted the cage up onto
the trolley. After disconnecting the hook again, Chris wheeled
the cage through to the enamelling section.
As Chris entered the section,
he saw the six women standing around waiting. Near the women
were half a dozen stacks of small fixtures, which they could have
easily lifted onto the hooks for themselves, but the women
exploited company policy to the limit.
Chris sighed and thought, "If
they had to lift the fixtures up for themselves, they probably
wouldn't object. But, because they're not allowed to, they
think they're putting one over on the bosses by exploiting the
rule. But really they're only making my job harder!"
He quickly hefted a number of
small basins and taps up on to the hooks. That done, he opened
one end of the cage, and began to unload the contents.
"Could you lift this down for
me?" called out one of the women, pointing toward a kitchen sink
which was approaching her. "It should be dry by
Ducking to avoid the circuiting
fixtures, Chris walked over to where the woman was pointing. He
lifted the sink down, only to see three finger marks appear upon
"Oh well," shrugged the woman,
"now it has the personalised touch." She aimed her spray gun at
the sink and gave it a second coat while it was on the ground, in
violation of company policy.
"Are you allowed to do that?"
"Do what?" asked the woman,
quickly enamelling a wash basin as it circuited past
* * *
Unloading the last of the
fittings from the wire cage, Chris raised the wire end of the
cage, clipped it into place, and then pushed the cage back
through to the cleaning and polishing section. He took one hand
away from the cage for a moment, to stifle a cough, and was
wracked with a burst of rasping coughs. As Chris doubled up,
the cage got out of hand and collided with the stairs to the
walkway around the vats.
Jacobson looked down at Chris,
and said, "Just take that one through to the loading area, and
then you can have a bit of a rest. I know it's hard trying to
do two men's work, until that bastard, Leroy, chooses to honour
us with his presence again." He looked at the clock upon the
wall, opposite the vats, and said, "It's almost big Kit Kat time
"Almost what?" asked
"Lunch time," explained
* * *
Chris lay upon the hard wooden
bench, doing his best not to topple off, as he rested his aching
feet. He still could not decided whether he was better off
here, or in the canning and bottle capping section. It was a
lot quieter in the cleaning and polishing section, but on the
other hand, he was coughing his lungs out because of the sulphur
fumes. Also his feet ached as badly from standing up all day,
as they had before, but now his arms and legs throbbed all day
and all night from the effort of continually lifting heavy
objects. At night, he was plagued by throbbing muscles that he
never knew that he had before.
Seeing Jacobson enter the rest
area, Chris began to stand.
"That's all right, you can lie
back for a few minutes more," said Jacobson.
Jacobson slipped two coins into
the vending machine, picked up the icy can of Black Label
lemonade, rubbed the can against his forehead, then pulled the
tab and took a long drink, half emptying the can. "The worst
part of it in the summer is the heat," said Jacobson.
"I've noticed," conceded
"Oh you haven't felt anything,"
warned Jacobson. "We've only had a very mild summer this year.
Just wait until the next scorcher. There's a real danger of
fainting from heat exhaustion and falling into an acid vat in a
"Well, at least the odds are in
your favour," said Chris, "there's only a two in five chance of
you falling into a vat of acid."
"Yeah, but the alkali is no
better," said Jacobson. "The acid would dissolve you, but the
alkali peels the skin off, flakes it away like bits of flesh
falling off a leper."
"In that case, if you feel a
fainting spell coming on, you'd better make a dash for the water
"If it comes from the weirs
around here, the pollution would probably kill me faster than the
acid or alkali would." So saying he finished the can of Black
Label in a gulp, and said to Chris, "Come on, we'd better get
back to work, before we're sprung by that bastard
"Steiner?" asked Chris,
groaning from the exertion, as he forced himself to a sitting
position on the bench, with one leg on the ground.
"Yeah, the old bastard in the
dero's coat and baggy trousers," said Jacobson.
"I've seen him walking around
the place before lunch, admitted Chris. "I thought he was just
an old wino hoping to steal something to sell to the scrap metal
"Watch what you say," said
Jacobson in mock anger. "There's nothing in this factory that
could pass for scrap metal."
"Apart from the bath tubs,
kitchen sinks, hand basins, washing machines..." said
"Oh yeah, well apart from
those," agreed Jacobson. "But there's nothing else...Anyway,
old Steiner is on the board of directors. Thirteen days a
fortnight he's chauffeured round in a big Rolls Royce, the
fourteenth day, however, he drives himself around in a battered
old mini minor, pretending to be a prospective buyer. But in
reality, he's sussing out the idlers, so you had better get a
move on, unless you want to get fired."
"It's tempting," said Chris.
Then, reluctantly he stood, stretched wide, then added, "But I
suppose that I had better get back to work."
* * *
Chris coughed a rasping cough
and stretched backwards to try to alleviate the soreness in his
back. He pushed the empty cage through the doorway into the
cleaning and polishing section, holding onto the cage with his
right hand, while attempting to reach around to rub at his back
with his left hand.
"Sore back?" asked Jacobson,
stating the obvious.
"Hard work doing all the
lifting myself," said Chris.
"Yeah, I know," said Jacobson.
"I'd give you a hand while a load is in soaking, except that
it's more than my job is worth. I'm required to watch over
these bastards all the time while they're in frying."
"Well, could you throw in a few
chips and potato cakes?" asked Chris.
Jacobson laughed, then glanced
toward the clock and said, "Knock off time in about ten minutes,
so just take that cage through to the loading area, then you can
go and get washed up.
"I'll see about having a word
with old Paget in the employment area, to see if they can put a
bit of heat on that bastard, Leroy, to get him to turn up to work
"It'd be appreciated," said
Chris, rubbing his back and rasping into his right hands, which
meant that he then had to grab at the cage to prevent it from
crashing into the vats.
"They'll take your licence
away, if you don't smarten up your driving a bit," said
"Is that a promise?" asked
* * *
Chris sat in a corner of the
room, with Rita on his left-hand side, and Sonja on his right.
He felt uncomfortable having both girls with him, but more
uncomfortable at even being at the meeting. Chris had had a job
for five months, so he felt out of place every time he attended
an Out of Work People's Action Group meeting. Yet they
encouraged him to keep attending. "As a protest against the
working conditions at your job," Henry had advised. And Chris
had to admit that things were pretty terrible at his work.
Also, Chris told himself, he was helping Rita and Sonja settle
into the meetings. But the truth of the matter, he knew, was
that Chris himself had never settled into the meetings. The
only reason that he had ever attended was as an excuse to see
Gabrielle. Although Rita and Sonja helped to fill part of the
space left by the desertion of Cindi -- a former girlfriend -- it
was sultry Gabrielle that Chris really lusted after.
"Hello, Chris," said Gabrielle,
breezing over as though she had read his thoughts. "I'm always
so very pleased to see you here."
Chris wondered whether there
was anything behind the words, or whether, like the person who
asked how you are then looked aghast when you dared to actually
detail your ailments for them, Gabrielle was only making casual
"Thanks," he said. "I'm
always very pleased to see you too."
Gabrielle stood staring at
Chris, and he wondered whether he had allowed the lust to seep
into his voice? After a few seconds, which seemed to Chris like
at least a half of an hour, Gabrielle said, "There is red wine
over there if you would like some?" She pointed toward a small
coffee table, which stood against the wall, diagonally across the
room from where Chris sat.
"Yes, all right," said Chris.
Standing, he looked toward Rita, then Sonja, both of whom shook
As embarrassed as Chris felt
walking beside Gabrielle, it was pleasant also, and certainly
less uncomfortable than sitting between the two girls, Rita
glaring jealously across at Sonja, who was more sheepish, yet
seemed equally jealous of Rita. As he walked with Gabrielle,
Chris imagined that he could feel two sets of eyes boring into
"It's a good thing that looks
can't really kill," said Gabrielle, as Chris poured two glasses
of rose then handed one to her. "Or else I would have melted
down into a pool on the floor, under the glare of your two
girlfriends. They both seem to resent me taking you away from
"They're really only
acquaintances," said Chris, justifying himself to Gabrielle. "I
used to work with Rita, and I went to night school with Sonja
"I see," said Gabrielle, taking
a sip of red wine. "But you really don't have to explain
yourself to me," she said in a way that made it seem to Chris
that her words meant the opposite of what they said.
"Well, our young friend
certainly has the knack for recruiting," said Henry Porter
walking over to the wine table.
"For recruiting young girls at
any rate," said Gabrielle. "It's just a shame that he can't
convince them to bring their boyfriends along too."
"But I thought that Chris was
their boyfriend?" said Henry, drawing a glare from Gabrielle, and
a blush from Chris who hurried to explain the situation to
"Oh I'm sorry," apologised
Henry, leaving Chris wondered whether he meant that he was sorry
for his mistake, or sorry for Chris that Chris was not the
boyfriend of the two girls.
"Henry tells me that you have
been saying that you're thinking of giving up your job?" said
Gabrielle to Chris, after Henry had wandered away from
"That's right," agreed Chris.
"I don't like to, with the job scene such as it is, and I don't
even know if they'll even let me back on the dole if I quit of my
"They should," said
"And then there are my parents
to consider: my mum's all right, but my old man will see
"Oh you can't live your life
just for your parents," said Gabrielle soothingly. "You have to
be prepared to do whatever is best for yourself." So saying,
she lightly rubbed one leg against Chris' leg adding, "If you
know what I mean?"
Chris had a good ideal or at
least he thought he did, but he said, "And the damn job is so
obnoxious, coughing in sulphur all day. I know that down at the
CES their motto is, 'a-jobsa-jobsa-jobsa!" but there has to be
some limit, doesn't there?"
"Of course, there has to!"
agreed Gabrielle, still lightly rubbing one leg up against Chris.
She turned; ostensibly to top up her cup of wine, and Chris
found himself standing hard up against Gabrielle, one of her
thighs between his legs, his face almost nuzzling her deep
"She's a lot of woman!" thought
Christ. "But I wouldn't mind climbing up to her." He blushed
at the thought.
"I'm not making you
uncomfortable, I hope?" asked Gabrielle.
"No, no, not at all," said
Chris, staring deep down her cleavage. The long black dress
that she wore, swept the floor, and seemed to be a size too
tight, as it compressed her large breasts together and thrust
them up like an offering.
"See anything you like?" asked
"Yes, both of them!" Chris
almost said aloud. But he was stopped in time by Gabrielle
continuing, "At the CES I mean. Henry told me that you've been
going there straight from work every night, to look through the
cards on the job board."
"No nothing," said Chris.
"The only jobs that they have on offer seem to be at least as bad
as the one I've already got, if not actually worse."
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