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The 7th Chris Smith story. Chris has got a job in a Footscray sweatshop.

Submitted:Dec 21, 2010    Reads: 42    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   

Tuesday, 4 April 1978
10:30 AM
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 water.
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 cleaning.
"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 vats."
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 bathing."
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 women.
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 section.
"I don't smoke," said Chris.
"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 small piles.
"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 flammable!"
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 job.
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 full moon."
"You mean a werewolf," corrected Chris.
"Whatever," said the old woman.
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 unload.
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 vats."
"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 go."
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 to unload.
"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 today."
* * *
"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 section.
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 week. That way he earns enough for his rent and booze, and that's about all that he needs to survive."
"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 lungs out. 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 Chris.
"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 warm."
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 now."
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 the enamel.
"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?" asked Chris.
"Do what?" asked the woman, quickly enamelling a wash basin as it circuited past her.
* * *
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 anyway."
"Almost what?" asked Chris.
"Lunch time," explained Jacobson.
* * *
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 Chris.
"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 hot summer."
"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 vat."
"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?"
"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 dealers."
"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 Chris.
"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."
* * *
2:50 PM
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 tomorrow."
"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 Jacobson.
"Is that a promise?" asked Chris.
* * *
Friday, 9:07 PM
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 conversation.
"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 their heads.
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 his back.
"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 them."
"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 last year."
"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 Henry.
"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 them.
"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 own accord,"
"They should," said Gabrielle.
"And then there are my parents to consider: my mum's all right, but my old man will see red."
"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 cleavage.
"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 Gabrielle.
"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."
© Copyright 2010
Philip Roberts


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