Paul decided to quit for good. Should he tell the foreman? Nah! Nervously he balanced his stainless steel blade on the rim of number nine – they’d easily find it there – and briskly made his escape through the factory exit. Outside he sniffed at the fresh air. A feckless breeze nudged the sweat off his cheeks, bringing with it the weird babel of two Polynesian ladies scuttling across the carpark.
He turned for his final view of the carpet factory; endless lines of spinning machines in peeling green paint stretched over a brown linoleum floor. Into these Sabaoth were sacrificed cords of scarlet wool. From black plastic bins the strands were suspended in a lazy arch, over aisles and down into bobbins within the fastidious machines. Through this tunnel of wool paced the silently livid factory hands.
Suddenly as he watched Paul felt a bodeful itch deep in his throat. His gut folded. Crippled by stomach spasms he sank against the outside wall where, shaken by a cold sweat, he forced his head between his knees. Paul waited for the inevitable.
As the bitter tang of vomit stung his mouth, Paul flung his mind back to the beginning.
Eight hours earlier Paul had started a normal shift. In tired Adidas and embarrassingly new overalls, he had donned his fluffy earmuffs and collected his knife from the foreman’s office. Patrolling the aisles between the machines Paul prepared himself for the humble tedium of his job.
Against a colossal backdrop Paul was a small and honestly unkempt figure. Dank droplets of perspiration itched between the bristle on his chin. With a filthy red rag he mopped the dampness from ruddy cheeks, tracing the broken line of his nose.
Just as he was sneezing into the cloth Fong, the leading hand, appeared before him. Fong was hastily stuffing several pairs of brilliant white overalls into his purple sports bag. A greasy lank of jet black hair hung over Fong’s thickly rimmed glasses. Noticing Paul before him, Fong hurriedly zipped shut the bag.
“You’re two minutes late!” bellowed Fong above the factory clamour. Through guileless grey eyes Paul winced at him in hate. He passed in silence.
At the very end of the aisle Louise stood sweeping. Orange wool curled around her broom handle, or, elbowed by the dry breeze, slithered across the ground and lodged helplessly amongst the pedals of the machines. As Paul progressed down the aisle, checking spools as he went, Louise acknowledged his presence with a quick wink. Instinctively Paul nodded back, and Louise , a thin Maori in her early thirties, bowed her head in fervent activity.
Paul admired Louise, and was inwardly proud of the skills she had deftly taught him. Teaching Paul to rethread the broken twine of the mechanical spools, she had giggled irreverently at his clumsy efforts until at last Paul lost all nervousness. During tea breaks, baby in arm, she had chastised Paul for his awkward silence. Later she confided in him about her demotion from leading hand. She hated the machines.
Paul noticed that machine number nine was shut down. The engineer knelt with veneration beside this mysterious and latent force. Banging his steel claw against a metal truss the engineer clumsily unbolted the pulley with his one good hand. The clangour was piercing, but the engineer, deaf from the constant noise, did not hear.
The night wore on. Paul loved the silence of the factory. It was not a quiet silence. The sickening clatter of spinning iron and squealing brakes forced all other noise from sensibility. Beneath his earmuffs nothing could violate Paul’s silence. Only Louise could prise him from his pious solitude.
Paul paced the maze. He felt, but did not hear, the tap of his heels on the chilly polished floor. A burst of warm air pushed up across his face then gusted quickly past. Frenzily eddying tufts of wool fibre were left suspended in mid-air like children chasing their elder brothers at play. And always the sonorous vibration pushed its way up through his feet, insisting its presence be felt.
Paul was snatched abruptly from his serenity by a sharp jab in the shoulder.
“Go help Duc,” commanded Fong, “he pushing bins.”
Paul arrived in time to spot the scrawny figure of Duc straining behind the dead weight of four wool-filled metal bins. Duc, a Vietnamese refugee, hated Fong the most.
“Fong push us too hard eh. But Fong just want bonus eh,” Duc sneered at Paul, “Him say I not in billage now, but I wish I am eh.” Duc ran a twisted finger across his throat – “Then I fix him good.”
Suddenly the flaccid figure of Fong loomed up behind Duc, jabbing a thumb in the direction of the bins. Without a word Paul hurried over to the containers and, pushing four together, scrimmaged into them. They didn’t move.
Paul heard Fong faintly above the din. He strained again and gradually the plastic barrels began to scuff along the floor. The fluff laden air choked his throat. He groaned as he saw one of the bins sway, then topple over, flinging its contents as far as possible over the glistening linoleum floor.
“Idiot! Shit for brains white boy!”
As Paul stooped to recover the scattered wool, he glanced at the torpid frame of Fong. Drooped across two upended barrels, he lay reading a newspaper, in his hand an icy cool can of orange drink.
“Him never work eh,” hissed Duc helping Paul to regather the wool.
An hour later Paul’s head throbbed from the musty heat. He staggered back for the last bin. Again and again he checked his watch. The heat slid down the back of his neck where a trickle of sweat itched mercilessly. Paul walked as slowly as possible.
Fong materialised before him.
“There’s more for you over there!”
Time oozed by. At dinner Paul, Louise and Duc sat together in silence. The café was crammed with workers in blue overalls. The acidic odour of disinfectant robbed Paul of all hunger. A stale and crusty sausage roll lay glibly before him.
“We can always complain,” reflected Paul.
“Food never changers ‘round here,” retorted Louise.
“No, I mean about Fong.”
Louise looked startled. “That guy drives me nuts, but complanin’ won’t do nuthin’.”
Paul glanced at Duc for support. Duc writhed uncomfortably, then snatched a folded square from his top pocket.
“I look for new job….Paul write me form eh?”
After dinner the tedium continued. Yet Paul worked unsupervised. He wondered where Fong could be. He glanced at his watch – eleven p.m. Paul hadn’t spotted him for the past half hour. Curiously he began to peer down the long aisles. At last Paul spotted him. Pretending to be cleaning out a gate, he peered at his boss between the gaps in the machines. In the next aisle stood Fong, arms flailing, his back to Paul. Fong’s head jerked tyrannically, Paul guessed he must be shouting. Next to Fong knelt Louise, stopped over a broken spindle. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
An uncontrollable rage took over Paul. He stormed down the aisles kicking anything in his path. He resolved to complain to the foreman about Fong’s behaviour. Why not? Paul had nothing to lose. As a university student this was only a part-time night job. Pacing the floor he considered his financial paucity, then grappled with his conscience. At last he decided on his course of action and stalked his way to the foreman’s office.
He faced the doorway. A wave of indecision overtook him. Paul pressed a dirty fist against the door, paused, then wiped a grubby sleeve over his dry mouth. He glanced behind him – and his mouth locked in terror. Fong stood glaring at him.
Flustered, Paul glowed amber. Pulling his red rag from out of his overalls he pretended to wipe his grimy fist mark off the door. Fong bawled at him;
“What you doing? Go back to work shit-brain!”
At three a.m. machine number eight was in trouble. Paul hacked frantically at the cocoons of wool with his blade and rethreaded endless lines of twine until at last the machines ran smoothly. Instantly a gate would erupt with red flowing fibre and Paul would begin the process again.
Reaching the end of the aisle Paul rounded the machine and, running his fingers through cropped, greasy hair, started down the other side. Through the sticky atmosphere he could make out the gaunt frame of Louise. She lay on her stomach, her arms outstretched beneath the pedals. A single scarlet strand spewed from the gate above her and slithered across the floor. Red tufts clung to her faded blue overalls.
Paul, deciding to help, casually strolled towards her and sliced at the snaking wool.
“What’s wrong?” he shouted, but his voice was lost.
Paul tapped her on the shoulder and Louise’s curly black head bounced heavily on the floor. Something was wrong. Jerking her out Paul noticed a large, ripe bruise on her forehead. Quickly he reached for a pulse, but then froze horrified.
Louise’s hand was a bloody, mangled mess.