The Factory – Neil Randall

The whistle blows. Workers from the late-shift trudge out of the main building. All have that beaten weary defeated look about ’em – ten till six soon takes its toll, fucks up the body clock, leaves ’em all deadbeat and disorientated, stumbling from one night shift to the next, an empty, void-like existence…just how we like it.
The Factory is watching.
The six till two brigade shuffles out of the subsidised canteen, a poky little prefab that serves swampy tea and bacon sandwiches full of gristle. Some take a few final drags on cheap cigarettes; others chat inconsequentially amongst ’emselves while putting on hairnets and rubber gloves. Dawdling. Tick-tock. Work-shy bastards who’d do anything to delay the inevitable, to steal a few seconds, to diddle us out of our precious man hours. I never take my eyes off’a ’em. You better believe it. The Factory is watching, my friend, the Factory is watching.
We opened here way back in eighty-nine, one of those government schemes, a partnership between local farmers and a big frozen food conglomerate from Scandinavia. Located in the rural heartlands, we cart fresh produce straight from the surrounding fields – fruit and veg – wash, chop, freeze, package, and box the goods on site. Ten thousand square feet of pure factory floor crammed with the latest cutting-edge technology, a maze of mechanical conveyor belts that rumble and judder around the clock. Steam hisses. Big industrial vats bubble away, cauldron-like. Giant extractor fans grunt and whir. Fork-lift trucks career around the loading-bay – Warning, vehicle reversing, warning, vehicle reversing – music to my ears. Production, production, production.
We employ over three hundred people. In the main, hopeless cases, drop-outs, social misfits, saddos who never went to school very much, who only got the most rudimentary of educations, who can barely read or write or recite their times table. We get ’em all here – the dregs. Half are bloody immigrant workers who can’t speak proper English, the other half are so docile you have to prod ’em with a stick from time to time, just to make sure they’re still breathing. People so useless, they ain’t got a chance of being employed anywhere else.
Case example: Tim Peters. Worked here for nigh on fourteen years now. Physically, appearance-wise, you couldn’t find a more peculiar-looking bastard. All of six-foot four, with long, wavy, snow-white hair half-way down his back, these dark, squinty eyes, far too close together, pointy nose and chin, pancake flat forehead, a big paunch, walks all hunched-over, looks a bit sinister, halfway between an extra in The Addam’s Family and a photo-fit of a serial child abuser, always wears Frank Zappa or The Grateful Dead T-shirts under his overalls, must be close to fifty, calls himself a musician. Ha! In the early days, I used to hear him sounding off in the canteen, boasting, making out he was someone special, cut out for bigger and better things. Yeah, yeah, this is just a temporary gig, man. Me and the guys have just got a new band together. We’re playing The Crown in Sheringham next weekend. You should come down and check us out. Or: Wrote this beautiful song last night, Igor, a sort’a spaced-out ballad, all soft acoustic guitar and whispered vocals, like Neil Young meets Nick Drake. One time the deluded cunt went so far as to bring his guitar into work, stowed it away in his locker until break-time. As the other grunts sat around smoking, drinking tea, and eating floppy fish paste sandwiches, Peters waltzes into the canteen strumming his guitar, singing Maggie’s Farm, a protest song about a decent old woman helping ordinary Joes earn an honest living off the land. Wanker. Straight away, I got the foreman Kevin Barrett to have a word with him. This ain’t a bloody jolly, Peters. You’re here to work, not serenade your colleagues. If I ever see that guitar again, I’ll shove it up your arse and give you your cards. Understand? Good old KB, can always rely on that hard-nosed bastard to tell it like it is. But it didn’t stop Peters from fighting his corner, though: I was just like, you know, trying to cheer the guys up, bring a bit of light to their lives, he said, like one of those hippies you see in on the old newsreels – peace, love, free your mind. Well, Peters, a free mind you can have, my son, just as long as you’re breaking your back, doing the fucking job you’re paid for.
In truth, he’d been on thin ice for a long time now. His only saving grace, the reason I hadn’t got shot of him before was that he turned up every day, was punctual if not entirely proficient. This morning, though, when he shambled into the main building, I could smell booze and stale marijuana smoke on him. The cunt has only turned up to work half-drunk, stoned, still with a bit of a buzz on from last night!
Some people never learn.
Time to give the complacent bastard a little prod, time I showed him that his services here are far from indispensable.
I plant a seed in KB’s head – like I said, a sadistic fuck, promoted him off the shop floor, likes his work a little too much, if you know what I mean. Give him a hardhat and a clipboard, give him his stripes, and he’s like God’s Rottweiler. Peters, he shouts. I want you stacking the frozen veg today, all right? Stacking? says Peters, confused, worried That’s right, you soppy piss-head stoner – packing. The most physically demanding job there is, taking heavy cardboard boxes full of frozen peas from the conveyor belt, and stacking ’em on wooden pallets for a fork-lift to transport down to the loading bay. Now me, KB, and the rest of the workforce know Peters ain’t really cut out for this type of work. But fuck him. If you push me, I push back.
The Factory’s watching.
Within twenty minutes, Peters is really struggling. Last night’s excesses are pissing out of him, pouring down his face, soaking right through to his overalls, making ’em cling to his back. To stitch him up further, I get one of the other lads to slyly increase the belt speed while he ain’t looking. Before Peters can cotton on to what’s happened, those cardboard boxes are racing down the belt quicker than he can fasten and stack ’em. A bottleneck develops. Boxes bump into one another and fall from the belt, packs of frozen peas spill across the filthy concrete floor. Whoa, whoa, stop the belt, shut it off, shouts KB, rushing over. Fucking hell, Peters, what’s wrong with you, you slack bastard? Can’t you keep up? Peters looks crestfallen. I’m sorry, Mr Barrett, I – I don’t know what happened. One minute I was on top of things, the next, the boxes seemed to be flying down the belt much quicker. Like they had wings, eh, Peters? KB spluttered. You had your last warning weeks ago. We’ve tried to help you as best we can, moved you about a bit, from job to job, to see if there was anything a useless twat like you was cut out for. Huh! I think it’s about time we parted ways, don’t you? But, Mr Barrett, I’ve worked here for nearly fifteen years. I don’t know what I’d do without this job. Not my problem. Please, I…Okay, okay, Peters, don’t get your knickers in a twist. Clean up this mess and get back to work. ’Cause of you, we’ve already lost a good half-hour’s production this morning – and it’s coming out of your wages.
Production, production, production.
Not all my workforce is like Peters, though. Take Mildred Fosdick, for instance, works the two till ten shift, a frail old girl in her early sixties, all wrinkled up, part bald, suffers from alopecia, stress-related, so her GP told her. Still, she puts on a brave face. Worked here for four years now, got her from the same agency we got KB – Dial-A-Worker, a reputable little firm with a network of international contacts. Borderline slave labour, but when someone’s willing to do a shitty job nobody else wants for peanuts, a moral conscience goes right out of the window. Proper mother hen is Mildred, looks after the Eastern European girls, the malnourished halfwits who come over here to find a better life. Ha! Shows ’em the ropes, tells ’em what to do, gives ’em on-the-job training, I’d s’pose you’d say – all off her own back. Still smokes forty fags a day, does Mildred, even though she had a breast lopped off to cancer eight years back. How she ended up here is a story in itself. Housewife all her life. Got three grown-up kids who don’t give a flying fuck about her no more. Soon as the old man pegged out – a sudden heart attack while mowing the lawn – leaving little or no financial security, the children didn’t wanna know their poor old mum no more, no matter what she sacrificed to give the ungrateful bastards a start in life, no matter that she couldn’t afford the mortgage repayments and lost the family home, that she had to get a job or bloody well starve. No. They didn’t care that Mildred didn’t have any qualifications to speak of, that she’d spent the last thirty-odd years raising ’em, keeping house, looking after the old man, cooking and cleaning, making sure the tea was on the table. They didn’t care that she was at the bottom of the heap now, that no one would even contemplate giving a woman of that age with no skillset or experience an opportunity. Well, almost no one…
The Factory is watching.
Most days, we have Mildred and the girls on the frozen chip line – two belts, four girls one side, four girls the other – sixteen workers in all. Their job: to remove any green or brown chips or unsavoury detritus from the amongst the good solid, unblemished frozen chips that shunt along the conveyor belt. At the start of every shift, Mildred organises the girls, delegating different duties. If any of ’em don’t pull their weight, if they became distracted or lazy, disinterested, like they think they can stand there and let their colleagues do all the work, she don’t shout or bawl ’em out or tell ’em to buck-up their ideas. No. At break-time, she takes ’em aside and explains things. I know this job doesn’t seem like much, Irina, but believe me, the agency has got a list of hundreds of young girls just like you who’d give their right arms for a job like this. So, you’re going to have to work much harder. They can be very strict here. If they think you’re slacking off, they’ll get rid of you straight away. So kindly and persuasive are her words, the girls usually respond positively. They knuckle down. And they’d be wise to follow old Mildred’s advice.
The Factory is watching, girls, the factory is watching.
In particular, I had my eye on that Irina. Always a bit bolshie that one, if you know what I mean, wanted to read her contract of employment down to the last paragraph and sub-section, wanted to know exactly what was expected of her, job description-wise, wanted to know what kinds of benefits the workers received, duration of break- and lunch-times, paid sick leave, holiday allowance. Granted, ever since Mildred had a word in her ear, she’d kept her head down and got on with her work. But I’d noticed certain things which set the alarming bells ringing. During one shift, I saw her fiddling with the conveyor belt, the metal links in each section, prising the plastic covering away from the rollers, like she was try’na vandalise my heavy equipment. Next day, ’bout the same time, she jabbed a finger under the belt, testing it out, how long she could leave it there before it got trapped, before she risked having it wrenched from the socket. If I didn’t know any better – and I did, believe me – I could swear she was tampering with things on purpose, that she had a concrete plan of action in mind. The crafty, conniving bitch had watched too much TV, those accident at work advertisements, thought she could make it look like she’d suffered an injury and make a big compensation claim. Huh! Not on my watch, darling. If you’re going to try it on, you’ll have to face the consequences.
Forty minutes into her shift today, she digs her hand under the belt and lets out a proper horror film style scream. Old Mildred is first to react, hitting out at the emergency stop button, shutting down the entire production line. As all the other girls gather round, helping Irina remove her wrist from the belt, she gives it her best dying swan routine, but I ain’t falling for that old nonsense. Within seconds, I give KB a heads up, providing him with all the information he needs. What happened? he asks. I – I caught my hand in belt, she sniffs and sobs. This machinery is old and dangerous. Look. I bleed. I think it may be broken. I think I may have to go to hospital for x-ray. KB goes over and inspects the belt, the section that has clearly been tampered with. Are you sure that’s what happened, Irina? Because it looks as if someone has deliberately pulled the plastic away from the main rollers and forced their hand inside. Here and here. You didn’t deliberately damage the belt and insert your hand in there to make it look like you’d had an accident, did you? No, no, what are you saying? I hurt myself on machinery. This – this place, it is not safe. I must go to hospital. I sue you. I get money for my injury. That’s not going to happen, Irina. You’re going to get back to work right now and forget that this ever happened. If not, I’ll have to make out a full accident report. I’ll have to describe the state of the firm’s machinery, which could result in you being charged for the damage you have so obviously caused. Poor old Mildred, loyal as a gundog, gives KB a right piece of her mind. Kevin, please, the poor girl nearly lost a hand. How can you stand there and accuse her of lying? ’Cause I’ve been watching her for the last few shifts, Mildred. If you don’t return to work this minute, I’ll have no other option than to report the matter to my superiors. It’s your choice entirely, Irina. Then I leave, she says, all affronted, pulling a pouty face, and putting her hands on her hips. I will not be treated like criminal. Fine by me, says KB. Collect your things and leave via the main entrance. Hand your identification card to the security guard on duty.
The Factory is watching.
Night shift rolls round again. In the summer months, we’re a lot busier, with the harvests and what have you. As a result, we get a lot of job applications for seasonal work. In the main, school-leavers or college kids going on to university, youngsters who want to get a few quid together – temporary workers, voyeurs, in many ways, come to gawp at the miserable full-time cretins like animals in a zoo. Big turnover of staff. An administrative nightmare. ’Cause once these transitory timewasters get a taste of what it’s really like in the Factory, they don’t hang about for long. Some don’t come back for a second shift, even. I can smell it on ’em. I can see it in their eyes. Usually, it only takes about three quarters of an hour before it registers: am I really going to be standing here shuffling through frozen waffles all day long? Ha! That’s exactly what you’re going to be doing for the next six weeks, pal, so you better get used to it.
Tonight, I spot a potential malcontent right away. Ollie Andrews is his name, seventeen, good-looking lad, mop of chestnut hair, athletic build, one-time local football star, a big talent who never made the grade, spring in his step, like he wants to make a good impression, like he isn’t just here for easy bunts, but to earn his wages, meagre as they might be.
The Factory is watching.
Night shifts are always tricky. Due to strict EU Health and Safety regulations, we’re legally obliged to have x number of workers on the factory floor at any given time. Only problem is we don’t have enough proper jobs to go around at night, when we operate at around sixty per cent capacity. Therefore, we have to get a little creative, delegating non-existent tasks, making work where there ain’t none, just to satisfy the criteria.
Tonight is no exception.
To test this new arse-wipe out, this Andrews character, I get Pete Scrimpshaw, the foreman now on duty, to take the boy down to the loading-bay. We want you to move all these wooden pallets (and there are thousands of the fucking things) and take them over to the other side of the warehouse. Stack ’em just like they are here, okay? Yeah, no problem, says Andrews, all eager to please. But already, I can hear those cogs turning in his head, wondering why the hell he’s got to do such a plainly pointless task – daring to question the wisdom of the Factory. No. I don’t like this cunt at all.
After an hour of stacking palettes, he starts to yawn and rub his eyes; he’s not used to being up this late, in this environment. He starts to slow down, to slack, the cheeky little fucker! I’m not having it. Right rapid, I get Scrimps back over there, to the loading-bay. Andrews, he shouts, all aggressive like. You’re gonna have to go a lot faster than that. You’ve hardly done anything tonight. We’re not paying you to stick your thumb up your arse. We’re paying you to stack palettes. You got that? Yeah, yeah, sorry, I’m, erm…just getting into the swing of things, first night shift and all that. I’ll step it up from here on out. Best you do, son. It’s break-time in a minute. Get yourself a cup of coffee or something. Liven up. Get a bloody move on.
The Factory is watching
At break-time, he goes to the canteen and drinks two cups of black coffee with a shed load of sugar in each – cheap instant shit that will only give him the faintest, briefest of caffeine buzzes.
When he gets back to work, as the clock creeps towards two o’clock in the morning, a profound tiredness starts to overwhelm him. I can feel it dragging him down, seeping into his muscles and joints, fogging his mind. He keeps looking at the pallets stacked in the far corner of the warehouse. Gradually, moving ’em in no logical order now, he makes a little walled-in nook, a concealed space away from prying eyes, like he’s constructing a little cubbyhole for himself, somewhere he can get his head down for half an hour. No, no, no. I’ll have to get Scrimps to send another grunt over there, another newbie I’m not exactly enamoured with – Andy Nicholson is the bloke’s name. Like Peters from the early shift, I could smell the booze on his breath as soon as he walked past security today. More to the point, he’s stashed a bottle of whisky away in his locker. At break-time, he sneaked back into the changing room and filled a hipflask which he’s kept concealed in his overalls – the bastard’s been drinking on the job.
Two turds one stone, I think to myself. If I throw him and that Andrews together, I might just be able to make an example of ’em both – a ritual humiliation, showing ’em, and any other bastard who wants to try and get one over on me, exactly what is who around here.
Scrimps takes Nicholson down to the loading-bay. I want you to help Andrews here move and stack all these pallets. No fucking about, eh? It’s a job that needs doing and Andrews has been dragging his feet all shift. Nice. Scrimps leaves ’em suitably chastened, staring at the floor, like little boys shitting ‘emselves outside the headmaster’s office.
All right, mate? Name’s Andy. Ollie. They shake hands. So, this is what you’ve been doing all shift? Yeah, not very exciting, can’t for the life of me understand why they want us to move all of these things from one side of the warehouse to the other. No, me neither. Nicholson looks around and rubs his fingers over dry flaky lips. Deep inside, he yearns for another drink; another swig from the hipflask that’s almost burning a hole in his pocket. Just another quick mouthful, he keeps telling himself, that’d put me right, that’d make me feel better, for sure. Yeah, they’ve had me hard at it, says Andrews. Best we get a move on. That Scrimpshaw is a bit of bastard.
They start shifting the pallets, working steadily for a good half-hour, at a respectable pace, chatting away at each pass. You know, says Nicholson, I made the mistake of going down the pub at lunch-time. Bad move – been struggling to keep my eyes open ever since. Never worked nights before. I guess it’s something we’ll both have to get used to. I know what you mean, says the youngster. I was half tempted to get my head down for a bit earlier, in the corner there. Really? Nicholson’s beady eyes tighten in his head. Tell you what, Ollie, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea. Why don’t we do it, get a little shut-eye, I mean? Take it in turns. If we hid ourselves away, round the back of those pallets, like you say, kipped for half-hour or so, then switched around, they’d be none the wiser, the foreman, the factory people or whatever. You reckon? Yeah, course, it’s not as if we’re doing anything mega important here, is it? This job is bullshit. I bet they just need x amount of people in the factory at any given time. We’re just treading water, mate. And if that Scrimpshaw comes along, I’ll just say you nipped for a piss or a glass of water, and you can do vice versa.
So that’s how low you’ll stoop, is it, you pathetic little grubs? Mutiny, plain and simple. But you won’t get away with it. I’ll make sure of that. I am the Factory. Every inch of floor space, every piece of industrial machinery, every nut, bolt, panel and girder, every groan, rumble and hiss, every particle of thick syrupy air.
About an hour later, I get Scrimps down there again. I let him know exactly what’s been going on during his watch. Nicholson has passed out round the back of those pallets, and is now steadily snoring away. The boy, who only meant to rest his eyes for a minute (well, that’s what he kept telling himself) is perched on the edge of a stack of pallets, his head resting up against the far wall, dozing lightly. What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing? shouts Scrimps. Andrews jolts up. Erm, sorry, so sorry, I must’ve dropped off for…Where’s Nicholson? He, erm…just popped to the toilet. Bollocks! There he is – round the back there. I can hear the bastard snoring. So, you’d not only abscond from your work duties, you’d lie about it ’an all. Get up to the office.
The Factory is watching.
Andrews and Nicholson file into the room. Like a black cloud full of poison rain, I envelop every inch of space. I am the dark shadows lurking behind Scrimpshaw’s eyes. Right, you two, sit down, he says, taking some papers from a file. I know it’s your first day. I know the night shift can be particularly demanding when you start out, but your attitude and actions have been unacceptable.
Nice start, Scrimps, you’ve already got ’em on the ropes, all ashamed of ’emselves, fearing that most silver of all employment bullets – the P-Four-Five. As a matter of policy, we try and give our employees the benefit of the doubt. However, in your case, we’re not sure if that would be the best way forward. I mean, drinking on the job – Nicholson is about to protest but Scrimps stares him down – don’t make it worse on yourself by lying again. You stink of strong spirits. It wouldn’t surprise me if you had a bottle of whisky stashed away in your locker. It wouldn’t surprise me if you came straight here from the pub. He slides two sheets of paper across the tabletop. Now, what I’m going to ask you to do is read the declaration in front of you. It’s a standard from. If you both promise to work harder in the future, if you sign a statement attesting to the fact, we’re willing to give you a second chance. What? says Nicholson, frowning. We’ve got to apologise for not working to your ‘standard’, and sign a form promising that it won’t happen again?
That’s exactly what you’re gonna have to do, my son – sign a piece of paper owning up to being a useless, work-shy piece of shit. Huh! Why should I give two fucks about a mouthy bastard like you, eh? Booze hound, been in and out of the gents all shift, swigging whisky from a hipflask, drinking on my time, slacking off, thinking all you had to do was turn up, collect your money, then go off home to your nice warm bed. Sorry, son. It ain’t like that here.
Japan, I put the word into Scrimpshaw’s mouth, tossing ’em a curve ball, as the Yanks would say. You what? We got this initiative from a Japanese business model. Trials have shown that it motivates the workforce, making them work harder, making them respect both the job itself and their employer. A tense, prickly pause. Nicholson frowns and gives those dry, flaky lips another rub. You need this job, Nicholson – you know it, I know it – if you get sacked on your first day, you’ll lose your flat. Fuck this! He shoots to his feet. I’m a time-served tradesman. I used to own my own company. I was a pound note millionaire. I used to employ over seventy fellas. I’m not hanging around here to be spoken to like this, like I’m nothing, a nobody. Scrimpshaw smiles, a plain, fuck you, then, smile, colder than a freezer full of ice. What about you? He looks to Andrews. Will you sign the form? Or do I have to terminate your employment with immediate effect, too? The boy hesitates. If he doesn’t take a stand now, if he doesn’t stick up for himself, we’ll own him forever…No, no, I’ll sign…
The Factory is watching.
The whistle blows. Workers from the late-shift trudge out of the main building. All have that beaten weary defeated look about ’em – ten till six soon takes its toll, fucks up the body clock, leaves ’em all deadbeat and disorientated, stumbling from one night shift to the next, an empty, void-like existence…just how we like it.
The Factory is watching. The Factory is watching…