The Nightshift Kid
You only worked there for three weeks. It was back when they had huge printers the size of cars for all the letters they had to send. The paper they used had perforated edges to drag it through the printers, and the machines cut them off before folding the letters and slotting them into envelopes. There were ten machines in the warehouse, and on your first day a man called Don with a crew-cut and a limp showed you how to empty the printer bins. The sound of the machines was loud, a whirring, like dying engines.
“Unhook the sack,” he said, doing it. “Then drag it over to the chute.”
You followed him across the floor to the black hole in the wall.
“Hook the sides of the sack here,” he said. “Then press this.”
Metal levers lifted the huge sack, and the paper strips with the little holes poured into the darkness of the chute.
“What’s down there?” you said.
But Don was already walking back with the empty sack. “Keep moving. By the time you’re round to the first machine again, the sack’ll be just about full”
It was easy and hard at the same time. After a while, you’d slow down, and if one of the bins started to overflow, an alarm would sound, and you’d have to speed up to get there, otherwise the paper strips would just pour out. The machine wouldn’t stop, though.
The machines never stopped.
Don was the overseer. He’d pop his head around the door every hour. At lunchtime, he’d come and take over so you could go and eat your crisps in the small staff room. Some women had their lunch there too, black tights clinging to their long legs under their tight skirts. Women whose fingernails skittered on the tabletop as they drank their coffee. Women whose boyfriends had dicks which were too small, or too soft, or too big, or too hard. Women who liked to go to the Star and Garter on a Friday lunchtime and not invite you. You had no idea what these women did, which part of the building they worked in, and they never once said a word to you.
The day after Don had shown you the ropes, you turned up at eight and there was some other kid emptying sacks at the other side of the warehouse. You realised there must be a nightshift, and that this was the nightshift kid. He looked up as you walked in, and you nodded, but by the time you’d hung your coat in the staff room, he’d gone, so you just started on the next machine along.
Five days a week, you walked around the warehouse floor, fours hours in the morning, four hours in the afternoon. Just before your shift ended, another would kid would walk through the door. He’d nod at you on his way to hang up his coat, and you’d wait for him, then you’d go and get your coat and leave.
It was his shift now.
You got your wages in a brown envelope at the end of the week from a man in glasses who didn’t look at you, and there were some engineers who would come in to fix a machine whenever one went down, but there was no one else. Don was just a head in a doorway. The women may as well have been film stars. There was only the incessant grind of the machines, the paper-dust, and the chute.
On the last day, you turned up like normal, but walking across the yard you knew something was wrong.
There was no noise.
The man with the glasses was outside the doors to the warehouse. “Closed today,” he said.
“Go home. Come back tomorrow. We’ll be back on then.”
Don was on the steps outside, rolling a cigarette. “The nightshift kid,” he said “Chucked himself down the chute.”
“Christ,” you said. “When?”
“Dunno,” he said . “Ambulance’d been and gone by the time I got here.”
“What’s down the chute?” you said.
“Compactor. The paper gets crushed into these big solid blocks. Weird looking things. They get packed onto a truck that takes them away.”
He held out his pack of tobacco.
“What are they going to do?” you said.
“Well, they’ve switched off the machines.”
“You told me they never switched them off.”
“They have today, son.”
You sat there smoking for a while, and then Don stood up. “See you tomorrow,” he said, and you watched him walk towards the gate.
It was quiet in the yard, and for a short while you stayed, just to listen.
Bio: Jason Jackson writes short fiction and, occasionally, poetry. He also takes photographs. In a busy life he hopes to get better at all three. Find links to his published words and pictures at jjfiction.wordpress.com Jason tweets @jj_fiction
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