When Higgs laughs it sounds like something has come loose inside his lungs, like emphysema with a sense of humor. The air wheezes and croaks–bubbles and whistles–its way through his shattered bellows, until it emerges with a great, sobbing shriek through his mouth, permanently twisted by some cruel accident of birth into a colossal sneer.
“You? And–and–?” Whatever he says next is lost to wheezing. “You wouldn’t stand a chance! She moves like fire, boy. She’s quick as a shadow.” He fixes me with a crusted, bloodshot eye, oddly magnified behind his smeared, greasy horn-rims. “She eats men like air.”
I merely nod and sip at the thin, bitter blackness that passes for coffee within the factory’s confines. We smoke our cigarettes down to the finger-scorching butts, then slip back inside.
Inside the factory, the noise hits you like a blow to the chest. The shrieking and grinding; the omnipresent roar of the machinery; the clattering whiz of the rollers; the rumble and whine of forklifts… it never ends, but you get used to it. Just like surgeons learn to tolerate the sight of cancers eating bone and blood, and undertakers become inured to the delicate, raw-chicken feel of softly rotting flesh. It’s not difficult; it’s a matter of exposure. You can, with time, become used to anything.
Obviously, communication on the factory floor is somewhat inhibited by the noise. Considering my co-workers, this is an advantage. There are the young, such as Timms, shaved head at once aggressive and disarmingly vulnerable, china-blue eyes vacant as a burned-out house, thin crusts of snot issuing from one nostril while a snail’s trail of drool drips from his oversized mouth. There are also legions of the aged and infirm, mithering about under the dim lights. In between are the corpulent and stinking likes of Higgs, short beard a palimpsest of the meals he has consumed recently, a man who visits the lavatory more often than you’d think possible. There are others, too, all to a greater or lesser degree not-whole, puffing precious breath into the meat-freezer air and watching it disappear like caged animals as the machinery rolls on, ceaselessly, remorselessly, grinding up our lives and carrying them away.
Then there’s me. Five CSEs and a bevy of crap jobs behind me. No career path. Precious little motivation that I haven’t smoked or drunk away, spending my nights feeding the machines here, and my days sunk in the timelessness of sleep.
Working nights gives you a different perspective on things. It’s not that it numbs you precisely, just that you slip into a kind of low gear that it’s impossible to drag yourself out of–a preservation of resources that becomes a subtle trap. A midnight spike of coffee sharpens the eyes and frays the nerves, roils the gut like a well-aimed punch to the liver. It fades, and you welcome the numbness that creeps back into every pore, the flattening of affect that makes Number Three Roller breaking down for the fifth time that night as easy to accept as some poor fuck getting his fingers sliced off by a careless moment while tending an armature.
The men and women who work here bear the crab-claws of horrors past, carrying their missing digits and the shattered hands like executives wear expensive suits: if not badges of honour, then at least marks of status.
I’ve not lost a finger, yet. There’s always something to be thankful about.
One of the best gigs is the delivery route. Driving while half-asleep or jacked up on coffee and hand-rolled cigarettes in a brand-new van with more horsepower than it could possibly need is quite good; doing it in the absolute dead of night is actually wonderful. There’s something about a power-slide around an empty suburban street corner at 3:00 AM, freezing-dead fingers clamped to the oversized steering wheel and Iggy Pop wailing from the stereo. I don’t think I could ever fail to get off on it. The roads become a racetrack designed exclusively for your oversized use, deserted streets empty of milling shoppers clutching plastic bags and vacant-eyed mothers using their pushchairs as battering rams, the few remaining cops happy to doze in secluded lay-bys. Only the fucking taxi drivers spoil it, cutting you up with a kind of macho disdain for broken door mirrors or crumpled front wings, spinning their wheels in ice and snow and flicking the bird out the window as you pass them doing eighty along the High Street. I hate taxi drivers. And I hate clubbers even more. You see them milling about in groups outside clubs that have just shut up for the night, the girls all practicing walleyed disdain while wearing two square inches of skirt, the boys lairy and posturing. They all stare at the poor schmuck working his ass off in the middle of the night, and even from inside the van you can smell the Lambert & Butler and alcohol coming off them. Once in a while an especially pissed individual tries to cadge a ride in the van, weaving up to you like a fucking zombie, eyes staring in two different directions and a stupid grin splitting their head open.
But apart from that, you’ve got the night air, the open road, a delivery log sheet that you can easily fiddle with to give you ten minutes parked up somewhere, and the fastest vehicle known to man: a brand-new one belonging to someone else.
Tonight, the moon is hidden by a raft of clouds turned orange by streetlights reflecting off puddles. There’s no-one else on the streets as I work the route; the litter turns end over end as it slews down the gutters, and the night smells of diesel and rain.
A fox scurries from a hedgerow while I set a bundle of product on a doorstep. It noses cautiously at the back tire of the van. You see a lot of foxes working nights, usually spattered across a carriageway like a messy punctuation mark. This one’s seen better days; after finding something it doesn’t like on the back tire it flattens its ragged ears to its mangy head and whines. It sounds like the noise a broken heart should make, lost, inconsolable, alone.
I reach out toward it like you would to a friendly dog, palm down and fingers outstretched. My fingernails are ragged, and the cuticles trail ribbons of split flesh. The fox tilts its head on one side as it creeps forward, belly almost to the ground, eyes like lamps fixed on my face. My breath huffs in the cold air. The fox inches closer, and I’m mesmerised by the movement of lean muscle underneath its brindled pelt; thoughts of Sylvia rush into my head, and I rock gently on my heels.
Its tongue is soft-rough, wet and warm as it licks my hand. It nuzzles its snout into my palm like a family pooch investigating a bag of sweets. When its teeth close around my fingers, I try and resist the urge to pull back, and the fox gnaws on my fingers like the aforementioned loveable pup working a Bonio to death. It begins to growl way back in its throat then shuffles away, shaking its head from side to side, my hand still clamped in its jaws. I follow, stumbling, then reality kicks in and I drive my boot into its stomach, lifting its body a few inches into the air. Its mouth springs open and I snatch back my hand.
The fox skitters away into the night, yowling like a dying baby, and I stand there staring stupidly at my mangled fingers for a moment before wadding them in a tissue and finishing my round.
Of course, if we’re talking about reasons to be cheerful, there is Sylvia. Sylvia: a vision, a fever-dream. I watch her from the corner of my vision as she glides and pirouettes amidst us drones tending the great, grease-black machines, and the chattering, unceasing rattle of the endless rollers. She pauses and whispers admonishments and hisses compliments in sibilant tones that somehow inveigle their way through the constant clash and tintinnabulation to the ears, and every man, woman, and overgrown child thus addressed straightens their spine a little more–or bends closer to their allotted station. She moves, as my foul-smelling work-mate had so accurately mentioned, like pale, cold fire, and never is a raven hair out of place.
I remember, through the dimness of a thousand nights crouched under the noise and frantic bustle, through a thousand nights of sleep like waking and waking like sleep, a girl I used to know saying she could never understand the frisson of danger. That she couldn’t see the attraction of loving something that could hurt you.
Sylvia, I suspect, could tear you apart nerve by nerve without breaking a sweat. She runs through the fevered, half-waking dreams that are my days like a constant thread, anchoring something inside me that I suppose should by rights be dead. She’s about as nurturing and safe as a needle sunk into a vein, and a thousand times more alluring.
Leaning against the softly buzzing aluminium cladding, I take another cigarette break out of the wind while I wait for someone to shout at me to do something, my bad hand stuffed into the opposite armpit.
Timms looms from the shadows thrown by a stack of empty forklift pallets, twitching his shoulders like something’s got inside his thick sweater and is trying to eat its way out. His dead eyes flit back and forth, constantly rolling in his head; his skin shines gray under the weak light coming off the big spotlights fixed to the factory frontage. He sees me and stops, licks at his already sopping lips with an oversized tongue; a forklift wheels about the car park, performs a perfunctory circuit, then whizzes back inside.
“Wotchamate Timmy,” I say, out of something resembling pity. He begins to nod slowly. “Busy tonight?”
He stares past my shoulder as if the question eludes his rudimentary faculties, then shrugs. I bite down on the urge to wipe at the snot dripping from his nose.
I offer him my tobacco and papers. “Wanna ciggie?”
He bites his bottom lip, an absurdly endearing gesture, then shakes his head. A rope of mucus lashes wildly about.
“For fuck’s sake Timmy,” I say. He grins back, and feeling slightly disgusted, I make to turn away. “You ought to be put down, mate.”
He continues grinning, then begins to flap his hand about at the level of his chin, like someone miming waving away a bad smell. I watch him for a second, then stub the last of my cigarette out beneath my boot.
His left eye begins to wink, spastically and out of time, and it’s all too much. I push past him. He grabs the wrist of my bad hand, and I try to shake him off. His thin, bluish fingers are clamped tighter than death, and to my horror I realise I can’t break free. I push him backwards and he staggers, still not letting go, and we fall against the stack of pallets, the smell of wet wood and the thin reek of Timms’ unwashed body filling my nostrils. He slobbers against my cheek as we struggle and I pull my head away, but not before he whispers something, garbled and mangled from its passage through his larynx.
I stop struggling and try to stare him in the eye. His gaze is fixed at a point two inches to the left of my left ear, and when I move my head, he moves his as if maintaining contact.
“What did you say? Can you actually talk?”
He won’t stop grinning and he won’t let go, and I’m about to punch him as hard as I can when a tiny cough behind us makes me look up.
Silhouetted momentarily against the dim light behind her, surprisingly small against the looming bulk of the pallets, Sylvia stares at us with an air of detached amusement. My eyes adjust, and she comes more into focus. I see her long, pale fingers toying idly with the thick black scarf at her neck. A cold breeze slices the night open, but it doesn’t touch her hair. She wears a smile like something that not only got all the cream, but got the cat as well.
“Boys.” The word falls between us. Timms’ hand relaxes, lets go of mine. “You’ll make me jealous.” Her soft voice, dripping with irony, makes me twitch with vague memories of sexual congress: another living being’s heat close to my skin, the manic, animal exertion of sex. When was the last time I had sex? Jesus Fucking Christ–I can’t remember.
I try and get a grip, straightening up, shaking my limbs. “Just a friendly tussle. Wasn’t it, Timmy?”
He doesn’t move, and he stares past Sylvia with the expression of something small and furry that has just seen a shadow moving across the face of the moon. I’m looking at Timms and he’s looking past Sylvia’s ear and she’s staring at both of us and the tension torques the moment past what I can bear, and I turn away and mutter something about getting back to work.
I can feel Sylvia’s eyes on me all the way back inside. I wonder what Timms meant by “Deaf.” I know he’s not.
We mill about and around, feeding in this, greasing that, maintaining. Processes must be completed, orders fulfilled, deliveries checked. Underneath the clashing roar we work, while above us pistons rear, up, up, disappearing into the haze that hangs near the suspended halogen lights, the machines’ pulse a terrible back-beat by which the night keeps its rhythm. Sometimes I look up at these machines, at the huge maelstrom of mechanised death barely kept in check by the massive bolts and frames that secure them to the factory floor, and I wonder if it might not be better to climb up the checker-plate stairwell, walk quickly along a rattling gantry, and throw myself into the waiting maw of the machinery as it hammers underneath. It would, I’m sure, be a quick enough end; there’s no way you could survive that. If the fall didn’t kill you then an armature the size of a car, rotating through ninety degrees on a pinion thicker than your thigh, would surely do the trick.
Higgs chooses this moment of idle contemplation to nudge me in the ribs. He looks around furtively, like a fat, bipedal relative of the weasel, motions with a stubby hand, and then waddles to a recess formed by an access point for the innards of a press. After ensuring that Sylvia was not about to appear at my elbow, I follow.
Inside, the hydraulic wheeze of the machinery matches Higgs’ own respiratory difficulties so closely he sounds almost normal. He leans close to my ear, filling my world with the reek of cheap cigarettes, BO, and rampant halitosis.
“What’s happened to your hand?” The light slanting through the guts of the machinery reflects strangely off his smeared glasses, making it look like his eyes are filled with light.
I look down and shake my head. “Nothing. Just a scratch.”
“Let’s have a look.”
I sigh, but unwrap the dirty paper towel from my wound. The flesh is torn open along three of my fingers, and a dull glint from within is probably bone. One of my nails hangs off forlornly. He pokes at it. It drops to the floor.
He straightens up, mouth set in a thin hard line. I shrug, and he seems about to say something, then thinks better of it. I wait, anxious now lest my skivery be detected once again, and then I wrap my hand back in its makeshift bandage, shake my head, and walk away.
He calls my name. I pause at the entrance to the alcove, but do not turn.
“Why doesn’t it bleed, lad?” he says. “Tell me that, eh? Why doesn’t it bleed?”
I spin around on my heel. “It’s only a… a flesh wound. It’s barely broken the skin.”
“Oh, aye.” He puts his hand in his pockets, puffs his fat belly out and rocks on his heels, an attitude that doubles his normal number of chins from two to four. Then he says something, half-drowned by the roar of the machines–something like, “How long have I had a beard?”
“You heard. Get back to work.”
For a factory, a lot of the jobs are donkey work, and what isn’t is normally trained monkey stuff. I stay at my station, feeding one of the raw materials for the product into metal chutes, four feet square. The mouth of the chutes is at shoulder height, and the plastic sacks weigh about twenty kilos, their thick, pasty contents sliding free only after you’ve shaken the thing about. It’s hard work, but less boring than most. Once or twice, I think I can feel a twinge from my fingers, but I try to put it from my mind. After a couple hours of this, I can feel sleep tugging at my limbs, doubling the weight of the bags, making just standing upright an effort. I signal to my co-workers and stagger toward the area at the back of the factory, near the bogs, where the drink machine resides.
Why is it, I wonder, that coffee from a vending machine tastes so spectacularly awful? Why does it never taste anything like coffee? I know you’re not going to get a latté or fresh espresso from a free machine, but even instant coffee tastes better than this swill. Is it a conspiracy between management and coffee vending machine operators, that only the vilest, nastiest stuff can be used? Is it the little plastic cups it’s served in?
Contemplating such matters while my cup fills passes time, the background roar of the machines duller in here, less oppressive. Steam rises from the coffee and I watch it spiral toward the exposed bulb.
“I thought I’d find you here.”
I spin around, sloshing coffee over my hand. I swear and wipe it against my jeans. I can’t see the stain.
Higgs is standing there, looking pensive again. I’m not sure I can stand any more of his company this evening. There’s only so much one man can take.
“Yeah. Gotta go. Busy busy busy.”
He stops me with a hand on my shoulder. His lungs rattle and whine inside his chest like a kettle on a hot-plate.
“Have you seen Timms?”
“Actually, yes, I have. He was outside earlier. He came up to me while I was having a ciggie, and then Sylvia–” I stop. I feel I should broach this. “Higgs, did you know Timms can talk?”
He sucks at his teeth.
“Well, there’s some says he can, and some says he can’t. Meself, I’m of the opinion that young Timms knows quite a bit more than he’s letting on.”
I contemplate this while Higgs draws a cup of coffee from the vending machine.
“Is that some kind of a ‘he’s so stupid he must be clever’ thing?”
“I mean, are you just saying that to make yourself feel better? You know Timms is a fucking ‘tard, right? So we feel guilty ‘cos we’ve got all–” I hastily correct myself “–most of our marbles.”
“S’a theory, I suppose.” We walk back through the gloomy corridors toward the factory floor.
“How long ago, would you say,” says Higgs, in the manner of someone who is crap at subterfuge trying to be clever, “did you last see Timms?”
I shrug, then look down at my wrist. I am not wearing a watch. I can’t remember ever having owned a watch.
“I… I’m not sure. It was…” I stop. Higgs wheezes into the silence. “It was… It was definitely tonight.”
“Uh-huh.” He falls silent, apart from the constant, laboured hiss of his breathing. As we approach the doors leading to the factory floor, the noise rises exponentially with every step, until we can feel it in our bones.
“Take care,” he says, as we slip through.
What an odd thing to say, I think, and then it’s back to work.
The rattling, endless rollers, I have begun to suspect, actually nip and snap at your hands in the dimness. The factory’s product is disgorged from metal tubes onto the rollers, always in motion, never ceasing. Look at them too long and you’d go mad; a moment looking the wrong way and… Well. Who needs to count to ten on their fingers, anyway? Higgs slouches by my side, whistling an unfortunate tune that–fortunately–drowns before it reaches my ears. An elbow into my ribs stirs me from the monotony of double- and triple-checking against the printed status sheet. I turn and see Higgs grinning his lopsided grin. The product streams past me. I have lost count. I grip the plastic-encased knife that we use to trim excess parts so tightly in my hand it might shatter at any moment. He motions with a nod of his lank head.
I turn and see Sylvia, floating across the factory floor on one of her mazy journeys, never at rest, and–curse these endless nights, this cotton-wool filling my head–in her wake the air seems to shudder, as if she passes through some medium less impeding than the space we occupy; she is heading in our direction. Higgs steps smartly away from me, as if he knows exactly the destination of Sylvia’s fluttering passage.
I turn quickly and busy myself, trying to concentrate on the thumbprint-blurred page before me and the motion of the product down the unending line.
But no. Not for me. She glides past–is that a smile on her thin lips?–and caresses the shoulder of another, leans close to his ear, from which wisps of white hair loom, and whispers. Despite his age and apparent frailty, he jumps like a scalded cat and then, head down, trails along in her wake, called for some higher purpose, the contemplation of which makes me think that I can feel a dull ache in my balls and a sucking emptiness in my chest.
We’re standing outside, shivering in the thin rain. The sky is like a blanket, filled with the strange, blue sheen that the world takes on pre-dawn. It makes stubble look like skin flaking off bones, renders eyes dark hollows, makes ghosts of the men and women huddling around their roll-ups in the lee of the forty-foot high roller/shutter doors that dominate one side of the factory. So we pass another few minutes pulling on burning dried leaves, sucking the hot smoke into our lungs with the promise it will impart some warmth, sipping at the coffee which will sustain us through another night.
A soughing shriek announces Higgs’ arrival. He rolls a cigarette about a millimetre in diameter and lights it from a match that only stays alight in the strong wind for about a second. A few of our co-workers murmur to him; he grunts assent. I shuffle further back toward the teetering piles of stacked forklift pallets, slouching my head down on my shoulders. It doesn’t work.
“Ah, there y’are lad.” He pats me on the shoulder. “Come with me.” He turns toward one of the canyons formed by the arrayed ranks of wooden pallets.
“Higgs,” I mutter, “I’m flattered, but really, I’d rather not. I don’t fancy you. And even if I did…”
He replies with a great, sawing shriek of dismay and a solid slap across my lips. I totter about for a second, more taken aback than anything, and he grasps my sleeve and bundles me into the darkness. My cigarette falls into a puddle, where it dies with a damp little fizzle.
Halfway down the line of pallets, safely free of the gazes of others, he stops. I slouch with resentment, stuff my hands deep in my pockets, and lean against the pallets.
“This better be good, Higgsy.” My lips are numb from his slap, but I don’t feel especially angry. It’s like suddenly being attacked by a sheep, Higgs’ hitting me; the last thing I expected.
“Show me your hand.”
“Your fingers. Show me your fucking hand!”
I pull my hand out of my pockets and wave them in front of his face. “There,” I snarl. “Now d’you mind telling me what this is about?”
He lights a match and holds it up between us, cupping one fat hand around it to stop it from blowing out in the breeze. Then he grabs one of my hands and wrenches it over, so the palm faces downwards. The flickering light of the match plays over my misshapen fingers, the soft pulpy area where I once lost a nail.
When Higgs gets excited, his lungs sound even worse. “Don’t you remember? Why don’t you remember?”
I rip my hands free of his grasp.
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“When did that happen to your fingers?”
“What? When did what happen?”
“When did they get fucked up?”
The match sputters and goes out, leaving me with orange afterimages of my damaged hand floating in front of my eyes. “I–shit, I don’t know, Higgs. When did your lungs start sounding like an asthmatic doing the fifteen hundred meters?”
This time I am expecting his punch, but in the dark I am disoriented and actually dodge into it. I slump, more out of reflex than anything, and he literally falls on me, pinning me under his weight and his stink. This is more than even my naturally docile nature can take, so I bring my knee up viciously. It makes contact with something soft, and there is a moment of undignified scrabbling in the dark. I scramble to my feet and stand there tense, not knowing if the crazy fuck is going to come at me again.
A match sputters into life, about ten feet away. It illuminates Higgs’ face from below, not a pleasant sight. The flame sends jumping shadows racing across his skin.
“Listen to me,” he hisses, between rasps. “I know what’s going on. I know you want to knob Sylvia.”
My mouth falls open. “Who told you? Jesus fuck, Higgsy, if you tell anyone I’ll–”
“Shut up! Shut up, all right? Just… Let me think. You want to knob Sylvia, who’d eat you like air, by the way, and–”
“Fuck you Higgsy.”
“Whatever. Listen. D’you remember Timms?”
“Yeah, course I remember Timms. The ‘tard with the shaved head? Snot always dripping from his nose?”
“That’s him.” The match sputters and goes out. “D’you know what happened to him?”
“Probably got a proper fucking job.” I blink at orange ghosts, clogging my sight.
“He was retarded, you idiot. He couldn’t string a sentence together without taking half an hour and needing a bucket for his slobber. Of course he didn’t get another job!”
“How the Hell should I know what happened to him? Am I supposed to be bloody psychic?” Something snaps in my hindbrain, and I march towards Higgs, determined to punch his lights out. “I’ve had just about enough of this, you fat cu–”
There’s a noise like a piece of paper being torn, and the sound of Higgs’ breathing… stops. Doesn’t slow down and trail off, it just stops. Something warm and wet splatters my jeans, adhering to my legs. I stop walking toward Higgs or–and I’m sorting this out on the fly, but I’ve got a sneaking suspicion I’m not wrong–where Higgs used to be. It’s too dark to see anything, and anyway, the orange glare of his match still fills my eyes. “Higgs? Higgsy?”
A voice, soft as a caress in the night, right next to my ear but barely any breath on my neck, as if she can speak without doing anything so vulgar as knock bits of air about to do it:
“I suggest you get back to work. All right?”
I nod. I kind of get the feeling it makes very little difference to her that it’s pitch black back here.
Then I turn and fumble my way out of the alley, back toward where the factory waits, squatting underneath the sodium lights, to finish out my shift.