Brian Coughlan has a Masters Degree in Screenwriting from NUIG. He has published work with The Bohemyth and is currently writing a tv drama series Borderline with Florence Films, a Galway-based Production Company. He currently lives and works in Salthill, Galway.
By Brian Coughlan
Noel worked out of a prefab. It formed part of the wastewater treatment plant for an abattoir. His prefab looked un-occupied due to the dereliction of its front door and windows, hanging from a single hinge and smashed, respectively. It lay hidden between two rusting 50ft metal tanks and by an intricate display of gantries and pipe-work. Inside the prefab he sat on a broken chair rubbing his grease stained hands with an oily rag. He persisted in absent minded fashion to rub and pull his fingers through the rough cloth while watching an argument take place in the adjoining car park.
He recognised one party; the Production Manager from the killing floor, the other was a boy who looked all of sixteen or seventeen. There was just enough of a likeness to assume he was the Production Manager’s son. In any case the boy had stormed off and his father was walking after him with a bundle of sandwiches wrapped in cellophane. The sandwiches were being squeezed to death. The father was wondering how he could have ended up with such a whining little shit as a son.
At exactly 8:15 Noel left the sanctuary of his prefab and took into a walk that looked like a beetle escaping from the light of an overturned rock. Scuttling his way up the yard he came to a sudden stop. Fuck, he thought. They were back sitting on top of his toolbox. It was so unthinkable to eat breakfast and not have one afterwards that he went back for them. Having resumed his odyssey to the canteen he passed the boy from earlier going in the opposite direction along the corridor. The boy was gowned up in overalls and wellington boots with a holster for his knife hanging low around his waist. From the white sheen of his equipment he looked every inch the greenhorn.
Leaving the changing rooms the boy had felt a palpable dread seep through him as he passed the old man going in the opposite direction. Down one corridor and through double-doors his boots scuffed along the concrete floor in what sounded like a pathetic shuffle towards some grim discovery. And yet what he had been told and had heard did not prepare him in any practical way for the actuality of entering the killing floor.
A procession of carcasses were hanging by their legs while fifty or so men were lined up at intervals – chopping, cutting, dismembering, disemboweling, eviscerating, and all with an incredible rapidity required to keep up with the constant mechanical movement of the conveyer line. If you looked far enough back to the right it was still possible to see a sheep with a head and a hide and legs but move that view to the left and by degrees they became a carcass again, all clean white flesh and hanging from a stainless steel hook.
The noise on the killing floor was deafening. He saw his father beckoning to him with a steel gloved hand. The boy stumbled toward him. He watched his father grab a handful of dead sheep and slash it open with his knife while peeling backward so that a flap of hide could be grasped by the machine next to them. They watched the machine peel the hide off that sheep in one long careful execution. He had no idea what words his father was using but understood the gist of it. The machine could rip his arm off if he wasn’t careful.
In the canteen Noel said a good morning to the girls working behind the hotplates and using a pair of tongs in awkward fashion, as if they were chopsticks, transported two greasy sausages, one egg, two rashers, fried mushrooms, fried tomato, a lamb chop, another egg-that spilled over the edge of the plate, two slices of toast, two butters, a cup of scalding hot tea, and a jam donut onto the same plate.
He stood before the cashier and to her surprise asked her to tot up his account. It was his intention to settle his debt. Having struggled with the difficult sums on the back of a piece of scrap paper she asked him to come back later in the day. This was much to the relief of the queue of impatient men waiting in line muttering and pawing the ground. Noel told her to take her time with it.
The usual gang of men that he always had breakfast with were seated deep inside the smoking area and next to the card-playing tables.
‘What kept you?’ said one
The conversation was about how ‘they’ were running the place into the ground. This conversation no longer involved him. Noel inspected the faces of these men facing him across the table; the bald heads and bad teeth, the red rimmed eyes and vacant expressions and realised that he should have had the decency to say something to them before now. But it was already too late. Mentally he no longer shared any connection with these men and in a couple of month’s time he would probably struggle to remember each one’s annoying little habits.
‘…be lucky to have a job in six months’ finished the one whose habit was to talk and eat at the same time.
After breakfast he tried to put all thought of it to one side. And yet no matter what he tried to do – it would not go away, instead it followed his every movement like a shadow and he continued to unconsciously imbue the day with special significance by staring hard at objects like his toolbox with a sideways twist of his head and a screwing up of the eyes, as if each moment could be rendered as a mental photograph that he might at some indeterminate point in the future wish to recall with perfect clarity and a sense of place.
On the killing floor two engineers wordlessly extricated the twisted carcass from the machine and made all the necessary repairs after the loud bang and after the conveyer line had ground to a halt. Flecks of spittle flew from the mouth of a supervisor who was shouting at the boy. The boy looked away in shame. Nobody would say it but everyone could tell he wasn’t up to the task. The boy waited to meet the disapproving gaze of his father but instead was greeted with the listless expressions of his fellow workers on the line.
After a couple of minutes they got the line going again. But the boy was put on plucking. So called because his job was to pluck the heart and kidneys from the carcass and stick them onto revolving stainless steel spikes. After plucking he had a turn on bellies; scooping out stinking stomachs with both hands and carefully placing the sloppy mess on revolving stainless steel trays. They moved him around from job to job – and he wasn’t able to keep up the pace at any of them. He imagined the tide of resentment building around him. The boss’s son. Silver spoon up his hole and not worth a shite for anything!
The security guard, spotting Noel in the far distance coming through the rain, removed his pipe carefully and laid it on the counter and putting on his jacket went out into the driving rain to fill his kettle at the outside tap. By the time Noel arrived down to the security hut the kettle was boiling noisily. Once inside he removed a cigarette and motioned by pointing to the end of it that he needed a light.
‘Here!’ grunted Pat.
He threw the box of matches across the room. They fell short on the concrete floor and skidded underneath a chair piled high with old newspapers. The top one was turned to the page 3 girl – pouting and with her tits out. Noel gave her a dirty look and bent down to pick up the matches. It was in the act of coming back up that he emitted a muffled grunt of pain.
‘What’s the matter with you?’ said Pat.
‘Just my back’ Noel said as he sat carefully in a chair and winced.
‘You want to be bending your knees more’ instructed Pat.
A long blue coat reaching down past the calves and swishing along in time to his movements approached the two men unawares. The phone in one pocket vibrated continuously as his long strides brought him closer to the security hut. The infuriating sight of the two of them laughing and smoking, making no effort to hide what they were doing, served only to stoke his frustration. A bright drop of crystalline snot in the pale light dangled from the Production Manager’s nostril.
‘Are you two paid to drink tea and smoke?’
When Noel returned to his senses the blue frock coat had dematerialized and he heard the security guard’s voice say:
‘You made short work of him!’
As his heart returned with every breath to a steadier systole the redness in his face faded. By the time he reached down to pick up his cap, lying on the ground like an injured little bird, his senses had returned and he began to feel slightly ashamed, and muttering something about finishing a few jobs he took off in a bee-line for his prefab across the wet sheen of reflective concrete.
By one o’clock, having completed those few jobs, he was hungry, and seeing as this was the time for the last twenty-three years to take his lunch break he saw no reason to do differently. In a preoccupied mind-set he walked into a canteen adorned with coloured balloons, streamers and bits of tinsel stuck with tape to the off-white walls and a banner wishing someone ‘Best Wishes!’ hung above the table he always sat at.
It still did not sink-in until he was surrounded by well-wishers who all wanted to shake his hand and wish him all the best with the new job. The shock of this sudden attention sent him into a tailspin of breathlessness. How everyone had found out about his departure was now irrelevant. A cake was being wheeled out by the grinning dinner ladies and a speech by a shop-steward he hardly knew was taking place even before everyone had shushed sufficiently for the man’s words to be heard.
Presented with a special commemorative pen, engraved with his name, he was urged to make a speech, which he did, in a quivering voice that betrayed a nervousness of public speaking. Surrounded by colleagues he recognised and colleagues he struggled to put a name to, all staring at him with those expectant already slightly bored expressions, he expressed his gratitude and sadness at leaving. He said that he had made great friends and that he would miss them all.
After the hurried speech he ate a bit of cake and chatted to a few of the ones he recognised and before he knew it the canteen girls were putting the cake back into a box and asking him if he want to take it home with him.
His friends were already making faces that seemed unnatural and slightly ridiculous and promising that they would keep in touch and maybe go out for a drink sometime, even though they had never done so while he still worked there and before he knew it he was left sitting on his own, clutching both the commemorative pen and a distressing feeling of anticlimactic numbness.
The boy figured it was lunch-time when the line jerked to a sudden halt and within an instant everyone on the line was rushing for the door. He followed the crowd from the killing floor into the changing rooms and from the changing rooms into the canteen. The canteen was packed with tables of men shovelling food down or playing cards or just smoking furiously.
He battled his way through the crowd but at the cash register he realised that he didn’t have any money. Thankfully the girl on the register was nice about it. She wrote his name into a little book and put it in a pocket of her apron.
‘You can get me back tomorrow love’ she said.
The boy slumped at an almost empty table and began to eat in a ravenous way. When he looked up again he was staring into the face of an old man sitting across from him. The old man’s face was serious but his eyes seem amused by the greenhorn.
‘You’re John Smith’s son?’ asked the old man.
The boy nodded.
The old man blew a funnel of swirling blue smoke into the air.
‘They have you on the killing floor?’ asked Noel.
The boy nodded again.
‘If someone asks you to get them fallopian tubes just tell them to fuck off’
‘Ok – I’ll remember that’ said the boy.
Noel stubbed out his cigarette into an ashtray of old butts. He stood up as if he had suddenly remembered something important he had to do and took his pack of cigarettes with him. With a noticeable turned-in footfall he limped away from the table and out of the canteen forever.
In the end he is barely conscious of an existence separate to the conveyer line. It brings him the next thing to do and he does it. There is no argument with the line. If the line stops it’s because someone fucked up or because they have run out of animals to kill. Not that he is aware of it but the line stopping means they all have to stay on longer. Nobody wants that, so when the line stops, they get angry. It is not uncommon to be threatened with stabbing if you continuously insist on stopping the line. But he will learn all this in time – and anyway he is the Production Manager’s son so nothing like that would ever happen to him personally.
Twenty-three years and they might just as easily have been spent somewhere else, Noel thought, rather gloomily as he walked back to the prefab to finish off the one or two jobs that remained. Maybe him and the wife would go out for a meal to celebrate or maybe they’d just sit-in and watch something on the box? He took off his wellington boots, his overalls and his gloves. He took off his little blue cap and stared at it – then he put it back on his head and headed for the door.
He hurriedly swiped-out with a matter-of-fact little beep and a succession of moments flitting past him and following him down the corridor. The girl on reception called him back. She wanted his security pass back off him (in case he tried to break in, ha-ha) and wished him all the best in the future. He said he was in a hurry (to get the hell away from her nosy questions), and he stumbled out to the car park. All he wanted to do was get the hell out of there without bumping into any more well wishers.
An irritating song on the radio burst into life when he started the engine. He immediately turned it down and reversed out from his parking spot. This is the last time I will ever do this, he thought as he left the car-park and sped down the road. He had forgotten all about the cake and his commemorative pen until now. Fuck it, he thought. He pulled down the peak on his cap to cover his eyes and increased his speed until he was well over the limit.
By the time the boy had showered and stored away his items in a locker provided; his knife, his steel glove, the cost of each to be deducted from his weekly wages – the changing rooms were deserted. Outside he met his father and they walked in silence back down the yard toward the car park. Their car journey home started off in silence but the Production Manager couldn’t help himself. He just had to say it.
‘Like what?’ asked the boy.
‘The real world’ said his father.
The boy thought about it and said nothing. Instead he began to fiddle with the electric windows. He knew how much it irritated his father.