They’ve been protesting now for three weeks outside the closed factory. I have to walk past them every day on my way into town. I know they think I’ve betrayed them by not joining them, but I can’t relate to my former coworkers’ problems. Our natures are just inalienably opposed. I can’t bring myself to sympathise with them. If I did go and join them, and pick up one of their many endearingly naïve picket signs, “Deceived by Hadley’s “Taoiseach! You Let Us Down!” or “We Fight for All Workers,” I would just be consolidating their delusions and the myths of national flagship industries, of corporate responsibility, of fair-play, and of my ex-colleagues´ strategy of hopeful, dignified indignation. As I pass by them, on the opposite side of the road, Glen, our old forklift operator, shouts over to me from the picket line.
“Chris! Chris! It´s well for you, isn’t it? When you don’t have responsibilities! When you have no mortgage to pay! Or kids to be fed and watered and put through school!”
I just nod to him, wave, and shout back, “Fair play, Glen! Keep up the good work.” This I can say fluently. My stutter, strangely enough, doesn’t come out when I shout. Or when I sing.
But this isn’t what I really want to shout back to Glen. What I want to shout back, and would have shouted back too, if it wasn’t so long to get out of my mouth, is “Well Glen, as the venerable Father Fintan Stack once said, ‘I had my fun, and that´s all that matters.’” But why bother? Why antagonize him further? Best to keep it civil.
During their first week of protesting they had all been chanting in unison,
“We will not be! We will not be moved!”
“We will not be! We will not be moved!”
These days, still out in front of the closed factory gates, they just walk around and around in a circle in silence, as though part of a funeral procession. Their numbers have thinned. I´ve noticed that car horns aren’t beeped as much in support anymore. And I’m sure they’ve noticed this too. The townspeople have wearied of their presence. The protestors are a negative image now, like an open wasteground, or an illegal dumping site. An unsightly collection of pitiful human refuse. They are an eyesore on the main road into, and out of, what was once a prosperous and proud Tidy Town.
Soon the protesting will die down, come to a final halt, and be dismantled. Soon the protest will be scrapped and recycled. The death of everything is but the patience of time. Besides, their opponent can never waver or weary. Their protest and their signs cannot appeal to it. Their opponent isn’t even human. Their opponent is the sovereign bottom line.
On my way home from the pub at the end of the night, smelling of stout and carrying a bag of takeaway cans and a bag of steaming salt-and-vinegary chipper chips, I pass by the factory again. It’s quiet now, peaceful. No trace of hardship or injustice, no men or women with heads lowered, wandering around in circles. Nothing to suggest that anything at all is wrong. No trace of the consequences. No distortion of reality. Just a quiet factory in the steady orange glow of the streetlights. I open a can of stout and stand there for some time, leaning up against a lamppost, munching on my chips, euphoric with the stillness, with the utter perfection of the night.
I see myself standing up on a soapbox, above my former coworkers, a megaphone in hand. Before me, a gathering of admiring, battle-weary, yet expectant faces. “Brothers and sisters. Comrades and friends. I come here. Not to speak in place of you. But to speak in favour of you. And to give you. You who cannot be heard. And you. You who don´t ever listen. These precious, fragrant winds. Machine brothers. Machine sisters. Consider the lily in the field…” I could see it and hear it all so clearly. It would be riveting.
Of course, I’d be different, my entire life would be different, if I didn´t have a speech impediment. As it is though, I´m not going to win over an audience and hold them in raptures with “Bbbbbbbbb ‘rothers and sssssssssss….sssssssss….ssssssss ‘isters. Cu-cu-cu-cu-cu comrades…” Having a stutter sucks. Still though, it has made me a lot more sensitive to other people’s faults, to human frailties. It’s certainly given me character. Definitely made me more compassionate. Positively Christ-like in fact. Without it, I know I would have turned out to be a right insufferable, arrogant little prick. Definitely would have become a politician.
I take a sup from my can and look at the factory, emptied of investment now, devoid of all human intention and feeling. I should write something about the factory closure for the local paper. Something about the thrilling desolation, and the sense of liberation, which comes with our being disabused of a collective fantasy. End it on an upbeat note too. Of difficult, but definitive, new beginnings. I drain my can of stout, crush it, and throw it away, satisfied that I have hit upon an idea. Thoughts to keep me company at least, on my long walk home.
My walk home, back to the cottage and to Sarah, is seven miles outside of town. The last two miles are treacherous. Bending, narrow country roads, with neither a footpath on either side nor streetlights to light one´s way. Some nights, if I’m lucky, I might get the improbable beam of a high, full moon to guide me. It could be argued, I suppose, that those of us who walk these dangerous roads at night while drunk are looking for, or willing, “An accident” to occur. Looking for an easy out. A blameless way to die. Sometimes, if its particularly still, I hear the thundering hooves of a team of wild, riderless horses galloping through the dark of the fields. Mostly, I just keep my eyes up on the old leaning telephone poles, on their cruciform tops, appreciating how they advance toward me and retreat behind me. How they punctuate the distance at reassuring and satisfying intervals. I do this most nights, until I get back home.
Sarah, my girlfriend, works in Bridgestone´s Restaurant and Wine Bar, the only upmarket wine bar of its kind in town. She also sleepwalks. A poet of sorts too, in her own unique and effortless way, she is certainly a medium for some stunning oracular speech. My ritual, when I get back home to our cottage, is usually to make sure that nothing sharp or breakable has been left out. I make sure to hide her house keys and her car keys and make sure that the cutlery drawer is still locked, that the key for it is still in its hiding place. After this is done, I light a fire in the stove in our living room, leave the living-room door open, and stay up drinking the rest of my cans while listening to music or watching some YouTube videos on my phone. I keep one earbud in, leaving the other ear free and sensitized to the stiller atmosphere of the cottage, attentive to any stirrings, sudden creaks, or of Sarah speaking. And I wait, hoping that this might be a night that she’ll get up out of bed and begin her round of ghostly somnambulation.
Sure enough, at around three-fifteen, just as I´m dozing, I hear our bedroom door creak open. I get up off the couch and go and look out from the living room to see Sarah, in her pyjamas, with one bare foot and the other foot in a slipper, come hobbling out of our bedroom. The sound of her slipper drags on the tiles as she limps toward me.
“There are twelve devils.” she says.
“Where are the twelve devils, Sarah?”
“Where are they drowning?”
“In the lake.”
“In a lake? Which one?”
“Yes. In a lake. Twelve devils drowning…in the lake inside our car.”
About two months before the factory closed down, Kevin Walsh, from Human Resources, sent an email around asking all employees to write a page about who we were, where we came from, what we did before, what our roles were in the factory, what kind of relationship we had with our employer and what our aspirations were for the future. This was a new initiative that he was launching, he wrote, to help personalise his working relations. Now, I don’t think it would be too unkind to say that a lot of my coworkers only picked up a pen or a pencil to do a crossword or an arrow-word puzzle, or when in the bookie’s or at the Lotto stand. A number of them certainly weren’t comfortable with the idea of self-reflection, or of a company´s prying behind their curtains and into the musty folds of their soul. So, as one might expect, the request was met with either bafflement or coarse, contained opposition. There was groaning and complaining about it over the morning-break tea and coffee. At lunch, in the canteen, people muttered about it into their plates of subsidized mashed potatoes, beans and chips.
In the smoking shed, Glen kicked over the ashtray bin and scattered six months’ worth of rotten cigarette butts all over the ground, so incensed he was at being asked to write something about himself.
“Did you ever hear of such utter bollocks, Man?”
Confusion, if not mild despair, was worn into some people’s faces, as they left the factory on the eve of when the one-page self-report was due in. Premonitions of a gloomy evening spent at home, at the kitchen table where, after dinner had been cleared away, the blank screen of a Word document, or a blank page taken for a child’s copybook would stare back at them, blankly.
I, on the other hand, began straight away. I jotted down a quick plan on a torn piece of cardboard, giving each section a heading and five bullet points to be developed. Before I knew it the cardboard was covered in fluid and erratic arrows directing and redirecting me back and forth between the verso and recto sides where notes and elaborations and quick ideas spread and proliferated. There was an announcement on the PA for workers to hand in or email their written piece to HR first thing in the morning. I finished what stocktaking I had left and then retired to the farthest aisles, at the back of the warehouse, to continue my writing. When I got tired, I snuck in behind some boxes and took a nap on an emptied pallet and used my arms as a pillow. I awoke, like clockwork, three minutes before my shift was due to end, feeling refreshed and deeply satisfied with the day’s work I had done.
Two days later I was sitting in Kevin´s office.
Pale, tall and thin, Kevin was wearing a white shirt and the white and maroon club-tie of the local hurling team. His presence, from behind his desk, seemed faint and insubstantial. Maybe because Kevin had been copied from a crumpled schematic in Holy God´s pocket and had been sent down amongst us to take up posts like this all around the world. Kevin. Kevin-Kevin. Kevin-Kevin-Kevin-Kevin. An iteration of the quintessential, helpless, carbon-based bureaucrat. But this only endeared him to me further.
“Chris, I don’t know what to say to you. I mean…what is this?”
He was holding my page in his hands, looking over it again. He needed some time to take it in so I looked at his plastic fern plant, the mandatory grey filing cabinets, the obsequious, anally retentive neatness of his desk and, on the left wall, the black-framed picture of four men, silhouetted, in a row boat, rowing into the sunset on a mirror-still lake. The word TEAMWORK written in big white letters underneath. Through the cheap white blinds over Kevin’s shoulders, I could see that it looked dull outside. Dull, wet, cold and grey. The type of day that you can feel the rats inside you shivering and baring their teeth.
Kevin cleared his throat, gave me a worried look, and started to read.
“Chris Gallagher was born in Sligo General Hospital in 1985, and grew up in Cape Canaveral and The Bermuda Triangle. In 2003 he began a B.A in Fine Art in Toulouse. After graduating he toured Europe in a hard-rock cover-band called “Spider Hands and the Phantom Fingers.” Dissatisfied with life on the road, he returned to Ireland in 2010 and enrolled on a structured PhD course in Trinity College Dublin where he wrote his doctoral dissertation, “Towards The Radical Relief of a Post-Marxian Flatulent Hermeneutic: On the Utopian Impulses in “The Benefit of Farting Explained” by Jonathan Swift.” However, he abandoned a professorship after having fallen in love with a country girl, and they moved here to Ballymadfun, for the purpose of finding work. Chris applied for the position of Box Manager in a sober state, with a clean and clear conscience. He felt called to do this work by dullness, Jove and Fate. His tasks in Hadley’s Ltd. include looking at boxes, touching them, lifting them and setting them down, tagging them with stickers, loading them on to a palette lift, and shifting them into different places around the factory floor. On any given day you can find Chris moving boxes, cleaning the toilets, sweeping the floor, napping behind boxes, staring into space, feeding the little Capuchin monkey Maintenance have hidden in their cloak room, counting peanuts in the canteen, painting tiny frescos on the ceiling of the men’s toilets, reading poetry, conducting 4:32 by John Cage on the factory roof for an audience of culturally starved crows and seagulls, fantasizing about eternal life, of the myriad possibilities and worlds that may be awaiting him after death, and wondering what it means to love a girl who sleepwalks. Chris would like to thank you for giving him some money in exchange for some of his time, and is grateful that you have kept your smiles in your pockets while exploiting him thusly. Chris has absolutely no plans for the future as he can barely comprehend his present, because he is absolutely terrified of looking into his past. Many thanks and with the warmest of abject regards, Chris.”
Kevin stopped reading and put the paper down flat on his desk in front of him. He positioned it carefully, making sure that the page was symmetrical, level and right. Foolishly, I started to wonder if maybe he liked the piece. A compliment surely, for showing initiative and industry where most, I was certain, had barely scratched the page, would not be entirely out of order. Kevin leant forward in his chair.
“Chris,” he said, “do Declan and Ian have a monkey down in Maintenance?”
“No,” I said smiling, “they du-du-…No, they don’t.”
“Chris, is any of this, I mean, is anything that you’ve saying here…”
I could see he was struggling, so I made an educated guess.
“Some of it is true,” I said. “And su-su-su-sssss´ome of it is fufufufufufalse.”
“But why did you, I mean, did you not understand…”
“I did understand. It’s ju-just how I fufufufu-felt. It’s what I wwwwanted to say.”
Kevin sat back in his chair and looked at me. He was going to say something but stopped himself. Through the walls I could hear machine-noise coming from the factory floor. Music without emotion is the rhythm of machines. Over Kevin´s shoulder, I watched and listened to the rain tapping persistently on windowpane, and smiled.
I was asked to leave the following week. Not for what I wrote. My position, I was informed, had become redundant. I didn’t mind though. I spent my first week in bed, catching up on sleep and dreaming what I felt like were incredibly significant dreams. I started to keep a dream diary. I hadn’t dreamt so vividly in years. My second week I began to take walks down by the river where I watched unemployed men, and retirees, fishing by the bridge. I went to the cinema during the day. On my third week, I went to the pub more often, to drink on my own and to write in my notebook. The last thing I wrote in my notebook was, “If you sit on your laurels for too long, they’ll turn into cyanide and poison you.”
Strangely enough, it was later that very evening Sarah came home from work with two bits of exciting news. The first was that the Bridgestone had received the Carmella Fitzpatrick Great Places to Eat Award. They would be getting a star put outside on their wall and the staff were going to have their picture taken for the local paper. The staff had also elected Sarah to be the one to be interviewed by the local reporter for a small features piece on the Bridgestone. Then she told me that she had overheard two customers, a middle-aged man and woman, who’d been sitting at the bar, talking about something called The McGuire Programme. Via her eavesdropping, Sarah had gathered from the man that he’d had a stutter all his life, but doing the McGuire Programme had utterly transformed him. He’d learned a technique called costal breathing, and he could now speak with confidence in public, as long as he employed that technique. Sarah had looked it up online. The next intensive course was being held in Galway, at the end of May. Three months away. I told her I´d think about it.
In the meantime, I still wait up at night and follow Sarah around our cottage as she goes sleepwalking from room to room. There is an incredible stillness and poise about her sometimes, as she moves about in her pyjamas or stands, frozen-like, in the kitchen, with her head cocked to one side as though she were listening to the kettle, or to some ancient frequency deep inside of her. The idea of touching Sarah, in that possessed state, always fills me with a special kind of dread. Last night I watched her as she tried to open the cutlery drawer.
“What are you doing, Sarah?”
“I need a knife.”
“Why do you need a knife, Sarah?”
“There’s one devil left.”
“A devil? Where is the devil, Sarah?”
“He’s standing behind me.”