Four-thirty am on a cold Sunday morning in March. The busses aren't running yet and the only signs of life are last night's empty Stella cans and miniature vodka bottles, which lie in mysterious pools of sticky human discharge. These are the lean hours between enjoyment and endurance. I am on my way to work.
I am temping at a vast factory on a barren estate on the edge of the city, wearily guarded by a small platoon of disinterested security staff. My mate Tony started this job with me but ran away without telling anyone after six and-a-half hours. He'd have walked earlier, but he'd left his keys at home and had to wait for his girlfriend to get back and let him in. He regards my perseverance with his gig as folly. I don't care. I'm taking a quid over minimum wage for the early shift.
I have only the dimmest conception of what is that this factory makes, but have taken a handful of unidentified components home with me anayway. This has become a minor project of mine and over the last couple of aimless, cash-strapped months I've amassed a small collection of meaningless metal objects: inch high tubes lined with mysterious grooves; perforated washers which might also serve as pendants; delicately indented cylinders. Devoid of purpose, they're arranged on a shelf in my freezing room, the abstract fruit of uncomprehending labour.
First task of the day involves a futile attempt to clean one small corner of the vast factory. But every surface is so deeply engrained with congealed industrial grime that all I can do is transfer a little of the grainy effluent from the floor and onto myself. Observing this endeavour critically is Alan. Alan is a short, sweating man in his fifties. He has been at this factory for years, during which there appears to have been no significant alteration to his daily routine. Alan loves Elvis and punctuates the working day by bellowing the King's bleak ultimatum, "It's now or never", over and over again. I've never heard him sing anything else, nor does he ever get any further. These four words form a mantra, a tuneless clarion in the daily skirmish with industry. They're beginning to get on my nerves.
Alan's other great passion of pornography, and at strategic points around the factory he has discretely stashed piles of adult mags, as if in preparation for a prolonged period of sexual hibernation. From time to time he recounts, with a mix of breathy admiration and cynical scorn, the gist of some of the stories. It's hard to tell whether he has actually read them, or constructed a narrative of his own based purely on the pictures. Whatever. These stories are mostly high on action but low on plot.
After two hours I have managed to scrape away a thin layer of dirt off one small pressing machine, but the difference is so small as to be barely cosmetic. Alan disapproves. Not because I've done so little, but because I've done anything at all. "Take your time, mate," he says, motioning upwards with his head to indicate management, appraisal programmes, bottom line spin-offs. "Sod 'em," he says.
There is a quiet but determined culture of resistance in the factory. At any given point in the day isolated figures can be seen moving purposefully away from their machines, as if on some important errand, only to slow down once out of sight of the section manager and slouch furtively to the toilets. The acknowledged master of this strategic malingering is Clive. Clive bares an uncanny resemblance to Harold H. Corbett – the young one from Steptoe and Son. When he smiles, his front teeth are separated by little rivulets of blood. Colleagues speak of his dedication to avoidance, his passion for the skive, like apprentices in the presence of a craftsman. He is, you might say, a worker's worker.
The first officially recognised break of the day is at 7.30am. I am encrusted with machine sump and though I scrape away at my skin with an industrial detergent so abrasive that you could probably refashion your face with it, I still end up covering my sarnies with ominous, oily fingerprints.
During the break I go and look for Obi. Obi is a qualified electrician, also temping for the agency. He is working in this factory for one reason and one reason only: to earn enough for a set of state of the art decks. He was worked out exactly how long this will take given his hourly rate, and has made a chart to count down the remaining hours. He intends to finish in precisely three and half weeks time. I can't find him this morning and wonder whether his absence will require the chart to be redrawn.
Cleaning is filthy and exhausting, but at least it offers some variation. For the rest of the shift, I operate a small pressing machine, putting holes in thick washers. The component goes at the top of a chute. You drop it down. You pull a lever. You puncture its centre. The component goes at the top of a chute. You drop it down. You pull a lever. You puncture its centre. The component goes at the top of the chute… The process takes about 15 seconds. You do it for five and a half hours. I cannot maintain a coherent thought. Forgotten memories flit in and out of focus – flickering frames from the film of my life so far. After an hour or so even this mental channel-surfing ceases and I fall into a Zen-like state of unthinking repetition. Minutes stretch into hours. Hours extend for days. I pass into a sort of meta-boredom whereby I am both unstoppable force and immovable object, simultaneously unable and compelled to carry on. I drink coke constantly so that I have to go for piss at least once an hour and resort as often as necessary to the only salutary thought at my disposal, the force which has brought us all to this place: money. Time passes.
11.30am. There are two hours to go, but in relative terms the end is in sight. At nine hours my shift is short. Some are prepared to go much further. Les is halfway through a 14 hour shift, but remains mysteriously chipper. He's already been up all night. Beneath his overalls he's still wearing what looks like Saturday night's pulling shirt. At the end of his shift he'll go down the pub and stay there until it closes.
Finally, time contrives to accelerate. I slope back to my station and stare at the basket of freshly drilled washers. What are they for? Alan trundles by with a trolley and takes them somewhere else. Cogs, like all of us here, in a machine we'll never see. "It's now or never," bellows Alan as he moves slowly through the vast hall of the reverberating factory. "It's now or never."