Order of Four: Part Five
Worthington's, which I finally found after several confusing sets of verbal directions, looked very much like all of the other factories. It was a massive, grey, windowless building on the seafront, with nothing visible to explain its purpose; clearly, the selling and the advertising were done elsewhere. I had heard factory work spoken of as the worst possible job, a sort of last resort when everything else had failed. But this seemed more or less appropriate to me. After all, except that I was in good physical health, my position could hardly be worse. And even if I was risking that last remaining asset by becoming a factory hand, I would lose it much more quickly if I starved in the streets.
There didn't seem to be anyone around in the factory yard, so I entered through the large doors in the front. Instantly I was assailed by the overwhelming noise: machinery working, horns blowing, and voices shouting over all the rest of it. When my ears had recovered a little bit, I also noticed an overpowering smell of paint, which presumably came from the gigantic colorful vats to my left. I wondered what it was that they produced here, and to my astonishment, when I looked for the last part of the assembly line I realized that it was a toy factory. How strange to think that all those clean, soft plushies came from such a noisy, dirty place full of grinding machinery!
Nobody appeared to have noticed my entrance, so I searched for something that looked like a manager's office. I decided that it might be the little unmarked door in the far right corner, so I went over to it and knocked sharply.
"Come in!" called a voice from inside.
I gathered, from the relatively luxurious furniture and the large desk covered in papers, that I had guessed correctly. This meant that the weary-looking red Scorchio sitting in front of me must be the manager. I waited politely for him to speak first.
"Well?" he said, looking at me in a harassed sort of way. "What do you want?"
"I am looking for employment, sir."
"Hmm." He sounded a little too doubtful about that for my liking. "I see... And what kind of experience do you have? Ever worked in a factory before?"
"Well, no," I confessed. (It was beginning to seem to me that acquiring experience was impossible, since everybody's first question was whether you had it.)
However, this did not especially seem to concern him. "I suppose you'll be new to it, then. Now, you'll need to show up on time every day and do your work until the time is out – you're amenable to that, I hope? No slacking off around here, we don't have time. If I hear about any antics you'll lose your place like that." He snapped his fingers as though to emphasize the point.
In a somewhat chilly tone, I explained to him that I had no intention of failing to perform my duties.
"Very well, very well then. Pay starts at forty neopoints a week, but we'll consider raising it if you stay with us and do good work for a while. I'll put you at the vats for now, we can always use a good pair of eyes there." Rising from his seat, he went over to the door and put his head out. "Daisy!" he called out, much more loudly than I would have thought him capable of; the shout made me jump.
After a moment a pretty young blue Kau came hurrying up. "What is it, Mr. Gann?"
"Take this boy to the vats and show him what to do. And when you're done with that, tell Kate to come see me – she's cost us thirty good plushies in this last week alone with her mistakes." Mr. Gann seemed to consider the conversation as over, for he retreated back into his office and closed the door behind him.
Daisy gave me an unexpectedly kind smile (it had been a long time since I had expected kindness from anyone except my mother, let alone from a complete stranger). "Come on, follow me. It's right this way. What's your name?"
I had already prepared a surname in case I was asked, but I didn't think she wanted one anyway, so I simply gave her my first name.
"All right then, young Mister Felix. Now the vats is pretty easy work, at least you don't have to do too much except stand there and look and push buttons. But you've got to keep on your toes. It's tiring work." I followed her across the factory floor, between strange machines whose purposes I could not even begin to guess. Evidently there were a great many steps involved in producing those little toys.
We came to three large vats full of paint, one of each primary color – red, yellow and blue. And above us, in a dizzying moving line, ran buckets of each color of paint.
"Your job, see, is to keep the vats full by pouring the right color into the right vat. You've also got to keep an eye on what's being produced next. If it's a yellow Chomby, say, you know to look pretty sharp about keeping the yellow vat full. If it's something rainbow, you'd better have something in all three."
Her explanation was confusing to me, and as I began to grasp the general idea, it occurred to me what a senseless process it was for keeping the vats full. Surely there was some way to fill them automatically? But it had provided me with a job, so I supposed I had no reason to complain.
Daisy showed me how to press the buttons which would pour the paint cans into the vats, critically watched me doing it for a minute or so, and then went off with a warning that too many mistakes would lead to my dismissal.
The task looked easy, and in a way it was; but the line above moved quickly, the machine next to me spat out the plushies extremely fast, and more than anything it was simply disorienting to stare at the passing colors for too long. I found that my fingers would press the wrong button even when my mind knew that it was red I needed, not blue. Once or twice I missed the vats altogether, and the paint can dropped like a stone to the ground, bursting and splattering all over me. (I realized that I was going to have to buy more than just this one set of clothes with my first earnings.)
At long last, the bell rang for six o'clock, and I was allowed to go home. Or rather to leave, for I still had nowhere to go. I asked a fellow worker when we were paid, and since the answer was Friday – two days from now – I decided it would hardly be worthwhile to ask Gann about an advance. Instead I would simply have to repeat last night's experience, and in the meantime I decided that I would try the apple-seller's advice and seek the Soup Kitchen.
It was difficult, dirty work, and there were many nights when, by the time I finished, I could still see the colorful cans of paint moving across my field of vision. My clothes were so saturated with paint that I soon gave up trying to clean them at all. Still, it provided me with an income; a meager one, true, so that there was nothing left over when I had paid my weekly rent and bought two meals a day. When money was particularly tight, I occasionally ventured over to the Soup Kitchen, which did indeed provide free food, but the lines were so long there that I could only go for dinner and usually missed an entire night's sleep when I did.
The apartment I lived in now would have made my mother's old apartment look, by comparison, like a veritable palace. It was part of a tumbledown shack by the docks, divided into three rooms, one of which I rented.
Once, two weeks after my mother's disappearance, I gathered up the courage to go and look at our old apartment. But I found no trace of anything that had happened. Already it had been rented by somebody else, and I saw nothing suspicious there or anywhere else.
Indeed, as the weeks and then the months wore on, I began to wonder if somehow I had dreamed it all up, if perhaps all of this had a perfectly mundane explanation. Maybe all that had taken place that day was a simple robbery, and my paranoia had been fueled simply by the knowledge that all my life we had been hiding from someone. Maybe, much as it pained me to even consider this possibility, there had never been anybody looking for us in the first place, and all of it could be chalked up to my mother's imaginings. Whatever the case, I had never felt less as though somebody was watching me. Quite the contrary – I felt that I had been forgotten by the world, and that whether I lived or died now made no difference to anyone but myself.
To be continued...