They’re looking for meat deboners at the processing site in Paull, a coastal village ringed by chemical plants and vacancies, so I fill in my slip and waft it towards the receptionist at my agency. She puts it in her out-tray without looking and without raising her head, and she doesn’t smile. “You’ll not need the code, for my file?” I ask. She tells me no, it’s not been policy since the take-over, and her eyes are flickering and green in the light of her onscreen solitaire.
Tony is waiting for me in the car park. He is short and square-set with bulging eyeballs and a gently flaking scalp. He is wearing a white shirt, a hard hat and a name tag. When he sees me he walks forward with his arm held out in front of him, ready to sow a handshake with me, his newest team member. I stand shyly in my filched and too-large suit.
“You’re overdressed, son,” he says. We are the same age, or he is slightly younger than me. “Your audience with the mayor is that way.” He laughs, or in fact wheezes, and points to a cluster of blue giant wheelie bins by a sign that says ‘caution: bio-hazard’. I stare at the bins till he says, “No, you’re all right,” and, “we’ll fit you some overalls. This way now, you can come through this way, now tell me, what’s your shoe size?”
I am standing at the mouth of the deboning floor, in my toe-capped size nines and overalls and my hairnet, and I’m having a problem hearing Tony over the screech of the machines. It’s a surprising scene, because I’d imagined the deboning would be done by hand, tenderly, with care. Actually, scraps and carcasses are fed to the machines, and the machines churn and compress the matter, and Jesus but they never stop roaring. Tony guides me through the far door and into the calm of the scrub room. Bloodied aprons hang from an overhead railing, and are one by one conveyed into broad steel cylinders for rinsing. “Now you know why we want you to wear these,” he says, taking a pair of earplugs from a locker. “It’s actually an offense if you don’t wear ’em, okay. If you don’t wear ’em, we could get done for health and safety,” he explains. “Daft not to wear ’em, course, now you’ve heard the conditions on the floor. But if you don’t wear ’em, or if you lose ’em, it’s by law. We’d get –” But I have inserted my earplugs by now, and I can’t hear him.
“And this is where the lads eat their dinners,” Tony finishes, as he leads me to a portakabin behind the main building. Inside there are four plastic tables and two vending machines (one coffee, one meat pasties). “Vegetarians see our specials board!” he says, knocking on the glass face of the pasty machine and letting out a gleeful wheeze.
There are only two posters in the portakabin’s wan interior: a wide-angle shot of some cows in a field with the words ‘100% British Beef’ in red at the bottom, and a brassy lass in a thong from an old catalogue. Both are ripped and peeling at the edges, and grimed over with old cigarette smoke and, I don’t know, sweat. So this is how it will be, anyway, I think. No large words, no despair; just pasties and posters and machines.
“Someone has drawn a cock on the pasty machine,” I say, to my horror, aloud. “Tut tut,” I add, shaking my head. Across Tony’s face, a broad frown seeps like oil, evenly into all the corners. “Bloody cocks,” I say, “ha ha, that’s a bit of all right.”
“I mean a bit of a laugh.”
“Yeah,” says Tony, through his frown. “I’ll show you out, son.”
It’s six a.m. and I’m in the minibus eating a banana. I’m thinking about how cold it is and looking at the tall blue flames bursting from their spouts at the BP plant we’re passing in the dark. We are all silent as usual, and the voice of the breakfast radio station is hoarse with interference. There are twelve of us here, and mostly we’ve fallen back asleep, leaning on the windows with our feet on the seats and faint Europop trilling from our earphones. Apart from Sheila and her grandson, I’m relieved to note, I am the only English speaker.
It’s Tony who wants to keep me talking. He has a deep respect for the machines, and loves to tell me about them in supplier-catalogue detail. During my first week on the job, he tells me how proud he is that the machines are today so advanced that workers of lower skill levels are all the company now requires for most of the jobs; wages are low and the available workforce is local, desperate, and numerous. I’m told I’m lucky to be here, but that if I’m reliable my job should be reasonably safe. Tony gets Pinky, his subordinate, to show me how to tunnel-bone pre-rigor torsos (‘trunks’), and while they show me they comment on the smell, to which they say I’ll grow accustomed in time. Then Pinky says, ‘Once the trunk is firmly in the chucks, pull the safety guard down to here.’
And Tony adds, ‘Unless you want a deboning!’ and wheezes and digs his elbow into my rib region.
“Does that ever happen?” I ask. “Has anyone ever had an accident?”
Tony looks at Pinky, who holds out his right hand, saying, “How d’yer think I got my name, chap?”
His little finger is starkly absent. “Nasty,” I say, gawping at the gap it makes until he points in silence to a sign above the exit of the deboning floor. It is one of the most obscure signs I’ve ever seen. Under the word ‘safety’ are nine distinct illustrations: a stickman taking a tumble down some stairs; a hard hat and goggles; an industrial fan; a wellington boot; a small lockable chest; what looks like a donkey; a full jug; an empty glove; and a round stop button. It is highly conceptual and absorbing, and I feel particularly drawn to the fan and the jug. Is it telling a story, I wonder, or is it a puzzle; do I rearrange its parts to discover its secret meaning? Whatever the answer, it turns out to be all I ever receive in the way of a safety induction.
Leaving work that day, I’m delayed by Tony who whispers to me in conspirator’s tones, gripping my elbow: “Don’t mind Pinky, take no notice. That finger of his was took off by his girlfriend’s dog. In fact, we’ve had a long straight run of health and safety approvals, no major incidents under my watch while 2004, and that’s a record you can look up any time. I’m proud of that.” His hand has travelled from tight around my elbow to loose on my shoulder. “But he likes to have his fun with the new recruits, does Pinky. And that’s all right. I don’t mind a bit of fun, in the workplace, in the right space in time.”
I soon settle into my routine of dawn rising, bus bananas, ear plugs, and work, which is feeding pig trunks to the machines, for them to eject a pink coagulated meatlike slurry on the left and cracked discarded skeletons on the right. These I cart to the bins at the end of each shift, while the slurry is daily delivered to a sister site to be flavoured, dyed and reconstituted, for eventual consumption by human animals in the form of chicken nuggets, hotdogs and beef patties, and by non-human animals in the form of BestPal™ wet pouches of various nominal savours. Technically, the name for it is Mechanically Separated Meat (MSM), but what it amounts to is, in practical terms, a toxic sap: undigestable factory waste, representing the worst of everything, belonging to the rat cellar of human progress along with chemical birth defects, bird flu, and the bad kind of asbestos.
But enough politics. In the early afternoon – my scheduled lunchtime – I emerge from the deboning floor, change, turn left to the toilet and vomit quietly, then head round the back to the mobile where I eat my packed lunch of crisps and banana, and make harrowing conversation with Tony and the others.
“Fapcor are working on a new machine that actually removes pelvises as standard,” says Tony, “so we can look at low-skilled workers instead of semi-skilled for that too.”
“Pelvises are tricky fuckers,” says Sheila’s grandson Luke, “Fucking bane of my life, pelvises.”
“Eh, mucky mouth!,” says Sheila, clipping his ear. “Watch yer language, yer mucky bugger!”
Sheila always takes her breaks with Luke to make sure he doesn’t do a lunchtime flit and walk the five miles home to Hull when no-one’s looking. Since moving back in with his dad, as Sheila regularly confides to anyone within earshot, Luke has developed a penchant for lying in bed playing X-box with his girlfriend while eating family packs of Skips and M&Ms. He is poised to make a break for it at any time, and is on his last warning.
“I’m just saying, Nana,” says Luke, standing his ground. “Pelvises is a fucking pain in the arse.” He bites into his kidney pie and Sheila groans like a woman sorely wronged.
“Well,” says Tony in his enthusiastic voice, “that’s all about to change. It’s a revolution in the deboning industry is what it is, to be honest. It’ll change the future.”
“That’s great mate, I’m really happy for you – and I mean that,” says Luke, who does indeed sound extremely earnest; who is not so dense that he can’t see clearly how important these developments are to Tony, and who is not so hard as to be left unmoved by the harmless enthusiasms of kind bosses. He stands up. “Coming for a fag, Nana?”
Sheila brushes pastry crumbs from her enormous bosom shelf, stands with exaggerated effort, and says, “Go on then, yer daft get,” before shuffling out of the ‘kabin, which rocks under her feet. I am left alone with Tony and three Lithuanians who never talk except amongst themselves. Tony takes his opportunity.
“How are you finding the work?” he asks.
“Fine thanks,” I say. Even in my real life, I have a reputation for not being much of a talker.
“Not much of a talker, are you son?” says Tony, who I’ve learned by now is fully five years my junior.
“Not much to say,” I say.
“Well, that’s all right. I can see you’re used to the job now and you’ve picked it up real quick. None so quick since that lad Luke in fact,” he says, smiling generously in the delivery of this compliment. “He weren’t here six weeks before we moved him up to pelvises.”
“Impressive,” I say.
“Too right it is,” agrees Tony. “But listen, you’ve come on a lot since you’ve been with us. How would you feel if we tried you out as Assistant Duty Floor Manager for a week, see how you take to it?”
This is the break I’ve been waiting for: Phase Two. “That’d be fantastic,” I say in a warm voice. But not too warm.
“You’ll be assigned under Pinky. He’ll show you what’s involved. You’ll get your own locker and ten quid a week bonus.”
“But,” says Tony, now stern, “with your own locker and ten quid a week bonus comes great responsibility.”
I sip my coffee seriously.
“You’ll be responsible for safety and security when Pinky’s on his lunch break. Not at first mind, but as and when.”
There is a meaningless pause.
“If you take to it, mind,” he adds.
“I understand,” I say.