I tighten the nut on the last wheel, push the unit onto the conveyor belt, and move today’s penultimate brass tally token from one box into the finished box. I note that there is a whole final turn of the hourglass before my shift ends. But I can go early if my quota is complete.
I place a washer, a painted wheel, another washer on the next axle and hand-tighten the nut. I lift my wrench, almost as tall as me, when I hear “Psst!” behind me.
‘Sceptic’ Alec Bumbletree is behind me, he leans on his broom. He greybearded and old, can’t cut the manufacturing mustard any more, so he is assigned to Clean-up, but he always stops to chat to me for some reason. Few others put up with his bull. However, these wheeled toys must be finished before the Workshops’ Christmas Week shut-down in a couple of days.
Alec sneers, “You’re nobbut a slave to the Boss man, Harold Smallbone, believin’ those Bosses’ and Chapel pulpit promises. Join us. Become Sceptical like me Harry, seek the Real Truth behind what we make here,”
I sigh, the troublemaker’s usual message, he tries to deliver it to me and shake my beliefs to the core every time he stops to talk.
“Not now, Alec, I’m busy filling my work quota before hurrying home for my tea.”
“Young’un, you need to face the facts.” Tucking his broom under his arm he counts off on his grubby stubby fingers, “One: why should one particular day in the year be Special? Two: who still believes in Christ-”
“Enough, Alec, enough!” I cry. “I hate being rude, but Mum was baking iced cakes at lunchtime and I want to finish my quota and get home for my tea.”
“Three,” That Alec’s a bloody juggernaut once he gets going, “fair wealth share, the Boss’s raking in Christmas orders-”
“Alec-” I protest, “please.”
I suppose I do doubt my beliefs from time to time, naturally, everybody does. Although my Dad reckons it’s his unquestioning belief in Christmas that brings him home from the mines, after every shift, and sends him cheerfully off to every new shift. My Dad may not be able to read and write, but he’s simply a wise man in my book.
“You’re so thin, Harry, look at you,” Alec stirs my emotions with his big metaphorical spoon, “because you are all work, work, work, while the Boss an’ ‘is Missus are growing fatter and fatter by exploiting your hard unremitting labour. Don’t believe the bull-”
“Alec Bumbletree, you should’ve finished sweeping up in this area long before now,” a woman’s bossy voice interrupts him. “Go away and stop bothering my best worker!”
Oh no! My Overseer Wendy’s here. I’m in trouble.
What did she say? ‘Best worker’? I don’t think Wendy knows I even exist. We’ve hardly spoken since she was transferred to oversee this section.
“Go!” I hiss to my tormentor.
Alec disappears with his broom.
I turn, to face Wendy’s wrath, but she’s smiling at me, which is really disconcerting.
Wendy’s truly lovely, with her delicate elfin features. I ... really like her ... a lot. I suppose I always have since seeing her all the time in school; but never made my feelings known to her, of course. She’s from the posher side of our little town up the rise, while I live in the old Mineworkers’ tenements down below. Wendy’s father is the Workshops’ Foreman, while mine’s an ore and coal miner. Wendy and me are not exactly poles apart, we just live east and west of the same pole.
Wendy’s beautiful and popular, but known to be somewhat picky. She’s said to only date her boyfriends once, or maybe twice at the most, before they’re permanently consigned to history. Her latest boyfriend is bully-boy “Big Ears” Murray from Workshop 7. Rumours are that they have been out four times, I know that I have seen them out three times with my own eyes. I presume she must like him. I guess they are kind of made for each other if opposites do attract after all. She’s delicately beautiful, educated and smart as a tack, he’s ugly, built like a brick igloo and blunt as a toothless saw blade. I suppose they do have one thing in common, she’s always been bossy and he’s always been a bully.
“Big Ears” Murray and I exchanged blows regularly back when we were both at school; I almost put him down, once.
“Don’t let that troublemaker Alec bother you, Harry,” Wendy says as I sheepishly return to work, putting on wheels, washers and nuts.
“I know,” I reply while I tighten the final wheel, “I never really listen to him, Alec’s just lonely and sad really.”
“You’re too polite for your own good. You should insist he preaches his poisonous sedition elsewhere.” Wendy advises, “What’d he have to say, anyway?”
I grin, this was the longest conversation Wendy and me’d ever had.
“He questioned my beliefs-”
“I don’t think they’re in any doubt!” she interjects, her voice full of laughter.
“Why not?” I ask.
My family’s got the Miners Chapel on our side in the valley, it’s grim and spartan, where beliefs aren’t sugar coated, not with hard unforgiving benches and the sermons that prefer not to promise paradise, but threaten the alternative.
Wendy’s family’s got their grand High Church, at St Nicholas’s up the hill, with its gilded carvings, rich velvet tapestries and soft cushions. Wendy and her mother sing in their choir. I sneak in and attend at the very back of her Church Service immediately after Chapel, to hear and see Wendy sing. I’m discreet, mind, she won’t ever have seen me.
“I’ve seen you in Church,” Wendy says, still wiping a tear of laughter away.
Damn! She has seen me in Church!
“Spoke to your Mum recently Harry. Alice tells me that you come to church just to watch and hear me sing.”
Oh damn! My Mum knows everything. She’s always pulling my leg about attending Church straight after Chapel; I insist it’s only because I love how that choir music fills that wonderful vaulting space the Church has, but Mum knows that that I’m up there virtually stalking the lovely Wendy.