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Short story The White Letter by Craig Campbell

There can be few more authentic chroniclers of the realities of austerity for working-class people on Teesside than Craig Campbell. His first short-story collection Line Drawings was a spiky series of vignettes from the lower depths, marked by a razor-sharp eye for detail, a wicked turn of phrase and laugh-out-loud one-liners. All those qualities are there again in this story, particularly acute in the era of Brexit, which is to be included in Campbell’s new collection later this year

I WAS hungover as hell and my urine was the same colour as Lance Armstrong’s. It was a Polish house party that had done for me. I’d gone to Natan’s the night before. He was a forklift driver at the hell face, just like me. He lived on the Owton Manor, one of those estates that Channel Four documentary teams liked to rake over to get their quota of poverty porn.

They were as rough as fuck on the Manor but not quite the cartoon monsters the TV portrayed them as. Natan didn’t care either way. He lived in a top-floor flat which he reckoned made him the king of something. I liked his philosophy but I wouldn’t have liked to live in his head for a day. He took a lot of speed. Sometimes he didn’t finish a sentence, as if the English language was too slow for him. A mere shadow of syllables in his ever-rushing universe.

I’d fallen in with the Polish lads by accidental design. On my first day at the factory I’d sat with them on a canteen bench that seemed to be reserved for them, away from their English counterparts. I was new to factory work. I didn’t know the etiquette and machinations of modern-day slave labour.

The factory made thirty-five million profit a year and paid all their employees minimum wage. It bordered on industrial violence. From the sales girls to the supervisors, everyone had that hollowed-out look that came from bad diets and a heavy workload. Under the artificial lights, they often resembled Holocaust victims moping around the heavy tiled floor.

I was employed as a table operative. It was my job to ensure the constant flow of carpets that arrived through a fifteen-foot belt were safely rolled and wrapped at the other side. It was a numbers game. There were giant-sized placards, the type you see assistant referees holding up for extra time in football matches, informing us of our hourly rate.

When the numbers dropped, a cruel-faced supervisor would appear like his daughter was on fire on the gantry above us and scream obscenities. Other times, he would plead to us like a spurned lover. He was the cue man. The directors were in constant contact with him via a mobile phone that they used like a hot knife to his spine. Spiritually and physically, it wasn’t in doubt that they were slowly trying to kill him.

Natan told me the cue guy had suffered a nervous breakdown the previous winter. It was one of the rare occasions he wasn’t speeding and was under the influence of Tramadol. They handed them out like pick-and-mix sweets on the work face. An English guy by the name of Cockney John had them prescribed for a titanium leg he’d lost after a bad drug addiction in his teens.

You could tell when the factory had a good supply, everything moved slower, even the forklifts, as if the machines were under the influence of the drug themselves. An old guy called Barney called it best. He’d been at the factory twenty years and had seen most things, from the takeovers to foreign workers. The thing that entertained him most though was this new, chemical generation. Their sense of anarchy and hedonism was endless. Even the management couldn’t do anything with them.

“You young ‘uns,” he chuckled at the clocking-in station. “Take drugs for work. Drugs for the weekend. Drugs for fucking. I’m surprised you don’t rattle when you walk.”

A few weeks after he said that, one of the young guys on inspection gave Barney a blast of amyl nitrate, telling him it was a cold inhaler. We all watched as his eyes rolled into the back of his head and he went the same colour as the flare stacks on the Seal Sands road. He had to lean on the back of his truck to steady himself and for a moment a few of us thought he was going to keel over completely, but once the his buzz diminished, he let out a “fuck me” in indignation and even said he couldn’t feel his cold anymore. “Mind you, I can’t feel my forehead either,” he also added. Which everyone, even the young apprentice Callum, who hardly ever said anything, pissed himself laughing about.

We were still laughing about it at Natan’s flat the night of his party. I’d taken the number six bus from town, which always smelt as though it had an unchanged bandage wrapped around it. The party was contained in one of those tower blocks they’d built in the seventies that hadn’t quite died of natural causes yet. It’s nickname was Castle Greyskull, because it was the same colour of cremated ash on the outside.

Its interior was hardly bespoke either. The corridor walls were covered with graffiti that revealed its residents’ age and motives in equal measure. From T Rex rules to Thatcher must die, it was like travelling through a time warp, but the closer you got to where the Polish lived, the more racist it seemed. “Poles Go Home” was a constant message. Every step upwards, the more prominent and day-glo the hatred was.

The party was busy. The Poles always gathered as a community when they knew there was a do happening. There were over a thousand living and working in Hartlepool according to Natan, but most of the faces I recognised from my shifts. They seemed more relaxed in a neutral environment, free from the tension of having to graft like Egyptians in the factory. They were happy.

The demented energy of rave blasted out of a giant set of speakers that vibrated and seemed to shuffle in time to the bpm. A solitary strobe light flickered in the corner like a lonely lighthouse, freeze-framing people’s faces before disappearing again. Everyone seemed as though they were waiting for something. After a while Natan came up to me, grinding his teeth together like castanets. He pressed a small white pill in my hand. I pushed it straight back to him.

“Ecstasy is a young man’s game,” I laughed.

“Are you sure? It will put you in a fantastic frame of mind.”

“I remember it from my Empire days. It’s a beautiful thing but not tonight, my friend.”

“Suit yourself,” said Natan, swallowing the pill himself in the next instant. “I’ll be sure to say hello from the other side.”

I watched as the whole room seemed to twitch into an elastic reality. I was like an astronaut at the wrong altitude or a headmistress sat at the front of a class of unruly children. If alcohol is the slow boulder crawling up a hill, E is the asteroid crashing through it.

I was right on one thing, however. No-one wanted to see a middle-aged man on eckies. They do something strange to the mouth, the gait, the bone structure that only the young can pull off. I didn’t want to resemble a melting waxwork at Madam Tussauds and I certainly didn’t want it filmed on Snapchat either, so I observed the hedonism like an auteur.

I was like the narcotic David Attenborough. I could have subtitled it. The disco nerves of the initial stage. The looks of trepidation as the MDMA began to pulse slowly but surely in the cortex like an African drum beating ominously in the distance.

Pill takers were the equivalent of horses in a race paddock. Wild-eyed and floppy-jawed, waiting for the restraints to be lifted before they burst into life in one, big communal shitroar. Their countdown continually resetting... 3,2,1, till — “Lift off!” someone shouted as the music reached its euphoric peak. Everyone cheered and for the next couple of hours and for most, life didn’t hurt and everything was beautiful.

I got talking to a girl from the factory called Elena. She was in charge of samples and seemed to walk around the aisles on weekdays with her head bowed, as if her shyness was a weapon. We’d bumped into each other before and shared hellos in passing, but this time it was different, as if the shackles were off. We shared a bottle of vodka from the kitchen that in no time we were taking shots from like old army buddies. She didn’t grimace as she slugged it back and for a while it made her seem quite manly.

Then the light caught her feminine side too. She had something, Elena. She was like those fashion models you sometimes saw on the covers of high-end fashion magazines. She was naturally pretty but she hadn’t bothered to nurture it. I liked the way her light moustache glistened like tiny particles of ice through the strobe light and there were light sweat stains on the T-shirt that was pulled tight around her torso too. She smiled at me and urged me to me dance. as someone turned the music up louder. I refused politely but she was interested enough to stick with me, even though she had to shout above the din.

“Do you know sign?’ she hollered, holding her fingers in front of her like one of those interpreters you see on late-night television in the bottom part of the screen.

“No.” I said.

“Either do I,” she laughed.

I took a risk and pulled her in closer. She hesitated for an instant but cocked her head to one side. She touched her neck as she did so. It was a self-conscious gesture I realised, due to the wine-coloured birthmark she had that stretched from her collarbone to her ear like a tropical infection. It didn’t make any difference to me. When I’d been a teenager at school my nickname had been Chopped Peck Neck due to the steroid injections for severe acne I’d been given that had left small, junkie-like holes underneath my chin. I was hardly in a position of vanity. I felt as if I should point them out to her.

“They’re pleased you’ve came,” she said.

“I suppose they have to have one token English guy from the factory.”

“You’re not a symbol. They like you. They already consider you a kochanie.”

“What’s a kochanie?” I enquired.

‘It’s a term of endearment for a Polish male. It means beloved, but not in a feminine way.”

We went on like that for what seemed hours. I felt as though the gods were smiling on us. Putting our bar codes through a secret machine. Then, as these things do, the atmosphere quickly changed. I noticed a guy that was staring at us from the other side of the room. He looked upset. He kept smoking cigarettes really fast and blowing smoke around himself like he was a magician about to perform an exotic trick. He was slapping his hand aggressively in time to the music too. Harder and harder, till Elena threw a spear of a look at him.

“Take no notice of him. We were seeing each other for a bit six months ago,” she said.

“He looks at though he’s about to cry,” I said. Elena rolled her eyes. “Who on earth would want a man like that?”

She was right, though I felt for him. He was an unrequited guy. The type that was always in the corners of late-night bars looking sad as everyone else dry-humped each other to Cotton Eyed Joe. The more I looked at him though, the more he irritated me. Men can only stare at each for so long before one breaks rank and considers popping one on his opponent’s chin. They lack the subtle cruelty of women. I was on the verge of going over and making my point, when the music stopped and there was a hive of activity in the room. I glanced up and immediately knew what it was.

It was the one aspect of the house party that was set in stone. I’d seen its form over many decades, but it hardly ever changed. It was always written into social circles, from Billingham to Beijing, that past the witching hours — when the sun was threatening to come up and the come-downs were being navigated through a fog of cannabis smoke — people always got into a circle and argued over their favourite conspiracy theories.

Sure enough, Natan was soon in the centre of the room, showing a clip of the plane attacks. 9/11, the Stairway to Heaven lick for anti-government theorists. It was all there. The footage of the first plane, already embedded in its target like it had been placed there by set designers. The volley of separate, small explosions on the lower floors. The collapse of the third tower. Que sera, sera.

On the screen, it still still had the ability to shock. It was the most powerful image of my lifetime, senseless and horrifying and, it has to be said, thrilling as those planes screamed into the side of the twin towers. Nothing, maybe apart from the end of the world, would ever come close and even then the gods would have their work cut out to match it.

For all the conspiracy theories, it has to be said that the room fell completely silent when we watched it again. Apart from one girl, who began to cry softly at the footage.

“It’s like watching a snuff film. Nothing comes close. Not even the Diana crash photos,” she sniffled.

“One conspiracy at a time please,” someone said from the couch as the second plane exploded like one of Kerouac’s mad spiders crashing across the universe and beyond.

Natan was in his element. He was like one of those demented preachers that you sometimes saw on Louis Theroux documentaries. His pupils, already wide with drugs, now took on the gaze of a demented owl. The World Trade Centre bombings were a subject he liked to corner people at work with. You could see people’s eyes literally glazing over like dead, winter birds on shift.

He had the same flaw that all conspiracy theorists had, though. He believed every theory, however warped and outlandish they were. I’d read once about how the American government relied on such a mindset to cover their own tracks. They would filter theories themselves into the public’s consciousness until they covered their original misdoings with misinformation and falsehoods. “Stacking” they called it.

Maybe that’s what happened at the World Trade Centre bombings. Maybe, on the other hand, those bombers really had ploughed a commercial airline straight into the commercial sector of New York. If they had, you had to begrudgingly hand it to them. It was one almighty act of symbolism. Even Elena seemed to agree with me.

“They say suicide bombers are cowards, but if you ask me it’s extremely brave to fly a plane into the side of a building,” she said, squeezing my arm as if she was pleased with her comment.

“I wonder what they thought in the last seconds,” someone added.

“Eject, I suppose,” I said.

“Commercial airliners don’t have an ejector seat. They were radio-controlled anyway,” Natan said sulkily.

His moment had been lost. He looked sad at the reality that people were more worried on getting a toke on the joints that were now being passed around the couch like Olympic batons. Soon, all eyes were on the last remaining bifter that was being passed amongst the owner’s hierarchy like a secret handshake. There was a collective sigh when it was extinguished and people began to drift off. It was the dead hours. The music had stopped. People looked like depressed vampires and chain-smoked. I walked outside and immediately found Elena.

“What time do you start work?” she said.

“I’m on earlies,” I sighed.

“You’re a maniac. You only have two hours. At least I’m on two till ten. It gives me a chance at least.”

Elena was right and the moon laughed. I walked her to her door, which was no more than ten minutes away but I measured every step with a boyish happiness. We kissed but I didn’t go inside. It felt good more than anything.

I made my way home, past the tankers who sulked past and the rats that scurried down the embankments to the fast food restaurants, whose bins carried their favourite secrets. It was all wearing off then.

By the time I’d got home I had the fears, that awful annulment of the soul when the body screams for the bed and the mind says no. The factory didn’t celebrate absence. There was an attendance bonus which was paid monthly and meant an extra £100 on your wage if you didn’t have a day off. We all needed it. We weren’t working class, we were an underclass. Bottom feeders. I’d seen people with broken bones turn up for their shift. What had we become? Where were our unions? Where were our spines? The older hands, who remembered the seventies, laughed at us. Hedonism was the only act of rebellion we had left.

“You’re eyes are like piss-holes in the snow,” Barney said as I shuffled through the gates tragically, but there was no sympathy. The circuit of the factory didn’t operate like that. Soon the supervisors were barking out their cue numbers and the machines lurched and crunched in the background, ready to begin again.

As I took my place at my station, the work snitch McMurphy sidled alongside me. He was that poisonous, someone had once remarked that he must have been born in a blowpipe. He was dedicated in his wretchedness, however. At least two men had pinned him around his throat at the factory and he had once been beaten to a pulp in the car park by an Irish traveller whose cousin he had grassed on for a printer theft.

Nothing fazed him. Whatever hadn’t killed McMurphy had made him stronger. It was like he had an impenetrable force field around him.

“Barney says you’re a bit green round the gills. Heavy night last night then?” he enquired.

“Not me, McMurphy,” I said.

“You weren’t at Natan’s then. Heard he had a party into the small hours.”

“A Polish-only affair, I’m afraid.”

McMurphy sucked through his teeth like an old West Indian. I almost expected him to start rapping in patois.

“They want to learn to integrate more. They’re happy enough to take our twelve-hour shifts but they won’t share a beer with us. What a pack of arseholes,” he said bitterly. I nodded. You learnt not to give the work snitch anything. Ever. McMurphy had no morals. His eyes burrowed into you like assassin’s bullets when he talked to you. He had his suspicions, though.

I watched him skulk away to gather more evidence and tried to concentrate on the job in hand. The first carpet rolled down promptly at 6am and instantly jammed in the rollers. I pulled at it and then ripped at it with a safety cutter. My stomach lurched and complained as I did so. It didn’t want to be there. A few minutes later I opened up a knuckle. The blood oozed everywhere. The sun wasn’t out. The guard dog near the gate still slept. My rib cage suddenly felt as though it was being massaged with barbed wire.

The first hour was a disaster. From a target of thirty-five, I hit a paltry seventeen, not even half the number of carpets deemed acceptable by management. The ripples of discontent were immediate. A supervisor named Wilson loomed above me on the gantry with a face on. He stared at the cut number on the board above me with a mixture of horror and disillusionment.

“We need to up our rate this hour,” he shouted down at me. Even through the noise of the factory, supervisors always had a way of making sure all the shop floor heard it.

I didn’t have it in me, however. Like one of the old machines that was barely held together with filings and bare wires, the sweats now began to ooze out of me like a slow poison. It had a devastating effect on my motor functions. With every step I took, it was as if my bones were attached with heavy weights. I moved on the edge of the line like I was pulling a heavy caravan behind me or as if I was moving through thick liquid.

Tiredness started to play tricks on me too. The shimmering heat of the factory was like a pulsing wave rolling in on the distance. I could see hangover ghosts everywhere. When another carpet jammed, I felt as though the machine had done it on purpose. When the rollers ripped it clean in half, leaving fibres and polythene flapping like a lost boat’s mast, I was almost certain of it.

I’d begun to get an audience on the shop floor by now. Forklift drivers had stopped to snigger at the carnage. The workers at the factory loved a bit of anarchy as long as it didn’t involve them. They were shithouses, really. A collective cheer went up when they spotted yet another carpet failing to appear at the end of the line, only for them to disappear like insects under a freshly turned-on light as the supervisor turned up alongside me. He had decided to come down from his gantry. He prowled around me like a cheap detective. Later I would find that McMurphy had whispered sweet nothings in his ear. Even without his inevitable tap on my shoulder, I was probably already done for.

“I can smell alcohol on you,” he hissed as the klaxon for break sounded and I tried to swerve around him.

There was a white letter sticking out of his top pocket like an old man’s handkerchief. It was a disciplinary letter for one of the drivers who had crashed his forklift into a roller door a few days earlier. The supervisors liked to flash them in their top pocket like a warning. It was a power thing. I squinted my eyes and tried to read the name on it. It resembled tiny ants dancing across a chalk face. Maybe it was meant for me.

“Do you have something for me there?” I smiled.

“This is serious.”’

“Isn’t everything in this place,” I said. My lack of concern seemed to fluster him slightly.

“Are you not even going to deny being under the influence of alcohol? You know it’s company policy to discipline members of staff operating machinery.”

“Have you spoken to McMurphy by any chance?”

“Not recently.”

“Tell him when you do he’s a fucking wretch.”

Wilson smiled. “I don’t think you should say any more. I think you need to forget your break and pay a visit to the nurse’s office.”

I walked calmly into the white room reserved for alcohol and drug testing. There was a nurse already waiting for me — my nurse Ratched — as I cursed what that party and that turncoat McMurphy had done to me. Her name badge said Claire and she was just another cog in the machine. Her nickname on the factory floor was the “fun extractor” and she wore no make-up, as if doing so was a weakness.

But I understood her. Like all of us, they’d painted a bullseye on her. They got you terrified or they got you angry. Those men upstairs, the supervisors, the managing directors, pulling us round the factory on tiny, cruel wires for thirty-nine hours a week. They were the puppet masters and they had broken her like fairground brittle. As she handed me the test tube, I almost felt sorry for her.

In the cubicle my penis looked sad, like a thin, bald man at a rainy bus stop. I thought of the guy who had went down as a legend in the factory some months earlier. They’d gave him a test tube for a sample and he’d taken a shit in it. A young assistant nurse had actually screamed when he’d handed it to her. It was one of the few occasions the directors emerged from their offices to see what the fuss was about.

“What sort of man does a thing like that?” I’d later heard one of them say. His colleague had shaken his head in bewilderment beside him. “These people are the reason I don’t believe in God. They’re practically medieval.”

I was one of those people too. The medievals. It was hard not to be. This life of minimum wage and minimum prospects crept up on you like a lost defender. With every shift where you got up in the dark and left in the dark, as if the sun didn’t exist any more, you became more and more part of the turner’s wheel. A Dickensian netherworld, where the machines roared and empathy was eroded with barcode efficiency and only the sound of Tory politicians could be heard cackling from Whitehall in the distance.

But there was also a sense of defiance. Not exactly politically, but spiritually. How could there not be? The factory and its bosses couldn’t break everybody. It was a dark comedy at heart. The farcical condemnation of men — whether it was through disciplinary hearings or work snitches or a simple test tube in a white-walled cubicle was a dance that could never really be taken seriously.

I stared down at my test tube then, the glass now warm with my sample. My urine was the same colour as Lance Armstrong’s. I couldn’t help but laugh so hard my sides hurt. It would take more than a white letter to break me.

That was a certainty.

Line Drawings, price £6, is available from Mudfog Press, mudfog.co.uk

 

 

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