We have always lived in the factory. We were born here, among the engines and the lathes, the conveyor belts which stretch for miles. Not one of us has been outside. Few of us have even been so far as the wall which rises like an end to things, grey and hard and irrefutable, beyond the last of the warehouses. We tell ourselves that on the other side of it the world is wholly other; but we see the grey sky, stretching over the boundary line. We see the clouds that roll across, and in the tiny private spaces of our minds we wonder. We don’t know what it is that we make. We don’t know the purpose of so many narrow lives. We only know the way to slot this piece into that one, the feel of our components, the taste of metal, our thin fingers twisting wires. Only those who are born here have such thin fingers.
Queuing at the bakery as the late afternoon sun spreads along the pavement I watch a group of children doing squats behind a fence, rows of them in identical pairs of grey shorts, their concave chests visible through the thin fabric of their vests. These are the children of the guards. Our children, the machine children, do not have even this rudimentary freedom but are kept in sheds and taught to perform complicated manoeuvres with interlocking strands of copper, and I can still remember how it felt, the way my eyes would ache, the painful swelling in my knuckles that kept me awake at night. Do the guards also dream of escape? Do they whisper and plan, as we do, on those few occasions when we feel ourselves to be unobserved? We barely speak beyond each shift’s terse greeting and its valediction, but they stand behind us as we sit at our machines and in the constancy of their gaze I feel a familiarity which is close to love. They have heavy boots and in the winter wear round woollen caps, and though they are born in their own units, though they die in their own infirmaries and have their own earth to be buried in, they too are part of the factory. They live within the wall. They have the same pinched faces as we do, the same chalk skin, and so they are not our opposite but our balance, as we are theirs: weight and counterweight. It is the others that we fear, the ones coming each day in cars, those long machines with blacked-out windows that slide along the streets while we stand straight against the walls. Their clothes are different, shaped to accommodate bodies which have no corners to them, and when we see them step out from their cars, or when they come to inspect us, poking at our backs, our necks, our flanks as we bend to our allotted tasks, we want nothing more than to reach out and grasp that soft flesh, to hold it, our fingers tight until we know what they contain and we do not.
We write nothing down. We make no record. The details of each plan are spread between us at the speed with which roots grow in darkness, inch by inch and slowing in the winter. We husband them, these lines of action etched into our minds by repetition – and then, after so much whispering, out of the many thousands, one of us might walk through the gate; but that is all we need. Today in the bath house, after I had stripped off my coat and hat, after I had un-laced my boots and stepped out of my grey dress, I heard a voice speak. I stood, hugging my arms about myself until my shoulders rose like wingtips on my back. The words were hard to catch beneath the trickling of the taps and the noise the rain made drumming on the roof but I know how to listen without seeming to, how to keep my body still, my breathing slow. The next candidate for escape is to come from within my shed. The machinery there is old and will soon be replaced; afterwards an evening demonstration will be held for a party of outside dignitaries. I wanted to ask: who are these people who will come to watch us work? What will they gain from it that can’t be learned elsewhere? But I knew better than to speak. These questions are not to the point and the time for exchange is limited; I had to be told what I needed to know before the speaker became an object of suspicion, hovering there amongst the coat hooks. My turn to speak will come, next week in the refectory as I bend to retrieve a spoon that I have let clatter to the floor. Under cover of this slip I will pass the message on. I will give the details that I have rehearsed: how the ceremony is eighteen months away. How, afterwards, as we file out from the shed, there will be a stutter, a long-planned glitch that brings an opportunity. It is hoped that the presence of outside eyes will mute the possibility of response. Those whose job it is to keep us steady at our tasks will not want the error to be seen. The runner will be left to run. We do not yet know which of us it is to be, and so all of us must learn the part.
Seasons here are nothing more than weather. So little grows. Autumn brings fog which leaves a black film on the windowpanes. In winter snow falls and the sky is low and dark and uniform. In spring no buds unfurl. March turns to April and there is only the thawing out of surfaces, the sludge of melted snow in gutters and the rain which brings a smell with it, wet wool from our coats and the sudden rotting of all that cold had kept preserved. Now it is summer and heat hangs in swathes across the factory. The streets are slow, the shadows heavy. The sheds become ovens and as we work sweat runs into our eyes, soaks through our clothes. By the time the sun begins its long beat through the window I can already feel the tributaries form among the fine hairs of my neck, and by midday they have joined to make a stream between my breasts. We fear diseases. The water tastes of rust. At night, beneath the thin sheet of my bunk, I move my legs in circles, trying to prepare the muscles to run.
In November we are moved into a temporary shed. Its walls are made of plywood and canvas and when the wind blows the noise inside is like that of a turning drum. The old shed is fenced off now and each morning a bus arrives with engineers and labourers, men and women in paint-splattered overalls who talk loudly among themselves. I am sent to carry a chit to the storehouse and when I walk past the old shed I see them, sheltering beneath an awning to eat their lunch. The rain falls in icy sheets. They have their sandwiches unwrapped on their knees, and although their bread is not the same soft grey that ours is, like half-emptied clouds, still their faces are pinched, lacking those billowing folds around the eyes, the drapes of flesh from mouth to chin, which I have come to associate with those from outside. My arms are thin and I can think of no better way to strengthen them than to push against things whenever I can: walls, chairs, tables, my weight held in a trembling balance until even chewing on my lip I can no longer bear it, and I let myself fall. I stand at the side of a road and the person next to me whose face I cannot see tells me that the guards are complicit in our plan. It is five and a half miles from our shed to the gate and I want to ask how it will be possible to cover such a distance even in darkness without being retrieved, but I don’t need those details. The candidate needs nothing more than the route. Other sheds will learn their own parts. Already I have noticed my ration of soup and bread expand. My body is firmer than it was. I can no longer count so easily the bones in my hands and feet.
All through winter and another summer we wait, but time passes more quickly now that we have a purpose. I feel it flowing. The heat bakes the earth and in our canvas house the damp residue of all past exhalations clogs our lungs until we feel that we are drowning, submerged in air amongst the whir of the machines. In the bread line I am told the route which I must memorise, the list of lefts and rights which, run, will lead from shed to gate. At night, as I lie in the dark among the creaking of the bunks, the coughs and scratches of so many sleepers, I run it in my mind, my feet unfaltering, and know that the others do the same. We are brought together by our plan. I can feel it in the way we move around one another, the way we take the chance to touch – hand brushed to hand in queues or in the reaching down of objects from the storehouse shelves – but it is important that we show no sign. I must not be too much quicker at my work. For the first time that I can remember my knuckles have ceased to ache. It is as though there are two worlds now, laid out one across the other: that in which our bodies are the servants of our hands, moving them from bed to bench and back again, eating, breathing, solely in order that we might keep our fingers moving; and then there is this other one in which we plan and think, in which our actions are directed and our minds possessed by purpose. At the end of it, if all goes well, then we shall each be granted some measure of success; and that will be enough to live on, for a while.
Autumn brings rain but inside the new shed it is dry and warm. There is the smell of paint. The walls are white, the polished floor unscuffed. The machinery gleams. We are given our allotted places but we don’t start work. Instead, each day, as the rain drums on the roof, we rehearse the movements we will perform at the demonstration until they are effortless, until they are a kind of dance; and in our minds we make that other, extra motion, the one necessary for escape. Around us, we feel the factory stretch out, miles and miles of concrete bounded by a wall, a mechanism we have taught to turn against its purpose, and we know we are the centre of it.
Someone stands by my bunk. Their hands are on my mouth, across my eyes. I flutter my eyelids against the palm which rests on them to show I am awake, but otherwise I lie quite still. Above me a voice speaks, and I think it is familiar but cannot say where I might have heard it before. Lots have been drawn and it is I who am to be the candidate. I stiffen. I want to ask if the straw that was mine was long or short but the hand on my mouth is firm and I can’t speak – not even now, when it seems that I might be owed the answer to a question. I am afraid; but still I know that tomorrow, when the brass band in cacophony brings a moment of confusion, I will slip sideways and, hiding behind the fence which has been erected to screen the older sheds from the view of the visitors, I will start to run.
It is the afternoon. We line up, still wet from the baths, naked, while a woman swathed in pristine cotton inspects our hands, our hair, our ears, to make sure that they are clean. We are given new clothes. I wonder if the others know that it is me, or only that it is not themselves. I feel their hopes like a depth of water and know that if it were not for that then I would beg to stay.
We sit, we work. They watch us, from their rows of chairs lined up on a temporary stage, these lolling visitors who have come to marvel at how silent we are, how quick our fingers run among the metal. They clap. Together, at a signal from the guard, we stand, and for a moment I am uncertain which of all these bodies in their wide-necked smocks, their shapeless trousers, is my own. We file out through the open door, into the rain. The band begins. I start to run.
The gate stands open, a crack to let my body through, and on the other side there is a bridge. Halfway across it I stop running. Beneath me, water boils. I am soaked through. The sudden letting up of effort brings a cold that rattles through my body, setting me to shiver, there in darkness and the rain; but still, after so much terror, after the pounding of my feet against the pavement and the windows lined like lenses at my back, after the months of muscles tightly winding to their bones, the sight of so much space is like an intercession. Grass spreads beyond the river, an endless swathe beneath this sky unhemmed by roofs, unpierced by towers, and I feel a rise, this upwards inflection like a breath indrawn which brings with it the certainty that I am free, I am outside; until I see the car which waits, close by the shadow of the wall – its open door, its leather seats – and then at last I understand. Four faces like pale moons stare out at me. I start to cry. There is the click of a door and from the car a figure unfurls, opening itself to wait where it can best be seen. A siren sounds, or it is my voice let out in fear, and then the figure moves again and shows itself to be a man, broad-shouldered, heavy-armed, bare-headed. Perhaps he is impervious to rain. Perhaps it doesn’t fall on him as it does on me, plastering my hair against my neck, running into my eyes. He skirts the puddles, stepping carefully until he is in front of me and then, reaching out his hands, he starts to strip me of my clothes: first my soaking smock, my trousers, and then, picking up each foot in turn, my shoes, my often-mended underwear, dropping it on to the ground, and I am naked, bare, there on the bridge with the river and the rain and this dry man in his heavy coat. I understand. He pushes me towards the car, and when I reach it there is a blanket waiting for me, rough wool like those which swathe our bunks in winter. I understand. Later, perhaps, there will be another wall, another shed; or not – my part is done. I understand. We had thought that we were making something for ourselves, my feet against the pavement, my outline at the gate a mark of our defiance – something that was ours, a secret – and it kept us to our tasks, our fingers quickened by it; but now I see that this was what they came to watch, the dignitaries lined up on their stage: a necessary recalibration of a mechanism. A swift repair. Hope is a lubricant. They came to see me run. I understand. The car door shuts. The engine starts. I am sealed up.
photograph © in_rainbows69
The above story is taken from We Were Strangers, an anthology of new writing inspired by Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, published by Confingo. Order your copy here.