Sandals

Catriona Yule

 

The factory gates open at 6.30. The Nikes are first, then the Umbros. And then there's me, the sandal. Always last. People say you can tell a person by their shoes. The Nikes preen in the changing room mirrors, strut about admiring themselves, necks above everyone else like pink flamingos. The management.

And then there's the Umbros, desperate to be the Nikes, very keen but not quite making it to the top. Always needing to know what's going on. How ya doing love? How's yer man? Any sign o wedding bells? They're not happy unless you've tied the knot or chucked the bastard. You never get the answer out before they're on to the next question. Half way round the track before your brain's even left the bed. But let's be honest, they're not interested anyway. They don't actually like you. They don't really dislike you either. They're just happy in their own insular world, with you in a separate capsule.

Every morning I change into my boiler suit and wellies like I'm part of some strange Michelin army ready to wage war on the chicken world. The wellies cut into my feet because they're too small. They gave me them because I'm only temporary and they didn't want to splash out. They belong to a girl in packing who's gone on maternity leave. Bloke got her up the spout and now he's done a runner. Every day the cleaning company give you fresh suits, but to me, the stains never disappear. I could sit in the laundrette all day watching blood-smeared bundles swish through spin to rinse to spin and the stains would still be there. Some things don't lift with Persil.

It's not just the overalls either. Under the hair nets, the smell sticks like rotten hairspray. The stench of carcass gets into every pore of your skin, every hair on your head. When I get home, I stand in the shower and layer myself in soap, scrubbing every surface so hard it bleeds then I shampoo twice, lathering my hair til I can't see out the foam.

My dream is to get out of here. I rehearse the moment in my head again and again, each time filling in more detail to make it seem like it's really going to happen. The thing is, I know I can't leave yet. I have to stay to pay for mum, to make sure she's OK, but getting out is the only thought that keeps me sane. I keep fast-forwarding to the day that I'll breeze into the staff room with an air of nonchalance, watching their beady-eyed faces fall into their cheese sandwiches as I hand in my beautifully typed letter of resignation, then tell them all to go fuck themselves.

Why do I even think about them? Why can't I just go home, grab the remote control and switch off my brain. I mean, I have a temporary job in a chicken factory. It's not like I work for NASA but here I am at night, half my brain on 'This Is Your Life' and half worrying what they'll say about me tomorrow.

In a weird kind of way you grow attached to the chickens. They're the innocents. They don't give you a hard time. Once they reach me, their soft spongy flesh just lies there patiently, waiting for you to get on with the wrapping.

Sometimes I give the chickens names so that I can feel some kind of warmth, some kind of belonging. When I'm packing a breast that's really plump and soft, I think of her as Betty. And then there's Dot and Freda and Winifred and Joan and....

Well, you've got to realise what it's like in here. Day after day, with the Nikes and the Umbros, ready to shove you to the bottom of the pile whenever you get comfortable. This is not a sandal world. Sandals like to feel at home in their surroundings, want to be open, relaxed, but in here, nobody's relaxed. Not really. The Nikes make a huge pretence of it. Always cooing about team building and bingo nights. Team building — my arse. Most of the staff in here don't even remember your name let alone want to bond with you.

Sometimes when I'm bored, I'll stand and reminisce about programmes on the telly when I was a kid. Jimmy Savile was my hero. Made every kid on the planet feel like they were superhuman. He wasn't anyone special. He was just a guy that wore gold jackets and smoked big cigars but he could do extraordinary things. If you wanted to fly in a hot air balloon he'd sort it or if you wanted to be a butler in a mansion for the day, he had all the contacts. I was eight years old when I first sent him a letter. I had to rewrite it three times cos I kept finding more spelling mistakes. Spelling never was my forte. Eventually it looked OK though and I crunched round three blocks in the frost to get to the post box, then watched every week to see if it would be the next letter to get read out. But it never was. It was never my letter.

When I was eight I thought Jimmy Savile had all the answers. But now I know, he doesn't. Nobody has. The bottom line is that sandals are always the butt of jokes, always get trampled on. People don't understand us, don't see the feet in them, aching to get out. My mum bought me these sandals. Before she went weird, we went shopping, my mum and me, and she said come on, I'll get you a decent pair of shoes. She saw them in the window when we were walking past. They were navy with a flower pattern stitched on the side. I didn't want to tell her I didn't like them because she was smiling all over. She was so happy that she could buy me a pair of shoes with her allowance. I just couldn't tell her. I wanted to but I couldn't.

Every Sunday I go and see her in the home and she says she's so glad I like the sandals and she asks me how I'm getting on at work and I tell her It's fine. I'm likin it just fine mum. And she says, That's great dear, I'm so glad you've found a job you like. I bring her shortbread and we sit and stare out the window, drinking tea and munching. Sometimes the silence is so bad, I want to leave. I get really scared like the chickens when they arrive at the factory.

Sometimes when the silence gets really bad I want to scream at her. To make her realise that the only reason I'm still working there is for her, to pay for the home. Sometimes I don't come at weekends because I'm working overtime for her, to keep her. But I don't. I never scream.

It's not her fault that this is the only job I can get. When I was at school the teachers told her I had difficulties learning, that I was slow. They always said it like I wasn't there, like there wasn't a brain to get worried about. When they lowered their voices during parents' nights, it was to save her the embarrassment. But my mum wasn't embarrassed. She knew how to handle them. Told them where to stick it. I liked it when she got angry. She was amazing. When she got enraged she spoke really slowly and really firmly and she looked them right in the eye, never blinking once. Then all of a sudden she'd stop abruptly and wait for them to make the next sentence. She'd never budge till they spoke first. She said whoever spoke first lost the argument. I saw some real humdingers, headmasters crawling so far up her arse, they could have got stuck there.

I want the old mum back. The fire in her eyes. It's like she's in fairyland all the time now. Everything's fine. The shortbread's nice, the tea's nice, look at those lovely flowers outside, isn't Mina's dress just gorgeous, give us a twirl Emily. Sometimes I get so scared I want to grip her shoulders and just shake her. Shake her till the sparks fly back, till her eyes dance electric and say, Look mum everything's not fine. It's not fine at all.

But I can't. Deep down I know the sparks aren't really there anymore. It's just that I want to see them so much.

The factory gates open at 6.30. The Nikes are first, then the Umbros. And then there's me, the sandal.

People say you can tell a person by their shoes.

 

Published in Pushing Out the Boat Issue 4, 2005
(Aberdeenshire Council)

Pushing Out the Boat 4


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