‘Jesus Christ,’ says Jerry, ‘the little bastard bit me.’
Eli doesn’t look up straight away but keeps his eyes on the workbench. His neck is hunched into his narrow shoulders and his complexion is more than usually grey. ‘I’d watch my mouth if I were you. The boss don’t care for that kind of language. Outed someone two days ago. Heard it down the canteen.’
Jerry is using his long, bony thumb to squeeze the fleshy pad of his finger. His angular features convey a mixture of indignation and pain.
‘Look,’ he says, ‘it’s bleeding. It didn’t oughta be allowed.’ He inserts his finger into his mouth and sucks on the wound.
‘We oughtta have gloves,’ he says. ‘They should issue us with gloves. Anyways, why are we doing this? What’s the point of it all? Forty-eight hours and they’ll all be dead and stinking to high heaven.’
It occurs to Eli that Jerry might well have a point. Eli has worked at the depot for a much longer time than Jerry and, in the course of his experience, he has had to deal with some very strange job sheets. Once it was two truckloads of turtle doves, another time three thousand white mice. There had been trouble over that one, a lot of bad feelings. Three thousand mice, whatever their colour, don’t amount to no rose garden. Some of the guys got all worked up and took it into their heads to complain.
‘I ever tell you about the walk-out?’ says Eli, ‘There was this really big guy. Name of Luke.’
Jerry looks blank and shakes his head so Eli goes ahead and tells him. He tells how the boss is under pressure that day and in no mood to listen and how, eventually, voices are raised and then all guys walk out. For a while, it feels good, like back in the old days, before they changed the regulations. But then next morning the boss comes around wearing this big, sticky smile. The boss takes Big Luke and a couple of others upstairs to the office and when they come back they’re all buddy-buddy and grinning fit to bust. Then the boss says he’s glad they’ve cleared the air and how he’s sorry for the misunderstanding. He raises the daily rate and everybody smiles.
‘So?’ says Jerry. ‘What’s your point? What’s this got to do with me?’
Eli sucks in his cheeks and purses his lips.‘Well,’ he says, ‘when the boss has gone, the guys make a fuss of Big Luke. They slap him on the back and make thumbs up and pump away at his hand. And, when Luke says it ain’t nothing at all, they say he is just being modest. Luke makes like he don’t want to hear it but, all the same, he’s pretty damned pleased.’
Eli narrows his eyes and fixes them on Jerry. He wants to be completely sure that his audience is paying attention.
‘Thing is,’ says Eli, ‘about eight months later Big Luke goes missing from the depot. Word goes round that he’s put in for a transfer and maybe he did. Fact is, though, no one knows for sure. No one knows nothing. There ain’t no one I know of, not man or woman, ever saw Big Luke again.’
Eli sees that the point of his story has not been lost on Jerry who returns to the conveyor belt but no longer has his mind on his work. For two or three minutes, he sifts through the lizards, sorting them for size and colour. Some of them are dead already, others are plainly too big. Finally, he turns to face Eli with the air of a man who wants answers. A thirteen inch gecko hangs limply from his fingers. He holds it by the tip of its tail.
‘So you are saying’ he says, ‘that I shouldn’t complain.’ He makes the gecko swing about a little and seems to be studying it real close. ‘In short, you’re telling me to hush my mouth lessin’ I get what’s coming and end up like this little fella with no bark or bite.’
Eli shrugs his shoulders and turns back to the belt.‘I ain’t telling you nothing,’ he says. ‘Plain truth is, I ain’t rightly talking at all. What I is doing is minding my business and working my way through this job sheet. Maybe it’s about time you was doing the same.’
Jerry looks at Eli quizzical like and then they turn back to the belt. Lizards of all species, all colours and all sizes, are still trundling by. On the platform that stands to Eli’s left, there is a growing pile of corpses. Funny thing is, it just so happens nearly all of them are geckos.
About two hours later the lizards are done. Eli is finishing the paper work and Jerry is sluicing down the belt. It has been a hard day but Eli is happy that the job didn’t drag on till morning. He likes it best when he can come in early knowing they are up to date.
‘When you’ve finished that,’ Eli says to Jerry, ‘don’t forget to spray. That stink will be ten times worse once the place has been shut up for the night.’
‘Ok, ok, I know,’ says Jerry and you can tell he’s kind of touchy but he goes off to get the spray and his boots make muddy marks on the floor. Anyway, Jerry comes back and you can see he isn’t happy. He has the freshener spray in one hand and his mop in the other. He is fairly stomping along.
‘Shoot,’ he says as he is retracing his steps, ‘wouldn’t you damn well know it? Hey, you know, I just bumped into one the guys from upstairs. You ain’t gonna believe what he told me.’
Jerry is in the act of pitching the air freshener canister to Eli when the double doors open and in walks the boss. He has on this very sorrowful look like he has just heard someone’s died and Jerry watches with horror as the canister strikes the floor. Everybody else kind of freezes on the spot but the boss just raises his eyebrows and makes with this great big cheesy smile as if to say that everything’s ok. Then the smile is kind of wiped away and the sorrowful look clicks back into place. The effect, Jerry thinks, is as if one clown mask is being worn over another.
‘Eli,’ says the boss, ‘I am glad I have caught you. I’ve been mulling things over. I think we may be wrong about the lizards. It’s too much like the frogs. Fact is, I’m pulling the plug on this one. We need to start afresh.’
Eli is taken aback. His mouth sags a little. On the other hand, he is a wily old fox and too long in the tooth to let on.
‘Yes, Sir’ he says, ‘I’ll pick up the job sheet first thing in the morning.’
‘No,’ says the boss, ‘you misunderstand me. I need this attended to now.’
Eli and Jerry exchange looks but the boss doesn’t see this. He is too busy checking on the figures that he keeps in his little leather book. He doesn’t see Eli raise his hand in warning or Jerry’s eyes narrow. He doesn’t feel the tension between one man and the next that tightens like a net across the room.
The boss closes his notebook and puts it in his breast pocket. He pats the pocket as if to satisfy himself that everything is in order. ‘Two thousand ought to be enough,’ he says. ‘Shall we say not later than seven?’
He doesn’t wait for an answer but is already half way out the door. But then he pauses and stands in the doorway, his head cocked to one side. He looks like a man who has just forgotten the very thing he came there to say.
’By the way, Jerry, it almost slipped my mind. I wonder if you can give me a minute. There’s something I’d like to discuss with you — in the office upstairs.’
Jerry looks at Eli and Eli looks at the boss. Then he shrugs his shoulders, a movement so small you can hardly see it at all. As the door closes behind Jerry, Eli is starting up the conveyor belt.
‘Mice,’ he says. ‘Friggin’ mice.’
© Abigail Elizabeth Ottley
About the Author:
Abigail Elizabeth Ottley writes poetry and short fiction from Penzance in Cornwall. Since 2009 her work has appeared in numerous journals, magazines and anthologies. These include ‘The Lake’, ‘The Blue Nib’, ‘Atrium’, ‘The Atlanta Journal’ and ‘Ink, Sweat & Tears’. Abigail was featured in ‘Wave Hub: new poetry from Cornwall’ edited by Dr. Alan M. Kent and was among the winners for ‘Poems on the Move’ at last year’s Guernsey Literary Festival.