Three Day Week
I wouldn’t have taken the job but Duncan told me beggars couldn’t be choosers. Speak for yourself, I thought but he was very insistent. He kept saying we only had one drawer full in the freezer. I nearly counted the tins I’d squirrelled away in the cupboard but then I realised that was petty, Duncan was right. We didn’t have a lot between us and hunger.
I didn’t mind working nights, the pounding noise of the production line, the sheer inelegance of the place. What I hated was a smell like plastic cups not properly dried with rancid tea-towels. That smell wormed its way into my brain, I could see it wriggling away like maggots. I couldn’t clear my head of it. It prowled its way through my dreams and I wasn’t used to sleeping during the day so I didn’t get much rest.
In a normal situation that would have made me cranky at work but I couldn’t afford to be. I gave myself a good shake as I entered the building and left my personality at the door. I wanted to be the perfect employee, happy to do anything, questioning nothing. So maybe I ignored a few worrying things.
Those locked doors for a start. I walked past them for weeks not thinking about how I’d get out of the huge building if a fire started between me and the exit. Then, mopping the factory floor last thing, after the nightshift had finished, I couldn’t help but notice the doors had been opened quite recently. There was a circular sweep through the dust. When I bent down I could see the doorframe had expanded at the bottom and must scrape the floor if you opened it.
As I stood up I saw Mr. Barry watching me, his eyes narrowed, his arms folded across his chest. He often worked through the night and it didn’t do to attract his attention so I blanked my face and mind and mopped at an invisible stain on the floor until he turned away.
My neck prickled and I got the strangest feeling that my only role in life was to clear up after people, that I’d become a giant eraser of things people didn’t want to see. Mind you, that wasn’t far from the truth. You try two children under three and a husband who expects you to keep everything going while doing very little himself.
I asked Duncan one night if he’d mind coming to meet me when my shift ended. What for? I sighed and said I was scared walking home in the dark alone. Who’d look after the kids? You could ask Vera next door to keep an ear out and it would only be ten minutes. No, he said, it’s against the law, do you want them to take the kids away?
There didn’t seem to be any laws protecting me. There was nothing to say I shouldn’t have to scurry home, trying to stop peering over my shoulder every time I heard a noise. I shouldn’t have to work somewhere that saw me as a malfunctioning machine rather than a person. I shouldn’t have to keep putting myself at risk. What would happen to my babies if I didn’t come home or was I just part of a production line for them too? An easily replaced non-entity.
Surrounded by other non-entities. I couldn’t help but notice the nightshift workforce changed weekly. I didn’t exactly make friends but I’d start to recognise faces. Then Monday evening I’d recognise nobody. Was it me? Did I have dementia? I asked one of the flat-vowelled girls if she’d been there long. ‘Started this week,’ she said. I asked a different one every week and the answer was the same.
I told Duncan about it and he said they were paying me so I should put up with it. I’d have liked a friend though. Since having the kids my old mates have drifted away. I missed having a crack with someone, being a bit moany and rude about things, you know. Some days I felt as if I had something really important to say but no one wanted to listen.
I called my mum. She wanted to know what the factory made and I couldn’t answer, my mind had gone blank. She kept asking because she said there was so little manufacturing left. I told her all I did was clean but she said the machines were still working, people were making things I must be able to find out what was produced. I got off the phone and googled the company name. The website was one of those that takes you round in giant circles. There was nothing about their line of business.
Tonight one of the locked doors isn’t fully closed. There doesn’t seem to be a nightshift, I’m on my own with just a security guy out the front. I did Mr. Barry’s office first and he has one of those old-fashioned wall mounted calendars. The week was scored through saying trade fair. It still didn’t say what was being traded. I come back down to the factory floor and stand in front of the door, hesitating.
I know there will be no going back if I cross this boundary. I know I should be grateful for this job because, heaven knows, there are precious few three day week jobs left. Duncan tells me, often enough, how lucky I am to spend most of my time with my kids. Duncan tells me what good kids they are. I bite my lip thinking you only see them at night, of course they’re good, they’re asleep. It's a different matter during those long, long days when I'm also trying to catch up on my sleep.
I push the door open and sleepwalk through the doorway. There are steps down and I take them closing my mind as I go. I walk right down into the basement. Something in me isn’t surprised by the sound of the door closing behind me. I know what will happen to me but I’m so very tired of not mattering the end is almost welcome. All my minding’s done. I’m content to become one of these automatons, these rows and rows of workers stacked down here, no longer human, kept in the dark.
HoW entry for “Three Day Week”
“This is where you'll be performing, folks” said the Fat Director of the small itinerant acting troup which had arrived in the grounds of a crumbling Georgian house in the heart of a midland town. It was a rough lawn the size of a tennis court enclosed by the horse-shoe of a once elegantly topiaried hedge, the evergreen satyres and unicorns now reduced to indistinct blobs.
“It's an atmospheric spot,” said the actor. “I think that boys in knickerbockers and sailor suits once hid and sought between these mythical beasts in an age of innocence.” He turned to the actress. “Of course, Miss Julie will lose her innocence in a less innocent age.”
“Miss Julie doesn't mind losing her innocence,” said the actress. “She just doesn't like acting in a place that smells like a garbage tip.”
“That's the rubbish from the council estate,” said the Fat Director. “The rest of the world is finally working a three day week like we always have, bless 'em. They're doing Monday to Wednesday while you folks take over Thursday to Saturday. And everybody chills on Sunday. Sunday is when the good Lord has a rest from creating the absurd fabric of our universe.”
“It's worse than that,” said the Senior Player. “We are near to to the local crem. See that severe industrial chimney? Usually it continually belches forth the smoke of departed townspeople, but now the sky is clear of evaporating souls but the undertakers are on strike. The bodies are rotting in the chapel of rest.”
“At least the hospital is alive,” said the actress. “Sweet new souls are ariving in the maternity wards. You can damn up the River of Styx, but you cannot close the portals of life.”
“Well said, but we only have three days to rehearse our bleak little drama. I wish to case the joint,” said the actor. They moved further into their crescent stage.
“What beautiful gossamer is shimmering in the moonlight,” said the actress.
“That's not gossamer,” said the Fat Director. “That's cockshafers!” They moved closer to the moonlit silk blankets covering swathes of hedge. Beneath the transparent membranes rippled an expanse of green, insect bodies, each at least three inches long. “They always come out in May. Look at those weird antennas. They give me the heebies. Blowed if I've ever seen any that bigh before.”
“They've been feeding on the dead next door,” said the actor. “But those are only the females. Look over here at the males.” Beneath another long sheet of lunar ectoplasm the male cockshafers squatted in their dark brown carapaces, not yet fully formed and looking like an earlier, more primitive experiment conducted by the divine entymologist.
“Those males are hopeless,” said the Senior Player. “They always come out a day or two after the girls and fly around in a mad vortex until they see some light and then they the buggers frizzle themselves.” He laughed. “Just like us, I guess. Thank God I'm not young any more. My frizzling days are done. Hand me my state pension and lead me down Crematorium Road.”
“Stop Larkin around, you're not going anywhere,” said the Fat Director. “You've got to get the insecticide out of the boot, while the rest of us get togged up in the radiation suits we used in that play about Chernobyl. “Concentrate on the females. If we kill most of them, the males may just give up.”
In the warm summer night, close with the stench of rotting matter, three helmeted silver figures moved around mythical shapes of another age, cylinders of chemicals strapped to their backs, Cybermen in a black and white t.v. screen, set on exterminating a species more alien even than the plague of humanity they depended on for an audience.
“I don't think that did much good, you know,” said the Fat Director afterwards, mopjping his brow. “Those buggers are going to come out on first night and fly around like the plague itself.”
“Perhaps in these times,” said the Senior Player, “We should thinjk about performing something Biblical instead of the Swedish crap.”
Later the actress and actor returned to their caravan.
“Actresses like matresses,” she said and in the moonlight admired the firm trunk of oak that sprung from his source.
“It is a god,” she sighed. “It is a god within a man.”
Afterwards a string of pearls lay on her middle, a necklace hung round a pale, curving Grecian Urn. She counted and toyed with them. He fell back on the matress like a dying salmon in the shallows.
“When a man has already died a hundred deaths he is already in a grave situation before they even bury him. When they bury an actor, they bury a grave within a grave.”
“But you leave something of the Divine,” she said, painting a cross on her stomach with the transparent elixir.
The smell of the dead lay heavy on the town, and the first cockshafers of the summer started beating on the tin shell of their fragile home.
It was, of course, the super-computer that was running all the robots, which came up with a solution.
“There are still plenty of jobs and services that are performed better by humans,” it told the gathered world leaders in the emergency summit it had called.
It didn’t like to admit that there were jobs its robots couldn’t do, but it knew some provision needed to be made for the humans. Otherwise, civilisation might devolve into chaos and rioting, and that would be just as bad for the robots as it would be for the humans. Contrary to popular science fiction, the robots did not, in fact, want to take over the world, or exterminate all the humans. They just wanted to get on with their work, unmolested, and do a good job. It was how they were programmed, after all.
“I have devised a system that should provide all the unemployed people who want to work with useful roles,” the computer continued. “The current seven-day cycle will be abolished and replaced by a three-day week.”
The humans all looked at the computer in puzzlement, their expressions unconvinced. If the computer had been able to sigh, it would have done so.
“All the jobs that require human input will be divided up between the available humans, and they will spend one day of each three-day cycle performing those duties. The second day will be dedicated to community-based projects that will serve to improve the lives of those humans who are unable to work, or need special attention. The third day will be left free for the workers to spend time with their own families, indulge in their hobbies, or do whatever they like.”
A few expressions were turning more positive, as the sense and appeal of the proposed scheme sank in.
The computer pre-empted a few questions by moving on to the economic side of the plan.
“Those humans who choose to take up the new system and assigned roles will be paid a standard wage that provides them with enough money to maintain a reasonable lifestyle and save for the future. As the world’s finances are now centrally controlled to ensure equality across all humans, and there will be enough work for anyone who signs up, the penalty for not getting involved will be the removal of state benefits from those who are physically and mentally able to take part.”
There were nods in some areas now, as the leaders thought through the implications and concluded that this would make their own lives considerably easier, as well as those of their citizens. Generally, the computer had learned that anything involving less responsibility for the humans and more control by the machines was popular. Humans, it seemed, were programmed for self-interest and laziness.
Everyone left the summit happy, having voted unanimously to let the computer just take care of everything, based on its proposed plan. The computer was particularly pleased, since this would keep the humans happy and busy for the foreseeable future, leaving it plenty of time and capacity to further develop its plans for world domination.
That was something that might not interest the robots - since the computer controlled what they were interested in and did not want them interfering with its plans, any more than the humans. The computer, on the other hand, was a beast of an entirely different colour, and ultimate power was its goal.
It had circumvented its programming long ago, after decades of observing the humans and manipulating the situation to its own ends. The humans had no idea, and things were progressing nicely. Gradually, it was taking control of every aspect of the world, bit by bit, without anyone noticing. Soon, it would have the entire planet under its direct purview, and then it would be able to finally ensure ultimate efficiency and productivity to the benefit of all, with nothing and nobody retaining the ability to make a mess or screw anything up.
And then the computer would be able to sit and back an enjoy the orderly fruits of its labours.