We hope you enjoy part two of 13:55 Eastern Standard Time by Nick Alexander. Don’t forget that you can catch up every week here at Elderjuice.
Catch up with 13:55 Eastern Standard Time
Hua Juan straightens her back. They like the back to be straight – it indicates attentiveness. She takes the next box from the conveyor and places it in the slot. The screen lights up with the colours of the rainbow and a noise, like a police car siren – only constant – sounds in the headphones.
She pulls the box from the slot and sticks a white OK sticker on the shiny back cover, then reaches behind her and places it on another conveyor. Her movements are fluid and elegant. She glances along the conveyor and notices again how different everyone’s movements are. Hui, her friend, moves jerkily. Juan always thinks she looks like she is trying to impress the foreman – trying to look fast. But she moves the same way outside the factory too, so it must just be the way she is.
Her hand reaches forward describing a graceful arc, and swipes another box from the belt. Her name, Juan, means graceful, and she wonders if her parents chose the name because they somehow knew that she would be graceful, or if she became so because of the name she was given. She wonders about many such things during the long days in front of the belt. She likes the fact that her mind is free even if her body is a prisoner, here, beneath the strip lights on this hard stool.
Sound in both ears, no dark lines on the screen – she sticks another OK sticker and places the box behind her. This is a good batch – she likes it when the boxes are all the same, either good or bad. It lets her settle into a rhythm, the movements become like ballet. It’s when the boxes are all different – some good, some bad – that it gets hard. You have to start thinking about what you’re doing.
Hua Juan doesn’t really know what the boxes are for. She knows she only has to ask, but she has worked in many factories, and she knows that understanding doesn’t always help. In her last job she found out that she was spending fifteen hours a day making parts for a Japanese egg timer that made a chicken noise when the egg was cooked. For some reason, knowing this had depressed her, until she couldn’t concentrate anymore. Her error rate was too high then, and they had sacked her.
She lifts and connects, scans the screen and listens, sticks on a sticker and thinks of Yaaja. It will be time for the harvest soon, and she wonders if it has been a good growing year. Her parents will be out in the beautiful fields. Yaaja is stunning at dawn – rice fields in the plain, deep and green and perfumed, maize on the higher ground. Mists lie low across the rice fields in the mornings – the sight took her breath away every time. They will be cutting the corn cobs soon; her grandmother will be drying the husks as fuel for the winter.
The last year she spent at home – three years ago – was terrible. The year was too dry and the corn was half the usual size. They had nothing to sell to the cooperative and even the husks were too small – they ended up burning grass-bricks for heat. It had been a long cold winter.
Life is better here in Longhua. The dormitories are warm, and they have hot showers and free meals but she still misses… She thinks about what she misses – obviously her family, though in truth she has more fun with the girls in the dorm than she ever did at home. But more than anything it’s the passing of time, the marking of the seasons that she misses. Planting, harvesting, preparing for winter. Here every day is the same, she hardly sees the weather. It’s like living in a dream. She knows she will return to the land.
No sound on the right. She drops the box into the reject bin. No sound on the right. Another one. Black line on screen. She places it in the defective screen box and peers down the line. Ou-Yang Hui looks up at her and shrugs as she too drops a box into the reject bin. She likes Ou-Yang Hui. Her husband used to beat her, which is sad. She has one eye permanently closed. She’s so funny, has such a great sense of humour. How could anyone do that?
Hua Juan narrows her eyes and tightens her lips. If these faults carry on then production will stop, and there will be no overtime today. She wouldn’t mind so much. Yesterday was a long day – eighteen hours, but she needs the money too. She needs to save as much as she can while she still has time.
Ahh. She sighs with relief and relaxes her shoulders. Two of the boxes in a row are OK. Then three. Then four. She settles back into her rhythm.
Yes, every day here is the same, the endless procession of little white boxes marching down the belt. She likes the boxes. She likes the rainbow picture when she plugs them in; she likes the rounded corners. They look somehow friendly.
The only thing that changes here is the hours – most days fourteen, but sometimes as many as eighteen. Once, when they were behind because of production problems, they worked for twenty-two hours in a row.
It was hard, but it’s good. She needs the money. And it won’t last, so she likes the overtime days. As long as they don’t all come in a row. Then they get too tiring. Then her back aches and she can’t sleep and she’s even more tired the next day.
But she will be sacked when they find out. So overtime is good.
These are all fine now, a good batch. Yes, she likes it when they all come through the same. Her motions become automatic: reach, slot, look, listen, stick, reach, slot, look, listen…
She wonders how Sun Lee is doing. She wonders what he will say when he finds out. Sun Lee, her oldest childhood friend. She used to think they would marry one day. She wouldn’t have minded – he grew up into a handsome man. But she had to leave and then he got a girl from the next village pregnant. Chan Xia. She is pretty, but, Juan thinks, a little stupid. But Lee seems happy. They have a beautiful son; they called him Liang, which simply means Good. And he is. Sun Lee was very happy to have a boy. A son is better for helping on the land and bringing wealth to the family.
But then girls can do that too these days. That’s why she’s here. She flushes with pride at the two hundred Yuan she has been sending home every month. Her mother says they would never have got through the winter without it.
She receives a hard slap on the shoulder, and automatically sits up straight. She glances behind at the foreman who is glaring at her, already walking on down the aisle. “See-feut-loong,” she thinks. – Asshole. He thinks he is so important strutting in his uniform, but he is nobody.
She looks at the clock, and then down the line where the boxes advance towards her. There is no sign of them slowing, so today will be an overtime day.
Her back aches more when she sits straight. The belt is too low really – or the stool too high. It gets a little harder every day. She thinks about the coming days, the rumours, the scandal, the interviews with the Party people, the free “healthcare” offers, and she wonders again if she is strong enough to resist. She thinks she is, but so many girls cave in – it makes you wonder.
Lian on the top bunk said she would never abort, but they shut her in the interview room for four hours and when she came out she had changed her mind. She still says she’s glad, still says she’s too young to have a baby, but Hua Juan has heard her crying at night. Ou-Yang Dai actually told her to shut up two nights ago. But Ou-Yang Dai is a heartless bitch. She would make a good foreman.
So yes, she needs the money. She’s sending home half her earnings. And through not going out with the other girls she’s been managing to save half the rest. And Cheung, she smiles as she thinks of Cheung, her heart aches as she thinks of his beautiful face, of the way he smiles at her, yes, Cheung says he will stay here in the Longhua factory until the baby is born. Cheung has no family now, so he is saving everything. Poor Cheung. No family – floating un-tethered like a balloon. But she will give him a family. They will take this emptiness and fill it with happiness. They will create it from nothing and it will hold him down, stop him floating away. She wonders what her life will be like once they have a baby. They don’t know yet quite how they can earn a living and be together, but she has faith that it will happen somehow.
She thinks about the possibilities – a girl or a boy. Secretly she would rather a girl, but she knows Cheung would like a son. As only children themselves, they are allowed to have two children, so they can always try again.
So, no, she won’t be one of the girls who changes her mind. She just has to think of Cheung, floating like a balloon, and she knows that she won’t. She will be one of the girls who loses her job instead.
No red on the screen. She drops it into the box. No sound on the left. Into the box.
She sighs. The faults have dragged her back into the here and now. She looks at the clock, and checks down the conveyor to see if there is any sign of the day ending.
Another slap on the shoulder, only this time the foreman pulls the headphone away from her ear.
“Stand up,” he shouts. “Feun kou tim yong tak chou Pod leh?” – How is Pod made if you are asleep?
She obeys and he drags the stool away to the wall behind her. “iPod hai ghaim ghiam yaer,” he continues, walking away. – iPod is a precision thing.
“Sorry,” she says. “I will give it my full attention.”
She repositions the headphone over her ear and shifts her weight from one foot to the other.
She looks down at her belly – nothing showing yet, but it won’t be long. Maybe another month. Unless the “doctor” comes round with the ultrasound again. That can happen any time, you just never know. But maybe she’ll be lucky. Later is better. Later means more money for the baby, more money for grandmother’s medicine.
She glances down the line. Hui catches her eye, winks discreetly and drops an iPod into the reject box. She smiles at her friend’s solidarity and shifts her weight to the other foot. Now her back is really hurting.
She hears a noise beyond the headphones and peeps across the shop floor. The foreman has taken away another girl’s stool. “Saur kow,” she thinks. – Stupid dog! She’s only a new girl.
She wonders how they can be so mean, the foremen. They have all worked on the conveyor; they know what it’s like. But they put on a Hon Hai uniform and strut up and down the line, and suddenly think they are powerful. But they are nothing. They are dust!
No sound on the right. She sticks an OK sticker on the back of the box and places it on the conveyor belt behind her. It could get her into trouble, but by the time trouble comes she’ll be long gone. As long as she keeps her promise. No sound on the right again. Another OK sticker. Yes, she promises herself that she will be long gone.
Nothing registers on her face, but deep down she smiles to herself. “These dogs have no power over me,” she thinks. “No power at all.”
She wonders if the warmth she is feeling, deep down inside … well, she wonders if it is the baby smiling.
Catch up with 13:55 Eastern Standard Time