Factory Boys

By | 22 February 2008

White overalls, rubber boots and a hairnet
a red surname sewn into the chest pocket –
I was ready. To sacrifice sunlight
for the punishing noise of steel clanging on steel,
revolving guillotine blades carving lengths of cheese
the pressure on my feet
from eight hours of standing beside a conveyor belt,
checking steel containers clasping blocks of cheddar
shunting past like minutes, each one counted,
then hands whirling over steel in the washroom,
overalls soaked and inventing jokes with the Yank
from Detroit who hates cheese, work and Aussies,
both of us shouting above the clamour
as if opinions ever matter
when the stainless steel is piling up around you.

A week later, the shifts have become ingrained
jobs so familiar, I finish them in my sleep –
checking valves, testing rennet, twisting
stainless steel taps to switch milk between vats.
For the permanents, extended tea breaks are ignored.
The supervisors take walks between 3 and 4am.
The seasonal casuals- hungover, love bites on the neck –
wheel 44-gallon drums of cheese off-cuts
under the crusher. We are paid above the award.

One night, after two weeks on late shift
I fell asleep, clipped a white post, did a 180
on the crest of a hill, shimmied up an embankment
slammed into bluestone rocks, headlights
shining in my sister-in-law's bedroom.
Next week in the tea-room, it barely rated a mention.

We lived for the buzz of our pay slip
dragging each other off as we left the car park,
racing the train to the road crossing.
We were laid off at the end
of each milking season,
our faces turning pasty
as the hunks of cheese
we kicked around the concrete floor.

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