Nigel was skint because of the child support so he took a Christmas job with the Royal Mail. Working the weekend shift he started at eight on a Saturday and half-seven on a Sunday. Because he didn’t have a car and there was no public transport at that time of the morning he dug his bike out from the garage. On the first Saturday he headed off in the darkness along the black icy roads and halfway there it started to get light, and near Cheadle he looked around at the fields whitened by frost and white mist floating like smoke.
It was a data entry job. He sat at Pod 6, at desk 6c, in what looked like a call centre. The team leader was called Sham. Sham had a shiny ponytail and wore silk shirts and pinstripe trousers with wide flapping belts. Nigel could see that while other team leaders could be heard all around the room urging the staff on to greater processing speeds, Sham never made eye contact with anyone, keeping his head lowered and looking down in the direction of the shiny carpet. Sham's desk was close to Nigel, and Nigel couldn’t help noticing throughout the shift how Sham took deep breaths before shouting, or clapped his hands together before announcing a briefing, pumping himself up for the task of pumping up his team.
When Sham called out, ‘My team! Eye break. Ten minutes,’ the team took its turn to slope off to the canteen or the sports lounge or to the comfy leather chairs at the far end of the large, screen-filled room. For lunch they had thirty minutes and the mix of nationalities in the canteen each opened their Tupperware boxes and tucked into varying foods. There was a guy there called Gazhang and Nigel sat next to him on the only seat left, below the bright red digital numbers of the big clock on the wall.
‘How you finding it?’ Nigel said.
‘It’s good,’ Gazhang replied, smiling before picking up some more food in his right hand.
‘Best thing is not to look at the clock.’
‘Yeah, never look at the clock.’
‘We are in good seat then. But it is good job, this, you should smile!’
‘I work during week. Cleaner at university.’
‘Clean toilets in English department.’
‘That’s not bad though, working for the uni.’
‘In Ethiopia I was teacher. Science teacher. Biology my specialism.’
Nigel noticed that Gazhang kept his left hand out of view. Later he saw that it was half the size of the right one and the other digits were tucked behind the middle finger. ‘Can’t you get a teaching job here?’
‘I need PG, what is it?’
‘Yes, PGCE, teaching qualification.’
‘You can get funding for that. At Bolton. In further, higher and adult education.’
‘But PGCE for secondary school?’
‘You can do the one for secondary, or one for primary.’
‘I would maybe like college. Okay I look into it. I have little boy. That is why I am so tired. He is not sleeping.’
‘How old is he?’
‘Wow. Lots of crying then?’
‘Crying, yes,’ said Gazhang, with a tired yet beaming smile.
‘Is that Ethiopian?’ said Nigel, pointing to the food that Gazhang was eating.
‘Injera. Most popular food in Ethiopia. Like fish and chips.’
Later that afternoon one of the managers started playing a CD compilation of Christmas songs. During ‘Saviour’s Day’ by Cliff Richard, Nigel looked up to see two of the team leaders dancing in a warm embrace. He thought of labourers whistling in the rain.
Nigel looked for little things to make the time pass more quickly. Sometimes postcards came up on screen and he read them. But they were banal. Just people writing to friends and family about the weather in far off places. ‘Arrived safely in Jerusalem. Weather is sunny.’ He liked the occasional joke names, like ‘Smoothy Boothy, 92 Weston Lane, Buxworth, High Peak’, and the casual ones written by older people in rural places like, ‘Rod and Sue, opposite the pub, Belper’.
Welsh names were a nightmare if Nigel had to type them in, all those places with loads of Ls in them. He got irritated with the ones he couldn’t read. Then there was the place in Belfast with the postcode XM4, where people answered all the letters to Santa.
Nigel really struggled when they were taken off ‘live mail’ and put on ‘trials’. This usually happened on a Sunday, when less work was coming in and everyone’s screen read Please Wait. At this point, rather than have everyone working slowly, they were told to switch to ‘trials’. These were the addresses that had appeared on the test during the first weekend, and so they weren’t ‘live mail’, but the team leaders still monitored the processing speeds as the keyers worked hard at doing nothing. It was during these intervals that Nigel kept seeing the address, ‘Jolly Harbour, Antigua.’
After they’d all been back on ‘live mail’ for a while, one of the other team leaders came to talk to Sham. Nigel kept his headphones in but turned the music down. They talked about upping the processing speeds of each team. Someone told Sham that his team were bottom. They said to him that he knew what he had to do and so Sham began to piece a headband together out of card, using staples to make a paper crown and then with marker pen writing ‘Loser’ across the front of it. Nigel was intrigued and wondered what was going to happen at the next pep talk. Soon enough Sham clapped his hands together and shouted for everyone to log off and then gather round. Then he picked up a little wooden rattle and started shaking it to the sound of sheepish laughter.
‘Okay, my team,’ he said, pointing to the whiteboard, ‘my team, if we look at the figures from last weekend we can see that this team was bottom. We had the lowest processing speeds. I have looked at each one of your speeds. It has made interesting reading. Now, Gazhang? Gazhang Ghompa? Gazhang, come up here please.’
Gazhang stood up, smiling bashfully, and walked hesitantly towards the front. When he got there, Sham told everyone that Gazhang was the slowest and put the loser headband on to Gazhang’s head. Nigel watched this and listened. When the laughter subsided Sham made his point. ‘Okay! So, you might think it is funny, but whoever has the slowest processing speeds from now on will wear the crown of the loser.’
Gazhang walked back to his pod and continued working with the loser headband on. People from the other teams looked over and pointed and smiled and laughed. Nigel wondered why Gazhang kept smiling and didn’t take the headband off. After an hour or so, and after a ten minute eye break during which Gazhang wore the loser headband while eating from his Tupperware box in the canteen, Sham eventually walked over and told him that he could take it off. Gazhang did so but Nigel saw the seriousness in his face as he tried to up his speeds. The left hand remained under the desk while the right hand prodded at the keys.
During the first weekend, after the tests, Nigel remembered that Sham had read out a list of names before asking those people to come to the front. There were about a dozen of them, and they were led away, Gazhang among them. Nigel didn’t see any of the others the following weekend, except Gazhang, who was sitting at pod 5. At various times different team leaders went over and talked to him. At one point it looked like quite a heated argument was going on, and it seemed to Nigel that Gazhang was refusing to leave.
The following weekend a series of incentives were put forward in terms of sweets, and at the end of the Sunday shift Sham announced the award for the most improved processing speeds. A great cheer went up when he shouted Gazhang’s name and passed him a packet of chocolate digestives.
Sunday shift over, Nigel took his time unlocking his bike. It was always best to wait until all the cars rushed out first. It was also raining hard and he waited a while for it to ease. Then he cycled out into the rain. There were massive puddles in the gutters. Nigel hadn’t noticed the rain because he sat with his back to the blind-covered windows. He passed Gazhang on the main road and they raised their hands to each other. As Nigel waited at the traffic lights near Go Outdoors the rain came down harder. When the light turned to green he put the bike in a low gear and picked up speed. It was dangerous to keep swerving around the puddles and into the line of oncoming traffic and so soon he just started to wade through them, splashing through the black pools in the glow of orange streetlights, soaking himself as he went along. But the speed kept him warm and on the road out of Cheadle, crossing above the motorway and passing between the farmland, he was flying through the puddles and the spray, racing the cars, and by the time he got home he was saturated. He sang ‘Fairytale of New York’ in the shower.
Later he watched on the news an item about thirteen Slovak immigrants found working in a picture frame factory in Rochdale. They were paid £125 for an 80 hour week, and then had to pay back £100 for rent and travel expenses. They lived four to a room in tiny flats with bare floors and no heating, with washing lines hung across the living rooms. They were fulfilling multi-million pound contracts and producing products for high street stores and yet were also forced to buy picture frames.
Nigel thought about Gazhang and the way he had dealt with the loser headband situation. He wondered why he hadn’t punched Sham in the face. Then he remembered how Gazhang told him about walking two hours from Hulme every morning and the baby boy he and his wife had just had. Gazhang smiled warmly, referring to his son as ‘our little Mancunian’.
Keyers could sit wherever they wanted on the third floor of the building at Park Square, but people usually sat at the same pods and after a few weekends Nigel got to know more of his colleagues. He was often yawning and stretching throughout the shift and a girl two computers away began smiling. He smiled back and then began sitting next to her on the couch during the eye breaks, their thighs touching and neither inching away. She was called Soni. She wore tight jeans and tight white tops. A long red cardigan usually covered up this tightness but sometimes she let it fall open.
On the last shift of their zero hours contracts, on Christmas Eve, there was a quiz for the keyers based on geography. Then there was bingo. Played while everyone was still working, the bingo involved raising your arm and shouting if the place name on your screen matched what was called out. Sham lost control when people started to get bored and began calling out names he hadn’t.
Finally there was the Christmas sweater competition. Gazhang had one, a blue jumper with a white reindeer on the front that he had been wearing for the previous two weekends. Nigel watched as all the keyers with Christmas jumpers were asked to stand in line at the front. When each one stepped forward the rest of the keyers cheered, the loudest cheer proclaiming the winner. Nigel cheered hard for Gazhang and it seemed unfair that Gazhang didn’t make the top three. When the top three lined up the biggest roar went up for a young lad from Cameroon. People rushed forward to take photos with their phones, and the manager, the woman in charge of all the team leaders like Sham, looked so happy that Nigel thought she was going to cry. The end of term feeling continued throughout the final shift and at one point a couple of lads played football, chipping the ball to each other over the phalanx of blank screens.
Nigel had looked a long time at Soni. At the end of the last shift they had mentioned Facebook and he also gave her his phone number. Soni was much younger but he couldn’t keep the red cardigan out of his mind. When he saw her Facebook page none of it was in English and it was filled with pictures of her in different saris. In other pictures she cradled a baby. There were also videos of her friends’ weddings.
Though he wasn’t sure about it they met for coffee in Stockport and she told him all about herself. She had been badly let down by a man she was engaged to. It had been an arranged marriage but he broke it off. She said that men were all after one thing whereas women looked for lots of things from men. She talked about the recent bombing of a school in Peshawar by the Pakistan Taliban, where hundreds of people had been killed, most of them children. He told her of his own failed marriage. And then they talked about Imran Khan, and how she would vote for him, and in the end they talked about cricket.
She was sweet and shy and still hurt. But he envisaged having to explain the situation to everyone he met, including his ageing parents. And she didn’t drink. Then there was the fasting and Eid and all that. He also vaguely remembered a story about a woman in Cheadle being murdered in an honour killing. And though he couldn’t really remember exactly what an honour killing was it made him uneasy. He unfriended Soni and guessed he might see her the following Christmas.
He was sitting at home when his mobile rang. He picked it up but the number was withheld so he didn’t answer. The bike was still in the garage where he’d left it after the end of the last shift. He went into the garage and wheeled the bike out into the front garden before going back inside and filling a bowl with hot water and a drop of washing up liquid. He came back out with the bowl and the rag and began washing all the mud off the underside of the bike. As he did so he wondered about the call. After pouring the muddy water down the drain he picked up the red can of lubricant spray and an oil rag. With the bike resting against the wall he ran the cloth down the length of the clogged chain before spraying it. Then he lifted up the back of the bike and whirled the back wheel.
His hands were filled with oil and he struggled to get it off using the washing up liquid and water. When he heard the mobile vibrating his hands were still covered by greasy bubbles.
NEIL CAMPBELL is from Manchester, England. He has twice been included in Best British Short Stories (2012 & 2015). He has three collections of short fiction: Broken Doll, Pictures from Hopper and Ekphrasis. His first novel Sky Hooks is out next year.
You can find him on Twitter @neilcambers