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Bitters and Sockers
a short story
Northern Matriculation Board GCSE Coursework assignment 1982: English Language
Write about a time when you were hurt/angry/disappointed/embarrassed
Bitters and Sockers
I liked talking to Janice. She wasn’t the same as the other women on the twilight shift.
They clock on just before five and come swooping through the rubber vulcanising shed like a flock of waddling geese, all chatter and noise, high heels and handbags clacking and flapping through the gangways. The men whistle and shout things as the women pass through. Some of the girls leer back. They cheer for the best defined, shining bare chest. It’s as hot as a sauna in the vulcanising. Our workroom is on through the back of the factory building. It’s only just a bit cooler there.
We make slippers at J B. King. The vulcanisers weld the rubber sole to the uppers. When the racks have cooled, it’s one of my jobs to wheel them through for the women in the finishing department. We don’t put a J.B. King label on them because most of our product goes to a well-known high street chain. We put their labels on the socks. That’s what they call the soft inner sole.
I came to earn some money before I go back to sixth form after the summer break. Uncle Malik helped to get me the job. He’s night foreman in the vulcanising; they’re mostly Asians in there on the night shift. Malik is my father’s youngest brother; he isn’t thirty yet. He’s popular with everybody and I know that my father is proud of him. The English women say he’s good-looking.
‘You’ll be fine, Ahmed,’ he said to me. He put his hand on my back the way my father does, sometimes. ‘Take your head out of your books. Learn about the real world. I’ll speak to Mrs Cooper about it. I know she’s looking for extra hands to help with the Christmas orders.’
The HR woman trusts his judgement. So did I. When he told me I’d find it educational, I didn’t fully realise what he meant. I assumed he was referring to the whole business model. Learning from the shop floor experience. Raw material to finished product. Time and management skills. The women on the twilight shift had other ideas.
Christmas orders have to be delivered by the end of August. That’s how it works with the big names on the High Street. J.B.King’s is at full stretch and there are big bonuses to earn. It’s piece-work. The more you do, the more bonus you’re paid. In our workroom, the women aim to finish ten racks of slippers during their four hour shift. Ten shelves each side of a rack, ten pairs on each shelf, that’s four thousand times they bit, or sock and glue. Their hands fly through the actions, fingers stretched like a pianist’s; their bodies rock and sway with the rhythm of the work. It’s like a line dance.
Janice used to be a bitter. On my first night’s work she was the only one who smiled at me. I asked her to explain what she was doing.
‘See this?’ she said, showing me the knife in her hand. ‘I have to take off the extra bit of seam left over from the vulcanising. Watch.’ She shoved her left hand into a slipper, flicked her right wrist to cut off a bit of rubber at the toe, twisted her slipper arm and nipped off the bit sticking out at the back.
‘I can only do it one at a time. But look at the other girls. They can hold up a pair and bit both slippers together.’
‘Is that a special knife?’ I asked her. She laughed.
‘It used to be my favourite peeling knife. I brought it from home. They don’t give you a knife. You have to bring your own.’
The woman by her side snapped without looking up. ‘Janice, for fuck’s sake, will you stop gassing and get on? You’re falling behind again.’
‘Sorry, Debbie,’ my new friend said and rolled her eyes at me.
I mumbled an apology and moved away. From behind a stand of racks, I watched the two women working together. Janice slid her bitted pairs of slippers along the work- table to the other woman on her right. Debbie, the socker, then passed the inner socks over a latex–filled roller, stuffed them inside the slippers and placed the finished pairs on a circular turntable at the end of the work station. When the turntable was full, Janice had to run round the back of Debbie, take the slippers off and put them back on the empty rack. Every now and then, I heard Janice call out numbers.
‘Ten more pairs ladies’ sixes!’
‘Last ten pairs ladies’ fives.’
I could see that Janice was struggling to keep up. Her blouse was wet with perspiration and she kept a hanky up the sleeve to wipe away the moisture on her face. She was a plump lady compared with the others. It made her out of breath running back and forth, bending and stretching to fill up the racks. But I preferred her roundness to the thin, loud-mouthed Debbie. Janice was the type of lady you’d like for your mum. She’d make children feel safe and happy.
‘Rack of men’s coming up. Twenty pairs elevens.’ Janice called out and Debbie took down the socks from the pigeon-holes in front of her.
Another of my jobs is to keep the pigeon-holes stocked up with the different sock sizes for all the gluers. Then I wheel the completed racks into the bagging and boxing department in the next room, ready for shipping. I was surprised, on that first night, in those noisy, hot rooms with the smell of glue and hot rubber. I didn’t know that English people worked in sweat-shops too.
On my second night, there was a different bitter working in Janice’s place. I went to ask Debbie.
‘Why do you want to know? Fancy giving her one, College Boy? Like little fatties, do ya?’ she said. Both of the women laughed with a horrible grating sound and elbowed each other in the ribs.
‘Here, love,’ the other one said to me. ‘I’ve never had a bit of black. Come over to the loos and show me your cock.’
My face burned. They sniggered through their noses. I thought they were disgusting. I found Janice later, on her own in the mending corner.
‘I can’t keep up with Debbie,’ she told me. ‘So the supervisor’s put me here.’
‘By yourself? All night?’
She nodded. ‘Well, I suppose it’s only fair. If I can’t work fast enough, Debbie can’t earn her bonus.’
‘So what do you have to do here?’ I asked.
‘Fix up these seconds and make them look better. Smooth out the bubbles in the rubber. They sell them on the markets.’
‘What about your bonus?’
‘There isn’t one on this job. It’s flat rate.’
I looked at the small space where she’d been put to work. Surrounded by racks of materials and tubs of fluids, she had a little table and a battered chair next to a wall socket where she plugged in her soldering iron.
‘They should give you a better light. It’s dark in this corner,’ I said.
‘Yes, but it’s cooler back here. And nobody can see me behind all these stock shelves,’ she said with a little shrug of her shoulders.
As I passed in and out of the vulcanising, collecting racks, through to the sock bins and on into the boxing, the rows of bitters and sockers worked furiously to the tempo of the music piped through the rooms. Right through the evening twilight shift, the same music looped through television theme tunes like Hawaii-Five-O or Abba’s number ones, the women singing along, hands flying, shoulders and rumps twisting and swaying.
‘College Boy!’ they called after me. ‘Come and give us a kiss.’
Janice sat alone in the mending corner, head bowed over her work, hot iron in her hand. She had a book propped up against a box in front of her. From time to time she looked up to read. I was curious. I made sure all the pigeon-holes were full, racks stacked up in correct places, and wandered over.
‘Using Lotus 1,2,3,’ I said over her shoulder.
‘Ahmed, don’t creep up on me like that. You made me jump.’
‘Sorry, Janice,’ I said. ‘Should you be doing that while you’re at work?’
‘No. And if they find out, I’ll get the sack.’
She must have read my inquisitive face.
‘I’m learning how to use spreadsheets, but I don’t understand how to link pages.’
It felt good to be able to tell her: ‘I can help you with that.’
I went to her house the following Saturday afternoon when her husband was at home.
‘Come in, Ahmed,’ he greeted me at the door. I felt like an honoured guest. They offered me tea and took me up into their spare bedroom where they kept the computer.
They both learned quickly and offered to pay me. Of course, I refused.
‘No. Thank you,’ I said. ‘I offered to help. I didn’t expect payment.’
They told me that they were planning to start a baby-care business, but I couldn’t see any evidence of children in the house. We took our tea into their sitting room and there were framed photographs on the sideboard of two bright-eyed little boys with identical blond haircuts. Janice saw me looking.
‘They look just like you,’ I said.
‘Yes they did,’ her husband replied, as Janice moved to bring some biscuits. His voice wavered. His words came out in short gasps. ‘Twins. . . Beautiful boys. . . We lost them. . . Spina Bifida. . . . On the same day. . . . Minutes apart. . . . Just the same way they came into the world.’ He shook his head slowly, like he still couldn’t believe it. His shoulders drooped. ‘There’ll be no more. No, there’s no need to say anything. You didn’t know.’
I clamped my mouth closed around my shortbread biscuit and chewed slowly. I thanked them for the refreshments and made my way to the front door. Janice put her hand on my shoulder.
‘Don’t tell anybody, Ahmed, please. About the business plans. I don’t want any of that lot at work to know.’
‘Of course not,’ I told her.
I walked along the avenue, admiring the smart houses with their carefully kept front gardens. I wanted a place like that, one day. When I got home, Uncle Malik was with my father.
‘Here he is,’ my father said. ‘Where have you been?’
I told them.
‘It’s not a good idea, Ahmed,’ my father said.
‘Your father is right, my boy. People will talk.’
‘Talk about what?’ My mother said as she came in with drinks and snacks. I repeated what I’d just said. She put her hand over her mouth and stood, staring at me.
‘What did I do that’s so wrong?’ I asked them.
They related tales I’d heard before: what it used to be like for them when they were children; what it was like for their parents who were the first generation to move to England. I shook my head.
‘It’s not the same now,’ I argued. ‘We can have friends anywhere, dad. They don’t have to be the same as us to be good people. How can you be so old-fashioned?’
They wouldn’t settle until I’d promised not to go to Janice’s house by myself again.
When the evening shift women came in on the next Monday, the trouble began. One of them passed around a wallet of photographs and the rest gathered round to look.
‘College Boy!’ Debbie shouted at me. ‘Come and look at this.’
All the women were sniggering and I didn’t want to look but two of them grabbed me and another pushed the pictures under my nose.
‘This is you, College Boy,’ Debbie said. ‘Coming out of Janice’s house. Look, she’s got her hand on your shoulder. Give her a good one, did ya?’
‘I helped with her computer. Let go of me.’
‘Went upstairs, you did. Carol saw ya.’
‘The computer’s upstairs,’ I said.
I didn’t get it. Why were they trying to make something out of my visiting Janice at her home? The one called Carol grabbed the paper wallet and held out a different picture.
‘That looks like a satisfied smile to me, College Boy,’ she said. ‘I was at my mother’s, wasn’t I?’ she told the women. ‘She’s just come back from Benidorm. Her house overlooks Janice’s. You can see right in. Couldn’t believe it when lover boy here turns up. Well, my mother’s camera was on the table by the window and there was still some film left. So I grabbed it, didn’t I? In he goes, straight upstairs. No messing about. Husband as well. That must have been an interesting threesome.’
I looked at the women’s laughing faces. They were ugly. All of them. Their lips pulled back over their teeth in wide, leering grimaces. Big, red clown lips; pale cruel eyes. Several of them pushed me to the floor. I fell onto my backside.
‘You like white skin, College Boy? Let’s give him some, girls,’ one of them egged on the others.
They sat on me and pinned me down on the floor. It makes me feel foolish to recall how I wasn’t able to shift them. There were too many bodies on top of me. I started shouting. Maybe the supervisor would come and stop them.
One of the women pulled off her top. Her bra looked too small for her; her breasts overflowed in front and at the sides. She thrust her hand inside a cup and pulled out the wobbling flesh with its blue veining and enormous brown nipple. I closed my eyes.
‘Suck on this, College Boy,’ she ordered me. ‘I’ll show you what a real woman likes.’
I kept my eyes closed and shouted louder. The woman pulled my head towards her and forced her floppy flesh against my face. I didn’t like the smell. It was a sour smell, like baby sick.
‘Get off him! Now!’ a voice screamed behind me. Janice.
‘What’s up, love? Don’t want to share?’
‘You heard me. Leave him alone.’
“And what do you think you’re gonna do about it?’
I didn’t see what happened next, but my head was forced forwards by a weight from above me. The flabby-breasted woman fell back with a shriek. More of them screamed. High-pitched screeching resonated round me. There was blood on my face and I felt sick. I heard feet running; felt the group back away from me. I opened my eyes to see Janice and Uncle Malik standing over me. Janice had her bitting knife in her hand.
At first, I thought that Janice must have attacked the woman with her knife, but when my head cleared I saw that the knife was clean; there was no blood on it. The blood was on me. And down the front of the woman. I had bitten her. I’d bitten my tongue as well. Lunging for the woman, Janice had overbalanced and fallen across the top of my head. Forced into the woman's flesh, my teeth had come together and taken a lump out of the disgusting creature. I don’t like to think about it now.
Uncle Malik drove me home. Mother wrapped a bag of frozen peas in a tea towel to hold against my sore cheek. We sat with my father in mother’s best room.
‘I can’t go back there,’ I lisped with my swollen tongue.
‘You must. It’s your job. Your responsibility. You did no wrong, Ahmed,’ Malik said.
‘I can’t face them.’
‘You lose all face if you don’t.’
My father nodded his agreement. Mother sat quietly.
Father got up and stood with his back to the fireplace. ‘You will go back to work tomorrow,’ he said. ‘Show them you are strong. You are the victim here, my son. There will be recriminations, but not against you. Their behaviour was intolerable.’
I took a shower before going to my room. I could hear them talking in low voices before Malik returned to his night shift.
When I walked through into the workroom on Tuesday night, the women were working in silence. I didn’t look at them as I stocked up their sock bins. They thanked me politely. Debbie wasn’t in her usual place and I couldn’t see Janice anywhere either.
I was nervous moving about around the women, but I tried to remember what my family had told me.
‘Hold your head up, Ahmed’, they said. ‘Go about your business as if nothing has happened. Don’t be unfriendly, nor too friendly either. Be efficient. Do your job.’
I repeated those words in my head as I moved from room to room. I saw Malik watching me from the office window in the vulcanising. He smiled and nodded. I wanted to ask someone about Janice but I didn’t really want to catch the eye of any of the women.
While I was collecting sock supplies from the big containers in the stockroom, the supervisor came to have a word.
‘I’m sorry about what happened last night but you can rest assured, nothing like that will ever happen again,’ she said.
I was just about to ask her what happened to Janice when she carried on.
‘Janice Wilson has been dismissed for her attack on a work colleague. I’ve spoken to your uncle and he confirms that your family don’t want to put in a formal complaint. I think that’s best. Best forgotten.’
She walked away in the direction of the boxing room and I wanted to shout after her.
That’s all wrong, I wanted to say. That’s not fair, I wanted to scream like a child.
My face went hot and I burned inside with anger. I went to the toilet to splash water on my face. Cooler and composed, I went to confront my uncle.
‘Be still,’ he told me. ‘There is nothing to be gained by making a fuss.’
‘But it’s not fair,’ I argued. ‘I was the one who was attacked. They forced me . .’
‘Ahmed, come into my office.’ I followed him and he asked me to close the door behind me. ‘Those women are foolish jokers. They tease the new boys. You’re not the first.’
I stared hard at him.
‘You mean you knew that something like this would happen?’
He looked down at his hands.
‘Not quite like this. They went too far this time.’
I slammed the door behind me as I left the office. The glass panes rattled. I worked in a rage through the rest of the evening. I saw the women collecting their things towards the end of their shift and was surprised to see Debbie coming out of the mending corner. It had been empty when I’d gone there looking for Janice. I dipped back behind some racks to listen.
‘Fuckin’ stupid,’ I heard her say. ‘Anyway, they won’t keep me there long, Carol. They know I’m the fastest and the best. Next time there’s a rush on. You’ll see.’
They linked arms like lovers and sauntered through the vulcanising, laughing and joking, dipping into their handbags for the cigarettes they’d light up as soon as they got outside.
The woman I’d bitten didn’t come back for a week and when she did, the supervisor teamed her with Debbie who came out of the mending corner with a real swagger.
‘What did I tell ya, girls?’ she said. ‘Knew it wouldn’t last long.’
My insides boiled. I hated her.
We had a new design to work with. Extra frilly higher heel mules, trimmed in satin with bows, fluffy feathers and other fancy stuff. Santa specials. Boudoir Beauties, they were called. Debbie was furious. She wasn’t selected to work with the team on the hot glue guns.
‘You’re needed here,’ the supervisor told her. ‘Nobody socks as fast as you.’
High-heeled mules don’t have the same kind of socks as flat slippers. The shape of the whole thing comes ready-moulded in a hard kind of plastic. There’s no vulcanising to do. You don’t need bitters either. A different team of women stick down the outer textile to the framework. They work the foot pedals while hot glue squirts from guns clamped to their work- tables. They do their own racking and un-racking and they don’t have time to talk and tease people. They can’t take their eyes off the boiling hot glue so close to their hands. Not for a second.
I saw Debbie staring at the finished racks of fancy slippers as I wheeled them through for boxing. She looked jealous. I turned my head away and smiled.
On Friday night she came into work all dressed up. So did the flabby woman. I heard them saying that they were going out on the town after work. They took their overalls out of their handbags and slid the bags under the work station. They called me over.
‘Everything all right now, love?’ Debbie said to me. ‘All forgotten, eh?’
I nodded and moved away from them. I’d never forget what they’d done to me. I wished I could stick their heads under the glue guns. I wished I could staple their dirty lips together. I shrugged off those bad thoughts and concentrated on my work, knowing that September wasn’t far away.
Later, they called me again. I was on my way to the boxing with a rack full of Boudoir Beauties.
‘Ahmed, here love. Can you sort these sock sizes out for me? I think some of them are in the wrong pigeon-holes.’
I’m always very careful when I’m re-stocking the pigeon-holes. I know that I don’t make that kind of mistake, but I went to check anyway. Debbie stayed right up close beside me and I knew that she was pretending to be nice.
‘Must be my eyesight, love,’ she said. ‘But thank you anyway. Weekend at last, eh? Going anywhere good?’
I found my voice and some courage.
‘I wouldn’t tell you if I was. Don’t pretend to be my friend. It’s never going to happen.’
I turned to move off and out of the corner of my eye I saw the other one straightening up from bending under the table. She tried to hide what she was doing but I guessed what was happening. I couldn’t be certain that anything was missing from the rack because the ten pairs per shelf rule doesn’t always work if the sizes are very mixed. There were no obvious gaps on the shelves.
On my way through with the next rack, I made certain to position myself so that they couldn’t see what I was looking at. Under their table, their bags bulged. I went straight to see my uncle. Someone from the canteen was in the office with him. She stepped away from his side as I came in. There was lipstick on his face.
‘Is Mrs Cooper still here?’ I asked him.
‘I doubt it. Why?’
‘What’s the penalty for stealing slippers?’
‘Instant dismissal. Why?’
I was too breathless to answer him properly. My head and heart were pounding with the rush of realisation that I had found a way to pay Debbie back. It might not be as satisfying as hot glue and staples, but I couldn’t let this chance slip by.
‘Do you have authority to call a bag-search, uncle?’
He looked puzzled but he nodded.
‘You must search bags tonight as the women leave.’
The canteen lady sucked in a breath and made a whistling noise. Malik took her to the office door.
‘Kathleen,’ he said to her. ‘You know that you must say nothing.’
She put her finger to her lips, picked up an empty tray and went out.
I saw his troubled expression. ‘Debbie?’
‘Yes. And the other one.’
‘Leave it with me,’ he said.
Just before the women were due to finish, I made an excuse to go outside. I went to the supervisor and told her I was feeling hot and needed some air. I leaned against the factory wall, watching the main entrance, waiting to see what happened. Uncle Malik arrived with the supervisor and another woman. I planned to step forward and let Debbie see me as she was caught. I wanted to smile into her lying, cheating face. I looked forward to tasting her downfall.
She appeared in the doorway with the other one. They opened their bags for inspection, got out their cigarettes and lit up. They walked out into the yard, arms linked. As they reached the gate, Debbie turned back to wave.
‘See ya later, Malik, ‘ she called. ‘Maybe I’ll have something hot ready for ya.’
The two women laughed with that same coarse, throatiness that I had come to detest.
Malik didn’t want to speak to me. He waved me away but I followed him to the office.
‘You warned them,’ I accused him.
He didn’t look at me.
I thrust my face right into his. ‘How could you?’
‘Don’t raise your voice to me, Ahmed. I am your family. Show some respect.’
I couldn’t believe what he had allowed. My senses were on fire. I didn’t know that you could feel so many emotions at the same time. I raged at the injustice of his actions. His betrayal sickened me. He’d denied my own suffering for his own selfish reasons. I could hardly bear to look at him. I stood over him as he sat at his desk and I watched his face as he fought to keep the upper hand.
‘Go away, little boy. I have work to do.’
I would not let him dismiss me that way. I tried to sound like my father as I gathered myself. ‘You owed it to me, uncle. You owed it to Mrs Cooper. Most of all, you owed it to Janice.’
His head tilted to the side and he looked at me as if I had no sense at all.
‘Janice isn’t my girlfriend,’ he said.
My stomach knotted. A bitter taste rose in my mouth and I felt as if I wanted to hit him. I stood my ground and waited until he was forced to look at me again. I kept my voice calm and soft.
‘Thank you for teaching me about the real world,’ I said.
I could tell that he realised I wasn’t going to let it end there. I saw it in his eyes. I took away with me some satisfaction that he didn’t know what I planned to do next.
I still don't know what I'm going to do. I'll think of something. I can wait. Three more days and I’m finished with this job but I think I grew up ten years in that one night.