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Ian Ayris
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chained2.jpg
Art by Lonni Lees 2011

Chained

Ian Ayris

 

            Ethel Smidgen sat at the kitchen table, stirring her tea, thinking of her Tom. Dead ten years to the day. Old Tom. Drownded in a gin vat at the Gibson's Gin factory on Splutter Street. They'd fished him out with long brooms, his friends, his co-workers, his comrades in perdition, and carried him abroad their sloping shoulders, and laid him upon the factory floor. Ethel held her position on the bottling line whilst others deserted their posts, desperate to see what all the fuss was about.


          But she knew. She'd seen it on their faces on their return, Tom's name whispered in dispatches. And she felt it in her heart. A heart that'd been broken too many times. But no one wanted to tell her. Not Ethel. Our Ethel.

          And so it befell Mr. Gibson, great grandson of the original Mr. Gibson, to break the news to dear Ethel. He'd come down to the factory floor in person. Have to give him credit for that, they'd said. First time a Gibson's been down here, they'd said. And he asked Ethel if she would accompany him to his office. Ethel Smidgen? Going upstairs? Not bleedin’ likely.  She knew her place, and her place was here, amongst the dirt and the grime, and the clanking of the bottling machines.

 

          Poor Mr. Gibson. What was he to do? He pleaded. He begged. He made a move to put a comforting hand towards her. And behind him, behind Mr Gibson, Ethel's eyes lit upon the sight of Tom's dripping body being palletted across the factory floor on a forklift truck. Mr Gibson caught her as she fell. The first time she'd deserted her post on the bottling line since nineteen-fifty-one.

#

          Tears ran cold down her face, into the teacup. Ethel left the table and pulled back the blind over the sink. The anguished scream of a fox broke the silence and the dark, shattering the eerie calm of this ungodly hour of the morning.

          She went upstairs for a bath, slowly, mechanically. Time to get ready for work.

          For the last time.

          It was the end, see, for Gibson's Gin. The factory was to close its gates for the final time. The end of an era, some said. For others, like Ethel, the end of everything.

          And across town, in a four-bedroomed detached house on Cholmondley Avenue, Mr Gibson stared at the life-sized portrait of his grandfather on the study wall. The kids were asleep upstairs.  His wife sipped tea in their king-sized double bed, alone with her indifference.  He poured himself another sherry.

#

          As the sun rose, Ethel cycled shakily through the factory gates, chained up her bicycle in the bicycle shed and found her place on the line. The other workers, like shadows, came in after her, and took their positions. Someone, somewhere, pressed a button, and the bottling machines clanked into life.

          At morning break, the air was thick with incomprehensible loss. Bacon sandwiches were nibbled, tea sipped. Gazes lingered unmet. To these people, these good people, this world, this simple world of theirs was falling apart from the inside. And they couldn't do a damn thing about it.

          At the end of the day, the siren hailed for the last time. People packed up, said goodbye to the old place, to each other, and wiped the tears from their eyes with calloused hands. Outside of these factory gates, a cruel, biting, world awaited them, its mouth slavering, its eyes narrowing. 

          Ethel lined up at the clocking-out machines, the sound of shuffling feet echoing through the silent factory.  When it was her turn to punch her ticket, Ethel couldn't do it.  That would mean the end.  And she couldn't have that.  Instead, she slipped her timecard into her tabard pocket and tottered out into the harsh glare of the evening sun. 

          Just another shadow. 

          But she wasn't going anywhere.  With just one or two stragglers remaining, Ethel unchained her bicycle and reentered the factory.

          Mr. Gibson didn't turn up at the office that final day. He couldn't. He'd meant to. He'd wanted to make a speech to his staff, his workers, his people. He'd wanted to apologize for the company's failings, for his own ineptitude. He'd wanted to break down before them all and beg their forgiveness. But he never left the study. The glare of his grandfather held him too fast for that.

          And as Mr. Gibson locked the study door and took his revolver from the secret compartment in his desk, Ethel Smidgen pulled herself onto the conveyor belt of the bottling machine, and chained herself to it with the bicycle chain.

          And someone, somewhere, pressed a button.

 

 

Ian Ayris has had a dozen short stories published both in print—in the Byker Books Radgepacket series, and online in ezines such Pulp Metal Magazine and The Flash Fiction Offensive.  He lives in London, UK, with his wife and three children and has recently completed his first novel. 

In Association with Fossil Publications