Sunday, January 13, 2008

4. The Battery #2

With a quick, sure movement, she punched her key. Now she had thirteen free minutes.

It was an unwieldy period of time. Not long enough for most things. Too long for anything else. Long enough for a cigarette in the washroom. Work was the only place she ever smoked.


She sat in the cramped cubicle, staring blankly at the back of the door with its ancient patina of printed softcore porn: a pink nipple torn from its owner’s chest; an arching torso responding to the obscene attentions of what may once have been a golden-haired head but which had blistered and dissolved in the washroom’s permanent damp. Ether mused over these fragmentary women with who she shared her breaks. She wondered if the models might still be alive, how their lives had panned out, if they’d had children, how slack and grey their flesh of eighty years, sewn into a complicated mass of gerocomical machinery.

The clippings were old, but then everything in The Battery was old - even the chicken processing system had been adapted from something bought cheaply from a failed Brazilian MeatAcres franchise. The washroom was possibly older still: exposed piping with collars of brittle white mould at the joins; scratched stainless steel seats on worn commodes, sucker vents roach-coloured from generations of shift workers doing exactly as she was now: smoking and wondering how she was going to get out.

Now Shatts was outside, she could hear his hesitant shuffling on the smooth concrete. She could almost hear his breathing.

He was her employer, an erstwhile friend of her father - and if nothing else at The Battery precipitated her desire to leave, the presence of this overweight and overbearing man would have been enough.

She dropped her cigarette in the toilet bowl and pulled up her overalls.

- You at it again, Miss Dease?

She made no reply.

- You think I can’t smell it?

Ether had made it clear to Shatts on many occasions that her chief priority in life was to escape his employ, but he only ever smiled; he knew there were few options for a girl like her, and that in the normal course of things she might stay on at The Battery for the rest of her working life.

She flushed the toilet, hoping against hope that the butt would sink.

- What do you take me for? - called Shatts, in his childish contralto - One of your braindead country cousins? Ether?

The butt bobbed in the bright blue antiseptic water. Taunting her.

- There’s a farmer in Nhill with rented body-parts and a gutful of scab, who’d be broken-hearted to hear his little girl lost her job - One of his stock phrases, delivered in a stock tone of reasonable authority blended with an uncomfortable intimacy.

Ether felt locked into a life-cycle as rigid as that of the chickens, shared with a man so objectionable it was hard to believe he was not a generic villain from some trashy soap opera. Worse was her seeming inability to do anything about it. In the latest of a series of improbable solutions, she had entered competitions, scores of them, wishing that just one of the various forms of liberty offered as prizes might fall her way: submarine leisure in a deep sea Hyatt, virtual prominence surfing in the solar photosphere, orbital romance in a richly-appointed simulation pod. She trusted that with her name entered in the data sleeves of so many enterprising merchants, there was a potential, however slight, for her life to take a dramatic turn for the better.

But all that came back was spam, never congratulations.

She flushed again, knowing it wouldn’t work, then winced at the impulse to reach in and remove the sodden butt herself. Shatts, the pig, would certainly find it and use it against her as evidence. Tobacco was officially proscribed in The Battery, but it wasn’t as if the owner really cared. He would happily exchange a marginal rise in the chickens’ tar and monoxide content for an excuse to hector his attractive young ward.

He was a very shonky operator, serving the wearied palates of the rich. He advertised his wares on exclusive networks and no one challenged his flamboyant claims; no one guessed that the rare exotic plover eggs, the subtly flavoured quail eggs and the exquisitely textured pheasant eggs were in truth the product of his twenty thousand bio-mechanical wombs - his ceaselessly pumping sphincters in their cool metal cradles.

Ether wished her father had never found the job advertisment. He had a simple decency and a keen eye which had failed him this time. She could imagine no one - least of all he - trusting a man who carried with him the leaden bouquet of a fart that had gestated too long in noxious bowels.

- Why don’t you answer me, Ether? You alright in there?

The butt would not sink. What did she care?

Shatts had shuffled into the washroom and was at the door of the cubicle.

- Yes. Yes, I’m alright. Don’t come in - she said, quickly.

- How am I to know, Ether, if you don’t answer me?

- Give me a minute to myself, Mr Shatts.

- You’re smoking in there – He almost sounded happy about it.

Ether pushed open the door and attempted to make her way speedily and efficiently to the washbasin. But Shatts, for all his bulk, was too fast. He jammed himself in the cubicle doorway, a wedge of repellent flesh, leering, framed by the crumbling pornography.

- Let me go - she said quietly - Now, Mr Shatts.

- I’ll let you go alright, if I catch you smoking again.

He was too close. The odour was suffocating. What deadly reactions were at work in his body to create such a stench of musty sex and overcooked fung from a Malayan street barrow? It was through his clothes. In his skin. Her cells warned her that it was a cipher of arousal - but one that seemed scarcely human.

Of late Shatts’ attentions had been more insistent. This worried her now.

- I smell it on your breath, Ether - he said, leaning closer. When he uttered her name with that lilting upstroke, she wished she had been called something else - It’s in your hair - He extended a damp hand to her head. Ether backed up to the toilet bowl.

She had two options: stay in unbearable proximity to his flesh and wait for his next move; or squeeze past and actually feel the soft distension of his spider’s belly pressing against her. There was something predatory in his face. Mouth an open doorway to a moist pink gullet. Lower lip hanging and wet, as though his jaw was unable to take the weight of jowl that hung from it.

Involuntarily, she opted for the more aggressive alternative. She was steeling herself for the inevitable contact when the thirteen minutes sounded on her PERS.

- I have to get back now, Mr Shatts - she said to the floor, and took a tentative step forward. Shatts stood firm on the spot as she squeezed past him and left the cubicle, head bowed, not quite running.

As she reached the factory floor, she heard him call out from behind.

- It’s no good for the chooks, Ether.

She stopped and turned. Her flesh felt like jelly. Shatts had followed her.

He’d had his hand down the bowl and stood with the dripping butt of her cigarette between his plump fingers. An eager yellow tongue of shirt fabric extruded from his open fly. The crumbling pornography which had framed him in the washroom was replaced now by the vista of his chickens - prolapsed oviducts spitting their sterile issue; milk-coloured slabs in electrolytic protein gel, smooth featherless skin, scar-tissue pink clashing with Shatt’s gaily-coloured tie.

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