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Authors: David Ireland

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BOOK: The Unknown Industrial Prisoner
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When he woke up and went down to the control room they were kicking up a fuss. The man who pissed purple had struck again. There was purple dye all over the stainless steel wall.

‘It must be someone from another plant. Not game to have a pee where he belongs,' they said.

A mile away on a corner of Highway One an idiot sat on the concrete footpath with strips of filthy rag knotted thousands of times, old stockings, pieces of soft rope grey with age—all knotted. The whole mess was somehow tied in the middle so that the hundreds of knotted lengths could be reached one by one like the spokes of a wheel. Each strand had dozens of knots along its length. Tying, untying, over and over. Most days he was there: his people put him out every morning. Some days they forgot to bring him in. Pedestrians walked round him.

2
TERMITARY

UTOPIA, 1852 The head sherangs wrote nasty little notes to the lower bosses every time they saw it, and the little bosses protested as reasonably as they could to the office staff—the shinyarses—but the notice kept appearing, glued on walls and windows with uncut Puroil resin adhesive that couldn't be dissolved, burnt off or cracked with an axe. The Two Pot Screamer had a great supply printed.

 

RULES FOR PUROIL STAFF. BOTANY BAY 1852.

1.   Godliness, cleanliness, justice, punctuality, prudence, diligence, continence, fortitude, honesty, faith, temperance, hope, obedience, charity, loyalty and chastity are necessities in a good business.

2.   On the recommendation of the governor of the colony, this firm has reduced the hours of work and the staff will only have to be present between the hours of six and seven Monday to Saturday. The Sabbath is for the worship of God, but should any work require to be done, work will take precedence.

3.   Daily prayers will be held each morning. All staff will be present.

4.   Clothing must be sober and of uniform colour. The clerical staff will not disport themselves in raiments of bright colours. Long socks must be worn—no ankle scars must be visible at any time and undue scratching is forbidden.

5.   Heavy clothing may not be worn in the office, but neck scarves and headwear may be worn in inclement weather.

6.   A stove is provided. Coal and wood must be kept in the locker, not in desks, filing cabinets or pockets. Each member of the staff will bring 4lb of coal each day during cold weather.

7.   No member of the staff may leave the room without permission. The calls of nature are now permitted and the staff may use the garden. This area must be kept in good order with the rake provided.

8.   No talking is allowed, except after business hours. Movements of the lips will be viewed with suspicion.

9.   The craving for tobacco and alcohol is a human weakness and as such is forbidden.

10. Now that the hours have been drastically reduced, the partaking of food is allowed between 11.30 and noon, but work will not on any account cease.

11. Staff will provide their own pens.

12. Forty minutes before prayers and after closing, cleaning work will be done. Brushes, scrubbers and soap are now provided by the management.

13. If in chains, staff are held responsible that their irons are perfect and not ovalled or too large.

14. If any person shall feel himself -aggrieved by any order, he is to obey instantly, but may complain, if he shall think fit, to the manager.

15. The manager must never be addressed directly.

16. A Record Book will be kept of the conduct of all staff.

17. The management will expect a great rise in output to compensate for the Utopian conditions.

 

MORNING SONG OF THE TERMITARY Take any Monday. The Black Snake was first in the office. A man waiting patiently for attention asked him about the 1852 notice freshly stuck to the glass door. The Black Snake sniffed; there was a nasty smell coming from the man's overalls.

‘How would I bloody well know?' spat the Black Snake. He hated Mondays. He hated the other days, too.

A fat typist came in, but the man waiting patiently for attention could not catch her eye before she parked her bag, opened her desk and departed for the ladies' rest room.

The Colonel entered, having parked his old Rolls carefully. He was a clerk now, still with moustache and bar but in '45 was a colonel. He knew one of the Directors and this kept him employed, but he had no hope of promotion after he called The Whispering Baritone a refugee from a male whore shop in one of his grander moments when he was training officer. His papers were marked ‘never to be employed in any higher capacity'. He drove a Rolls for the satisfaction it gave him to have a bigger car than the Wandering Jew.

The Colonel sniffed as he passed the man and marched up to his desk at the back of the office and took out little cards with cost formulas on them for the supervisor to see, then busied himself with his art gallery. He was a sculptor. His ‘Mother and Child' was his finest work. It was constructed from two straightened paperclips, a spring, a disc of metal with three holes in it, a twig, and a short bent thing. The child was the twig. There were long-legged creatures and twisted wire faces: he spent most of the day on them. His phone trilled. He listened.

‘What does Procedure say?' He listened again.

‘But what's laid down?' He lost patience and took a firm stand, gambling on the other's ignorance of the rules. ‘No! International Puroil Procedure says it must be countersigned by three officers, none in the same department. I don't care how many signatures you have to get. Three counter-signers, O'Grady says. Goodbye!' He hung up. The man waiting patiently for attention sighed. If only he had a job where you could play children's games instead of the boring business of staring at the floor or furtively reading stale newspapers.

Soon the rest of the staff were in. They would rehash till midday Wednesday the sporting events of the past weekend. From the half-way point of the week they would anticipate the coming weekend. All sniffed something peculiar in the air.

At eight o'clock industrial music started. Now and again a huge payroll machine chewed into a lump of silence and crunched it up with a frightful racket. Shortly after it started—and if the man waiting patiently for attention had been there every day he would have noticed that one followed the other—three whistlers started too.

They began with ‘Drink to me only'; their whistles were nearly a semi-tone apart, though this was sometimes increased to a full tone or decreased to a precarious quarter-tone. And sometimes, just before the end of a phrase, they would all be dead on the knocker, all in triumphant harmony; then on the last note fall into a tableau of dissonance and hold the dissonance until breath gave out or until their supervisor, the Garfish, rubbered his head round to look over the partition separating him from them, in which case they would stop as if they had never whistled in their lives.

When the machine got a go on and looked like carrying all before it, they began to whistle deafeningly. The others frowned on the whistlers, not on the machine whose noise they took to be inevitable.

The man waiting patiently for attention nearly got served when a tall, redhaired clerk bounced in and asked, ‘What can I do for you?' but the man took more than a second to answer and by that time the clerk was gone amongst the tables and chairs, singing. He was the only one who didn't sniff the air.

The working class can kiss me tail

A bludger's job will never fail!

Everyone stopped work to talk to Should I.

‘Did you fellers read the latest?' chattered Should I. He held up a sheaf of eight-by-five pamphlets.

‘Epistles from the Apostle Lewis,' he orated. This was the Puroil Chairman of Directors, Australian Board; another bum-boy to the distant owners.

‘Puroil and the Credit Squeezes!' he declaimed. ‘During the past twenty years, Government-inspired credit squeezes have had a marked effect on the Australian economy.'

‘Where'd you get 'em?' sibilated the Black Snake.

‘They're everywhere,' Should I declared. But the Black Snake's question was rhetorical. He was making notes, watching to see who said anything against the company.

‘Severe competition has been encountered, the monthly increase in sales is getting less, new oil companies coming in, higher wages bill, caught in a cost price squeeze, major internal reorganization, economy drives, disastrous effect of the lifting of import controls.'

‘Let's have one, friend,' said the man waiting patiently for attention, in a hard voice. Should I, in surprise, gave him one and went on reading. The Colonel fiddled with a new work, Diversifications, as he listened.

‘The avoidance of waste, waste of human resources which carry a high cost factor, management of expenses, banish inertia, the disinclination to move or act. Inertia is the product of prosperity, we should not hesitate to depart from our traditional ways, constantly strive for better and safer working conditions, the Puroil Team, shaping the future of Australia, tremendous future, it is up to each of us to give of our best!'

Should I paused for breath, his chest heaving, a prominent Welsh vein throbbing in his right temple.

A phone rang and broke it up. Should I went away. A worker had gone to hospital with a back injury and his wife was asking for food money.

‘Can't be done,' rapped the Colonel. ‘He'll have to call and see Calamity Jane the nursing sister and fill in the compo papers.' He listened a bit. ‘Madam, your husband might be on night shift, but Calamity Jane isn't. He should have reported to the sister and then seen the company doctor. Two in the morning? Then he should have waited outside the casualty room. Couldn't stand? What sort of wound was it? Did he lose much blood? No blood? No wound? I fail to see, Madam, how a man can be incapacitated by an invisible injury. Madam, his pain is no concern of ours. There is no claim until he fills these papers in. How do you know he suffers, Madam? Can you prove pain? Can you measure it? We have no pain-gauges, Madam. He could be fooling you, the doctor, everyone. Our rules are laid down. We can't take anything on trust. We don't make the rules, Madam. You can talk to a dozen Unions, Madam. He must call and see the sister, see the company doctor and fill the papers in. With back injuries, he'll need all the witnesses he can get. He was alone? That's bad. A man should never be alone when he has his injury. It's not doing him any good delaying this way. It's not my problem, Madam, I'm only here to help and I've done my level best to give you all the information at my disposal. Goodbye, Madam.'

He put the phone down quickly and his fingers flew as he put the finishing twists to Diversifications. He listed it in a little notebook along with a drawing of it, in case barbarians destroyed his art in a forthcoming invasion of the pay office, smiled at it, then placed it on the shelf behind him.

‘Was that 1444?' slimed the Black Snake and the Colonel nodded.

‘He done his back in the other day,' said the Black Snake.

‘That's what that woman said.'

‘He did that once before. Walked like this.' He got up and did an imitation of a bent man, putting an agonized expression on his face. The office laughed and laughed.

The thermostat reacted to the warming office, and the tone of the air conditioning system altered, filling the large room with a deeper hum. The air vents in the ceiling showed black patterns round them; the air they breathed was the air that circulated outside, with a high soot level. The system had filters to keep out rocks. The man waiting patiently for attention shifted from buttock to buttock on his chair and fiddled with something in his overalls. The tea-lady trundled in with her mobile urn and morning tea was on. The Garfish came out immediately to get his cup, trying to set a good example. Too much time was wasted if the woman had to go round with each cup. But the woman was against any limiting of her functions, she started to take cups round immediately, she wanted her job to fill all the available time. If the Garfish had his example followed, there might have been no Mother and Child from the Colonel to enrich our heritage, no Communication, no Will to Progress, no Encounter, no Diversifications. And worse still, no Unknown Industrial Prisoner, a work whose grandeur of conception took the Colonel's breath away when he thought of it and made his fingers tremble as he bent his potent paper-clips.

 

AMBITION The Garfish had his head down, ignoring the hullabaloo outside his cubicle; busy on his ideas for putting the labour force in its place. It was crazy that a man so far above the Colonel, the Black Snake, Pork Chop and the Mountain Cat, was despised by them. They took no notice of him at all.

If we can get a big shutdown of the plants after the cracker gets going, we'll have the operators, he ruminated. We'll start putting off the deadwood, get a pool of operators, make their jobs interchangeable, get a no-stoppage clause into their agreement, then apply somehow for an oil industry Union, to dodge the chance that the GWU will ever step in and split the operators down the middle by claiming it covered their jobs better than their present Union.

Yes, if he could get company Unions, or even the no-stoppage clause, he could ease out the Brown Snake and take his job. Industrial Relations, that was the job he wanted. He reckoned he had a talent for industrial relations. Above his desk, neatly framed and hung, was a pyramid-shaped diagram like a family tree. It represented orders of responsibility, starting at the base with many minor members of the hierarchy and ascending through the upper levels occupied by fewer and fewer functions until at the top the lines met at the word Manager. It was only a local chart; the Garfish's function was on the bottom line, but he had a place on the money tree and the faceless people he supervised didn't. He was actually on the tree: they were the ground on which the tree rested, the soil in which it grew.

 

THE DAY THE TEA-LADY The Brown Snake slithered through the door.

BOOK: The Unknown Industrial Prisoner
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