Commissioned by the ANDOR gallery for 'One unit and the next', an exhibition by Sarah Poots
Frank had the simplest job in the world, but he found it problematic to describe. 'So what do you do all day?' Cherie once asked – or was it Joanne? The woman he'd been seeing at the time – he was pretty sure it was Joanne. 'What do you do all day?' she asked, as they sat on his bed – or maybe on a bench in that park with a nice view over the lake.
'I check things going past,' he said. 'Make sure they look the same.'
'What else?' Joanne rubbed her sunglasses clean with the thing around her neck. No, it must have been Cherie – Joanne never wore sunglasses.
'Nothing else,' Frank replied, already feeling agitated. 'I check things going past. That's all I do.' And that, right there, was the problem: he could explain the whole procedure in a handful of words, but those words did nothing to describe what the work was actually like, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, week by week, and supposedly month by month, if he got through his probation period without anything going wrong. It was difficult to see what could go wrong, but Frank's life had this tendency. It was the simplest job in the world, but in order to make her understand the actual substance of his work he would have to sit her down and repeat 'I check things going past, I check things going past, I check things going past, I check things going past' for hours, and he didn't think Cherie or Claire, whichever one of them it was, possessed the necessary levels of patience.
'I check things going past,' he repeated, when she asked for further clarification. 'That's all I do. They're all the same.'
'If they're all the same,' she said, 'why do you need to check?'
The job was a re-entry scheme for the medium to long-term unemployed, intended to prepare Frank for the world of work and responsibility after a few too many years of not quite getting things right. 'Learning applicable skills' and 'the first step to a promising career' were the sort of phrases he'd been given, but having been at it for seven weeks he still wasn't entirely sure what these skills were meant to be, or what the second step of a career that had started out this way could possibly look like. He worked the late shift two days a week, from half past three to eleven o'clock, and two days on the early shift, from seven to half past two. He wore white polyester coveralls pulled on over his normal clothes, a perforated hygiene hat, disposed of after every shift, and elasticated blue bags – which his line manager optimistically termed slippers – over his trainers. The fact that he wasn't issued gloves confused him, given that his hands were the only parts of his body that he might conceivably use, but Jeff, who was positioned on his left, explained that hands were the only part that could be frequently cleaned – a foam-soap handwashing station was situated nearby. Jeff was positioned on his left and Paul was positioned on his right, each to his allotted belt – or maybe it was the other way round. One of them was on his left and one of them was on his right, or maybe they alternated shift by shift, he didn't know their schedules.
'The first ten feels like the next hundred. The next hundred, like the next thousand. The next thousand, like the next ten thousand.' They told him this on his first shift, Geoff or Paul, one of the two, eyes briefly flicking up to watch him in the four-second interval between one unit and the next.
'What happens after that?' he asked.
'You stop noticing.'
'How long does that take?'
'About two days.'
'But I thought noticing was the point.' Neither one of them replied. He guessed it was a stupid thing to say, in a job as simple as this, and didn't speak a whole lot more for the rest of the induction. The induction involved standing and watching as Geoff and Pavel stood and watched, and then completing a questionnaire to check his understanding of basic procedures and protocols. It was a multiple choice questionnaire, and under the gaze of the line manager he ticked the boxes one by one, tick tick tick to the end of the page, and already his mind was flowing with the shapes of the units as they passed, tick tick tick in an endless repeating procession before his eyes.
'What does units mean?' asked Claire, as they finished a pizza at her disordered kitchen table or after they had finished making love – her hair was disordered, anyway.
'Jelly what?' It was definitely Liane – Clara's voice didn't squeak like that. He felt profoundly annoyed again. It was the simplest job in the world, but in order to make her understand the actual substance of his work he would have to sit her down and repeat 'jelly moulds, jelly moulds, jelly moulds, jelly moulds' hour by hour, day by day, week by week, and supposedly month by month, if he got through his probation period without anything going wrong.
He was positioned at his belt as the moulds tracked smoothly past, eyeballs pegged to the rate of production. This was his second day, or his sixth. They were made of silicone, and came in three possible forms – elephants, dinosaurs and butterflies – in four possible colours – red, orange, yellow and green – giving twelve possible permutations: red elephants, yellow dinosaurs, orange elephants, green butterflies, orange butterflies, orange dinosaurs, yellow elephants, red butterflies, green elephants, red dinosaurs, green dinosaurs, yellow butterflies. He picked out the deficient ones and dropped them in a wheeled cart. The only problem was, there had never been a deficient one, not once, in the five or seven weeks since he'd started working there. Once he'd thought the tail of one of the yellow dinosaurs was red, but it turned out to be yellow. That was the most significant thing that had occurred so far.
'Are there meant to be different ones?' he asked, straining over the noise of machinery.
'Of course not,' said Godfrey or Pablo.
'Then why are we here?' Neither replied. He guessed it was a stupid thing to say, in a job as simple as this. But no job is really simple – things had begun to trouble him. It troubled him, for example, that one of the moulds was an elephant but red, yellow, orange and green were not elephant colours. A butterfly could be those colours, and somehow a dinosaur could be those colours, but an elephant could not be any of those colours at all.
An elephant could be blue, even though elephants weren't blue. But the jelly moulds didn't come in blue. Another thing that troubled him was the thought of jelly butterflies.
'Jelly what?' squeaked Liane. She was laughing, or she was crying. They were having an argument, or they had finished making love – her hair was disordered, anyway. He was positioned at his belt as the jelly whats tracked smoothly past, jelly what, jelly what, jelly what, jelly what, his mind flowing with the tick tick tick in an endless repeating red elephants, yellow dinosaurs, orange elephants, green butterflies, orange butterflies, orange dinosaurs, yellow elephants, red butterflies – but no blue elephants, and never jelly butterflies. He found it problematic to describe.
'Jelly elephants, jelly dinosaurs, sure,' Frank attempted to explain, straining over the noise of machinery, 'but jelly butterflies isn't right. Butterflies aren't like that.' One was positioned on his left and one was positioned on his right, the two of them exchanging looks from under their perforated hygiene hats, disposed of after every shift, eyes briefly flicking up in the four-second interval between one unit and the next. The first ten, like the next hundred. The next hundred, like the next thousand. The next thousand, like the next ten thousand. Frank didn't know what time it was. Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, week by week, and supposedly month by month, if he got through his probation period without anything going wrong – there had never been a deficient one, not once, in the five or seven weeks. 'They're all the same!' he was shouting now, pulling the white polyester coveralls off his normal clothes as the line manager closed in from behind, looking to Liane, Joanne, Claire, Clara, Cherie, Jeff, Geoff, Godfrey, Paul, Pavel and Pablo for back-up, all of them tracking smoothly past in an endless repeating procession of optimistically termed slippers and reaching out hands were the only part that could be frequently cleaned towards him, picking out the deficient one and dropping it in a wheeled cart.
'What happens after that?' he mumbled, as the ambulance pulled away.
'You stop noticing,' he heard. The simplest job in the world.