In those days we had quotas. It might be ten a day, it might be twenty. In Blokhin’s case it was two hundred and fifty. He kept that up for twenty-eight consecutive ten-hour shifts and it’s still a record.
The rest of us could only dream of being set – and of achieving – such productivity targets. Although we adopted his methodologies as best practice, there were human factors that impacted on the performance of the system.
In part it was a question of calibre. With his suitcase full of Fascist pocket-pistols, Blokhin ended up getting commended for the use of deniable enemy weaponry but his reasoning was more pragmatic than political: the low-powered ammunition he employed was effective enough at point blank range and made far less of a mess than my standard-issue Tula Tokarev; he would be onto his next customer, and his next, while I was still hosing brains and skull fragments off the backstop.
I believe they call it ergonomics nowadays.
But you were asking for an example of something I did that made an impact – an innovation, with a demonstrable outcome, yes? What did I do, why did I do it, and how would I do it differently if I had the chance to do it again?
I must mention the generators. Although the consumption of diesel offered no significant economies vis-à-vis the cost of electricity from the local grid, the lighting was brighter (if a trifle harsh) and less prone to interruption. Moreover, the thud and clatter of these generators, and of the pumps and ventilators they drove, played an important part in masking the sounds of the projects, which in addition to the frequent shots included a fair amount of screaming and yelling. Disguising the exact nature of what went on in the basement during the night shift reduced customer resistance and enabled a faster throughput. The cacophony, to my mind, also helped numb the nerves of the staff, producing a different and less jarring headache than the abrupt report of a pistol such as mine, or an unexpected shriek from the customer being frog-marched into the cell. If it were ever to be used again, this approach should be combined with wax earplugs, and plenty of cigarettes to take away the taste of the diesel fumes, the customers’ soil and the carbolic disinfectant. I would also follow Blokhin’s lead and acquire a less powerful weapon next time, particularly for despatching the smaller customers. As he demonstrated to me personally, such a pistol, presented directly to the base of the skull and angled correctly, can press the cranium itself into service as a rudimentary silencer, thereby reducing the need for so much external muffling.
Blokhin, of course, pioneered other improvements – such as the leather motorcycle gauntlets, butcher’s apron and cap – which are better known. His introduction of vodka, before, during and after the shift, played a large part in instilling a powerful team ethic. Moreover, his ability to perceive the organisational model from the supply chain perspective (and to arrange for a relative with a bulldozer to be waiting at the other end) demonstrated an impressive flair for joined-up thinking.
He was, I admit, the better man, the better manager,the better executioner. I like to think my willingness to adopt his methods evidenced my own adaptability. I also maintain that his private stash of weapons gave him an unfair advantage, as did his cousin’s bulldozer. Still, he was superior to me, in every way. In the time it took me to process one, he had processed three. When, at the end of a gruelling night’s work, I had processed a hundred, he had processed two and a half times that number. But let’s not forget what happened to Blokhin in the end.
I am getting ahead of myself. No unexplained gaps, isn’t that what you said?
In the winter, when we could no longer dig mass graves, I returned to the bosom of my family. If ever someone had earned a rest it was I. My ears were permanently ringing, my head permanently aching. My hands, bruised by the constant recoil, scorched by overheated metal, ached too, and I had developed an intermittent but insistent pain in my right shoulder. I could not sleep. Something about the way I lay on my side had changed and night after night I would rouse from a half-slumber to find the bolster pressing painfully against the back of my neck, as though a giant hand were forcing me down. Whether through lack of sleep or other discomforts I grew increasingly irritable. It was no longer uncommon for me to yell at Tanyusha and the boys, almost without provocation, nor on occasion to strike them. Once, when I discovered Peter tampering with my holstered Tok where it hung from the pegs in the hallway, I knocked out one of his baby teeth. Through his sobs and his mother’s skirts he told me he had been trying to get the pistol to defend her. After that, my wife slept in the boys’ room and I kept the Tok at my side. Although he was only six, Peter was big and strong for his age, as I had been. He might have succeeded in lifting and cocking the pistol. He might have killed me with it.
I used to think of Blokhin then, with no wife or kids, with his productivity medal and his mates in the local bar. I used to envy him.
Shortly before the thaw and the start of the new season, as luck would have it, I caught a fever and spent several days and nights in a strange state between sleep and waking. Without Tanyusha at my side to report on my ramblings, I can’t say for certain that the dreams which consumed me were nightmares; I’m not even sure I was capable of interpreting the sounds, images and sensations. All that I recall is a seemingly endless confusion about digging overwintered potatoes: struggling to lift blighted tubers that clung with stiff sinews to the frozen soil.
Upon my return to Kalinin, I was met with the news that I had been reassigned within the Department. It was claimed that although as a team we had achieved – and indeed exceeded – our targets, I had failed to meet my individual quotas on two shifts the previous fall. This I vigorously denied, as I do to this day. On the two nights in question, my quotas were seventy-five and one hundred respectively. For the first of these, I was specifically told by Blokhin himself, who was the acting senior official, that since I had surpassed my seventy-five the previous night, by processing no less than eighty-one customers, all adult males, he would not insist on my hitting seventy-five on this occasion, particularly as the shift’s traffic was to include a proportion of young females, who always took longer to process owing to their habit of collapsing in a dead faint when they saw the room and me in it. Nevertheless, by the end of the night my total stood at seventy-four and I would have had time to finish off my seventy-fifth had not Blokhin and his team, who had drunk even more vodka than usual, carted her away for their own devices. On the second occasion – the night when I failed to meet one hundred – I was excused the last hour of my shift after an errant cartridge case struck me in the eye, causing considerable discomfort. It was Blokhin, who had again been left in charge, who personally signed me off and promised to finish my quota for me.
You must understand how these unwarranted black marks on my record have dogged me over the years. Although I made a success of myself in my new career within the Department, the accusation that I had fallen short of targets at a time of total commitment to productive forces was an ineradicable stain that kept me from reaching executive office. That the perpetrator of this injustice – a man I had trusted and admired more than any other – was by now a recipient of the Order of the Red Banner made any appeal or counter-accusation quite impossible.
Still, I had the last laugh, didn’t I?
He was really a victim of his own success. One can process thousands, tens of thousands, of ordinary customers with impunity, but every now and then they send you down an extraordinary one. Naturally, it was Blokhin they always chose for these: he was after all the best executioner, the best manager, the best man. The only problem being that one day someone is going to ask what happened to these customers – and the men who signed the death warrants aren’t about to kneel down in front of the backstop.
So Blokhin was dealt with, quietly: retired on grounds of alcoholism and insanity, stripped of rank and pension. He still might have talked of course, although they said his ravings were hard to make sense of by then. But instead he blew his brains out.
Did the neighbour, the policeman or the undertaker stop to wonder at the mess on the painted floor-cloth? I doubt anyone even noticed that the hole in his head was much too big for the little Fascist pocket-pistol in his upturned hand.
Paul Phillips was born in London to South African and Geordie parents and currently ekes out a living as a freelance copywriter and general dogsbody in Derbyshire. Among several overambitious projects, he is working on a collection of standalone stories – linked only by the malign presence of a particular object – spanning a variety of genres from crime to satire, historical fiction and alternative history to post apocalyptic sci-fi.
If you enjoyed ‘Targets’ leave a comment and let Paul know.
Feature image by Karen M Scovill
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