Snow at the road edges was thick where Brendan rounded the final blind corner in his dad’s 68-reg Audi. When the farm came into view, it appeared to him as a romantic vision of a bygone England – the long tree-lined driveway and farmhouse and barns under white blankets could’ve been on a Christmas card. The clean rap-tap of hip-hop beating from the speakers didn’t do much for this image, though, which made Brendan laugh. He drove slowly along the slushy driveway and parked in the yard alongside a couple of other, older cars. He grabbed his pair of thin work gloves off the passenger’s seat and headed out to the farmhouse porch.
Brendan knocked, waited, and looked around. The farmer came out finishing a mouthful of breakfast – a wide-shouldered man in his fifties who wore a waxed green hunting jacket and had a lazy eye.
“Brendan,” said Brendan, stretching out his arm.
“The new guy?”
The farmer took his hand and shook it briefly. No smile. “Have you got enough layers on?”
“Erm, I think so,” said Brendan.
“Fine. You don’t mind that top getting mucky?”
Brendan looked down at his navy blue hoodie with ‘Student Ambassador’ printed in white on the left breast and ‘B D’ – his initials – on the opposite side beneath the university’s emblem.
“It’s okay,” said Brendan. “It can get dirty.”
The farmer nodded, mouth closed. He flicked his head in the direction of a Portakabin across the yard in front of the massive barns. “Anna’s in there. She’ll be looking after you.” He looked Brendan up and down. “Will you work hard for me?”
Brendan smiled and then looked serious. Throughout third-year and in the months since graduating, he’d practiced answering potential questions, tying a Double Windsor, swiping his hair across and up just right, and smiling so the little creases in his pale cheeks appeared firm but welcoming; and now it seemed his job interview had been reduced to one question.
“It’s the only way I know,” he answered.
“Good,” said the farmer. “I’ll come find you at five to see how you got on.” He shut the big wooden door.
Anna had blonde hair and was Polish. She gave Brendan forms to fill in. There was a microwave on a counter at one side of the brightly-lit Portakabin, next to a sink, kettle, and large work safety noticeboard and warning sign. At one of the two tables at the other side, a couple of men were eating a mixture of cereal and milk topped with a large dollop of strawberry yogurt that looked nutritious but like slop. Anna picked at her own bowl in between form giving and taking, and offered Brendan one.
“No, thanks. I’ve eaten breakfast,” he said.
She smiled back. “We go across in two minutes,” she said.
Exactly two minutes later, at ten past eight, Anna opened the Portakabin door and half-a-dozen workers were climbing out of a 04-plate Ford Galaxy people-carrier in the yard dressed in work jackets covered by hi-vis vests.
“Always punctual,” Anna said. “You have gloves?”
Brendan showed her the pair of gloves he’d bought a couple of days ago.
“Okay, wear those underneath,” Anna said. She took out a key and opened a cupboard above the microwave, and pulled out a pair of thick, stiff work gloves that looked big enough for a rugby player’s hands. “Wear these over those.” She handed Brendan the gloves, along with an orange hi-vis vest to put over his university hoodie so that he matched all the workers in the yard.
The troupe marched over the slush into one of the barns. Brendan informed everybody of his name, as the career’s department liked to reiterate was good practice. He felt an urge to accompany each introduction with an interesting fact about himself from his portfolio of ice-breaker answers for appropriate occasions – ‘English Lit and History combined’, ‘Crashed my bike into a parked car and broke my arm aged thirteen’, ‘My dream trip is to start in Toronto and travel North America in a big smile ending in Anchorage, Alaska’ – but nothing felt right for this situation. Besides, most of the workers spoke broken English and the few English ones didn’t seem to want to talk.
After standing around for two or three minutes, a big diesel engine rattled the steel walls of the barn and everyone got to one side as an articulated lorry with ‘T. & M. Recycling Haulage’ on the trailer backed onto the concrete floor.
Anna, whose hi-vis was yellow to mark her status as team leader, started up the compressing machine at the rear of the building and shouted over the cacophony of it and the echoing lorry, “Move further back, Brendan.”
Brendan shuffled back tight to a forklift. The lorry beeped as it reversed into the centre of the barn. The trailer rose and started tipping. Nothing happened for a while, but once it reached a certain angle, a thundering noise resounded through the barn and was accompanied by a ferocious stench of rotting food and stagnant water as a great mass of mixed cardboard and plastic recycling slid through the trailer’s hinged back door. Brendan looked around and nobody but he seemed to mind or even notice the smell. The trailer beeped back level and one worker followed the lorry, as it pulled forward a little, to yank out bits of flailing plastic caught in the heavy trailer door. The lorry pulled out of the barn into the slushy yard.
Anna shouted, “Cardboard,” and everyone got to work – pulling pieces of cardboard out from the pile, crushing boxes not folded down, and wading into it to throw bits out for other scuttling workers to carry to the conveyor belt of the roaring compressor machine.
Anna saw Brendan working slowly and looking bewildered. She decided to give him his job induction.
“Brendan,” she shouted. She picked up a stack of brand new, unfolded, flat cardboard boxes someone at some firm somewhere had found surplus to requirements. “Follow me.”
The waist-high conveyor belt travelled up at forty-five degrees to a shoot which funnelled it into a contained area that a steel plate compressed into dense cubes the size of small cars.
“We throw them on.”
Brendan watched her chuck the flat cut-outs gone from machine to machine – birth to death; having served no purpose other than giving a company somewhere breathing space and room for error – onto the belt, which carried them up the slightly swaying conveyor and into the abyss.
“All at once clogs up machine. Do a few at a time. But you have to work quickly otherwise it’s not worth it.” Anna threw the final few foetus boxes onto the conveyor. “Then you go get more cardboard. That’s it.”
Brendan nodded, and they hastened back to the pile. Brendan started by yanking pieces of cardboard out of the heap, collecting a few, and then taking them to the conveyor. But the splash from dirty water caught in pockets of plastic soaked through his gloves and trainers within minutes. Some of the plastics were food containers not washed out properly. Some bits threatened to splash into his eyes but he managed to look away in time. He started to look like someone who’d been in the stocks – which he’d been studying in a warm lecture theatre and then a brand new library suite eight months earlier – and so he found a spot under a Lithuanian man throwing bits down from the top of the pile and walked these to the conveyor.
Half an hour later the carboard was all gone and the workers took a breather while Anna and two others watched the machine strap up the cardboard recycling cube to make sure it was working okay. They then changed the chute the conveyor fed into and Anna returned to the pile and shouted, “Hard plastics.” Everyone sprang into action once again.
“PET,” Anna said to Brendan, as she walked past him. “See.” She picked up a disused Fanta bottle. “These kinds of things.”
Anna smiled at him. “Now go on, shoo, get to work.”
Just over an hour after the lorry had come in, the floor was clear. Two guys swept the debris away. Brendan stood against the forklift, hands on hips, next to the other workers.
Then another load of the same size came in. They cleared it. Then Anna called break. Brendan hauled his weary body and wet, heavy clothes out into the cold sun.
“Take sugar?” asked one of the men in a woolly hat.
“Oh,” said Brendan. “You don’t have to make me one.”
The man closed his eyes and put up a hand.
“Stop being polite Englishman,” said Anna.
“Oh. One then, please. Thanks,” said Brendan. He stared up at the box of budget tea as the man took bags out and dropped them into little polystyrene cups lined up on the counter while the kettle boiled. The workers were sat around the two tables in the Portakabin. Anna was opposite Brendan. Nobody spoke while the kettle boiled.
“Where does the stuff come from?” asked Brendan, after the kettle’s click. “The recycling stuff.”
“You,” said the tea-maker in a strong Eastern European accent, his back to the tables as he poured the hot water. “Me, your mum, your dog.” He said finally, in three clear syllables, “Eve-ry-one.”
Brendan blushed under the bright lights. “Where does it go?”
“Indonesia,” said Anna. “Some other countries near there also. But most of ours goes to Indonesia. They buy it.”
“How does it get there?” asked Brendan.
“Why do you care? You’re getting paid money,” said the man at the kettle. Other workers chuckled. “It floats there itself.”
Anna tutted, smiling. “Ignore Marius,” she said. “So, you’re interested, huh?”
Brendan was fully red now. He shrugged.
Anna nodded toward the farmhouse. “He told me you have degree.”
Marius made a pfft sound. He started distributing the cups amongst the workers.
“Why did you come work here? You enjoy to walk through this rubbish all day?” said Anna. “You don’t want to work in a cosy office in some city?”
Brendan was aware that many eyes were looking his way above their steaming cups. Marius set one down in front of Brendan and then leant against the counter.
“I’ve been trying to. To be honest,” Brendan said. He looked into the beige, almost white drink his hands were warming around. “After uni I came home and applied for a job a day.”
“One?” asked Marius.
Brendan nodded. “The application forms are long. I had to write a letter for each one.” He looked at Anna. “At uni it was an essay due every month or so, then suddenly it’s one a day.”
Marius was entertaining some of the workers by holding up an index finger and looking at it confusedly. “One? Just one?” he said to it.
“For how long did you do this?” asked Anna.
“Sixty applications?” Marius said.
“So, why are you here?” asked Anna.
“I haven’t got one … yet.”
Marius stared at the new kid. “Two months, no work?”
Brendan nodded and Marius stared with a look of confusion and contempt along his eyebrows; as though he wanted to punch Brendan with his skinny, muscly red hands. “So, university for – what? three years? – and now you work here?” Marius nodded to himself. “Okay.”
“Shush, Marius. Brendan, you have not answered me – why are you here?”
Brendan sighed and his shoulders dropped. “I had to do something in the meantime, while I wait to hear back. I found a few jobs: McDonalds, of course, supermarkets, chain pubs selling big brand beers. But I liked the looks of this. Not fuelling that corporate structure. Recycling – that’s a good thing to do. Plus, I thought this could lead somewhere. You never know …”
Marius had his head bowed and a hand over his face. His chest rose intermittently as though he was crying, but it was laughter that came out. He removed his hand and sighed with a smile. “You think it’s good thing?” he said. “Recycling is good. Okay. But you drive here in that nice Audi. Lorries with big engines come here with the shit. The machine is on. Another lorry comes to take the shit. The thing of recycling – the cube – it gets shipped. Then, someone drives the lorry, more people take the ship, we work here, more people in Indonesia work. Everyone is working. He is in the farmhouse getting fat. You think it’s good thing for environment? Recycling is a good thing? Okay. For me, this is a job, only.”
Brendan looked at Anna.
“Don’t worry, Brendan. Marius is only saying. He’s just reasoning.”
“I’m only reasoning,” said Marius, palms out.
“We know the planet is in harm,” said Anna. “This we know. Just like we know Marius can be … what do you say … upfront. Yes – an upfront asshole.” She smiled up at Marius.
“Anna,” said Marius. “Keys,” he gestured with his hands.
“Just … please.”
She gave him the keys. Marius unlocked the cupboard above the sink and took out a thick black pen and a piece of paper, which he folded and then wrote on.
“You want to help?” he said. “You have to do this.”
Marius took a lighter from his pocket and set the paper aflame. On it: a scrawled picture and symbols, not very neat, but obviously meant to be money.
“Oi! Not inside!” said Anna.
In front of the safety at work sign, the paper money burned and black bits flaked off into the sink. Marius turned on the tap and dropped it in. He raised his eyebrows. “You have to do this to all of it,” he said to Brendan, whose face was now purple under the long bright lights.
The smoke alarm started beeping but Marius was already holding a tea towel ready to waft it silent.
“Okay, everyone,” said Anna. “Time.” Then she addressed Brendan again. “The only way this can be good is if this all stops. That is the only way. But it’s difficult. Look at these people. These jobs. They don’t care, really.” She sighed. “I don’t know. I really don’t.”
Anna stood up and collected Brendan’s empty polystyrene cup. She put it into hers and left both on the counter. As people filed out, they added to the stack, and then Marius put his foot on the pedal of the general waste bin and swept the whole lot in. He stared at them lying in there – brilliantly white against the black background of the thick plastic liner. Then he released his foot and went out with everyone else.
During the late morning and after lunch, five more lorries came in, along with a handful of vans. They dumped their loads of rubbish on the concrete floor, the compressor was adjusted accordingly, and the workers, like ants, never slackened an inch from their sorting and carrying duties.
At five o’clock the workers assembled in the dark yard. Those who came in the Ford Galaxy left in it. The remaining few left in their cars. Brendan waved goodbye to Anna and then went into the Portakabin. He waited ten minutes for the farmer before deciding to go to the porch. The farmer met him in the middle of the yard on his way over.
“How did you get on?” asked the farmer, who still had not learnt how to smile.
“Erm,” said Brendan, “alright.”
The cold was quick to set in now the sun was down, and it made the sweat and dirty water that had penetrated layers feel like ice on Brendan’s skin.
“Will I see you again tomorrow? It’s not for everybody.”
Brendan laughed singularly; at least the farmer had made it easier. “Yeah. No, sorry. It’s not for me.”
“That’s a shame; Anna told me you were good. Are you sure? If you change your mind just show up at eight again.”
Brendan nodded. “Thanks.”
The farmer removed a hand from a pocket and held out a folded wad of cash for Brendan to take.
“Oh. You don’t have to –”
“Take it. You worked,” said the farmer. He nodded at his hand.
Brendan took the money. “Thanks.”
Stars started showing; the cold was really setting in now. But Brendan couldn’t seem to just leave.
“Nice car,” said the farmer. “Yours?”
“Very nice car.”
“Thanks,” said Brendan. “Erm, I just wanted to say I appreciate it. And it’s not that … I don’t know.”
The farmer nodded. “It’s fine. Don’t worry. You did good – you worked hard – but it’s just not for you. That’s fine.”
Brendan nodded and the firm but welcoming creases in his cheeks showed. “I left my vest and gloves on the counter in the Portakabin.”
The farmer nodded. “Drive safe,” he said. “There’ll be a bit of ice on the roads already.”
“Thanks. Bye,” said Brendan.
They parted ways: the farmer headed for the warm lights patterning the large grey house and Brendan took his final steps through the freezing slush. He dipped into the back seat for the plastic bag he’d brought in preparation, and put his sodden trainers and socks in. But it wasn’t enough. He decided a few seconds of pain were worth not getting his father’s expensive and hard-earned car dirty and stinking of off-food. He took his hoodie off, turned it inside out, then perched on the driver’s seat and took his trousers off and wrapped them in the hoodie. He placed the bundle on the back seat.
As he started the drive home in just boxer shorts and two t-shirts, without any music on, Brendan’s skin was pimply and his jaw wouldn’t stop chattering. But it didn’t take long for the heaters of the Audi to kick in and happily scorch his weary limbs.
Josh Oldridge recently graduated from the University of Exeter, where he studied English Literature with Maths. His short fiction has appeared in *Litro*, *Fiction Pool*, *Sarasvati*, *Scrittura*, and *Bandit Fiction*; as well as one nonfiction piece appearing in *Quarterlife*. He is currently working on his first novel.
Previous publications (these are also all available through my website):
‘Turn Off the Mixer’:
‘The Happiest Person in the World’:
‘The Great Sales Race’:
‘The November Wobble’:
‘Glitter in the Cider’:
‘How Romcoms Helped Me …’:
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