Necessity is the mother of invention and sometimes writing is a response to boredom.
The following story was inspired by a woman I knew who was far from boring and on whom I’ll admit I had a crush at the time. We met at what was probably the most boring firm I’ve ever worked in and out of discretion, one that will not be named.
The interior of the building we worked in was dull and grey as were the desks and the duties. The work was grinding, depressing and utterly monotonous.
But back to the woman. She was beautiful, energetic and completely out of place in that environment. And she had dreams to be elsewhere.
The bosses at the firm used to hit on her all the time, some pretty aggressively. Each time she’d laugh them off but whenever they weren’t looking, you could see a mix of strain and apprehension in her face. I’m extremely fortunate to have two amazing older sisters who beat both the crap and any sense of misogyny out of me as kid. Consequently whenever I see a woman being harassed, part of me wants to go over and punch the offending party into a state of paralysis. I wouldn’t call it chivalry just a basic respect for the rights of others.
I admired her for the way she dealt with those guys, even if she shouldn’t have had to deal with them in the first place.
So for those reasons and to pass the time one particularly boring day, I wrote this story for her. I even worked up the courage to give her a copy. To my surprise, she wanted to know how the rest of the story played out. At the time I had no idea and years later I still don’t know.
From a technical standpoint writing this story was a challenge. I’d never before written anything from the first-person perspective of a female character. The reason for the difficulty is personal experience. I’m a six foot two male and can be –albeit I usually don’t realise it at the time – intimidating, or so I’ve been told. When I was kid I was bullied in school but after puberty and some martial arts training, I’ve rarely felt physically threatened by anyone. It’s not bravery or toughness. I’ve had my ass kicked more than a couple of times! It’s just that unlike the character in the story I have never experienced sexual harassment or intimidation based on my gender.
But I’ve witnessed it and I’m pretty certain that most guys have more than a few stories about having to defend their female friends from unwanted admirers in bars and nightclubs: Especially when those unwanted suitors don’t take no for an answer. One in four women will experience some kind of sexual violence during their lifetime and in most cases the culprit is known to the victim. That’s a sickening statistic about life as woman, especially when you consider that behind the numbers, are someone’s mother, sister, girlfriend, niece or friend.
When it comes to writing as is the case in real life there are times when we have to step out of our comfort zone and take risks. In a way that reality became a central theme of the story. So without any further ado, I’ll let you be the judge of the tale.
And please feel free to submit comments or hate mail below.
THE GIRL FROM THE PAPER-MILL
By Chris O’Connell
There is a grime stained window in the factory I live in that overlooks the harbour. By day I watch the ships arrive and then depart for distant lands I have never seen. As they churn across the grey waves I imagine being a stowaway in their holds. It is only in these moments of fantasy that I am truly free.
Ever since my mother died I have lived and worked in the factory. The foreman keeps me prisoner here and on the few times I ventured out of the building I violated his rules. Once when I was eleven he found me huddled outside, too terrified to flee, too frightened to return. He dragged me back into the building and beat me, then made me promise that I would never leave again.
That was six years ago, but the foreman keeps a close eye on me as if frightened I might grow wings and flee like the seagulls on the water when a ship approaches.
Each day passes like the last. From morning until night I sit at a bench with a pile of rags and a serrated knife. We make cotton paper in the factory and most of the initial process occurs on the shredding floor. The rag and bone men come in the ground floor every morning and dump a treasure trove of unwanted cloth. There are torn bed sheets, worn socks and bits of dresses. The material is rinsed in vats and when dry is brought upstairs to the shredding room. We women, on the shredding floor have two baskets and at the foreman’s order, we fill one basket with the washed rags before going to our respective benches. Once there we use the serrated knife to tear the rags into small pieces before dropping them into the second basket. When that basket is full we must take it back to the ground floor to the mulching vat where the rags are boiled and stewed to make the paper paste.
When the foreman first set me to work, my hands were left raw and bleeding from handling the rough cloth. Nowadays the skin of my fingers is like hardened leather. The other girls in the factory tell me that I am pretty but I cannot recall the last time I touched the smooth skin of my face without feeling the rasp of callouses from my fingertips.
Sometimes, the foreman lets me work near the grimy window overlooking the harbour. He seems to think that the distraction will render me compliant. I think that in his cruel way he thinks that I will be satisfied with the limited perspective that the window offers and cease in my efforts to escape. His stare follows me everywhere. I feel his eyes lingering on my body and though I have become inured to his staring I am not immune to the light in his eyes. Though I have never left the factory, even I recognise the dark lust that lurks in the hearts of men. The women in the factory talk of men’s desires often, some in gleeful terms. But all them — me included – fear the foreman.
I force my mind closed against his cold sneers and shut out all but the tall ships as they slide into the harbour like elegant swans on a pond. I can see sailors on the decks. Men, young and old, some pale, others with ruddy complexions, tanned and bitten by cold winds and salt spray. It occurs to me that this is a world for men and one in which I am prisoner. I know now the reason I could not flee the factory six years ago. Better the familiar pain of what one knows, than the fearful torment of the unknown. And how much safer is a life of comfortable sadness, then the risk of heartbreak should hope of a better life appear?
Before I can delve deeper into that insight, the foreman bellows for us to down tools. We will eat, he says and then we will sleep before returning to our labours again tomorrow. How little he understands that no food can offer solace to me.
Morning arrives with the sound of splitting wood. The foreman’s sons are at work early in the courtyard, hewing logs to fuel the fires of the mulching vats. I look around the dorm room and wish the day could start without the prospect of drudgery. The dozen women, who live here with me, still doze in their bunks oblivious to the racket outside. Bleary eyed I leave my bed and wearing only my nightdress, I pad across the rough floor in search of a bucket of water.
I fill a wooden pail from the well and return to the dorm room. I roll my hair into a loose bun then wash my face of the previous day’s grime. Afterwards I rinse my hair in the pail. There is a lot of dust in the factory. Smoke and steam from the fire-pits leaves the factory humid and grimy. Every night I sleep with the detritus of torn cloth, wood-smoke and ash coating my skin.
I take the pail downstairs to the courtyard to empty it. En route I pass the mulching vats and the deckles; the wooden frame on which the pressed mulch-paste is stretched out to dry. Like the paper we who serve the factory are pummelled and shaped so that we may perform functions for the benefit of others. If that function is antithetical to who and what we desire to be, then the harder the factors and their foremen lackeys will work to break our wills. As I pour the water from my makeshift bath over the cobblestones, I hear too late the scuffing of leather on stone. Rough hands find my waist and pull at my nightdress.
“Hello darling” the foreman whispers. “I’ve been meaning to get you alone.”
With a low scream I pull away from his grasp and back away from him. He pouts and spreads his hands.
“Don’t be like that Ellen” he leers. “I’m not gonna hurt’cha!”
The dishonesty drips from his words like venom and I tremble at the sight of him. He is short, heavy set. Dark greasy hair droops from under his cloth cap and down over his ears to form a neat join with his bushy beard. Tobacco stained teeth peer out of the folds of his beard like undersized piano keys. He wears the same clothes from the day before: brown pants, a grey cotton shirt and a dark leather vest that flaps open over a bulging belly.
“There’s nowhere to go rabbit” he says. “Nowhere to hide. You know you want this as much as I do.”
He edges closer and I step back. Yet the courtyard wall looms behind me like a conspirator aiding my assailant. The foreman leans close and his grubby hands pull at the cinch of my night dress.
I don’t know where I find the strength to swing the water bucket but I can feel the shock judder through my hand as it connects with his head. He stumbles backwards clutching at his face and howling. I rush past him into the factory seeking the flimsy safety of the dorm. But he is faster. He catches near the mulching vat and throws me to the ground. As he loosens his belt and I note the welt on the side of his face and the terrible anger in his eyes. I try to crawl away but he kicks me in the side and I double-up breathless and cowering.
“You little whore!” he snarls. “Your mother was a whore and that is what you are too!”
He straddles me and forces my legs apart. In panic I reach out and my fingers grasp something rough and splintery at the edge of my vision. Filled with the strength of sheer terror I slam the short log into the side of the foreman’s head. The sound of wood on skull is loud in the vat-room and the foreman collapses on top of me, unconscious.
For several long minutes I sit huddled and trembling before the foreman’s lifeless body. Then as the horror of the last few minutes fades I realise two immutable truths. First I am no longer safe here and second that escape is no longer a dream but a necessity. I stand and listen for sounds of approaching witnesses. Outside, the foreman’s sons continue their monotonous wood cutting. The mulching vats bubble on the fire-pits. Reluctantly I strip the foreman of his clothes and put them on. Pulling his hat close over my face I hurry from the room and outside to the back gate. It takes me a few minutes for my trembling hands to find the key to the back gate but once outside I hurry down the cobblestone street towards the harbour.
At the end of the street I turn to see if anyone has followed me. To my relief, the street is deserted. Without a second glance I race for the docks.
It takes me more than an hour to summon the courage to approach the harbour office and book passage on the next outbound ship. The foreman had with him a leather purse filled with silver. It is not enough to live on, but it is enough to get me passage aboard the next liner en route to a faraway land. A haven I have never seen. The ticket office is busy and in the hubbub no one notices me wearing a man’s clothes, nor does the man at the ticket booth notice when I put on a deep voice to buy my ticket. It occurs to me that in this world of men that even the appearance of manhood commands respect. No one challenges me as I leave the ticket office and climb the gangplank, frightened but thrilled at the prospect of escape.
As the ship pulls languidly out to sea I search for the factory and the single grimy window from which I once watched the ships leave port. From a distance the window resembles a great, dark eye glaring into the depths of my soul. A cold wind rises from the waves and I pull my arms around me for warmth. As the ship edges out onto the open water and the factory fades from sight, I breathe a long sigh of relief. Free at last I open the window of my mind and allow the outer world to enter and with it all its hopes and dangers.
(Copyright, Chris O’Connell, 2012. The right of the author has been reserved.)
**ADDENDUM- SUITABLE MOOD MUSIC FOR THE PIECE CAN BE FOUND BELOW. AN OLDIE BUT A GOODY!