We're delighted to present a new short story by award-winning author Lisa McInerney, entitled Tech House, taken from the Summer 2017 issue of essential Irish literary bible Stinging Fly.
So it’s like this, says Neil. We strike.
This is put to his co-workers in the confusion of their thirty-minute lunch break, as people gulp, suck, chew, pick, choke, swallow. Thirty minutes to get through the detectors and security lines, eat, drink, make phone calls to babysitters, use the bathroom, stretch, get back through the detectors again. There is little time to make sense of this call to arms, though the others seem to have been expecting it; Leona looks around her and notes their nodding, their acknowledging murmurs.
The plans are made in voices very low. Management won’t budge, Neil says, but we cannot threaten to strike, even the mention of protest would be received as an inclination towards revolt, what’s become of this bloody country at all? There are too many of us, Neil goes on, to sack in one go. The whole town outside couldn’t fill the ranks as fast as they’d be emptied. There is strength in numbers.
The workers look at watches. They wolf down what’s left, run for the bathroom stalls, put their mobile phones back in their lockers, pop their pills. They queue to get back into the warehouse. They pick up their scanners. They take deep breaths.
Leona works in a building the size of an aircraft hangar. It is filled with all manner of discounted products to be purchased online: coffee capsules, eye shadow palettes, car mats, water filter systems. It is a place of patterns, in which things are counted incessantly. The counting is done by computer; people cannot be trusted with the task or with the items; people have short attention spans and sticky fingers. The orders are assigned to the workers via their scanners. When Leona started working here she was told to leave everything but the clothes on her back in her locker and she was given a scanner. She had been surprised by its weight. She is still surprised by its weight.
And sure what good is it? her mother asked.
It keeps track of everything, Leona said. It tells you what things to get, and it tells you where to find the things. It even tells you how many minutes exactly it should take to find them.
The scanner counts the units, the minutes taken, the metres run. When Leona falls behind, supervisors arrive, mantis-like and nervous, and tell her that she has to work harder. The orders have to be filled. The customers must not wait. The machine spins and spins.
Before every shift Leona swallows two Ibuprofen tablets. This is for the pain. The bins in which the items are stored are stacked ten-high. Stretching for the highest bins is grand, it’s the stooping for the bins on the floor that’s the problem. Up down, up down. No Olympian is asked to move like this. Halfway through her very first day Leona was open-mouthed with the shock of it. Jesus, it really takes it out of you, she muttered, and a supervisor said, You get used to it, but she never got used to it, and as the days went on she noted that the supervisor said this to all the new people.
You don’t get used to it, Neil corrected, soon enough. The only thing is to take painkillers.
Neil is forty-six, stocky and gruff, and has come to the notion of striking as though irritated into action by his colleagues’ helplessness. He seems not at all paternal, though he has two grandchildren. Leona wonders if Neil’s daughter buys from places like this. Toys and books, polo shirts for playschool, brightly coloured storage boxes, Christmas baubles. She wonders if Neil has ever felt his tendons strain as he pulled some geegaw in plastic wrap, purchased by kin, out of a floor-level bin? Does he go home at night and weep, No more, please, shop local, I’d much rather die in penury than pain? Is he a different man outside of this place? Does he drink stout and laugh at jokes?
Leona does not relay the goings-on of her workplace at home. There is rarely anything to discuss, the goings-on are so repetitive. Just orders given through the scanner and filled through the scanner. Just jogging, stretching, squatting and silence. They are not supposed to converse in case it slows them down but this is a self-governing sort of rule: they all move too fast to converse, and slowing down means black marks on their files.
Tell them they can fuck off, says Leona’s mother. All of them. Tell them they do not dictate to you. Tell them I’m on to them. Tell them I know well what goes on. Tell them.
Leona lives with her mother and her mother isn’t well and isn’t right. This job, Leona hopes, will provide the means of getting out. She thinks, Maybe three months and they’ll promote me to mantis-slash-supervisor. I will earn one-seventy an hour more, which adds up. She will have enough for a deposit and a month’s rent in some little apartment. Three months would be plenty—staff turnover is high. Many people leave and don’t come back; Leona images them as Inuit heading into the blind white wilderness to die privately so their collapse does not prove dispiriting for the team. Many more people are fired. Here they give you black marks for any number of infractions. Bringing your phone onto the warehouse floor. Being more than a minute late getting through the detectors. Taking a day off because of bereavement or illness or terrorist siege. Leona imagines these black marks as splashes of tar; they stick and glisten and you need only a small amount before you are lost altogether. But at least the rules are clear. You can’t pretend you didn’t know.
Leona’s son, Mason, is twenty months old. She leaves him with their neighbour Dympna when she goes to work. This upsets her mother and Leona must make up sweet excuses for the snub. I don’t want you to think of him as work, is the main one, but the excuses generally do not work, and her mother becomes belligerent, and cannot see that this belligerence is the reason she is not allowed the run of her grandson’s life. She’s not well and she’s not right. There are clinical terms that change with medical advances and her mother’s chosen doctor. There are pills that take the edge off it, but there are no pills she’ll take for long enough. Since Leona was small a nursery rhyme has looped inside her in relation to her mother’s disposition: When she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad… she would scream, rant and rave; she would put every coin she had into the poker machine in Brady’s; she would accuse all those she saw of monstrous crimes; she would find God and then the devil and once she’d found the devil there wasn’t a cranny he wouldn’t have wedged himself into or a ledge she wouldn’t spot him on.
That baby’s grandfather was a filthy man, Leona’s mother said, time and time again when Leona was pregnant. He used watch the girls get changed. That’s why he worked in the community centre, so he could watch the girls get changed. Both the priests knew about it and neither did a thing. Filthy, dirty article, he was. That baby’s grandfather.
Though the workers are twisted by the physical demands of their employ—some bear scars from the edges of towers, ladders, beams and bins—Leona tries hard to see sense in the job’s patterns. The codes to be scanned. The specific projections for steps required to get from here to there. The swiftness of it and the silence of it. It is like being in the belly of a mechanical titan, like being a drop of lurid colour about to sink into a gunmetal sea. She thinks it could be simple surrender, at the heart of it. Or geometric order. Or conquering numbers, an education in straight, perfect lines. There might even be a sort of dance to it, though they are not permitted to listen to music on the warehouse floor.
When her shift finishes, Leona collects Mason and walks the eleven steps from Dympna’s front door to front gate and then the eleven steps from her own front gate to her own front door. I’ll see you tomorrow so, pet, says Dympna, still on her doorstep, looking out at the green and the terriers and the teenagers. Dympna says ‘pet’ but only as a subconscious suffix; she doesn’t make a pet of anyone. She’s a woman who missed a step somewhere along the line, and life has never allowed her to slow down enough to correct it.
Leona does not tell her mother about the planned strike. There is no space at home for supplementary sources of anxiety; her mother needs only the one nudge. Instead tonight they listen to the man on the radio, who is discussing poetry with two women who speak in the melodic tones so suited to the arts, like the Confessional but with the odd drop of sauce.
Isn’t that beautiful? Leona says of the featured poem.
I don’t know what it was about, her mother says.
The point is that it sounds beautiful, Leona says.
Before Mason, Leona almost always went out on Saturday nights. She used to knock about with a couple of girls she thought of then as friends; she knows now they only ever met up for the specific purpose of going out on Saturday nights. Gillian Mooney was one and Alannah O’Dea was the other. Each suspected they didn’t have that much in common, except tech-house and flat shoes.
Gillian and Alannah were both fond of stimulants. Fuel, they laughed. Keeps you on your feet all night. Leona never felt that way about drugs. Drugs do not keep you on your feet all night: drugs keep you chewing the ears off strangers in the toilets and bumming cigarettes from irritated bouncers. She never liked the loss of control that goes with doing drugs. The wildness of it is what appeals to others, she knows. The loss of inhibition allows them to focus on the rhythms of dance music. We are not tribes anymore so it is hard to think tribally. It is hard to follow tribal rhythms. It is hard to remember how to react to drums.
All Leona wanted from Saturday nights was to react to drums. She always found it easy to follow the pattern. What you do is this: take a spot on the floor, take metrical baby steps, keep your elbows in. Punch the air directly above you. Keep in time with the swelling, spilling mass of your temporary compatriots. Heave as one, like a murmuration. Sweat.
There are guards always in that place, her mother said. It’s only rotten with drug dealers and criminals and rapists and pickpockets. Don’t tell me nothing goes on, don’t I know what goes on?
No, Mam. I swear. There’s never trouble there.
Leona could still go out on Saturday nights. Dympna has suggested that she do so, the odd time. But in that scenario Leona’s mother would have some influence over her grandson’s care; between herself and Dympna they’d have to divvy up the Saturday nights. Leona’s mother does not think of herself as being untrustworthy, and in her clearest, happiest state there is no better woman, no matter the task. But so quickly she flips.
Dympna knows all about Leona’s mother. Sure amn’t I well able for her, she has said to Leona, though Leona suspects that Dympna’s experience of being well able has always been down to luck. There is a wry cosmic joke in the sweetly ignorant coming in at just the right sparse times to make sense of one or two of Leona’s mother’s inner evils. You are in your hole well able for her, Leona has wanted to reply, you’re just a jammy ould bitch. But then Leona is determined not to have it in her to be cruel.
So instead, when Leona gets Mason fed and bathed and into bed and read to, she closes the door and runs an old coat along the bottom of it, and she puts her headphones on and closes the curtains, and she presses play and closes her eyes, and she starts to nod, and she starts to dance.
She has lost Gillian and Alannah. They are not interested in her as a working mother and they would think bedroom dancing weird. Even in the age of Upworthy and Buzzfeed in which people click endlessly on displays curated to inspire and stir, they would think bedroom dancing weird; even in the age of Lena Dunham and Beyoncé and you-do-you, they would think bedroom dancing weird, particularly if they knew that Leona did it every weekend, in her socks on the carpet, as a scheduled reconnection to positive rhythms.
But tonight Leona does not find it easy to catch the rhythm. She is thinking of the planned strike, of Neil’s dragging them into battle because he feels it is right that they battle. She closes her eyes and listens hard. She cannot even put her back into it; her back is killing her. She knows that Neil is right and that his cause is noble but that doesn’t make it less frightening, for how then will she get away? If the job goes where does that leave her? She begins to count beats. Four-four, four-four. She focuses on configurations of notes and logical musical progression. She visualises the shapes in her mindfulness colouring-book. And lastly heartbeats, the mathematical rhythms of her body.
The coat on the floor inside the door rucks. Leona doesn’t see it, turned the other way, eyes closed on this rotation, but she hears the thump of fist-flats on the white gloss wood, and now she must take her headphones off and take up Mason and tell her mother, who is red with indignation, that she’ll talk to her as soon as she settles the child.
You shouldn’t bang on the door, Mam.
You shouldn’t be bouncing around like a fucking lunatic. What are you listening to that makes you lep around like that? Computer music, isn’t that it? Music to listen to when you’re off your head on drugs, isn’t that it? What are you listening to? What are you listening to? What are you listening to?
In the morning Neil gathers them in the car park in front of the warehouse doors. We don’t stay home, he says, we stay here. That way they have to engage us. That way there’s a mass of us and a mass attracts attention. Teddy here’s going to take photographs for the social media. We’ll get on to the papers. It’s a bigger thing this way. Don’t you go in there, he warns newcomers.
The workers become cheerfully riled as Neil speaks. The business model here must be adjusted to reflect that it needs real people to implement it, and real people are messy and contradictory things, have corporeal needs and limitations, real people are not robots. There is a cheer. We are not asking for the earth, only for our rights. Another, more assured cheer. They cannot sack all of us, it is in their interests to get us back inside, but we do not go back inside until our demands are met. And true to logical progression this gets the biggest cheer of all. Leona’s co-workers give each other thumbs up. They draw from each other gall and guts. A chant comes together. Some of the workers are taking photographs, tweeting, texting, and phoning. Management is called and a representative attempts to mollify the workers and get them indoors. Think of your children, this manager says. Think of Christmas coming.
Think of our futures, Neil says, is that it? Or this shift only, today’s targets?
Christmas has me kilt, a woman cries.
And there’s a surge. Leona takes metrical steps backwards. She folds her shoulders to make herself smaller.
C’mere to me, a stór, he wasn’t right for you anyway, her mother said. You’re from stock that lad’s stock wasn’t even good enough to serve soup to. You’ve a royal heart in you, you’re tuned to the music of the spheres, you have a pure soul, and you mustn’t let him drag on you.
This gets out of hand, as is told in the very definition of revolution: nothing is won without risk, and change is the root of all fortune. Briefly, Leona feels sick at the idea. She tries to be aware of her heartbeats, the mathematical rhythms of her body (this is a place of patterns, in which things are counted incessantly).
She breaks and cries out and steps towards the main doors and Neil closes one fist around her arm. Don’t listen to them, he says, and his voice is transformed: it is deeper, like it has bubbled up from within him. Leave her go, says a manager, and lays his hands too and there is brief and violent disarray.
We’re doing this for the likes of her, Neil says. You lot exploit the young wans, you’d grind them all into the ground and not think twice about it.
Mind! shouts the manager.
We mind each other! Neil shouts back.
For a second it is as if Leona might fall.
She is kept on her feet by the swelling, spilling mass of her co-workers.
They heave as one, like a murmuration.
There is a pulse to this. A sense of organic machinery.
The chanting is stronger. People have gotten into the rhythm of it.
Are you all right, Leona? Neil asks. Stay here with us. We’ll be fine if we stick together.
I’m all right, Leona says. I think I’m getting the hang of it now.
The Summer 2017 issue of Stinging Fly is launched on Wednesday May 17th at 6.30pm at Hodges Figgis, Dublin - all are welcome.