A Human Menagerie · Stories


Ratingen, Germany. 1988.

My legs ache. It’s the eighteenth of these silly pieces of metal that I’ve turned today, and it’s not even three yet. Mr Schmidt brought me the drawings this morning and indicated which parts needed turning, and that it had to be done swiftly.

Does he think I can turn the machine any faster just to please his deadlines? He’s always putting pressure on us to be faster, and there’s always talk that our pay rises will be less than last year. Why else hang around here? It’s not for the fun of it, that’s for sure.

Oh, I’ll have another. The machine needs a minute to finish this cut. Pulling open my fridge there’s a neat row of my favourite winter beer. It’s what we call a Doppel Bok – it’s been brewed twice or something, I don’t really know. Anyway, it’s my favourite between October and March. Mind you, you’d not know because there aren’t any windows and the lights are the same year in, year out. Pop the metal crown by catching it on the drip tray of my lathe, it’s cool its refreshing bubbly bitterness washes my mouth clean of that sour taste that gathers. Relaxation expands through my body, although it doesn’t do anything for my legs.

It’s that guy Brian, he sits down all day. But then, he turns twenty metre gun barrels. Digging five millimetres out of that metal means eight hours before resetting the machine. He can leave it on all night and it’ll be fine. So he just sits there. He’s even got an office chair, tied to the saddle so he doesn’t even have to move. Only, well, he’s English. Something about not having to work but still being paid for it. That’s not the German way, we work and we know we’re working.

The zing of beer floods down my throat. I just can’t get enough of it. It’s not as if it harms my work, and I’ve never had an accident. Touch wood. Okay, so I’d touch wood if there was any around here. Perhaps I ought bring some in, keep it on the top of my fridge.

Now: if you’ll excuse me, I need to wind this back and take another cut and this baby’s ready. There. Look at that fat bastard! Sitting there as if he’s asleep. Schmidt hates him for it, but there’s nobody else can turn that kind of thing.

Or who can put up with the boredom.

It’s bad enough doing these sods. It’s done. Slow the machine and undo the piece. It’s quite heavy, turning with it in my hands, I feel a little unsteady on my feet. But it’s afternoon, what do you expect? I place it down in the pallet waiting for the fork to collect them when they’re done. Where are the others? Look around, it’s all a little blurry. But that’s kinda normal. Anyway, once it’s set, who needs to see? I could do this blindfold.

There we are. It’s in – easy to set as it’s already centred. Okay in for another. Three more and the day’s done.

I know Schmidt too. I’ll have ploughed my way through these bastards and they’ll be sitting around on that pallet at the end of next month. Who does he think I am? I know he wants it quick, but he’s never quick enough, is he?

This beer really is the works. Damn. The tool’s snatched; I’ll have to fit a new one, it’ll be blunt. Look across to see Brian stirring. He must have finished his cut.

The hours really do pass quickly with a few beers. It’s my twenty second and last of these little goblins. I hate them. But then, I never liked this work. The beer helps with that, anyway, I get a home and a TV. I can sit and watch that until bedtime – or go to the Kreuzung, our local Bierkeller. No point tonight, there’s no footie. I like that with my mates, I do.

There, put it on the pallet, a quick wipe down of the machine for the morning and take a couple out of the fridge. Shut it, feeling rather weary.

We’ve got a table where we gather during our breaks. We also share a few beers before going home too.

“Oi, Werner” shouts Fritz, who’s already sitting in one of the plastic chairs. They don’t believe in giving us much comfort, our bosses. Not down here at least. “You ’eard what Schmitty’s got for Bugsy Brian?”

“No” I wander over to him, my feet not quite doing their job.

” ’E’s gone ’n ordered another twenty five metre lathe!”

“Gotcher” I say, realizing Brian’s days are going to be a little more fun for him.

“No more sittin’ arahnd fer ’im, eh?” says Dieter with a chuckle, pouring a light pilsener into his glass.

“Nah” I agree, with a chuckle. We’ve all got one over on the English again. Smarmy bastards. He’s already gone ‘ome too. Doesn’t stay around for a natter ‘e doesn’t. Mind you, ‘e don’t speak good German like. But then, ‘e doesn’t drink so much neiver.

This is a nice beer. I relax into my chair, feeling rather too tired.

“Better be going, lads” says Heinz “relations coming”

“Poor you” says Dieter.

“Yeah” Heinz bangs down his glass on the countertop. One of us’ll do ’em all before we shuts shop.

“I’m off too” I say. I leave my bottle to pop in the crate in the morning.

I’ll tell you what though, a good hot shower after work don’t half make you feel good. Clean clothes from the morning and I feel as fit as a fiddle. Makes me realize how much my work togs stink of coolant. Ow! There’s that nick I got from some swarf this morning, there’s a spot of bright red blood at the end of my middle finger. It’ll be okay, I’ll get Irene to do it tonight.

Shrug into my outdoor coat, hat and wooly gloves. Keys? Gottem, righthand coat pocket.

Okay, Beamer, ’ere we goes. Through the forest on a straight road that I know like the back of my hand. Push open the glazed wooden doors of the factory entrance and find Schmitty.

“Good evening, sir”

“Did you finish them all, Werner?” the lamplight turning his breath into yellowy clouds.


“That’s great” he says opening the door to his own Beamer – but it’s only a five series. Mine’s an unmarked seven. What is it about management that they don’t want a classy car? Don’t they like going fast or something?

“Werner” he says I turn to him, his face bright in the lights of the carpark. “See you tomorrow, okay?”

“Yes, Herr Schmidt” and my car beeps as the locks are sprung. I’m the only guy who’s got a remote. The car’s only a month old. Well, it’s what I work for, innit?

Inside, the interior’s a dull yellow from the lamp and outside it’s now pitch black. It’s clay cold in here though. Can’t they do a remote to switch the engine on and warm ’er up? Rub my hands, and slew into the driver’s seat. The leather upholstery behind me makes me nestle my shoulders into the comfort. The engine’s purring now, pop ’er into gear and we glide around the slalom of the car park and into the road.

That guy in front’s a rude bastard. Honking like that. Red lights pulling away. I’ll get ’im, the rude sod. Nobody’s faster than me on this stretch. A cruel energy filling my chest I have to get ‘im. Flatten the pedal, feel it pull me forwards, tyres gripping the road, the dashboard blue and yellow dials in the dark. There ‘e is.

Nobody behind me, that’s good. I crane my neck in case. Bloody sod! He’s right in front of me, flick my lights to full beam! Swerving but my car’s too responsive. Treetrunks lit like a line of soldie


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