The old fashioned factory had a musty smell and the noisy machinery drowned out any conversations. Alasdair thought little of his new colleagues, mostly women with a few men, and even less of his own choice of job, sorting out newly washed napkins, tablecloths and aprons for hotels and restaurants.
It was demeaning work and they were truly insignificant people who talked about going to the pub or clubbing and very little else. “Did you watch Corrie*, last night? ” they would say and then, Alasdair thought, talk about it for longer than the actual episode. Or it would be: “I won a tenner at the bingo. We’ll go out this weekend and I’ll buy us a drink.” I mean, thought Alasdair to himself, the economy was bad and there were all sorts of political fears: issues about which he himself spent at least a few moments a week thinking about when he saw headlines in newspapers he could ill-afford to buy. But he had to do something to pay the rent and for the time being this was it.
Alasdair did not notice the old man until a few weeks after he started at the factory. He seemed just like any old man, seeing his days out while waiting to pick up his pension. It was a family firm and the old man knew they would look after him. Alasdair never saw the old man do any actual work. He saw only his stocky body stroll by with a quiet confidence, his eyes looked straight ahead, his thin lips pressed together, and his shock of thick yellowing white hair gelled back. A snub nose and wrinkled skin: the old man was commonplace.
The factory work was repetitive and never stopped but productivity remained steady and the work-shy were soon spotted. “There are two twelve-minute breaks,” said Alasdair’s supervisor. “One in the morning and one in the afternoon. You also have half an hour for lunch. Everyone has to clock in and if you’re late your wages are docked. Any questions?” Alasdair had no questions.
With no mental stimulation, he soon found he had some time to watch the others. The old man, Alasdair noticed, liked to stop to talk to the women. Just a few words here and there, a low laugh, a spring in his step, and a twinkle in his eye. There’s always one, thought Alasdair. He would not end up like the old man: a sad lonely individual with no life of his own and with work as the only place he socialised. The old man also liked to put his arm around one of the women. She was a young pretty black woman in her mid-twenties who never responded but continued to work steadily and quietly. None of the others seemed to notice but Alasdair grew more and more angry. Sexual harassment, it was. None of the others had been to college, never mind university, thought Alasdair. They probably did not even have any qualifications. It was that kind of place so they could hardly be expected to know. He thought about telling the manager but the old man had been at the factory for a long time and he knew no one would believe him. Alasdair became preoccupied with the old man and watched him as closely as he could.
“I’d like to speak to CID^, please,” said Alasdair a few evenings later at his local police station. “It’s a delicate matter. I mean…I have no proof… but someone’s personal safety may be at risk, so I thought that if … ” The constable who saw him showed little emotion or interest. The police were always asking for information, thought Alasdair, Neighbourhood Watch and all that, but this one seemed not to care about anything. Twenty minutes later he left feeling he had done his duty. The police would use surveillance and soon get their man.
Alasdair watched the old man closer than ever before. At the end of one shift he decided to follow him to see if he could spot any signs or clues of the old man’s mysterious life. The old man headed towards the narrow streets of terraced houses. On the way he stopped at a small florist’s and bought a bouquet of flowers – a bit extravagant thought Alasdair – and then walked to the shopping arcade and waited outside the supermarket. Moments later the pretty young woman from the factory came out carrying a plastic shopping bag. She looked surprised and then the old man stepped forward and gave her the flowers and a kiss on the cheek. She waved vaguely in the opposite direction while the old man began to move the other way beckoning her to follow him.
Alasdair’s heart beat faster as he followed them towards the terraced houses and down a side street. The old man stopped in front of a door which he unlocked and then drew the woman into the dark hallway as the door closed behind them. Alasdair’s heart was pounding as he ran down the alley behind the houses and stopped at the house where he could see the woman through the kitchen window by the sink. The old man was standing close behind her and the woman made to move away as there was the sound of a baby crying. The old man held on to the young woman and Alasdair had seen enough. He ran up the house, smashed the kitchen window with a shovel from back yard and ignoring the astonished young woman, floored the old man with a right hook.
The old man had suffered only slight bruising, the constable said later, and did not need to go to hospital. The damage would of course have to be paid for but there would be no charges. The constable’s expression revealed nothing but he suggested drily that Alasdair might consider buying the couple a gift of champagne to help them celebrate their first wedding anniversary. He also suggested Alasdair should try to find a job in another area where he might find people of his own standing.
*Coronation Street is a soap opera on British television
^Criminal Investigation Department (plains clothes police / detectives) is a section in the British police force.