Nothing matched the drudgery of ‘strapping off’,
the act of sitting facing another guy
and clutching a leather strap which resembled
a weightlifter’s back support. We caught steaming
tins that bounced and coughed off a conveyor belt
and jiggled on a metal tray between us.
I made sweeping motions like a fisherman
casting a net, and gathered no more than ten,
gently transferred them to a one-tonne crate
and set them down like new-borns; one slip, the cans
might dent, bringing a supervisor’s sour breath
down on my neck. My partner and I took turns
to strap as legions of cans relentlessly
drove forward; always the din of their marching,
always the danger of a surprise attack:
perhaps leaping over the raised edges
to agitate our leather-protected laps.
Three breaks, only, were officially sanctioned,
so we found ways to escape that twelve-hour stretch:
when steam ceased puffing from the machinery
and the line stuttered and hiccupped to a halt
men in brown boiler suits scampered down the line
clutching bags of rattling tools, tightening this,
screwing that. We read sabotage on their faces.
A large unit was deployed in floor sweeping
and shovelling up fruit and veg. detritus.
Overmanned, we saw them slouch against the shafts
of their brushes. The ‘O’ of their yawns were lost
amongst the background of factory clamour.
Their eyes searched for pinholes of light in the roof.
Thinking back, one of their party, John Balmer,
relieved me most from my work station, perhaps
noting our brotherhood of long hair and beard.
One day I heard a crash and crunch of metal.
A chain had broken on a quarter-tonne crate
and the bottom of the cage had struck Balmer.
The young man writhed on the wet factory floor,
his screams heard above the onward-marching cans.
I froze, stared at the ripped skin below his knee.
The wound bloomed as two wine-coloured peonies.
Around him pistons hissed and tins perspired.
Balmer never again appeared on the floor.
Though we heard reports from beyond the works’ gate,
back then I was keeping an eye on blue skies
over Naxos and Mykonos. Years down the line
it’s often on my mind that serrated bone,
the sweat that started in my armpits, ran down
my spine. We kept working, reined in the next clutch.