The grey metal lockers of the changing rooms slam with a familiar rhythm. Some staff carry the end of work day weariness in their shoulders, others give a cheery ‘See you tomorrow.’
Never to me.
If I had an identifier it would be “the quiet dark one”. People tend to be wary of those in my position. My quietness, coupled with being the only woman on the killfloor didn’t encourage small talk or friendship. I didn’t mind. I understood that I was unnatural. The job and my long-standing presence in it were only part of that.
Today will be ten years. Shanti said we should celebrate, and I didn’t doubt she’d have something planned for when I got home. She was always home first and would come to the door the minute my car beams shone through the front windows of our small demountable home.
She was the cheery one. My colleagues would have chatted with her endlessly. It is this way with sisters sometimes. Those born close together. But then Shanti would never have taken up work in an abattoir.
To begin with, it had simply been the only work that was available to us. We were not trusted with the cleaning of people’s houses. The abattoir, however, did not baulk at our origins or heavily-accented English. Or perhaps, it was simply the fact that locals would not do such work, for any money.
Later Shanti did manage to get a job at a small real estate company cleaning their offices. She was reliable, had a bright smile that made the owners feel magnanimous and most of all didn’t cause a fuss about long hours and poor wages. Soon enough she was responsible for cleaning the new rentals and had a small, steady income.
But that had taken more than a year.
Every day in that year, and in the nine more since, had been much the same for me. Except perhaps the first day. Everyone remembers their first day.
Working in places such as this requires a particular mindset. Whatever that detachment, or inured sensibility was – it sometimes distorted understandings of cruelty and compassion.
The supervisor who had taken me to the killfloor that first day, did so with every prospective worker as a way of testing their mettle. He also wanted no doubt about what it was they did here.
We followed the path of the cattle. A factory has its process. Stun. Bleed. Cut. Bone. Package. Next.
That first day he had given me the captive bolt to test, so I could understand the heft and kickback. There was no intention to have me use it -– only understand that death came anaesthesized -– as is the rhetoric of such places to assuage outsider interference.
When he walked me onto the killfloor it was the smell that hit me first. Of blood. A heavy, strong smell that since those first days, no longer really registers it is so permanently sat in my skin and nasal cavities. But that day, I remember gagging slightly as I walked through the door.
I was shown how to guide the animal through the channel and to secure the stun box. It baulked, not willing to capitulate to what it sensed was coming.
They are not unaware, like us, of imminent death.
The strap had not tightened properly and I could see this from my spot next to the slaughterman. It twitched its head but the worker caught in his routine didn’t notice while he lined up his bolt gun. Operator error. Equipment failure. That’s how these things are categorised.
In the room the reality is different. The noise of punched flesh, bones cracking and roar of an animal in pain. A failed shot.
I didn’t think. Raising the bolt gun, still resting in my hand, to its quivering head and let the stunner do its job.
A glazed expression moved over the animal’s eyes, its jaw slackened and tongue lolled out, and it gave way, the stun box holders taking the weight of the animal. Still caught in the habitual routine of his day the slaughterman let the knife finish the job on the now unconscious animal, pithing it swiftly – letting the blood drain.
From that day, that was where they kept me. Every day, somewhere near 200 animals come through our channel. 30 an hour. My hand was steadiest and my eye rarely failed the stun point at the base of the animals’ necks. On days when animal welfare inspectors came through they’d ensure it was my channel they watched.
The money was reasonable in the way that necessary work unwanted by others was – at least for those unskilled like me. The meat we cultivated was organic so this helped with a higher income and as regulations became more stringent our pay grew till it didn’t make sense to try for anything else.
I was used to the routine now. Just as Shanti was used to her bleach-cracked, aged fingers, sore back and swollen feet, I was now accustomed to this. Shaped for it even, the muscles across my shoulders molded to carry the weight and the burden of what I did.
There was also a routine to the end of each shift. A process to split between the two worlds of death and life, part of the reason why I did not wish to acknowledge the time that had passed in celebration that crossed the threshold of home. A change of clothes, a cigarette and phone call to Shanti to let her know I was on my way. She would be expecting this. It was a long drive, and our related histories of those who had left in the morning and not made it home, made the call something more than courtesy.
Image: user:geni / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)