The Break Room
Relatively speaking, you can boil down any experience to a beginning, middle and end. It’s the most painful part of the human condition to not only acknowledge but anticipate this process. I work in a warehouse for shipping women’s clothing. It’s my job to walk around the warehouse, collecting items for orders to be sent off, or ‘Online Shipping Fulfilment’ as my official title would say. It’s unsociable hours and fairly monotonous work, so we all tend to keep our heads down and focus on getting the job done. Besides, we spend our entire shifts going from place to place, grabbing shoes or coats or what-not, so there isn’t a great sense of workplace spirit.
Then, in the middle of every shift, there’s your break. A little respite where you grab something quick to eat and sit down for a while in this canteen we have on site. It’s a fairly big room, filled with those long tables and metal benches that you would see in a primary school or prison. Each flanked with vending machines or water dispensers. One corner boasted neglected dartboard, another, a leaflet stand, filled with pamphlets on workplace safety. Since I worked from 8am to 8pm, I was entitled to an hour of paid break from 1:30 - 2:30. I would find a few of the night shift lads populating the tables, peppered from here to there and never failing to leave gaps between one and other, so not to connote any friendliness. Perhaps it was in working so late, or the solitary nature of of the job, but even the most remote signs of familiarity or camaraderie were absent at all times. It was just the way it went, the way it always had and I suppose I never noticed it until it ended.
It was near the beginning of May, I think. Just before the smell of humid summer air would radiate into the warehouse to gift us with brighter thoughts. Haunting my regular spot by the coffee machine, I was reading a book, adapted from some film, the name escapes me. Reading was just about the only constructive use I could get out of that hour, since it was the only time of day that I wasn’t sleeping, working or running errands.
“Is Tom Hanks’ acting as bad in the book as it is the film?” Said a voice, slipping between the hum of the fluorescent lights over head and the din of cutlery. It came from behind the book, I lowered it to reveal a bright faced lad of twenty something. Equipped with a knife and fork that were making rhythmic journeys from Tupperware to mouth. He spoke again, chewing. “Tom Hanks, should I blame his acting or the writing?” A roomful of shipping fulfillment personnel stared on with ears pricked up, waiting for my response. Woken from a waking sleep and stirred now into what they perceived as the start of a conversation.
There was a floundering on my behalf as I re-initialised my long offline dialogue software.
“I’ve- I’ve not seen it…” I mustered
“Have you not?” He started, picking up his food container and heading two tables over towards me, “It’s terrible, but I mean, good terrible.” He went on, placing himself directly across from me, the eyes of the whole canteen upon me. “I’m Sean by the way.” He finished with a handshake. This enigma had come from nowhere, like a bolt of lightning from the ground to the sky. Soon we were speaking freely and he demystified himself. “Want anything from the machine?” He slipped into his sentence, “But yeah, I’m here while I wait for the course to start up again. Idle hands and all that.” It was almost impossible not to be drawn to him, as if like some gravitational force, we had been inching closer to one another since time immemorial until this acceleration and fateful clash. “Here, I got you a coffee anyway, I know you said you didn’t want anything.”
Memory tells me that we went on like this for years, but logic reminds me it was only a matter of months. Each shift, without fail, Sean and I would share a break. The only time I would see him at all. Slowly, I learned more about him. He was studying to become a personal trainer and dietician and he enjoyed DJing in his spare time. He seemed quite embarrassed to share than he was quite unsuccessful in education, “Hence why I’m doing shifts like this. Oh, no offence.” I told him about myself, about the kids and some of my photography work from back in the day. It’s strange, but it was as if the whole canteen was changing. I started seeing colleagues pairing off and sharing pleasantries, the dartboard was replaced by a small pool table and the leaflet stand was restocked with adverts for local attractions. Even without speaking to Sean, I would have been unable to read for the sound of laughter and anecdotes being shared. My work saw improvements, I was picking items with more speed and less discrepancies, much to my manager’s chagrin. The diet Sean made for me, coupled with the early June sunrises meant each shift ended with this prosperous and hopeful energy that I would flaunt in the golden heat of that magnificent summer.
It’s the parts that disarm us. Thankfully and unfortunately, we are fitted with protocol to cut short our predictions and anticipation of life’s beginning, middle and end, until the curtain is drawn open on the third act. It came to me, as most bad news does, suddenly and directly from the source.
“This is my last shift,” he smiled, “Well, last night shift. They’re putting me on weekends while I’m at college.” And with one final shift, a final break and a final drink from the machine, he was gone. By whatever cosmic or ecological forces that dictated it, the summer had been strangely prolonged but as the signature scent of October’s burning leaves lingered in the air, a ‘cold snap’ was forecast. Whether it was verbalised or not, Sean’s absence was felt by all, though his presence lived on for a small time in the small talk and the laughter that would occasionally ring out. I would read the same book, just as before. Accompanied only by pots of vegetables rice and chicken, I staved off the brief intrusions of others.
“Have you used the pool table?” One might ask, to which I would silently shake ‘no’.
“Oh, the cue ball is missing. Can’t play without it.”
Seemingly overnight in November, the leaflet stand filled with ‘Holiday support’ information and the canteen had returned to drabs of life sitting metres apart, duetted with the familiar hum of lighting. Each person skirted by ghostly empty seats, all too aware of the cost of a beginning, invoiced after the middle and paid on account in the end. Everyone saw it took a brave man to pay that price, a man I knew once. I dwelled on it, both in work and out, until it felt as though it never happened and slouching back into silence.
Red shirts began to fill our break room, sparking a new intrigue that slipped between the rattle of the boiling kettle and the whir of the old extractor fan.
“Why is your uniform red and not black?” I asked before a room of mended hearts and debutants.
“It’s for Christmas temps. They don’t give us proper shirts.” He stammered as I slid my Tupperware three seats down, directly across from him.
“Do you want anything from the machine?”