Her factory coat hung on a hook; no clothes lockers at
Robertson’s, management thought they encouraged theft.
There it drooped. A true factory coat for which, it seems,
there is no other word or phrase: dark beige, down to the knees, a breast
pocket for ball-points, patch pockets at the sides, ludicrously out-of- date
lapels. Lapels! Who wears a rose to work?
Manual workers these days wear sleeker one-piece garments,
once referred to as boiler suits, now known universally as overalls. Less
likely to snag on whirling machinery but you have to wriggle into them. Rained
on, they grip like lobsters
It’s said factory coats are hard to find, that there’s no
market for them. Perhaps because they are so durable. The fabric is uncomfortably
stiff, more akin to canvas. Gladys had worn hers since starting with
Robertson’s three years ago; it was grubbier now but that was the only hint
that time had passed. She had no affection for it, convinced it made her look
socially downtrodden. But regarded it with a certain wryness. So typical of the
company that employed her.
Haseen had worn a loose-fitting artificial silk blouse to
interview her. A cartoon red dragon on a green background, the cuffs secured
with links that dangled silver discs the size of saucers. His moustache upswept and piratical. He shook
her hand which was unexpected and his teeth shone brilliantly white against his
dark skin when he smiled. Which he did a lot.
“Miss Ashworth – such a rhapsodical name. Though they say
it’s quite common in this part of Lancashire.”
His smile was infectious. “Common as muck?”
“Good gracious, not at all. But my family name – Mohiuddin –
might so be described in Islamabad. But tell me, Miss Ashworth, were you
surprised that a company called Robertson is run by a family of Pakis?”
It sounded like a trap. “I don’t care for that abbreviation.
I associate it with racists. But to answer your question. I suspect there may
be marketing reasons. I’ve seen your clothing brochure and it’s clear your
customers are not limited to Asians. You’ve crossed national boundaries.”
His laugh was falsetto. “How shrewd of you to notice.
Perhaps I should be interviewing you for my job. But the classified asked for a
packaging operative and we mean what we say. Someone who understands the
mechanics of protecting goods in transit and can come up with safe solutions.”
Gladys realised one of her trainer laces had untied itself.
To bend down and interrupt the dialogue? To leave it be and risk being typed a
slut? Decisions, decisions. “I wouldn’t want to doom the interview but I’m not
“We’re not expecting immediate skills. You’re here for three
reasons: your grade 8 GCSE maths, the fact that you run middle-distance races,
and that you are a woman. Take that last point first; there seems to be a
tradition that packaging systems in Asian retail suppliers are served by women.
And only women.
Gladys nodded. Haseen continued. “Packaging is vital to
nationwide distribution. Amazon spends millions on just that aspect of their business.
Dozens if not hundreds of carton designs covering all sorts and sizes.” He
spread his hands in mock humility. “We are not Amazon. The economics of
pre-buying all those packaging designs – in bulk – would bankrupt us. We
decided on ad hoc solutions, with you, or some other woman at the heart of it.
Do you understand?”
Gladys frowned. “Many patterns – designs as you say – would
“They are stored on a stamping machine and accessed
according to need. We buy cardboard and plastic for sleeving in huge rolls. I’m
hoping your Grade 8 maths will help you see the goods and their dimensions in
terms of solid geometry and you call up or design a slightly oversize
container. You’ll be slow to begin with but will speed up as more and more
standard patterns accumulate. Your female colleagues down the line will
assemble the cardboard flats into cartons.”
“And my middle-distance running?”
“You’ll need to be fit for this work, As will your
colleagues. Any questions?”
Gladys shook her head. But she had her doubts. During
college holidays she’d done intern work with manufacturers and gained an
inkling of the equations that square labour needs with investments. Maseen
would need more than one woman with a knowledge of advanced maths and fit legs.
So it turned out although by then the cost of two more stamping machines had
changed the basic premise and the accountants were called in to fudge the
She reached for her drooping factory coat and slipped it on.
Robertson’s had probably realised such coats would last for ever. But failed to
see they belonged to the post-war forties and were depressing to look at.
Especially if you came to work in artificial-silk blouses. Luckily for Haseen,
he held shares.
Gladys had wondered whether Muslim women working the packaging
line might envy her as the only whitey. One had eventually tested her with
quotes from the Koran but by then Gladys had become popular; a whistle was
blown and the offender was transferred to marketing support. Does this mailer
go into that size of envelope? That sort of thing.
More important she’d gained a friend. Nasrin was about the same age but came from a
home with slightly fewer faith-driven restrictions. Her mother, widowed early,
had fallen back on her A-levels and found reasonably well-paid work as a loss
assessor with an insurance company. Often she was away in the evenings and
Nasrin, the eldest child, became her surrogate. Even to the point of being
allowed to join the local ADS and indulge her enthusiasm for the stage. A
chance remark about Pinter, within Gladys’s hearing, brought the two of them
together and the relationship had blossomed into sotto-voce, giggly
conversations during lunch breaksabout the shortcomings of Robertson, Gateway
to Eastern Splendour, as the website said. Within a month Gladys had also
joined the ADS.
They were an odd looking pair – Gladys, tall, muscular,
irregularly dyed hair swept up into a crown that frequently required attention,
Nasrin, a mere five feet, delicate cheekbones and eyes like a gazelle. But
friends, definitely friends, capable of lending each other tenners and not
falling out. Sharing laughter. Dining at each other’s homes.