Writing on metal

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With disturbing clanks, big burly men hammered rivets into the ship as its skeleton disappeared, fleshed over with an outer skin of metal. Around the smog laden city shone shades of yellow, orange, brown in the setting sun as beams of light cast horizontal lines through the buildings, like heavenly girders in the air. Hammering, clanking, it never ceased – not till midnight – filled the evening and mixed into a chirping like the song of crickets in the jungle.

Young Junka, a young man with an unusual name even by Shortkeens standards, taps away at his section of the mighty vessel. As he is swinging his great hammer to flatten yet another rivethead down, he spots something, marked on the the surface of the boat in such fine writing that it only could be seen when looked at just at the right angle, in just the right light.

“Slave” it said.

Slave? Thought Junka looking at it.

But then he had so much work to do it went out of his mind, as he hammered at the rivets, and the noise of his own labours joined with the chirping of all the others as the sun set and the cadmium lights went on.

That night he slept well, and woke up early in the morning ready for the next shift. It took him ten minutes to brush his teeth and jump out of his cabin into the shipyard and ten minutes to walk to his post, where he clocked in and picked up his welding torch.

The day went well, right through till evening, when just as the sun was setting he found himself looking at another word marked on the hull, set so that it wouldn’t be seen until looked at from just the right angle in just the right light.

“Tax” it said.

Tax? Thought Junka, looking at it. He wondered what that had to do with the previous night’s statement, ‘slave’.

Slave, tax… slave – tax – tax – slave.. . he mulled over them both as he wondered why someone had left them there for him to see. As he hammered the rivets in he started to work out how much tax he paid. It seemed that he paid one third of his wages of one hundred pounds over to the government. And that left him with sixty six pounds left. Who could complain about that? But then another idea struck him.

Hang on… don’t I pay tax when I buy something? He asked of himself. Yeh, twenty percent sales tax, he realized. Never good at maths, he had to wait till the sun set, and the shift ended before he could scratch out crude mathematics on he edge of a newspaper. It took him a while, but eventually he laboured it out to another £13.2 in tax added to the £33 that came straight off his wages, which meant that he was paying £46 in tax for every £100 he made.

Angry, for himself at not realising this before, and at the world for being this way, he went to sleep.

In the morning he had forgotten all about it, and went to work quite happy, doing what he had been in the habit of doing for a lifetime, throughout the day until at last he came to that time, when the sunset beamed against the hull the way it had before, and there was a word written so gently into the side of the ship.

“Profits” it said.

Profit? He wondered.

Junka was not a stupid man. Far from it. But even as he let these three words drift about in his head he could not see the connection. What did profit have to do with him? That was the business of the ship builders, the owners. He sighed and got back to work, even as the sun set and the cadmium lights went on. So he worked till finishing time, and then slept, always with it in the back of his mind.

In the morning he woke up early and started to note things down on the side of his newspaper. The company was making £1.2 billion profit, and employed 150,000 workers. By dividing the profits by the number of workers he calculated that each worker would have had to contributed £8000 each through their individual labours. That was quite an amount when compared with the 5200 they got paid each year. Does that mean that really the work I did was worth £13,200 to the company in the past year?

He didn’t have much more time so had to leave for work, and the day passed without further thought about it, until at last he reached the point in the day where the sun shone through the smoggy city and cast it’s golden light upon the metal of the ship. But there was no message there waiting for him, and that was like being dragged down into freezing cold water, a shock, it woke him up. Melancoly, and trying not to think about it he carried on until night.

As soon as he reached his little cabin he began to scribble once more in the side of his paper. For two days and nights he worked on the problem, for he had to guess how it was to do that kind of calculation. But by the end of it he was sure he had it right. The maths told him that he saw a mere 39% of his labours, and of that another 46% was taken off him in tax. If he did £100 worth of work, £39 would make its way to him, and then the government would get its share of £17.94, leaving him with £21.06 for every £100s worth of work he did.

So it’s true, he thought, I am a slave.

Then he pushed it out his mind, and went to sleep, to wake up the next day and get on with his hard shift. Every evening at sunset, the light would shine on the hull of the boat, and Junka would feel something gnawing at his soul, expectation, hope, he knew not what.

By Gregory Alter


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