Houjun Liu

Child Labour: A Short Story

I was digging through my OneDrive recently for work, and found this piece of writing.

There is naught but a small, dirt-filled puddle in front of this lawn. Yet only here – by the puddle – can Gary find a small, much-needed respite from the neverending work. Of course, without the hours he has committed to the sweatshop, his mother would have died ages ago from colora.

But how does it matter now? Rarely now – once every year – does he even earn the privilege to exit the heavily-guarded area to visit his mother; and how little time he has during such visits: each visit seems to just be a long walk, a knock, a kiss on the cheek – then back to the workhouse he goes.

No, he must push on. Focusing his tired mind back to the concrete structure in front of him, he sees the supervisor hollering the same old phrase. Back to work! Back to work! Move! Move! Break is over!

What is this break, even? The notable lack of timepieces around the lawn means the important task of timekeeping falls to the supervisors – who, notably, have an obvious interest in shortening the break. And ‘lo, the breaks are shortened: Gary has always remembered the session as until the bottom of the clock, yet doubtless he will find himself staring at a clock hand pointing to the horizontal upon walking into the building.

He can do nothing now: there is one – and the ultimate – sanction for not listening to the supervisor, and he wants nothing to do with it: beating. Beating that gets harder, faster, as time progresses is the one, the only, and the final answer to all cases of disobedience. Heck, if the supervisor demands time run backwards during breaks, Cronus will listen and obey – for even he, a god, is probably as scared of these “correctional sessions” as anyone else.

There is, then, no time to be wasted. Up towards the factory he walks – joined by hundreds of others suffering a similar fate, doing the same tedious, repetitive tasks as him. If he hadn’t been made dependent – addicted! in fact – to the meager wages he received, he could have achieved greatness the world has yet to see.

But, alas, towards the factory he walks, steps. Timidly, slowly, shuffling his feet quickly enough so as to not anger the increasingly stressed supervisor. Stressed understandably, perhaps, due to the increasing external talk of organizing such congregations as the  “Child Labour Committee”, which Gary himself isn’t sure to what extent he should trust.

The quarter-bell strikes. Indeed, his suspicions were correct – yet superfluous. When all was thought and done, he couldn’t possibly have even produced the thought of defying the wishes of the supervisor, let along execute it. But now, he has not even the physical capacity to escape – the door was locked, and locked means work eternal – at least until the next meager halt seemingly few decades later.

Suddenly, a clicking occurs. A machine screeching to a halt, perhaps due to the same overwork and misuse. In walks the supervisor: nevermind that: the work must go on!

It is now down to the same routine – picking the smallest, nimblist of the bunch – Gary, of course – to, through great persuasion and threatenings of beatings, climb under the mechanical beast and undo the mess. It’s a dance of oil and gear that Gary has rehearsed many times before, each time dreading the next. Yet he still brought himself to perform the task time and time again for it, although dreadful, seems to be heavenly compared to the alternate: getting the “correctional session.”

Down the cover he goes: a little pulling there, a little dabbing there, and Hark! The machine jumped to a start with a splash of brilliant pink hue, announcing – celebrating, it seems – itself as Gary’s final quarters.

Nevermind that: the work must go on!