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First you take the head from the conveyor belt, then you lower it into the liquid with both hands. You must be careful; the heads are still slippery and easily dropped. Slowly now, dip it beneath the surface: the dainty chin, the button nose, the flat blue eyes. The eyes can seem a little haunted on night shifts, when the moon comes in through the skylight and its white banners unfurl at strange angles on the factory walls. If it makes you squeamish, believe me, you’re not the first. When it all gets too much on a night like that, you can turn the eyes away and dip the head face-down. Look at the tiny swirl on the crown instead, the ridges etched in and painted brown to emulate hair.

The troughs are deep, and to properly submerge the heads you’ll need to be up to your elbows. If you’re not very tall—like Gerry—you’ll be leaning in quite far, and after a few hours of this your back will ache like you won’t believe. See that wince whenever he moves?

Gerry has been here thirty-three years, and these days—despite taking every break he’s offered; despite the brace and the physiotherapy so kindly subsidised by the factory—he has to grit his teeth when he leans forward, and every time it’s a little bit worse. But the heads keep coming, and someone’s got to dip them in the liquid: a blue-black waxy substance that stops the paint from running. Stops that gorgeous baby face from bleeding into the stuff of nightmares the first time it gets wet in the bath.

It might dry clear, but when you’re leaning over the trough for untold hours, that dark mess can be terrifying. You can’t see your hands under the surface, slick as they are in their rubber gloves; keep them in there too long and you’ll start to think you might never see them again—that they’ve disappeared somewhere else entirely. It used to mess with Gerry by the end of each shift, losing his arms like this over and over as he sunk them into the black, but now he’s grown used to it and kind of enjoys the little thrill it brings. He says he’s started to like the idea of disappearing—not killing himself or anything, just ceasing to be. Fading out. A moment here, and the next one gone.

But he keeps on: he dips the heads and lifts them out again, their faces hardening under a lovely, glossy sheen. Then he positions them on the belt under the giant blasting vent that makes his workspace unbearably hot—though the temperature means he gets an extra break each day in the summer. You might think it’s kind of twisted, those bonus breaks, after everything that’s happened. Gerry’s wife sits at home being fed through a tube because of that dark sludge, because of the incessant dipping and the too-thin gloves, yet Gerry gets a few extra minutes to himself whenever the mercury rises. One of life’s sick jokes but not funny in the slightest. No way.

If you ask Gerry, he won’t want to talk about it, though he’s had plenty of time to go over it in his mind. He wears the gloves—yes—those long, black rubber gloves that protect his hands and arms from the toxins, but he knows after everything with Essie that the gloves are really just for show. On bad days he jokes about plunging his naked hands straight in, just to see what happens. He wants to hold them under the giant blasting vent until the stuff hardens and his skin can’t breathe and his fingers drop off and he is sent home, or to the hospital, in disgrace. Maybe he sees himself being wheeled out on a gurney, his forearms stiff at his sides, encased in their smooth, shiny plastic. Maybe he thinks of what might happen if he just lowered himself into the trough like a bath. You’ve probably heard this was done before, by a man two towns over who was trying to break some kind of record. Gerry heard the rumour too, long after the idea had first occurred to him. In any case, it turned out not to be true.

He tried bringing it up with Essie, but she won’t talk about the factories now, so instead he tells her of the things he sees on his walking commute: the dogs and the boarded-up shopfronts, a neighbour with a new baby or a broken-down car. Anything but those hulking sheds at the edge of town, their silver angles glinting in rows like sharks’ teeth, their stained chimneys casting long, thin shadows over the fields as they spew brown into the sky. He tells his wife her old workmates say hello, and get well soon, and we’ll come and see you when you’re feeling up to it. He says they send their best even when they don’t exactly say so. It’s something he can offer her besides his meagre wage, besides a hand to grasp in the dark.


If you’ve been watching Gerry, you’ll see he submerges the heads for longer now, and that his gloves are not quite pulled all the way up. They’re baggy at the edges where they should sit tight against his skin. He’s been sloppy like this for a while, but nobody’s tried to stop him—management gives him a wide berth and there’s no one else who cares enough to make sure he’s following protocol. To the bosses—most of them ruddy-faced and bright-eyed, stubble growing shyly on their naive young chins—Gerry is the ‘man with the wife’. They ask about her sometimes, but they never say her name, and when they do Gerry stays steely calm and says no more than he must. Good day today, he’ll mutter, or, She’s been better. Sometimes he sits at the tearoom table and watches the other workers come and go, studying their skin tone and the bags under their eyes. He looks for clues. Essie can’t be the only one with the shrinking body, the floundering nervous system—but if there are others in the same boat, he can’t see it on their faces.

Today is one of Essie’s bad days. You can probably tell because this afternoon Gerry’s picking the heads up one-handed and thrusting them into the trough as if he’s trying to drown them. There’s a look in his eye—you’ve seen it, it’s kind of worrying. It’s possible he’ll be reprimanded if things go on like this, though the bosses know the Essie situation makes it all a little delicate. They’re almost waiting for a lawsuit. Not that Gerry would know where to start with all that, even if he somehow had the energy or the funds. Look at him leaning over the dark, oily mess, wincing at his own reflection. He handles it by showing up each day and doing what he’s done for the last thirty-three years. Pull, dip, hold, dry. Pull, dip, hold, dry.


Back at the beginning, Essie had been stationed at the trough opposite his. She’d worked fast, pulling and cradling and dipping the little heads with her long, lovely hands. Gerry used to tease her about her protective goggles, tell her she was being paranoid. Besides, he joked, didn’t she feel bad depriving the world of those stunning peepers?

The first time he’d seen her eyes up close, he realised they were exactly the same blue as the dolls’—though he kept that to himself, of course, at least until she knew he wasn’t a creep. When the two of them discovered they lived on the same side of town, they’d begun walking home together at the end of the day. Gerry remembers the first time he held Essie’s hand, how human she felt: he could feel all her fingerprints and the creases in her slightly clammy palm.

They never had children. Tried, but couldn’t make it work. Essie joked for a long time about having little blue-eyed dolls of their own: she was relaxed about it, jovial and optimistic. That faded as the years went on. As reality began to sink in, she would sometimes sit on the edge of the bed and weep.

At the factory, around that time, those eyes had made him angry—why were they all blue?—and seeing Essie stationed opposite, cradling the little heads with such care, was almost more than he could handle. Now, of course, even this memory feels like it belongs firmly in the category of Good Old Days. She was healthy then, at least as far as they knew, and that was something. Her eyes had still glittered. Her hands had been deft and steady in their huge black gloves.

You probably don’t like thinking about all this—maybe it feels like a subject best avoided, knowing what came next. Some days it’s too much for Gerry, too. But hell, if it doesn’t also make him feel proud of his choices in life. You can’t have one without the other. If he hadn’t started at the factory, there would have been no life with his Essie. If he hadn’t kept dunking those pretty painted heads under the slime for all these years, they wouldn’t have their house. He might not have been able to take care of his wife at all—though truth be told it’s the nurse, Helene, who now shoulders most of the load.

Gerry keeps going. He scoops up the head, lowers, waits, lifts, swivels, places it on the belt to his left and turns to the next glassy-eyed face. He’ll be there even when you stop watching. And I’m sure you’re wondering, but no—he’s not sick. Miraculously, not at all. Even now that he’s made a habit of rolling up his sleeves a little further, and further again, leaving a broader gap between cotton overall and rubber glove: nothing is happening. He wills it to work faster. He asks Helene to check his vitals now and then, but he’s fit as fiddle. The poison can’t find its way to his blood, no matter how hard he tries.

Soon the bell will ring for the end of the day, and Gerry will take off those long black gloves. He straightens up and feels the gnawing ache in his lower back. His gloves are slick and oily when he pulls his arms from the trough, but as they air-dry a milky-thick casing rapidly forms and they set hard. He’s been too slow to remove the gloves today, as sometimes happens, though it seems to happen to Gerry more than any other.

His workmates roll their eyes and file past him as they head for their lockers. They shake their heads and drop their protective gear in the bin.

Gerry’s hands are stuck fast. The gloves will need to be cut off, but he is looking around and finds no volunteer. He stands to one side, arms petrified at odd angles as if they are broken. Before long, he is the only person left on the floor—there will be others still filling their canteens and chatting in the tearoom, though they will take their time.

Maybe he thinks of Essie, and the rising panic in his stomach starts to settle. Maybe he bargains in his head, bargains for one more night together, tries to will the toxins to seep through the glove and under his skin and into his blood. All he wants is to catch up, to be in step with her once more.

It’s a sad little story, and a lot to take in. But you needn’t worry about Gerry. Someone will find the pliers; someone will come to set him free. He’ll be home soon enough, away from those waxy, blue-eyed dolls and the bottomless dark of the trough. He will wash off the day with clean water, and he’ll touch his wife’s cheek with the warm, true skin of his hand.