Through the scratched visor I can see my hands in heavy duty gauntlets fumbling another dented aerosol into the cradle and slamming down the handle. The nail on the end of the lever pierces the can and the gas escapes with a satisfying bang, followed by a nosebleed of Hammer Horror red as the penetrant dye inside leaks into the oil drum beneath. I give it a shake to release the last of the liquid and hurl the crumpled shell into the skip at my side with another pleasing sound – this time, a cymbal crash.
This was my summer job between school and sixth-form college – puncturing cans that for one reason or another hadn’t passed quality assurance – and I rather enjoyed it. For the first time in years, and for the only time for years to come, I didn’t have revision or reading to do, and the mindlessness of the task suited the state of my post-GCSE brain.
For a dorkish introvert like me the situation was perfect, too. I’d worked on the shop floor in the factory proper for several stretches and found the constant supervision and chatter more exhausting than the labour itself. Out in the yard, it was different. Once or twice a day the foreman would appear from the side door to ask me how it was going, or just give a questioning thumbs up; sometimes someone would turn up with a fork lift and dump another load of cans into the TO DO box, usually with obvious glee at my misfortune; but mostly I was left alone. Looking through a chain-link fence and out across blonde-tipped wild grass, I could breathe.
Well, breathe is the wrong word. I had to wear a forest green body suit, coarse on the inside and glossy out, to protect me from being sprayed with solvents. The mask preserved my eyes and also insulated me from the worst of the fumes, but meant I could hear myself respire, and had to peer through a warm fog of my own making. It was hot in there under the kind of summer sun I’m sure they cancelled after about 2001 and I sweated like tinned ham.
Because it was so hot, my favourites among the dinged and mislabelled cans were the ‘air dusters’ which when popped gave out a magical breath of cold wind, dusted my gloves with ice and chilled my fingertips.
Oddly, doing this job is the only time I’ve ever been high. At the end of the day I had to clean my suit, removing the grey, sticky layer created by one puff after another of solvent, dye, orange-scented label remover, varnish, lubricant, and any number of other goops and greases. I did this job in a stairwell using rags and a can of the firm’s strongest ‘degreaser’. My induction, which took about five minutes altogether, included a stern warning to do this with the door open, which having grown up on anti-glue-sniffing propaganda in the 1980s I took very seriously. But one day, somehow, the stop slipped and the door betrayed me, gliding soundlessly into its frame. Innocently, I kept spraying until the job was done, but when I stood up my legs had disappeared. I knew they were there, I could see them, but I was hovering above the ground. I smirked, then frowned, then giggled, then felt sick. I realised what had happened and drifted out on to the shop floor. Oddly, nobody noticed that I was levitating, though I was sure everyone was looking at me – all those eyes! I bobbed up to the first person who crossed my path and said, earnest as ever, ‘I think I’ve abused solvents by mistake.’ As they guided me outside, manoeuvring me like a loose barrage balloon, I oscillated between laughter and seasickness. I gave someone my Klix key, I think, which is how I ended up with a beige plastic cup of foul, powdery vending machine orange pop which definitely tipped the scale from hilarity to nausea. My legs rematerialised after a few minutes along with a crushing headache. I haven’t felt inclined to repeat the experience.
For months after I finished the job I dreamed about it – a looping cinemagraph of concrete and blue sky soundtracked by the distant digestive grumbling of the factory and the clatter, POP, hiss, clang of one can after another.