Safely Home – A Short Story by Maurice Byrne
It was the same kind of day, I think it was a Tuesday but right now I can’t be sure, but it felt like one. The labelling machine had that same relentless, monotonous rhythm that only stopped when a roll of labels had to be loaded or for some reason a flaw was detected in one of the bottles. A flaw that had made its way through the entire production process to this point. At this point of quality-control it was her responsibility and hers alone. She was the last line of defence in the battle for quality. She held incredible power over every one of “Juniper Valley Gin’s” customer’s lives. The buck stopped with her. Bubbles in the glass, bubbles in the labels, imperfections in the product were her domain and if a flaw was spotted, she was ruthless.
Depending on the volume of orders the labelling machine applied stickers in a rhythm that went between an Adele ballad or, when things were hectic, the same funky beats per minute of Stevie Wonder’s masterclass hit, “Superstition”. The shop floor choir would kick in at that point adding some levity to the relentless humdrum of the factory’s noise and smell. Very occasionally, when the line speeds were at Stevie Wonder level, a bottle would fall off the line and our lady of Quality Control would say the same thing.
“There’s another girl safely home”,
See, although she wasn’t religious, Our Lady had a humanity about her. She wasn’t in the first blush of youth but she could turn and smile at you in a way that would assault any feelings you ever had for a wife or a girlfriend. That way she could look at you was a reward for your being human, matching her, being an equal to her for however long she allowed that moment to play out. It wasn’t often but when it happened, it was a beacon of hope her soul allowed you to witness.
Our Lady had a past you see. In that past she got lost. As a child she had so much freedom. Her parents were wealthy, children of the sixties themselves, they believed in freedom and encouraged its engagement. Then after secondary school, Our Lady tried university but qualified in little more than scant effort and passing interest but that did not hold her back. She was a socialite, a bon-viveur and man, did she have fun. She allowed herself to be herself and there was little that held her back. Until she met that one crowd, who abused her until they controlled her, then controlled her until she was compliant. Soon after, I met her again. She was completely out of control. I was in her class in school so I knew where she lived and got her safely home. I’ll never forget what she said from the door as I walked away…
“The girl’s safely home… Thank you”
It was spoken like a reflex, it can’t have been the first time she said it.
We met for coffee soon after that. She thanked me, she said she was a mess and that I shouldn’t pay any notice, that on occasions when she was home, she’d sleep around from loneliness, she’d leave ‘bits of herself all over town’ but that’s the way she was and she blamed no one, not even herself. But it struck me. Most of us do blame ourselves.
Most of us find those points in our lives and in that moment, locate the decision, the reason, the flaw that allowed us to fail or fall, fight or flee… She took it as something exterior and dealt with it. That vulnerability struck me in a way I could never explain but it helped me to recognise vulnerability and embrace it. Being a walking flaw myself, I could not ignore how this flawed vulnerable human was one of the most beautiful things I had ever felt. Walking away from her door after leaving her home, I smiled to myself as I walked down her path…
“Bits of herself… Brilliant” I said out loud
So time moved on a few years and on one similarly humdrum, Tuesday-like day the labelling machine clicking in a slow ballad tempo to some anonymous computer generated hit playing on the factory tannoy almost in time to the label applicator. A letter with a CV attached landed on my desk with a familiar name and within seconds, I had the phone to my ear with the number ringing, ringing, ringing….. out… then nothing.
I re-read the letter and understood how hard this must have been for her to write. Although I tried a few more times I guessed she had diverted from the original idea and either applied elsewhere or the application for her, had became, in some way, toxic. I will admit to being saddened. I resorted to thinking about opportunity, choice, decisions and how the right ones at times, never ever seem to present themselves.
Just then, a commotion was playing out on the factory floor.
A lady who was not the right person in a certain role decided she had had enough and after a few well-chosen words to her colleagues, walked into my office and announced her decision to remove herself from my employ. I offered her time to think and suggested she come back on Friday to let me know her final decision. But the horse she was on was a particularly tall one so no offer of reason was accepted, we shook hands and left it at that.
The factory radio announced “Seo é Cín lnte na nuachta”.
Sometimes problems and solutions play a merry dance. As soon as the news in Irish was over, my mobile phone rang. It was that same number I had carefully entered earlier had allowed to ring out but now, on the third ring, a familiar yet ever meeker voice said
“Hello… is that you??”
“Yes, it’s me… it’s great to hear from you, I recognised your name on the letter….”
At that point she cut me off and launched herself into a prepared reason for writing when she really should have called and she didn’t expect anything but is there any chance she could go on a waiting list in case any jobs came up if you were busy at the factory and things were hectic, she could maybe…. Look I’m off the drink for a year now and I’m really trying hard and I remember you said if there was anything you could do for me…
I stopped her and spoke.
“I have an opening but its low level, its basic and humdrum, noisy and smelly and it’s in the factory and… you do know what we make here and I don’t want to lead you into temptation, but you and me go way back … I have faith in you, I need someone I can trust.”
The line although still open went quiet and I had to say…
I heard her sniffle…
“Where are you right now?” I said.
I made a few last-minute calls and drove over to that same coffee shop we met all those years ago. When I sat down she said,
“ You used two words on that call I hadn’t heard in years. You used the words, “Faith” and “Trust”. I had left those two things back in this town years ago. I never felt I needed them. They were not what I would call a currency I would use. I always got away with this…”
She raised her hands, palms upwards to her neck and allowed them to drop slowly implying her body drove every conversation, there was little else people wanted from her.
Things had gotten way out of control for her. There was no denying she was capable.
There’s no denying she was intelligent and there was no denying, this was a woman on the edge. I let myself try to understand the impact of her story since we last met. Her descent, one catastrophe to another, dark places leading to others and too many insults from friends who became judgemental strangers. But she had left all that behind fifty two calendar weeks ago and moved back to the Hermitage she once called home.
After some training and a few long walks along the canal bank, Our Lady started on the labelling applicator two weeks later. She was the right girl in the right role. She grew to love the monotony of this place, the freedom responsibility gave her. The excitement when things got really busy and the trust I placed in her. She was the glue in the team yet, what no one realised was she made herself responsible for the spiritual well-being of our clientele.
It didn’t happen often but when it did, we all felt there was a reason, we felt a higher power was intervening and we grew to understand someone’s hand was guiding that reason and granting a care taker role to a girl with a past and a new responsibility.
The first day it happened, it was as a result of her beginning to touch each labelled bottle as it passed her station. A few days passed by and although we had noticed this new ritual, we thought nothing of it nor, for that matter, cared. But late in the week, the line stopped and she ran over to one bottle, lifted it off the production line and shouted….
“Oh Hell no!”
Not being too far away, I thought it was funny and started to laugh, walked up to her placed my hand on her shoulder and jokingly said,
“Everything alright there love?”
But her eyes were filled with fear, she was pale, she was shaking and she was livid.
“You didn’t see what I saw”, she reasoned.
“I touched that bottle as it passed and felt all the damage it would do if it fell into her hands. It was horrible, she was young and carefree and that bottle would be the one final push for her. I had to break it, I couldn’t’ help it, I’m sorry”
She started to cry a bit, she was still trembling,
“It’s OK, I trust your judgement, you saw something no one else could”, I intoned
“I sometimes feel things when I touch the bottles. I mostly feel fun and that I can allow this through and no harm will come and with others, I touch them and I feel the undone damage, the latency for upset or misunderstanding but that one was a level of evil I could not let pass”. She struggled to start to speak but finally uttered “I felt it. I felt the flaws within. There was transparent evidence of sin”
I put my arms around her and whispered gently in her ear, she pressed her ear to my lips as I whispered.
“I trust you, it’s OK… Shhhhhh…” I said.
With that, in front of everyone, she placed her hands on my cheeks and kissed my lips in a way I hadn’t been touched since my own wife had passed on to her next great mystery. A tear came to her eye.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…” she said
I whispered “Thank you, that felt like… home”
“I’m safely home”. She replied.
I took her hand and gently squeezed it.
Later that evening and from then on, we looked at each other differently. We found something in our flaws were similar but something else had bridged our understanding of those flaws. Through one random act of intervention, we understood more about each other. I had always felt pangs of guilt about what I produced and its latent ability to destroy. She had always understood this destruction from within her own experience. Through her occasional standards-based interventions she found an empathetic way to absolve her pain and that, in turn, assuaged my occasions of guilt.
It was a match made.