This short story gives us a glimpse into the lives of the working-class people in the London borough of Hackney. In a way, it is an ode to those who have struggled and continue to struggle, but I hope it illuminates the transcendent beauty in their ordinary lives and how important their contribution to their family is for the community, and for society.
The man who works overtime wakes in the early morning, five times a week. Sometimes, when they are in dire needs, his early mornings will stretch for seven days. If you were to steal a look at his hands, you would immediately recognise that this is a man who not only works to fill every hour of every day, but is the victim of a monotonous and laborious filled job. Each crate he lifts and every floor he scrubs, etches marks onto his hands that are stubborn to fade away. The rough and detangled scheme of reality tears his skin. They serve as a reminder of his financial plight. His brown fingers are covered in blisters – blisters that do not have time to mend, for they break again.
And how precious is time, really, to the man who works overtime? The hours, days, weeks and months blend together. The routine of his ordinariness makes life a blur, and time a substance which cannot be tamed within clocks. The passage of time, as viewed by the man who works overtime, is relentless and unforgiving. It pushes, it laughs and it taunts those who have not mastered the art of time-saving or time-wasting. The result of which leaves the victim powerless, very much like a mouse caught in a trap.
His wife, known in the estate block as the tremendously kind and gifted seamstress, possessed hands that bled and tore when she pushed the needle through various fabrics. Their son may be the only one who possesses perfectly moulded hands. This stark difference in the family is made clear during daylight, when the iridescent light shows one pair of hands that exudes youth and vitality, whilst the other pair expresses hardship and great sadness. This sadness gradually metastasizes throughout the body until it has touched every crevice, conquering it for its own. This will soon enough be the truth which the young boy will live. He has glimpsed parts of his future life through his parents, and tasted it, repulsed by it but accepted it. His acceptance was not of a desire to fill the role, but of respect and admiration of his parents’ courage. With the foreknowledge that it will soon enough be his turn to encounter the world, does it make his story even more tragic, or all the more heroic?
His parents, who live a few doors down, however are relieved from their working days, and are now in retirement. However, we mustn’t cast these poor elderly folk aside and paint them as selfish, good-for-nothings who lounge on benefits whilst watching daytime television. No, they are mending their hands and feet which are covered in blisters and scars alike, that continue to cause pain and anguish. This bodily pain often tends to be the cause of prolonged severe health deficits. Therefore, it is just to say that amongst the elder generation, the weight of their plight is equally felt as with the likes of those who work still overtime.
Here, I would like to pause to give a passing comment. It is important to note that this is a family who indeed is struggling, but they are not the paradigm of aching souls who have found themselves thwarted by (what feels like a fixed system of) meritocracy. In fact, they are a rivulet in a stream, an instance of a tragic widely felt and experienced reality whose hands begin to shed apart.
Wondrous as biology is, the platelets are not enough to stop blood flowing from their hands, the reason belonging to the excruciating demands of modern life. The media and their glossy magazines that sell plastic smiles, aren’t enough to convince the ordinary people of Hackney that modern society is life-affirming. It is too often than not that these ordinary souls, these collections of cells who drift in and out of their dreams, discover how life-denying modernity can be. It is important to acknowledge that they are not working out of vain, but of necessity. They are people in bundles who dream and who still perserve their hopes and dreams.
Now, whilst the skin of their hands break, and will inevitably be severed continuously until they draw their last breath, there is perhaps an optimistic side to view the carnage that the word ‘break’ elucidates.
Namely, it is this: once the broken family all sit around their broken table, nothing can stop their lips from breaking into a grin when they see the familiar faces. The grin then transforms into a beaming smile that radiates their expression, big, small, old and young. And then, in the evening which is covered in moonlight, you can see the countless breaks in their faces, albeit wrinkles, and scars, and smiles. Similar to how the ice from mountains eventually cast downwards to sea below, the breakage does not remove the beauty of the Alps. Instead, at that moment of natural cleavage, we witness the majesty of nature to its fullest and its most beautiful, regardless of the inevitable collapse of ice. No matter how much their skin breaks, the wounds heals and it builds new. This is what is understood but unspoken in the neighborhoods of the men who work overtime. It is what the seamstress is thinking when she is tending to her husband’s downtrodden hands, as she applies antiseptic cream and bandages.
Lovingly, she begins to talk to her family and upon hearing these words of comfort, they all gleam with pride and happiness: “The universe may be grand and chaotic. The chaos may often seep into our lives, making us feel that we are spiralling out of control. But it is important to bear in mind that we are still in control, no matter how tumultuous we feel inside and how we may see outside as a frenzied mess. In the end, we can go from chaos to order, and it is an order which we control”. Control. Control. Control.
She finishes tying the bandage and the then resealed the antiseptic cream, which is now reopened by the man who works overtime to use on the seamstress. And it is at this moment where an important lesson about the human condition is revealed.