Ethel Smidgen sat at the kitchen table, stirring her tea, thinking of her Tom. Dead ten years to the day. Old Tom. Drownded in a gin vat at the Gibson's Gin factory on Splutter Street. They'd fished him out with long brooms, his friends, his co-workers, his comrades in perdition, and carried him abroad their sloping shoulders, and laid him upon the factory floor. Ethel held her position on the bottling line whilst others deserted their posts, desperate to see what all the fuss was about.
But she knew. She'd seen it on their faces on their return, Tom's name whispered in dispatches. And she felt it in her heart. A heart that'd been broken too many times. But no one wanted to tell her. Not Ethel. Our Ethel.
And so it befell Mr. Gibson, great grandson of the original Mr. Gibson, to break the news to dear Ethel. He'd come down to the factory floor in person. Have to give him credit for that, they'd said. First time a Gibson's been down here, they'd said. And he asked Ethel if she would accompany him to his office. Ethel Smidgen? Going upstairs? Not bleedin’ likely. She knew her place, and her place was here, amongst the dirt and the grime, and the clanking of the bottling machines.
Poor Mr. Gibson. What was he to do? He pleaded. He begged. He made a move to put a comforting hand towards her. And behind him, behind Mr Gibson, Ethel's eyes lit upon the sight of Tom's dripping body being palletted across the factory floor on a forklift truck. Mr Gibson caught her as she fell. The first time she'd deserted her post on the bottling line since nineteen-fifty-one.
Tears ran cold down her face, into the teacup. Ethel left the table and pulled back the blind over the sink. The anguished scream of a fox broke the silence and the dark, shattering the eerie calm of this ungodly hour of the morning.
She went upstairs for a bath, slowly, mechanically. Time to get ready for work.
For the last time.
It was the end, see, for Gibson's Gin. The factory was to close its gates for the final time. The end of an era, some said. For others, like Ethel, the end of everything.
And across town, in a four-bedroomed detached house on Cholmondley Avenue, Mr Gibson stared at the life-sized portrait of his grandfather on the study wall. The kids were asleep upstairs. His wife sipped tea in their king-sized double bed, alone with her indifference. He poured himself another sherry.
As the sun rose, Ethel cycled shakily through the factory gates, chained up her bicycle in the bicycle shed and found her place on the line. The other workers, like shadows, came in after her, and took their positions.