THE FIGHT HAPPENED suddenly as they do, late in the night when tempers are frayed; the fight happened at an hour when one should be in bed, in the arms of a women, or bent over wretched, by the gutter vomiting up your accounts. The fight happened because Ivan was a cunt, to a man, the bakers said so:
– Ivan’s a cunt
– He’s a cunt
– Ivan is a cunt, a cunt he is. They would curse him while the world slept and while they baked bread at that bakery that Ivan was at all the times reminding them of.
-The finest bakery in the city. As if that was a condolence, a remedy to our general misery, a misery that was never discussed, never voiced, or spoken. And as if, being the finest bakery in town, made our lot a lesser evil than those other dissatisfied bakers, baking second rate bread, with shit-house flour, unnatural starters, poor ovens, and customers that one should be ashamed of. Ivan’s rational. Ivan’s point of argument. Ivan’s encouragement for all of us staying, and cherishing the job at hand, the job here and now, that would unfold, and we would embrace most wholeheartedly.
Still it wasn’t a profanity, or the honour of our bakery, that set the bull running. No, it didn’t take much, just a baker that we generally agreed was the dimmest of us all, a very large and awkward Pole who was considered so far beneath the other bakers that he didn’t warrant slander or ridicule. At best, he played the part of a holy fool. Piotr was his name, he worked diligently, and without complaint, he would shoulder the most hateful task, he would sweep, and man the big hot oven in the summer time, in the winter he’d help the bakers and load the van, all the time working silently, stooped over muttering to himself, his sleeves rolled up despite the weather, here and there with burn marks like poxes up and down their length. There was something pitiful about him, something in his nature, though no one made a victim of him. At least that was how it seemed. At times I wondered if he had suffered some misfortune to reduce him to this downtrodden state, spiritless like a beast of burden. For a long time I had concluded, incorrectly I might add, that he had long since ceased to think about life. Piotr was nothing less than an idiot, quite the most impossible person to assume the role of agent provocateur: at this the ‘most finest bakery in town’.
Ivan appeared on the landing outside his office, fat hands on the steel rail at precisely 10 PM. The bakers were assembled and in their uniforms. Ivan dressed in the tweed coat he was given to wearing and he began to talk at the bakers. The details were largely irrelevant, they belonged to a man with little learning or education, bits and pieces picked up from self-help manuals, motivational texts, guides to fortune, success, leadership, management, his own education. For all his posturing, it was plain to see a certain meanness, that employers are given to viewing as beneficial and noteworthy, a kind of hardness of spirit, and determination, that may not do a job well, but will see it none-the-less. A countenance that Ivan, with all his indoctrination, remained peacefully oblivious to, with his coat, his manicured beard, trimmed hair, and physiology, that, whilst remaining large, imposing, portly, might just as soon have also slipped out of lycra at the gym, like a bratwurst or very large, and firmly, stuffed continental sausage.
Had he not been a baker, he would have made it as a gaoler, a policemen, a bouncer, perhaps a food health and safety inspector. Some little enforcer that people shied away from. He would never once have fed the pigeons in the park. No, such a miserable soul that was Piotr, the kind of man he’d loath all the more violently for the opportunities they squandered, the bakery, the city, the chances that had been all together lost on his father, his grandfather, his brothers and sisters, and dumb animals like Piotr.
With the speech concluded the next task was to move to our stations. The mixer, the shaper, the ovens, the proofing room, the packers: everyone had a task at their station. Ivan would make his way into the office., pausing to watch us all following his orders. Into the office, into the office and through the rabbit hole with a spring in his step. 10 years it took of you, working nights, that was what they said 10 years it took of you, living like this, and he had the nerve to step into that dungy room as if in celebration. 10 years and a working life of sleepless nights. And then he was gone from site. And each and every last one of us was eager to get working. My allotted place, as Ivan’s second, was to man the mixer, and mix each and every dough. An honourable job, a skilful job, one that took into account weights and measures, the effect of temperature, time, and rhythm. Mine was a job that Ivan liked to remind me would foretell that one day, perhaps soon, I’d end up just like him. The head of a bakery, the head baker.
Ivan was given to keeping us waiting. It was a cat and mouse game. And sooner or later he’d appear with the production sheets (and precise measurements) or else something would give, the pressure of stares and muttering would reach breaking point and I’d go looking for the sheets and force Ivan’s hand. And the night of the fight was one of those nights, a sign that Ivan was in a foul mood and all the bakers were restless, eager to get started and be done with the day. I found him still at his desk. I found him wearing the tweed coat. He had his laptop open… a motivation speaker on Youtube (by the sound of his accent an American). With a short click of his fingers, and a dismissive air he pointed to a laser printer where the mixing and scaling sheet waited in the tray.
-Start the scaling. I’ll be down shortly.
I walked to the mixer and plonked the sheet on a stainless steel bench and read with surprise.
– You dress for the job you want.
– Losers live in the past. Winners learn from the past and enjoy working in the present toward the future.
– Procrastination is the bad habit of putting off until the day after tomorrow what should have been done the day before yesterday.
The usual shit that Ivan would impose upon the staff. I stood staring and very suddenly I was interrupted, someone was standing over my shoulder, so close that I could feel their physical weight upon me. It was Piotr with something in his eyes, something new, a mystery. A madness I had failed to note? Hysteria? Was he ill? As the events unfolded, and with the benefit of hindsight, I can’t help but conclude that something wasn’t right: a fever of the brain.
Firstly Piotr picked up the sheets from the bench – with a long, thin and flat grin. And then he laughed. He laughed and laughed. And Ivan in his whites appeared at the top of the stairs. Piotr’s laughter had the effect of a collision. Everyone stopped. It wasn’t that people never laughed, rather they never laughed with abandonment, they laughed in a dutiful and regulated manner, they laughed as part of the crowd. Piotr’s laughter came from somewhere else. Ivan made his way towards us, I grabbed the sheet from Piotr (who was still laughing) and Ivan reached, pulled and with a jerk took the sheet straight from my hands. I couldn’t suppress a smile.
-Are you laughing at me, are you laughing at me, barked the angry Ivan. Piotr pointing frantically, and smiling madly, indicating the paper in Ivan’s hands – there was an insolence in his eyes, an insolence and an eagerness to point to the sheet. And his laughing continued unabated. Ivan’s face turned red, there was a trace of violence in his eyes and this time he roared… and now each and every one of us, even the wise who continued to work, stopped, to a man.
-Don’t mock me, nobody mocks me. Don’t play games, you don’t know what you’re doing,
pointing and driving his finger into the other man’s chest.
-Retweet, Piotr barked. I blinked not certain what the Pole was saying. Was it some Polish vulgarity? Kurwa perhaps, I didn’t sound like that.
-Pardon, Ivan asked coldly.
-Retweet. I said Retweet. And amongst the bakers myself included there was now a very awkward silence, a shuffling of the feet, and lowering of the eyes, a mixture of curiosity, fear, and aversion.
-Is this some kind of a joke? Do you think you are here to joke? No one pays you to joke? You’re not a clown.
-Ha, ha, ha… Piotr barked in return. Ha, ha, ha. Retweet. You see retweet!!! So stupid only idiots retweet! And you ask if I am the joker… ha, ha, ha. And you ask if I am the clown!! Retweet. Retweet. Retweet.
By now there was some confusion. Two words were floating around retard & retweet as some of the bakers began to murmur. Generally insults were reserved for the mother tongue… Polish… French… Russian… Arabic or Slovakian. It rarely happened: insults in English.
-Ty che, blyad!
– أبو قرع أبو قرع
The beauty of the bakery. The language. The theatre. Working in the middle of a city where nobody came from and no one belonged. We were only at truly at home by the ovens, and the bread, in the early hours of the dawn, learning to curse each other in a thousand tongues.
-Retweet! Piotr continues without letting up. And then it happened, the first ripple of laughter. Ivan advanced and losing himself grabbed the Pole by his collar and flung the larger man still laughing to the floor. Ahmed a Frenchmen moved a step closer. His real name was long forgotten: a Caribbean convert, the largest man in the bakery. You could see from his calm countenance and ready eyes that should the need arise he would intervene. I looked outside for a moment. Into the night time and into the darkness. Another world were people slept, partied, rested, made love, where people did what they do when they are home and the day is spent. The bakery felt like a prison. The world outside, with the cold, and the ice, and the darkness was one step closer to freedom. And in the night at time we lived by our own laws.
– Did you call me me a retard! Now half the bakers were in an uproar, hooting and roaring with laughter. There was a danger that Ivan might lose a handle, that he might lose complete and utter control. The words retard and retweet circling around like a storm in a tea cup… And Piotr answered.
– I wouldn’t say such a thing. I called you a retweet.
And the head baker looked back at the Pole his eyes violent and angry.
– What the hell is a retweet?
– You’re a stupid with shit on paper like that. A retweet like social media. For people with twitter accounts. And retweeting, sending on another man’s message. A person that repeats. A person without an original idea. A person like you… you retweet.
– Are you mocking? he replied.
-No I’m not mocking you. The Pole remarked.
-But you’ve called me a retweet…
-But that’s not mockery, it on the paper in your hands.
-Don’t mock. Don’t smile. Say nothing. You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, you don’t know what you’re doing to me. People don’t do this to me. People don’t do stuff like this. I don’t play games. You hear. I don’t play games. Ivan concluded.
-You don’t play game…. You’re retweeting. You are demonstrate complete and utter death of imagination. It’s a lazy way. It’s a lazy way.
And the head baker turned his body in an oppressive manner and signalled the pole to follow him so two could take there altercation somewhere else. The head baker could beat the shit out of the Pole away from the crowd, the Pole would know once and for all that the head baker wasn’t a retweet.
And the Pole didn’t move. He wiped the flour from his hands on his overalls. His hands with nothing to hide.
-With this shit, this machine of shit and propaganda there is no end in sight to the lies. We switch off from life, and tune into some shit removed from life…
And everyone paused as the Pole started to tremble. Even Ivan, head baker, took a step back. There was a mania and violence now in the eyes of the Pole. And still he continued.
-Even the elderly act like juveniles. With every last fucking soul posting, and tweeting, and retweeting, and sharing, and liking… and giving the thumbs up… everyone has become a fucking retweet. It’s not just you. It big disease like HIV. I apologise for calling you a retweet you are not exceptional. And the Pole began to shudder, the big Frenchmen Ahmed took one step closer. And the Pole continued as if possessed.
-No I have responded most forcefully to the fact that you are a kind of dog to this state… to the dirt and sadness that binds the worker to the worker. To the loss of shared purpose, to the loss of solidarity, to the abandonment of anything but the gain of the individual. Retweeting, self, goals.
I looked outside for a minute. Into the nighttime and the darkness. Another world where people slept, and partied, and rested. Yes, the bakery felt like a prison. Sometimes the whole world felt like a prison. There was a gasp and I looked back and Piotr arched back and started thrashing, and trembling, like a fish pulled from the sea, hook, line, and sinker. And no one laughed, and the head baker looked troubled. Ivan reaching forward and grabbed the Pole, and the Frenchmen helped him, and the Pole lashed and kicked, and kicked and lashed more and more violently. And someone cried.
-Oh! he shall choke on his tongue. And without thinking Ivan forced his very large fingers into his mouth and pressed his tongue down. And the same person cried.
-Oh you shall lose your fingers, the same person cried like a fool crying out from the shore to a sailor high on the sea,
– you shall lose your fingers. And the Pole began to calm, and Ivan cried for water. And the Pole stopped and now stared at Ivan smiling.
-We’ve been dreading tomorrow… and today will pass, and we will dread tomorrow again and still we will come back for more. And Ivan nodded and something passed between them. And we all fell quiet. I was sure at that very moment none of us liked the world, none of us liked it one bit. And midnight was approaching, and there bread to bake, bread that was life, and life would go on.