Genre: Middle Grade, contemporary
Title: The Journey
Blistered fingers hesitated before passing an ID card to the security guard, vigilant at the entrance of the Lucky Foot Shoe Factory. “Wu Li Juan,” he read aloud, teasing out the words. He peered more closely at the card and then tried to catch the girl’s cast down eyes with his enquiring ones. She blushed and dipped her head, letting wings of black hair fold around her cheeks.
The guard squinted behind the lenses of his spectacles, as if to x-ray through the shield of hair hiding her face. He looked again at the face on the card.
“You’re prettier than this photo.”
Her head lowered further.
He laughed. Not unkindly.
“Go!” he gestured, as he swiped the ID. “Have a nice day, Miss Wu.”
She scuttled past him, retrieving the card and pressing it into her palm so tightly that a half-healed blister popped open. Wincing, she passed through the turnstile. A few steps forward and she hesitated.
“Go on, Mei Lin. Move!” hissed a voice, and Mei Lin spun to see her colleague Qing Ling angling towards her from another security checkpoint. The older girl nudged Mei Lin towards the doors. Mei Lin risked a swift look over her shoulder at the guard. He seemed still to be focused on her.
“Shhhh! He’ll hear you,” begged Mei Lin. “Don’t call me that!”
“Oh, come on! You’re fooling no one with that stupid ID. Why did you go in his line? I keep telling you to go to the old guy who always forgets his specs. Now stop dawdling…”
Just as the pair pushed against the door leading into the factory, Mei Lin heard a yell.
“Ms Wu! Wait!”
The guard! With panicked eyes, she turned to Qing Ling. The older girl grimaced. She grabbed the younger girl’s clammy hand and squeezed. Mei Lin didn’t notice the pain.
In ten swift, tile-clicking steps, the guard reached the two girls. The four other guards at the entrance had halted their own lines to look curiously in his direction. At the far desk, the shift supervisor stood up, ready to move to assist.
A casual wave of their young colleague’s hand told them no back-up was needed. Loudly, “You dropped your ID, young lady!” The supervisor sat back down.
Mei Lin glanced downwards. Her card was still in her hand. Blocking curious eyes with his body, the guard pretended to pass her something. “There you go!” Again, in a voice that carried: “You don’t want to be losing that!”
Then, in a whisper that only the two girls could hear, “I’ll get you a better ID. That one will get you kicked out of here if the Super sees it. Looks nothing like you.”
He turned and marched back to his post. The girls gaped at each other, but Qing Ling recovered first and pushed her friend through the doorway.
“What was that?” she demanded. “Is he sweet on you?”
Mei Lin blushed. “Don’t be ridiculous. He’s at least eighteen. I’m only thirteen. I don’t think he’d notice me!”
Qing Ling smirked. “Yes, but your ID says you’re sixteen. And actually, I bet he’s only sixteen too. I reckon he used fake ID to get the job and that’s why he says he can get you a better one.”
The younger girl pondered this as they were swept up by a swarm of other girls coming through the doors, chattering wildly, trying to get all their words and emotions out before hours of silence descended on the factory floor.
The two girls moved forward, Qing Ling confident, Mei Lin with reluctant feet. It would be a long twelve hours before they walked in the other direction again. She wished Qing Ling would be more careful about using her real name; she might give the game away sooner than the ID card she’d bought from a friend of a friend.
Not that it was a game. This job was the chance to escape hardship and poverty. She was due her first month’s salary next week. Qing Ling had laughed and said she’d be lucky if the boss gave her a quarter of that. “He’ll keep it all till you’ve been here a year. In any case, the agent will take most of it to pay your debt.”
But whatever money eventually came to her, she knew her parents would be grateful. Hundreds of miles away in Hebei Province, they laboured hard on their small plot of land to grow crops of peanuts.
Mei Lin sighed at the memory of boiled peanuts, imagining them cracking between her teeth, releasing their sweet and salty braise. Oh, how she missed the aroma of cloves and cinnamon and star anise, stewing for hours in a pot, with her grandmother possessively tending the dish. “Don’t interfere,” she’d scold Mei Lin’s mother. “You always put too much soy sauce.”
Her granddaughter’s mouth watered at that moment with longing. Her stomach grumbled. She’d had her usual breakfast of congee in the dormitory canteen. The portions were miserly; the congee runny.
Mei Lin shook off her reverie and side-by-side with Qing Ling, she trudged to the changing room. She was always taken aback by the crowded mass of women and girls. She would never get to know all their names.
Like her, they donned pink overcoats and yellow aprons, and tugged yellow paper booties on to their feet, until the room resembled a vast cage of chirping lovebirds. She tumbled her long hair into a net, perched her yellow cap on her head, scrubbed her hands, checked her nails… Hmmm, perhaps a little longer than regulation allowed. And a couple were broken. She’d have to trim them tonight. If she had the energy. After a twelve-hour shift, she had no stamina to gossip with the other girls in the dormitory before lights out at 9pm.
Five minutes later she was sitting down, one of thousands of yellow-hatted, black-haired heads bowing to their workstations. For the first hour or two there would be banter and a little stifled laughter, as long as the floor supervisor was in a different section. After that, the voices dried up, and really, what was there to talk about?
From her perch on her hard stool, Mei Lin could see Qing Ling a few workers away. Occasionally they would smile at each other, feeling a camaraderie that came from long hours and aching bodies. She couldn’t call her a friend. She wasn’t even sure they liked each other. But they knew each other from childhood and that counted for something in this foreign place.
Around her, Shu, Yueyue, Xiao Dan and Xiao Feng buckled down to their tasks. Like her, they were young and had small and nimble fingers. The task of threading laces through eyelets was gifted to them.
“At least you still have all your fingers,” whispered Yueyue, as Mei Lin cried herself to sleep during the first two weeks in the dormitory of Lucky Foot Shoe Factory. “My friend in the cutting room isn’t so lucky.” With a flair for drama, she mimed slicing off a digit. “Now she’s good for nothing. Got sent back home in disgrace. Be grateful for pain in ten fingers instead of nine,” she comforted.
Somehow the memory made her flinch. Mei Lin’s fingers fumbled with the boot. She couldn’t say how it happened… she was always so careful… but a jagged nail scraped across the polished leather. She froze in horror.