Middleton Factory was the largest factory in the town of Claxton. It had been family owned for almost a century, and currently employed more than two hundred workers. Most of them were unmarried immigrant women, whose ages ranged from 14 to the ripe old age of 32.
The factory made overalls, once known as slops, for working class men. Row after row of women sat at sewing machines and in assembly line fashion, produced more than a thousand garments a day.
Although these women worked ten hours a day, six days a week for a mere pittance, they were grateful to have the job. Middleton Factory was different from most. The women weren’t required to buy their own needles and thread, and they weren’t charged to rent the machines from the owner.
Willowdean Prescott had now joined the others as a proud employee of The Middleton Factory. On Monday afternoon, her first day, she smiled as she walked the three blocks to work, down the dark streets which were only sporadically illuminated by gas lanterns. Her shift began several hours after the workers had gone home, and would end just before they returned the next day.
She climbed the eight flights of stairs and entered the room. Its enormity almost took her breath away. Never in her life had she seen a room that big, and she was just beginning to understand the gravity of her task. There was lint and thread strewn all over the floor as far as she could see, and waste baskets were overflowing with bits of fabric that were too small to save.
Mr. Digby met her at the door, and showed her the closet where the cleaning supplies were kept. She learned when applying for the job that he was not one to indulge in idle chatter. Without another word he left, locking the door behind him. It was customary to lock the workers in the building then, just as it was customary to search them as they were leaving. At every station, a sign prohibiting speaking, considered to be nothing more than gossip, was posted with the stern warning of a monetary penalty for each uttered word.
As she began to work, she quietly hummed Christmas carols to pass the time. It wasn’t that time of year but it had been her mothers’ favorite holiday, and she remembered how she used to start singing, sometimes as early as October.
Last year, Santa had somehow managed to leave the boys a shiny new penny. Already thinking ahead, she thought that maybe this year there might be enough money for a real present.
Several hours went by and as she was dusting the sewing machines, she was startled when she looked up and saw a smartly dressed man walking through the middle of the room. She hadn’t heard him come in, but the room was large and from where she stood, the door was quite a distance from her.
Frozen, she was embarrassed when she found herself staring. She had been taught that it was impolite to stare but he was devilishly fetching, and had caught her completely off guard. His crisp black linen suit, complimented by a bright red bow tie, had not a wrinkle in it, other than the perfectly sharp creases in the center of each pant leg.
His face was flawless and his full lips were accented by a pencil thin mustache. He had jet black hair, parted down the middle, and piercing blue eyes. He looked like a man who was in love, but not in love with a woman. More like in love with a place or a time.
He hadn’t noticed her. It was possible that he hadn’t expected her to be there, and she simply blended into the background. She hadn’t caught his eye, but he had surely caught hers. She watched in silence as he glanced at the time from a gold watch he retrieved from his vest pocket. There didn’t seem to be any urgency in his stride as he made his way through the huge room, and he slowly disappeared into the dark hallway that led to the office.
He appeared to be around her age, and her first thought was that he must be the owners’ son. She gave him no further attention after her first awkward stares and paralyzing gazes. She was there to work, not to question his presence. Owners’ and their sons’ could come and go as they pleased, and they certainly did not require her by-your-leave.
Hours slipped by as she busied herself with her duties. She had worked through the night and as the sun began to rise, she knew it was near the end of her shift. She had swept the floor, gathering broken needles, what appeared to be a few broken fingernails, and left no trace of dust or thread which would be cause for criticism from Mr. Digby, or a monetary penalty from the owner.
Her last task was mopping the wide plank wooden floors to try to bring back some semblance of shine. There would be ample time for the floor to dry before the daytime workers arrived. Thinking she had finished and making her way around the floor, she gasped when she noticed a large, dark stain beside one of the machines.
“Goodness,” she thought to herself. “I wonder what caused this, and in how in the world did I miss it?” Trying not to panic, she rushed back to the closet to get the floor brush and started scrubbing. She was relieved when it seemed to disappear with very little effort.
She returned the brush to the closet, and although she was tired, felt a great sense of accomplishment. Mr. Digby arrived, unlocked the door and walked by with a simple nod and as expected, never said a word.
As she began the long walk down the stairs, her mind momentarily went back to the fetching gentleman. She hadn’t noticed him leave. Had he had quietly slipped out while she was scrubbing the stain, or was he still there?
To be continued__________________