Shelter at work

The four women sat at the factory bench every day: Rose, Ethel, Betty and Ivy. They were all what the dress advertisements call mature ladies, approaching fifty, clinging to forty. Rose had never married, Ethel had a husband but no children; her passionate maternal longings smouldered in her breast and gave her tongue a thousand stings. Side by side of the bench, Betty and Ivy had live in total friendship for forty years. They always did the identical amount of work and earned, to a penny, the same money. Ivy was forewoman of the group, and had learned a wisdom in peacemaking that few statesman possess.

The factory room was smelly, dusty and ugly; the work, (checking daily many thousands of printed cards for possible flaws) was called "sheeting" and was infinitely monotonous. The ladies were "on piece- work." They had done this same job since they left school at fourteen and were proud that only they, in the roomful of sixty people, could twinkle through four hundred thousand cards in the eight hours and infallibly snatch out and cast aside the occasional smudged or crooked line of print. The bench was their clubroom, their gossip-shop, their tea-parlor. Only once did honesy Ivy say, "We do this job because we can't do any other."

And when they paused for a break they raised their eyes and looked out upon a scene of peaceful beauty. A broad canal dotted with boats stretched on the horizon, half-veiled by trees, and near at hand a tiny river emerged from a bank of rushes and flowed gently to its union with the canal waters. It was serene, friendly, and a paradise for animals. Moorhens bobbed their white tails amongst the weeds, water voles broke the surface with round brown heads, and every year a pair of swans nested out of sight around a curve in the stream.

It was an annual moment of rejoicing for the four sheeters when the parent birds first brought they cygnets downstream to feed in the canal. Ethel would usually spot them first, and jump to her feet, crying, "Look, Betty! They've done well this year. One, two, three, yes, four, five, six! Aren't they a sight?" Twice a day the happy pageant broke the monotony of the working hours: first the small, gleaming white mother-swan, then the six brown bundles of life darting to and fro in her wake, and finally the majestic father, watching for possible enemies, cleaving the water with powerful feet and scooping up the waterweed with his glistening bill. When he turned aside, the quicksilver bundles followed, scattering and squeaking with joy in the sunshine as he showed them the bright green weed. And so they drifted past the factory windows, fifteen minutes of perfect, heart-warming entertainment.

But one morning the June thunderclouds were lowering heavily, when, at eleven o'clock, the cavalcade came into view. "They'll have a wet picnic this morning, " said Ivy, a little anxiously. "Well, they're waterbirds, wet can't harm them, " hazarded Betty. "I think it does," said Ethel, "my husband told me once the littl'uns haven't enough oil on their feathers to keep them afloat if they get real wet. If they get waterlogged, they've had it."

Apprehensive the women glanced down at their work and up at the little family on the river. For five minutes the cygnets dawdled to and fro. Now they were half-way down the visible fifty yards of water. A few drops fell; the thunder rumbled; and suddenly the clouds opened and poured down their deluge. Agitation seized the sheeters. They could see that the banks were too steep for the babies to climb, the nest too far back for them to paddle safely home. "They'll drown, poor little mites," cried Ivy in a voice of anguish.

But swans and thunderstorms have lived long together. On the far bank of the stream a curtain of weeping willows dangled its boughs into the water. Into that cover the mother swam and the imperious father drove their young. As sheets of hissing water fell father paraded up and down, chasing relentlessly back into shelter any little brown tenant that poked its beak out from under the green leaves. The storm spent its fury, the sun came out, and one by one the babies emerged and tried to resume their journey toward nice things to eat in the canal. But father was having none of it. For the first and only time, he headed them straight back to the nest, towards which their Mum was already placidly paddling. You could almost hear the parents saying, "You're too wet, my dears. Never mind, we'll have a good feed near home."

The sheeters watched them out of sight, their eyes full of maternal love. "They've got some sense, them birds," said Ivy. "Now, that's the end of that load of cards, let's start the next two hundred thousand."

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