I wake to the sound of the great bell. Four thirty. Half an hour to make my way to the factory. Quiet like a thief, I creep through the house. Old habit means Mum and Dad can't sleep through the bell any more than I can, but waking up slowly is one of their few luxuries, so I let them have it and braid my hair in silence, pinning the black coil to my head. I could do this in my sleep. My hands move like clockwork while my brain still drifts in a starry half-dream. Hair goes under a net to keep it from tangling in the machines. Some of the girls used to be vain and go without, but ever since that poor girl... ugh. Everyone wears them now. Hurry, Millie. Time to go. It's still dark outside. My breath makes ragged clouds against the black. Goose pimples prickle my skin, but I'll be roasting hot soon so I don't button my cloak.
Other girls walk the path, sleep-numb but friendly. We make our way without much chatter. More join us, stumbling across farm fields in singles and pairs, spilling in clusters from the boarding houses on the edge of town. The road is crowded when we arrive at the textile factory, the engine that powers the town of Weft.
The bell clangs again. We file in, ghostly quiet, taking our places on the factory floor as the kerosene lamps are lit. I work in the weaving room, standing before one of five hundred power looms. We are a hall of mirrors, five hundred white-threaded looms worked by five hundred girls in brown pinafores. Water is sprayed hourly to keep the threads soft so they won't snap. Droplets catch in my eyelashes, trickle down the curve of my back. The hair at my temples is already turning to fuzz. In the last quiet moment I stuff my ears with cotton wool.
The factory roars itself awake. The sound of it used to stop my heart, especially before I figured out the cotton trick. Gears whirl and drive shafts pound, sending the shuttles clattering back and forth. Threads move at terrific speeds, coming together in neat white rolls under our hands. I snip, pull, knot, repeat. We move with our looms, as much a part of the machine as any gear or lever. Two hours pass like this. At seven we come to life over bowls of porridge and strong black tea as the first thin rays of daylight pierce the dusty air. At noon we eat dark bread and pea soup. We'll work another six hours until the bell tolls end of day. By evening most girls are glassy-eyed, and the littlest ones are wavering on their feet, but the machines don't slow and neither do we. The threads keep coming.
The sound of my...