[Editors note: In the wish factory is best viewed on the web/desktop in order to fully appreciate author’s original textual formatting]
The caretaker sees the world through its wishes; he feels the passage of time this way, he hears the people’s pain, he smells the glacial pace of change. He will know it’s January when they start wishing, fervently, for fresh starts, a cheap gym membership, a new and improved self to last them the year; February, when they pray for an evening of love; September, when they plead for the sunshine to last just a little longer; December, when the Christmas lists appear: snow, a Playstation, sixteen pairs of socks and a bar of lavender soap, a turkey that’s not overcooked this time, no tantrums or smashed dinner plates or slammed doors, please, the love of the person who sleeps in the other half of the bed.
The seasons of the outside filter into the factory, and so do the rolling hours of the day. Overnight, the wishes are for the nightshift to end,
for the baby to stop crying,
for counting sheep to actually work for once.
By morning, they wish for just five more minutes,
for a traffic-free drive,
for a seat on the 7:36 train,
for the Pret queue to move faster.
Then they wish for the workday to end,
for their boss to accidentally trip, break their nose, learn to write a non passive-aggressive email,
for the school to cease to exist (an enormous explosion, a meteor strike, a sinkhole, anything will do),
for just a moment of peace before anybody else gets home.
By the time they begin to wish for sleep,
for no more nightmares or
wet sheets or
midnight calls from an ex or
the office or
a teenage daughter still out with friends,
the caretaker knows it is almost time for the reset, when a new day begins, and the same routine of wishes will return again.
This is his window to the world. The other windows, the real ones, are shuttered, the door barred, triple-padlocked. No one has been inside the factory, apart from the caretaker, who never leaves. He might be the only person to know it exists. From the outside, it’s just another nondescript, crumbling warehouse, abandoned for as long as living memory, bearing the graffiti tags of multiple generations (Aaron was here, the witch is dead, fuck the police). The battered walls seem to wince every time beer bottles are smashed against them, cowering away from the commercial developers and the petitions for demolition, crouched in a sprawling industrial estate just outside the motorised roar of the M25.
Inside, the place is mostly peaceful. In the good times, the factory hums, with the sound of innocence and optimism, a mother’s lullaby, a song whistled absentmindedly in the shower. In the bad times, the sound swells to a rumbling growl, then a wail, the protesters’ chant, an animal cry of pain, a guttural vibration, as something that cannot easily be explained, much less repaired, shatters.
The wishes are collected from the local area, the nearest towns, a few scattered villages, and come rolling in on a conveyor belt, packaged the same, regardless of who wished the wish, how they wished the wish (melting candles on a birthday cake, a snapped wishbone, a stray eyelash), and whether they wanted the wish to be heard. They rattle along, sometimes hopefully, sometimes sleepily, because thousands of others have already wished for Man City to win, and they won’t, not today. One by one, they are sorted: the lottery wishes gathered together, the wishes for a promotion before Rob gets his, for more money, a bulging bank account, a new car with a walnut dashboard and leather trimming, the wishes for fame, Instagram followers and a retweet from Phoebe Waller-Bridge (celebrity, demi-god, universal best friend – the caretaker still has not worked that one out).
The bundles of common wishes are tipped into the processing machine, which whirs, snores, shivers a little. They emerge from one of two taps: the wishes that will come true, and those that won’t. From the right tap, the wishes are bottled up, labelled, stored in rack after rack of other wishes that have already come true. They glitter for a while, then the dust gathers and they are forgotten. The conditions attached to the wishes are forgotten too:
I’ll never wish for anything ever again, ever ever ever
I’ll be happy forever
This is it; this is all I’ll ever need
(They’ll make another wish within hours, this time for the kettle to boil quicker, for the headache to go away, for the car not to run out of petrol before they get home; they’ll be unhappy by Tuesday, because it’s raining or the bus is late or they cracked their phone screen and it’ll cost them north of £100, capitalism, pure greed; that man will be all she will ever need, until he disappears with his secretary, not even a note, and there are bills to pay and children to feed and a lifestyle to fund.)
From the left tap, the others, the ones that won’t come true, are spat out and discarded in a vat of other abandoned wishes, which might appear again in a few minutes’ time, next week, eternally. They are boiled down, and the specifics of each wish – the god to whom they are addressed, the negotiating, (ten years of my life for her to survive the night; every last penny in my bank account for a baby; my own happiness in exchange for his), the blistering desperation – are dissolved.
The fumes of unused, unrealised wishes will be belched into the atmosphere, and those fumes will be inhaled, will be absorbed through their skin, will skitter into their bloodstream, feeding the wishes that have not yet formed and have not yet been considered or thought or spoken aloud, but will soon grow, fattening, like a pregnant belly, into something that might exist unbound to the person who wished it in the first place.
The place is polluted with hope.
They keep wishing, even when their wishes are denied, and those broken-down wish parts are expelled in throaty, jaded burps. In the beginning, the caretaker believed the wish factory to be the perfect democracy, where every voice was heard, every packaged wish trundling along the same stretch of conveyor belt, to the same processing machine. Just add water, sixty seconds on high power, a quick stir.
The caretaker knows now, after long days of observation, that that is not the case. He still does not know what happens inside the gurgling gut of the machine, but they go in the same, and they come out different. Certain voices – the ones speaking in broken English, the excluded, the lonely, the poor – always come out of the left tap. The other, dominant voices – those that would rub the lamp and demand infinite wishes, those with a whole shelf of bottled wishes of their own, indistinguishable and grimy after years of convenient amnesia, those who wish for new things, new people, new women, and then go out and buy them – will always come out of the right tap.
The caretaker sleeps underneath the processing machine on a bare mattress because it sounds like a purr to him now, the wheezing snore of a sleeping baby. But when he cannot sleep, when the taps will not stop gushing, he will shake out his pillow, straighten the blankets, walk the length of the conveyor belt, up, down, up again, watching the new wishes coming in. He will notice four from the same teenager, the night before his birthday:
The keys to dad’s Jaguar
Scrap that, the keys to my own Jaguar
White lines on the dashboard
Throw in some tickets for me and my mates for Ibiza
He will absentmindedly, accidentally, of course, always accidentally, knock a wish off, and the cracked package will reveal the swirling, dying wish on the concrete. He will mop it up silently, and somehow, the keys to a new Jaguar will appear regardless, in the upturned, expectant palm of a hand.
There are some wishes that he would never touch, and he would never dare disrupt their journey to the processing machine. He removes his spectacles, dangling around his neck on a fraying string, to peer a little closer:
I just want her to love me again (she will not love him again)
I need someone to listen (they will hear, but not listen, and then it will be too late)
I want the bruises to fade, and I want him to die (the bruises will keep blooming, and each time, there will be a different reason: car door, kitchen door, front door)
For him to remember who I am (his eyes, grey-green, will not flicker with any recognition, and he will ask if she is here to check his blood pressure)
For the pain to melt away (it will persist, for her, and every other her who has felt that pain)
For the cheque to last until the end of the month for once (but the bills will slap onto the doormat, and the kids will keep growing, and their uniform will get ripped or shrink or mysteriously disappear in the school changing room)
For the lump not to be what I already know it will be (quiet. days, aching days, that reduce to hours, then minutes, and then are gone
For no one to eye me from behind their Metro as I slip through the tube doors, for no one to cling to their handbags a little tighter, shuffle away, avoid eye contact (they silently pray, with the sound of the BBC World Service or an Ian Rankin audiobook or Drake fed through their headphones, that there is no bomb in their fellow commuter’s backpack – just his laptop, just a notebook and a chewed pencil and banana and a lunch packed by his wife with a note from his youngest daughter, have a great day, with a smiley face, but he is unsure whether people that look like him will ever be allowed even as much as that, to just have a great day)
For this to finally end with my generation (but this is a wildfire, consuming, devouring, and there are still people feeding it, and wishes and voices and raised fists and deaths, thousands and thousands of deaths, still have not stopped them)
They appear in the dark times and the light: these hushed, mournful wishes in amongst the hubbub of lost car keys and looming vocabulary tests and a dress that won’t zip up. They are whispered into the swirling, whirring roar of everyday life, murmurs that have shrunk in size and volume each time they have been ignored, and will continue shrinking, before vanishing altogether. They think that no one hears the fragmented half-hopes spoken into an un-listening void. But the caretaker hears, and those half-hopes sound like the first, lonely bird at dawn, a chirruping call out to the first glimmers of light. Through bleary, yellowing eyes, he watches the half-hopes, and he wishes for them himself, and he will feel an ache when they reappear, indistinguishable, irretrievable, out of the left tap.
Then, with the first muffled rumbles heard from a distance, something has been changing, bubbling, the first ripples swelling from a stone dropped off the opposite bank of the lake. This has not featured as part of the seasonal cycle before, and this is nothing that the caretaker recognises. He stands hopelessly, glasses sliding down the length of his nose, as the wishes begin to cluster, gathering into a collective, language sticky with the same, unfamiliar words. His window out into the world has rarely seemed so foggy, the view so distorted.
I just want this to be over
I want to go outside again (fresh air, green grass, light)
Just a hug (from a stranger, from anyone)
A coffee from the café on the corner, made by the barista who always traces the shape of a heart in the foam (maybe a scribbled phone number on a napkin too)
For the sourdough not to burn
For no one to notice Fifty Shades in the background of the Zoom call (they’ll notice; they’ll laugh; they’ll privately have a copy on their Kindle)
To see my new grandchild in the flesh, in real life, three-dimensional, not pixelated
To see my best friend
Boyfriend, girlfriend, thing on the side
That old bloke that we met one time down the pub who told us stories from the good old days (the good old days are gone, but good new ones must be on their way, surely, surely)
That colleague that will linger by the microwaves just to tell you about their Tinder date from Friday night (immediate connection, sparks flying, still no text back)
That bus driver who always smiles when you say thank you, and even when you don’t (will thank her next time, every time from here on out)
Those people whose lives used to intersect with ours, so casually, so mildly, without masks and hand sanitiser and fear in between us
I just want life to go to normal
I never want the old normal back
I want a new normal:
For the virus to expose the other viruses, the ones with no state-funded ventilators, even though he can’t breathe
Weeks pass, and he keeps watching, and they keep wishing and wishing and wishing
For a better world
For the right to breathe
The left tap will spurt, gushing, wishes left unrealised that will need to be wished again, but the right will keep dripping, dripping, dripping, and that quiet dripping must mean progress.
And the place will still be polluted with hope.
Joanna Kaye is a writer, using the lockdown to work on her novel. Her work has previously featured in Oxford’s Isis magazine and The Mays anthology.