Last night, the graveyard shift. Firing is under way and the huge gas kiln needs tender attention throughout the night. The Irish take shifts in pairs, four hours at a stretch. Everything works but nothing is mechanised and the wiring is atrocious. Mr Wong the kiln hero electrocuted himself on a loose wire – we all know not to touch that one now. But night time in the workshop brings its own magic. One morning, around 4am when the cavernous space was at its chilliest, the ceramists on duty had a visit from a small disorientated factory worker. She was probably about eighteen, but looked much younger. Nobody knows where she came from. She sidled up to them for warmth and sat silently, half asleep and shivering with cold, her hands wrapped around a paper cup of tea. Later, just before dawn, Sara and Tina played a game of badminton to keep warm. The little factory worker perked up and had a go.
The next morning the vigil was broken by the arrival of a small disorientated owl.
Beyond the workshop, the factory operates through the night, without much more than an electric bulb over the area where people work. Hot tiles rattle down the conveyor belt into a crowded space where women grab and pack, grab and pack. Tiles are pressed from dust that spills into the pockets of a belt rising, like an escalator, over the heads of the workers. The air is thick with silica dust. A solitary worker shovels coal into the tunnel kiln's insatiable fiery guts. The scene is part Dickensian, part post-apocalytic action movie. Where is the muscled hero, clothes in tatters and slung with machine guns?
Through the grog window, the dawn is breaking. This is the window – approached by an unstable pile of bricks, through which the women fetch grog to roughen the clay. Out here, as the coal smoke billows into the lightening sky, are the grog mountains – grit and the raw ingredients of clay. And here are the sheds where clay is made – ramshackle buildings where ball-mills the size of cement mixers grind stone to dust in a monstrous row. Vats, swimming-pool scale, mix liquid clay like batter throughout the night.
And as we wandered (unauthorised, unsupervised) through a Chinese factory at dawn, the workers greeted us – Laura and I – with shy and friendly smiles.