In the 1920s before the dangers of radium were known it was used in all kinds of things from children's toys to luminous paint. And this is the story of some women who worked in a New Jersey factory making clock faces.
The Innocence of Radium
With a head full of Swiss clockmakers,
she took a job at a new Jersey factory
painting luminous numbers, copying the style
believed to be found in the candlelit backrooms
of snowbound alpine villages.
Holding each clockface to the light,
she would catch a glimpse of the chemist
as he measured and checked. He was old enough
had a kind face and a foreign name
she never dared to pronounce: Sochocky.
For a joke she painted her teeth and nails,
jumped out on the other girls walking home.
In bed that night she laughed out loud
and stroked herself with ten green fingertips.
Unable to sleep, the chemist traced each number
on the face he had stolen from the factory floor.
He liked the curve of her eights;
the way she raised the wet brush to her lips
and, with a delicate purse of her mouth,
smoothed the bristle to a perfect tip.
Over the years he watched her grow dull.
The doctors gave up, removed half her jaw,
and blamed syphilis when her thighbone snapped
as she struggled up a flight of steps.
Diagnosing infidelity, the chemist pronounced
the innocence of radium, a kind of radiance
that could not be held by the body of a woman,
only caught between her teeth. He was proud
of his paint and made public speeches
on how it could be used by artists to convey
the quality of moonlight. Sochocky displayed
these shining landscapes on his walls;
his faith sustained alone in a room
full of warm skies that broke up the dark
and drained his blood of its colour.
His dangerous bones could not keep their secret.
Laid out for X-ray, before a single button was pressed,
they exposed the plate and pictured themselves
as a ghost, not a skeleton, a photograph
he was unable to stop being developed and fixed.
From Night Photograph, (Faber & Faber, 1993), copyright Lavinia Greenlaw 1993, used by permission of the author and the publisher.