The author cuts her teeth on the world of work...
I was brought up to expect to work. As young as thirteen, I was encouraged to take a paper round if I wanted to earn the princely sum of one pound a week and get some clothes to go to the youth club. Being vain, like all my friends, and fond of magazines which convinced me I should pamper my feet, mascara my eyes and aim for a flawless complexion whilst wearing the latest gear if I wanted to get a boyfriend, I simply had to earn some money.
My mother colluded with me on this, promising me a trip to London to buy clothes once I had collected twenty pounds, a massive amount in those days. She rose with me at five a.m. and made breakfast before sending me out into the dark. The newsagent had already prepared the bags of papers. I had a round that took approximately an hour to get around if, that is, one was an able-bodied average sized boy.
The bag was heavy and caused my bicycle to swerve away when placed on the rear carrier, but it was impossible to carry over my shoulder and chest. I managed to manoeuver with difficulty. There were lots of rules: make sure you put number seven’s paper completely through the door, in fact, do that with all of them or they could get wet in the rain whilst the lazy recipient is still fast asleep. Watch out for number forty three’s dog; close the gate at number thirteen; make sure that the inserts do not fall out of the paper.
Friday was particularly arduous, as the local paper joined the dailies. This large and unwieldy broadsheet of several sections meant the bag was more than twice as heavy. On icy mornings, the back end of the bike would slide away, once, landing on top of me, painfully crushing my frozen fingers.
It was the year that the clocks did not get put back, an experiment to put British winter time on a par with Europe. Therefore, it was extremely dark for the whole round. In the silent morning, the outlines of the houses were eerie. Sometimes I thought I beheld people staring down at me from roofs, which turned out to be chimney pots, and yet, somehow, once convinced of this, I was permanently spooked.
I stuck stoically to this early form of work training until I caught the flu. This confined me to bed for a week, and combined with a particularly sensational disappearance of a newspaper boy, contrived to cause my mother to abandon her insistence that I work for my pound a week. She caved in and gave me a pound a week not to go to work, relieved, I’m sure, that she too no longer had to get up at five a.m.
After my “A” Levels, a long, hot summer stretched before me where I seemed interminably free. My parents being the products of Victorian and Edwardian work ethic and broadly speaking, working class, thought it best that I get a summer job. I don’t know who it was that suggested I work in a small egg packing factory, but the foreman even came round our house to assure my parents of terms and conditions: eight a.m. to five p.m. every day for the princely sum of forty pounds a week which I was to be allowed to keep all to myself.
Seven thirty a.m. Monday morning found me on the corner of Snarlton Lane, the early sun burning away the mist on the Wiltshire fields, awaiting the arrival of a transit van of other workers. Nobody paid any attention to me. This state of affairs continued for the whole time that I worked at the egg packing station. The women in the factory had all worked there since leaving school at fifteen and were as tight-knit as a group of suspicious cows in a country field. They had thick wrists from the hours of repetitive box lifting and packing. The only time I was acknowledged was when I shut production down, as I did, often, to begin with.
The foreman, now dressed in his brown coat, very kindly showed me to a task that I could do at my own speed. This meant unwrapping egg boxes and pricing them with a handheld device filled with a roll of labels. This was light and easy work and I got through a lot quite quickly, ending up knee deep in brown paper. Working in this egg factory was going to be OK.
Soon I was inducted into the art and tyranny of the conveyor belt. This was fed by a number of different products, all of which were eggs. The foreman explained that all activities were rotated after one hour, presumably to prevent boredom, and perhaps repetitive strain. Most of these machines provided ample opportunity for someone like me to participate in her own crazy episode of “I Love Lucy”!
The first machine was rather tricky. It required that I lift, from a trolley, a large number of eggs at a time, piled in trays of twelve, each containing about one hundred. I was then to turn with them, balanced precariously against my chest, not quite able to see over them, and place them carefully on a moving belt which would convey them through some sort of counter and then on to a darkened booth where a mysterious job for an expert occurred. This involved infra-red checking of whether any of the eggs were live.
The lifting, turning, balancing and placing accurately of the heavy eggs went quite well until I looked over the rim of the trays to come eyeball to eyeball with a mouse. The dilemma of whether to finish the move onto the belt or drop the eggs was solved by a swift move, which, to my lasting dismay, caused the mouse to disappear into the machine and be mangled before my eyes.
Dropping the trays resulted in a horrible gloopy mess, which had to be scraped up with the use of two ends of cardboard from the ubiquitous boxes and placed into a bucket to be transported to the person with the most unenviable job. She retrieved all lost egg for the industrial purpose of turning it into shampoo and other products sold as luxuries. At these moments when such disasters occurred, the knock-on effect of no eggs cruising through the machines meant the factory came to a halt.
Such moments of hiatus were quite desirable of course. One was never still, and there was a lot of chafing on the arms as one swung backwards and forwards lifting and placing. On the other side of the factory, the eggs which had been sized and checked in the darkened booth moved ever onward into a sort of mini bowling alley affair. There, they would be pleasingly placed in boxes of twelve that would shuffle their way out ready to be lifted onto another conveyor belt. This was an exciting task. It meant placing the lid on the boxes, making fully sure they were shut; that is that the little nobs that went through the holes to secure them were fully in place before you lifted the box onto the belt.
These boxes came through the machine at a fair lick, and one soon got into a rhythm. Just as well, as a failure to close and secure the lid within seconds meant a backlog that was hard to catch up on, meaning that the boxes could easily overflow the end of the alley, as it were, and end up falling with a crunch onto the floor. None of this would have been insurmountable, were it not for the fact that whilst working on this machine, there was still another task to do. The “jumbo” eggs, bigger than my hand, came rolling down a separate chute and had to be placed one by one onto a tray, which, when full, had then to be lifted from quite a height, onto the belt. These came down at random intervals and it was necessary to watch.
So with swinging from alley to belt to alley and shutting of lids and retrieving of boxes, and looking out for the jumbos and running to retrieve and pack them, sometimes lifting the heavy full tray slowly and carefully to the belt, the hour on the egg packing went quite quickly. Indeed, the rhythm could sometimes become quite hypnotic, and it was during one of these states of hypnosis that there were many loud crunches as jumbos fell and alley continued to career onward to the floor, that I brought the factory to a standstill.
At lunchtimes the women all sat in a tight circle, of which I was not to be a part. No one moved outwards in order to allow my chair to slide in so that I might participate in any conversation. The chatter moved between family and gossip in broad Wiltshire accents, sometimes taking a critical tone concerning the factory and foreman. I kept silent and read my book, but over the weeks, minutely slid my chair forward, so that by the time eight weeks had past, I had penetrated the circle and attained some grudging form of acceptance.
It was hot that year. There were many flies in the factory. Once or twice a huge amount of insecticide was applied to the whole place which resulted in piles of black insects swept into corners and scooped up. This was an added repulsive activity to the day’s end, which always culminated in scrubbing and scraping of many broken eggs. A stale smell of cooking egg hung over everything. I am not keen on eggs to this day.
It was not a bad life, but that was all the life that those women had. Why do I say it like that? Nowadays we might envy the stress-free nature of it all. They went to work in that little factory from the age of fifteen, had their wages, got married, had families and lived simple undisturbed existences in the country. One of them even lived in an old weaver’s cottage in Lacock, long a National Trust Village, the kind of place some would kill for these days.
I returned during Easter the next year to the egg packing station, and then, for three days that summer, attempted to work in Bowyers sausage factory. This latter was of a different order all together in terms of tolerable work experience. For a start, one had to scoop a sample of one’s faeces into a bag for testing before being allowed to work there. Somehow this did not seem an auspicious start.
The pay was to be very good, but this time, the trays of sausage rolls defeated me. Hard and large, heavy and sharp, sent into a hot machine, it was impossible for me to lift them from the position in which I had to sit. The woman working on the other end of the machine was not at all placid as the egg women had been, indeed, she was downright hostile to my presence and my effete efforts. I fell into a depression after day two and gave up after a third day of torment which had been compounded by an encounter with a fearsome “C” stream girl from school, who was in charge of quality control. My days on the factory floor were over.
Probably the most beautiful experience I had in those years was borne of lovelorn foolishness. For a time, I went out with a milkman. He used to get up at four in the morning and take the milk float on a long, slow journey through country lanes, delivering the pints as fast as he could. For a few of these mornings, I accompanied him, being especially, I suppose, in love at the time. My parents thought it was ridiculous and hilarious that I was rising at such a time in the dark, but I paid no heed to their mockery and went out in the moist damp coolness of the pre-dawn with my love. No doubt my mother had a wry comment about the attraction of early morning milk rounds as opposed to newspaper rounds.
The bottles were loaded onto the float in the small dairy at the end of my road. We then took orange juice, eggs and bread along with the bottles, rattling away in the electric hum of the float. It was pleasant to be on quiet roads, and private to be amongst the hedgerows. People’s houses, all so different from one another, took on a special aspect as their outlines appeared in the rising sun. Their gardens, so quiet, filled with vegetables and surrounded by clipped hedges and borders were the result of slow devotion which people do not have time for today. The milk round was uneventful, apart from when one disturbed an owl or a rabbit or spotted a buzzard, but it was probably the most fulfilling of the little jobs I did during those years. I did not get paid, it was not my job, but I caught a glimpse of the joy of the countryside and felt as if I had special insight into the way the mist rose from river and canal as the sun dissolved it and the fields emerged. Bridges, thistles, animals, stables and tranquility.
Heather Gatley was born in Cyprus to British parents and has worked all over the world as an English teacher. She has had poetry, prose and photographs published in Proximity Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review, Ariel Chart, Centered on Taipei and the Carmarthen Journal. Her chapbook of poems entitled, “Indigo Sky” about her ancestral village in West Wales is available on Amazon.