Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Work Experience - Part I

I got my first job when I was thirteen years old, delivering papers for the local newsagent. It was my first experience of getting up early for work. I hated it. I'd get up a seven in the morning for my round which would take about half an hour, then I'd go to school. I realised pretty early on that I was a night owl.

My second job was at a social club called the Silver Band Club. I was a glass collector, or as my friend Stuart always calls it, a pot man. I love that expression... Anyway, I was fourteen when I started at the Silver Band Club. Upon turning eighteen I would graduate to the lofty position of bartender, something I would return to later in life.. But it's those days collecting empty glasses that hold a dear memory for me. I worked every Sunday, the same night my dad worked extra on the taxis. We'd finish at the same time and he'd come and pick me up in the cab. We'd get home in time for the start of MTV's Headbanger's Ball. I'd have a cup of tea, my dad would have a beer and there we'd sit and watch what was in those days a great show. My dad would normally head off to bed after a half hour or so whilst I'd sit up and watch the programme in it's entirety. The presenter, Vanessa Warwick, was my first love...

Neither Raj's paper shop or the Silver Band Club felt like real jobs though, which at the time suited me just fine. I earned around eighteen pound a week from the SBC, which was five pounds more than Raj paid me. It was pocket money. That eighteen quid covered a night out at Channel 2, the place where all us “freaks”, “long hairs” or “grungers” as the jocks at school called us, hung out every Friday. Two pound-fifty entrance fee, two pound a pint. Eighteen quid was more than enough to get pissed up on.. Things were good. I felt then that I never wanted anything to change. Life could stay this way forever.

And then come the summer of '94.

That summer was the first time I heard the term “Employment Agency”. I wasn't quite sure what the deal was, but a couple of my mates were suddenly working on these agencies which provided work in a selection of the many factories scattered around the town's many industrial estates. Until this time I'd never ventured into these areas of Corby, they were just a dubious grey shadow on the outskirts of town where all the grown-ups worked. The first of us to go to work was my mate Leon. He told us it was fucking horrible. He'd have to get on this bus with all these scumbags, that would shuttle them to the factory, where he'd work a mind numbing eight hours a day. The thing was, it paid three pound fifty an hour. A week's work would earn you around one hundred and forty pounds a week. That was a hell of an improvement on eighteen fucking quid!

It's just, this was supposed to be the time when we were on our summer holiday. I wasn't prepared for this. Nobody had warned me the previous summer that it would be the last time I'd know freedom. But still, one hundred and forty quid! How bad could it really be? I took myself down to Staff Line's office on George Street.

What got me was how arrogant the people who worked at the Agency were. I had to sit and fill in a questionnaire while this smarmy bastard sat behind his desk with a smirk on his face. There was all the mandatory stuff like name, address, national insurance number and such, but when that was out of the way came the next section, which dealt directly with the type of work you would be involved with. One question was, “Will you work with food?”. For some reason I felt compelled to say no, but Smarmy Cunt made it quite clear that unless you ticked that particular yes box your chances of getting any work were practically nil. With a heavy heart I drew a tick. I had a horrible feeling I knew what was coming next.

After completing the form and going through a quick interview, I'm told I'll be called if they can find any work for me. I left the place hoping I'd never hear from them again. Within in a hour Smarmy Cunt is on the phone telling me that I'll be happy to hear that he has found me work at Webb's Chicken Factory, starting at six am the next day. I felt like I'd just been sentenced to life imprisonment. Life as I knew it was officially over.

The first thing that hits you is the smell. That smell could turn your stomach like a kick in the bollocks. And this was before you even stepped out onto the factory floor. This was in the changing room, where you'd adorn a protective white suit with rubber boots and rubber gloves, topped off with a hairnet and white hat. For a couple of seconds I actually forgot about the smell and concerned myself more with the fact that I looked like a right twat. When I actually walked through the heavy steel door into the factory though, that particular worry subsided. That stink of dead chicken. I'll never forget it. That and the look of absolute depression on the faces of the other people working there.

As I enter the factory floor, trying to keep the puke down, I'm greeted by a guy called Mark who tells me he is the supervisor. He seems very proud as he tells me this and I learn quickly enough that he takes his job very fucking seriously. He gives me a quick tour of the factory floor, telling me about the different lines and stations. As I follow him about like a lost puppy trying my best to avoid the eyes of my fellow co-workers for fear of being devoured by the weight of their gaze, my gag reflex slowly adjusts to the smell. It's then that I notice how fucking cold it is in here.

I finally reach the station where Mark tells me I'll be working. The chicken wing line. It's like this:

The line starts with somebody opening a vat of raw chicken wings and shovelling them onto the start of the conveyor belt. A little further down the line somebody is stood spreading the wings out before they enter a machine that covers them in breadcrumbs. Upon leaving the breadcrumb machine, they continue along the belt where someone else, in this case yours truly, gives them a further inspection, separating any that are stuck together, before they continue along into another machine that rapidly freezes them, from where they exit into a funnel system, dropping into plastic container bags that are then sealed by someone else stood at the end of the line and thrown into a cage. Mark tells me it's of the utmost importance that I don't let any wings by that are stuck together. Ok boss. And that's me. I look down the line and notice there is a huge fucking clock on the wall at the end of the factory. Six fifteen am. First break is at eight-thirty. I just have to think about that first break. If I think about two pm I won't make it. If I think about the fact that I'll be here tomorrow, and again the day after, I'll probably break down and cry.

I stand there in silence sifting through cold, soggy, breadcrumb coated chicken wings, making sure they all go into the freezer separately. I look down the line at the two guys bagging the finished product and I'm hit by a wave of jealousy. What I wouldn't give to be on that position. I put my head back down and try not to think about it. Another thirty minutes or so go by before my gaze starts to wonder again. I have a scan of the factory. It's a pretty big place. And it's very white. White walls, white ceiling, white tiled floor. Everything is white, except for the various types of chicken flesh that have dropped to the floor, but they're quickly removed by people who have the job of constantly hosing the floor down with freezing cold water and shovelling up the waste, hence the rubber boots I'm wearing. As I make a one hundred and eighty degree scan around this misery, I do a double take at a face on the other side of the factory smiling back at me. It's my mate Heg. An almost euphoric relief washes over me. A friend. And furthermore, it's Heg, who has the talent of laughing in the face of almost any hardship. We make signals to each other across the factory floor and we arrange to take our breaks together. Maybe this is survivable after all. Just as things are starting to feel better, Mark creeps up behind me and tells me to get on with my work. And alas, misery returns.

At break Heg tells me that he's been here for about a week. He's worked on most of the stations and he tells me the place to be is dispatch, which is by far the best job in this joint. Dispatch is basically the warehouse side of the factory where the products are packed into boxes and then onto pallets, ready for shipping. It's warmer there and you don't have to wear all this protective gear. I need to get myself in there somehow.

The line Heg is working on at the moment though, where he's been for a few days, is unmistakeable at the other end of the Webb's spectrum. He's on the first line, where whole chickens, plucked and minus a head, come in to the factory. Heg's job is to stick these carcasses arse first onto a metal clamp which then moves them along the line to be chopped up and dissected into various pieces. As we sit there over a cup of tea and a sandwich I wonder what they fuck I'm doing here. I just try to convince myself that it will all be worth it at the end of the week when I have a hundred and forty quid in my bank account.

The trouble is, it never really turned out that way. The elation at that first wage had all but subsided by the following Monday. The best it got for me on Webb's chicken factory ladder was working on the bags at the end of the wing line. By day three I was fantasising about ways of murdering Mark and getting away with it. Even my parents, doing their best to install some sort of work ethic in me (my dad worked for years at the steel plant for fuck sakes), couldn't hide the pity in their eyes. My dad told me he felt awful picking me up at the end of the day in his Royal Mail van, seeing the despair in my face as I climbed into the passenger seat, my shoulder length hair stinking of chicken guts. It would take about an hour in the shower to even get near feeling clean again.

I only lasted three weeks, although it felt like an eternity. The end came on one dark hungover morning. Me and Heg had been out the night before at Reflections in Kettering, which had an alternative night every Monday. We'd had a few drinks by the time we left there around midnight. It was a great feeling being there with all our mates, dancing to good music, doing our best to impress the girls we knew. For a few hours Webb's was the furthest thing from our minds. As we were sat in our mate Mike's car on the way home though, the doom started to filter back to conscious thought. Heg suddenly turns round, half pissed and tells me he can't go to work tomorrow, or actually today, in five hours time. On certain days you would get picked up by a taxi, paid for by the Agency, today being such an occasion. Heg begged me to tell the cab driver he was sick. I disgruntledly agreed.

The taxi pulls up outside of my parents house around five thirty. It's dark and cold. I hop in the back and tell the driver not to bother going to Heg's place since he's called and said he was sick. I don't know why he gave a piss, but he tells me that he'll just go and double check anyway. “What the fuck is this?” I wonder, although secretly I'm chuffed. He pulls up outside Heg's place, a few streets away, and beeps his horn. Nothing. He beeps again. And again. “Fucking hell, this cunt is evil!” I think to myself, a smile by now spreading across my face. Eventually a light turns on in the house. Within a few minutes Heg appears at the door and I can swear I see his dad's boot kicking him up the arse on the way out. He looks absolutely destroyed as he collapses beside me on the taxi bench seat. We drive to Webb's in silence. By the time we're sat in the canteen at five-fifty, Heg is in tears. It's only then I realise how fucked up this situation is. Today will be my last day in Webb's. I don't give a fuck what my parents say, I'm willing to face the shame of quitting.

When I leave at the end of the day and get in my dad's Royal Mail van I tell him I'm not going back. “Don't fucking blame you boy!” he says. We drive away from the place and I feel like I've just gained my freedom back. I'm almost in tears myself by this point, but they are tears of relief. I only hope Heg's dad is as understanding as mine...

Still, that money in bank is bankrolling what is the beginning of a life-long obsession, namely collecting records. I have to think of another plan. There has to be better alternatives to working than Webb's. I decide that I'll give it another go and hope for something better at another agency. And this time I'll stand my ground and abstain from ticking that fucking yes box...