Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Work Experience - Part II

Everything had changed by the summer of ´94. The year before we'd spent our six weeks of school holiday pissing about in the woods, playing football, listening to metal and generally living the good life. Now we were all working factory shifts. What the fuck had happened?

Webb's had scarred me somewhat, and the thought of spending one more summer's day locked up inside a factory made me feel nauseous, but it dawned on me during those few days of freedom after leaving the chicken factory that all of my other mates were still working, some place or another. And not only was I actually bored after a few days, I was skint. And being skint meant no money for Channel 2 on Friday night's and worse, no money for records.

The plan was to find an employment agency that dealt with non-food companies. When I thought about it, it made perfect sense. Simple really. What I couldn't figure out was why my mates hadn't thought of it too, why most of them seemed to be at the dreaded Solway Foods factory. The stories I'd heard about Solway put the fucking shits up me and I swore to myself I'd exhaust all other possibilities before I ended up in that hell hole.

I was there within a month...

I managed to get a few days work through another agency called Quest, who promised the highest paid agency work in Corby. I was placed at a company called Corby Corlon, which made cardboard boxes. Most of the people that worked there were older men and I was one of a small handful of agency workers amongst them. The place was dry, and more importantly warm, but in all honesty the work was fucking boring.. It didn't help that I was there on my todd and all the permanent staff treated us agency workers like twats. It beat sifting through chicken wings any day of the fucking week, but I felt pretty lonely standing there folding cardboard boxes on a conveyor belt all day. I was willing to stick it out all the same, but as it happens the work dried up and that was the end of that place.

It was the same story at another couple of places and although I wasn't exactly gutted on those occasions when the people from Quest would call and tell me, “Unfortunately there is no work for you today Mr. Smith”, I still felt the pressure of having no money whilst all my mates were earning. That heavy feeling once again reared it's ugly presence in the pit of my stomach... I knew I'd have to go back to the food factories if I wanted regular money in my pocket.

Webb's was out of the fucking question, and I was determined to steer clear of Solway, so I gave Ashbury's Sweets a go. One positive about Ashbury's was that John, who was my mate Beany's dad, worked there. He was a maintenance engineer and had a firm standing at the place, so I thought my chances of being looked after were good. One negative, of many actually, was the fact that I was working twelve hour night shifts, Sunday to Thursday, six pm to six am. Even with a fifteen minute break every two hours, they were long nights.. John seemed like he had it pretty cushy in there though, I only ever saw him sat in the canteen reading the paper, on call, but seemingly never called upon. He looked more than chuffed with his lot.

I was of course working one of the conveyor lines although I honestly don't remember what it was I was supposed to be doing. All I remember is being stood there staring at foil wrapped assorted chocolates, the kind you get in Quality Street and the like, travelling past on the line for hours on end. They told you that you could eat as many as you liked but nobody seemed to be eating anything. They were long nights... Now and again John would say hello, if he was on his way to the bog, otherwise it was once again, like Corby Corlon, a lonely existence.

Just as Webb's had, Ashbury's too deemed it necessary to place a huge clock on the wall at one end of the factory. What's with that really? It's like they are trying to crush your very existence with this shit. I spent a couple of weeks looking at that clock and the endless stream of sweets, my brain slowly being pulped into submission. It wasn't long before I started to wonder how bad Solway could really be.. At least I had a group of mate's who were working there, surely that would compensate for whatever hell the place had to dish out? I thought about it.. Fuck it, worse case scenario I could always come back to Ashbury's...

Hallmark Employment Agency solely served Solway Foods and it's three factories. Almost the entire Solway workforce was provided by Hallmark with only a handful of supervisors and other management types employed there on a permanent basis. What a great deal they'd struck together. Solway got an endless stream of workers with no rights, whilst Hallmark got a monopoly on one of Corby's largest factories and kept half of the wages paid out. What we got was practically guaranteed work, as much as we wanted of it, for the princely wage of three pound fifty an hour.

I'll never forget that first dark morning, waiting at the top of Studfall Hill outside of the Rockingham Arms at five thirty am. for the Hallmark bus to pick me up. The town was silent and I stood there filled with regret and fear. Five thirty turned into five thirty-five and then five forty and for a second I began to imagine how great it would feel if somehow they'd forgotten about me and I could just go home and crawl back into bed. And then I saw the headlights slowly creeping towards me up the hill.. The mini-bus pulled up beside the curb and waited for me to hop in. I pulled the sliding door open and timidly climbed into the back of the van. The driver looks at me and asks my name, I tell him and he ticks off a box on a form attached to a clip-board. I look around the van which seems to be full. I steal a glance at the fifteen or so seats and the depressed figures occupying them, not a single pair of eyes meet mine. I spot a free seat at the back and awkwardly shift my way to it. What the fuck have I let myself in for? And off we go.

The van pulls up outside of Solway Foods, which is more of a compound than a factory. There are three large buildings, named Factory One through Three respectively. The van has dropped us off outside a small Porta Cabin which is Hallmark's on-site office. We shuffle out of the van and into the cabin where we're told one by one which factory we'll be working in today. It's still dark, although the birds are beginning to sing. I hear their joyful song and it cheers me not one iota, in fact, I envy them with every grain of my being. I wait in line and when it comes to my turn, the guy behind the desk simply asks my name and then says, “Gareth Smith? Factory One. High Risk”, without so much as looking up at me. It actually feels like I've been sent to prison. “Who the fuck are these people?” I wonder to myself as I follow a few others that have been sent to Factory One.

It's the same deal as Webbs. First the changing room, overalls, hairnets, boots and then it's in to the sterile white room that is the factory. Unlike Webbs though, this place is a collection of smaller rooms, with conveyor belts snaking through holes in the walls and onto places unknown. Just like Webbs on the other hand, it's fucking freezing. I stand there taking in the place, wondering where Beany and my other mates are. A supervisor soon approaches me and is straight on my case, “Don't stand there looking lost, there's plenty of work mate.” With that he tells me to follow him, which I do, like a lost puppy. I walk behind him along one of the conveyor lines until he stops beside a large, steel vat which is full to the brim with a substance I assume is mayonnaise. Judging by the smell, it has a vicious dose of vinegar in it. The stink is so strong that my eyes are already watering. He gives me a large spoon and tells me to stir. I'm guessing this is Solway's very own initiation test. He walks off looking chuffed with himself. I begin to stir. Fuck me, if I'm going to survive this place then I'm going to have to hook up with one of my mates somehow, wherever the fuck they are..

I stir for a half hour or so until someone else comes along, takes the vat away to somewhere else and replaces it with another. And I continue to stir. This goes on for a couple of hours and just when I'm beginning to wonder if Jeremy Beadle is hiding somewhere filming me, the supervisor guys comes back, pats me on the back, and tells me he has another job for me. I may be paranoid but it feels like I've just passed some sort of test...

Those first couple of days were pretty shit, but thankfully I never went back to the mayo vat and soon enough Beany and I had found each other and for the most part we managed to stick it out together in there, through thin and thin. I wouldn't have lasted long on my own, that's for fucking sure.

As with all food factories, dispatch, that haven of warmth and cleanliness, was the place to be. I only got to work there once, but it coincided with an occasion when Bean was sent to the hell that is the mayo vat. The dispatch department was one of those places the conveyor lines went through the walls to, and the one and only day I had there was spent with a huge grin spread across my face since I spent it staring through the window in the wall at Beany, who was stirring mayonnaise in the refrigerated high risk room. He looked fucking furious and I made sure that every time he looked in my direction he'd find me grinning at him as I packed cardboard boxes. In Solway you take the small pleasures whenever you get the chance. I knew fine well Beany would have taken the exact same pleasure in my torture had he been given the chance.

Another peach of a job in Factory One was the sandwich line. On more than one occasion Bean and I were put on tomato duty. We stood there, eight hours a day, placing sliced tomatoes onto slices of white bread layered with a sorry slice of cheese, whizzing past on the belt. It was my job to put a tom on the two upper corners of the bread, whilst Bean's responsibility was to make sure the bottom two corners were taken care of. Four tomatoes to each slice of bread. We stood there for hours on end, performing this soul destroying task. It felt like prison labour. Sometimes, just to kill the boredom, I would start dumping handfuls of tomatoes onto the bread and take great amusement in watching Bean scurrying to remove them and leave nothing but the mandatory four pieces as they continued their journey to becoming sandwiches. It wouldn't take long before he'd start getting seriously backed up and there would be tomatoes all over the place.

One day, with the two of us at the point of cracking, one of the supervisors comes up behind us and tells us we're doing the job wrong! He re-briefs us on the exact placement required for the tomatoes, us standing there looking like a right pair of cunts. The supervisor walks off and we silently continue our work with heightened diligence. A few minutes pass before Bean grunts, “This is fucking bullshit”. I look at him, look back at the conveyor belt and the never-ending blur of sliced bread whizzing past, and the two of us break into a frenzied, depraved laughter. We literally stand there pissing ourselves laughing, tears running down our cheeks, the poor sap beside us who is on cucumber duty or something, looking at us confused. That laughter is something I'll never forget and it came to us every day, more as a method of keeping the madness at bay than anything else. Nowhere would we need that laughter more than the time we would later spend in Factory Three...

This place was high-risk and me and my loyal companion Beany spent the best part of two summers there. The chill of Factory One paled in comparison with this place. And it was wet. To add to the torture, the shifts ran on a system all of it's own. It wasn't the simple six am. to two pm here, rather it was six am. until “finish”. And “finish” could be as late as seven pm if necessary. The shift was over when the days orders were taken care of. Of course, the up-side of this is that “finish” could, in theory at least, come before two pm. I think that happened once the whole time we were there, and even then we only finished an hour early.

Our job in this hell hole was cabbages. To be exact, chopping cabbages in half, then cutting away the core in the middle before throwing them into a huge, steel container filled with water, where they would be washed and moved along through a hole in the wall and into Solway's orbit. We'd stand at a large white table in front of this wash basin, the supervisor would come with a large plastic skip filled with water and cabbages and we'd go about our work. We were given a machete to chop with and a steel chain-mail glove for our non-chopping hand, to avoid said hand being chopped.

The water from the cabbage skip was cold and it didn't take long for the freeze in the place to seep into our souls. That steel chain-mail glove was fucking torture once it was wet. Chop, throw. Chop, throw. Hours and hours on end. Misery. To add to the torture, the radio broadcasting through the speaker system in the factory played the same shite playlist of songs, roughly going on about an hour's rotation. I'm sure most of the cunts working in this place thought it was nice to have the radio on, but it drove Beany and I to the brink of insanity. Every single shift, every fucking day, you'd hear, at least eight or nine times, songs such as Ironic by Alanis Morisette, I Am, I Feel by Alicia's Attic (I think), the fucking Friends theme tune by the Rembrandts amongst other shite. Even to this day, when I hear one of those songs somewhere in passing, my mind goes straight back to Solway and that sick feeling in my stomach resurfaces. Another song that was on continuous rotation was the Mike and the Mechanics song, How Long Has This Been Going On?. Without fail, every time that line in the song was sung, I'd turn to Beany and ask, “How long has this been going on Bean?”. He'd look back and reply, “Too long Gaz, too long...” We'd smirk to ourselves every single time..

One song that never, ever raised a smirk though, was the heinous piece of shit by Boo Radley's, Wake Up, with the chorus line, “Wake up it's a beautiful morning..” Seriously, was this poisonous shit supposed to cheer us up? I always remember Beany cracking one day as he was chopping cabbages, taking off his chain mail glove and placing it to the side, before hissing, “I fucking hate the Radleys!!” I looked at him concerned, and tried to talk him down, “Bean, put the glove back on mate. Come on, it's not worth it.” His gaze never leaving the cabbages at task, he replied, “Mate, I wouldn't even fucking notice if I chopped my hand off it's so fucking numb!”. What could I say to that? He was right after all.

There were some permanent staff in this factory, real, salt of the earth people I'll never forget. One of the supervisors, Danny, was a right dreg. He wasn't a bad looking bloke really, although he'd let himself go badly. His shoulder length, blond hair looked like it had been washed in a chip pan, he had a constant pluke on the side of his nose and his teeth were yellow from the endless chain of roll-ups he smoked at break time. He did have the best tattoo I've ever seen though. On his neck, written in biro-thin ink, three names. Karen, with a single line going through it, under that, Tracy, again with a line going through it and below that, Michelle, the name of his current love, who happened to be a supervisor in Factory One. The darling couple of Solway...

Another character was an old Irish boy called Henry. He could have been anything from forty to seventy years old, the ruggedness of his alcohol abused, red face making it hard to decipher. He was a permanent member of staff and worked day in, day out at the cabbage station. If things got blocked, or backed up, Henry was the first to climb up to the wash basin and sort it out, seemingly taking great pride in his work. He was also constantly arguing with the management, much to our amusement. I remember standing there with him one day, me, Beany and another mate, Scrivener. Henry proudly tells us that the day after he's going on holiday for two weeks. Scrivener asks him where he's going, to which he replies, “Every fucking pub in Corby!”. “Resort” chortles Scrivener, giving him the thumbs up. Henry, oblivious to our opinion, looked chuffed. It's been years now but I'm guessing Henry is sadly, no longer of this world..

Getting through the shift was all about staving off the monotony of the work. You had to find ways of making the work interesting, otherwise you'd implode. What got us through most days at the cabbage station was a game we invented, where you'd get a varying amount of points depending on how the cabbages landed in the wash basin. One point for direct hit, two points for bouncing the cabbage off the back wall and into the basin, minus points if the cabbage landed on the floor etc. etc. Of course, we'd end up with a shit load of cabbages either on the floor, which would incur the wrath of Danny, or stuck on the rim of the wash basin, which would mean old Henry climbing up there, calling us cunts whilst he picked them off. That was worth ten points.. The match would last the entire shift and sometimes get quite exciting in a pitiful kind of way...

I like to think that I've always been able to get my head down and just get on with things, no matter how shit the circumstances. I've always had the knack to plough on, telling myself that how ever shit it is, it's not forever. And of course, I knew Solway wouldn't be forever. Bean had a solid point referring Solway, or any other place like it, and that was that instead of schools sending kids out on so called “work experience”, where they go sit in a warm office and stare at a computer all day, fantasising about the women that work there, they should send them to work at one of these places for a week, right before they start studying for their GCSE's. That should be all the fucking inspiration they'd need to get their heads down into the books.

As with most things though, it's not the actual doing that's the problem, although the doing being chopping cabbages all day was pretty fucking shite, no, it's the moments before the doing. The calm before the storm, the waiting for the bus to appear at the bottom of Studfall hill...

Nothing can compare to that feeling of those headlights appearing in the dark distance. Being that there was no other traffic around at that time of morning, there was no mistaking them. And if it was bad enough waiting outside the Rock at five thirty am. for the day shift, it was absolute torture if you were on night shift, watching people go into the pub at nine thirty as you're preparing for a night of tomatoes or cabbages...

We lasted a couple of summers but by the end of the second term our spirit wasn't really in Solway any longer and we had a hard time taking it seriously. One particular Thursday night, Bean and I were stood outside the Rock waiting for the bus to pick us up for our night shift. We stood there watching pissed up punters going in and out of the pub and the thought of going to Solway to chop cabbages for eight hours suddenly seemed quite obscene. As the lights appeared at the bottom of the hill, Beany caved in. “Fuck this!” he says, before walking towards the pub with great determination. “Come on Bean”, I reasoned, “Don't be like that, we need the money..” He ignored me and walked through the door and into the warm atmosphere of the pub. I stood there a few moments, my eyes twitching back and forth between the Rock door and the rapidly approaching headlights of the Hallmark van. Fuck it.

When I walk into the pub, Bean is stood at the bar staring forward, making no comment on my arrival, concentrated solely on the ale in his hand. He's taken the liberty of ordering me a pint which is waiting for me, in all it's glory, by the time I take my place beside him. I smirk, take a hold of the pint and throw about half of it down my neck in one big swig. Lager has never tasted this good. “I knew you'd buckle”, Bean says without breaking his forward gaze.

To make the matter of the Hallmark van even worse, the driver, Steve, was a complete wanker. He seemed to fucking love his job! Arrogance seeped out of his every pore as he drove us to hell each day. He'd obviously never worked a shift in Solway in his life. Never more was my hatred for Steve amplified than on one certain morning when we were working the six to “finish” shift.

Bean had slept at mine and we'd arranged for the van to pick the pair of us up outside the Rock as usual. Of course, we'd sat up the night before until the early hours shooting the breeze, eventually getting our heads down some time around two am. The alarm clock went off at five and obviously we felt like shite. We lay there and discussed the possibilities of just lying in bed and hoping for the best. After a tug-of-war with my conscience we turned the alarm off and went back to an uneasy sleep. At five forty-five the phone downstairs starts to ring. I start awake. Shit... The pair of us slumber downstairs to the dining room where the phone is ringing and stare at it, wondering how to handle this delicate situation. It stops. We stare at each other. Relief. It starts to ring again. That bastard Steve is one determined fucker! Bean and I stand there arguing over who is going to answer the phone, giving each other all sorts of reasons for why the other should take on the duty. Bean finally answers the phone. “Hello... Gareth? Yeah he's here, one second.” Fuck. Didn't see that coming.

I sheepishly take the phone from Bean, who now has a smile the width of the fucking Grand Canyon spread across his face. Steve sounds pissed off. “Where are you guys?” he asks. I've never been that good at talking shite on the spot, “Er, we were there waiting but the bus never came. We were stood around the other side on Clydesdale Road.” Even as I said it I heard how lame it was. “Well I find that hard to believe,” he tells it to me straight. “Get your arses there now and I'll pick you up in ten minutes.” I put the phone back on the hook and Bean and I burst out laughing. It was a laughter tinted by desperation but nonetheless we laughed long and hard, and from that point on Steve became known as Hard To Believe Steve. He also became our mortal enemy. I never could figure out his fucking beef.

The final straw was eventually drawn for me and Bean one day in Factory Three. We were working the dreaded six to finish shift, chopping cabbages in half all fucking day. There were no windows in the Factory, lending the place that purgatorial feel. We'd made the mistake of heading outside on our lunch break. It was a glorious day in late July. As much as the fresh air was welcome it made going back in for the rest of the shift all that more agonising.

We stood there chopping away, listening to the usual cack on the radio, by now I had an almost morbid hatred of Alanis Morisette and that fucking Ironic song, watching the clock slowly tick towards two pm. Urging it all the while to pick up the pace.

When two pm. arrived, we finished up what was hopefully the last skip of cabbages and looked around for signs of the supervisor, praying to fuck that we'd be told the shift was over. No supervisor came, but then, neither did a new skip of cabbages.. Two-ten pm. Still no sign of either supervisor or cabbage skip. Bean decides that's enough for him and heads out to the changing room. I follow him, knowing fine well in my heart of hearts that if the shift was over then the supervisor would have told us so, and also the rest of the workers would be heading out the door with us. It didn't feel right as the two of us strided towards the exit.

We walk outside into the blazing sunshine and sure enough, there is no van waiting to take us home. “It's beautiful out today, let's walk home,” Bean suggests. “I dunno mate, I don't think the shift is over.” “It is, we were stood there waiting for fifteen minutes scratching our arses waiting for cabbages, and it's two pm. They probably just forgot to tell us that's it for the day,” Bean replies, sounding like he has a hard time even convincing himself. “Nah, I'm knackered mate, can't be arsed walking home, let's just sit here in the sun and wait for the van, it'll be here soon,” I say. We argue for about ten minutes before Beany gives in and the two of us sit there on the pavement, backs against the wall, basking in the sunshine.

For a moment it's absolutely wonderful. And then Danny the supervisor bursts through the door with a face like a slapped arse. “What the fuck are you two ladies doing, shift's not over yet!” Bean looks at me like he wants to slowly and methodically tear me limb from limb. My stomach plummets into the depths of regret. We trudge back in for what turns out to be another four hours of chopping cabbages, the whole while Bean refusing to talk to me. “Isn't it ironic, don't you think? It's like ray-ay-ain, on a summer's day...” Fuck you Morisette. Fuck you.

That turned out to be the last day I ever worked in Solway. On many an occasion during our time there, Bean and I fantasised about going back to the place, later on in life, once we'd made successes of ourselves. The plan was, we'd book a shift back in Factory One, walk in, take a piss on the sandwich line and walk out again. That dream, which we'd discuss at length, kept us going through many a shit day.

Needless to say, the dream never materialised. It didn't need to. It was just something to take strength from then, to get us through those long, cold days. Looking back at it now, I understand that the experience I gained has put me in good stead for the rest of my life. As much as I thought it was hell then, I'm glad for the experience now. It's shaped me in a way only real, hard work can. Solway is still going strong today and hundreds of people are still working there, day in, day out. And I have nothing but respect for every single one of them. Except Steve. I still fucking hate Steve.

These days, when I hear friends in Stockholm complaining about working a stressful forty hour week in an office, it makes me laugh. They wouldn't last ten minutes in Solway. Then again, I don't know if I would any more...