My favourite forms of summer reality were bus conducting and working in the linoleum warehouse. The lino was made at Heapey near Chorley by a firm called Witters, and the Head Foreman, a very tall elderly chap called Eric who wore an enormous tweed cap, surprised me on my first day by quoting Wittgenstein.
Huge rolls of linoleum six feet in diameter were delivered from the factory and it was the job of our crew, a mixture of regulars and summer casuals, to prepare it for sale by cutting it into retail sizes. Each of the big rolls had to be grasped by the top and tipped over onto a ‘bogy’, a stoutly-built, iron-wheeled truck about three feet by four. If you positioned your bogy correctly the roll descended neatly on to it and balanced, so you could wheel it to the cutting machine with little effort. If you got it wrong, the bogy flirted out from underneath the roll and struck your shins at about a million miles an hour.
The trade label of our brand of linoleum was Balatum, a word which seemed to me to conjure up the South Sea Islands of Gauguin and Somerset Maugham, complete with lazily smoking volcanoes and voluptuous maidens in grass skirts. Such imaginings added a pleasingly surreal dimension to the mundane world of floor covering manufacture, and an even stranger layer of unreality was creeping in. I was already in love with the splendid tunes and unlikely plots of grand opera, and a South Sea island, presided over by the High Priest of the Great God Balatum, seemed the perfect setting for a Bizet or Weber extravaganza.
I mentioned my fantasy during tea break. To my surprise, the whole crew, including the regulars, seized on the idea, and the appearance of our philosophical foreman at the door of the cutting shop would be a cue for a muttered stage direction: ‘Enter Eric, Master of the Rolls and High Priest of Balatum, in ceremonial cap.’
In the middle of the summer, when more people than usual were on holiday, there came a lull in the retail demand for lino, and we began to be afraid that some of us would be laid off. It was Danny, one of the regulars, a smiling leprechaun, who came up with a solution: ‘Boys, I’m convinced there’s something weird about one of them rolls in the warehouse. You know, that big black bugger in the far right-hand corner. I reckon if we was to sacrifice an apprentice or two to that big sod all our troubles would be over in a flash.’
The linoleum cutting machine was operated by three men: the Buttonman, the Barman and the Barman’s Bottom Knocker. The Buttonman was in charge of the operation as a whole, starting and stopping the process and generally making sure that there was no unnecessary loss of lino, time or fingers. It was the Barman’s job to load the roll on to the cutter and he did this by running a huge, gleaming steel bar through the centre of it as it lay on the bogy, locating one of the sockets of the machine with the free end of the bar and then lifting the roll so the handle end could also be dropped into its respective socket. As the Barman’s Bottom Knocker I had the most intriguing title, albeit the least interesting job. The blades on each side of the table were designed to give a neat trim to the edges of the finished length. Newly cut lino is sticky stuff, and the severed ribbon of material would still adhere to the roll, so it was my job to tap it gently with a wooden cloth yard so that it fell off into the waste basket. After a couple of weeks at this fascinating task I was promoted to Barman and that was where I almost came to grief.
After packaging and labelling, the retail rolls were scooped up at high speed by the Scammell men, so called from the trucks in which they dashed between the warehouse and various shipping terminals. The Scammell men were a completely different species from us. Tough Klingons to our puny Earthlings, they spoke only to each other, in monosyllabic Scammell grunts. They were on piece work, which meant that their earnings depended on the number of deliveries they were able to make in a day, so when they entered the warehouse they literally hit the ground running and dashed with their handcarts along the narrow passages between the big rolls, in the certain knowledge that they had absolute priority. The concept of induction training was still far in the future, but on our first working day Eric had impressed on us that ‘You must never, and I mean NEVER get in the way of a Scammell man.’ But I didn’t just get in the way of a Scammell man. I knocked him arse over tip and made him turn a somersault.
One afternoon, soon after my apotheosis into the mysteries of barmanship, I was trundling my bogy along a side alley of the warehouse, the steel bar of the cutting machine already transfixing the roll I was carrying and sticking out a good three feet ahead of it. This, of course, would have been strictly contrary to elf-and-safety had such a notion then existed. I wasn’t looking where I was going. In fact, I was quietly composing a philosophical aria for Eric, basso cantante (Ludwig, mein Freund, wo ist Dein Tractatus?).
I emerged from my side alley into the main thoroughfare at the precise moment Kevin the Scammell man reached the junction. There was no possibility of avoiding a collision. Kevin’s handcart struck the projecting steel pole and stopped dead. Kevin did not stop dead. He described a less-than-graceful arabesque over the top of the pole and landed with a crash on the concrete floor. Struggling into a sitting position he glared at me across the overturned handcart.
‘I’m truly sorry,’ I began penitently, ‘I do hope you’re not hurt.’
Kevin neither swore nor raised his voice, which only added to the menace of his reply: ‘I’m the one who’s sorry. I’m sorry I’ve not time to give you the kicking you deserve. Not now, anyway, because my team’s due at the docks in less than an hour. But tomorrow’s my afternoon off and I’ll be waiting when you come off shift.’ I
I’m not tall and Kevin wasn’t much bigger than me but he was clearly tough, determined and a lot fitter than any effete student opera buff. Two or three years older than me, dark-haired and a lot better looking, he reminded me of James Dean, and I definitely didn’t fancy my chances in what Jimmy’s On the Waterfront character would no doubt have called a ‘rumble’. Even so, I was enjoying my time at Witters, the money was good, and I had no intention of being bullied out of the job. Calling in sick on the following day would merely have postponed matters, so I decided with great misgivings to tough it out.
As he had promised, Kevin was waiting a hundred yards from the works gates when I came off shift the following afternoon. News of impending disaster travels fast, and a small crowd had gathered to witness my death.
We faced each other like gunfighters along the length of a silent western street, and as I slowly began to walk towards my adversary I swear I could hear the jingle of phantom spurs. Kevin was clad in a rock star uniform of black leather jacket, jeans and motorcycle boots and I felt distinctly under dressed in my dungarees. With no more than ten yards between us we stopped as if by mutual consent. In the Old West this would have been time to draw, so I reached into the bib pocket of my overalls and produced the rusty three-pound hammer we used for breaking up coke in the wash house at home.
Kevin regarded me levelly from under dark eyebrows. ‘Do you want a fight?’
‘I’d rather have a pint.’
As we settled in behind the long, scrubbed table in the Bull’s Head, Danny muttered ‘Jaysus, Jack, that was one stupendous bluff. I thought you wuz a gonner there my lad.’
‘Bollocks!’ The speaker was Dave, another of the Scammell crew. ‘Kev was the one who was bluffing. After shooting his mouth off yesterday he had to come today, and he was praying you’d not turn up. Anyway, Ingrid, his girlfriend, wouldn’t let him fight even if he wanted to.
’Kevin caught my eye across the table. ‘She’s scared I’d my spoil my good looks,’ he said with a sheepish grin.
I was relieved that Kevin and I had managed to avoid the expected explosion but the same could not be said of my next foray into the real world, which happened the following summer when I did a stint on the Ribble buses. In those civilised days, buses had conductors. The driver’s job was reckoned to be stressful enough without his having to collect the tuppences in addition to avoiding the cyclists, though nowadays he does all three, sometimes with tragic results. On the buses of my youth, the same driver and conductor normally acted as a team, but as relief conductors during the holiday period we students worked with a variety of mates.
My favourite two drivers were Jock and Vincent and they couldn’t have been more different, though they both treated me cordially, shared their thick sandwiches and bought me pint mugs of tea that was even thicker than the butties. Jock was Glaswegian and spoke a breakneck variety of Scots which was fortunately impenetrable, because it included very many expletives. Vincent, a calm, gentle, softly-spoken young Catholic paterfamilias, only ever swore once in my hearing, but to great effect.
The last bus from Wigan to St Helens, on a Saturday night, crowded with drunken clubbers, was never any crew’s favourite, and the whole of our shift had been particularly trying. No less than three previous buses had broken down under us and had to be towed away, to the annoyance of the stroppier passengers, who of course took it out on the hapless crew. And now, on the thinly populated stretch of road between Orrell Moor and Billinge, it looked as if mutiny was about to break out.
‘What wilt tha do, lad, if we all get agate smashin’ thi buzz up?’ asked one reveller with an unpleasant leer.
I adopted a quarterdeck stance and the tone of Captain Bligh informing Mr Christian that a keelhauling was high on the agenda: ‘Well, the Ribble Transport training manual says “Take off the ticket machine, attach it firmly to the forearm with the leather strap and beat the delinquent over the head with it.” Your choice.’
‘Nay, nay, lad. Ah wuz only jokin’.’
‘Ahm not jokin’!’ interjected a strident female voice. ‘From Orrell Post to Billinge Lower Rant it’s only fivepence ha’penny and you’ve charged me a tanner.’
‘Sorry. Just give me a couple of minutes to finish collecting the fares and I’ll give you your change.’
‘You’ll do no such thing. I want my ha’penny and I want it now.’
‘Please be patient and I’ll be with you in a second.’
‘Patient? Patient, he sez! Will I heckerslike! I want my ha’penny. I’ve met your sort before. A ha’penny here, a ha’penny there and you’ll be making a pretty penny on th’ side.’
I raised my voice to a pitch suitable for hailing the maintop in a hurricane: ‘Does anybody apart from this “lady” want to get off at Billinge Lower Rant? No? Good, because we’re not stopping there.’
I didn’t have time to put my threat into action because it was at this point that our ninety-seven horsepower diesel chose, with an almighty bang, to throw a connecting rod through the side of the engine block.
In silence we rolled to an ignominious halt, trailing streamers of hot oil across the tarmac. Then Vincent spoke, more in sorrow than in anger and with perfect diction: ‘That’s th’ fourth fucking bus that’s gone tits up this shift.’
It wasn’t in Vincent’s nature to explode and it’s fortunate that when Jock detonated a few days later nobody but I understood what he said, because there would certainly have been complaints and possibly sackings.
It was that rare kind of British summer day when the temperature has already climbed into the eighties by mid-morning. We were trundling sedately along the A49 towards Eccleston with a chattering cargo of pleasantly buxom farmers’ wives. Jock, thoroughly at peace with the world, was controlling the steering wheel with one hand and working greedily with the other to extract the last few puffs from his current Woodbine. Finally, realising that there were no more carcinogens to be savoured, he dropped the dog-end on the steel floor of the cab.
Unfortunately, some careless mechanic back at the depot had left a wad of oil-soaked cotton waste in exactly the right spot to cause the most trouble. The hot day had vaporised the oil and as soon as Jock dropped his fag there was a whoosh and a sheet of flame which bade fair to fry him where he sat. Jock slammed on the brakes and leapt clear. Quickly realising that the flammable vapour had exhausted itself, he reached back into the cab and grabbed the fire extinguisher, with the idea of soaking the smouldering remnants of cotton waste and making all safe. The extinguisher turned out to be a dud but fortunately there was another Ribble bus coming in the opposite direction, carrying both a serviceable extinguisher and a deeply disapproving inspector, who soon put paid to the remains of our fire and gave Jock a hearty rollocking for smoking on duty.
Now the only thing still smouldering was Jock’s temper, as he drove on in silence towards Eccleston, sitting in a pool of foam. Two minutes later, our extinguisher, which had sullenly refused to function when needed, exploded down the back of his neck.