The following is a modified extract from my forthcoming hitherto unpublished autobiographical novel “Making Connections”
It was my fourth week at work, and my first day working with the phone installation team.
It was early October in 1975, and I was enjoying my new life as a Trainee Telecommunications Apprentice with Post Office Telecommunications, now metamorphosed into BT.
Based out of my home town of East Grinstead in West Sussex, I had an easy commute and was enjoying the mid-October weather, which was mainly dry and warm.
As I was only sixteen, I was still living at home and enjoying all of the comforts that Mum and Dad provided.
Getting up on this particular sunny morning, I showered and pulled on my Levis, a check shirt, and my jacket, and rushed downstairs to greet the world.
My dear old Mum, bless her, had prepared me a bowl of cereals, and gulping this down, I gave her a perfunctory peck on the cheek, grabbing my packed lunch as I rushed for the door.
Dragging my bike up the drive, I pushed and jumped astride it, nearly knocking down the neighbour’s nineteen-year-old daughter.
“Sorry!” I yelled over my shoulder, still accelerating down the cul-de-sac. Nice looking woman. Not interested in a kid of sixteen though, which was a shame as she was really hot.
The Telephone Engineering Centre was only just down the hill, right opposite my old school, and I zoomed down, eyes watering in the slipstream, arriving there within a few short minutes.
Swooping in through the open gates of the yard, I narrowly missed becoming a bonnet ornament for a bright yellow panel van which was just pulling out. Swerving, I dodged the truck, blasting through its sooty exhaust with inches to spare.
I carelessly rammed the front wheel of the bike into the rack, and snapped the chain around the wheel, locking it to the metal.
I noticed a door was ajar at the far end of the single-storey building, so, with a little trepidation, I walked down, and cautiously pushed the door open, and walked into the dimly lit interior.
“Ah…..you must be my new Youth in Training!”
I looked over to the corner, where the owner of the voice was seated – a slender man, in his mid-forties, whose mop of black unruly hair had been mercilessly bullied into a 1950s Tony Curtis style. On his lap, he was clutching a piece of equipment, whilst tightening something within it with a large, yellow handled screwdriver.
His rumpled tweed sports jacket was distorted by objects that had been rammed carelessly into the pockets, and his grey flannel trousers hadn’t seen a proper crease since 1953.
“Hello” I ventured, “I need to report to Mr Hudson”
“You’ve come to the right place then lad, as I’m Ben Hudson”
I shook his proffered hand, “nice to meet you Mister Hudson”
“It’s Ben” he chuckled, “no formality around here…..now, would you like some tea and toast?”
“Ben” I echoed. Bloody hell, a few short weeks ago, men of his age – my teachers at school, would have gone into meltdown had I addressed them in this way.
“Come on lad”, he said, placing the grey cased equipment onto the work bench, “Let’s go and grab some breakfast, and then we’ll head out.”
The restroom was full of sound – laughter, conversations, and odours of toast, coffee and cigarette smoke.
I followed Ben as he pushed his way to the kitchen counter, whereupon he dropped two slices of bread into the toaster.
Two minutes later, he passed me a plate with 2 slices of toast. “Butter is in the dish. We operate a tea swindle here which is 25p a week to cover tea, milk, bread and butter. Anything else you want, you buy yourself. You want to join, go and see Mitch, and he’ll put you on the list. Now, eat up because we have to get going.” So saying, he sluiced his plate under the tap and wandered out with his hands jammed into his pockets.
I hurriedly wolfed down the toast, and drunk the tea, (which I had to do really quickly to prevent the tannin from stripping the enamel from my teeth), then scurried after Ben, who was by now loading the back of his bright yellow Morris Ital van with plastic-wrapped phones, and cardboard boxes containing mysterious bits of equipment.
We got in, slamming the doors shut, and Ben drove us sedately out of the yard.
We meandered serenely through the sun-dappled lanes of West Sussex, the sleepy villages etching their historic lanes into my mind; Sharpthorne, West Hoathly, Danehill, Horsted Keynes, finally arriving in the small village of Scaynes Hill.
We parked up outside an elegant 17th century Manor House, with timber beams, and a patina of age on the whitewashed walls.
Grabbing a shrunk-wrapped telephone, a reel of cream cable and his leather tool bag from the back of the van, I followed Ben as we crunched our way up the gravel drive, with me clutching my small, virginal zip-up tool bag.
Knocking on the door, we stood in the porch, admiring the Elizabethan garden, resplendent in its autumnal colours. I idly wondered if they had a gardener.
At that moment the door was opened, revealing an elegant and stunningly attractive woman in her early thirties.
My eyes were immediately drawn to her magnificent breasts, snugly contained in a tight angora wool jumper.
My interest in her vaporised instantly as she spoke, haughtily, and with the arrogance that only the nouveau riche seems to have.
“I suppose you’re here to fit the phone….”
Ben glanced at me and agreed. “Maybe you can show us where you want it fitted? He asked.
She about turned, and strode off down the wood-panelled hall, nonchalantly indicating an open door on the left. “In there, on the window cill” she called without even giving us a further glance. I furtively watched her neat backside, as she sashayed off down the corridor.
We walked into the indicated room, which was bright, empty and airy, with a wood parquet floor. Ben smiled at me, and dumped his battered Gladstone bag on the floor, and tore open the cellophane packaging from the phone. Reaching into his bag, he tossed me the reel of cable and a small box of cleats.
Selecting a pin hammer from his bag, he explained to me “Secure the cable to the skirting board, using one cleat every pin hammer length. Put one cleat two inches from every corner you need to go around. Don’t nail through the cable. Got that?” I nodded. He continued “I’ll start in the hall. You do the room here. Leave me three foot of cable to hook the connector block to”
I gingerly unrolled a length of the cable, and commenced banging cleats in at the required spacing, managing to belt my thumb at least twice. I could hear the rhythmic thumping as Ben was cleating the cable to the skirting of the hall. He was moving at about three times my speed, so it wasn’t long before he appeared in the room with me.
He knelt down and started cleating as well. “Bit of a dry visit, this one” he murmured. “Snooty cow didn’t even offer us a tea” I grunted my response, and turned to see a small child, emptying the box of cleats over the floor.
Ben called through the open doorway to the boy’s mother, asking her to take him out of the room, as he was in danger of hurting himself.
She strode in, sweeping the child into her arms, and glared at us both as if it were our fault, before strutting out.
We turned back to our work, and I started hammering again. As I reached out to get another cleat, my hand struck something warm and wet. I looked around, and saw a Pekingese dog, snouting around in the cleat box.
I pushed it away, and it immediately nosed forwards and recommenced its snuffling. Ben also pushed it away, with the same result. He pushed it away – more firmly this time, but it was to no avail.
“Excuse me lady” he shouted down the corridor “Could you come and get your dog, it’s in the way”
There was no response from within the bowels of the house, so he called out again. Silence.
Heaving a sigh, he knelt back down, and once again started pushing the dog out of the way.
Each time it happened, he pushed the animal away more forcefully. I could see him beginning to lose his placid sense of humour. I smirked. It seemed that the dog wasn’t interested in me, so I knelt back down, and carried on bashing my thumb with the pin hammer.
I could hear Ben swearing at the dog, as once more it was interfering with his work. “Will you sod off!” I heard him exclaim. The dog didn’t sod off though, and it continued to push its nose just where Ben wanted to hammer.
I watched as this happened once more, and laughed as Ben finally lost control. He pushed the dog back, and as it advanced again, he tapped it smartly on the forehead, between the eyes, “for the last time, WILL YOU SOD OFF!”
The dog stopped in its tracks, froze, and rolled onto its back, quivered once, and then flopped over, immobile.
I looked at the dog. It’s chest wasn’t moving. “Christ Ben!” I exclaimed. “You’ve killed it!”
Ben looked shocked. “Nah. I probably stunned it. It’ll be ok in a minute”. I wasn’t sharing his optimism. The dog was dead. To make sure, I cocked my ear over its snout, and could detect no breathing.
“Ben……it’s definitely dead! Christ. What shall we do?”
My brain was already playing a film clip, featuring me getting the sack from an incandescently enraged manager.
“Don’t worry lad” said Ben, perking up. “I’ve got an idea”
He picked up the dead dog, slung it unceremoniously into his Gladstone bag, secured it closed, and said “follow me, and keep your mouth shut”
He yelled into the kitchen “Sorry love, we have to go back to the yard to get a tool. We will be back shortly”
A garbled response from the kitchen confirmed that she heartily disliked The GPO in general, and the Telecommunications division in particular, and bemoaning the quality of British working practices.
If only she knew.
We chucked Ben’s bag into the van, and we hurtled back to the yard in silence.
As we pulled into the yard. I asked “what tools do we need?”
Ben grinned, and said “A shovel lad”
Opening the back of his van, he passed me a large spade, and indicating the scrubby patch of woodland at the rear of the offices, he said. “Bury it”
“Bury it. Over there. Dig down two feet. Come on, hurry up. We need to get back. Consider it part of your training. Thinking on your feet!”
I miserably picked up the dog, which had already started stiffening up. I pushed my way into the bushes, and dug a hole, into which I placed it’s little corpse. I quickly shoveled the earth over it, and replaced the spade in the van.
Having completed my funereal task. We drove back to the customer’s house, and went back to wiring up the phone.
As we were finishing up, the woman came in, and cast her eye over our handiwork. “Does it work?” She asked, as if already convinced that it would be a major achievement if it did.
“Of course” replied Ben, as he nonchalantly started loading his tools back into his bag.
“Have you seen Lionel?” She asked
“Lionel?” We obviously both looked like drooling morons, as she explained to us slowly, enunciating each word slowly and precisely, as if to a six year old, that Lionel was her dog.
Ben furtively glanced at me, but we both shook our heads, as Ben innocently said “No, Madam, we haven’t seen a dog”
“Oh dear. I expected he got out when you went back to the yard. He’s probably in the woods by now”
“Without a doubt” I said, straight faced, looking at Ben. I could see he was trying very hard not to laugh.
“Yes, he likes to dig…..probably burrowing for rabbits”
“Oh yes…..I imagine He’s up to his neck in the mud” I said.
Ben had gone a strange colour, and was emitting constricted noises. I shuffled my feet, and said “Well…..cheerio then”
“Yes” she said, icily. “Goodbye”
She ushered us to the door, and with one final appreciative look at her wonderful chest, we were striding back down the drive to the van.
As we got into the van, Ben finally collapsed against the steering wheel, great guffaws of laughter filling the van.
“Oh my lord…..that was funny in an awful sort of way. Well done lad”. He wiped a tear from his cheek, and started the van, and we made our way back to the telephone exchange at Nutley for a cuppa and a bun.
And so ended my first day as an apprentice installing telephones in Sussex.
No two days were ever that same, that’s for sure.