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APPRENTICE Comedy English Culture Humour Nostalgia Short Story Society Telecommunications Uncategorized Work

Phones, Dogs and Burials

The following is a modified extract from my forthcoming hitherto unpublished autobiographical novel “Making Connections”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.

A Bedford Polecat Truck – Designed to remove old Telephone Poles and install new ones.

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.

Loading Up…

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. 

Scaynes Hill this way…

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.

My virginal Apprentices’ Zip-up Tool Kit.

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….”

Standard Cream 746 telephone

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”

Post Office Telephones Box Terminal 52A State of the Art in 1975

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”

GPO Telephone Engineer’s Gladstone bag, to carry tools, equipment and occassionally the deceased.

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”

“What?”

“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.

Nutley Telephone Exchange – a good place for a cuppa on the way home. Photo courtesy of Dave Spicer

And so ended my first day as an apprentice installing telephones in Sussex.

No two days were ever that same, that’s for sure.

Go Well…

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APPRENTICE English Culture Humour Nostalgia Short Story Society Telecommunications Vehicles Work

The Apprentice – 70s style

A long time ago, in a work environment far, far away….

The year was 1976. It was autumn, and I was in the second year of my apprenticeship with Post Office Telecommunications – or BT as it has now become.

The beginning of that September saw me transferred from Exchange Maintenance to the Overhead and Underground unit, or Poles and Holes as we called them. Apprentices were rotated through every specialist section of BT telecommunications, so that they are exposed to all aspects of the business.

So far, I had enjoyed working with Subsciber Installations, Planning, Exchange Construction and Exchange Mintenance. I really wasn’t looking forward to working at the industrial end of the business -especially not during the onset of winter!

On my first day of training with them, I strolled into the Telephone Engineering Centre in the sleepy West Sussex town of East Grinsead,

Opening my locker, I pulled my tool kit out, and whistling tunelessly, made my way into the restroom to grab some breakfast, and meet my mentors, before we set off into my next adventure.

I barged into the brightly lit rest room, which was noisy with laughter, and hazy with cigarette smoke. Damn – I just loved the smell of Old Holborn.

I poured myself a cup of tea from the enormous aluminium tea pot, gulping some down as I waited for my two slices of toast to pop. I had to quaff it reasonably quickly as it would have stripped the enamel from my teeth otherwise.

I used the opportunity to discretely assess my new team mates and trainers.  In the far corner, sat a small and wizened man, whose leathery skin contrasted starkly with his silver-grey hair, which had been buzz cut to within 2 millimetres of his scalp.

He was chatting loudly with a man of simply enormous proportions, whose bulk leaked like decomposing blancmange into every crevice of the chair he was sitting in. 

They were known to all as Laurel and Hardy.  The smaller of the two was Jim Smith, and Mr. Blancmange was Bert Handy. I had heard through the grapevine, and from other apprentices, that they were both real characters, but Bert was also “A bit of a Perv.” Whether or not this would prove to be true remained to be seen.

I glanced again at the pair, and was rewarded to see Bert insert one large and grimy finger into his nostril, and enthusiastically start what looked like major excavation work. He didn’t even stop talking to Jim, who seemed oblivious of the fact that Bert was so avidly picking his nose. 

So it was that I started this new and somewhat uninspiring part of my training.

The Old Bedford box lorry

My days consisted of driving out to some country lane, somewhere in the wilds of Sussex, looking for faults, or renewing spans of cable.

I had developed a simple routine to avoid the discomfort of wearing my armoured wellies all the time. I left my boots in the box section of the lorry, and simply sat on the bench, placing a foot into each wellie in turn.

The box section of the van contained all that a crew needed to perform its duties, from cables, joints, s calor gas burner, a bench with a vice and a whole spectrum of tools on racks on the inner walls.

The job was frequently a messy one, as the cables were filled with a vaseline type grease to prevent water penetrating the cable. When this was cut, or we were crimping joints together, this messy stuff would get everywhere.

The company had thoughtfully provided hand cleaner, and a couple of large pans for cleaning purposes. They were large and had a long wooden handle – for all the world like a Wok on steroids.

I had been soundly berated a few days after joining the section for preparing hot water for hand washing in the red handled pan. To be fair, I hadn’t been told otherwise.

It seems that the pan with red insulating tape wound round the handle was NOT used for hand washing, but for relieving oneself when working away from public lavatories. such as residential roads, and parts of town centres that had no public conveniences.

Everytime one of the lads needed to go, they would simply discretely climb into the back of the truck, use the red handled pan, and then empty this into the gutter, sluicing it away with water from the jerry cans on board.

So, cutting a long story short…

Once Laurel and Hardy got to know me, they used to fool around and joke.

On this particular morning, they were both very quiet, and I picked up an air of supressed anticipation.

I found out about this, when I sat dowm, popped my size nines into my wellies, stood up, and then face planted myself on the floor.

The rotten sods had screwed my wellies to the floor of the truck!

Oh, how I laughed.

Now, I am not a venegful person by any means, but my nose took a bit of damage in the incident, which caused much mirth and hilarity back at the yard. However, every dog has his day, and I planned my retaliatory mission with care.

The next day, we bumped and groaned our way into the back lanes around Hartfield, eventiually parking up not far from the place where A.A. Milne wrote the Winnie The Pooh stories.

Pooh Bridge near Hartfield in East Sussex. Yes, it really exists, and you can play Pooh Sticks there.

Without delay, we set about locating the fault, and preparing the new piece of cable.

Bert straightened up, and slowly made his way back to the van, whilst Jim and I carried on crimping connectors onto the cable.

I watched as Bert climbed the steps and disappeared into the van, closing the door behind him.

I mentally counted…

“One, two three…” I reckoned it would take about six seconds. “four, five, six, seven….. ARGGGHHHH – You bastards!”

He came rocketing out of the van with the pan in his hand, slopping liquid everywhere. He bent and emptied it into the gutter, and advanced up the road in a very threatening manner.

His overalls had a horizontal wet line running across his upper thighs – in fact he appeared to be soaked in a broad stripe about two inches wide.

It’s amazing what a 1/16th drill can do if applied to a red-handled pan in a circular fashion.

Jim just looked at me. “You nutty bugger!”

Bert was still fuming by lunchtime, but I think he forgave me later, when his overalls had dried out.

There is a further episode to this ongoing battle of wits (or should I say half-wits) but that willl have to wait for another time.

Go Well….

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Comedy English Culture Humour local economy Nostalgia Satire Short Story Society Technology Uncategorized Work

Thumbs up for typewriters? well, maybe not…

This is another modified extract from my forthcoming book, “A Salesman’s Story (Or Don’t Spend the Commission)

In the early 1980s, the cutting edge of office printing machines was an electric typewriter, and I sold many different models, from a simple “sit up and beg” typewriter, right up through the range to the latest electronic machines that offered a single line LED display, a 4,000 character memory and a Daisywheel printer.

Even in the early 1980s, standard electric typewriters still had a market, particularly with solicitors, as the weight of paper used for legal documents presented a problem to the electronic machines, mainly due to the hammer not striking the character hard enough against the paper to place a successful image on the underlying copies.

Now, I should explain here, that the Eagle 800 was built like a tank, and normally printed via fabric ribbons, which were bi-colour, with one half of the ribbon being impregnated with red ink, and the other half with black.

When powered up, a motor would run, which would spin a powered rubber roller. If a key were pressed, the associated type hammer (bearing a cast image of the appropriate character) would press against the spinning roller, and be flung upwards at great speed.  

A simple mechanical link would lift the ribbon carrier to coincide with the type hammer striking the platen, upon which the paper sheet was clamped. The type hammer would then fall back to its rest position.

Now, some of the keys were fitted with a repeat function. For example, the letter “X” key could be held down, and the letter x would be repeatedly typed onto the page, enabling lines of incorrect text to be obliterated from the page.

So, now you know the basics…

As salesmen, we not only had to know the basics, but also had to know every feature, advantage and benefit that each machine in the range was able to offer. To ensure that I had the necessary tools in my sales kit, I was sent to the manufacturers premises in Leicester to attend a product course.

Our instructor, a portly little chap called Richard Scratcher, was explaining the features, advantages and benefits of the Eagle 800 machine.  He was extolling its virtues as a very tough and well-built piece of equipment.

The Triumph Adler/Imperial Model 800 – A true Workhorse of the 1980s office

“Now, I’m going to show you a very powerful sales technique, guaranteed to help you get the sale”. We all gathered close as he fumbled in his trouser pockets, finally producing a penny coin. He held it aloft like some kind of Devine talisman. 

“To show how tough the mechanism is, simply hold the penny against the ribbon guide, and hold down the repeat “X” key, thusly”. So saying and with a very flamboyant flourish, he proffered the penny into the top aperture whilst holding the aforementioned key.

With a noise like a juvenile machine gun, the X type-hammer blurred against the ribbon guide, the carriage advancing at high speed with each impact, stuttering from right to left with a mechanical clatter.  

The demonstration complete, the silence was deafening. He passed the coin amongst us; I was surprised. It was deformed, and deeply embossed with a capital X. 

The theatrical impact of this would be impressive, and I determined to use this approach when I next went to demo an Eagle 800.  

I didn’t have long to wait, and it was two weeks later that I received a call from Mr Rayne of Babbage de Chelwode solicitors in Crowborough. I had met Mr Rayne before when I sold a dictation system to the practice. 

He was a curious individual, a cross between John Lennon, with his long, lank, greasy hair, and Marty Feldman, with his bulging eyes lurking behind large, round glasses. 

He also had a bad habit of suddenly stopping speaking in mid-sentence, and after a variable amount of time would suddenly recommence.  It was like his brain worked slower than his mouth, which had to stop until it had received the next packet of data. It was most disconcerting.

Anyhow, he was looking to upgrade a manual typewriter and had received my letter offering good prices on the Eagle 800.  

So here I was, sitting across the desk from him, in the wonderful old Jacobean room that served as his office.

“Now, you see, we have legal engrossment paper here, Judi………………”

I waited.   And waited.  He was still staring at me through his glasses, like a scene from a Wild West poker game. 

I leaned forwards.  “Judy?” I ventured, hoping to re-activate his speech system.

“Yes.  Judy.  You know. Judicial paper for wills and stuff. It’s thick and that’s why we need a manual typewriter as it needs to cut a carbon copy underneath”

I nodded, explaining that there was no typing job the 800 couldn’t do, said with a confidence that was belying my uncertainty.

Paper is graded on its strength in terms of the weight it will bear, expressed in grams per square metre. To assess the standard weight of paper, a square metre of it is clamped into a frame, and weight is applied to it until it bursts or tears. 

General-purpose paper is anywhere between 70gsm and 90gsm.  Luxury and specialist paper is over 100gsm, with legal paper at the top end of the spectrum at 120gsm.

Naturally, a copy would be needed, so the carbon paper would be beneath the Judicial paper and the copy paper beneath that. My guess was that the total paper weight would be almost 200gsm.

I seriously wondered whether the Eagle electric 800 would be man enough.

I really shouldn’t have worried.

I had set the machine up in his secretary’s office, which was gloriously untidy, with files everywhere, flowing as if a waterfall from her desk, over the carpet. 

Now was my moment!

I walked over to the machine and pulled a penny piece from my pocket.  I could see they were both regarding me in confused silence.

“To demonstrate the power of the 800, I would like you to watch this”

With a flourish, I placed the penny inside the machine, locating it against the ribbon guide.  Whilst looking them in the eyes, I confidently pressed the “X” key and was rewarded with the high-speed clatter of the type hammer reverberating against the coin.

I lifted my finger from the key and passed the coin across to Mr Rayne.  He took the proffered penny, and held it up, examining its distorted shape and the deep impression cut into it by the machine.

“Wow!” He exclaimed. “Take a look at that Mary”, passing it to her.

She looked at it – a bit dubiously, I thought.

“So, now let’s have a crack at your heaviest legal paper.  By the way, if it does what you want it to do, will you be in a position to place an order today?”

“Oh, I think so….we really need to……………………”

Mary and I both watched him in silent anticipation, waiting for him to finish

“……..bring ourselves up to date”

I inwardly smirked.  The 800 was superseded a couple of years ago by the golf ball typewriter, and the golfball was now being superseded by the daisy wheel.  Up to date indeed!

I watched as Mary pulled the bail bar forwards, and wound the unwieldy paper onto the carriage.  

She started pecking away at the keys, suddenly exclaiming “Oh…it’s not working”

I smiled as I reached forwards, switching the machine on “You now have the luxury of electric power. You don’t need to hammer these keys as heavily as on your previous machine”

The machine was quietly humming, and she hesitantly started typing, speeding up as she became used to the feel of the keyboard.  At the end of the line, I saw her left hand reaching for the carriage return lever, which would have been used on a manual typewriter to push the carriage back to the right-hand stop, and advance the roller by one line.

“It’s a common event” I laughed, showing her the key marked RETURN. She pressed it, and the carriage smoothly moved.  “Oh My,” she remarked.

Now she was up to speed, and we allowed her to type a few paragraphs.

She pulled the document from the carriage, and we all inspected the output. The print was crisp, dark black, and perfectly aligned.  The carbon copy was just as good.

I dramatically passed the carbon copy to Mr Rayne, and he was suitably impressed.

Twenty minutes later, I was happily sitting in my car in the car park, filling out the rest of the rental agreement. Tapping away at my calculator I worked out that a thirty-minute meeting had netted me a cool £60* commission.  Snapping my case shut, I started the car, wound down the window a crack, and stoked up a Bensons. I idly watched the tendrils of smoke being slowly and gracefully sucked out. 

Twirling the key in the ignition, I decided to head back to the office.

I swung into the office car park in what I considered to be my exuberant fashion.  The Managing Director referred to it as “You arsehole” fashion.  I know this, as he indicated his feelings by bellowing into the car park from his office like a fairground barker, calling into question both my driving ability and my parentage.  

I smiled, and waved cheerily up at him, which, judging by the further incoherent ratings, merely proved to enrage him further. I strode briskly into the office, charging up the stairwell two at a time, running into the Sales department, and plonked myself down at my desk. I bashed away at the calculator, which confirmed that so far, I was having a very good month, and would hit target without breaking a sweat.

I checked my diary for the next day and saw that I had a fairly relaxed day, starting with a local farmer, a simple drop off on the industrial estate, and then a visit to an author to sell a binding machine.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny, as I made my way to the rambling old farm in Turners Hill.

This was going to be a simple drop off, and a demonstration of how to set the machine up. I knew that he was pretty switched on, and would pick it up in no time. I was confident that this would be a mere formality prior to me raising an invoice for £400!

Setting up the Cash Register

My assessment proved to be accurate, and I was finished with him by eleven o’clock. I drove sedately down passed the fruit farms and into the industrial estate, cutting through the side roads of Three Bridges.  

Parking up at Worldwide Injection Moulding’s Goods Inwards, I hefted their new typewriter – still in its box – into the bay, and got the warehouse foreman to sign for it, and then I was off again, heading back south and cross country for the pretty village of Horsted Keynes.

The Author was an elderly American chap, called Cyrus J Whittaker. He was the archetypal hippie, with his long grey hair pulled back in a ponytail, secured with a bandana, and wearing a battered old straw hat which I think was actually an integral part of his head –  I had never seen him without it.

He was always friendly, and frequently offered me some of his homegrown pot. Today was no different, and on this occasion, I decided to accept his offer. He passed me his tobacco tin, some papers, and a plastic bag full of leaves.  I duly rolled a respectable reefer, and we both lit up.  

I ambled back to the car, and pulled out the thermal binding system, which I was to demonstrate.

Simple to use – even when you’re stoned

Once the machine was plugged into the mains, and up to temperature, I showed him how quickly he could bind a book. The folders all had pre-glued spines, and the required pages were simply laid into the spine in the correct order, and the whole book placed spine down into the mouth of the machine.

A simple timer would indicate when the process was complete, and the thermal glue had melted and stuck the pages securely to the book. 

In his chemically-induced pliant state of mind, he readily agreed to sign the paperwork, which I happily secreted away into my briefcase – just in case he had second thoughts.

It was well gone one o’clock when I walked slightly unsteadily back to my car. I drove very carefully over to the next village and parked up at the Coach and Horses.  I was a little disappointed, as none of my friends were about, so I ordered Ham Egg and Chips, and a pint of Harveys.  

Nice place for a pub lunch…

As usual, the food was excellent, but the combined effects of one large organically grown reefer, and a pint of Harvey’s Best made me very sleepy. I knew that I would have to sleep this one off, so I drove a mile or so up the road to Ghylls Lap car park on the Ashdown Forest, rolled back the seat, and took a restorative doze for a couple of hours.

I woke up refreshed and decided to finish off the promised deliveries.  I would need to get a hustle on…

I finally arrived at Babbage de Chelwode’s at a quarter to five, so it would be a quick dash. Happy Jack the town’s parking warden would be on his way back to the Town Hall to sign off duty, so unless I was very unlucky, I could park on the double yellows for the duration of my call.

I switched the hazard lights on, and trotted up the steps, and into the cool reception area.

I was swiftly shown in, and Mr Rayne stood to greet me. I walked forward, extending my hand to shake hands, but he recoiled away. I soon saw why.  He held his hand aloft, the thumb was thickly bandaged.

“Ohh – that looks nasty” I exclaimed “What did you do?”

He looked at me very sheepishly. “Well, I had a colleague from Bennisters here yesterday……”

He stopped.  I waited. He was still looking at me, and I nudged him “Yes….”

“Well, I decided to show him how tough my typewriter was, so I tried your trick with the penny”

“Yes…” I said, encouragingly.

“Well, it must have slipped, and I engraved a letter X through my thumbnail, and about a third of my way through my thumb”

I visualized this, and immediately had to suppress the desire to laugh out loud.

“Oh dear” I sympathised “That must be really painful”  

He grunted his agreement, and I carried on “Does he want a machine as well?

“He didn’t say – as I had to go to the Village Hospital to get the bleeding to stop”.

Flipping my notebook open, I swiftly jotted down that Bennsiters could be in the market for a new machine.

“So” I said, snapping my notebook shut, “I’ll be getting on then. I hope that the machine continues to perform well. I will get the engineers to pop over sometime within the next week or two just to check the adjustments.”

He continued to gaze at me through his glasses, not saying anything, so I picked up my case, and quietly left him alone, contemplating his butchered thumb.

£259.00 in 2020*

Categories
Comedy English Culture Humour Nostalgia Satire Short Story Society Uncategorized Work

Photocopiers – A Salesman’s Nemesis

This is a modified extract from a chapter of my forthcoming book – A Salesman’s Story (or Don’t Spend the Commission)

It was a rainy day in mid-April. The year was 1980, and I was approaching my 21st Birthday. Despite the overcast day, I was feeling happy, contended and confident. I was sitting in a queue of traffic, which, as was normal for the small West Sussex market town of East Grinstead, was at a standstill. Light drizzle was spattering the windscreen, distorting the outline of the cars ahead.

I idly flicked the wipers, and they stammered their way across the window in a reluctant arc, redistributing the greasy water around the glass. Out of boredom, I turned on the radio. Martha and the Muffins were extolling the virtues of Echo Beach. I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel, and checked out my image, which was faintly reflected in the window of Baldwin’s, the local Hardware store.

I congratulated myself on my obviously cool look. Despite the gloom and the rain, red framed mirror-finished sunglasses, and a snappy beige three-piece suit can’t fail to impress. You can’t be too under dressed working as an Office Equipment Field Sales Executive can you?

My first appointment was to see the Chief Purchasing Officer of the local Borough Council, who was interested in buying a small photocopier for the planning office.

I do not trust copiers, they are fickle and I am sure they are fitted at the time of manufacture with a malevolent force.

In the early 1980s, the choice for copiers at the low volume end of the market were limited. For very low users, 3M manufactured a small machine that used specially treated paper and a thermal imaging system, and copies were performed individually.

For medium users, there were compact copiers from a variety of manufacturers, but whilst they all operated on a photographic process, some required liquid toner to produce the image, rather than the dry black powder toner used today.

An early Liquid Toner Photocopier, circa 1979

Arriving at the Town Hall, I informed the receptionist that I was there to see Mr Maskell, the Town Clerk to demonstrate a copier.

A few minutes later Mr Maskell arrived, looking a little like a flustered Secretary Bird.  He showed me to a large open plan office, which had been freshly decorated, and still smelled of adhesives and paint.

The floor had been laid in black and white carpet tiles, and I felt as if I were a pawn in a forthcoming chess match.

Brand new black and white carpet tiles – what could possibly go wrong?

I realised that all was not well when Mr Maskell started getting an odd look in his eyes. He was desperate to interrupt, but I was in full flow, and he was a courteous man, so the first inkling that I had that there was a problem, was when toner fluid suddenly gushed from the machine, vomiting out in a greenish stream, soaking my hand, trouser leg, and flooding onto the carpet tiles below.

“Oh God!” he shrieked, “It’s a brand new carpet –tell me it won’t damage or stain the carpet!”

I decided to play it cool and unflappable.  “Of course it won’t Sir” I replied, hoping fervently that I was right. “It’s completely inert, and won’t hurt the carpet.”

He calmed down visibly, and remaining in position, I completed my demonstration.  Having seen the quality of the copies, he seemed impressed, so I moved in for the kill.

“Will you be purchasing or leasing the copier?” I asked. 

“Oh, outright purchase” he replied airily “We never rent anything at the Council”

“Come this way, and I’ll see that Doreen raises the requisition and the necessary paperwork” He strode off towards the stairwell, and I moved to follow him – and almost fell over.

With sickening realisation, and a sense of impending doom, I looked down, and realised with horror, that I appeared to have a black carpet tile stuck to my left shoe, and a white tile struck to my right.

I furtively tugged at it, but it seemed that the fluid was in fact a solvent, which had bonded the plastic sole of my shoe to the acrylic surface of the tile. Looking round anxiously, I slipped out of my shoes, and attempted to rip them free, but all I succeeded in doing was pulling both tiles from the floor.

At that moment, Mr Maskell reappeared, concerned that I wasn’t following him.

He immediately assessed the situation and was evidently not happy to see a red-faced suited bloke apparently wrenching his floor up. He escorted me to his office, where Doreen kindly cut round the shoes with scissors, leaving each one with a new sole, one white, one black.

With profuse apologies, I withdrew from the Town Hall, embarrassed and sweating, assuring Mr Maskell that the company would pay for the damage.

He did eventually forgive me, and ultimately I did get the order but lost most of the commission in repair bills.

My second brush with copiers came about two weeks later when Geoff Brown asked me to help him demonstrate a Mita Copystar DC-161 copier to a firm of solicitors in Horsham.

I was always keen to help my colleagues, as I learned a lot at these sessions.

“The Mita DC-161 is a beast” I looked at Geoff and wondered quite what he meant.

“It’s VERY heavy, and you need to keep a straight back to lift it. You must lift with your knees. It’s very definitely a two man lift, and it’s not very maneuverable, particularly up and down stairs, so we always take the lift”

I eyed the pink and white monster with a degree of trepidation. It was large, measuring about 4 feet long, by 2 feet tall, and about 3 feet deep. It had a state of the art control panel on the right hand side, and a large plastic cover over the copying bed. It also cost a whopping £3000, so would attract commission in the region of £600.00!

The mighty Mita DC-161 copier – a beast at 117kg (258 pounds) – a definite two man lift!

Geoff continued, explaining that in order to carry it, we would need to use his car, a Ford Cortina Mk III Estate, and use the Demtruck, which was a small trolley that could be swiftly dismantled to enable the copier to be slid in and out of the vehicle without breaking the backs of the staff.

So, having loaded the beast, we cruised over to Horsham, and parked up outside the solicitor’s office. It was an old building, so there would be no lift to assist us, and worse still it was a three-storey building.

We wheeled the trolley into reception, and were instructed to carry the machine up to the third floor.

Geoff motioned me to one end of the machine, and I pulled the carry handles from their concealed recesses within the copiers body, and keeping a straight back, and a rigid posture, we hobbled our way to the foot of the stairwell.

Geoff then manoeuvred me so that I would have to ascend the steep flight of stairs in reverse – and, to my chagrin, I realised that he had also slyly ensured that I had the heavy end of the machine containing the bonding rollers.

I began to dot and carry myself up the stairs, puffing with the exertion. Each step was an act of faith, in that my foot would land squarely onto the stair tread. I couldn’t see down, as the copier impeded my view; I couldn’t look behind me, as I was rigid, and my arms were locked straight down

“Am I at the top yet Geoff?” I grunted.

“Couple more mate” He panted

I shuffled a further two agonising steps, and asked again “Am I there yet Geoff?”

“Yep!” came his wheezing response.

Instead of then lifting my foot, I moved it straight back, and immediately discovered that Geoff had lied to me…

There was another step.

At this moment the twin laws of gravity and impetus conspired against me, and I gracefully and inevitably toppled backwards, still holding the copier, which now slowly settled upon my chest.

I was now trapped, lying flat on my back, pinned to the flight of stairs by what felt like half a ton of copier.

“Gerrritoffme!” I shouted to Geoff. 

 “I can’t mate, he replied, I can’t let go of this end, or the whole sodding lot lands on you or carts us both off down the stairs.!”

The situation got worse, as I suddenly saw the funny side of my predicament, and I started laughing which was a bad move as the copier now lovingly wriggled and pressed harder into my chest.

“HELP!” bellowed Geoff, “Help”

After a couple of minutes, the partners appeared at the top of the stairs. My heart sank, as all of them, appeared to be somewhere between eighty and death – how could they help?

With much huffing and puffing, and the help from an amply bosomed matronly secretary, we got the copier into the office where Geoff proceeded to demonstrate its capabilities. 

An hour later, and we were happily wandering back to the car.

“So what finally persuaded them to take it?” I asked. Shooting me a big grin, he replied “I told them that if they didn’t order it, then they would have to help me carry it back down the stairs to the car!”

A few days later, I received a call from Neville Fuller, who asked me to supply him with a copier. Having discussed the various models and price options with him, we decided that a re-conditioned Sharp machine would do the trick, and I made an appointment to see him that Tuesday.

Now, I should explain here, that Neville Fuller was a courtly “Old School” gentleman, a retired accountant who now ran a small consultancy from his home. His wife was a very elegant, house-proud woman, somewhat reminiscent of Miss Marple – even down to her fondness for wearing tweed two-piece outfits and pearls.  They lived in a beautiful custom-built bungalow at the end of a very quiet cul-de-sac on the outskirts of East Grinstead.

Before going further, I should tell a little about my company car. I was given a 1978 blue Vauxhall Chevette estate car. It was, to put it bluntly, an amazingly, stupendously awful car. It was a true bitch to start, especially in the wet, handled like a trifle, and leaked water. Its only redeeming feature was a radio-cassette player, and even that was highly temperamental. Unreliable, despite the best efforts of Whites in Redhill, it broke down regularly, and was referred to as the Vauxhall Shove-it.

The latest fault to afflict this self-propelled scrap heap was that the parking brake could not be fully applied, despite the handbrake lever being applied so much that the handle pointed vertically at the roof. I was therefore quite cautious as to where I parked.

The truly appalling Vauxhall Chevette – Spent more time in the workshop than on the road.

On the day of the appointment, I swung the car into the cul de sac, and executed a precision three-point turn, smoothly reversing down the drive.  I stabbed the radio switch, rendering Sad Cafe silent.

I threw open the door, and grabbed my jacket from the hanger behind the driver’s seat.  Patting my hair down, I strode to the front door, and pressed the doorbell.

Neville Fuller opened the door, and I proffered my business card, and introduced myself, whilst stifling a degree of incredulity. 

For a second I was totally nonplussed – he was wearing what I can only describe as a Victorian Gentleman’s smoking gown, complete with a cravat in a lurid paisley design. Regaining my composure, I put my briefcase down, and stood patiently in the small porch.

Neville took my card, and peered at it, “Ahhh, the copier man. You’d better come in” he said, standing aside and indicating the chintzy hall beyond.

At that moment a loud, dull, echoing, thud interrupted the birdsong.

As if in slow motion, we both turned to see what had caused the noise, and I was astounded to see that my car had decided to make its way down the remaining 6 feet of the drive, and had now come to rest with its rear bumper lovingly contained in the warped embrace of the once pristine up and over door.

“Ohmigod I’m sorry Mr. Fuller” I blurted, I will move it….”  

I jumped into the car, started it up, and gently eased forwards, amidst the sound of rending plastic and distorting mild steel.

Resetting the hand brake, I took the precaution of engaging first gear, to prevent my car further raping my customer’s garage.

Neville was busy inspecting his door, so I joined him to review the damage.

“Is it bad?” I enquired.

“No – don’t worry, its popped back into shape, and the paint is just a bit scuffed, but it needed re-painting anyway”

This was very generous of him, as the glossy almost mirror finish clearly indicated that the door was virtually brand new.

“Would you like a coffee?” he asked as we walked into his smart bungalow.

“If that’s not too much trouble, that would be good. White with two please”

“I say Daphne, bring a coffee, white with two” he bellowed into the inner sanctum of his home.

He ushered me into his office, which was quite compact, and quite dwarfed by a huge desk, literally strewn with papers

“Where would you like me to demonstrate the copier?” I asked.

“Oh, just on the desk there will be fine” he said, swiftly gathering up stacks of paper, thus clearing a space on the desk.

Luckily the model of copier that I was about to demonstrate was a refurbished Sharp machine, one that used a black carbon powder to create the copies. It also had a bed that moved left and right upon which the original document was placed.

Being a fairly current model, it was light enough to be carried by a single person, and it had a reasonably low profile, but as a result, it was also quite wide – certainly not wide enough to be carried in a flat level upright manner through a standard UK internal doorway.

I discovered this as I was attempting to carry the machine into the office. 

Approaching the doorway, I found that the copier was too wide by about 6 inches, taking my arms into account. I smoothly turned my body through ninety degrees, and tilted the copier towards my chest, thus giving ample room for me to shuffle in sideways through the door.

And that is where the plan came unstuck.  Tilting the copier so far from its normal horizontal caused the black carbon toner to spill from the machine.

I heard a loud dull thud as about a kilo of toner hit the pristine white carpet at my feet, and I was temporarily enveloped in a cloud of cloying black dust. Mr. Fuller made a small squeaking sound, and through the stygian haze, I could see that his eyes were bulging, and he had a stricken look on his face.

I was frozen to the spot, not wanting to move, for fear of further contaminating the snowy white floor.

“Darling!” he croaked, “Would you please fetch the vacuum cleaner – quickly please”

I was impressed with his sang-froid. I had just obliterated about two square metres of luxury Persian carpet with fine black dust – carpet-bombing in its purest form. 

I gingerly placed the sooty copier on the desk, and looked at the devastation.

Mrs. Fuller arrived with the vacuum cleaner, and took in the scene with one glance. “Ohh! She exclaimed – I’ll go and get the Shake and Vac!”

“No!” I yelped. You mustn’t rub it or it will bond to the fibres of the carpet”

I plugged the vacuum in, and gingerly sucked up the vast majority of the toner,  leaving only a small patch of carpet with dark black staining, – the original point of impact.

Completing my task, I looked up to see Mr. Fuller looking at me in a bemused way over the top of his half-moon glasses.

“Err…. I don’t suppose you will still want to see the copier after this” I said, gesturing to the mess on the floor.

“Well – you’re here now” he said, “So you might as well show it to me”

Generous gesture, that.

So, I plugged in the machine, and eventually had it producing crystal clear copies of ledgers, letters and forms.

I plucked up the courage to ask if I could “fill in the paperwork”, and to my amazement, he happily filled in the Rental Agreement, thus committing himself to a three year contract, and earning me just over eighty pounds in commission.

I left a darn sight happier than his insurance company would be, having to shell out for a repair to a garage door, and the cleaning of most of the downstairs fitted carpets – all of which had been contaminated to a lesser extent, despite our care in not walking in the insidious powder.

And this is how I know that copiers are most definitely the work of the devil…

Go Well…

Categories
Short Story

Blurred Voices

Blurred. The faces are blurred. Distorted, like the voices that are owned by them. Slowly, as if in a trance, I turn through three hundred and sixty degrees. Looking up, I see the blue of the sky, but alien somehow. Looking back at the faces, I note with a strange sense of detachment, that I can almost understand what they are saying. Almost English, but not quite, always slipping from my understanding like a large polythene bag full of water being gripped with both hands..

I concentrate harder, trying to pick out something that makes sense. A faint echo resonates discordantly with the babble that pours into my struggling brain, swamped as it is with a deluge of speech. – but all jumbled. Wrong. Hideously wrong.

I tilt my head, as if this inclination will help me to decipher the cacophony, but to no avail. I still can’t make sense of the voices.

Maybe a little finger inserted into my ear canal and wiggled frantically will help. I do this, probing gently until I can go no further. I rapidly stir my fingertip around. No. That hasn’t helped.

I can hear my breath, loud and echoey in my ears. Discordant squeaks blend with the multitude of voices, further confusing the words.

“Oh well” I thought. “I’ve had enough of this”

So I cleared my snorkel, and swiftly swum to the shallow end, and hauled myself onto the slabs surrounding the pool.

“We thought you’d gone for ever”  said my friend, passing me a chilled beer. “We were yelling to you to come out, as you were down for a good 90 seconds”

“Oh?” I said. “I never heard anyone saying anything” and with that I plonked myself into an empty pool chair, and happily popped the cap off the bottle.

Wiggling my little finger in my ear canal, I smiled as the faint voices suddenly boomed into my head with perfect clarity. Smiling, I closed my eyes, and relaxed into the embrace of the recliner, basking in the warm Hampshire sunshine.

Life’s good….