Thursday, November 18, 2010

47. Back in the work force

The scraping and varnishing of furniture done, it was time to start earning some money again. Now, the Belfast accent is pretty strong and I had difficulty understanding it, so my choice of employment was inappropriate because it involved gathering statistics for the BBC. I was given a list of social classes to be interviewed, so many of each age group, men and women, type of profession or trade etc. I usually ended the day looking for an eighty year old intellectual bricklayer! I could only say “I beg your pardon” just so many times in an interview so I did rather tend to guess the answers. Then I worked for an engineering company, typing correspondence and specifications dictated into a tape recorder! If my understanding of the accent was difficult, the understanding of engineering and technical terms was zero. It was a very stressful job.

Tommy and Jeni saved up their pocket money to buy bicycles and I added the amount that I would have spent on bus fares, plus a bonus, but riding from Bangor uphill in the pouring rain was very hard work. It was especially hard for Jeni because she wore spectacles and they were not fitted with wind screen wipers, so sometimes I would drive in to collect them and they would leave the bikes at school. While we were at Finningley, Tom had bought Tommy a second hand guitar from Sgt. Cresswell, and music became his passion. He would bring young chaps home, and they would retire to his bedroom, taking with them my plastic washing up bowl, wooden spoons and empty beer cans filled with gravel, and they would make music. I think they were all unemployed and I have no idea where Tommy met them, but they did enjoy the sessions and the piles of sandwiches and tea provided. Later Tommy acquired a couple of amplifiers, gathered other aspiring musicians around him, and tried to form a band. Sometimes they rehearsed in the garage, which must have been hard on the neighbours. He began writing songs, but school had to take priority.

As soon as she had learned to read, Jeni had a great love of books. If I don’t mention her very often it is because she was such a quiet child, always reading in her room, she never attracted a following of squealing, giggling teenage girl friends. In fact, half the time I did not even know she was around. There was a leather bound, second hand complete works of Dickens for sale that Jeni wanted and so we made a deal. It was the beginning of the school holidays, and I said that if Jeni would do the housework I would get a temp job and buy her the books. Done deal, and she looked after us all very well indeed for about a month, I think.

Once Tom joined us, we had a very happy time in Ireland. We lived nowhere near a mess, I was not required to attend all the boring cocktail parties and Tom kept fairly good hours. In Cyprus there had been only one television station and the programmes were so amateurish that service families did not have sets, but now we could watch Z-Cars and wrestling, Dr.Who and all kinds of stuff. The Saturday afternoon ritual was to put a folding picnic table in front of the fire, load it down with a toaster, a loaf of bread and anything we could think of to spread on the toast, like sardines, peanut butter, cheese and jam and watch Television. Jeni had fallen in love with a four foot high blue and white fluffy toy called Willie Wabbit, who would join us sitting in his very own little wicker chair. Tommy, who was a great animator, would try to control Willie who got overexcited whenever the Z-Car theme tune was played. Wrestling was hugely amusing, all well choreographed and dramatic. Our ladylike little daughter would yell, “Kick him in the guts! Break his arm!” There would be tag wrestling, two brothers fighting two other brothers with the two outside the ring giving great dramatic performances, almost out performing the two actually fighting in the ring. Great entertainment and not over the top like the wrestling we see on television today.

Now, I must tell you about the time I worked for Shorts of Belfast, a company that built and repaired aircraft. In the Services you are trained to do as you are told with no complaints and no refusals and so working within Union Rules was completely foreign to me. A light bulb and a screw driver were responsible for my first encounter with the shop floor stewards. The office I worked in as secretary to the Engineering Manager was on the ground floor leading off one of the hangers. It was an extremely dark place that seemed to form a trap for all the dust and dirt blown in from the hanger. The boss was away for three days when the feeble electric light bulb above my desk blew. I climbed onto my desk, removed the bulb and took it down to the stores for a replacement which was adamantly refused. “Rule No.1 Health and Safety. Do not climb on desks, you might fall off and break something. Rule No.2. Do not touch anything of an electrical nature unless one is a member of the Electricians Union. Go back to the office and get the boss to fill out a requisition form for a new light bulb”. “But, my boss is away for three days and I cannot work in the dark!” “Sorry, love. Nothing without a requisition. And don’t think about bringing a bulb in and fitting it yourself or we will have you!” The last thing I wanted was to be ‘had’ by the foreman, so I retreated.

Well, at least I could clean up the office a bit. I brought a bucket and some cleaner from home and started cleaning the room and washing down the walls. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” screamed a voice from the office door. My heart jumped and I swung round. “Cleaning my filthy office.” I snapped back. “That is the work of the cleaners.” I was told. “Then for Pete’s sake send me one. Every time I take a piece of paper out to type a letter I have to wash my hands. I cannot work like this.” The cleaners had too much to do and anyway, cleaners can only wash walls up to shoulder height, higher than that was a painter’s job. Cleaners are not allowed to climb ladders. Health and Safety regulations you see. The floor workers clocked off at 4.30 p.m. and I clocked off at 5.00 p.m. that gave me half an hour each day to clean a part of my office without being seen. If the foreman noticed that areas of pale green were gradually being revealed around the walls, he said nothing.

The boss returned, the necessary requisition was placed and the Electrician and his assistant arrived. The assistant climbed the ladder, tested the dud bulb which was duly pronounced broken by the electrician. The assistant went back to the stores while the Electrician stayed and guarded the ladder. Half an hour later the assistant returned with a new bulb which the Electrician, as the expert, screwed into the light fitting, first ensuring that the wall switch was turned off. The assistant then switched the light on and “hey Presto” the Electrician said “Let there be light” and low and behold, there was light! I signed the requisition to prove that the work had been done to my satisfaction and off they went, having taken two men half an hour to do something I could have done in five minutes, without the use of a ladder.

The screw holding the handle to a draw of my filing cabinet was loose and so I went to stores to ask them for the loan of a screwdriver for five minutes. The store man’s eyes glazed over. “What do you want that for, love?” I just want to tighten a screw on my filing cabinet.” There was a sharp intake of breath. “Sorry, love. That is a chippy’s (carpenter) job. You will have to get ……” “Forget it,” I interrupted, “I’ll use my nail file!” Mutterings about the Unions followed me down the hanger. There are a hundred such stories I could tell you, but the very last straw was my typewriter. Now, the work entailed typing many stencils which were then used for duplicating. The typing standard of the operative showed up by the number of red blobs made by the special ink used to cover up mistakes. My stencils were well blobbed. Anyway, typing stencils quickly clogged up the keys of the typewriter and so, apart from the weekly routine cleaning and oiling my machine needed extra cleans. So I was brushing and cleaning one morning when the shop steward, a nice chap with whom I was on good terms, came in. Almost turning white he said “My, God, Si, What are you doing?” “I am cleaning my flipping typewriter, what do you think I’m doing?” “But there are engineers who come round to service them.” I put down the brush and gazed heavenwards. “Every three months they do, not every flipping morning! How can I type with the keys all clogged up with wax. Why do you think I have a cleaning kit in my drawer?” His face was wracked with confusion until he reached a compromise. “Well, O.K. But please don’t let anyone see you!”

I could tell many other equally silly stories about the Unions at Shorts. The amazing thing is that the factory is still operational. I would have thought that with all the stupidity it would have gone bust ages ago.

Of course this happy time could not last, and two years on Tom was posted to Germany for the second time and we agreed that Tommy, Jeni and I would remain in Ireland, in our own little house, so that the children could stay on at Bangor Grammar School where they were doing well. I love all theatres, except the ones in hospitals, but I was about to make my fourth appearance on the table, this time in the operating theatre of the Bangor Cottage Hospital. I made my usual good recovery and very quickly had the other three patients in the ward in stitches – figuratively speaking. I had scratched the surface of their staid Irish propriety, we were in the ‘womby’ ward so it was not difficult, and I was reprimanded by the sister on duty for causing too much raucous laugher. Tom visited me and I kissed him, just to make sure the old hormones were still active, and all was well. When he was about to leave for Germany the thought of seeing him only two or three times a year was unbearable; and so I made one of the worst mistakes of my life – I said we wanted to be with him, and so we put the house on the market and prepared to move.

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