I’ve said that after I left school, I had a few full time jobs before I went to university. They all had their good points, but I think I probably had the most fun at Trading Standards.
There was quite a variety of things that we had to do and I didn’t do most of them. I say, ‘we’, meaning quite a few people. The city and surrounding districts had been divided up and there were teams of people who dealt with trading issues in those areas. Each team comprised a Trading Standards Officer, who had legal powers; a Trading Standards Enforcement Officer, who was training to be a Trading Standards Officer and an Enforcement Assistant, which was what I was. Enforcement assistants were gofers.
I’ve previously mentioned Geoff, who was approaching retirement and was an Enforcement Assistant, and there was Mike ‘Donkey’ Dean, who apparently had a very big willy and a kid called Nigel, who was in his late twenties, divorced, back living with his parents and working hard at becoming an alcoholic. He was permanently on the brink of being pissed – all day. But my closest friend there was Sarah, who was also a gofer like I was.
Sarah had been at the same school that I went to and I knew of her: she was hard. She looked hard, anyway. She wasn’t big or anything, but she had a clear, ‘Don’t fucking bother’ look on her face most of the time. At school, I’d been a bit scared of her and when I first walked into the Trading Standards offices and clocked her, my sphincter twitched mildly through tension.
As the only people there younger than about forty who weren’t functioning alcoholics, we deviated towards one another. Our first conversation consisted of her asking me what music I was into. At that time, The Smiths had been broken up for about six months and I was mortified. Out of loyalty and blind hope, I listened exclusively to them. I told her I was into The Smiths and her eyebrow raised in what looked like a non-verbal, ‘Well, perhaps he’s not the dullard I automatically assumed he was,’ sort of expression. She was into The Smiths too (yes, she had ‘Louder Than Bombs’, of course she did, she was a girl) but was also prepared to listen to other records too.
She wasn’t an indie kid. She was part of a subculture that existed prior to The Stone Roses destroying them all – most of them – I don’t even know exactly what the tribe was referred to as, but it was either psychobilly, rockabilly, something like that. We went to the same nightclubs, mainly Spiders, but sometimes Silhouettes as well. Sometimes Welly, although I went there more than she did. At Spiders, when Spear of Destiny got played, Sarah and her subcultural buddies would stalk the dancefloor, looking pissed off and would put their arms by their sides and do a dance that consisted of waggling their forearms around whilst their upper arms remained firmly pinned to their chests. It was a bit weird, but maybe that was the point.
At that point, you could have drawn a map of Spiders and shaded in particular parts of the club so as to represent the locations where the various subcultures gathered. There was Goth Corner, Indie/Sixties/Fey Kids upstairs, The Grebos hung out on the stairs, the punks in front of the downstairs bar, the Psycho/Rockabilliies next to the Goths, and so it went. Most people never even moved from their invisibly marked area, but I liked to wander and have a look. Also, I wasn’t exclusively friends with any one group, I knew people in most of the tribes. Particularly Goths, which tended to be quite female dominated. Plus, I enjoyed the various dancing styles. My favourite was probably the tree growing from the acorn thing that the Goths did to everything. The records were horrible though: ‘The Mish’, ‘Sisters’ and The Cure were popular for arboreally inspired expression through movement. I found it a bit odd because they all looked like Adrian Mole’s dad when he was unemployed and got caught joining in with the ‘Acorn becoming a great oak’ on Playschool.
Sarah and I ended up going to Spiders together most Saturday nights and, apart from an isolated incident which resulted in her boyfriend trying to kick my head in after he’d caught us curled up together and drunkenly dribbling into one another’s mouths under the stairs, as the Grebos shouted their unhappiness at what appeared to be a burgeoning mixed tribe relationship developing under their greasy hair, we had a good time. The ‘Don’t fucking bother’ look was, like it usually is, protection against people trying to take advantage and she’d turned out to be kind, thoughtful and funny. He was a Psychobilly, but his punches weren’t too painful, possibly on the grounds that his biceps may have suffered atrophy as a result of his subculture’s particularly peculiar style of dancing.
We weren’t really like that, though. It was the drink. Well, that was her excuse and she probably needed one. I wasn’t much of a boozer, but I was a regular partaker of psychedelics and so I suppose my excuse should have been, “I was tripping my tits off, how am I supposed to know what’s actually happening?” But I knew exactly what was happening and it felt nice. To be fair, other things that felt nice in that state included: having a wee, doing a poo, sitting down, standing up, lying down, looking at things, not looking at things, snogging, and pretty much everything else, really. You get the drift. Even her boyfriend punching me in the face felt quite nice at the time.
We lived close to each other so we’d share lifts and sing together on the way to and from work. We did a nice duet on “The Fairytale of New York”, which we didn’t restrict to Christmas. At work, she was in a different team, so we’d hang around together at the start of work and at the end of the day. It was alright.
I’ve said that we had a variety of jobs to do: testing petrol pumps, which involved the gofers carting brass 20 gallon tanks of diesel from the pump and pouring it back into the open tanks, keeping an eye out for people smoking on the forecourt; counting pigs at the pig market and issuing movement licenses; testing weighbridges with half ton roller weights; testing scales in shops, collecting samples of meat products from butchers for sending off to the lab for testing; checking beer pumps and optics in pubs and clubs, visiting complainants, going to court and testifying, and working with customs and excise on various things.
Plenty of variety, you’d say. Well, yes and no. You could boil it down to fetching and carrying various things. That and having the same conversations with different people. My personal favourite was in pubs, when you were testing the beer pumps and optics and the barflies would say, “Do you get to drink them, then? Hur hur,” Some things just never wear thin, do they?
We also had to keep records of this stuff we were doing and filing all that away was part of my job, too. Not that I bothered with that, which was alright until an outbreak of blue ear disease in the Holderness region couldn’t be locked down because lazy arse here had burnt the last year’s worth of pig licences because he couldn’t be arsed.
This was in the days before everything was done on computers. We had to fill in huge ledgers for everything. There was a computer, but nobody seemed to use it for anything and I thought I had better not ask about it because my boss was well known as the sort of person who quite enjoyed shouting at his staff. He was a very bad-tempered man and, in those days, before my bulletproof ‘I’m going to university, so knock yourself out because I’m not arsed’ jacket turned up, I did what my boss told me to do or I’d be out of a job and I wouldn’t get another one. Not after the Mail room debacle.
Apart from doing all of those things, we had to take it in turns to go down to the docks to work with customs and excise. I had to go once every month – on a Saturday.
As it was a Saturday, we were allowed to wear slightly casual clothes. During the week, we had to wear a dark blue or a black suit and shiny black shoes. On the Saturday that we had to work, we still had to be quite smart, but we could wear lighter coloured trousers and a sports jacket instead of dark suits. Not that I did, resenting then as I do now, spending money on work clothes. Donkey had a sports jacket and he thought he looked the business in it. I told him he ‘looked slicker than owl shit’ because I’d read in in a Stephen King book and thought it was funny.
My boss used to wear a brilliant white suit on Saturdays. It was dazzling. If it was sunny outside, it was difficult to look at him because the sunlight would reflect off his white suit and dazzle you. He was always there and he was quite bad-tempered. He flew off the handle without very much provocation.
What mainly happened was, we’d set up our ledgers on a big wooden desk that weighed about four tons, and people from Customs would give us a load of paperwork which we had to plough through and then check that what was coming through the docks matched the paperwork, then stamp a chit on the back with the date.
It was also our job to keep an eye on the ink pad that we stamped the stamp on and to make sure that it always had enough ink in it to make the stamp work properly. The problem was that nobody really bothered with that job. We all left it for someone else to do. What that meant was that the ink pad was almost always bone dry and you had to really whack the stamp on the ink pad to get even the smallest amount of ink on the stamp. It was like this most weeks.
So, that was our job: filling in ledgers and hammering ten bells out of this bone dry ink pad and stamping chits. It was a pretty boring job, but some of the customers were alright.
Diversion – The Plague Suit
One Saturday, Customs were understaffed and I was asked if I wouldn’t mind giving them a hand with a suspected illegally imported animal. They didn’t know what it was, but it was coming from India, so it could be “bloody anything” the Customs man told me. “Here, you’d better put this on,”
He handed over a lurid canary yellow, thick rubber suit with an attached helmet and visor. It smelled very bad, and I’ve never had much of a sense of smell. I put it on, zipped myself up and listened to my breathing, which was a bit Darth Vaderesque.
The Customs bloke handed me a pole with a very large wire loop at one end and a trigger at the other. The trigger tightened the loop.
“What’s all this?” I asked him. “Are you expecting me to chase and restrain a frigging lion, or what?” I was getting a touch of the mild concerns.
“Nah, it won’t be a fucking lion, you daft twat. Sometimes, if they’re not going to be able to keep the animal, they just set it loose. We call them ‘ditchers’,” He looked back at his ledger. “Oh, actually, it might be…”
“Are you off your tits?” I asked, “What the hell do you think I’m going to do to a sodding lion? Have you ever seen a lion, because I have and they’re fucking enormous. I tell you now, the only way I’m going to slow a lion down is if I get stuck in its throat, and I’m not really getting paid enough for that,”
“Ah, don’t be so soft, it won’t be a lion,” He looked back at the ledger. “They’d have said if it was a lion. Yeah.”
He wasn’t filling me with confidence, but then the call came through that the ship had docked and would Customs board it, remove the animal and deal with the owners. We set off for the quayside and up the ramp to the deck. Inside a corridor, we came across a family: a mum, a dad and a couple of kids. One of the kids was carrying something with a blanket over it.
“Is that the animal?” The Customs man asked them.
The mum took one look at me, dressed for the apocalypse and burst into hysterical tears. The dad started shouting at us and the kids started crying. So far, so good…
The Customs man finally noticed the blanket and dramatically stood back.
“Officer,” he said. “Officer! Officer!” He kicked me fairly gently in my leg.
“What’s under that blanket?” he asked, kicking me and pointing to the blanket.
“How should I know?” I said. “I know as much as you do. Less.” He was pretty dim. “Maybe less,”
“Look under that blanket, officer,” he said, not taking his eyes off it.
One of the kids immediately reached down and picked up the blanket and whatever was underneath it.
“Ditcher! Ditcher!” shouted the Customs bloke. “Ditcher! Officer!”
Even I appreciated that we were making the situation worse: him with his hair trigger hysteria and me dressed like something out of Star Wars and smelling like Halfords.
I put my arms out in an attempt at a ‘why don’t we all calm down, eh?’ gesture, which didn’t really work because I was still holding the loop pole. So I crouched down with difficulty and looked at the kid who was now clutching the blanket to her chest.
“What have you got there, flower?” I asked, as gently as it’s possible to when you look like you’ve come from 2001: A Space Odyssey in order to terrify nice families on boats.
Without speaking or breaking eye contact, the little Indian girl lifted the blanket to reveal a small cage with a hamster in it.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” I said to the Customs man, throwing my pole down in disgust. Who looked at me bashfully.
It turned out that this hamster was at least three years old and was legally obliged to go into quarantine for six months, by which time it would most likely have been dead of old age. The family weren’t happy, I wasn’t happy and nor was the Custom’s bloke. As I was leaving, a vet turned up, resulting in further misery for the poor Indian family.
But it was nothing compared to how unhappy I would make my boss in a couple of months’ time.
End of Diversion.
When it was my turn to work on Saturday again, I set up the ledgers, the chit books, and the ink pad, which I’d forgotten to pour any ink into yet again, so I knew I was going to have to really belt it if I was going to get the stamp to work at all. The boss was there, as usual. He was in his bright white suit, as usual and he was doing nothing of any use to anyone, as usual. He was just standing next to me, buttering up these dockers and acting important. Probably he was waiting for me to make a tiny mistake so he could go berzerk at me again. As usual.
The first load of paperwork came through and I sorted it into the right order, and set off to look at what was on the boats. I came back, filled in the ledger, wrote out the chit and checked the stamp had the correct details on it. Reading backwards always came easily to me. Then, I lifted the stamp up high above my head and brought it down with all my might onto the ink pad.
Nobody was surprised that I did this, because it happened every time a clerk had to stamp anything. Whoever the clerk was had to really bash the stamp on the ink pad because nobody ever filled it with ink.
Well, almost never.
I realised very shortly afterwards that someone must have filled the ink pad up. Someone must have put about a gallon of ink in it because when I slammed the stamp down onto the pad, as hard as I could possibly hit it, it exploded everywhere: it was all over the ceiling, the walls, the ledger, the four ton desk, the floor and, particularly, all over my boss’s once brilliant white suit, which was now mainly purple. It didn’t just go on his suit, it went all over his face as well, which was generally fairly purple from shouting at people. It went all over me, obviously. And the dockers, the shipworkers, the clerks, the goods, everything.
All of a sudden, everything went deathly quiet, but not for very long. It was as if nobody dared to even breathe.
The fragile silence was shattered by my boss, who didn’t actually say any words that I could recognise as much as he made a sort of sound that started off quite low pitched, a bit like a cow mooing, and then ended up as a sort of shriek of madness that sounded more like something off Dr. Who than a farmyard. Or a dock.
I remember feeling strangely detached from the situation and I was overwhelmed by a feeling of curiosity. I had never before – and I’ve never since – heard a human being make that sort of noise. It didn’t even sound like an animal, let alone a human. It seemed to go on for hours and I couldn’t do anything apart from stare at my boss, purple from head to foot, as he sort of vibrated in front of me, making this unearthly sound. I was transfixed, like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights.
Gradually, the sound began to fade from his lips as he took in a noisy slurp of air (and ink), pointed at me and hissed the word, “You!”.
I didn’t need any more information than that. I bolted out of the door. I could hear the sounds of rising laughter behind me as I ran away from my boss, whose shoes I could hear squelching behind me as he gave chase.
After about ten minutes of chasing me and threatening me with all manner of horrors, he calmed down enough to just shout at me, instead of removing parts of my body and sending them to my mother as he’d threatened to do a few minutes earlier.
We walked back to the customs office, like a pair of over-ripe, dripping aubergines and, as we walked through the doors, the place just erupted into laughter. There were about a hundred men, in varying shades of purple, pointing at us and crying with laughter.
On Monday at work, all anyone talked about was how I had half-drowned the boss with ink at the docks. I don’t know how anybody knew, but they all did.
When it was my turn to work the Saturday at the docks again, I noticed that my boss had got himself a brand new suit. It wasn’t brilliant white like the last one though. This one was bright purple.
He looked at me and said, “Well, I’d be a damned fool to wear any other colour anywhere near you, wouldn’t I, Middleton?”
On my last day, the Enforcement assistants presented me with a huge bottle of purple ink as a leaving present. And, as I walked out for the last time, I think I might have heard cheering coming from my boss’s office, but I couldn’t be sure…
Perhaps inspired by an idiot like me going to university, Sarah applied later and was due to start at Hull that October. She never went because, whilst driving to work one day, a lorry missed a stop sign and hit her mini, killing her instantly. I appreciate that there’s a pattern developing here: long, waffly story with lots of digression, ending in the tragic death of a nice girl at the end of it. I’m sorry, I know it looks cheap, but both of these girls were great and I’d more or less lost touch with them when they died and I regret it. I miss them. Actually, there is another morbid story, ending in yet another death of a nice girl. And then there’s Ploggy, too. I take it back: there’ll be plenty more deaths to come. I suppose it’s what happens to us lucky ones as we get older. Hurray.
I went to her funeral, my first. When I got home and my mother asked me how it had been, I told her that if I dropped down dead tomorrow, whatever they did, I didn’t want that. The priest, who hadn’t known her at all, gave us the message that, basically, yes it was a tragic thing that had happened, but let’s not forget what a righteous dude God is, eh? Big pile of shit.
I remember her in my own way. To get to the shops near our house, you have to walk past the junction where she was killed and when I do, I sing a line from “The Fairytale of New York” to myself: “I could have been someone,” and I hear her in my head answering, “Well, so could anyone,”
It feels quite nice now. Better than it did, anyway.