Butcher Boy2. Post Office Days 2.

 

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And so the journey began.

I arrived half an hour early for the course. I had no idea what to expect. But I convinced myself this was only temporary, just until the meat trade picked up and then I’d be back down Smithfield and earning shed loads of money once again.

But for now I was going to learn how to play shops! I mean, really, how hard could it be?

Sixteen of us turned up for the course. We were introduced to “Kevin”, he was our tutor. He told us the house rules.

“You must be here for 08.42, we have a quick coffee and then start promptly at 09.00. We work through till 12.30 and then have an hour for lunch. At 1.30 we start the second session and go through till we finish at 4.12. Oh and of course we have two COMFORT breaks during the day. One at 11.00 and one at 3.00.”

This was all Chinese to me. I’d never worked to “times” before. In the Butchers shop I started at 7.00am and only stopped when we got a bit quiet for a quick cup of tea or a ham sandwich. It was the same at Smithfield, we started in the early hours of the morning and kept going till we finished. There were no “lunch hours” or set times for a cup of tea, you just grabbed a cup when you could. It seemed to me that half the day was taken up with cups of coffee and lunch breaks. I didn’t care of course, I was being paid so what the hell.

We were sitting at desks that were laid out in the shape of a horseshoe. Kevin opened a large box and gave each of us a book. It was twice the thickness of an old Argos catalogue. Massive!

It was red in colour and had the words “The Complete Guide to Post Office Services.” Written in gold lettering.

Kevin continued.

“This book will become your bible. By the end of your thirteen weeks training you’ll be able to sell all eleven hundred services that we provide.”

There was a stunned silence. Most people were worried about the huge amount of products. Me? I was still wondering what the fuck a comfort break was and what the hell did 4.12 mean?

The morning continued with Kevin telling us just how important the Postal Officers role was and how over the next thirteen weeks we would all learn the skills necessary to carry out this essential service. I almost laughed out loud.

At 12.28 Kevin told us all to go for lunch. The Regional Post Office headquarters (RHQ) was just around the corner in Old Street. If we showed our new ID passes we could use all the facilities there which included a subsidised restaurant. It just kept getting better!

Remember, this is 1980. We weren’t so “PC” back then, so as we queued up for our food I noticed small bottles of wine and cans of beer on the shelves. Not only were we going to get lunch but we could get beer and wine to go with it as well. And, all a ridiculously low price.  If this was what “normal” people did, why had I been doing all that skulduggery for years with Roy?

During lunch I started chatting to a guy called Mark. He was in a similar situation to me. He’d been made redundant from a local paint factory and had been persuaded by his Uncle to try his luck with the Post Office.

After we’d finished our hearty lunch washed down with two cans of beer each we decided to have a wander around the building.  A crowd of middle aged men in suits were laughing and joking and were walking towards a room at the end of a long corridor. We followed. We entered all together. I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was a bar!

Not only that, it was a fucking big bar. People were drinking and smoking, laughing and chatting. Just like a normal pub. We weren’t sure if we should be in there or not but went up to the bar anyway and ordered two pints of lager. We were served and it cost next to nothing. This was my kind of place. Then I heard two of the guys say something about a game of snooker as they walked out. Surely not. Not snooker tables as well. There were. Four full sized ones and only two of them being used. We had a game and then left for part two of the day. Slightly pissed.

Luckily the afternoon was all about listening and not doing. At one point I looked over at Mark and saw he had his eyes shut. I gave him a nudge.

At four o’clock we were all given an A4 piece of paper. At the top in big bold letters were the words Subsistence and Allowance Form.  Kevin held his up above his head.

“As this is a training course the Post office will pay for your train fares each day, just keep your tickets and attached them to this form. Hand them in to me at the end of the week. Oh and you each have a lunch allowance of £3.48 per day so that will be reimbursed at the same time.”

I could not believe what I was hearing. They were going to PAY me to get to and from work and pay for my subsided lunch as well. Surely there were no more surprises. But there was…

Kevin looked up at the clock on the wall and proclaimed that day one was over. It was EXACTLY twelve minutes past four!

 

 

Butcher Boy 2. Post Office Days.

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In 1980 I was made redundant. My job had been as an Assistant Sales Manager for a wholesale meat company in Smithfield market.

It was a fancy title for something much simpler. In reality I was a glorified “checker.” I checked thing in and I checked things out. With my dodgy background this was the perfect job. Lots of large pieces of meat left the depot without me “checking” them out. This meant that certain people were getting a lot of cheap meat.  All they had to do was meet me in the local pub on Fridays and pay me for my poor checking skills. I made a lot of money. But nothing lasts forever and for the first time in my young life I was out of work. I’d recently got married and we’d bought a house. Bills had to be paid.

Smithfield was changing and jobs were becoming scarce so getting another job in the Market was no longer an option.  I could have gone back to being a Butcher in a shop, but the pay wasn’t great and with the Supermarkets beginning to take over I had a feeling that the job might be short lived.

It was time to take a break from the trade that I loved. But what to do?

I had a good mate that was a Postman. He said that the basic wage wasn’t fantastic but there was always plenty of overtime and it was easy work. I liked the idea of working for the Post office, not for the job itself, but because I was confident there must be a way of “acquiring” loads of parcels. It would be like Christmas every day. Never knowing what was inside them till you opened them up. It seemed perfect for somebody with my particular skill set.

I was living in Romford in Essex and there was a local sorting office close by. I called them and asked what I needed to do to become a Postman. I was told they were in the middle of a recruitment campaign and that I should report to the sorting office the next morning to sit a test and attend an interview.

I turned up the next day dressed in the only suit I possessed and eager to get on with it.

I entered a room with desks and chairs neatly arranged and took a seat at one of them.

To my surprise the test was the easiest thing I’d ever done in my short life. Basic maths and an “observation” test. Every paper had to be completed in a certain time. The guy in charge had a stopwatch. He told us when to start and when to put down our pens. The observation test was so simple I actually started to laugh when I saw it. For example there were three pictures of a pushbike. One was slightly different to the other two. You had to put a line through the one that was different. One of the pushbikes had no handlebars the other two did. That’s how simple it was.

There were a dozen of us taking the test. We had to wait until the papers were marked and if we passed we would be called in for an interview. NINE people were told to leave. I could only assume they were complete morons.

My name was called and I was escorted into a room where three people sat at a large desk. This was the “interview panel.” All this for a job as a Postman.

There were two men and a woman. All in their late forties. The two men sat either side of the woman. All three smiled as I walked in. The man on the left of the three spoke first.

“Good morning. Please take a seat.”

I didn’t. I thrust out my hand over the desk and waited for him to shake it. He looked rather taken back. But he put his hand out and we shook hands. I then did the same to the other two. The woman had a cheeky smile on her face. I wondered if she had a feather in her knickers. I sat down and took a long look at all three of them.

“Nice to meet you all.”

The man on the left of the smiley woman spoke first.

“You did exceptionally well in the test. So tell me, why do you want to be a Postman?”

Was he fucking serious? Anyone with half a brain should have done well in the test and secondly IT’S A POSTMAN, not a rocket scientist! But, I played along and looked sincere.

“I got married recently and have a mortgage to pay so that’s the first reason. But also because I feel that working for the Post Office is providing a crucial service for the public. It’s important that people get their mail as quickly as possible. Oh, and I’m used to getting up very early.”

Jackpot. They all smiled and nodded their heads.

The other man spoke.

“That’s the kind of commitment we’re looking for. Now I’ve read through your application form and can see that you’ve had a lot of experience dealing with the public.”

I nodded.

“Yes, pretty much since I was fourteen.”

Now it was the woman’s turn.

“Look, can I be honest with you? With your experience I think you’d be more suited to the admin side of the business. How do you fancy sitting the test for the Counter Clerks position?”

I had no idea what she was talking about. But acted casually.

“Okay, that sounds good. But what exactly does that entail?”

He smile widened. It became a big warm cuddly and slightly flirtatious smile. Maybe it wasn’t a feather after all. Maybe it was something much more exotic.

“There are a number of sides to our business. There’s the Post and then there’s the Counters. You know when you go into a main Post office to buy stamps or pay a bill or get your car taxed?”

Again I nodded.

“Well the person that serves you is called a Counter Clerk or a Postal Officer to give them their proper title. I think you’d be perfect for that job.”

I asked the first question that came into my head.

“Is it more money?”

“Yes, quite a bit more.”

“Okay, I’ll take it.”

The decision was an easy one. Although there would be no parcels involved, these guys dealt with money and lots of it. This seemed too good to be true.

I seemed to have said something extremely funny because the woman roared with laughter. Whatever WAS in her knickers was obviously working its magic.

“It’s not quite that simple. You have to sit another test. But, judging by how well you’ve done in this one, you should fly through.”

“Great, when can I sit the test?”

“This afternoon. We’re holding them at two o’clock.”

I left and said I’d return at two. It was now midday. I had two hours to kill. There was only one place to go. The pub.

I had three or four pints and then went back to sit the “Counter Clerk” test. This time there was a room full of people, maybe twenty five or thirty. We each sat at a desk and were given test papers. They were more difficult than the Postman’s “exam”, but still just basic maths and English. I finished and waited. Within thirty minutes more than half the class were let go. They’d failed. This left about a dozen of us.

My name was called and I went in for the interview. The same three people sat there looking at me. All smiling. The woman with the secret appliance spoke.

“Welcome back. You passed.”

I sat down.

“Thanks. What happens now?”

“We’ll get you on a training course as soon as possible. Unfortunately the London one is full but there’s one in Edinburgh that starts in two weeks. You okay to travel to Edinburgh?  We pay for your travel and lodgings of course. It’s Monday to Friday so you’re home for the weekends.”

Wow, a holiday in Scotland as well. It felt like I’d won a prize in a raffle.

“Sure. How long’s the course?”

“Thirteen weeks.”

I was silent for a moment. Did she just say thirteen weeks?

“Sorry. Thirteen weeks?”

“Yes, but not all in one go. You do a couple of weeks at a time then we send you out to a Post office for some practical experience for a while. So all in all you’ll only do about six weeks at the college.”

“Okay, great.”

I left and went home to tell my wife the good news and the bad news. Good news was I got the job. Bad news, I had to go to Edinburgh for six weeks!”

But fate was on my side. Three days later I got a telegram. It said that due to illness a position on the London course had become available and I had to report to Featherstone Street in London the next day.

Great news. But all I kept thinking was “How on earth does it take thirteen weeks training just to learn how to sell stamps?”

Boy, was I in for a big surprise…

 

Drinks and Nibbles

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“It’s nearly eight o’clock love. They’ll be here in a minute!”

John shouted up the stairs to his wife Sarah. She’d been getting ready for over an hour. He heard her reply as he walked back into the kitchen. It was abrupt with a hint of sarcasm.

“Well ONE of us has to make an effort.”

He ignored it, opened up a bottle of red wine and poured himself a large glass. He downed it in one. He wasn’t looking forward to the evening. Two strangers he didn’t know coming over for drinks and nibbles. Sarah’s idea of course, she thought it would be a good idea to get to know the new neighbours at number forty seven.  They’d moved in a week ago and, according to Sarah, looked to be “up market” people, not like the “riff raff” that seemed to be all around them. He poured himself another glass of Chateauneuf Du Pape and let out a long sigh.

He heard a cough behind him. Obviously Sarah trying to get his attention. He turned to face her. His first thought was to laugh, but years of training had taught him that was a bad idea. Instead he smiled and nodded his head in approval.

She was wearing the green ball gown that he’d bought her for the Masonic Evening last year.

“Well? Don’t just stand there with that silly grin of yours. How do I look?”

He continued to smile. He looked her up and down, trying hard not to stare at the green patent four inch heels, the yards of taffeta and lace, the gold charm bracelet, the pearl neck choker and the green sapphire butterfly clip in her hair. She looked like something out of a nineteen seventies horror movie.

“Lovely. Simply lovely.”

He moved forward to give her a peck on the cheek.

“Don’t touch me. I’ve spent ages on this make up. I don’t want anything smudged.”

He backed away. His eyes were beginning to stream from the excessive amount of perfume that was offending his nostrils.

“Glass of wine, love?”

She dismissed him as though he’d said something stupid.

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve just put my lippy on!”

He poured himself another and noticed the disapproving look on her face.

“Don’t you go getting drunk John Reynolds. I’m warning you. Not tonight. Not in front of our new neighbours. Old Mrs Grant at number thirty six says they’ve got a Mercedes and that she’s seen HIM driving it dressed in a suit and tie. My guess is that he’s something big in the City. Maybe the CEO of a multinational company or something. And, if he’s a Mister Big then I expect his wife to be young and glamorous.”

Again he sighed.

“So you haven’t actually met them yet?”

She was fiddling with one of the twenty six charms on her bracelet that had got caught on a piece of lace on her sleeve.

“No need. Mrs Grant said they were nice people and that’s good enough for me. I just popped a card through their door saying John and Sarah at number fifty two would be delighted to invite you for drinks and nibbles at eight o’clock on Saturday night. Now then, have you got the drinks organised?”

He felt like screaming but just answered in his usual manner.

“Yes dear. White wine in the fridge, red wine on the table. We’ve got Gin, Vodka, Scotch, Rum, and just about every mixer under the sun.”

She turned at looked at him as though he’d just committed a major sin.

“Baileys? Tell me you haven’t forgotten the Baileys? Up market people like Baileys John. Surely even you know that?”

The thought of grabbing her firmly by the neck quickly passed. Once again he smiled.

“Of course not dear. We’ve got plenty of Baileys.”

She opened up the fridge door and took out a number of plates and bowls.

“Good. I’ve got Guacamole, Hummus, Courgette Yogurt and Spicy Bean dips. Various crackers, Spinach and Feta Mini Rolls, Bruscheta, and a bowl of Toasted Chick peas. Oh and I’ve got stuffed dates, sweet and savoury. That should show them the kind of people that we are.”

They were interrupted by the sound of the doorbell. Claire De Lune in D Major.

Sarah took control.

“Right, you go into the front room and act naturally. I’ll welcome them in.”

John did as he was told and scurried off into the front room. He waited. He heard voices from the hallway. The door opened.

A short man with bright ginger hair appeared first. He was wearing a blue T-Shirt that looked like most of his dinner had just been scraped off it, grey jogging bottoms and a pair of black Crocs, no socks. The woman behind him wasn’t dressed quite as smart. Same T-Shirt but with flip flops and leggings.

The man thrust out his hand for John to shake. A vice like grip almost broke his knuckles.

“We have got the right night haven’t we mate? I was just saying to your lovely wife that it looks like she’s just come from a wedding. Should have given me a shout. I do a bit of chauffeuring for the local mini cab company from time to time. Well, you can’t live just on dole money these days. I’d have given you lift at a reasonable rate. Now where’s the beers? We’re both gasping!”

John smiled.

“That’s very kind of you. Now, you two take a seat and make yourself comfortable. I’ll get the drinks.”

He walked passed Sarah who was just standing there mouth open and a glazed look on her face. He whispered to her.

“I’ll pop down the off licence and get some beer, crisps and peanuts. When I get back you can go upstairs and change.”

 

 

Dad was ” Old School.”

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Dad was “Old School.”

You know what I mean by that? Well, he was a man of his time. Born in the thirties, just a kid during the war, a teenager in the late forties, National Service and then marriage in the fifties.

Always lived in a “council” house. From the day he was born till the day he died. Owning your own home was for rich people.

He went to work and Mum stayed home and looked after the kids. Those were his rules.

On Fridays he would take out his pay packet and give her the weekly housekeeping money. The little that was left was his to spend on petrol for the car and a weekly flutter on the horses. Saturday mornings he would spread the Sporting Life across the kitchen table and pick out his fancies. At midday he’d sit down to watch “Grandstand” on the BBC and he wouldn’t move until after five.

He didn’t drink. Said he didn’t like the taste and that it gave him headaches. Just as well, because he couldn’t afford it.

He liked order, routine, didn’t like to try anything that was different. Things like Pizza, Curry and Pasta were all “foreign” food to him and he would turn his nose up if they were ever mentioned. A meat and two veg man was Dad and every day dinner had to be on the table at six.

Mum ran the house, that was her job. She cooked and cleaned and paid the bills and made sure that us kids were washed and dressed. Dad was out of the house at seven and back by five thirty. He’d wash his face and hands at the sink and then sit down at the table ready for his dinner. No one was allowed to speak during dinner and god forbid if we put our elbows on the table!

He wasn’t great at socialising. Wasn’t keen on getting to know the neighbours. Didn’t like people knowing his business.  If Mum had a neighbour in during the day for a cup of tea, they had to be gone by the time Dad got home. If anyone knocked on our door in the evening they would feel his wrath, unless of course it was family. Not many “door to door” salesmen came to our house. We weren’t allowed to have friends round to play. He wasn’t comfortable having strangers in the house.

Us kids were in bed by seven thirty. A kiss goodnight for mum and a handshake for dad. We never made a fuss and we NEVER came back downstairs until it was time to get up in the morning.

At around eight thirty he’d be partial to a bit of supper. He’d look at Mum and say “Bit of cheese on toast?” She’d be up in an instant and into the kitchen to make his suggestion a reality. Every meal was washed down with a cup of tea.

At ten o’clock he’s go to the sink and have a shave and a “wash down”. He’d put Brylcreem on his hair and comb it into a side parting and quiff. I asked him one day when I was much older why he made a fuss of his hair before he went to bed. His answer? “You never know who you’ll meet in your dreams.”

That was my Dad in the fifties and sixties. Hard, firm, strict, regimented and maybe, just maybe one awkward bastard.

But time changes a man.

As the seventies progressed and us kids grew into teenagers he softened. Yes he was still strict and not someone you wanted to cross, but there was a warmth and compassion in him that I’d not seen before. He had time for us, played games with us, played practical jokes on us, made us laugh constantly. He was most definitely the head of the household, but just like a mature Lion, instead of stamping his authority on us, he was now more concerned with protecting and loving his pride.

By the end of the seventies, us kids had both got married and moved away. For the first time in their lives Mum and Dad were on their own. I think he found it harder than Mum.

On the surface they were fine, but I knew there were tensions. He was often “In one of his moods” as Mum would say and she’d be walking on eggshells. The slightest thing would set him into a rage that would last for days and even weeks.

But everything changed again in the early eighties. Grandchildren came along.

This once hard, stone faced man suddenly became a child. He adored these new arrivals. He sang them songs, made up stories, performed magic tricks, got on the floor and played games with them. In fact he did all the things that he never did with us when we were their age.

That was when my Dad became the man that everyone remembers. The generous, kind, happy, delightful man that all the neighbours got to know. The popular man at work that EVERYONE knew and loved. The man on the estate that people went to if they wanted to ask a favour or borrow a tool, or need help repairing their car or advice on just about anything. The larger than life polite man that all the shop keepers knew and respected.

He was a complex character. I was well into my thirties when I found out from Mum that he’d suffered from “Nerves” back in the sixties. That’s what they called it back them. In fact he suffered from Anxiety attacks where he struggled to catch his breath and was scared to leave the house. He also had depression from time to time and the doctors gave him tablets called Roche 10 to control it. These completely wiped him out and he would walk around like a zombie for days. After one particular episode where he saw the clock on the wall start spinning around like a Catherine Wheel, he decided to throw them away and deal with the problem like a man ( his words).

He would just “pull himself together.”

Yep he was “Old School.”

He died in 2004. The funeral was massive. In two days time he would have been eighty six.