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Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Working the Oracle in Rowntrees Chocolate Factory, York, late 1970s

While I'm away on my bike for the week, here's a chapter of the book I'm working on between other projects. It's the story of how I came to have had more jobs than birthdays as I approached my 40th.

The Human Candle

I’ve waited a long time to tell this story. Many’s the time I’ve wanted - yearned - to get it out there. But when all is said and done a promise is a promise. Big Ron, I said, after he’d changed out of his wet things and got back to bed, my lips are sealed. Count on it. I’m a trustworthy kind of bloke, a man of honour, a former public schoolboy - although naturally I didn’t actually say that bit. But the point is, the secret was always going to be safe with me. There was in any case the small matter of my personal safety. As often as I’ve stood at the bar of the Cross Keys in Goodramgate and felt the whole story bursting to get out there and take a bow, I only have to think about where I would start and what do I see? I see Big Ron, that’s what I see. And it’s a sight to make any raconteur pause and ask himself just how badly he wants the balm of a cheap laugh when the odds are that one of me-laddo’s ex-wives is either working behind the bar or propping it up.  

Big Ron is the problem okay. Even after all this time I see him as large as life. I see him standing there on the concrete floor, barrel-chested, unshaven, six foot four and barefoot. I see him screw up his face in pain as he reaches out and grabs my bottle of Fanta, fresh from the messroom fridge, and pours it, slowly and deliberately, all down the front of his T-shirt and onto his trousers. I see all of this as if it happened yesterday. And even over his long, hoarse gasp of relief I hear my own futile protest.

‘`Ere, I was about to drink that!’

That’s when Big Ron turns, fixes his bloodshot eyes on mine and gives me the hard stare, as if he’s only just realised that I’m been sitting there watching his every move. And he doesn’t like it. I don’t know what else he thinks I’d be watching at one o’clock in the morning with only two of us in the entire building and the machinery running like a Swiss watch and me with my book almost read, my crossword finished, and my pack-up reduced to a few blackened crumbs on the plastic-topped table. Does he think I’d prefer to watch the columns of orange ants marching up the wall to feast at the splashes of fat above the stove? Or the wisp of smoke coming out of the Baby Belling where I spilled that dollop of chicken and ham pie a few minutes earlier? Hardly. The fact is that the sight of my mate dancing barefoot in a puddle of fizzy pop is the most entertaining thing that’s happened on nights since I dumped half a ton of molten cocoa-fat down the drain, where it set solid and stopped the job for half a shift, during which I won fourteen quid off him at pontoon. 

Big Ron. As if it isn’t bad enough to have that image burned into my memory… but every time I’m tempted to tell that story I hear his voice as well. It’s the voice of a man who laid out our day-time foreman with a single punch in front of witnesses in order to win a ten-pound bet, and, because the foreman was his brother-in-law, got himself a swift move to the job everyone in the block would have died for – permanent nights. It was a voice whose every utterance you remembered, syllable by syllable.

‘One fucking word. You say one fucking word about this, and you’re dead, pal.’ 

And then he reaches across the table, helps himself to one of my cigarettes, lights up, and that’s that: one great little story, to which I alone in the whole wide world bore witness, put into cold storage – for thirty-five long years. 

But now lookee here. I’m back in York, I’m scanning through the Press, and there he is on an inside page, picture and all, and the coast is finally clear for me to reveal all. 

It’s Monday night, January time. We’re due on at ten. We’re in the Cross Keys, and Big Ron is standing up, grabbing his donkey-jacket and pouring the last of his pint down his throat. ‘And I don’t want you coming in late, pal,’ he tells me before barging out through the double doors, crossing the road and slipping into the shadows of the Minster.

Me? Late? Meet Mister Reliable. I look at my watch. Twenty to ten. Fill that up, landlord. I’ve plenty of time yet. In fact I’ve time for another game of darts and two more leisurely pints. Funny how they seem to last so much longer when Big Ron’s not nudging you to ‘get another round in you tight bastard’. But even after that I’m in no hurry to leave, except that there’s Mine Host flashing the lights on and off and opening the windows right behind me. So I drain my glass in one big swallow. This is the one that generally does it for me. This is the one that sends enough giddy energy fizzing up the cranium to put a spring in my step and help me through that crucial first hour. After which - well, on Big Ron’s night shift there is no `after which`. That’s the whole point.

Half eleven and I’m ambling out of the city with my bag over my shoulder. It’s a frosty night and the smell of the sugar-beet works is coming in on a northerly breeze, thick and sweet and tarry and reminding me that that’s where I’d be working right now if I hadn’t fallen on my feet at the chocolate factory. One day, of course, I’d end up there, doing the winter season, same as most drifters did in those days - the same as I’d do my stint on the railways before long. They always said, back then, that there were three places you could guarantee a job in York. And in turn, I ticked them all off. Had to. Once you start telling people you’ve had more jobs than birthdays you have something to live up to.

Despite the cold, I’m still feeling the warmth of the pub as I walk along Wiggington Road, quickening my pace. It’s only twenty minutes now before they shut the gates. Inside the factory grounds, with the smell of After Eights in my nostrils, I have a quick look around. The last thing I want now is to bump into some security man skulking in the shadows. They know what’s going on. Course they do. And they can’t resist letting you know they know. ‘Now then, part-timer!’ That kind of stuff. But the thing with this dodge is that if it’s going to be worth doing you may as well push it to the limit and come in as close to locking-up time as you dare. Anyway, a night like this and the security men’ll surely be in their cabin, supping tea – and as I slip on a frozen puddle I find myself envying them. High up in the main factory one or two windows are propped open to let the heat escape. Someone is leaning out, hat off, arms folded on the dusty sill. He glances down at me, flicks his lighted tab end out into the cold air and watches it arc towards the ground before ducking back inside.

By the time I’ve entered the building and trotted upstairs the time-clock reads eleven fifty-three. I pull out my card and check it - just to be sure. Nah - needn’t have worried. Big Ron may have his problems with authority, but he doesn’t believe in taking unnecessary risks. Look at that: he’s almost as sly as I am. He’s clocked me in for nine fifty-four, gone and got changed and then punched his own card five minutes later.  Makes it all look nice and natural, and just what I’d do in the circs. 

The Extract Block was built when full-grown men with beards and hats stood five foot six if they ate up all their greens. So the fat, black vacuum pipes, the water pipes and super-heated steam pipes, and the ones that shift the molten fat from here to there and sometimes back again for no apparent reason and snake around from vats to filters to storage tanks – all of them were suspended from the ceilings a generous six inches above our great-grandfathers’ heads. And they were built to last - for the benefit of us, their great-grandchildren, I suppose, except that we’ve grown up on free milk and plenty of it. Six feet tall and well looked after: two sets of tan cotton work-clothes and a free pair of air-soled safety shoes which add that crucial extra inch to your height. All of which means that if you walk in through the door to the room I work in without doing a Dixon of Dock Green knees-bend, the lintel catches you smack across the forehead. Hence the sign, in blue wax crayon on a ripped-off shred of cardboard.  DUCK DON’T GROUSE.

It’s just a shade cooler at night than it is on the day-shift, and the thermometer on the wall beside my work-bench shows a nice cosy ninety-four. Big Ron’s T-shirt and trousers are slicked with sweat and grease. That’s all we wear on our job. That and boots. No socks, no underwear. Just the two flimsy items, made of cotton. He’s surrounded by a stack of empty cardboard boxes and a pile of crumpled polythene wrappers. On the steel-topped table in front of him is the black carborundum block and the little wooden-handled cutter, the blade worn thin like a boning knife. He’s been working all three vats. The ones either side of him are piled high with pale yellow rectangular slabs of cocoa butter, fifty-six pounds in weight, slowly changing shape, shrinking as they melt and subside. And already he’s half-covered the steam-heated steel bars of the empty vat in front of him.

‘What you on, mate? Third ton?’

He slashes the box open, flips it over to tip out the contents, then rips off the plastic covering and slides the slab into the vat with a loud clang. ‘Aye. Soon be there pal.’  

He will indeed. Because the union – God bless `em - have struck a deal. They’ve sat in a room with senior management and they’ve done a few sums on the back of an envelope, and they’ve hammered out an agreement over tea and sandwiches. How a major league manufacturer with charitable off-shoots and a pension scheme to subsidise can agree to such a deal and stay in business is a mystery, but a mystery that’s of no real concern to me and Ron. We have no intention of setting up in manufacturing in the near future, least of all in confectionery, and as far as I’m aware neither of us is engaged in any good works worth mentioning. But if I bothered to think about it I’d have had to say, as one or two did at the time the deal was struck, that it’s got me beat.

The bottom line is that a butter-melter must unwrap and melt four tons of boxed, imported cocoa-butter per shift.  There are forty packs per ton, which means that we have to slash open a hundred and sixty cartons in eight hours, less mopping-up time. 

Now, if you could see a genuine artist like myself on the early shift, you’d think I deserved a big fat rise (a) for not slinging my hook there and then, or (b) for not indulging in a bit of industrial sabotage out of blind rage at the vicious way I was being exploited. Of course, you’d be one of the day-men, maybe even the foreman that Big Ron laid out that time. You’d come bustling in on your bike at twenty-nine minutes past seven, yawning and belly-aching about the weather, or the clocks going back, or the traffic on Wiggy Road, or the bloody warehousemen, or York City’s manager, and there I’d be, leaping over a mound of flattened cardboard, the vat in front of me choked with slabs of butter, my face all red and sweaty as I stagger upstairs for a hard-earned cup of tea, telling anyone who cared to listen that it’s all fucking go and I’ll never get done for two o’clock at this rate. It wouldn’t necessarily occur to you that from clocking on at six, right through to seven twenty, I’d been sat in the messroom reading the sports pages and dozing off every now and then, that I’d actually brewed that cup of tea ten minutes previously, galloped downstairs and stirred up all that irrefutable proof of my diligence in eight minutes flat, and that when it suited me I could rip through a whole ton of cocoa-butter cartons in a little over half an hour, or do my entire load for the shift in two and a half, mopping up included. After all, didn’t I learn from the master, Big Ron?

But that’s just the beginning. The real burden of the day shift – the thing which requires ingenuity and tenacity - is trying to sustain the illusion of chaotic endeavour right though till shower-time at one-thirty. Easy, you say. You just go very, very slowly. Yes, you could do that – except that you’d end up with two of your vats empty and only a couple of half-melted slabs in the third. And what would our foreman say then when he popped down to talk about York City’s manager or the traffic on Wiggy Road or the bloody warehousemen who’ve nowt better to do than stir the shit? He’d say that the productivity deal ought to be re-negotiated – or at least he’d think it, and then he’d maybe chunter to the shop steward about it before shrugging his shoulders and accepting that it wasn’t going to happen this side of a political revolution. 

So the challenge is to maintain the illusion that you’re overwhelmed by the work-load, and when it comes to that kind of deception I’m your man. It’s all a matter of working in bursts; of quietly knocking off a steam-valve or two so that the super-heated bars cool down and the fat doesn’t melt quite so fast; of having a sly word with the filter-man so that he doesn’t pump what you’ve melted out of the vats, meaning that you run short of space, which can only mean that you must’ve been working like a mad bastard. You could too slip the odd polythene wrapper into the vat. It soon melts away, but half an hour later it’s gumming  up the filters and it’s ‘Better fetch them fitters, lad.’ They come along with their bag of tools and their sarcastic asides about amateurs and machines; they frown and scratch their heads for half a hour or so and you pace up and down, anxiously watching the clock, muttering about not getting done in time. And all through these diversions, whatever else you do, you make a point of spreading as much crap about you as you can – ripped-up boxes, tangled lengths of baling twine, sheets of polythene wrapping, empty pallets, the occasional unconscious warehouseman who’s dropped in for a smoke and started on about ‘They’re training monkeys to do your job…’ and was in other words practically begging to be put to death.  All of which means that, when the foreman eventually comes downstairs, he takes one look at the chaos around you before plodding back to his office muttering to anyone who’ll listen that it’s a crap job and you’ll be stuck on it for bloody years if you don’t buck your ideas up.  Precisely.

Afternoons are a slightly different proposition. For the first couple of hours you’ve got to look all harassed and dishevelled, which ain’t hard, really: after all, you’ve shifted three tons by the time the day-men and the foreman go home at half four and the whole place quietens down. That way you’re all set up for a five o’clock finish, a quick mop round, a long hot shower and off down Wiggy Road at six, leaving a note for Big Ron to clock you out at a minute past ten.  

These days they talk about multi-skilling, as though it’s the latest thing. It was multi-skilling – otherwise known as you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours – that made the old Extract Block such an agreeable place to work in the mid-1970s. And it was job-sharing – years before the phrase started to appear in the sits vac – that meant Big Ron and I could work the oracle on the night shift. The guy had a lot on, one way or another.  He had three ex-wives that I knew of, and was living with a fourth. He had quite a maintenance bill. In the daytime he ran a car repair business and body-shop. He was inundated with work, much of it from guys in Production he’d sold old bangers to a year or so previously, said bangers having ten months’ MOT and slightly less in the way of life expectancy. By the time he showed up at work he needed all the sleep he could get. The only night he slept in his own bed was the odd Sunday when he couldn’t get any overtime. 

So this is the deal: I come in for midnight, by which time he has my job more or less sewn up. He hands over to me, tinkers with his machines for ten minutes, then slips off upstairs. By half-past twelve I have three vats brim-full of liquid gold, my empty cartons neatly stacked, and the red quarry-tiled floors all mopped and gleaming. In the messroom Big Ron is polishing off his snack and mashing his last cup of tea. 

The rest is pure ritual. We all have our bedtime routine, of course, our own very special way of making ourselves comfortable before we go off to sleep – and Big Ron likes to have things just so, except that his arrangements have to be played out under a fluorescent messroom light so that he can sustain his double life. And it tells on him. ‘No wonder I keep getting divorced,’ he mutters this particular night as he goes to his locker, pulls out the grubby roll of three-inch thick foam rubber and lays it out on the bench next to his table. ‘Never get to bed with them, do I?’ Then he shrugs his shoulders and folds up his cotton jacket to make a pillow. While he rolls a last cigarette and stirs his tea he briefs me on the state of play. Three tons in vat 1, another ton in holding tank A, and the filter cloths’ll want changing about three o’clock….

By the time he’s filled me in, he’s lighting up, kicking off his air-sole boots and reclining elegantly onto his foam with a sigh from deep down in his chest. And that sigh marks the beginning of my own night’s relaxation, albeit one interrupted by the odd trip downstairs to throw a few switches, shift a few levers, open and close a couple of gate-valves, check the pressure here or temperature there as I put successive tons of molten fat through the filtering and cleaning process and send it on its way to the holding tanks. Occasionally there will be a break in the routine, as when the fat man from the main factory staggers in carrying a carton the size of a fridge-freezer and dumps it at my feet. ‘Black Magic,’ he mutters. ‘They wanna disappear sharpish, right?’ And he hurries away, leaving me to dispose of 144 boxes of stolen chocolates. Once I’ve stuffed a dozen or so in all the other lockers in the changing-room I’m free to spend the entire night alone with my book, and the papers, now and then amusing myself - and confusing the ants - by rubbing a smear of soap across their trail. 

As Big Ron’s breathing grows steadily slower, I sit in silence and watch him. At first he takes an occasional drag on his roll-up; then he just lies there, quite still, his hands rising and falling with his chest, letting the butt end smoulder down and down until he gives a slight convulsive jerk and knocks off half an inch of ash. Then another a minute or so, when the glowing tip has burned so low that I could swear I smell braised flesh, and he flips it onto the floor where it slowly dies as his breathing gets deeper and louder. One day, I tell myself, one day he’s going to flip that fag and it won’t go where he means it to.

It was all his fault. Of course it was. But I can’t help feeling I should take some of the blame. I saw the whole thing, and I did nothing. He’d had a cow of a day, he said, on his back under a clapped-out Escort, welding, with the north wind whipping in under the corrugated iron doors of his garage. And I remarked that on a night like this it was good to come to work and soak up a bit of free heat. Think of the saving in fuel bills at home, I said, and he grunted an acknowledgement that it was indeed something to be grateful for.  And then, after no more than a couple more drags, he was slipping away, lips parted and breathing steady. 

I took the bottle of Fanta out of the refrigerator, unscrewed the cap and waited; sat there at my table across the other side of the messroom from my mate, my partner-in-crime, the guy with whom I was working one of the neatest little scams of my working life so far, and watched his lighted cigarette fall from his limp hand. I waited for it to hit the deck, and when it didn’t I limboed my way down in my seat to see whether it had rolled under his table out of sight. But no. It hadn’t. So I waited some more, to see what might happen next. And I can admit it now: I was almost hugging myself with anticipation.

Have you ever heard those grotesque stories about corpses suddenly assuming a sitting position several days after death as certain of their muscles contract? Or is it wind? Or is it just a story someone made up, an urban legend emanating from a mortuary somewhere? Whatever the case, don’t you think it’s a lovely idea - that a dead body will sometimes, quite abruptly, decide to sit upright? You just wouldn’t want to be around when it happened, would you? So imagine how I felt, one o’clock in the morning, the only conscious soul in the entire block, unless you count the ants still parading up and down the wall and detouring round my soap-mark. The fluorescent light is buzzing, in between flickers; the machinery down below is humming rhythmically; outside I can see from the movement of the scruffy little shrubbery that the wind has picked up. Orange-tinted clouds are scudding in over the factory roof, and it’s starting to snow. I’m assuming that nothing’s going to happen after all, that Big Ron’s cig has died, and I have to say I’m mildly disappointed; I pick up the newspaper, turn to the half-completed crossword, and sip at my bottle of pop. 

That’s when I hear a sudden eruption of noise, a deep groaning which gathers in strength as my mate rises corpse-like from his slab, forming a sort of L-shaped vision of death.  His mouth is open, his front false teeth have dropped, the gap between his upper and lower lips is spanned by a thin string of  saliva, and his eyes – well, his eyes complete the  picture: the whites have turned a hideous red colour, and the pupils have shrunk to the size of a pair of black full-stops. As he levers himself to his feet the table-legs screech on the concrete, and the whole caboodle topples over, sending his mug of cold tea crashing.  He bends from the waist, stiffly, and looks down. And he roars. 

Perhaps that’s why he’s called Big Ron, I find myself thinking. He has a half-hearted erection of impressive dimensions, and it’s all on display, because where the crotch of his trousers used to be there’s now nothing, just a ragged hole the size of a tea-plate, fringed with a circle of glowing red sparks and getting ever larger as he beats fragments of charred cloth to the floor. As he beats, he hops, and as he hops he splashes about in the tea that’s spilled from his broken mug, and all the time the hole gets bigger as the sparks dance eagerly outwards into fresh fields of untapped cocoa-butter and renew their vigour. 

What Big Ron has done, of course, is turn himself into a human candle. It’s a terrific feat, a truly wonderful spectacle, and I could sit there all night laughing quietly to myself, except for the fact that the air is now filled with the stench of singed pubic hair, and Ron, realising the futility of his further beating, except insofar as it’s now got rid of that embarrassing erection, grabs my Fanta and dowses himself, which is where I register my half-hearted complaint and he gives me the hard word about keeping my bloody trap shut.

Otherwise, that’s it. The show’s over. The fire’s out and we can both go back to what we were doing beforehand. I reassure Big Ron that I have no intention of telling anyone anything and he steps into his boots and stomps off to the locker room, trailing a vagrant wisp of steam from his crotch.  When he comes back with a fresh set of clothes on he takes my mug and brews up, after which it’s the usual goodnight ritual all over again, cigarette and all, as if none of the above has ever taken place, the half-empty mug on the table, waiting to be drunk, cold, when I wake him at five-twenty precisely.

We had eighteen leisurely months together, me and Big Ron. He made a pile out of his car repairs. I read vast swathes of the classic literature I should’ve been reading at that fine school the Governemnt paid for me to go to, and was starting to wonder how many more years I would stay at the factory, and whether I could afford to quit such a cushy little number. Then they made my mind up for me. They decided to close our place down for six months and re-vamp it. Sent me over the road to the Elect Block, where I stood under a hopper, in a basement, eight hours a shift with a handkerchief stretched across my nose, filling half-hundredweight sacks with freshly ground cocoa, until about day six, when I just had to walk away and let the bloody stuff pile up on the floor - flump flump flump in a dusty brown mound.

I went to the railways. And Big Ron? I never heard another word about him - and I certainly never told that story. Until now. Because now I’m safe.

The York Press says that Big Ron is dead. It wasn’t a bottling outside the Cross Keys, as our foreman once predicted for him; neither was it an enraged ex-wife – which is where the smart money was; nor even the owner of one of his rotting hulks brandishing a silencer that had dropped off halfway up Wiggy Road. No, nothing so romantic. Big Ron, described as a retired motor-dealer, single, has died in a fire at his detached house in Upper Poppleton, fast asleep in an upstairs room. A 1938 Bentley was also destroyed in the blaze. And much as I feel sorry for him and all his ex-wives, wherever they may be, I feel it turned out all right for him in a way. Big Ron may have had it tough when we worked the night-shift together, but when the human candle finally went up in smoke he was doing okay: sleeping soundly in his own bed, living among the toffs, and no doubt very snug and comfortable.

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