‘’I have got a job for you’’ shouted a burly chap of about 40. I had arrived on the afternoon shift at the sorting office in Pocklington, a 30-minute drive from my mother’s. A panic attack too many, dreams of London had ended in fumes and I was back in Hull. That sleepy Yorkshire city once or twice voted the worst in her majesty’s land. The M62 motorway ends here, so do dreams! — at university, the loudmouth London boys had also suggested. Characterized by some of the tropes of post new labour, post coalition government- declining industries, increasing eastern European folks, teenage pregnancy and low performing schools. And of course, the never ending almost endearing English grey skies, although that seems to have been a thing since the beginning of time itself.
Armed with a CV that said I was well versed in technical and operational duties in laboratories and clinical trial administration and running out of money I had turned to the employment agencies. I had hoped for a laboratory job or something close. Deep down (wherever that is ) I of course understood this was folly, despite the declining industries, I knew pretty well that the folks at most of these agencies were experts in securing employment in factory settings- eggs, fish, cake, confectionary, dodge supplements (a multimillion dollar industry-) etc. And of course, the parcel sorting office.
I was back in Hull at a time the newspapers and the talking heads on television could not go a day without some BREXIT related story. What will this mean for European folks? what will this do to the economy? etc. Many folks here voted to leave, presumably due to the increasing European migration? Perhaps for more money to the NHS as some of the pro Brexit campaigners had promised? The talking heads and newspaper articles in London argued it was deeper than that. Who really knows?. A clearly jubilant Nigel Farage seemed to be on every news channel. Hull is not as bad as often touted, but it is not Leeds or Manchester (the cooler side of the M62) and its certainly not London.
At the agency there were promises of a possible laboratory job but in the meantime for immediate start was a job at the sorting office. They were thrilled I could drive. ‘’I will give you 2 guys to go with , one is a regular he will show you the way’’, the eastern European chap with a strange mix of a Hull and generic eastern European accent at the agency had said. The 2 guys were T, a lanky Latvian chap, balding with a round face that betrayed years of potential alcohol abuse, with little red capillaries showing on either pale cheeks. He was the regular and with him was a much shorter chap older than him, not fat but clearly overweight. T referred to him as uncle. Uncle did not say much and seemed to mumble a lot, him and T seemed to understand each other. Before we set off, they had somehow christened me Tyson as in the famous boxer. I never really bothered to find out why, apart from the melanin content of our skin, Tyson and I share no other discernible likeness. Mid way on our journey T downed a 350 ml bottle of vodka sans mixer, smiled at me and said ‘’for energy’’. My theory about alcohol abuse was correct, and this somehow did not give me the often YAY I was right feeling that one gets after one’s hypothesis has been proven right.
The city of culture thing will certainly bolster its (Hull city of culture 2017) fortunes, I thought to myself the day I left London, as I drove my 10 + year old Vauxhall Corsa towards the end of the M62, where it merges with the A63. I had left Hull after finishing at good old Hull University a few years ago having moved here in 03 when mother dearest got a place to study nursing at the same school. As if I was not already aware, I was back, the Humber bridge and its twinkling lights reminded me of this very fact. They (Humber bridge lights) had never looked that desolate, but on this night, they did, perhaps mirroring my own feelings.
’’I will need you to take those pallets there and put them outside’’ the burly chap who I later found out was 28 continued. His name was M, a local lad. Veering off from the apparent uniform of black work suit trousers, he was clad in grey sporty bottoms that had clearly seen better days, they now had smidges of black, dirt and were not quite torn but had areas that were clearly flimsy. I cannot remember the colour of the top covering a protruding belly but layered on top was a high visibility jacket, a staple of the industrial/factory settings to go with heavy steel toe safety boots. ‘’Use the pallet truck in that cage’’, he shouted while pointing to the other side of the warehouse. I had not used a pallet truck for a good 6 years. Amazing how the like riding a bike theory applies to lot of things, after fidgeting with the ‘’wheels’’ as the pallet truck is called in the trade, I managed to move the pallets. On the pallet was nothing remarkable just a couple of office chairs (still in their boxes) being returned to the seller by a customer presumably unhappy about them.
The setting of the sorting office was a large dusty warehouse with a couple of big exits, big enough for the infamous delivery white vans to get in and out. My first day was in the beginning of summer, it was warm but not suffocating. M spoke with the command in his voice of someone in charge. As it turns out he was not in charge, he was a long serving member of staff who had got his forklift licence (another staple of the industries) by some job centre initiative or some in-house training program. I never found out. Training which I later hypothesised might have been the source of so much confidence. I had taken a mild disliking for him.
The supervisor for the afternoon was a chap called S. A genial fella, slim with a bit of a belly (I was beginning to see a theme belly wise) , greying hair and on the right side of 60 and the wrong side of 50. ‘’Welcome, have you been here before?’’ he asked extending a hand followed by a firm handshake. ‘’No, this is my first time’’ I replied. He went on to show the signing in sheet and all the formalities, fire escapes etc. ‘’It might be difficult to get burned in a warehouse this big with these big exits’’, he said with a grin that intimated he was joking something his tone hadn’t done. He explained that there were no breaks since it was only a 4-hour shift, but informal breaks were available throughout the shifts depending on the driver bringing their deliveries.
The afternoon was eventful. There was a conveyor belt in the middle of the warehouse. When drivers in various sizes of vans, all white (the vans and the drivers) with the company name embolden on their sides and front, brought their deliveries they placed these on the conveyor belt. My job and that of my new colleagues was to take whatever the drivers brought from their respective pickup locations and place it in the relevant post codes. Every team member had a group of postcodes, each group with empty cages and pallets to place the relevant deliveries. Anything that did not have an already designated postcode or was too big ended up in the back of a big truck at the end of the conveyor belt. Uncle and T occupied a couple of stations near the start of the belt, whilst a couple of old heads occupied the immediate stations before me. Because it was a Monday, the shift was particularly busy due to the weekend backlog. The parcels coming tumbling on the rickety and noisy conveyor belt ranged from manure for amateur and summer farmers/gardeners, bicycles, office chairs, paint, wine bottles, magazine of various trades and my favourite for the afternoon small granite stones. Real stones, those that you see in the yards of folks who cannot be bothered to cut and trim a loan.
I spent most of my time running after parcels that I thought might be mine but had tumbled along past my station. I was often right, but more of my parcels still ended up at D’s end, the chap right at the end of the belt where all the bulkier of the parcels made their way to the back of a truck. D a lean chap of average height with a ponytail, a reserved persona, I noticed he avoided much eye contact and had a pleasant lynx Africa body spray whose scent intensified as the shift reached a crescendo around the 3 hour mark. He seemed to possess a wiry strength, as I watched him casually without any visible signs of distress lifting 3 rolls of thick carpets or some type of rug. One after another. 30 minutes later he casually manually (without ‘’wheels’’) dragged a semi-loaded pallet by its edge, all but confirming the wiry strength theory. This time I was happy with confirmation of my theory. I also noticed he had a slight almost unnoticeable occasional head jerk. The ponytail gave him a rock star flair, typical of the 70s and 80s.
Sometimes the irregular shapes of the parcels meant they fell off the belt and I spent a considerable time picking heavy parcels off the floor. A box with some sort of grain with a faint alcohol smell fell producing a little tear in the middle of the box resulting in grain falling all over the place. For a moment, my space was filled with the scent of Tesco’s finest red wine. And I wistfully remembered a night out in Oxford’s Cowley road a little over three years ago, where I had gone with a strikingly beautiful Nigerian girl for a date and ordered a bottle of red wine. Before I could fully indulge the thought a dark brown box enclosing an unknown object fell off the conveyor belt producing a huge thud, raising the soot like dust off the warehouse floor, startling everyone, followed by everyone looking in my direction, and me muttering curse words under my breath and snapping out of my mini day dream. By the time there was a lull in the drivers coming, my back that had spent 5 years milling around in laboratories, dispensaries and NHS offices was screaming for a break.
At break time all the ‘’old heads’’ congregated around one of the exits smoking DIY cigarettes commonly known as ‘’rollies’’, whilst I jettisoned to the stuffy staff room to get a can of overpriced cola before joining them. ‘’So where have you been before this?’’, M asked. ‘’Oh, I was working in London, I am just back here because I am doing a Masters’’ I answered. I had gotten into the habit of dropping this fact to anyone I was talking to, particularly old friends. ‘’At Hull University?’’ he asked further, ‘’no its distance learning at Staffordshire so I will be doing most of my work at home’’ I answered. ‘’Oh ok’’, he said and seemed satisfied. The other old heads remained quiet, puffing on their ‘’rollies’’ staring blankly into the fields opposite the warehouse, whilst other rolled fags for next fag breaks. ‘’How are you finding it so far?’’ one of the chaps broke the silence. ‘’Yeah ok not too bad’’ I answered. ‘’Its not so bad once you get used to it’’ he continued before going silent and puffing away on his cigarette.
After 15 minutes that felt like 5, a couple of vans rolled in and we all marched back to our stations. The show continued, my back ached, parcels tumbled off the conveyor belt. ‘’Who buys a bicycle online?’’ I wondered as I picked up a medium sized bike off the warehouse floor. By the 4th hour my lower back had become numb as flashes of past escapades in Oxford and London kept popping and receding into the ether of my mind. Meanwhile my cages in their disorganised state looked like a bomb site, with several parcels popping and jutting out of the cage mouth. The cages themselves were huge metal squares about 6ft high with a lower and upper ‘’door’’ on one side, most of them in a state of disrepair. After the last van rolled out, M who had no postcodes but was moving nondescript cages with his forklift and D jumped to help me to re-arrange it so the cage doors would close. With earlier misgivings about M evaporating, decent dudes, I thought to myself.
‘’Are you with us tomorrow?’’ S asked as I signed out at 20:05. ‘’I am not sure; I will wait for the agency to call me’’ I answered flashing a weary and exaggerated toothy smile. The reality was I was not particularly keen on returning. I gingerly trudged to my trusty Corsa. As I- with Uncle and T slumping in the car due to exhaustion- drove out of the large complex housing the sorting office, a sharp sound of worn brake pads gave the answer to Steve’s question ‘’ are you coming back tomorrow’’.