A lingering Odour Of Citrus
By Christien James Heslop
Copyright 2015 by Christien James Heslop
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed,
or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying,
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without prior written permission of the publisher,
except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews
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For permission requests, email the publisher,
addressed, “Attention: Permissions Co-ordinator” at the email address below.
All the characters and businesses are fictitious
and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead,
is purely coincidental.
To Len, who encouraged me to write this book.
I would like to thank Stuart Mains from Stirling IT for his editorial input and marketing advice. Jim Barker from Barker Illustrations and Graphics for his cover illustration
and Paul Dalling from for his work in editing and proofreading A Lingering Odour of Citrus.
Special thanks must also go to my partner Kerry for her patience and support during the writing of this book.
I have never been much of a one for books or reading anything at all, unless the book chiefly consisted of pictures rather than text. I generally found I would be initially enthused by the cover of a book only to become disinterested when faced with hundreds of pages of printed words. From an early age, I began to quickly understand I had been bestowed with a ridiculously short attention span. This meant I could never quite face the prospect, of staring at pages of text for any significant period of time. I wrote this story with the intention of keeping someone like myself interested. In order to achieve this I wrote in a selfish way with the intention of amusing myself.
Another reason for writing the story was to ascertain if my hero was completely alone in this world, or if there might be others that feel like he does about life and work. A Lingering Odour Of Citrus is my attempt to contact like-minded individuals, who have survived some of the rigours of full-time employment. I hope that those who feel frustrated, demoralised and unfairly treated will pick up my faint transmission and realise that it is not themselves, but that it is the rest of the world that is at fault. I also hope that by writing this book I have demonstrated that anything is possible; all you have to do is give it a go.
1983 was to be the end of my life, or certainly the end of its first and carefree stage. I was to complete my secondary education and would pursue a new life of full-time employment, this part had already been decided, but what to do that was the question.
My name is Travis Bone and I had grown up living in my parents’ pub, The Stag Inn, situated in a remote part of Lancashire’s Ribble Valley. The pub was located close to the small village of Moldburn, in a small hamlet called Gullets Home; we lived in the modest flat above the main bar. It was a time when country pubs were social hubs for the native inhabitants and in part due to the popularity of drinking and driving, were always busy.
My parents had never run a pub before coming to Gullets, as the Stag Inn was commonly known, but both being social animals had comfortably settled it to their roles as landlord and landlady. I however found that sharing my life with hoards of people – mostly drunk – seven days a week was not my ideal future career path, this being said as of yet I had no idea what my career path should be. People often talk about a light bulb moment when inspirational ideas jump from the universal ether into our minds. I am not certain that at the time I would have recognised such a moment as a light bulb, however I do think these moments do occur for all of us.
Placed outside the pub were two long church pews set against the wall offering a grandstand view of the road and a small parking area. This was a favourite place for me to sit and watch the world; such as it was, go by. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and I found myself in the company of Trevor, one of the local lads from the village. Trevor was older than me and drove a lorry for a small local haulage firm; one of the more interesting things about Trevor – if not the most interesting – was his car. Trevor was the proud owner of a Ford Escort 1.6 Sport not the most potent of the Escort family it has to be said but still pretty impressive none the less.
Cars occupied an important place in the mind of most young boys, from an early age you would be subjected to a mild form of brain conditioning from the likes of Corgi, Dinky and Matchbox. Television programmes adverts and magazines further cemented this brainwashing. Whether I was aware of it or not the Ford Motor Company had moulded my perception and embedded ownership of one of their products as a key indicator of success. It was at this point that a car drew up onto the parking area immediately in front of where Trevor and I were sitting, but this wasn’t any old car. Ford had recently produced a new more potent version of its 70’s fastback, the Capri. This version featured a V6 fuel injected engine, which in the pre-programmed mind of a young man about to embark on the great adventure of employment represented the pinnacle of achievement and success.
This was then further confirmed as the driver’s door swung open and a young boy who barely looked old enough to drive stepped out. Looking like the Fred character from the Scooby Doo cartoons, he swaggered past us followed by a small entourage of attractive young girls.
“I hope that’s his dad’s car,” I said looking at Trevor for a reassuring confirmation.
“No that’s Roger Lenon, apparently he just got it brand new from the main agent in Barrow,” replied Trevor.
For a few seconds I was speechless as my brain tried to cope with the reality of someone not much older than me owning a car like this. It was like a dream, something you would see on television not in real life, not here on the fell side. The most obvious next question, how does someone his age buy such a car?
“He’s an apprentice fitter at the plaster board works,” said Trevor nonchalantly.
Was this a true light bulb moment? Whatever this was it was certainly a moment, a moment that I was sure I would have great difficulty getting out of my mind. A picture of my future was starting to come into view. In this future I was being handed the keys to a brand new Capri, in this future I rose aloft of my fellow affiliates. In this future I was no longer of average height and slightly overweight – one of the hazards of living above a pub – in this future I was somebody.
“Trevor, how the fuck do you get to be an apprentice fitter at the plasterboard works?” I asked with more than a slight hint of impatience in my voice.
“Not sure,” replied Trevor. “I suppose you would need to apply or give them a ring or something.”
Trevor’s response to my request was far from what I had hoped. A detailed step-by-step process detailing what I needed to do to secure a mechanical apprenticeship that was what I wanted. As I sat outside my parent’s pub it was becoming clear to me, that if it was going to be me stepping from that car, followed by a throng of adoring beautiful young girls there was more work to be done.
“Did you see that handsome young man with those girls that was in at lunchtime Travis?” my mother pronounced at the tea table.
“Yes he’s an apprentice at UK Plaster apparently and he’s just bought a new Capri as well, because they earn a fortune down there according to Trevor,” I said.
“Maybe you could get a job there and start paying some bloody keep, it would be about time,” grunted my father with more than a hint of sarcasm.
This was a time before home computers and the Internet, or certainly before the military industrial complex had allowed the Internet to be accessed by general populations. Trevor’s comment that I should give them a ring, was how things were done back then, so maybe this would be a place to start. In the meantime, I tasked my parents with the job of bleeding as much relevant information out of the locals. You could say the locals were an early version of the Internet, brimming with a fountain of local knowledge, albeit tainted with the smell of sheep’s droppings.
That night I found it difficult to get off to sleep, all I could think about were various scenarios featuring that car and entourage of beauties. I would call UK Plaster first thing in the morning nine am sharp, after all, the clock was ticking I was nearly finished school and the dates for my final exams were looming up. Of course exams, the very thing that could foil my plans, I must make an effort to do some revision, for at worst they could put multiple nails in my coffin or at best provide at least a fly for my ointment. I was my own man, a man of innovation, a free thinking spirit, a divine conscious being; no comprehensive school system was going to put any spanners in my works, no pun intended.
“UK Plaster products how can I help you, said a female voice.”
“Ah yes,” I spluttered. “I wonder if you could help me. I was wondering if you could tell me how someone would go about becoming an apprentice fitter?”
I felt that it was better to adopt an air of subservience at this early stage, as I didn’t want to reduce my chance of future employment.
“Please hold while I connect you to the personnel department, said the voice.”
“Hello can I help you?” said another female voice.”
“Ah yes, can you tell me how I would go about applying for an apprentice position?”
“If you let me have your name and address I will send you out an application form, we will be looking to recruit next June, the letter will detail when you should apply,” the voice said.
,“Yes my name is Travis Bone.” I blurted excitedly and I live at the Stag Inn Gullets, Moldburn Barrow”.
This was better than I had hoped, a done deal as far as I was concerned, All I had to do would be to fill in the form, wow them with my technical knowledge and the job was mine. After all who else would have had the initiative and brass balls to call them up direct let alone be put straight through to the personnel department. Maybe they were struggling for applicants I mused wishfully, all they are interested in around here are sheep and maybe beasts, (a name for a young beef cow),
“I’m in; definitely,” I thought.
I felt extremely pleased with myself and quite positive, I had taken the initiative, made the call and it appeared to have paid off, I was unstoppable. Filling the shelves behind the bar an incredibly dull and never-ending task, even became bearable. As I clinked the Britvic Oranges and Snowballs into neat rows, my father emerged from the cellar.
“Dad I called UK Plaster this morning and guess what; they are sending me an application form for an apprentice job and sounds to me, like I might be the only applicant.”
The evidence to support the theory that I could be the only applicant was thin, if not none existent, yet I felt it was part of the whole positive thinking process, better to kid yourself and be positive than to look on the black side I reasoned.
“Good lad, you’ll be able to pay me and your mother some board and lodgings instead of free loading,” my father joyfully retorted. “I had a word with Tommy Eggelston last night, you know Tommy he’s the skinny bloke with the funny lump on his neck, he drives a forklift at UK Plaster. He reckoned you only get an apprentice job if your father works there, it’s how they work it apparently.”
This news certainly wasn’t music to my ears and I felt the dark mist like cloud of defeat settling down over me. This was one of the many times during my life I would feel completely defeated by some small piece of second-hand information. Many believe that applying positive thinking is the antidote to all life’s problems, but this approach could result in a dead horse being flogged if you’re not careful. Giving up now was the best option save face before it goes too far, thus avoiding any further disappointment.
All this claptrap about anything is possible if you want it badly enough was utter rubbish spouted by Mr and Mrs perfect from the land of clouds and cuckoos; Bastards. Anyway would I really want to work for a sadistic company that actively sends out application forms, for jobs they know are already promised to the pampered offspring of the senior management and their cronies?
“You’re father said you rang UK Plaster and they’re sending you out an application,” said mother with more than a hint of enthusiasm.
“Yes but apparently you’ve got no chance unless your father works there. And that’s from that Tommy with the funny neck, so they can send as many applications as they like. I’m sure they all have a good laugh in that personnel department as they toss my crumpled submission in the bin.”
“Well that’s not what Brian Thwaites was saying and he’s the chief buyer, he thought you had a great chance, said they usually need two mechanical apprentices and one electrical, I do like Brian,” gushed my mother.
Brian Thwaites was a senior man, the chief buyer no less, not just some jumped up Forklift driver with a neck deformity. This was it, my dream was back on; maybe the universe was just testing my resolve, to see if I would give in at the slightest hint of trouble, luckily I was made of sterner stuff!
“So mother, what else did Brian say?”
“He said they initially hold a group aptitude test, sort of an exam and then they whittle the applicants down through a series of interviews,” replied mother.
“Aptitude test, series of interviews, I wouldn’t have thought there would have been enough applicants for all that,” I mocked.
“Oh yes,” said mother, “apparently they sometimes get two hundred applicants for three jobs. He said the aptitude test was designed to weed out the totally unsuitable, people with little or no mechanical skills and after that you needed to stand out from the crowd.”
“They like applicants that have hobbies that have engineering elements; fixing bikes, building model planes that sort of thing, like that radio controlled car you built from that kit. He kept saying you need to stand out from the rest and be able to demonstrate a skill the others don’t have,” said mother.
There is a school of thought that suggests that we create our own reality or at least have the ability to do so. In this case I would need to engineer my own reality, to at least stand out from the hordes of applicants and the apparent nepotism policy adopted by UK Plaster.
When I was a child I was given a Lego set which I enthusiastically added to whenever I got the chance. This toy literally enabled me to build my own reality in miniature. I would watch programs like Thunderbirds and then build a huge plane, far too ambitious in scale and scope, which would quickly manifest a fault on its maiden flight. Usually wafts of smoke ominously emitted from the massively over complex landing gear, yet all the while a blissfully oblivious flight crew, perched up in the cockpit commented on how well things were going. After the inevitable catastrophe, a sophisticated rescue attempt would be required at no less than one hundred thousand feet, the highest a plane had ever been flown. The rescue would be carried out by a piloted ballistic missile, blasted out from beneath a folding swimming pool, or was it some folding palm trees. A rendezvous would then be made with the stricken aircraft high over the earth’s surface. Once the crew was safely aboard the ballistic missile, the huge aircraft would crash harmlessly into the sea; this would then result in everyone promising never to build such an ambitious plane again.
That evening I found myself sitting with Trevor and his mate Alistair, the son of a local farmer.
“Why don’t you speak to Big Graham?” announced Trevor looking up from his pint.
“Big Graham?” I replied with a quizzical look, “Big Graham who.”
“Big Graham Thompson the builder, he might give you some tips on plastering, if you know how to plaster that would stand you apart.”
“I want a maintenance fitters apprenticeship; the ability to skim up a wall isn’t going to be much help fixing a rock crusher or a conveyor belt,” I replied. As ludicrous and ill conceived as Trevor’s idea was he might be on the right track, maybe it was a skill I needed.
Jim Morgan lived in the cottage across the road from the pub and was in most nights when he was at home. Jim was an interesting character; he had spent the majority of his working life employed on large construction projects in the Middle East and more recently Africa. He tended to work one month on, two weeks off and was due to fly back to the Niger Delta on Friday. Jim was extremely knowledgeable with a wealth of varied experiences; he had worked on constructing one of the biggest ports in the Middle East and had even been held up at gunpoint in Africa. What better man to give me some tips regarding crowds and standing out from them, when he comes back from the bar I’ll collar him and see what he thinks.
“Jim I am trying to think of ways to improve my chances of getting an apprentice fitters job at UK Plaster, I want set myself apart from the others, what would you do if you were me for instance, how did you get started as a fitter?”
“I was always fascinated by earth moving equipment, when I was a lad,” Jim said nostalgically. “At that time Britain was in the process of constructing the motorways, so there was a lot of earthmoving stuff about,” said Jim. “When I was a kid I would spend hours watching the Terex motor scrapers working on the M1 near where I lived, they were always getting stuck and would have to get a push from a bulldozer to get them going again. I could stand there all day I was so impressed by the Terex stuff; it was the shear size, the lime green colour, they had a huge engine at both ends you know, fantastic!”
“Terex was an American outfit, but a company called Blackwood Hodge was the main agent in the UK, said Jim. They had a depot where I lived in Barnsley so I went round there to see if there were any jobs going. The depot manager told me to come back the very next day and he would have a chat. It wasn’t really a formal interview as such I just turned up the next day on an old BSA moped that I had re built from a box of bits. The old moped coupled with my enthusiasm for earthmovers and especially Terex earthmovers got me the job. I think it was easier then, the construction industry was booming and they were always on the look out for new starters.”
“What about the first job you got working abroad?” I asked, hoping for some revolutionary bit of advice.
“Funny how that happened,” said Jim stroking his chin, “one of the lads came in to the bait cabin at work one morning. He was holding a copy of the Construction News or the Jackers Journal as they used to call it. There was an advert for Terex fitters wanted for a Dutch construction firm. They were holding interviews in Manchester the following week and were looking for time served applicants. We were single lads and the advert said you could earn twenty-five thousand a year tax-free, so we thought we should have a look. We went down the next week and they offered us jobs, so that’s how I ended up working in Saudi.”
This all sounded very straightforward and not that remarkable, I had built up a picture of Jim in my head based on reports of conversations conducted with my parents. This was a picture of a hugely remarkable and confident man living a jet set tax-free life, funded from the limitless wealth obtained from Middle East oil. Huge machines operating in exotic locations, riding around in American pick-up trucks and doing very little of the hands on work yourself, living in fully supplied, luxury air-conditioned compounds drinking ice-cold beers every night and generally having a good time.
Maybe I was over complicating things I thought, looking for some incredibly unique ability to set myself apart from the others; surely the ability would just need to be mechanical in nature. Maybe I should just sit back and relax and things would just fall neatly into my lap, like it had for Jim. They do say that your life is mapped out in advance and nothing we consciously do makes any difference, but how would you know? I made the conscious decision to call UK Plaster didn’t I; I mean they didn’t call me so my decision to call must have had an effect.
“Welding,” announced Alistair, the farmer’s son, my brother went to a night class at Heston Bank College in Barrow and learned to weld, it took about six weeks I think and at the end of it he got a certificate. Of course welding: welding the art of joining together two pieces of metal so that bonding accompanied by appreciable interatomic penetration takes place at their original boundary surfaces. Or to put it in laymen’s terms, ‘sticking bits of metal together’. I felt very confident that the certified ability to stick bits of metal together could be just the thing to set me apart from the thronging masses of prospective candidates.
The welding idea seemed to go down well with my drinking partners; “I doubt any one else will have a certified welding qualification,” said Jim who had joined us at the table.
“I mean that’s a qualification from a college. I bet no one else would have taken night classes while still at school, that’s bound to impress any prospective employer.”
How did your brother get on to the course Alistair?” I enquired,
“Our mother rang them up and they sent out a form.”
Ring them up and they send out a form, who would of thought it.
“Hello Lancashire college of agriculture how can I help you?” said a female voice,
“Ah yes I am interested in your night classes, specifically the farm welding course with subsequent certificate.”
“Oh yes, please hold and I will put you through to the lady that deals with that.”
“Hello course admin, Beryl speaking how can I help?”
“Yes I am interested in enrolling in the farm welding course, the night class with the certificate, when does it start?”
“We run the course all through the year the next one starts on Thursday and runs from 6.30 p.m. to 9.30 p.m. and every Thursday for six weeks, we have two places left and it’s one hundred and eighty pounds.”
This Thursday, I wasn’t expecting her to say this Thursday. A bit short notice and I didn’t have one hundred and eighty pounds, in fact I didn’t have any pounds, how was I going to get out to Barrow, how would I get back at 9.30 on a Thursday night.
“That’s fine I blurted, can you please include me.”
“Yes certainly what’s your name?”
“Yes the names Bone; Travis Bone.” I may not have had a licence to kill, but all being well, I would soon have a certificate to weld.
Now that I had enrolled myself on a course with no immediate prospect of either being able to pay for it or effectively attend it and return home, I needed a plan. Had I been a little hasty, no of course not, after all ‘Fortune Smiles Upon The Brave,’ it was a worthy cause and I felt confident my parents would have no other option but to pay the fees and provide free transport to and from the venue. After all it would be political suicide on their part to stand in the way of further education. Not only that but also to stand in the way of their sons dreams of being welcomed into the bosom of British industry and becoming a valuable asset to society.
I felt under the circumstances that my mother would be the softest target, so I would approach her first. I should say that at this point I felt a little uneasy, I would be placing my mother in a situation where due to the ongoing pressure of being a good parent, had little or no option than to agree unconditionally with my demands.
“Mother, you know what Brian Thwaites said about standing out from the crowd if I wanted to get the job at UK Plaster?”
“Yes,” replied my mother.
Thursday night soon came round and it was time to marshal my mother into action and get the show on the road.
“Are you ready mother I don’t want to be late, and I’m not sure where it is when we get there, Heston Bank is a big place.”
The drive from Gullets to the college was uneventful and we arrived outside the main entrance not entirely sure where we should be. Up ahead was a car park with what looked like a small block of flats running across the back of it, must be student accommodation or something I thought. There was a set of steps to the side of the block and there appeared to be quite a lot of people coming and going.
“Stop here mother. I’ll ask over there and see if any one knows where the welding classes are held.”
I approached a plump ruddy-faced boy wearing a green body warmer, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the son of a farmer. No doubt sent to Heston Bank to learn how to farm thus legitimising him in some way as a professional and not just some son of a wealthy farmer born with a silver spoon stuck in one of his orifices.
“All right mate,” I announced in a rather familiar manner, “do you know where they do the farm welding course?”
He looked back at me with a blank expression as his brain attempted to compute my request. “If yer gan out the main gate and back in the next yan; there’s a big long grey shed runs down the side oft road. It’ll be the shed down the bottom with the green doors at far end, its where we service tractors I would say.”
“Thanks,” I replied.
“Nee bother lad.”
My mother dropped me off in the vicinity of the shed and after establishing my collection time I set off toward the green doors, confirmation letter in hand. The letter stated, the course instructor was an Edwin Todd, aprons and gloves would be provided; however students should equip themselves with a stout pair of boots. As I walked in I noticed a few people milling around the bottom of the shed, next to what appeared to be a row of changing cubicles.
“Excuse me lads,” I said, as there appeared to be no girls in attendance, “is this the farm welding course”
“Yes,” replied a small blond boy.
The room was well lit with a concrete floor; the air had a strange smell almost like the smell you get when some electrical appliance has overheated. Down one side I counted six cubicles equipped with metal tables with curtains made from a heavy green tarpaulin. On the floor in each cubical sat a sinister looking devise with a large dial on the front and two heavy cables, which had been laid on the table. These must be welders; electric arc welders I deduced, judging by their appearance not the most up to date models. They looked like something you would find being operated by an over enthusiastic scientist, in a remote lab, located on the upper floors of a castle situated high in a remote mountain range.
“Evening lads,” said an older man who appeared from behind a set of large torpedo like gas bottles stood upright on a trolley, “my name is Edwin Todd, I am the tutor for this course.”
The tutor looked more like a gamekeeper than a welding instructor. I estimated his age to be around mid fifty; he was heavyset with Noddy Holder variety sideboards, glasses and a Deerstalker Hat. The sideboards gave him a distinctive look, but I couldn’t help feeling they represented somewhat of a fire hazard for a man in his line of work.
We were all issued with goggles, gloves and leather aprons and the process of joining metal together began in earnest. The first technique to learn was oxyacetylene welding, an approach seldom used now due to the advent of MIG and TIG welders but we will come on to them later. I enjoyed my first night; it felt different from school a lot more grown up somehow.
My mother was waiting for me outside and greeted me with a somewhat unimaginative “how was it then.”
“It was great we learned how to weld with an oxyacetylene torch, look here’s a piece I’ve done,” I announced proudly, thrusting a small piece of steel plate into her hand. As we drove back to Gullets I felt strangely elated. I put this down to the relief of knowing what to expect and the fact that for the first time in my life I had actually enjoyed being taught something. The welding course seemed relevant, important and of genuine use, a far cry from what I experienced at school.
I found for the most part, life in the comprehensive school system boring. Bells would be used to indicate it was time to move to another so-called lesson. A technique perfected by Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov in the nineteen hundreds to train dogs. We would obediently move from room to room and then be subjected to what in the most part would be considered quite basic information. This information was generally of little value, however we would later be expected to remember this valueless material, then answer questions based on it, with the results being used to dictate our entire future destiny.
On entering the comprehensive school system you would be streamed into a class that best suited your academic abilities. However this system was never designed for free thinkers or anyone with any imagination, just for individuals that were good at absorbing information and possessed the capability to spew it back out, word for word on an exam paper. If you were cynical you may suspect the whole system was designed to produce good well-behaved wage slaves. Wage slaves that would pay their taxes, produce further wage slaves and work until there was no time left to do anything else with their lives or enjoy any of that retirement money they had saved so hard for.
There were five levels in our school that were given the following designations: The top class was N, then there was E, S, W and R; I think you can guess what R stood for. N students were expected to stay on into the sixth form and attend university, ultimately becoming doctors, lawyers that sort of thing. E was for children with decidedly middle of the road tendencies, probably destined for life working for a district council or something like that. S was for tradesmen, plumbers builders etc., or to put it another way genuinely useful people. This left W, for labourers and lorry drivers and R to produce the type of person N, E, S, and W, worked to avoid ever becoming.
I was initially placed in the E, stream but then had to face the ultimate humiliation of being put down into S for year two. I never felt I fitted in with the other kids in E, they were, for the most part a thoroughly boring bunch, predetermined for very unremarkable lives, there was no evidence of imagination, flair or personality. Fortuitously for me there was one exception and he happened to be my best friend Shane O’Leary. He was a genuine genius in the making, without a doubt, way too advanced for the environment he found himself in. It was little wonder he could not find inspiration from the dull and mostly inaccurate information that was being forced upon us.
Ironically Shane was also demoted with me that year, but was subsequently whisked away to an exclusive private school in London, by a rich relative that appreciated his potential talent. I however had to face the reality of being downgraded on my own, There were some preliminary hostilities from my new chums but after several mildly violent initiations I was accepted and fitted right in. Life in S turned out to be considerably more fun. It was full of interesting characters that had a real zest for life, kids that would ultimately be imaginative and entrepreneurial. My new classmates had made the incredibly dull contents of my school days, bearable.
Over the course of the next few weeks, various methods of joining two pieces of metal together were demonstrated to us by Edwin our welding instructor. At the end of the six weeks we were competent, gas and electric arc welders and had also been shown how to cut metal using an oxyacetylene-cutting torch. Armed with my certificate and various examples of my work, I felt I was now equipped with a skill that would allow me to stand out; all that stood in my way was the forth coming aptitude test.
The personnel lady at UK Plaster had been true to her word and I had received an application form for an apprentice position at the works. Having completed the form I had been invited to attend an aptitude test to be held at the works social club at the end of the week. I had tasked my mother with the interrogation of Brian Thwaites – the chief buyer – to see if he could shed any light on the potential contents of the test. Unfortunately mother had drawn a blank; she did however assure me that my plan to surreptitiously administer him with sodium pentothal was futile, as he genuinely didn’t know the contents of the test.
The day of the aptitude test had arrived; mother had been booked to drop me off at the UK Plaster works social club at 10 a.m.
“Mother are you ready I can’t be late for this.”
“Yes I’m coming, you are so impatient its only takes 10 minutes to get there.”
The UK Plaster works social club was a flat roofed 70s style building, it featured a large function room with dance floor and bar and comfortable seating to accommodate up the three hundred members. The club sat adjacent to a small housing estate called The Raise. This estate had been purpose built to house UK Plaster employees when the factory was first constructed.
The Raise featured small regimented grey concrete dwellings. These resembled the type of habitation you might imagine from a novel about a nightmarish future where the world had been devastated in a nuclear war. Then in the subsequent aftermath a totalitarian dictatorship comes to power and takes over every aspect of the lives of the remaining citizens. All the bad boys from school originated from The Raise and it had an extremely bad reputation with the natives. Knowing its reputation, I felt slightly uneasy about being dropped off just over the road.
As we drew into the car park, the potential enormity of my endeavour became all too evident. A sea of adolescent faces regarded me with intense scrutiny, undaunted I stepped from my mothers Cortina and confidently walked into the throng. Moments later the door of the club opened and a well-dressed man with a moustache, sporting a UK Plaster necktie beckoned us inside. The dance floor had been converted into a makeshift examination room and was covered in a forest of individual seats and tables. Like a mob of neatly turned out football hooligans playing musical chairs, we took our seats.
The well-dressed man with the tie and moustache introduced himself as Roy Ditchburn, the deputy works engineer, who thanked us for our attendance. He then went on to brief us on how the test was to be carried out.
“OK gentlemen, we will shortly be handing out the test papers, they will be placed face down on the table, please don’t touch them until I tell you to do so.”
This speech seemed vaguely familiar and at this point in my life I was starting to detect a bit of a pattern forming, I did like being referred to as a gentleman through.
“Right gentlemen you have two hours, please turn over your papers.”
The test was a mix of diagrams and simple maths problems designed to establish a basic grasp of engineering knowledge. An example would be an illustration of a row of gears with an arrow indicating the input direction. Your job would be to establish the direction of rotation of the various interlocking gears, that sort of thing. I completed the test with ten minutes to spare and having caught the eye of one of the adjudicators, ensured my name was on the top of the paper and left the room as quietly as possible.
My mother was waiting for me outside and greeted me with the now standard, “how was it then?”
“OK,” I replied, “most of it was common sense.”
I felt unusually confident that the test had gone well and hadn’t felt it had been my greatest challenge. This was yet to come in the guise of my final exams, due to kick off in a week’s time; good results here could make or break me as far as my future employer was concerned. So far I had failed to demonstrate the strength of character required to apply myself to the task of revision. That is unless you call riding old motorbikes up and down fields and watching the professionals while eating spring onion crisps, revision.
My exam results were not what I had hoped, and I had received only the basic pass mark for mathematics, a subject my prospective employer expected to see I had mastery over. On a brighter note I had excelled in metal work and hoped this would mitigate the maths result. I felt by exploiting the old cliché, generally when someone looks good on paper, when it comes to physically doing the job they are worse than useless. He had qualifications coming out of his backside, but when it came to fitting a three-pin plug he was about as much use as hanging baskets on a helicopter, you get the general idea.
Two or three weeks passed before my mother excitedly announced that a letter had arrived addressed to me.
“Open it then,” said my mother as I stood holding it tentatively in my hand.
The envelope felt heavier than it should, although it was the standard small type with a window, the sort you need to fold an A4 sheet into three for it to fit. My name had been slightly obscured presumably due to the letter being folded incorrectly; I hoped this wasn’t a bad sign. After all it would make sense for the rejection letters to be assembled by a junior member of staff, for reasons of efficiency you understand.
This important letter thing was a relatively new experience for me; not only did I rarely receive written correspondent; anything I did receive in the past had been generally trivial in nature. First there had been the exam results. As far as exams were concerned, I considered their value to be considerably overrated. Merely tests to ascertain the effectiveness of my comprehensive education, as a result I treated them with mild contempt. This though was different, without doubt more significant and of real importance. Getting a decent job that was important, that’s what really proved your worth, that and the ability to buy a brand new Capri.
My life was literally in my hands, at least the first instalment of my working life at any rate.
“What does it say?” enquired my mother, who had succumbed to the monotony of waiting for me to open it and subsequently left for the kitchen.
My thumb parted the flap from the back of the envelope and I folded out the letter; “We would like to invite,” were the first words I read, I felt the relief surge through me, the first fence had been conquered and I was still running.
“Mother,” they want me to attend an interview at the works next Tuesday morning I exclaimed triumphantly.
“So what else does it say, how did you do in the aptitude test?”
“No mention of that, just that I am to report to the reception of the main offices at the works at 10am.”
At this point my father walked into the kitchen from the bar.
“Father I’ve got an interview at UK Plaster next Tuesday.”
“That’s brilliant son,” he exclaimed. “Lets just hope your wages are enough to cover your board and lodgings,” he remarked, hardly able to contain a large grin.
Tuesday morning, the day of the interview, my mother had provided me with a newly pressed shirt, trousers and one of my father’s more up to date ties. I wasn’t convinced outward appearance would significantly affect any outcome. However I felt adopting a neutral look would prevent my interrogators from being unduly distracted. I had made the decision to go with the flow as far as the interview was concerned. This was unlike me, as I usually liked to go over multiple scenarios in my head and then devise methods how to best deal with them. I felt that now I had come this far, lets give destiny a go for a change, stop worrying and relax.
UK Plaster works occupied a huge area, with the factory lay at its centre, the locals referred to the factory as the White City a pretty good nickname if not a bit obvious. Construction plaster tends to be whitish grey in appearance; hence the buildings were in the main painted white. This deliberate tactic preserved the external appearance, thus safeguarding the iconic status of this local landmark. As we proceeded up the access road carefully adhering to the 20 MPH speed restriction I couldn’t help feeling in awe of the place.
Having negotiated the security guards that manned the weighbridge we proceeded to the office car park.
“I’ll be back in an hour, best of luck son.”
“Thanks mother,” I said with a slight sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I stood on the large UK Plaster welcome mat and pushed open one of the glass double doors entering the building.
“Can I help you?” said a lady from behind a large reception counter.
“Yes my name is Travis Bone I’ve come for an interview.”
“That’s fine,” she said with a motherly grin, “please take a seat.”
The reception area was all glass giving a grandstand view of the plant, this was the closest I had ever been and it was huge.
Strange looking lorries with cabs on one side sped up and down the front of the factory, occasionally stopping to reverse their trailers into one of the many loading bays. The air echoed with loud Tannoy announcements directing the minions to their next task. Vast plumes of steam spewed from small vent stacks up and down the building roof, giving the impression the whole place was about to blow its top.
In the centre of the room was a large stainless steel staircase with a single backbone, reminiscent of the stairs from a bond villain’s headquarters. At the top of the stairs a balcony led to a door with a prominent highly polished gold plaque that read Mr D.W. Walter, Works Manager, a bloke of some importance I deduced.
“You must be Travis?” announced a man with a moustache; this was the man I had seen at the aptitude test. “I’m Roy Ditchburn Deputy Works Engineer nice to meet you; my colleague and I will be conducting the interview if you’d like to follow me we are just through here.”
We proceeded down a corridor and into a room marked Meeting Room 2. Inside, sat a stout man in his mid fifties, bald, bearded and squeezed into a white boiler suit that could hardly contain his ample girth, Roy beckoned me to sit.
“This is Tom Newtown he is our Apprentice Training Officer, he will be sitting in on the interview.”
The Tom Newtown character nodded ominously at me without saying a word, perhaps they had decided between them to adopt the good cop, bad cop routine.
Roy started by giving me a short history of UK Plaster this was followed by a general outline of the role of maintenance engineer. He then went on to say, a UK Plaster apprenticeship was quite unique as far as the industry was concerned.
“We are a large organisation and operate many different types of plant,” he said proudly. “We mine our own rock, then process it in our mill facility and as you probably know we also produce a range of plaster board products. In addition we have a fleet of lorries and forklift trucks, in house machine shop and a team of welders.”
“Bingo,” I thought.
“So Travis why do you want to become an engineer,” asked Roy with a slightly disingenuous smile. For a second I wondered if this question was designed to catch out candidates that had absolutely no desire whatsoever in becoming an engineer and were just involved in some elaborate dare.
“Well, since I was a small boy I have always loved machines, so I wanted to go into a job where I could be around them.”
“Yes, good,” said Roy.
“I’ve always built things, Lego, Meccano and recently I have been repairing lawn mowers for people in the village. I’m very good with my hands.”
“Yes good,” said Roy.
I was starting to get the impression that if I’d said that a liked to play with dolls and had a passion for pressing wild flowers, Roy would have given the same response. Had they already decided; were they wasting my time? Perhaps I was just a player in an elaborate hoax, the propose of which was to fool the world into thinking you’ve got a chance of employment at UK Plaster, even if your daddy wasn’t pulling strings from five miles up.
I felt the time had come to play my ace card, they won’t be expecting this, we’ll see how your good cop, bad cop routine handles this; prepare to be dazzled.
“Oh yes, did I mention I was a qualified welder with a certificate for Heston Bank college, I recently completed a night class up there.”
The statement had an instantaneous effect, akin to detonating a small anti personnel munition. Roy was jolted from the self induced hypnotic state, he had placed himself into, the result of conducting countless interviews, and Tom looked at me as if to say, “you crafty little bastard.”
“That’s excellent Travis, none of our other candidates have that skill behind them, it really sets you apart!”
“This is a hard factory you know lad,” growled the Tom Newtown character. “First year apprentices don’t have much status with the other lads, I hope you’re not soft!”
“Well Mr Newtown I live in a pub so I’m used to getting a bit of friendly abuse from the locals, I can stand my own corner.” What did he mean a ‘hard factory?’ I wasn’t joining the army, you don’t frighten me Mr bad cop. After a rallying period of them asking me relatively conventional questions and me telling them what I thought they wanted to hear, the interview came to a close.
“Thank you for coming in Travis, we’ll let you know,” Roy said coming to his feet.
“What happens next?” I asked cheekily.
“Well if we want to see you again, you’ll be asked to come in for a second interview and we will give you a tour of the works.” Tom Newtown made no attempt to stand instead he just glared at me and made a low level grunting sound. Roy led me back to the reception and smiled as he held open the glass door, my mother was already waiting and I walked back into the car park.
“Well,” exclaimed mother who had shortened her stock question down to one word, presumably in an attempt to give it some more life.
“Ok I think, I seemed to get on great with one of the interviewers, not sure about the other one through.”
“They seemed very impressed I had taken a welding course at Heston Bank, well one of them did. The deputy works engineer Roy, said they would let me know if they wanted to see me again, if they do; I get a second interview and a tour of the factory.”
“Well I’m sure you’re better than the rest Travis,” said my mother proudly, “all you can do now is wait and see.”
As we travelled the relatively short distance back to Gullets I couldn’t help thinking about what the Tom Newtown bloke had said, I mean what exactly did he mean it’s a hard factory. I mean this wasn’t a nineteenth century cotton mill, where I would lose an arm in my first week, if I were lucky! This was a modern factory with rules and regulations, health and safety and all that sort of thing. I mean did he really expect me to believe that in this day and age you would still be sent up chimneys. The way he was talking I was likely to be bullied, abused and deliberately put in perilous situations. Not only that but subjected to relentless physical and mental abuse with the intention of completely breaking and humiliating me. I mean who’s he trying to kid?
After approximately three weeks I received notification from UK Plaster that I was part of the final short list of applicants jostling for one of the two mechanical apprenticeships. I was to attend a second interview and would receive a guided tour of the works. At this interview I would attempt to pull out all the stops. I had assembled some welding test pieces from my course at Heston Bank and acting on my mother’s advice, planned to take the radio controlled car I had built with me to demonstrate my technical prowess. So far everything seemed to be going as planned, my exam results hadn’t thrilled them, but they seemed convinced by my hands on abilities.
We arrived at the works in the same way we had done before and I was shown once again into Meeting Room 2. On this occasion a third man had joined the original team of, Roy Ditchburn Deputy Works Engineer and the congenial Mr Tom Newtown, I don’t remember what he did. I estimated him to be in his late forties, quite tall and slim, glasses, clean-shaven but with a distinct lack of hair on his head.
“This is Sid Barns Travis, he is the foreman fitter in our board plant, he will be taking you round the factory after the interview.”
“Alright lad,” boomed Sid with a big smile on his face.
The interview was conducted in a similar vein to the last one, but with some additional information. This dealt with the various steps I would be required to complete during the course of an apprenticeship, if successful. Seemingly I would spend one year attending a full time engineering training course. This would be held at the technical college in Lancaster; during this period I would be expected to lodge in the city during the week. After the first year I would return to the plant and complete a further four years on the job training, while at the same time attending weekly day release at the college. I felt the interview had gone well and based my reasoning for this assessment by the enthusiasm my interrogators had shown for both my welded test pieces and my radio controlled car. So enthusiastic were they, Roy and Sid ended up piloting the car out of the room and into the corridor. They then proceeded to gleefully drive it up and down the corridor while bickering as to who should be next to take the controls.
“Ok Travis, if you would like to take a coat and hard hat, Sid will take you round the factory, don’t be afraid to ask any questions, Sid is very knowledgeable. When you get back you can leave the protective clothing with Sue at reception, we will be in touch, and thanks again.”
The white cotton storeman’s overcoat was about three sizes too big; fortunately the white hard hat was adjustable so at least that was a good fit. We proceeded out of the office block at a blistering pace and advanced across a large concrete area towards the factory.
Having crossed this area, which Sid described as the apron we approached a door accessed by a small set of stairs. Compared to the size of the building the door looked very small, out of proportion to the rest of the vast factory. A sign on the door read pedestrian access only, it struck me that people were a very small component in the running of this vast machine and the door seemed to symbolise this somehow. As we entered the building Sid pointed at a machine fixed to the wall, surrounded by racks of buff brown cards.
“That’s the clock card machine Travis, every worker has his own card and this is where the engineering staff punch in to start their shift.”
As we walked past the clock cards I could see an open door right at the end of the corridor. This gave me my first tantalising glimpse into the factory; framed in the doorway were huge rotating rolls of paper held by massive hydraulic arms. Sid who was walking briskly in front of me turned sharp left into a corridor and stopped outside a door, with a sign that read FLT Workshop. His hand reached for the door handle and he paused, “this is where we maintain our forklift trucks,” said Sid trying to create an air of wonder. This so reminded me of a scene from Charlie and The Chocolate Factory; nevertheless despite Sid’s best efforts he made a less than convincing Willy Wonka.
I followed Sid through the door; the room seemed dim, lit only by a strange yellow orange light. The strange light was being provided by the type of sodium bulbs you find in street lighting; this gave the impression you were looking at the world through yellow tinted glasses. The workshop was full of forklift trucks in various states of repair and the smell of hydraulic oil hung heavy in the air. Sid introduced me to an older man called Graham who appeared to be covered from head to toe in oil.
“Graham this is Travis he’s one of the lads we are interviewing for the apprenticeships this year,” said Sid giving me a friendly nudge.
“You’ll be right lad won’t you?” replied Graham his gleaming set of national health false teeth being the most prominent feature in the gloom. I hoped things were going to improve as the thought of spending eight hours a day in the twilight world of the forklift truck bay did not fill me with glee.
Next stop was to be the main fitting shop; this was the next door along from the FLT bay and was situated at the end of the same corridor. We entered the first of two large rooms; these were very well lit as the back wall featured large sections of wire-reinforced glass.
“This is the machine shop Travis,” said Sid raising his voice over a very large machine being operated by an elderly gentleman. “This houses our lathes and milling machines, it’s where we can make our own components from scratch.”
“Is Malcolm about, Pat?” Sid said to the elderly gentleman operating the large machine: which I later learned was a lathe.
“He’s on the milling machine,” said Pat, gesturing over to the other side of the shop.
We walked round the back of the shop where a younger, stocky, pale man was working on a milling machine. He saw us approaching and pushed a large leaver stopping the progress of the cutting head.
“This is Malcolm Ball, he’s the machine shop manager Travis, and this is one of the first departments you would work in as part of your apprenticeship.”
This Malcolm was a strange looking fellow; he was short, stocky and bald with pale skin and piggy little eyes. To improve his appearance he had made a vein attempt to comb the little bit of ginger hair he had into thin wisps across his head.
“So you want to be a fitter at UK Plaster do you son?” he said mockingly.
He struck me immediately as a man with a chip on his shoulder; this may have been a result of his odious appearance. Or maybe he suspected the title of Machine Shop Manger was a little grand, seeing as he only had one ageing subordinate. Secretly he had come to the realisation that no one really liked him and that his life, much like his title was meaningless.
“Well I hope to be, Mr Ball,” I replied with a conciliatory smile.
“Ok lad,” said Sid, “this way.”
We left the machine shop and entered the adjacent room through some large sliding doors.
“This is the main fitting shop, as you can see we have quite a lot of equipment in here.”
In the corner was an area screened off with a large curtain and judging by the intense white flashes emanating from it, must be the welding area I thought. Two very impressive machines dominated the other corner.
“What are they?” I asked pointing over to the two machines.
“This is our sheet metal guillotine, it can handle plate up to 3/8 of an inch thick if need be,” said Sid proudly. “And this big beauty is for bending sheet metal; we only got it last year, we’ve been after one of these for ages,” he said, tenderly stroking the contraption.
We left the fitting shop and turned to our right. “This is the head of the board plant Travis,” said Sid pointing to the large rolls of paper I had seen earlier. “This is where we make wallboard for the construction industry. The process starts by sandwiching plaster between heavy-duty papers, forming a continuous piece of board. This continuous piece runs down what we call the forming belt for about a quarter of a mile. We then cut it to length and send it back up the factory passing it through a dryer.”
“Alright Sid,” said a man riding a pink folding bike with a large basket on the back.
“What’s a man doing on a bike Sid?” I asked slightly puzzled.
“We use bikes to get around the plant, that was Les, a board plant fitter, he’s one of my lads.”
We walked past the huge paper reels that were being slowly but steadily unwound and onto the next section, which Sid referred to as Number One board plant ‘wet end,’ apparently there were two board plants and this was number One. The wet end was where the wallboard is first formed, paper is fed in from the top and bottom with liquid plaster being introduced from a mixer into the centre. We walked along the belt until we came to a footbridge, allowing us to cross from one side of the belt to the other. From our vantage point we could see right down the factory, the belt was so long it almost disappeared from view.
“We’ll walk to the end of the plant and back up by the dryer,” said Sid striding off again.
As we continued down the belt Sid pointed out the second board plant that ran parallel to the one we were on. The size of the place was hard to grasp; this was production on a massive scale. Near the end was the ‘cutter’ a toothed blade that was being periodically fired down on to the surface of the newly formed board.
“That blade just scores the board Travis, then it gets snapped, that’s how we get the individual boards. After the boards are cut to length we turn them over on a transfer table and send them back up the factory and through the dryer.”
We watched as the boards were fed into the drier by a moving ramp, which Sid referred to as the tipple table. This ramp allowed board to by fed to the twelve different decks or levels in the dryer.
“Ok lad we’ll head up this way and I will show you my office, just keep your wits about you, the stacker truck drivers are mad round here.”
‘Stacker truck’ was another name for a forklift truck and everywhere you looked you saw one. We were now walking up the back of the factory, towards the head of the plant.
“Watch your back lad,” Sid grabbed my coat and pulled me to the side.
Over the general noise and constant hum of machinery I had failed to hear a fast approaching forklift truck. It sped past us, black smoke pouring from the exhaust, banging and clattering over the joins in the concrete floor.
“You’ve got to keep your wits about you round here lad.”
“How come they drive so fast?” I said looking round to see if it was coming back.
“They have to get back up to the take off, where the boards are stacked at the end of the line,” said Sid. “If they don’t keep up, the plant has to stop and that costs money, it’s quite a distance from No 2 board plant to the warehouse you see. If you follow this road down there, you go round the bottom of the factory and into the warehouse,” said Sid pointing back in the direction we had just come from.
Up ahead of us was a small building like a very big garden shed, which looked odd, as it was a building inside a building. Outside there were tall racks of spare parts and various machines in different stages of assembly. A pink folding bike with a large basket on the back was leaning against the wall near to a door.
“Is that the same bike we saw the man riding before?” I enquired.
“Yes,” replied Sid, “that’s where my lads operate from, the board plant fitting shop.”
I had the notion that Sid might have introduced me to his lads, but he seemed very keen to press on to our next destination.
“How many fitters are there in the board plant Sid?”
“I have five full-time lads and usually one apprentice will be doing a stint down here. If you get taken on, the lads will look after you; break you in sort of thing,” Sid said with a mischievous grin.
Break me in? I wasn’t sure if I liked the sound of that, maybe this was what the Tom Newtown man from the interview meant, when he said it was a hard factory. I suppose you would have to expect a certain amount of high spirits from your new colleagues, I felt confident that it would only amount to, a bit of harmless fun, some mild leg pulling that sort of thing.
We approached a large glass structure that straddled the forming belts of both No1 and 2 board plants. It sat on large steel stilts and reminded me very much of an air traffic control tower from a commercial airport.
“This is the board plant production office and where I have my desk,” said Sid, sprinting up the stairs to a large glass door. The office provided a first class view of the board plant from its lofty raised location. In the centre a large control panel appeared to be indicating the belt speed and various other parameters associated with the production process.
“There are five of us work out of here,” said Sid gesturing to four other desks in the room. “I’m the only one on the engineering side every one else in here is involved with production.”
Sid introduced me to a man in a white coat with the title Production Supervisor printed on it “This is Eric he’s the production supervisor, it’s his job to keep the plant working flat out all the time.”
“Aye lad and these buggers don’t make it easy for me, I hope if you get a job here you’re a fast worker, these buggers only have one speed, snails bloody pace.”
“Well said Eric,” announced another man looking up from his desk.
“There’s a bit of them and us in here lad,” said Sid as we descended the stairs from the office, “all they are interested in is production, they can’t bear it when something breaks and stops the plant. We’ll go over the canteen for some dinner lad, are you hungry?” Sid said prodding me in the stomach.
“Yes I am a bit I only had a piece of toast this morning,” I replied.
We walked out of the back of the factory at the head end, past the clock cards and back onto the apron. Between the offices and the plant lay two buildings one large and one smaller. Through the windows of the larger building I could see people sitting around tables and what appeared to be a serving counter, I concluded this must be the canteen.
“What’s in there Sid?” I said pointing to the smaller building.
“That’s the medical centre, you don’t want to end up in there,” said Sid chuckling.
The canteen was split into four sections two large but separate areas for maintenance and production staff, with another section for managers and an exclusive dining room for senior managers and visiting dignitaries. It struck me that separating everyone at meal times would only serve to intensify the; them and us culture, Sid had spoken of, a policy of divide and conquer presumably, I thought.
“You get to eat in the managers area today lad, we get table service, one of the little perks of being on the managerial team,” announced Sid while shaking out his napkin.
“What would you like today Sid?” said a blond lady holding a small writing pad.
Sid spun round in his chair straining to read a board hanging from the wall, “cottage pie please darling.”
“Could I have the same please?” I asked.
“Yes certainly love,” said the blond lady.
I felt mirroring Sid’s selection would be the best strategy, I didn’t want to give the impression I was a picky eater or hard to please in some way.
“The canteen is subsidised by the company lad, you can have a slap up lunch for fifty pence,” proclaimed Sid, “they really look after you here you know.”
UK Plaster operated a subsidised canteen enabling hungry workers to have a three-course lunch for fifty pence. The nominal charge was just enough to pay the canteen staffs wages. The food in the canteen was edible, but I felt the meat in the cottage pie had been taken from, lets say an ‘older cottage’, as it appeared to be mostly gristle and fat. Sid devoured his pie with gusto.
“Lovely that lad,” he declared pushing his empty plate into the middle of the table.
Based on the quality of the food, the big selling point of all you can eat for fifty pence had somewhat lost its impact as far as I was concerned. Doubtless the executives enjoyed a superior level of culinary excellence than that of the rank and file worker; well at least I hoped so!
After lunch we headed back across the apron and towards the factory once again, “Right lad,” said Sid striding off with newly refuelled vigour. “We’ll have a look round the mill, it’s not really my area but I know enough about it to show you around.”
The mill was where the raw gypsum rock was crushed and purified so it could be turned into bagged plaster or made into wallboard. The buildings housing the mill were about twice as high as the ones that housed the board plant and warehouse; this was to allow the rock to descend through various processes. A huge one hundred and fifty-foot tall stainless steel chimney stood like an immense sentinel marking the entrance to the mill. I was reminded of my dislike for heights, as I looked up at the ladder that was fixed the side of the giant stack; if I got the job I hoped I would never need to climb it.
We walked towards four large double doors that had signs on them denoting ear defenders should be worn.
“That’s where we house the blowers,” said Sid shouting over the noise from the shed. “We move plaster round the mill by blowing it through eight-inch steel pipes called blow lines,” he explained. “This shed is where we house the blowers; we have four of them in there as you can hear they are very noisy.”
The blowers were essentially super chargers, larger versions of the units you found sat atop the engine of a dragster, only instead of blowing fuel and air into an engine they were blowing plaster round the factory.
Sid opened one of the doors and we went inside, the noise was literally unbearable, if you had stayed in this area for any time I was sure you would receive permanent hearing damage. As we walked through the shed I noticed racks with large and small oil drums on them, in fact there were all manner of oilcans, grease guns and lubrication paraphernalia strewn around on the floor. A thin old man wearing a battered black hard hat appeared out of nowhere and proceeded to fill an oilcan from one of the many larger barrels. He was gaunt and pale, standing hunched and slightly twisted. As he shot me a glance, he reminded me of the character from the Hunch Back of Notre Dame, the man who lived in the bell tower and was deafened by the noise of the bells.
We exited the blower room and entered the mill. Apart from the noise, heat and dust the other thing you noticed straight away was the pungent smell of sulphur. We had entered a massive space, quite literally a cathedral of heavy industry. To our left was a huge pit housing four giant bell-shaped steel contraptions that had enormous sprung arms projecting out from each side. These arms must have been acting on something inside the machine, as the colossal springs on the outside were being constantly impacted and violently recoiled. I raised my head and looked up, towering above me were four distinct floor levels reaching up about one hundred feet. Each level providing space for the different equipment needed to process the plaster into a usable finished product.
Sid pointed down to the bell shaped devices, “They are luploco mills lad, or to give them their technical name, a ring-roll pulveriser, this is where the rock comes into the plant from the main crusher. They grind the rock into a fine dust and the dust is then extracted from the top of the machine by a huge suction fan,” Sid said, shouting over the racket. “The dust goes up into the top of the plant where it is further sorted and it is then boiled to get rid of any water.”
“Boiled?” I said, looking slightly bemused. “How do you boil dust?”
“Good question Travis,” replied Sid, clearly pleased with my apparent interest. “We put the plaster through a process called continuous calcination,” said Sid. “We do this by feeding it into a giant kettle. We then heat the underneath of the kettle and the plaster boils just like water, the calcinated plaster then flows out of the top of the kettle with all the moisture removed. That massive chimney we passed is to disperse the combustion products from the burning of heavy oil, needed to heat the kettles, that’s why you get that strong sulphur smell,” said Sid clearing his throat. “Ok lad, follow me we’ll have a look at the mill control room, there’s a lift over here you don’t even need to climb the stairs,” Sid said prodding me once more in the stomach.
Sid slid back the two steel gates and we entered the lift, closing them he punched the third of four Bakelite type buttons on a small panel next to the door. The lift shuddered into action and we slowly started our ascent. Looking around I noticed a plaque that read MAX LOAD 2,000lbs, someone had written, ‘keep out Reggie Young you fat bastard’ next to it. In fact looking around, the walls were decorated with countless obscene messages and diagrams reminiscent of primitive cave paintings. I reasoned it was quite a good place to lay on a small exhibition of erotic art and poetry. As you had a captive audience at least for the time it took for the elevator to reach its desired destination.
The lift came to a halt and Sid slid back the gates, as he shut them behind us the lift departed in an upward direction, faithfully answering the call from another passenger on the level above us. We walked across a steel walkway towards a door, my throat felt dry, it was very noisy with dust and sulphur hanging heavy in the hot dry air. Once through the door of the control room the environment changed completely, the noise reduced down to a whisper as the door closed behind us, the air felt cool and clear. “Its air conditioned in here lad,” said Sid placing his hands on the shoulders of a man sitting in a large swivel chair. “Now I hope you boys aren’t working too hard,” said Sid roughly massaging the shoulders of the man in the chair.
“It’s all go in here Sid,” said the man in the chair looking like we had woken him up with our arrival.
A grand control console dominated the room, curving round in a slight arc. It was bristling with gauges, switches and warning lights some of which were grouped into flow charts and diagrams, only the odd broken dial and light lens detracted from its magnificence. Two operators were in attendance, with an empty chair for a third.
“So what’s going on boys?” said Sid to the two operators.
“Number three kettle has flamed out, we are just waiting for Jimmy to send someone to see if they can re-light it,” said the other operator.
“Jimmy Adams is my opposite number in the mill lad,” said Sid.
“Other than that, them useless bloody electricians were supposed to get a look at our bloody tea urn,” said the first operator. “We’re having to go down and use the expander men’s bloody kettle every time we want a cup of bastard tea,” he said.
“Well at least their kettles working lads,” said Sid laughing at his own joke.
We left the control room out through a door at the opposite end and entered a series of small steel gangways; these gangways threaded their way up past machines and then down over conveyor belts. It felt like I was in the fun house at Blackpool, any minute now we would come across a section of walkway that shuffled back and forward beneath your feet, where you would need to use all your ability just to stay upright. The walkway turned right and dropped down a slight incline passing two offices on the left that seemed very out of place amongst all this machinery. The first office was empty, but a large man was sat at the desk in the second one. Sid grabbed the door handle and walked in, so I dutifully followed.
“This is Jimmy Adams Travis,” said Sid, “he’s the mill fitter foreman, my opposite number in the mill.”
Jimmy Adams was a big man slender with very pronounced features. If I were to say he resembled anyone it would have been the Grandstand commentator from the nineteen seventies Jimmy Hill, but without the beard.
Jimmy stood up and walked round the desk towards me in a slightly unnerving fashion.
“So what’s your name then laddy?” he said in an almost sinister way,
“It’s Travis, Travis Bone,” I replied.
At this point to my surprise he put his arm round my waist grabbing me toward him and said, “are you going to be my good lad, laddy?”
This man was very strange; this must be what it’s like for a girl in a place full of men. At best this man was a screaming homosexual at worst a predatory paedophile, I thought.
“We’re interviewing him for one of the apprentice jobs,” said Sid, trying to read something on Jimmy’s desk, “you’re on the short list aren’t you lad?” said Sid.
“Jimmy’s a strange one lad,” Sid said as we walked away from his office; “although he did take a bit of a shine to you, he likes young boys you see,” he said with a mischievous grin.
We rounded another corner and came out on to a floor bristling with small pumps, connected to a large array of pipe work. “This is the chemical platform lad,” said Sid “we’re back in the board plant, right above No1 wet end,” we descended a flight of stairs and we were back standing next to the big reels of paper that were still slowly unravelling.
“OK lad, I’m going to love you and leave you, just go through that door and down past the clock machine and you’ll be back on the apron,” said Sid gesturing over to a door. “Mind you don’t get run over by a bloody stacker truck when you walking back to the office, there’s a good lad.”
“Best of luck, and I may well see you again,” Sid shook my hand and I headed off in the direction of the offices.
As I made my way back I pondered on my first experience of factory life, it hadn’t been quite as I had imagined it to be. The picture I had created in my mind was loosely based on what I had seen on television, which had been my only real point of reference up to this point. In reality it seemed somewhat less regimented, full of strange characters, all with a less than devout work ethic. I walked past the time clock machine and out into the sunlight. A stacker truck drove past on the apron at full speed, black smoke pouring from its exhaust, rattling over the imperfections in the concrete. The driver glanced up in my direction; he seemed to have an insane look on his face, perhaps these stacker trucks were possessed in some way. Once behind the controls you would lose all regard for human life. Obeying only the voice from the stacker truck, urging you on, to go faster and faster and faster, well anyway that’s how it seemed to me.
I crossed the apron and headed back towards the offices, Sue the receptionist was sitting behind her counter and she grinned as I walked through the door.
“Would it be possible to call my mother,” I asked, “so she can come and collect me?”
“Of course,” she replied and passed me the phone. My mother arrived and I handed my UK Plaster hat and coat back to Sue as instructed.
“Did you get a look round then,” said my mother inexplicably; I mean what did she think I had been there for. I was tempted to say that a man on a stacker truck had gone on a murderous rampage, impaling five fellow workers on the end of his forks in a nightmarish orgy of blood and death, which had resulted in my tour being cancelled. On second thoughts my mother would have probably believed me, “fine thanks,” I replied.
Over tea that night I recounted my experiences to my parents, they did their best to be interested in the technical details, but I could tell they were faking it. All I could do now was wait; wait for one of those life-changing envelopes to arrive. I hadn’t given much thought to what I would do if I didn’t get the job. Some how I had a strange feeling that I was going to work there, but there was no logical explanation for this feeling. As I said, some cultures believe your life is mapped out before you start and nothing that you do can influence the outcome. Maybe I should start to trust my intuition and stop being dominated by logical left brain thinking. So if I were to trust my feelings, go with my gut so to speak, this would lead me to the one outcome I hadn’t given much thought to, getting the job! All this time I had been frantically working toward a goal, not really appreciating what I was letting myself in for. This would be it; I would be joining the ranks of the full-time employed and for better or worse be expected to turn up for duty for the next forty-eight years. I felt a sense of mild panic, forty-eight years, I was expected to give over the most precious thing I will ever own to UK Plaster; my life! On the up side I would be driving to work in my new Capri, surely that would be consolation enough, wouldn’t it?
The days passed and I busied myself with countless, fruitless and generally unproductive activities. Until the day a white window envelope arrived, displaying my address but with my name slightly obscured. My fate had been decided in my absence and typed onto a piece of UK Plaster headed paper; this was my future in black and white.
“Come on then get it open,” said my mother.
“Yes,” said my father, “I want to see if any money is coming my bloody way.”
I somehow felt safe as long as the envelope stayed shut; my life was still my own, full of unscripted possibility, once opened then things were going to be different.
I had started this journey, so now it was time to see where it was going to take me. I had given someone from my recent past the ability to decide what my near future was going to be and it was time to find out what they had decided. The letter lay still slightly folded on the top of the bar, my mother was jumping up and down excitedly and my father was grinning like one of those cats from the Northwest of England. This was it, from here on in I was just a passenger, a passenger on the ride of full-time employment and the best advice I could give myself was to relax and enjoy the ride.
Ironically it would be a full year before I would return to the factory; first I was required to attend a full-time basic engineering course at Lancaster Technical College. During the week I would be expected to stay in digs in Lancaster, this was considered the best option to prevent the commute distracting me from my studies. There was a long tradition of UK Plaster apprentices attending Lancaster College and all had stayed in the same digs. These were situated on Blackwell Road approximately three miles from the city centre and ran by a lady called Edith, who apparently took very good care of you.
The other two apprentices turned out to be the sons of senior managers, which was damning evidence in support for the whole, jobs for the boy’s theory. Philip Sanders was to be my fellow mechanical apprentice with Colin Kendal on the electrical side. Philip lived quite close to Lancaster so was not expected to lodge during the week. Whereas Colin would be joining me at Edith’s, now I am not saying Colin wasn’t a fit and proper candidate in his own right, but he did appear to be a little odd. He was quite short, with dark hair and shared an uncanny resemblance to a young Leonard Nimoy the actor who played Mr Spock in Star Trek.
Living in Lancaster, was the first time I had ever been away from home, but as promised Edith made sure I was well looked after. Tech was very much like being back at school, but a school that only taught one lesson – metalwork. As this is a story about work, a detailed account of the time I spent attending the college is not really warranted. Suffice to say we learned how to operate numerous machine tools, and had a jolly good laugh in the process. However I do think a few paragraphs dedicated to the time spent living at Edith’s are worthy of inclusion.
Edith lived in a small terrace house with her husband Bob and had converted it to accommodate four male lodgers. Edith’s own children had long since left home and I think she missed having young people about the place. On entering the house a set of steep stairs lay right in front of you and to the left was the lodger’s sitting room/dining room. Edith had her quarters to the right with a sitting room leading to the kitchen and then a bathroom, which featured a separate toilet. At the top of the stairs lay the lodgers bedrooms, to the left and right, situated at the front of the house, with Edith and Bobs room to the rear.
On arrival I was greeted by Colin, who introduced me to Peter, a catering student studying in Lancaster, we were to be the only three lodgers this year. Edith charged a very reasonable twenty pounds per week and for that you received, breakfast and evening meal. From the outset it was evident Edith was not going to see us go hungry. The evening meal consisted of soup, a main course and dessert; this was then followed at 9 p.m. by a bar of chocolate, Twix or Double Decker, washed down with coffee or tea.
Being an only child, I had not experienced living in close proximity with others of a similar age and it soon became evident that this was a far from ideal scenario. The irritations were minor at first, but by the end of my twelve-month stay I had developed a loathing for certain individuals and their habits, that was monumental in both its scope and dimension. My fellow lodgers and I would spend the evenings watching television in our own quarters, before retiring for the evening to our designated bedrooms. Edith had pre determined the sleeping accommodation in advance of our arrival. Understandably from her point of view, she had allocated Peter the catering student; a room on his own and the two chums from UK Plaster would share the other.
The evenings tended to follow a similar pattern, First we would decide what the television viewing schedule would comprise of, an incredibly frustrating process in itself. Colin would then disappear from the room returning with some raw vegetables usually celery, which he would then proceed to crunch on loudly, like some half-wit chimpanzee. As the evening progressed he would gnaw on a seemingly, inexhaustible supply of the stuff, until it was time to retire. Colin appeared to take great delight in crunching the celery, generating as much sound as he could. I could only assume he was deliberately trying to be annoying, possibly to satisfy some deep-seated flaw in his character.
In our shared bedroom the new day would then be heralded by the small alarm clock that I’d had the presence of mind to supply. To my continued annoyance the noise from my timepiece would instantaneously prompt Colin to rise from his bed. He would then proceed to open his nineteen sixties -vintage expanding suitcase, creating an almost unimaginable cacophony of irritating sound. He would then exit the room and slam the door, before thundering down the steep staircase. At first I resigned myself to the situation, and took full advantage of the solitude, getting up in a calm and relaxed manner. However it soon became apparent that being the second man out of bed had deeply repugnant consequences.
The bathroom in Edith’s house was unfortunately situated behind the kitchen; it also featured a separate toilet. For some reason the separate toilet cubicle had been fitted with a full-length frosted glass door that left very little for the imagination of any unfortunate passers by. Colin also appeared to have a boringly regular bowel movement, presumably the result of all the raw vegetables he crunched through.
During this time Edith would be preparing breakfast, of which there were three options available, cereal and toast, full English breakfast or cereal and toast and full English breakfast. The full English breakfast consisted of, fried bacon, fried eggs and fried bread, all pan fried in lard. Edith insisted on frying everything in lard. The splashed hot lard from the frying process would then end up on the linoleum floor around the cooker. It was impossible to get to the bathroom without passing the cooker, as it had been located at the end of the kitchen next to the bathroom door. These factors created a perfect storm of unpleasantness for any guest needing to visit the bathroom. Colin, having been first up, courtesy of the sound produced by my alarm clock, would order his full English breakfast, cereal and toast, then lock himself in the toilet. He would then be clearly visible sat on the convenience, the smell confirming he was in the process of evacuating his bowels.
The fragrances from his activities, infused with Edith’s molten lard, produced a heady and obnoxious cocktail. As a result I could never bring myself to order Edith’s signature breakfast, opting only for a couple of slices of toast. Unfortunately this ritual would torment me every single day. I would reach the back of the kitchen in my dressing gown and while standing in a pool of congealed lard in my slippers, be forced to breathe in the delicious mixture of appetising aromas, day in, day out.
Colin sat opposite me at the breakfast table shovelling bacon and eggs noisily into his mouth. “This fried bread is blood lovely,” he would say, talking with his mouth full, lard dripping from his chin, “you don’t know what you’re missing here Travis.” Edith would then enter the room with some more bacon and egg, which Colin would hungrily, demand. After scraping the lard-drenched food onto Colin’s plate, she would generally say, “are you sure you’ve had enough to eat Travis, a bit of toast’s not enough for a working man to have on his stomach.”
The huge girth of Edith’s other half Bob was confirmation of the irony of this statement and also served to highlight the visual health benefits of lard as a frying medium. Strangely Peter the catering student would never be present for breakfast, this was due apparently to the start time of his course.
Having endured the morning ritual, I would opt to walk the three miles to college. I enjoyed my morning walk, as it was a chance to gather my thoughts and rid my senses of the whole breakfast experience. Colin always took the bus, and I would often see him sat staring mindlessly out of the window as the bus passed by. I wouldn’t see Colin again until the evening, as he wasn’t on the same course as me. Secretly I hoped the bus might have inexplicably vanished without trace on its way into town. Something akin to what happens to aircraft and ships in the Bermuda Triangle. Colin and his fellow passengers would recall a bright flash of light before emerging in a world that appeared to be run entirely by apes, somewhere Colin would feel right at home.
The year passed quickly and it was time to return home to Gullets, after a short week’s break we would be starting at the factory, Monday morning at 8 a.m. sharp. The first day would be spent covering health and safety, how to safely lift objects, use of protective clothing, that sort of thing. Tuesday, Tom Newtown the apprentice training officer would give us our induction and allocate us our first placements within the plant.
Tuesday morning arrived, we had been told to wait for Tom Newtown at the bottom of the stairs leading to where the engineering staff punched in. Having spent the previous year together we were all fairly well acquainted, now we would be split up, Colin joining the ranks of the electricians, a joyous day indeed, for more reasons than one.
“Morning,” said Tom Newtown, as he past us and climbed the stairs. “Come on you dopey buggers I haven’t got all day,” he said gruffly.
Three new clock cards had appeared to the right side of the clock machine featuring the names Bone, Sanders and Kendal,
Tom pulled out the cards from the rack, “right lads,” he said putting on a pair of half moon glasses. “On the top left side of the card is your name, on the right is a number, this is your clock number and it’s how you will be identified as long as you’re employed by the company.”
So this was it I was literally going to become, just a number, just a cog in the machine, a tool on the bench, the rest of my life devoted to enriching the owners of UK Plaster.
“When you arrive in the morning, take your card from the right side of the rack and place it in the clock machine. Press firmly down and the machine will mark your card with the exact time you started,” said Tom, pressing my card into the machine.
“As you can see here on clever bugger’s card, 7.55 stamped in Tuesday’s column,” Tom said, showing us my card.
“Ok let’s get you fitted up with some overalls and a locker in the machine shop,” said Tom heading up the corridor.
At the end of the corridor were toilets, showers and a small blue sliding door that looked a little out of place. Tom slid back the sliding door to reveal a counter with a room behind. The room was full of white and blue overalls stacked up in racks. Two men were sorting the contents of two large linen baskets and looked up as the door opened.
“This is the overall store,” said Tom, “every Monday you hand in your dirty boiler suit and these lads will issue you with a clean one. You get three pairs and they will have your clock number printed on the lapel.”
Tom reeled off our numbers and we were all handed a set of blue overalls, which in my case seemed about three sizes too large.
“All right lads, let’s get you fixed up with a locker each, so you will have somewhere to keep your stuff. The lockers are in the back of the fitting shop; it’s this way,” said Tom heading back down the corridor and swinging right.
We walked past the forklift truck bay and into the machine shop; the lockers were situated at the back of the shop and were arranged behind a large table surrounded by chairs. The lockers were tall, thin and pretty battered.
“Look for an empty one with no lock,” said Tom.
I found a locker with the word Baz written on it in black felt pen. It was empty apart from a page three picture of Linda Lusardi taped to the inside of the door, to which the previous occupant had added glasses and a moustache.
“Travis you are staying in the machine shop for the next two months,” said Tom, “Malcolm the manager is off today so you can give Pat a hand on the lathe, Colin and Philip you come with me.”
Tom left the machine shop with Colin and Philip in tow, Colin was to report to the mill electricians and Philip was heading for the board plant. I walked over to the large lathe and stood on some wooden slats behind Pat who was leaning over the machines large four-jaw chuck.
“All right son, you can just watch for now, have yourself an easy day today,” said Pat with a broad grin.
Pat Tutty was a highly skilled machinist; he had spent many years working for Rolls Royce’s aviation engine division. In the 60’s he had been a senior machinist on the Blue Streak ballistic missile programme. The programme was based out at RAF Spadeadam, a remote testing range in Northumberland; he had relocated here from Crewe and had worked for UK Plaster for many years. He was a genuinely nice man, kind hearted and helpful, the ideal man to spend your first day with. He had recently recovered from a brain tumour, but appeared to be in good health.
I stood and watched as Pat carefully machined a tiny object gripped in the lathes massive four-jaw chuck. This was a huge lathe, one of the biggest I had ever seen, a large plaque on the side read; Dean Smith & Grace, Keighley West Yorkshire.
“What are you doing Mr Tutty?” I said, puzzled by the tiny work piece.
“It’s for Hutchy,” replied Pat, picking a small child’s wooden train from the top of the lathes headstock, “it needs a new axle you see.”
This came as a bit of a shock, my first day working for one of the giants of British manufacturing, and I was involved in the production of toy train parts. I later found out this sort of activity was referred to as doing a foreigner. A blind eye would be turned to this, as virtually every employee would require this service at some time or other, including senior management.
“I need to get this done,” said Pat; “I have Jeff Lightfoot’s lawnmower blade to sharpen next.”
As we continued with our invaluable work, the door to the fitting shop burst open and in walked three men carrying small tool bags. These were, shift fitters, their job was to fix breakdowns and were expected to go anywhere in the plant, they were the elite, battle hardened warriors on standby 24-hours a day. They were very dusty, wearing blue overalls with batted red hard hats; the hats were decorated with graffiti and stickers, reminiscent of Vietnam veterans.
“Who’s this cunt?” said the first one staring menacingly at me.
“Give over Lewis,” said Pat looking up form his toy train axle, “give the boy a break its his first day, he’s a new apprentice.”
“He looks fucking useless to me,” said the second one, with a huge grin on his face.
Blaggard or blaggarding was the term used to describe the activity of having your leg pulled, or the piss taken out of you. This was a tradition and as a first year apprentice there was no one below me in status. I was, as low as you could get, the lowest of the low, a fact I would be continually reminded of. The shift men left and walked to the back of the machine shop, where a room, known as the shift cabin was situated. There they would stay conserving their energies until the next breakdown.
“You’re going to get a lot of that son, better get used to it,” said Pat, “it’s all part of the training, just do as you told and don’t give any back chat.”
This advice was very sound, until I became a second year apprentice I would have no one to intimidate. I would have to keep my nose clean and gratefully accept anything that was done or said to me no matter how hurtful or cruel.
It was mid morning and the shop became a hive of activity as fitters returned to have their tea, or bait as it was referred to. The chairs round the table next to the lockers soon became occupied; bait boxes opened and cigarettes lit. I gingerly walked back to my newly acquired locker trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible, taking out my small sandwich box I headed to the table. I sat down at the only seat left not occupied and proceeded to open up my box.
“You can’t sit there,” said a short stocky bald man with pale skin and piggy little eyes, “that our Malcolm’s seat,” he said threateningly.”
“Leave the bloody lad alone Danny,” said a dark haired man, “its his first morning.”
“Here lad,” said a younger longhaired man, “sit on here,” he produced a small wooden stool and placed it between him and the end of the lockers.
“What’s your name lad?” said the dark haired man, “Travis,” I replied, “Travis Bone.”
After bait I returned to the lathe, watching intently as Pat carefully sharpened the blades from a cylinder mower. Just before lunch Philip Sanders my fellow mechanical apprentice came into the fitting shop to see if I wanted to go to the canteen with him for lunch. Philip was a lot more confident than I and appeared to be completely at home already, this was due partly to the fact his father was the works project engineer. Having a father in a senior position protected him from the worst of the leg pulling or blaggarding, it also gave him licence to be more cocky and confident.
“It’s a great laugh down the board plant,” said Philip excitedly, “you’ll love it down there, what’s the fitting shop like?”
“Its OK,” I replied we’ve spent the morning doing foreigners.”
“Have you met Fiddes yet?” said Philip.
“Fiddes who’s Fiddes?” I replied.
“Bob Fiddes he’s one of the board plant fitters, he’s a real character. He’s a big Scots man with half of his fingers missing,” said Philip, “my dad told me all about him before I started, he’s a legend round here.”
As we walked across the apron Philip went on to tell me about the legendary Bob Fiddes.
Robert McKinnon Fiddes had worked for UK Plaster since the plant had first opened and was a legendary character. He was a big Glaswegian that had seen action at the end of world war two as a rear gunner in a Halifax bomber and was as hard as nails. His favourite sport was to victimise the apprentices, so much so in fact, that a few years back a group of them were so fed up they covered their faces, ganged up and jumped him as he came out of the canteen, giving him a good hiding apparently. This sent him into a furious rage; he went on a rampage around the factory trying to track down his assailants, but without success. The apprentices involved were forced to lay low for a few days; even through he couldn’t be sure of their exact identities.
We entered the canteen and Philip said, “that’s him, Fiddes, at that table.”
Sitting at a table in the middle of the room by himself sat the legendary Bob Fiddes. He spotted us immediately and his eyes followed us as we joined the back of the queue for the counter. Fiddes had a very unique appearance; a big man with a face like an angry wild boar. He was bald and a pair of black horn rimmed safety glasses sat atop of his huge nose, not unlike the Jim character from The Royale Family TV programme. He also had huge ears with hair growing out of them and nostrils that would not look out of place on a horse. He looked like he had never smiled in his life, not because he was miserable, but because of the way his face was configured meant smiling was literally impossible.
We waited patiently in line until it was our turn; the main course choice was meat and potato pie, or beef burger, featuring a liquid cheese centre.
“Meat and potato pie please,” I said, best play safe I reasoned the first day was exciting enough without the need to add beef burger, featuring a liquid cheese centre into the mix. We sat down a few tables away from where Fiddes was sitting, and tucked into our lunch. Fiddes stood up abruptly and walked over towards a hatch at the end of the room. Judging by the mugs, jugs of milk and pots of sugar, it was where you got your tea and coffee.
“Have you been farting in there? You dirty cows,” said Fiddes, loudly to the girls behind the counter.
“Give over Bob,” said one of the girls, “your terrible.”
Fiddes walked back to his seat holding a mug in one of his huge hands and sat back down. Seconds later I was hit by a garden pea that seemed to be coming from his general direction I looked over to see Fiddes looking back at me, his expression unchanged. Best not antagonise him I thought as another pea struck its target, just carry on eating, which is what I did. Fortuitously, two second-year apprentices entered the canteen and Fiddes directed his attentions toward them. First verbally, accusing one of their mothers of committing unspeakable acts of depravity. Then physically; pointing out, one of them had wet himself, having just thrown the contents of his mug into his lap. We felt this was the ideal time to beat a hasty retreat, so we finished our lunch and left.
I wondered if every dinnertime would follow this pattern, after all it was our first day and I was sitting with the son of a senior manager, it could only get worse from here I thought. I mentioned our canteen experience to Pat, “Best go for dinner with a few of the other fitters son,” he said “he won’t bother you if you are in a group.”
I could always avoid the canteen altogether I thought and bring sandwiches from home; a lot of the other men seemed to do that. This would be a short-term fix I mused, at some point I will be sent to work with the board plant fitters and then there will be no avoiding him. My first day drew to a close and I returned to my locker, hung up my boiler suit, and headed for exit.
This would be my first experience of the daily pantomime acted out each evening at the clock machine. The day shift generally finished at 4.30, so everyone massed around waiting to clock out. Spirits were high; the day had come to an end and fitters from various parts of the plant converged in one place. It was a loud, bawdy; testosterone fuelled environment, with everyone crammed into the small corridor. A place where insults were readily traded and minor acts of violence metered out.
Being new, and not falling under the protective umbrella of a father from the senior management team, I was fair game.
“Come on lad’s, let this new boy clock out first,” said a large man with a beard, grabbing me by the shoulder and pushing me toward the clock machine.
“Yeah come on lads,” said a young man, “let this lad go first,” the younger man grabbed my clock card and inserted it in the top of machine. The clock read 16.28 and at that second changed, a hand came from nowhere ramming my card the final way into the machines slot. The mechanism reassuringly stamped the card and the corridor erupted in raucous laughter as my clock card was returned to me, stamped at 16.29.
The clock changed again and every one filed past the machine inserting their cards and replacing them in the rack on the far side.
“You’ll be docked 15 minutes pay for that lad,” said a middle-aged man on his way out. 15 minutes pay, that’s all I needed I thought and headed towards the car park. During my stay in Lancaster I had realised a boyhood dream and passed my driving test. A first year apprentice’s wages were fairly modest and after paying Edith for my keep I had very little left over. Luckily there had been just enough to buy my first car, not the Capri I had hoped for, but the next best thing, a Ford Escort. Having just passed my test, getting insured in my own right was expensive. I had got round this problem by purchasing the Escort model with the smallest available engine.
As I climbed into my car and gripped the tiny steering wheel that I had fitted to replace the cars standard item, the minor injustices of the day quickly faded away. I turned the key bringing the modest 1.1cc engine to life, selected first gear and headed out of the factory. With the sound of the Jams, Town Called Malice blaring from the single cassette player hung from a bracket under the dashboard I genuinely felt, like an independent workingman.
The next day I arrived to be greeted by Malcolm Ball the machine shop manager “So lad,” he said, staring at me with his piggy little eyes. He was sat in the chair I had been previously asked to vacate, “looks like I’m your boss for the next few months.”
He evidently loved the idea of being somebody’s boss, “yes Mr Newtown said I was to start here Mr Ball,” I replied sycophantically.
I concluded he must have been waiting for me to come in, thus allowing him to make his little speech from his little throne. I recalled what Pat Tutty had said the previous day, keep my nose clean and don’t give any backchat.
At this point I realised I would need to be able to handle two very different types of abuse. On the one hand would be the direct assault, the type metered out by the likes of Bob Fiddes and the majority of other fitters. This was done for fun, no malice intended, part of your initiation procedure, traditional and carried out within our own ranks. The other type was far more insidious, the stab in the back from someone with a chip on their shoulder and a Napoleon complex. This type of individual could be harder to spot, in this particular case it was very obvious, Mr Ball was as they say, a dangerous bastard and I would need to tread carefully.
During your apprenticeship you were being continually monitored, assessing your suitability for future employment. Having been selected as an apprentice did not guarantee a job at the end of your time, having said that they were looking to recoup their investment so the chances were high. The deputy works engineer would seek the advice of managers and foremen, to build up a picture of your performance. In addition you were expected to do well during your four-year period of day release from college. However as I would learn, during my working life there could be other factors, disgruntled individuals with axes to grind, who also posed a threat.
One of the attributes that had been bestowed on me was the ability to make people laugh. In the past I had used this to protect myself from violence, or to endear myself to others. I also possessed the ability to spot peoples shortcomings and make a rapid and usually accurate assessment of their character. The trouble was that on occasion I would use these qualities as weapons to attack individuals that I had assessed to be insincere or possessing weak or flawed characteristics. Deploying humour directly against deep-seated insecurity could be devastatingly effective, especially when conducted in front of a sympathetic audience. The down side to this strategy was that the target; invariably developed a deep and long-standing grudge against the perpetrator; the trouble was I couldn’t resist the opportunity when it arose.
Malcolm and his twin brother Danny, who was also a fitter, were unmarried middle-aged men; this made them deeply insecure about their sexuality. They would regularly talk about women they found attractive and were vocally prejudiced against homosexuals. My opportunity came when at a crowded bait table someone told a rather weak joke. This set the stage for me to visit universal ridicule right to the door of my new, so-called boss, which in hindsight was a mistake. The joke was the type designed to trap the big head, the person that always needed to be first with the right answer.
“Have you heard the one about the two poof’s in a power cut?” I said as loudly as I dared. “Well you see there’s these two poof’s in a power cut with nothing to do; so one says to the other, I’ll stick objects up your bum and you see if you can tell what they are.”
The first object was a stapler, “what’s that then,” said the first poof; “is it a stapler?” said the second poof.
“Yes spot on,” said the first poof.
The second object was a wristwatch, “what’s this then?” said the first poof.
“Is it a wristwatch?” said the second poof.
“You’re very good at this,” said the first poof. Now the first poof had run out of objects, so he fumbled around on the dark worktop.
“OK,” he said “what’s this then?”
At this stage I paused. “And he said; you know one of those long green salad vegetables, err you know;” I paused again.
“A cucumber!” blurted Malcolm at the top of his voice: “Oh so you’ve played this game as well, have you Malcolm,” I announced.
There was a second of dead silence as the audience got to grips with the enormity of the joke and the relevance to its victim, before the entire table erupted in raucous laughter. One person literally fell off his chair and tears were to be seen running down the faces of the sternest individuals. Every element had come together with perfect timing to create a joke of atomic magnitude; Malcolm had fallen into the trap with predictable ease. The icing on the cake however was to be Malcolm’s reaction, he jumped to his feet stating I’ve never played that game and stormed from the fitting shop. This was in the days before the Internet, but news of the joke and Malcolm’s reaction soon became the talk of the plant, today we would say that it had gone viral.
I had come to the end of my first stint in the machine shop, and it was time for me to have a brief meeting with Tom Newtown before moving to my next placement.
“So did you learn anything from your first spell in the machine shop lad?” said Tom.
“Yes lots of things,” I replied, “especially from Mr Tutty.”
“Well Malcolm Ball thought you needed to listen more; he said you had a long way to go to make a good fitter,” said Tom looking over his half moon glasses. “Its early days yet lad, so take this criticism like a man and work on making a good impression, Pat Tutty said you were a good lad mind you.”
The joke had produced some inevitable collateral damage, but on measure I felt it had been worth it. Some people are not worthy of respect I thought, if I have to upset the odd person along the way so be it. Better that than to pretend, after all life is too short, better to genuinely like someone you like and genuinely dislike someone you don’t I reasoned.
“Right lad its off to the board plant with you,” said Tom, “it’s a big part of the plant so you’ll be there for about six months, you know where to go don’t you, report to Ernie Ward he’s the charge-hand fitter.”
This was it, my first experience with the notorious board plant fitters, as I set off down the factory I felt slightly apprehensive. Still, Philip the other new apprentice had really enjoyed it, so maybe my worries were unfounded. At least I’ll know where I stand, these boys tell it to your face, call a spade a spade, there’s no back stabbing down here.
I crossed the forming belt and headed toward the board plant fitting shop, suddenly someone screamed out “hey you!”
I stopped dead in my tracks, what had I done, wandered inadvertently into some restricted area, I span round in the direction of the shout, facing back up the plant. About twenty yards behind me stood Bob Fiddes, also looking back up the plant, I looked for the person that had shouted then realised, there was no person; there was no one else around. Fiddes turned to face me, a blank expression on his face, then walked off in the direction of the drier. He had me there, the old bastard; I nearly had a bloody heart attack.
I reached the board plant fitting shop and went inside, Ernie Ward was stood at the workbench stripping out a pneumatic cylinder. Ernie looked up from what he was doing, “what do you bloody want?” he said with a wide grin on his face.
“Tom Newtown told me to report to you Mr Ward; I’m to spend the next six months down here,” I said.
“Six bloody months,” said Ernie, “well you better learn to make the bloody tea, because you’re gonna be making a lot of it, we’re very thirsty lads down here,” he said, pointing to a battered aluminium teapot.
“What’s your name lad,” said Ernie.
“Travis,” I replied, “oh so you’re Travis, we’ve heard all about you, bit of a bloody comedian by all accounts,” he said hardly able to contain his delight.
Ernie Ward was the charge hand fitter in the board plant, next in charge after Sid Barns the foreman. He was in his mid fifties, short and stocky with grey hair and a happy easygoing attitude, Ernie was popular and well liked by everyone around the plant.
“Right then boy,” said Ernie cheerfully, “I want you to keep this shop swept up and make sure there’s a fresh pot of tea for when the lads come in at bait times. Tea bags are on the table and you can fill the kettle from the urn at No 2 wet end and if them bloody wet end men say out, tell them I sent you.”
I grabbed the dirtiest teapot I had ever seen and headed up to No 2 wet end, after giving it a rinse I started to fill it up with hot water from the urn.
“Aye, what the bloody hell do you think you’re doing son?” said a large man in white overalls.
“I’m filling the teapot,” I replied.
“I can see that, am not daft,” he said.
“Ernie Ward sent me,” I said sheepishly.
“You can tell bloody Ernie Ward, stop pinching all our hot water, we want a cup of tea as well you know,” he said hardly able to contain the broadening grin on his face. This was how things were going to be I concluded, everyone else was in on this game, with one notable exception and I think you can guess who that was.
I returned to the shop to find the pink folding bike had appeared outside, on entering I was greeted by a rotund older man with glasses, wearing a blue Breton style cap.
“You’re Travis, are you son?” he said stroking his stomach.
“Yes,” I replied, “You can call me Mr Reid,” he said still stroking his stomach.
I put five teabags in the teapot and placed it on the table next to some teacups. The door swung open and a younger man followed by a stocky older man entered the shop, the younger man grinned at me and sat at the table pouring himself some tea from the pot.
“Who made this bloody tea?” he exclaimed, “it’s as weak as piss.”
“Its hardly had a chance to mash yet,” said Ernie “the boy has just made it.”
In one corner of the shop was a kitchen table that had been painted blue. Around the table were three chairs. They consisted of an old back seat from a car, a large office swivel chair fitted with one of those old car headrests that dropped over the back of the seat and a front seat from a car which sat on a purpose built frame. On the other side of the shop next to the full-length workbench was a single chair on its own and in the other corner also sat a single seat on its own. The reason I have gone into some detail about the seats in the shop was because they played a significant role in denoting the occupant’s status.
For example, Ernie Ward the charge-hand sat in the big office swivel chair with the additional headrest, Les Reid the rotund man with the Breton style cap had the old car seat, with Dave Bowes the younger man taking up residence on the old back seat. The stocky older man took up the single chair in the opposite corner from the main table. Dave Bowes poured out two more cups of tea having first stirred the pot with a filthy dessert spoon.
“Aye, spindle bollocks,” he said looking at me, “pass Archie this tea,” he pointed to the stocky older man in the corner of the shop and handed me the cup. Archie took the cup and thanked me in a broad Scottish accent.
I sat down on the single chair that was next to the full-length workbench as it was the only unoccupied chair. Ernie leaned forward, “I wouldn’t sit there lad,” he said, “that’s Bobby Fiddes chair.”
“But there’s no seats” I protested.
“You haven’t earned a seat yet,” said Dave Bowes the younger man.
“Sit on there son,” said Archie in his broad Scottish accent pointing to a medium sized grease bucket that was sat on the floor next to the bench.
“Have you got a cup lad said Ernie?”
“Yes,” I said pulling a mug I had brought in from home out of my bait bag.
“Pass it here and I’ll pour you a tea,” he said.
My grease bucket was quite low and the bench quite high, but I managed to reach up to the bench to put my cup down.
The door swung open once again but this time it was Bob Fiddes that walked in, he stood and looked at me sat on my grease bucket then walked past and sat down on his chair in the corner, staring at me down the bench with the same fixed expression.
“I hope you gonna be better than that last clever little bastard Philip,” said Dave Bowes.
Suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder and was conscious of something small but heavy landing at my feet. I looked up to find Fiddes throwing large steel nuts in my direction. I dodged a couple, then my cup was hit, sending a piece of the rim into my tea. Another bolt struck the handle breaking it off completely, this well aimed shot seemed to satisfy Fiddes and he ceased his bombardment. The rest of the lads found this highly amusing.
“Bobby likes you,” said Dave Bowes adopting a strange accent.
The tea break came to an end leaving just Ernie and me in the shop.
“You can give me a hand reconditioning these pneumatic cylinders lad,” said Ernie. “We need some repair kits from the main stores, do you know where the stores are lad?” he said.
“Not really Mr Ward,” I replied.
“They’re up the top next to the main fitting shop doors, you’ll see a big flight of stairs with a lift next to them. Take the shop bike and ride it all the way round; you can ride a bike?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“OK here’s a ticket for the storeman.”
Putting the green stores acquisition ticket securely in my pocket I set off to the main stores. Reaching the main stores required me to ride all the way to the other end of the factory and back up through the warehouse. The route to the stores was perfectly flat so progress was fairly easy. I rounded the bottom of the factory and entered the warehouse. This was an enormous space, with what seemed like a limitless supply of plasterboards stacked up to fifteen feet in height. Opposite the mountain of boards, twenty-five loading docks running the length of the building allowed articulated trailers to be loaded by an army of stacker trucks.
I stopped for a moment and watched as stacker trucks criss-crossed backward and forward between boards and the waiting trailers. This looked dicey I thought, I would need all my wits about me to reach the other end unscathed. I lifted the pedal to the top pressed down hard remounted seat and went for it. The stacker truck drivers saw me coming, but I had caught them off guard picking up quite a turn of speed. A couple of trucks tried to scare me, blasting their horns and shouting, but I was just too agile for them. Crossing the warehouse was akin to playing the old schoolyard game of British Bulldogs, although the prize for coming second was something best avoided. Victory was mine I thought to myself, I had run the gauntlet and triumphantly prevailed, at least on this occasion.
I reached the bottom of a tall set of stairs next to a freight lift; this must be the main stores. I lent my trusty pink steed next to the stairs and made my way to the top. At the top of the stairs lay a small landing with a large blue door on one side and a small serving counter on the other. I peered through the hatch into a huge room full of racks of shelves; somewhere in the rows of racks I could faintly hear voices. On the wall next to the hatch was a black and white doorbell, the illuminated type. I paused for a moment wondering if I should press it, best just wait I thought, as pressing it would inevitably result in chastisement of some sort.
I had been stood there for what seemed like ages, when a large bearded man came thundering up the stairs.
“What are you doing you little bugger?” he said lightly punching me in the stomach before reaching round inside the hatch opening the door and disappearing inside. A few minutes later another man appeared from between the racks, opened the door and stopped at the top of the landing.
“Now then young bugger what are you doing?” he said adopting the stance of a boxer and lightly punching me on the shoulder before thundering down the stairs.
After a while the bearded man reappeared, “are you still here?” he said planting a carefully aimed punch at the top of my arm, then pressing the bell before thundering down the stairs. Pressing the bell produced a loud buzzing sound, resulting in the appearance of a man in a long light brown coat with fuzzy permed hair and safety glasses.
“Under no circumstances is that bell ever to be pressed,” he said.
“I’m sorry about that,” I replied “but it was a man with a beard, who pressed it.”
“OK,” he said, “just don’t ever do it again, now what do you want?”
I handed him the green ticket Ernie Ward had given me. He stood framed at the counter staring intently at the green ticket.
“Four bloody rolls of blue paper,” he said flicking the ticket with his finger. “You can tell bloody Ernie Ward he can have two bloody rolls of blue paper, does he know how much it bloody costs?” he said walking back into the room.
The man with the fuzzy perm returned with some plastic packets and two rolls of blue paper, which he placed on the counter in front of me.
“That’s your lot lad,” he said and with that he walked off disappearing among the racks.
I headed down the stairs to where I had left my trusty pink bike, carefully loading the packets and rolls of blue paper into the box mounted on the rear I set off on the return journey to the fitting shop. It quickly became apparent something was seriously wrong with my faithful pink mount. The handlebars came off in my hands followed by the bike frame inexplicably folding in two, sending me crashing to the floor. As I lay there I realised my loyal steed had be sabotaged by person or persons unknown. The handlebars had been loosened and the folding mechanism unfastened causing a catastrophic failure.
I picked myself up from the floor, brushing the dust off my boiler suit, in hindsight the bike did have tamper with me written all over it and as I represented fair game for everyone, I would need to be more vigilant in future. With the handlebars remounted and the folding mechanism safely locked in position I headed off in the direction of the fitting shop.
“Where’s the rest of the blue paper?” enquired Ernie.
“The man from the stores would only give me two rolls, he said to tell you that’s all you could have.”
“Was it that bloody Don?” said Ernie angrily.
“I don’t know,” I said, “he had a fuzzy perm and glasses.”
“Get back up them bloody stores and tell that Don, if I need four rolls of blue paper that is what I expect to get, here’s another ticket.”
I decided to accept my fate and play the unwilling patsy in a game between Ernie and the man from the stores with a fuzzy perm known as Don. Becoming a time served engineer apparently involved constantly being sent on pointless missions to the stores, endlessly sweeping the shop and making copious amounts of tea. Some year’s earlier a young lad called Angus had refused to sweep the shop, claiming, that he was there to become an apprentice engineer, an enterprise that did not include shop sweeping as part of the curriculum. The punishment he received had become part of UK Plaster folklore, and was often recounted as a warning to others. Legend has it, that later that day he was sent underneath number one board plant tipple table and there he was urinated on by one Robert Fiddes. The weeks passed and somewhere between the floor sweeping and tea brewing I was being slowly moulded into something that one day would be described as an engineer.
It was a Wednesday morning and Sid Barns the board plant foreman fitter entered the shop to give out the day’s tasks. Bizarrely on this particular morning this was done while he simulated buggering Archie MacMurray over the workbench, a process Archie looked quite comfortable with. I was to work Fiddes on No 2 board plant dust collector, a task I wasn’t looking forward to.
“Bobby likes you, spindle bollocks,” said Dave Bowes once again adopting a strange accent.
Fiddes got up and headed out of the shop, I was instructed to pick up a set of welding cables and follow him to the dust collector.
No 2 board plant dust collector, stood in the far corner of the factory. It was a huge device that adopted a cyclone system to remove dust from the blades that trimmed the board to size, very much like a huge vacuum cleaner. Ironically a well-known vacuum cleaner manufacturer still claims to be the originator of this idea. Inside the unit hung huge filters or socks, the plaster collected on the socks and was shaken loose by a racking gear mounted on the very top of the machine. This racking gear became worn and required regular maintenance to ensure it worked effectively, this was achieved by welding new material to the worn areas.
As we approached the dust collector I realised just how large and tall it actually was. The racking gear was situated at the very top of the machine and accessed by a long steel ladder that was fixed to its side. The ladder was approximately sixty-foot long and was fitted with a steel hoop cage designed to prevent personnel from falling off backwards. Up until this point I had not needed to face my fear of heights, this however was starting to resemble a fiery baptism. Not only was this thing hellishly high, I was required to scale it under the supervision of the most deranged individual I had ever met.
Like some sort of weird cage fighter who had decided to take up rock climbing, Fiddes started to prep welding cables, at the base of the ladder. He then grabbed one set in his right hand and held the other in his left, how is he going to climb the ladder with no hands I thought. Fiddes then climbed up inside the cage and started to ascend the ladder. He did this by leaning against the back of the cage and sliding himself up as he climbed, thus freeing up his hands to hold the cables. I stood watching with sheer horror as he swiftly reached the top of the machine, throwing the cables out in front of him; he climbed off the ladder. To my relief he had taken up enough cable to reach back to ground level. All I was required to do at this stage was to connect my cable to his and then to one of the welding sockets placed strategically around the plant, Fiddes leaned over the railing beckoning me to come up.
This was a very important moment, not only must I now conquer my intense fear of heights, I must totally hide any sign that I was terrified. It had quickly become apparent to me; any weakness would be mercilessly exploited. I knew that any indication I had for fear of heights would result in me being sent up every ladder, on to every roof and up any or all the highest places they could find.
I stood at the bottom of the ladder and began my ascent, as I climbed my senses seemed heightened I could feel the machine vibrating through the ladder as it vacuumed huge amounts of dust from the plant. I felt myself shaking; keep calm, I kept telling myself, I stared at my hands as they grasped the thin metal rungs, not far to go now. Fiddes was moving around on the top of the machine carelessly kicking large amounts of dust around. Without warning I was struck by a deluge of white powder from above, almost knocking me from the ladder. On reaching the top, Fiddes looked at me making no enquiry as to my welfare. Instead he just chose to point out that I was nothing more than a “despicable urchin!” After a period of time working at altitude on the dust collector I began to feel slightly more confident. Maybe my fear of heights had been an irrational one and I just needed to face the fear head on.
I found myself working with Fiddes quite often, as Dave Bowes frequently pointed out Bobby liked me. You learned very quickly working with Fiddes, his teaching style very much revolved round throwing you in at the deep end wherever possible. This produced a sort of, necessity is the mother of invention type of learning environment. You needed to keep your wits about you at all times as Fiddes paid little heed to the welfare of others. You only needed to look at his fingers, or lack of them to confirm his complete disregard for safety procedures. Years earlier he had been pulling at a chain that had then become free, sending his hand round a drive sprocket, severing off two fingers. On arrival at the hospital a receptionist had asked him what was wrong, the poor woman then fainted, after Fiddes had dangled a partly severed finger in front of her.
Fiddes was a genuinely unique character, he lived alone in a static caravan, apparently after telling his wife he was going for some milk and never returning. He never smiled and was a man of extremely few words. He did like to sing however and was often heard singing the Fats Waller version of, The Flat Foot Floogie with a Floy Floy whatever that meant, which he sang in a broad Scottish accent. He was also quite intellectual he would do the Express crossword every day and easily complete it during his break. One of his less endearing qualities was to sneak up behind you and nip the back of your leg between the stump of one of his severed fingers and his thumb. You would turn round in agony, to find him stood there staring back at you with his trademark deadpan expression on his face.
My first stint with the board plant fitters was about to come to an end and I was due to be reassigned to the mill. One of my many domestic duties in the shop was to give the bait table a fresh coat of paint every Friday. The lads preferred the table to be painted rather than cleaned and as a result, it had grown considerably in size. The three main primary paint colours were extensively used around the factory, blue for walkways, red for handrails and yellow for pipe work and silos. Each week I would paint the table a different colour, this was not to provide my colleagues with a change but rather for my own amusement.
From an early age I was frequently told I possessed a very short attention span, which manifested in a tendency to become bored with repetitive tasks. This was a fair assessment and would probably account for my varied future career choices. On this particular Friday I had assembled all three of the primary paint colours. This, with the intention of custom flame painting the table in a style characteristic of a fifties American hot rod. To my surprise and for the first time my colleagues were uncharacteristically enthusiastic about this idea and helped me to position the table in the centre of the shop affording me better access.
Unbeknown to me Fiddes had fabricated and concealed a bomb in the shop, with the intention of detonating the devise with someone trapped inside. The bomb was crude but effective; a large plastic bag had been filled with an explosive mixture of oxygen and acetylene. The bag of gas had then been concealed behind a large cupboard that backed on to some double doors, doors that had not been used for some time. The idea was to lock the unsuspecting victim in the shop then detonate the device by directing the flame from a cutting touch under the disused door.
After my colleagues had assisted me in positioning the table they all left the shop, as the door closed I heard the unmistakable sound of the hasp being closed and the padlock being dropped in. This wasn’t the first time I had been locked in the shop so thought nothing of it. I soon became engrossed in my custom paint scheme failing to realise the significance of a hissing noise. The significance of the noise was soon to become apparent, what I could best describe as a crack like thunder, which shook the shop, bringing down an enormous amount of dust from the ceiling and shelves. For a second I was stunned, just standing there in a fog of dust, I looked towards the door that had just reopened. My colleagues were peering in at me from the open door through the fog; I could see they appeared to be laughing. Strangely I couldn’t hear their laughs; all I could hear was a high-pitched whistle that seemed to go right through my head.
Twenty-four hours passed before my hearing was restored and the high-pitched whistle diminished, I felt sure I had received permanent hearing damage as a result of the prank. The bomb had been the biggest Fiddes had ever constructed and the resulting blast had been very impressive. Apparently the shock wave had been powerful enough to visibly bulge out the shop walls; it also created enough force to blow Fiddes over as he knelt down next to the door with the cutting torch. However the effect of the blast from my perspective had been rather less spectacular. I had only experienced a crack, followed by a blizzard of dust dislodged by the bombs impressive shock wave. This experience was designed to be a type of ‘Right of Passage’ something previous apprentices had been required to experience. The explosive yield of my bomb however, had been considerably larger in magnitude than previous detonations.
I left the fitting shop to join the mill fitters, these were a significantly less charismatic bunch. I was forced initially to join Hutchy and Alan a less than scintillating duo. Hutchy suffered from male pattern baldness, but had allowed his remaining hair to grow giving him a distinctive clown like appearance. He also had a young family and carried with him the constant odour of baby sick, rotten milk and soiled nappies. Alan was considerably older and looked just like a 1930’s dock worker from an old black and white image, complete with dirty old cap and Player’s Navy Cut cigarette. They were a humourless pair, with all my attempts at levity generally finding their way to the stoniest of ground.
The other members of the mill maintenance staff weren’t much better with the exception of Mick the welder. Mick was very skilled and knowledgeable and I felt I learned a lot in the time I spent working with him. After the mill, I returned to the board plant and enjoyed a few months of high-spirited tomfoolery. This was followed by a visit to the garage; the garage was where the extensive fleet of UK Plaster lorries was maintained. Occupying an isolated position to the rear of the factory, it operated as a self-contained entity, with its own in-house management, personnel and parts department. It was a microcosm of the larger factory and interestingly a similar cross-section of personalities had developed.
Frank ran the place; a small man that exhibited all the usual small man traits. His second in command, Mike was even smaller, midget like in stature, but whose small man traits were even more concentrated. There was the inevitable bore; someone that displayed little or no redeeming features. And fortunately for me, three stand-up characters that I quickly gained an affinity with. Philip and David were fitters and had worked in the garage for their entire career; Bob was the in-house storeman, an educated and extremely witty person who somehow seemed out of place. The garage would have been a grim place without these individuals and the availability of some very large big boy’s toys, which carried the insignias Volvo and Seddon Atkinson.
Philip was bald and very stocky; he looked a bit like a bald Robin Williams, from the Mork and Mindy years. He had a childlike sense of humour and was decidedly irresponsible; he also appeared to have an unhealthy obsession with sex. He would spend his tea breaks intently ogling men’s top shelf soft porn magazines while enthusiastically shovelling sandwiches and crisps into his mouth. I concluded that he must have spent time in ancient Rome in a previous incarnation.
David had a very distinctive wide bushy moustache and a deep booming voice. He was very friendly, always trying to encourage you and make you feel competent. On completion of a task he would say in his deep booming voice, “not even a challenge for you lad,” or words to that effect.
He also possessed a seemingly endless repertoire of comedy sayings. For instance, if a job he was doing was not going to plan, he would be heard to say something like, “It’s enough to make a shepherd shag his own dog.”
I recall entering the garage one frosty winter’s morning and being informed that I was, “shaking like a dog shitting a broken bottle,” not all of his sayings featured dogs, these are just two I can remember.
My stint in the garage lasted approximately five months; in that time it quickly became evident, heavy goods vehicles, were not my cup of tea. Driving them for short periods around the factory perimeter was OK, although like anything this soon lost its appeal. The worst thing about lorries was their size, everything was heavy, it was all donkey-work with very little finesse. Another significant negative factor was Mike the foreman, a nasty piece of work who displayed tendencies that I would later come to realise were psychopathic in nature. There was no genuine comradeship in the garage; Mike had succeeded in adopting the principal of divide and conquer. One faction stuck close to Mike and the boss Frank, but you could tell they all secretly disliked each other. The other group; consisting of Philip, David and Bob, maintained a close alliance, only dealing with the others as work dictated.
Over the next few years I completed numerous cycles in the various sections of the factory. Not only did I learn skills associated with mechanical engineering but also some excellent life skills. Becoming an apprentice was a lot like joining the army; you were purposely bullied and abused at the beginning to build you as a character. In your first year you were the lowest of the low and genuinely had very little status. However having survived the first year, the second year became slightly easier. No longer were you the lowest of the low, that designation now passed to the new apprentice. You had earned your new position of seniority and it was only right that the new boy should suffer, just like you had done. This was a very honest environment, yes there were still people with issues who needed to hide their true self behind a mask, but these individuals were in the minority and relatively easy to detect.
Having completed my apprenticeship I was offered a full-time position working a three-shift cycle in the forklift truck bay. This ironically was the last place I would have chosen to work. Unfortunately for me, the conclusion of my apprenticeship coincided with the retirement of Graham the main FLT mechanic and the requirement for the garage to operate 24 hours. I had little other option than to accept this new position, after all I had worked so hard to finally get this job. Shift work was not ideal, but the increased wages made it slightly more bearable. It was at this time that the inevitability of my situation started to dawn on me, was this where I was to spend the rest of my working life?
To make matters worse, life working in the twilight world of the forklift truck bay, only served to exasperate my increasing feelings of despair. I quickly realised I wasn’t what some referred to as a morning person, finding the early stages of the early shift incredibly unpleasant. So bad was this sensation, I felt confident in comparing it to repeatedly going down with a particularly nasty case of ‘Man Flu’, a condition my male readers would confirm as being unimaginably hellish. Night shifts weren’t much better, generally these were spent alone trying to finish off any jobs my day shift counterpart had left or become bored with, during his stint. Having no one to talk to seemed to make the hours drag, break times offered little relief from my isolation as my fellow workers would either be out on jobs or fast asleep reclined in their chairs.
I had come to the conclusion that the only thing I really enjoyed about going to work was the characters that I worked with, it didn’t actually matter if I liked or disliked them, as long as they were interesting in some way. One character in particular undoubtedly would have fallen under the heading, interesting, not that a mere word was sufficient in describing what the man truly was when experienced first hand. Fiddes made even the most colourful of individuals seem pathetically monochrome; he was like no one you have ever met before, he was huge, monstrous in every way, quite literally a Godzilla among charters. As huge and fire breathing as Fiddes was, he was still no match for father time and his time had finally run out.
Fiddes certainly wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but he had given a lot of people a unique and memorable experience. Usually any retirement presentations would be low-key affairs, conducted in the back of the fitting shop at the end of the shift. Fiddes was too big a personality to quietly accept a handshake and a gold watch; it would be a struggle to get him to turn up for his own funeral never mind some sycophantic disingenuous presentation. We would need a party, a big send off where every body could get pissed and act like loonies, so that’s what we decided to do.
The venue for Fiddes’s grand send off was to be the Stag Inn at Gullets and I was put in charge of making all the arrangements. We had collected enough money to be able to close the pub, hire some strippers and put on a large buffet. In addition there had been enough left over for us to buy Fiddes an entire case of his favourite tipple, dark Navy Rum. The afternoon was a riotous success, culminating in Fiddes dropping his trousers revealing the largest set of genitals any one of us had ever seen, which in hindsight should have come as no surprise.
Unfortunately the great Bob Fiddes didn’t go on to have a long happy retirement, but instead succumbed to the effect of his favourite tipple. I sometimes wonder if he his looking down shouting obscenities at me from a higher plain of existence when I do something wrong, or make a bad decision.
I had pursued this current trajectory as a result of witnessing a UK Plaster apprentice climbing out of his brand new Capri. Apparently the apprentice in question had been forced to take two additional part-time jobs, just to keep up the payments and running costs of the car. Ultimately this commitment had proved too great, resulting in him selling the vehicle to his older brother at a knockdown price. However I had not been immune to the seductive nature of the car and had changed models several times during my five-year apprenticeship. Currently I owned the hottest version of Vauxhall’s Nova model, the GTE, my second brand new car. Coincidentally I had developed a good friendship with the son of the owner of the local Vauxhall garage, who seemed to think I would make an excellent salesman. At first I had totally ignored this suggestion, partly due to the stigma attached to such a career.
As I have previously stated, I have always possessed a very short attention span and the drudgery of my newly acquired job was starting to become more apparent. I was a single man living at home literally working all hours of the day and night just so I could purchase a new car. Maybe the idea of a job that was intimately involved with new cars wasn’t such a bad idea after all. I needed to know how serious he was, after all most people would give their right arm to work for UK Plaster, or at least that’s what everyone said.
Alan’s father owned the local Vauxhall garage, Henderson’s and after several meetings at his house I was offered a position with the firm, to include a basic salary plus commission and the all important company car. This was still a big decision something I would need to think long and hard about. People talk about decisions being made in the head or from the heart. The reason I think decisions come from the heart is that this is a decision that is predestined and comes from a higher place. And as far as this decision was concerned it was definitely being directed from my heart.
To begin with, I sought the opinions of my work colleagues hoping to receive the answers I wanted to hear. Unfortunately almost all of them had become institutionalised and brain washed by the subtle propaganda issued by UK Plaster. There was the question of job security, the company share option scheme and most important of all, your pension. It soon became apparent that the rough tough men were trapped, trapped by chains that came in the guise of share options and pension schemes. But most of all they were afraid of change; the world outside the dusty walls of UK Plaster to them was a world of fear and uncertainty.
I soon realised that however many opinions I sought, I was the one who would have to make the final decision. At this early stage in my working life my experience was somewhat limited, after all I had only ever had one job. This was one of those light bulb moments, how else was I going to experience working in a totally different environment. I had no other option, if I wanted to know what it would be like to become a car salesman, I would need to experience it first hand. I didn’t what to get to the end of my life having only ever experienced one way of life; I wanted to try something totally different.
My heart was telling me I had a path to follow and to successfully follow the path I would need to pick up things along the way. I had a journey to take and the experiences and new skills I would need to complete the journey had not yet been learned. Everything was out there all I needed to do was have confidence and trust my intuition.
My new job was to begin on a Wednesday; not the traditional Monday more usually associated with starting a new job. Alan Henderson whose father owned the garage was away at the beginning of the week attending a Vauxhall dealers’ meeting I had suggested that I could start on the Monday in his absence, as I wasn’t doing anything else. He seemed alarmed by my proposal, insisting very strongly that he would need to be present on my first day. Apparently the current salesman Peter had not been informed he was about to get a new colleague. Alan assured me that there was no problem and that he was confident Peter would welcome me with open arms. Not seeing me as a threat to his livelihood, quite the contrary in fact, he would embrace the idea of additional competition as a positive development.
On hearing Alan’s explanation a small bell started to ring in my head, not exactly a full alarm bell as such, but a bell nevertheless. It was becoming clear Alan had the ability, to let’s say, be economical with the facts. He had given me the impression the dealership was in desperate need of an additional salesman. Peter was apparently struggling to cope with the volume of customers and had implored Alan to recruit an additional salesperson. This narrative was starting to look decidedly dubious and I wondered what other facts Alan had distorted. You’re overreacting, I told myself, surely Alan wouldn’t have lied to me about the job after all we were quite good friends.
This was the world I was entering into; a world where the rules could be bent into whatever shape suited the situation. After all, I had secured my new position having had no previous experience in sales; I hadn’t even attended a formal interview. Alan had decided I would make a great car salesman, but had come to this conclusion without any real evidence to support this judgement. I hoped that distorting facts wouldn’t be one of the key skills required to make a good car salesman. From and early age I realised I was a hopeless liar, either looking visibly guilty or blurting out the truth under the slightest interrogation. To succeed in my new environment I would adopt a new and unique approach I thought, I would be my own man, plough my own furrow; I would rise above the rest, elevated high on the back of superior mechanical knowledge honesty and integrity.
I turned into the garage and parked my car next to a wonky plaque that read Customer Parking. Alan had pulled in just after me; he opened his passenger window as he drew up. “Just wait there a minute mate, I just need to speak to the mechanics about this car.”
Alan was a few years older than me and had quite a distinctive appearance; he was tall but with rather a heavy build to say the least, definitely in need of shedding a few pounds. His father Gordon and his mother were also big, with the three of them sharing an incredibly similar appearance. Not just the normal similarities you expect to see in a family, but an almost identical look, allowing for age and gender of course. When seen together they looked like the result of 1950’s gene splicing experiment, which had combined human genetics with those found in farm animals.
The garage occupied a site next to the main road; it was apparent from the layout, it had formally been a petrol and service station. The old canopy above the pumps now sheltered a selection of used cars and what had been the kiosk, housed service reception and a small parts counter. An administration office sat to the left of the service reception and was accessed by a separate door. Turning this former service station into a car dealership had been achieved by constructing a basic showroom down the right hand side of the site. The workshops were in the rear part of the original service station, with a section of fenced waste ground, providing storage for new cars. Alan’s father Gordon also owned a similar converted service station near Carnforth and had employed the same strategy in Barrow to provide a dealership for Vauxhall.
The showroom housed the main sales office and had room to accommodate eight new cars. “Sorry about that mate said Alan emerging from the workshop, I couldn’t get it started this morning, stupid bloody alarms faulty I think. I had a word with Peter the other salesmen yesterday and told him you were starting today.”
“What did he say,” I asked, “he was spot on, well he knows you anyway, from when you’ve bought your cars.”
We entered the showroom through a small door next to where Alan’s office was situated, Peter was sat with a customer at his desk at the other end of the building.
“I’ve set your desk up at this end,” said Alan pointing to a desk against the back wall. “You haven’t got your own phone yet, but you can use the one in the sales office for now. If somebody comes on to the pitch, you can go out and speak to them, but only if Peter is busy with a customer, like he is at the moment for instance. But don’t worry there will be plenty of customers to go round, so you will get ample opportunities to prove yourself. I mentioned your car to one of my customers and he seemed very interested, I’ll get the cleaner to give it a wash, he said he might come in later. Have you got the key?” said Alan holding out a chubby hand.
“What am I getting for my new company car,” I asked glancing over at the shiny new models in the showroom.
“Don’t worry my boy,” said Alan, grinning back at me, “Your new car is getting its P.D.I. as we speak.” P.D.I. stood for Pre Delivery Inspection, a process that every new car went through to check it was ready for its new owner.
So far things didn’t seem too bad, Peter had been informed I was to be his new associate, I had a desk albeit lacking a telephone and my new car was being made ready for me. I was slightly disappointed that I was only allowed to talk to customers when Peter was busy, but given that I was a complete novice I suppose this was to be expected. I felt somewhat more at ease as I wandered around the showroom admiring the new cars. Maybe my initial assessment that you had to be a compulsive liar to be in sales had been a little harsh. Alan put the phone down and stuck his head out of the office, “that was the customer I was telling you about Travis, he’s on his way to see your old car, I’m pretty sure he will take it.”
“That’s great,” I replied. It would be ideal if Alan were to sell my car on the first day; I would get some cash and be able to pay off the finance that was still outstanding on it.
Alan’s phone rang again and I decided to busy myself by studying some brochures. Best get as fully acquainted with all the models as I could I reasoned, need to be able to dazzle the customers with my extensive product knowledge. A man driving a red Ford Fiesta drove past the showroom and pulled into the customer parking area.
“Here’s my man,” said Alan emerging from his office, “get your car away on the first day Travis, now that’s a salesman for you,” he said winking at me as he lumbered out of the showroom.
“You’ve made a big mistake coming here lad,” I looked up from my brochures to find Peter peering over the top of the Astra Estate that was parked next to my new desk.
“Oh hello Peter I didn’t know you were there,” I replied slightly unnerved by the stealthy nature of his approach.
“You should have talked to me before you took a job working here, this place is a total shambles, Gordon treats everyone like shit, even Alan his own son.”
Peter Lesley was a man in his fifties, tall thin with a pencil moustache I felt he might have modelled himself on Clark Gable, albeit on a significantly lower budget. “Its not even a proper Vauxhall garage,”
“How do you mean?” I replied.
“We’re just what’s known as a retail dealer, we have to get our cars through the main dealer in Lancaster. Did you know you don’t get paid out on a deal until the part exchange is sold, I bet Alan didn’t mention that?”
“He didn’t actually,” I replied.
“Alan has no real say round here, if he makes a decision on his own Gordon usually overrules it,” said Peter repositioning the fuel consumption card on the windscreen.
“How long have you been here then Peter?”
“About five years,” he replied.
“So if it’s that bad why are you still here?” I asked.
“I’ve built up quite a few customers in the last five years,” he said, “so it’s hard to start from scratch again. When you first start out in this game, you’re on the hunt all the time, once you build up a few clients; you get to do a bit of farming as they say. People like to change their cars every three years or so, once you’re over that time, you start to get return business,” said Peter.
Alan re-entered the showroom, closely followed by the man from the red Fiesta, “step into the office Mark and we’ll sort out the paperwork,” said Alan, winking at me as he went past.
“Looks like Alan’s sold your car for you Travis,” said Peter as Alan closed the door of his office.
“Yes looks that way,” I replied.
A strange feeling of remorse came across me, I knew there was no point keeping it, but it had been the best car I had ever owned. I would need to get used to this new reality, cars weren’t for keeping, they were just commodities; a way of generating income, you couldn’t become attached to them. Anyway I would be a lot better off with out the finance payment and I would be climbing into my new company car before the day was out.
Alan came out of the office and shook the hand of the man from the red Fiesta, “thanks again Mark,” he said, “I’ll see you on Saturday.”
“That’s how it’s done Travis,” said Alan triumphantly, “called a man up, got him in, and did the deal.”
Putting the slight feeling of sorrow at losing my pride and joy to one side, I could see how the euphoria of clinching a sale might be quite addictive.
“Right my boy,” said Alan grinning from ear to ear, “lets go and get your new car or you’ll have nothing to go home in tonight.”
We walked over to the area of the workshop that had been set aside for cleaning cars, “there you go,” said Alan gesturing to a white Nova, “your first company car awaits.”
When a person is in a very good mood they are often more prone to frivolity, this was the first thought that crossed my mind when presented with my new company car. However as the seconds passed by I felt the time for the punch line had been exceeded and my heart sank, for about the sixth time that day. What I had been presented with was the most basic car in the Vauxhall line up, a Nova 1.2 Merit three door in white. When it came to cars I was very enthusiastic, so much so in fact I had spent most of my life trying to acquire them. At first, like me they were small in scale. Gradually, as I became larger, so did the cars, culminating in the ownership of Vauxhalls flagship Nova model; that was up until a few minutes ago.
Alan needed a new salesperson, someone young and dynamic, honest and open, someone with a passion for cars and with the technical know-how to back up that passion. These were the characteristics that he had recognised in me; this was why he had been so confident about my appointment. I would inspire others with my infectious passion for all things automotive; customers would be powerless to resist the flaming fervour of my enthusiasm. I couldn’t help thinking that extinguishing all that fire and passion with a Nova 1.2 Merit three door in white was the equivalent of using one of those planes they use to fight forest fires.
“It’s a bit of a come down from a GTE,” I said hardly able to contain my disapproval.
“It’s just to be getting on with,” said Alan directing a friendly punch at my left shoulder, “get it sold and I’ll put something better on for you.” Well that wouldn’t be hard, you have the entire rest of the range to choose from I thought.
My parents had sold the Stag Inn at Gullets at the height of the eighties property boom to a family from Whitley Bay. They had bought a new house in Barrow from a freemason builder friend of my father and had semi-retired. Living in a house instead of a pub meant my parents were around most of the time and I had come to realise I missed the solitude of being alone in the flat above the bar. As I drove through the streets of Barrow, trying to avoid being seen by any of my friends I began to question my decision to leave UK Plaster. Trouble was this was my new reality and it would be down to me and me alone to create a better one. Tomorrow was another day and I felt things could only get better from here, after all my car was sold that would lighten my financial burden. Also there was the feeling of euphoria I had sensed when Alan had clinched the deal to sell my precious Nova GTE. That was it; I needed to experience the thrill of the chase, followed by the sweet fragrance of success, sell my first car I felt sure that was the answer.
I arrived in early the next day parking my new car in a space designated for demonstrators next to the showroom entrance. I entered the building and headed for my desk, hanging my coat on the back of the chair. Peter the other salesman was peering under the bonnet of a new Astra Swing, writing something in a small pocket book. He didn’t appear to be planning on acknowledging my existence, so I thought I would make the effort.
“Morning,” I said cheerfully, Peter grunted and left the building by the bottom door.
A large Carlton Estate car swung in from the road and parked irresponsibly in front of my new demonstrator, partially blocking the main entrance, the showroom and the other demonstrator-parking bay. The driver impatiently wrestled off the seat belt, before carelessly throwing open the car’s door. Moments later the unmistakable Gordon Henderson, who I had only met briefly once before, stood framed in the door. Gordon was in his fifties and very broad for his height, he was a big man with a big loud voice. Gordon sported a very prominent stomach that protruded some distance in front of him. His shirt looked a couple of sizes too small; it’s buttons barely able to cope with the task of containing his generous paunch. He was a mean looking man, reminiscent of an angry wild pig, or wart hog, in fact the hog theme appeared to run through the entire family.
“Why is that bloody car yawning?” boomed Gordon gesturing towards the Astra Swing with a raised bonnet.
“Peter was getting some details from it,” I replied.
“Well he should bloody close the bonnet it when he’s finished,” he said.
He then proceeded to roughly grab the bonnet stay, bending it out of its clip, before slamming down the bonnet with extreme force.
“You must be Travis the new salesman Alan talked me into employing,” he said, “have you sold any bloody cars yet?”
“No,” I replied, “I only started yesterday, any customers that have been about, Alan and Peter have dealt with.”
“You need to get on the phone, ring up some of your bloody friends, get them to come and drive that new bloody car I’ve put on the road for you.”
“Alan gave me some brochures so I assumed he wanted me to learn about the cars first.”
“Just get on that phone and drum me up some business,” he said gesturing towards the empty area of the desk where a phone might sit.
“I haven’t got a phone as yet,” I said bracing myself for a torrent of abuse.
“Has that useless bastard son of mine not sorted you out with a bloody phone yet, where is he anyway?”
“I haven’t seen him this morning,” I replied.
Gordon turned and left the showroom, shouting at a bewildered young mechanic as he crossed over toward the service counter. Alan drove in, squeezing his car past the abandoned Carlton Estate sitting in the entrance. He looked strained by the abandoned car’s conformation that his father was somewhere on site and headed straight into his office. Gordon re-entered the showroom at the bottom door, having passed through the other departments with the destructive force of an F5 category tornado. After first subjecting Peter to a sustained bombardment of abuse for leaving a car bonnet open, he thundered into Alan’s office slamming the glass door behind him. Muffled shouts emanated from the office accompanied with lots of arm waving and other types of gesticulation. After some time the door burst open with Gordon issuing the following statement while pointing towards a T-Card rack mounted on the wall. Are you running a business or a cock-a-hooping shooting match he cried? Storming out of the office; the meaning of that statement still eludes me to this day.
Gordon climbed back into his car, carried out a series of erratic manoeuvres before almost causing a multiple pile up as he screeched out onto the main road. A calm serenity filled the showroom as Alan, Peter and myself, stared blankly into space trying to restore our composure.
Alan emerged from his office, “anything on today lads,” he enquired rubbing his hands nervously together.
“Is you father always like that?” I said, “His bark is worse than his bite,” said Alan trying to put on a brave face. Alan was evidently delusional; Gordon Henderson was unmistakably, a fat ignorant bullyboy with the interpersonal skills of a land mine.
“He spends most of his time in Carnforth,” said Alan, “he just likes to come in and stamp his authority.”
My theory that things could only get better had been dealt a severe blow by the appearance of Gordon. I would now need a minor miracle to lift my spirits, restore my confidence and rejuvenate my belief that I could make a career as a car salesman.
It was the afternoon and I was standing at the side of the big sliding door at the front of the showroom, Alan was in his office and Peter was sat at his desk talking to a customer. An old Land Rover pulled onto the site and parked in the customer parking section. A man and a woman climbed out followed by a small boy and headed in the direction of the used cars. This was it I thought, my first chance to talk to a customer, let them have a walk round first I don’t want to spook them. After walking round the used cars under the canopy and peering in through a few windows they started to make their way back to the Land Rover. Shit I thought, I’m going to lose them; I shot down the back of the showroom emerging from the bottom door, effectively heading them off.
“Can I help you?” I asked rather unimaginatively.
“We were just looking said the woman,” forcing a smile, this just looking line was an extremely common and widely adopted defence used by customers against all types of salesperson.
“What exactly were you hoping to find?” I said in an attempt to pin them down. After all you don’t drive onto a car forecourt if you’re looking to contact a dead relative, or learn to play the saxophone.
“Something five door not too many miles,” said the man, “we like Astra’s but the ones you have on display are a bit out of our price range,” he said.
Now we are getting somewhere I thought, something for me to work on, not just a poorly disguised knock back.
“If you would like to follow me we’ll have a look at our used car stock sheet, there may be something suitable that has just come in,” I said optimistically.
The couple and the small boy obediently followed me into the showroom and I showed them to my desk, “Just have a seat and I will be right back,” I said.
Alan was in his office on the phone with the door closed; I knocked and went in. Henderson’s operated a T-Card system to help manage their stock; each card represented an individual car, blue for new cars and white for used cars. The card gave you all the relevant information including, cost price and the selling price and how long it had been in stock. I flicked down the cards looking for an Astra.
“What are you after?” said Alan putting down the phone.
“These people are looking for an Astra, but the ones we have under the canopy are too expensive,” I said.
“How much do they want to spend?” said Alan.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“Have they got a part exchange?” said Alan.
“Well they drove up in that Land Rover,” I said pointing over to the customer parking area.
My initial investigation of the customer’s requirements had been wholly inadequate, something I would need to improve on, I thought.
“Fred Matinson’s old car might do them, it owes me eighteen hundred quid,” said Alan removing a T-Card from the rack. “It’s an A Registration, 1983, but it’s only done forty-one thousand miles, a beauty, I was going to offer it to a friend of mine. It’s in the back compound, metallic red, tell the man it’s just come in so we haven’t had a chance to clean it yet.”
“Travis; find out how much money the man’s got and if he wants to chop in that old Land Rover.” I walked back over to the desk and sat down, the couple stared back at me expectantly.
“How much were you looking to spend?” I said leaning slightly forward.
“About two thousand,” said the man glancing nervously at the woman.
“Would you be wanting to part exchange your Land Rover?” I said leaning back again.
“That belongs to my boss,” said the man, “I’ve just borrowed it so we could have a look round a few garages.”
“We might just have the perfect car for you,” I said trying my best to infuse the statement with an air of intrigue, “follow me.”
We walked into the compound at the rear of the site; I couldn’t see a metallic red Astra.
“There’s an Astra over there,” proclaimed the boy excitedly, spotting the car well before anyone else, you’ve got to hand it to those auto industry-marketing men I mused nostalgically.
“That’s the car, its only had one owner from new and he really looked after it, I’ll go and get the keys,” I said.
I drew the car out of its space so they could get a better look, “What do you think?
“I like the colour,” said the woman, stroking the bonnet with her hand.
“Is this mileage right,” said the man who had climbed into the driving seat, “yes, its only done forty-one thousand he hardly used it,” I said adopting a certain amount of artistic licence.
“Would you like to go for a drive?”
“Yes please,” said the young boy, climbing into the back seat.
“Ok I’ll just need to get a set of trade plates,” I said.
If a vehicle had no current road tax, trade plates could be displayed, front and rear, to insure the vehicle was legal for use on the road.
I headed back to the sales office to get the trade plates.
“What are they saying?” said Alan excitedly.
“They want to have a drive and the woman likes the colour,” I said.
“That’s a good sign said Alan, “she likes the colour and they want to drive it.”
“Travis, make sure you drive the car first, take them down the A6.”
“Why should I drive it first?” I asked.
“Because most customers are terrible drivers,” said Alan, “and they are especially bad when it’s a car they have never driven before. They set off jerking up the road, because they are not used to the clutch, make bad gear changes and are heavy on the brakes, they think it’s the car that’s at fault and not their awful driving, tell them its a requirement of our insurance.”
I returned to the car and fastened on the trade plates.
“I’ll drive first,” I said holding open the driver’s door. The woman had sat in the front passenger seat forcing the man to join the boy in the back; I turned left out of the garage and headed north on the A6. My passengers were blissfully unaware of the concerted effort I was employing to ensure the car performed at its best. Every gear change was silky smooth; so much so you would have been hard pressed detect any change in ratio. Driving with the velvety calm and decorum of an undertaker, I proceeded to point out some of the vehicles more desirable features.
After about five miles I felt I had done enough to prove the cars performance and pulled into a lay-by.
“Who would like to drive?” I enquired.
“I’ll leave that it to him said the woman, I’m quite happy here.”
After swapping places with the man, we set off back in the direction of the garage. As the car lurched forward erratically the relevance of Alan’s advice quickly became clear, the man was a terrible driver. Later in my career the science of the test drive would be explored in depth by one of the many highly structured car sales schemes I would be subjected to. One factor however would prove to be pretty consistent, most people are dreadful drivers.
We returned to the garage with the man making a less than convincing bid, to reposition the car in its original location.
“What did you think then?” I enquired cheerfully.
“Depends on the price,” said the man, attempting to hide any enthusiasm.
“Come in and have a seat,” I said gesturing over to the showroom, “I’ll have a word with Alan my boss and see what’s the best deal we can do for you.”
Having sat them back at my desk, I joined Alan in his office.
“Do they want it then?” said Alan assumptively.
“They said it depends on the price,” I replied.
“Tell him he can have it for twenty-eight hundred and we’ll stick him six months warranty and six months tax on it, that’s a bloody good deal for him,” said Alan.
The trio watched me intently as I returned to the desk, I had the feeling that they really liked the car, but could I stretch their budget by another eight hundred pounds. My customers, ignorant to the fact this was potentially my first sale stared blankly at me across the desk as I broke the news.
“I’ve had a word with the boss and he would be prepared to sell you the car for two thousand eight hundred pounds and he will include six months warranty and six months tax.”
An uncomfortable silence ensued as the man and woman stared at one another.
“We only wanted to spend two thousand,” said the woman, clearly disappointed by my announcement.
“It’s a lot better car than all the others we’ve seen,” said the man valiantly galloping in to my rescue.
The woman stared back at the man clearly incensed by his act of betrayal, then turned back to me with a look of resignation on her face.
As I proceeded to complete the customer order form, I struggled to maintain my composure. I had sold a car and at that moment, I had legitimately become a car salesperson. This was going to be a great job I thought so much easier the fixing stacker trucks. All you had to do was say hello, go for a quick spin then fill out some paper work, where was the effort in that.
“Well done my boy,” said Alan, waving at my new customers as they drove off, “do as I tell you and you’ll make a fortune. Travis has got his first deal,” said Alan shouting down to Peter at the other end of the showroom.
Peter slowly walked up to join us “Well done,” he said grudgingly, “but don’t think they will all be as easy as that.”
Selling the car had felt great; it produced feelings of triumph and euphoria, it was hard not to shout out, or punch the air. Yet I couldn’t help feeling it seemed too easy, what had I really done to influence the outcome? This was a game where luck played a big part and there are two types of luck. My spirits had undoubtedly been lifted and I felt a lot more confident about my future prospects. I also felt a huge sense of relief at actually achieving a sale, something that was tangible. In my previous job I would be given a task to complete and I would set to work completing it. This was very different, as it didn’t seem to matter what you did as long as you were selling, it was all about success. Making the sale was like being given a shot of adrenaline, sort of a sugar rush, but like a sugar rush you could tell, the high was only going to be short lived.
I drove back to my parent’s house, looking forward to announcing the successful sale of my first car. I had the feeling my parents had considered my career change as somewhat of a retrograde move even though they hadn’t said this directly. Popular culture portrayed car sales people as untrustworthy rogues, who would happily sell you a less than impeccable product, while at the same time trying to chat up your wife. I suspected my parents thought I had recklessly discarded the noble vocation of engineering, for the fast and loose life of a second hand car salesperson.
“I sold my first car today,” I announced as I entered the kitchen.
“That’s nice son,” said my mother stirring some steaming substance at the cooker.
“A couple came in looking for an Astra and I sold them one that had just come in,” I said proudly.
“So was Alan Henderson pleased with you then?” said my mother while adjusting one of the cooker controls.
“No actually he was furious,” I replied sarcastically, “of course he was pleased.”
My mother always seemed to require some sort of third party confirmation, before she believed my version of events.
“Its Peter’s day off tomorrow, that means I get to speak to everyone that comes in,” I said excitedly.
“Maybe you’ll make some big commission, so you can pay a bit more towards your upkeep,” muttered my father from the living room.
During the next two weeks I was to experience what some refer to as a purple patch, just about everyone I dealt with ended up buying a car. Now you could put this down to sheer luck, just being in the right place at the right time, but I put it down to enthusiasm. I was genuinely enthusiastic about the product and also I couldn’t get enough of the buzz; the buzz I felt when a sale was clinched. I found that if I sold a car in the morning I was much more likely to sell another in the afternoon. It was as if I became a conduit, able to pass the excitement all parties felt when a sale was made, onto the next customer that walked in. Henderson’s had never seen so much sales activity, and I quickly became the darling of the garage. My reflected glory shone brightly down on Alan, allowing him a brief but welcome respite from his father’s constant criticism.
Word of Gordon Henderson’s new super salesman soon spread throughout Barrow’s small motor trade community. Gordon was a very vocal person, boasting loudly at every opportunity about the new whizz kid he had personally employed. This information soon reached Eric Fulton the owner of the extremely successful Lakeland Toyota. The geographic area of Barrow and its outlying communities were host to an uncommonly high concentration of Toyota cars, much higher than the national average; this was due entirely to the activities of Eric Fulton.
Eric had embraced the Toyota car franchise in the late seventies, when the company was trying desperately to establish a foothold in the British market. It was a time when Japanese cars had a considerable stigma attached to them. This was due in part to the World War Two exploits of some rather enthusiastic Japanese Admirals. The unsympathetic treatment of prisoners involved in rail infrastructure projects and the fact the cars rusted so much you would be required to sweep them into a bag after eighteen months. Undaunted by these minor negatives, Eric had succeeded in establishing Toyota as one of the areas leading brands, even my own father had purchased a Toyota. Eric had recently completed construction of a new state of the art dealership in Lancaster and was on the lookout for suitable employees.
“I was talking to Eric Fulton last night at the Masonic Lodge,” said my father over the tea table, “he said you should call in and see him.”
“Call in and see him,” I replied, “What does he want to see me for?”
“Apparently he’d heard you are selling a lot of cars for Gordon Henderson, he said you were wasting your time working for him and that he was just an ignorant loudmouth bullyboy with no idea about running a successful business.”
“He’s just opened a brand new Toyota garage in Lancaster and he said he was on the lookout for young dynamic individuals. He told me to tell you to call in at the Barrow site as soon as you can, to discuss the possibility of working for him in Lancaster.”
Eric Fulton was a tall, well-built man with a thick white head of hair; sort of a game show host crossed with a rugby player, he was often referred to as big Eric. He was very good at remembering faces and he always went out of his way to make a fuss of anyone he had ever dealt with. The approach proved to by very successful and he commanded an extremely loyal local following. He was also extremely passionate about all things Toyota, never passing up a chance to extol the virtues of the brand. He did however have a darker side to his character and like most businessmen could be extremely ruthless when required.
He seemed to see himself as somewhat of a local celebrity and felt everyone should know who he was. I think he regarded the Barrow motor trade a bit like the Mafia, with the other dealers being like the other Mafia families. He considered he was the head of one of the most successful of all the local Mafia families, the Fultons. He was the big boss, Big Eric Fulton, head of the Fulton family, the godfather. Eric did in fact have a large family, consisting of a wife and six children, four sons and two daughters all of whom were expected to join him and work for the family business. Currently only two of his sons were of working age, Adrian who was a mechanic and Young Eric. Young Eric was the favourite, like a mini version of Eric he worked alongside his father, on sales.
The following day I took an extended lunch break, calling into Lakeland Toyota on the off chance of getting an audience with Big Eric.
“I’m here to see Eric Fulton,” I said to a young girl behind the reception counter.
“Is he expecting you?” she replied.
“Not exactly,” I said, “although he did ask my father, to get me to call in and see him as soon as possible, Travis is the name Travis Bone.”
The young girl disappeared into a corridor behind the reception, leaving me to nervously shuffle around next to a display of alloy wheels. Moments later she reappeared followed closely by the man himself, Big Eric Fulton.
“Hello son,” he said grinning at me from behind the counter, “I’m bloody delighted you’ve called in, I’ve heard so much about you. Here son he said pointing toward a glass door, we’ll have a seat in this office, your father told you I wanted a word did he?”
“Yes,” I replied nervously.
“So son, what do you think of that bloody daft bugger Gordon Henderson, he’s just a bloody big mouth isn’t he?” said Eric shaking his head while adopting a dismayed expression. “I, mean he’s bloody useless you know son, bloody useless. That’s not even a proper garage, he’s not a proper main dealer, did he tell you that? Bet he didn’t even tell you, the daft bugger,” said Eric still shaking his head. “You’re going to have to come and work for me son, at my new garage in Lancaster, there’s no point in wasting any more time working for that daft bloody loud-mouthed bugger,” said Eric with a concerned look. “Just go back up there this afternoon son, and tell him you coming to work for me. He’ll go bloody mad, have a dickey fit and throw you off the site, I know what he is like, the stupid bugger. You’ll be able to come down here tomorrow and we’ll get you started. OK son?” said Eric leaning over the desk with his hand outstretched.
A written application, one aptitude test, two interviews, a works visit and a night class, that’s what had been required to secure my first job. Now here I am about to accept an offer of employment without even uttering a single word. It was easy to see how Eric had become so successful; this man got what he wanted. He had already decided I was going to work for him; my visit was just so that he could tell me. I leaned forward and shook Eric’s hand, I mean, what else was I going to do.
“That’s bloody great son, bloody great, welcome to the Fulton family,” he said grinning from ear to ear.
Things happened fast in the motor trade; at least it was starting to look that way. It was all about making short term spur of the moment decisions, forget the future just live for now and don’t think too much about the consequences. Eric didn’t mess around because he didn’t have time to, you’ve got to get the deal done and then move on to the next one that’s how it was. Nothing was forever in the motor trade, new models were introduced; customers came and went and salesmen, if they were any good moved around. It was all about getting the best deal, working for the best garage and driving the nicest car.
The rest of the day was a bit of a blur, after returning to Henderson’s; I informed Alan of my decision. This resulted in a crisis call to his father, who fortunately for me was spending the day at the Carnforth branch. However this didn’t prevent Gordon from subjecting me to a barrage of verbal abuse down the telephone, a telephone that ironically, had just been installed at my desk that very morning. Gordon’s conduct just served to confirm my decision; my only regret was for Alan. Alan was a genuinely nice bloke; he had just had the misfortune to be the product of a loudmouth raving lunatic. Unfortunately this hadn’t been a matter he’d had a lot of choice in, as the old saying goes, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. My new career had already taken a fresh and exciting turn, as I walked down the road towards the centre of Barrow I had a real sense of anticipation and excitement for what the future might have in store.
The following morning I arrived at the Lakeland Toyota showroom, full of enthusiasm for what the future held. I was to meet Eric who was going to take me through to Lancaster to introduce me to the staff. I was a little early so I took the opportunity to have a look at some of the cars on display. The showroom was quite small by some standards, displaying about nine cars; there were offices to the side with a reception counter and waiting area to the rear. The layout had been cleverly planned, the only way to reach the service and parts departments was to pass through the new cars. Your passage through the area was additionally enhanced by a sound track, courtesy of Simon & Garfunkel Greatest Hits. The heady aroma of new cars and fresh coffee then further assaulted your senses; surely an irresistible combination I thought to myself.
A large white Toyota Land Cruiser pulled up outside, the silly private number plate read B13 ERC, I wonder who this could be; I mused sarcastically. Eric and his favourite son, the imaginatively named Young Eric, stepped out. The silliness continued, as both of them appeared to be wearing matching Crombie coats, gloves and carrying attaché cases. What I was failing to appreciate was that the car trade was all about image. Yes there were some people that regarded cars as just a means of getting from A to B, but for the vast majority it was all about image. The promotion of cars was a very sophisticated science; manufacturers went to great lengths to ensure people bought cars for emotional and not just practical reasons. Years of marketing had resulted in changing the public’s psyche to look at cars as an expression of personality. Eric had a big personality and to him image was very important whether he realised it or not, he had also succumbed to motor industry propaganda. A car wasn’t enough to adequately express Big Eric’s personality, he needed a whole garage full of cars, in fact two garages full of cars.
“Morning son,” said Eric as he entered the showroom. “Have you met Young Eric?” he asked, proudly placing his hand on the boys shoulder.
“No,” I replied shaking Eric junior’s hand, “you’ll be pleased you’re not working for that barmpot Gordon Henderson,” said Young Eric grinning, “he’s mad isn’t he.”
“Yes,” I replied.
Not only did Young Eric look like a scaled down version of his father he also acted and spoke just like him. OK son lets get going, I bet you can’t wait to see the new garage said Eric grabbing his attaché case and heading for the door.
I climbed up into Big Eric’s big vehicle and we headed off toward the motorway, serenaded by the voice of Julio Inglesias blasting from the stereo.
“Did you know I’ve been appointed to be a Lexus dealer at Lancaster son?” said Eric turning down the stereo slightly.
“No,” I replied.
“Yes one end of the showroom will be just for Lexus, we are one of only forty dealers in the whole country, that’s good isn’t it son?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“They say it’s the best bloody car in the world, best bloody car in the world mind you son, there’s nothing going to touch it.”
“I saw it on Top Gear,” I replied trying desperately to get a word in edgeways. “We are going to give that Bryant’s a bloody run for their money in Lancaster son, they’ve had it all their own way for long enough, they think they’re bloody clever buggers,” said Eric.
Bryant’s were one of the biggest dealer groups in Lancashire and represented several prestige manufacturers. They had succeeded in acquiring some very profitable franchises such as Mercedes, Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo, Honda and BMW. Bryant’s were a very aggressive company and had enjoyed a virtual monopoly of Lancashire’s executive car market for some years. Bryant’s was run by John Bryant the son of a wealthy landowner, John had always had a keen interest in cars, and when he left school his father had given him the money to set up his first dealership. Not exactly a rags to riches tale more of a riches to riches type of thing, having said that John Bryant was no fool.
“That clever bugger John Bryant wont be pleased when he finds out I’ve got Lexus in Lancaster you know son, he’ll bloody know how good it is you know,” said Eric knowingly.
We exited the motorway and headed for the large industrial estate north of the city; this was where Eric had constructed his new dealership. We rounded the corner leading to the estate; Lakeland Toyota occupied a prime location, the brand new steel and glass building stood like a huge shining cathedral of worship, to the Japanese Car.
“It is bigger than I expected,” I said quite taken a back by its splendour.
“It’s the best bloody garage in Lancaster son, no expense has been spared here you know,” said Eric proudly.
The garage sat in the centre of a large paved area that had been designed to display used cars. Beyond that was a beautifully landscaped section that ringed the entire site.
“Come on son, I’ll introduce you to Bill Wheeler, he’s the general manager, he used to run ten sites up in Scotland, you can learn a lot from a man like him son,” said Eric.
As we approached the front of the building, a large glass automatic door slid smoothly open as if to welcome you inside.
“No expense spared here son,” said Eric admiring the door as we passed though it.
The showroom was a massive area, carpeted in red personalised carpet with the words Lakeland Toyota written through it. In the far-left corner stood an empty roped off area featuring what looked like a large turntable.
“That’s for Lexus son,” said Eric, “we’re waiting for the first one to arrive from Japan.”
A small man emerged from an office and walked across the room towards us, you couldn’t help but notice this man had a very peculiar way of walking.
“Here he is,” boomed Eric, “the main man himself.”
“Oh don’t be daft Eric you’re an awful man,” said the small man. “So who’s this handsome young chap you have here?” said the small man,
“Bill this is Travis your new salesman, Travis this is Bill Wheeler my General Manager,” it was very apparent that Bill was to say the least, a little on the camp side.
“Ok young Travis,” said Bill, “we shall go and meet the rest of the staff and take the opportunity to tour this wonderful new site that Eric has built for us.”
I followed Bill as he minced his way round the genuinely impressive premises, introducing me to my new colleagues. I was to become part of a small three man sales team; my fellow salesmen Martin Green and John Ferry were veterans of the Lancaster motor trade and had previously worked together.
John was in his mid fifties and had worked in the motor trade for several years; previously he had been involved with carpets and soft furnishing. He was tall and slim, clean-shaven with neatly cut grey hair. John was immaculately presented dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and Lakeland Toyota tie, which featured a perfectly executed Windsor knot. The other member of our small team was Martin Green, he had the additional responsibility of managing the used car stock, so was effectively the most senior of the trio. Martin had also worked in the motor trade for a long time and was a well-known local character. He was a man in his mid forties average height and build with thick dark hair, glasses and a prominent moustache. He looked a bit like a nineteen seventy’s lothario, who wouldn’t have looked out of place starring as the lead man in one of those confessions films, presumably Confessions Of A Car Salesman. The sales team occupied the front right corner of the showroom. The desks had been designed to interlock forming a three-pointed star; this provided an excellent view of the showroom and used car display area.
“Right Travis I must get on, I’ve so much to do, Eric wants to go over the details of the Lexus Launch and I have budgets to finish, Martin and John will look after you,” said Bill camply.
“It’s a fantastic place I said and Bill seems to be such a nice bloke, so much better than my previous boss.”
“Bill’s a bit of an old queen,” said Martin, “but he tends to leave us alone, I don’t think he knows as much about the trade as he makes out.”
“We tend to look after ourselves,” said John, “Martin values the part exchanges and we work the deals out between us.”
“We have a nice little set-up here,” said John; “Bill rarely involves himself directly in sales. In fact he spends most of his time off site and when he is here he rarely comes out of his office.”
“Stick with us lad, we’ll have a good time, sell some cars and make a few bob,” said Martin. “We have the use of five demonstrators so you’ll be able to pick which one you want to go home in tonight,” he said.
As I drove up the motorway in a brand new Toyota MR2 sports car I could hardly believe my luck; it was like a dream come true. The garage was out of this world, Martin and John seemed easy to get on with and even Bill was a really nice bloke, if not a little on the gay side. All I needed to do now was get stuck in and sell some cars, I thought this had the makings of a dream job and I had no intention of losing it. I settled in quickly selling seventeen cars in the first month; for the first time in my short working life could honestly say that I looked forward to going to work everyday. It was the late eighties a time when the car trade was still fun. It was a time before over regulation, onerous procedures, a time before mystery shoppers and unattainable targets, an innocent time.
I arrived in to find Martin talking to the Crane brothers; the Crane brothers were trader buyers otherwise known as traders. I had been introduced to the concept of the trader during my short stint working for Henderson’s. I had been dealing with a customer who wanted to part exchange a car that had covered an unusually high mileage. Alan said that it wasn’t something he would want to retail, so we would need to get the car underwritten. He went on to explain that there were individuals known as traders that specialised in this sort of area. The idea was that they bought and sold vehicles at trade value, basically they were like wholesalers to the trade. You could call them, describe a car and they would give you a price for it over the phone, this was known as having a car underwritten. Lancaster being a larger market place than Barrow also had a larger percentage of trade buyers servicing the various franchise dealers and used car outlets.
Tony and Mark Crane were colourful characters, they tended to operate as a team, one would always back up or confirm what the other was saying. They used this approach to overwhelm their opposition; this was to enable them to maximise any deal in their favour. They were masters of propaganda, continually recounting stories of unsuccessful transactions in an attempt to move the market to suit themselves. Vehicles were generally valued using guidebooks, which were published each month; the most popular of these books was Glasses Guide. As soon as a new car was registered it was subject to monthly depreciation even if it had never been driven. Without this depreciation, there would be no workable used car market, as used cars would be worth the same as new ones. These guidebooks were exactly that; guides, they worked using set depreciation percentages obtained for market research and through the use of mileage tables to adjust values according to mileage.
Martin was trying to sell the Cranes a used VW Golf that he felt wasn’t suitable for us to retail.
“Come on Martin,” said Tony, “give us a chance you’re being a bit strong with the little car.”
“The cars book price is four thousand five hundred according to the guide, I’m only looking for thirty-eight,” said Martin studying his guide.
“It’s just too high in the book Martin,” said Tony adopting a pained expression. “We sold one of those little cars last month, for a thousand less than book price didn’t we Mark?”
“Yes that right,” said Mark, “it was a thousand less than the book price and in a nice metallic blue. Those little cars are too strong it the book Martin, they’re just not making that sort of money,” said Mark also adopting a pained expression.
“Three and a half Martin, that’s a bloody good shout for the little car, they’re too high in the book Martin, honestly,” repeated Tony, “no one wants to pay the money for them.”
This was generally how these negotiations were conducted, but if the Cranes saved themselves fifty pound on every deal, you could see how this could soon add up.
My enjoyment of this little bit of theatre ended when a customer entered the showroom and walked purposefully over to a new Camry Estate we had just displayed. “
“Are you managing alright?” I said
“Aye lad we’re looking for a new vehicle and I rather like the look of this one, there’s plenty of room in it,” he said opening up the tailgate.
He was an older man dressed almost entirely in green, with a flat cap and a stout pair of brown leather shoes. Judging from both his appearance and accent, I quickly formed the opinion; he could well be a part of Lancashire’s large farming community.
“Is she a petrol engine car or a diesel, lad?” said the man.
“This particular car has automatic transmission, automatic is only available with petrol,” I said, “You can have diesel, but only with the manual gearbox.”
“What make of car do you have at the moment,” I enquired, “we’ve had a Mercedes for quite some time,” replied the man. “Our Mercedes is automatic, its been a grand car for us, never had a spanner on it, except for a cylinder head gasket,” he said removing his cap revealing his bald head. “Our old lass is getting a bit past her best and its time to have a bit of a change,” he said. “The worst thing about her, is that she’s just a wee bit under powered, you don’t exactly go; you just get underway, so to speak,” he said.
“My name is Travis,” I said reaching out my hand.
“Aye lad,” he said shaking it, “the name’s Richardson, Denis Richardson of Black Dyke Bottom.”
“If the Mercedes has been such a good car why don’t you want another?” I said hoping he wasn’t going to say that he hadn’t thought of that.
“I went in to see Bob down at Bryant’s, he showed us the new version of our car, have you seen the price of them lad?”
“We didn’t pay that much for our first farm,” he said, “I told him I only want one bugger. He looked at me as if I was daft. Don’t get me wrong I could buy a one if I wanted. A lot a money, a lot of bloody money, especially if you have to put a sheep in the back, that’s why I want a shooting brake you see lad,” he said. “If I need to, I can put a sheep in, just in there, back of that seat, just go in nice,” he said pointing to the back of the car.
“Would you like to have a drive I said, we have a demonstrator?”
“Aye we can do lad, why not?” he said.
“OK I’ll just go and get the keys.” As was typical in these situations the demonstrator had just been lent out to a service customer, five minutes previously. “I’m sorry about this Mr Richardson, but the demonstrator is not available, if you want I could bring the car out to you tomorrow.”
“ That would be champion if you don’t mind; we can let mother have a bit look at it, see if she likes it, call me Denis lad no need to stand on ceremony.”
Denis seemed more than happy with this arrangement so I made an appointment to be at the farm at 3 p.m. the next day.
I arrived at Black Dyke Bottom just before 3 p.m. it had been further than I had expected so I was glad I had allowed myself extra time. The entrance to the farm was marked with a large oval sign that read, Messrs Richardson, Black Dyke Bottom Farm and featured a picture of a sheep at its centre. The drive up to the farm was reminiscent of something the Army might have constructed as a proving ground for armoured vehicles. Once in the yard two-collie type dogs appeared, judging by their welcome, they seemed less than impressed by my arrival. One dog had positioned itself at the front of the car with the other right next to my door, best stay here I thought.
The dogs stereophonic barking alerted Dennis to my presence and he subsequently appeared from the house carrying a stick.
“Come by Meg,” he shouted, “Wasp come by.”
Wasp what an unusual name for a dog I thought.
“They’ll not bother you lad, come in we’re just about to have our 3 o’clocks,” he said. Dennis led me into the kitchen, “this is the lad from the Toyota place mother, he’s fetched you that motorcar so you can have a bit look,” said Dennis.
“Sit yourself down lad,” said mother who I assumed was Dennis’ wife and not his mother, “we’ll have a cup of tea and a bit of cake first shall we,” she said.
I wondered who else was coming, as you couldn’t see the tablecloth for all the food. There appeared to be about three different types of cake, buns, scones and sandwiches. There was also a small selection of cheese, two or three types of jam and a small pot of what looked like clotted cream.
“Reach up lad,” said Dennis piling cakes onto a plate, “reach up now, you’ll get nowt in this house if you don’t reach up.”
I picked up a bun and a couple of sandwiches and put them on my plate.
“Do you want some sugar lad?” said mother holding up a small glass sugar bowl.
“Yes thanks,” I replied.
“Are they a good car then these Toyotas?” said mother.
“Yes,” I replied, “they’re extremely good.”
I wondered what she might have expected a Toyota salesman to say. Maybe she hadn’t realised I was sitting in her kitchen with a presupposed agenda that involved selling them a car in the very near future.
“Are they made by Japanese fellers? I have a Japanese wireless set and by, it has good reception, it’s the best wireless we’ve had. If they can make a motorcar as well as they can put together a wireless; it’ll be alright I dare say,” said mother.
“All the cars that are currently sold in the UK are from Japan,” I said, “the Japanese are fastidious about quality.”
“Them Japanese fellers weren’t so friendly in the war mind you, we had to take in some evacuees from Liverpool but that was a long time back, you have to forgive and forget don’t you,” she said.
I wondered whether she’d had this conversation with the Mercedes salesman when they’d purchased their last car. After all, they were the ones that provided the engines for the German bombers that pulverised British Cities night after night. It was bloody Mercedes fault the British government were forced to implement operation Pied Piper, the forced evacuation of thousands of children at risk from aerial bombardment. Maybe she thought the Japanese had a taskforce of aircraft carriers operating with impunity from the Irish Sea. Thus enabling them to carryout a systematic and sustained attack of the British mainland.
“Forgive and forget your absolutely right Mrs Richardson,” I said, “the war was a long time ago. The expertise they previously employed in the construction of aircraft carriers is now used to build exceptional cars,” I announced to my bewildered looking audience.
Having first refused a fourth piece of cake, we took to the road in the demonstrator, after demonstrating the cars features I handed over control to the Richardson’s. Following a relatively uneventful test-drive we returned to the farmhouse.
“She’s a grand motor lad, drives just like a new one,” said Dennis.
“The wireless is nice and clear,” said mother “and the clock’s easy to read, I like a clock that’s easy to read.”
“Well we’ll better just have one lad said Dennis, what colour do you want mother?”
“Silver if they do it,” she replied. This was the first time I had been to see customers in their own home. It struck me that it had been quite an easy sale to make.
I returned triumphantly to the showroom, eager to share the details of my success. “Did you sell him one?” said Martin looking at me over his glasses.
“Yes, he wants silver,” I said excitedly.
“Good man,” said Martin.
“It was quite an easy sale actually,” I said, “I just turned up had some tea and cakes did a quick test drive and that was it.”
“People tend to be more relaxed in their own homes,” said Martin, “the man probably felt obliged seeing as you had taken the trouble to go out there.”
“The power of commitment is a powerful tool,” said Martin philosophically, “shoe shop sales people use it a lot.”
“Shoe shops,” I said trying to remember my last shoe shop experience.
“A good shoe shop salesperson will always bring you a pair of shoes that are slightly too small,” said Martin.
“Do they?” I replied.
“They’re trained to kneel down at your feet and unpack the shoes spreading out the paper and box over the floor,” said Martin. “When you say they’re a bit tight, they go and get another pair, but this time they are slightly too big. Having spread some more paper about, they go and get a third pair, but this time they are the correct size.”
“By now, the entire floor round your feet is covered in shoeboxes and with paper strewn every where. Now that you have a pair of shoes that fit perfectly and you have put the salesperson to so much bother, its less likely that you will leave the shop without buying the shoes,” he said.
I wasn’t sure if I could remember this tactic ever being used on me, but I would certainly look out for it in the future. Martin was full of these little anecdotes and what he said about the shoe shop did make sense. Whether it had been the power of commitment or the relaxed surroundings, I wasn’t certain. Something had made the whole process easier and I was now determined to employ this tactic as often as possible.
Lexus had finally arrived at Lakeland Toyota Lancaster and it had been an interesting couple of weeks. Prior to the first car arriving on site we had attended a ride and drive comparison held at a big country house hotel in Yorkshire. Toyota had assembled all the cars main competitors and we got to drive them all; BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes and Audi. The car certainly lived up to expectations, demonstrating considerable advantages over the competition. Lexus had equipped the car with every conceivable extra as standard; all the customer needed to do was choose the colour. The driving experience genuinely surpassed the cars it had been built to compete with and having experienced its rivals; we felt it couldn’t be equalled. Unfortunately technical excellence, superior equipment levels and world beating quality wouldn’t necessarily guarantee the cars success. The people that bought these types of cars were very image conscious, the biggest problem the Lexus had was that it had no history. We would have to convince prospective buyers that the car was more than just a big Toyota.
The car attracted lots of initial interest as it had been praised in the motoring press for setting new standards in refinement. Executive car owners descended on us from all over the county eager to try the car for themselves. The car was so good it literally sold itself, with demand soon outstripping the supply. Toyota had set very rigid geographical areas of responsibly for the dealers and you were only permitted to sell new vehicles within these boundaries. We soon started to receive calls from all over the country, with customers literally pleading with us to sell them a car. All we could do in these circumstances was to thank them for their enquiry and re-direct them to their local designated agent. There was however an area, that fell between us and one of the biggest dealers in the country, and this area was only accessible by air and sea.
It was a Tuesday morning when the call came in from a Mr Forester eager to arrange a test drive in our Lexus demonstrator.
“Hello, Travis speaking how can I help?”
“Yes I am looking to drive the new Lexus and was wondering if I could arrange a test drive for this coming Thursday,” said a rather well spoken Mr Forester.
“I initially contacted Lexus in Manchester as they appeared to be my nearest dealer, but they weren’t interested in providing me with a demonstrator,” he said curtly. “I was forced to call the Lexus head office, they suggested I get in touch with you, so here I am,” he said.
Seeing an opportunity to go for a pampered ride in the Lexus demonstrator I was only too happy to arrange a test drive.
“Certainly Mr Forester,” I said, “what time would suit you best?”
“About 2 p.m.” he replied.
“OK, what is your address?”
“It’s Golden Heights, Maughold, Isle of Man,” he said in a sort of derisory sort of way.
The Isle of Man, shit: I wasn’t expecting that, this was why the Manchester dealer hadn’t been interested. Still I’ve never been to the Isle of Man and it gets me out of the showroom for a day, “that’s fine,” I said confidently, I look forward to seeing you then.”
“Martin, I have arranged to demonstrate the Lexus on Thursday afternoon, to a man from the Isle of Man,” I said.
“The Isle of Man, is that our area?” said Martin looking back at me over his glasses.
“He called Lexus in Manchester but they didn’t want to know, Lexus UK told him to call us, so it must be OK,” I said.
“The Isle Of Man, that brings back memories,” said Martin wistfully, “did you know this industrial estate used to be an airport Travis?”
“I didn’t,” I replied.
“I once flew to the Isle of Man from here in a De Havilland Rapide,” said Martin, “the runway would have been right where you’re sitting. The pilot sat up the front of the plane on a wicker chair, it looked like something you would find in a conservatory. Just before we set off, he turned round in his seat and asked if everyone was ready. Then he reached up and pulled a curtain across and we set off, that was all that separated the pilot from the passengers, I have never forgotten that,” said Martin nostalgically.
I only really wanted some confirmation that I had made the right decision offering the man a test drive. Maybe Martin thinks I want to have the demonstrator pulled out of the back of a low flying transport plane by means of cargo sled and drone parachute I thought.
“You better find out the ferry times,” said Martin reassuringly; “I think the ferry goes from Heysham but I’m not positive.”
Not long after I had agreed to make to trip to the Isle of Man, Mr Forester called back to say that he and his wife would fly over to Blackpool on Thursday and that he would meet me there, if that was more convenient. Seemingly by calling his bluff I had passed some sort of initiation test that he had devised to ensure prospective suppliers were willing to make the trip over to the island. The Manchester dealer had been geographically closer, but had failed the test, opening the door for the next nearest agent.
I had arranged to meet Mr Forester and his wife in the foyer of the Grand Metropole hotel in Blackpool at two p.m. He said he would be having coffee in the lounge and that I should report to reception where he would have made arrangements with regard to our introduction. I arrived in good time and presented myself to the reception.
“Good afternoon sir, how can I help you,” said a dark haired girl.
“I‘m here to meet Mr John Forester,” I replied, “he said he would be having coffee in the lounge.”
“What’s the name sir?”
Yes Mr Bone, Mr Forester is expecting you, I will have the concierge take you over to the lounge.” I dutifully followed my escort, to a table next to a large window in the hotel’s rather ornate lounge.
“You must be Travis,” said a very dapper man with grey hair standing up from the table his hand outstretched.
“Yes,” I replied, “I’m John Forester and this is my wife June, have a seat we we’re just having some coffee and cake.”
John Forester was a man in his late fifties, small in stature and slim with a full head of grey hair neatly parted to the left.
“I’m really looking forward to driving the car, I have been reading all about it for ages, I hope it is as good as all the reviews say,” he said enthusiastically. “Lexus recently had us drive some of the car’s competitors and not one of them came close,” I said confidently. “I think you would need to buy a Rolls Royce if you wanted a better car,” I said.
“Don’t talk to me about Rolls Royce,” said Mr Forester indignantly, “I used to run one as my company car when I owned my printing business in Liverpool. I had four brand new Silver Shadows and all of them gave me trouble, after the last one I vowed never to have another.
“I had taken my mother out for a birthday lunch one Saturday afternoon, do you remember darling,” said Mr Forester. “I set off from some traffic lights at a road junction and the car just stopped in the middle of the road and just wouldn’t re-start. Unfortunately we had stopped right outside Anfield, the Liverpool FC stadium, just as the crowds were all coming out after the game.” “They started rocking the car shouting rich bastard and other obscenities, hammering on the windows and roof, it was a terrible experience; my mother was very frightened. Eventually I managed to get the engine started and we made our escape, I dread to think what would have happened if I hadn’t,” he said. “The next week I got the dealer to take the car away and I have driven a Mercedes Benz without a fault ever since, so this car of yours has a lot to live up to.”
In customary fashion I drove the car first going to great lengths to thoroughly explain the many features. After a mile or two we all switched places Mr and Mrs Forester in the front and me in the back.
“It’s so quiet,” said Mrs Forester, “I can hardly believe it.”
Mr Forester said nothing but I could tell by his fixed smirk that he was very impressed.
“It’s better than I had hoped,” said Mr Forester, “if you can give me a good price for my Mercedes I’ll take one.” I took the details of Mr Forester’s Mercedes and as he didn’t have it with him I would need to value the car unseen. Mr Forester assured me that the car was absolutely pristine and had only covered a small mileage, if the car was as pristine as the owner we wouldn’t have anything to worry about, I thought.
I got back to the garage to find Martin sitting at his desk with Tony and Mark Crane the car traders.
“I’ve got a car you lads might be interested in,” I said taking the appraisal sheet from my briefcase.
“What have you got for us young man?” said Tony rubbing his hands together with anticipation.
“Well,” I said trying my best to build some excitement, “I’ve just been to see a man from the Isle of Man, and if we can give him a good price for his Mercedes he’ll have a new Lexus off us.”
“Mercedes,” said Mark, “we’ve got a customer for a Mercedes haven’t we Tony.”
“What model is it?” said Tony.
“320 S Class,” I replied.”
“S Class,” said Mark shaking his head, “not the best of sellers, how many miles?”
“Well that’s the thing,” I said, “its only done seven thousand miles since it was new; you can’t go that far on the Isle of Man you see.”
“Lovely miles,” said Mark, “not the best of sellers,” repeated Tony, “a lot of car for somebody mind you,” said Mark, “lovely miles.”
After some discussion and several trivial related stories featuring scenarios in which the Cranes had lost money on a similar model, they agreed to put a value on Mr Foresters Car. A few days later, I concluded a deal to supply Mr John Forester with a new silver metallic Lexus, which I was to deliver to his home. Having spoken to Toyota they had agreed to let us share the Isle of Man with the Manchester dealer and I had high hopes for future business.
The car arrived and I arranged the delivery details with John Forester, Eric Fulton had decided to join me on my adventure, as he had never visited the Isle of Man. We would be taking the afternoon ferry from Heysham, which arrived in Douglas around teatime. John had suggested that we met outside the derelict Summerland complex at the end of Douglas seafront. I hoped this wasn’t a bad omen as it had been the site of a tragic fire in the seventies, in which fifty people had died. Eric and I boarded the ferry and made the unusually long crossing to the Isle of Man arriving in Douglas harbour around 6 p.m. As we drove the shiny new car down the ferry’s loading ramp I couldn’t help but notice that an unusual grinding sound had manifested itself. The grinding sound appeared to be coming from the passenger side front wheel. “What’s that bloody grinding sound?” said Eric.
“I’m not sure,” I replied.
This was all we needed; the car develops a fault just before we hand it over to a very particular customer.
This was just typical I thought, the first new luxury car brand for fifty years, a car with everything to prove. Years in development subjected to countless rigorous tests, driven though boiling deserts and across arctic wastes. Covering unimaginably vast distances, computers recording the performance of every component. Individual elements tested to complete destruction, rigs designed to operate key constituent parts hundreds of thousands of times. Every possible mechanical scenario, subjected to infinitesimal scrutiny, apart for it would seem the hideous grinding noise emanating for the near side front wheel. This was just another example of sod’s law in action, just when you think everything is going well, the universe decides to piss on your chips.
We decided to pull into a side road just off the sea front to see if we could see anything obvious.
“Can you see anything obvious?” said Eric.
“No,” I replied, “everything looks fine I hoped we had picked up some debris but there is nothing.”
“Does the man know where we’re staying,” said Eric.
“No,” I said.
“OK we’ll get the bloody thing handed over, turn up the radio and hope it cures itself, it might just be the newness,” said Eric optimistically.
Faced with one of Mr Hobson’s famous choices, we continued to our rather macabre rendezvous point at the end of the sea front. John Forester was waiting expectantly stood in front of a gleaming bright blue Mercedes that looked as new as the day it rolled off a Stuttgart production line.
“Hello Travis”, he said, “did you have a nice crossing?”
“Yes,” I replied, “A bit slow but smooth sailing all the way.”
“Car looks fantastic,” said John gently caressing the bonnet, “I can’t wait to get behind the wheel.”
Something’s definitely got behind the wheel, the nearside front wheel to be precise and we need to be some distance away before he discovers it, I thought.
We concluded the lengthy handover procedure and exchanged all the relevant documentation. Eric interjected constantly repeatedly commenting on how lovely the Lexus was and using Mr Foresters first name far too frequently. Eric was clearly out of his depth when dealing with this calibre of person. I got the instinct impression by the look on John Foresters face he wasn’t enjoying all the pats on the back he was receiving from an over familiar Eric. We said our goodbyes and Eric and I jumped into the Mercedes making our get away.
“Get right down the bottom son,” said Eric, “then dive up a side street and we’ll look for the hotel.”
The return ferry wasn’t until eight o’clock the following morning, so an evening in the company of Eric was the next item on the agenda.
We returned to the garage the following day, having formulated a plan that could be implemented in the event the hideous grinding sound had not miraculously cured itself.
There was no Lexus dealer on the island but there was a Toyota dealer whose owner was apparently a good friend of Eric’s. As and when the inevitable phone call came in, we could arrange to have Eric’s mate the Toyota dealer have his mechanics investigate the problem.
“Travis there’s a John Forester on the phone for you, line two,” said Angela the service receptionist.
“Hello John,” I said attempting to inject a tone of innocence into my voice, “how are things.”
Optimistically I felt that by not mentioning the car John might elect to talk about another subject entirely. Thus avoiding the embarrassing revelation that the car being promoted as the best in the world had quite early on, turned out to be somewhat of a disappointment.
“Hello Travis, yes its John Forester here from the Isle of Man.” I was pleased he had confirmed he was the John Forester from the Isle of Man and not one of the countless other John Foresters I was currently involved with.
“We got the Lexus home on Thursday evening and everything appeared to be fine, it was only when my wife turned the radio down that we noticed a rather unpleasant grinding sound emanating from the passenger side front wheel.”
Resisting the temptation to issue the saying, ‘well they don’t last forever you know,’ I instead implemented the plan Eric and I had hatched on the way home.
“A strange noise,” I said sticking with the innocent tone, “let me have a word with our service manager and I’ll call you straight back.”
Eric had spoken to his dealer friend on the island, who had kindly offered to have a look at the Lexus and provide Mr Forester with a courtesy car. “Hello John its Travis, I’ve have had a word with our service manager but he said it was difficult to diagnose without inspecting the car. So we contacted Milford’s the Toyota dealer in Douglas and they are going to carry out an inspection on our behalf. They asked that you take the vehicle in tomorrow lunchtime and they will provide you with a courtesy car, so you can go and have some lunch while they take a look.”
“Ok Travis that’s good to hear,” said John, “I’m sure it will be something or nothing, you can tell them I will be with them at 11.30.”
The following day John Forester dutifully reported to Milford’s dropping off his new Lexus for inspection.
“They couldn’t find anything wrong with your Lexus,” said Rod Corby the service manager, “so I gave Toyota a call to see if they could shed any light on it. Apparently it’s due to a faulty batch of suspension struts, the coil spring is moving in its cradle causing a metal to metal grinding sound,” said Rod. “They said we could replace the strut or alternatively wrap some insulation tape round the bottom of the spring which sorts it seemingly.”
“Wrap some tape round?” I replied indignantly, “I’m sure John Forester would have absolute confidence in any repair carried out using insulation tape.”
“We could supply him with his very own roll, just in case the car developed any other faults during its life.”
“No need to be like that,” said Rod “I’m just telling you what they told me.”
After some discussion it was decided that we would fly one of our technicians to Milford’s on the Isle of Man where he would then replace the strut with a new unit. However, the situation was about to take a turn for the worse, as the universe hadn’t quite finished testing us.
“Travis, Mr Forester is on the phone for you,” said the receptionist.
“Hello John,” I said, “we have had a word with Toyota, apparently the problem is down to a rogue batch of suspension struts.”
“We have ordered the parts and we intend to fly out one of our technicians who will carry out the work at Milford’s.”
At first there was no reply from John Forester just an ominous silence.
“They have dented my new car,” came John Foresters extremely menacing response this was followed by a click and a constant tone indicating he had hung up. Feeling a little out of my depth I enlisted some help and advice from Martin.
“We need to nip this in the Bud as soon as possible,” said Martin, “give him an hour to cool down then tell him we’re sending over our demonstrator, we will bring his car back here, sort the dent and fit the new suspension strut.”
Later that day I spoke to John Forester at his home, as Martin had predicted he had calmed down and seemed happy to accept our new proposal. A driver was duly dispatched to the Isle of Man returning the following day with the stricken vehicle. After successfully rectifying the grinding suspension strut the car headed for the body shop, which was situated in Barrow. The dent turned out to be minute, about the size of a new penny. It was on the driver’s door and appeared to be the result of someone carelessly opening a car door, having parked too close to Mr Forester’s new car. These were the days before paint free dent repairs had become common and the only way to remove the dent was to paint the entire door. This should have been a fairly straightforward process, but unbeknown to us this was only the beginning of the saga.
The Lexus returned from the paint shop some days later.
“Travis your man’s car is back,” said Rod Corby the service manager, “I’ve just seen the body shop truck drive into the back yard,” he said.
We walked out into the back as the silver Lexus was being unloaded from the body shops car transporter. I walked round to the driver’s side to gauge the success of the repair, at first glance it was obvious to anyone the door did not match the rest of the car.
“Is it me or is the door a shade out?” said Rod squinting his eyes.
“A shade out,” I replied, if they had painted it sky blue pink it would have been a closer match,” I replied with the panic evident in my voice.
“Hey mate,” said Rod to the paint shops delivery driver, “you better get it loaded back up the customer won’t accept it like that.”
Toyota had gone to great lengths to ensure the Lexus had a world beating paint finish and had developed special paint processes for project Lexus. This involved using a special magnetic base coat that had been negatively charged. The colour coat was then positively charged so as to ensure the metallic flakes in the paint laid down in a uniform direction. It was therefore no surprise; the paint shop had found it difficult to achieve a perfect match.
The car returned to the paint shop, where they continued to have difficulties achieving a successful colour match between panels. Experts were dispatched from ICI the paint supplier, different spray guns were tried, vertical feed, suction feed. Spray patterns were adjusted, pressures and temperatures changed, you name it they tried it. After two weeks they finally achieved a match that was acceptable, but only after re-spraying the entire off side of the car.
During the time that had elapsed I was finding it increasingly difficult to come up with plausible excuses as to why the repair was taking so long. John Forester was no fool and had quickly realised there was a problem with the repair to his new car. This prompted him to refuse to accept his original car; a worst-case scenario as far as a motor dealer was concerned. In view of the circumstances we had little option but to accept this and replace the car like for like. Toyota refused to help financially as they pointed out that our approved body shop should be able to carry out this type of work. A new car was ordered and I was despatched once more to the Isle of Man to deliver it and collect our demonstrator. I arrived on the afternoon ferry as before and made my way up to the Forester’s impressive cliff top bungalow.
Mrs Forester answered the door, “come in Travis,” she said, “Johns just having a shower he has been playing golf all afternoon.”
I was led through the impressive kitchen into the biggest conservatory I had ever seen. From here you had a fantastic view of the Irish Sea.
“This is very impressive,” I said stunned by the panorama. “Yes we had it built on not long after we moved in,” said Mrs Forester, “it really let’s us make the most of the views.”
“Hello Travis,” said John appearing for the kitchen, have you been here long?”
“No,” I replied, “only about 10 minutes.”
“He spends more time in the bathroom than me,” said Mrs Forester mockingly.
“No harm in trying to look your best, that’s my motto,” he replied. “Have you any plans this evening Travis?” asked Mr Forester.
“No not really I was just going back to my hotel,” I replied.”
“Excellent,” said Mr Forester, “then we will treat you to your supper, for sorting this whole situation out so efficiently. We’re members of a very nice country club, called the Waterside Lodge, I’ll introduce you to some of our friends, there’s plenty of money on this Island you know Travis, you might get some more custom,” he said.
Mr and Mrs Forester picked me up from my hotel and treated me to a gourmet meal at the Waterside Lodge.
The following morning I made the journey back to the garage and pondered about some of the things Mrs Forester had told me. Always a sucker for a good ‘rags to riches’ story I had listened intently as the Foresters recounted their journey to financial success. Having sold a large business and retired to the tax haven that was the Isle of Man they appeared to have a perfect existence. But like most things in life, things are seldom what they appear on the surface. John Forester had started out his working life as an account’s clerk working for a large printing business in Liverpool. He was a very studious and meticulous person, with qualities well matched to the position he was in. One of his better decisions was enthusiastically embracing the company employee share ownership scheme. So enthusiastically in fact some years later he ended up becoming the largest shareholder and ultimately its chairman. Under his fastidious and obsessive stewardship, the business had gone from strength to strength. However John could see his industry was changing, personal computers, printers, so-called desktop publishing were starting to become more common. At the age of fifty-one John decided to accept an offer from one of his competitors, and sold his share of the business.
With six million pounds in the bank, John and his wife had retired to a huge luxury cliff top bungalow on the Isle of Man. Mrs Forester admitted they had not known what to do with themselves when they first retired. She said they would open their first bottle of champagne at breakfast and continue drinking for the rest of the day, sometimes consuming up to eight bottles. It was becoming evident they were developing a serious drinking problem. John was becoming bored and they were finding it difficult to be in each others company 24 hours a day. John started to become more and more obsessed with tiny little details and was finding it difficult to adjust to his newfound freedom.
They decided to commission a new state of the art conservatory to take advantage of the bungalows stunning views. This conservatory was very ornate and made from aluminium coated with a special hi-tech finish designed to withstand the harsh coastal environment. After only a few months parts of the specialist coating started to peel off, infuriating John. Several fixes were attempted but the problem persisted, the supplier didn’t feel the problem was significant enough to warrant the replacement of the affected areas. The situation started to consume John as he had little else to occupy his mind. It was at this time John experienced a mild heart attack and was rushed into Nobel’s Hospital on the island. The heart surgeon suspected the stress associated with the conservatory problem had played a significant part in bringing on his condition.
Mrs Forester said he had thought that having retired to a dream home on the Isle of Man with six million pounds in the bank they would be able to sit back and relax. The reality however had been somewhat different and had nearly resulted in John’s untimely death. They had achieved what most people could only dream of, but the dream hadn’t lived up to expectations. This brought into question the whole idea of why we work all our lives, Why do we work all our lives I thought? Aside from the necessity of putting food on the table and a roof over your head, what were the other reasons? Some want a bigger house or a bigger car; others strive to pay off their mortgages in the deluded belief that this will some how set them free. Maybe it was the idea that work will ultimately set you free, ironically the slogan that greeted new inmates arriving at the Nazis, Auschwitz concentration camp.
When I arrived back at the garage John Forester’s original car was being unloaded from the body shop transporter having finally been fixed. However the ill-fated car was to have one last surprise in store for us; sods law was about to strike again yielding the ultimate final insult. The body shop had removed the number plates and the indicator repeater lens from the driver’s side wing. The workshop apprentice had been given the relatively simple task of screwing the number plates back on and reinstalling the repeater lens. The repeater lens was designed to simply click back into the wing once the bulb holder had been fitted, a small lug on the back of the lens holding it in position. The inexperienced apprentice having successfully re-fitted the number plates attempted to click the repeater lens into place. As a result of all the attempts to match the up the cars paint work the depth of paint had increased to such an extent the lens would no longer click into place. The hapless apprentice had then picked up a screwdriver to assist him in the installation process, two hours later; the car was on it way back to the body shop.
On the plus side, John Forester made a big noise about his new car and the superb service he had received from Lakeland Toyota. As John spent a lot of time in the company of retired millionaires at the Waterside Lodge it wasn’t long before the calls began to come in. I soon became a frequent visitor to the island; invariably with each new customer came a rich friend who would also be in the market for a car. The saying ‘nice work if you can get it’ certainly applied to this period in my career, the money was literally no object and the deals came easy. I met a lot of fascinating characters while hobnobbing with the Isle of Man elite, but I couldn’t help but notice that a common theme was starting to emerge. They all appeared to be alcoholics or at very least have an alcoholic wife; just like the Foresters they had too much money and too much time on their hands. I ended up supplying seventeen Lexus cars to the island and while I’m not going to go into detail about all these transactions, I will cover some of the more interesting ones.
There was the retired concert organiser, Albert Adelman, who had been responsible for arranging huge classical concerts at venues all over the world such as the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal Festival Hall and Sydney Opera House. He was an older man in his seventies with a much younger wife who lived in an affluent area of Douglas. A Steinway model D concert grand piano surrounded by pictures of him with famous conductors like Andre Previn and Simon Rattle, greeted you as you entered his impressive house. He was a man of few words and by the sound of his accent originally of German decent. His wife on the other hand made up for Albert’s lack of conversation; she was a very bubbly and tactile, if not a bit over tactile. She always seemed to be a little overdressed for just knocking around the house with the leopard skin look being her favourite theme.
The day I delivered Albert’s new car she lured me into the kitchen under the pretence of assisting her with the refreshments. She then proceeded to pin me to the wall demanding that I kiss her. This was apparently a thank you kiss for her involvement in convincing her husband to change the car. Despite my protest, asserting that Albert could walk in at any moment I had little choice but to capitulate. She went on to say that Albert wasn’t very exciting and that I was welcome to call round any time, ideally when Albert was out. This was just another example of how money and success were often not what it was cracked up to be. She had clearly married the much older Albert for his money, but had soon become bored with his company. She now spent her days dressed up in various leopard skin outfits hoping to molest unsuspecting male callers in an attempt to reinvigorate her humdrum existence.
There was the retired Colonel George Manning-Castleford, who spent his life between the Isle of Man and his villa in the West Indies. Year’s spent pursuing a career in the military had produced a man that was to say at the least, a touch difficult to deal with. A life spent under his formidable command had evidently taken its toll on his wife, who appeared to be in a constant state of inebriation. The Colonel had always driven Daimlers but felt that the new model didn’t possess enough road presence. He also was disillusioned with the state of British Industry and the decline of manufacturing. He had spent many an hour writing letters to senior industry leaders and members of parliament, voicing his concerns. In the end he had decided to demonstrate his anger in the strongest terms possible and turn his back on the British automobile.
“The Japanese had been intolerable cads and bounders,” he said, “but you couldn’t but admire their ruthless ability to get things done, so with that in mind I made the decision to defect as it were.”
Luckily for me his anger hadn’t quite been strong enough to persuade him to buy a German car.
His current vehicle was the last of the Jaguar ‘Series Three’ saloons, a Black, Daimler ‘Double Six’ Vanden Plas and the most expensive Jaguar/Daimler produced at the time. It reminded me of the car you always saw Margaret Thatcher climbing out of although her car was the lesser Jaguar version. The Colonel had kept the Daimler in pristine condition and insisted that it had never been driven in the wet, ever. This was partly due to the fact the Colonel spent the winter at his villa in the Bahamas with the car locked away in the garage. After some intense negotiation, which mainly consisted of him telling me what we were going to give him for his car, a deal was agreed. A new black Lexus was to be delivered to the island to coincide with favourable weather conditions, as the car was not to be driven in the wet.
It is often said that wealth doesn’t necessarily guarantee happiness, although most people don’t get the chance to find this out. One good example of this was a customer called Frank Quayle. Frank could have been one of the wealthiest of all the retired millionaires I had dealings with. Unlike most of my customers Frank wasn’t on the Island just for tax reasons, he had been born there, a true Manx Man. From an early age he had shown a great talent for figures and after leaving school had managed to get a job working as a trainee accountant. Having just qualified, the young Frank was called up to complete his national service, compulsory military duty that all male citizens were required to complete just after the war. He enlisted in the Royal Air Force and after completing his basic training was shipped off to South Africa. During this time he fell in love with the country and when his service ended returned securing a job working as an accountant for a practice based in Durban.
One of his clients was a small company that produced metal cookware, which had been started by three entrepreneurial young friends. Frank soon realised the three lads knew a lot about making pots and pans, but not much about running a profitable business. By making a few simple changes Frank was able to make significant improvements to the viability of the fledgling business. The young team was so impressed with Frank they offered him a stake in the company, seeing the potential for growth Frank accepted. Within a few short years and with the benefit of cheap local labour the company went from strength to strength. This culminated in the boys accepting an offer for the entire business from a prominent American cookware manufacturer. With a quarter of a million pounds in his pocket, a huge sum of money in nineteen fifty nine, he returned to the Isle of Man. Frank spent the next twenty-five years buying and selling foreign currency, something that he had initially started out doing for fun. This hobby turned out to be extremely lucrative, enabling him to turn two hundred and fifty thousand pounds into tens of millions.
Frank lived in Ramsey, in a huge house that he shared with his wife; the house sat in impressive grounds and even had its own small lake. I had visited the house in order to inspect Frank’s part exchange and ensure it was as he had described it. Having concluded the deal, I was due to deliver his new car to coincide with a small ride and drive event I had organised to publicise the Lexus brand on the island. It was a Saturday morning and I was to deliver the car to Frank’s holiday home. It seemed a little strange that the man would buy a holiday home less than four miles from his house, but who was I to question the motives of a millionaire. His directions had led me to a small house over looking the sea, on closer inspection I realised it wasn’t one house but a row of three. This can’t be right I thought; surely this wasn’t Frank’s holiday home. I knocked on the weather-beaten door, as there was no sign of a bell.
The door swung back to reveal a delighted Frank framed in the doorway.
“How do Travis,” he said, “you found us alright then?”
“Yes,” I replied.
Frank’s holiday home was minute, as you walked in to the tiny hall a set of steep wooden stairs lay directly in front of you. To the left was a door, which led into the first of the two downstairs rooms. The first room had very basic decor and housed two large armchairs, a standard lamp and the largest television set I had ever seen.
“We’ll have a nice cup of milky coffee before we get started, put some milk on the stove love,” said Frank, “come through lad.”
The second room turned out to be the kitchen and comprised a small table featuring two chairs, a sink with a water heater suspended above it and an old electric cooker featuring an eye-level grill. Frank’s wife was stood at the cooker slowly stirring a large pan of milk.
“So this is your holiday house?” I said trying not to appear shocked by its lack of appeal.
“Yes,” said Frank; “I was born here, well not in this exact house, number one next door, we like coming down here don’t we love, it’s nice and relaxing.”
We concluded the deal and after going over the cars many features several times, I left Frank to indulge his passion for basic living, milky coffee and television. I had been preconditioned to expect people who had come into the possession of significant wealth to behave in a certain way. Most of the people I had met had so far had conformed to these ideas, yet ironically the wealthiest of them all so far, preferred to live as if he had nothing. Comfortingly the next character I was about to meet had embraced the pre-programmed idea of what to do when you strike it rich, with both hands.
I had arranged a ride and drive event at the Castletown Links Hotel, which I had publicised in the island’s most popular newspaper. I had managed to get a car into the hotel ballroom and I had the demonstrator outside so prospective customers could take a test drive. Soon the car park was full of luxury cars, everything from Rolls Royce’s, top of the range Mercedes and even a Cadillac. One of the more interesting cars was a 1920’s Duesenberg that was the property of a rather frail old gent. As if the car wasn’t interesting enough in itself, the frail old gent was accompanied by identical twins dressed in period clothes. The twins were introduced as his sisters who he lived with and apparently they also escorted him wherever he went.
“Are you the main man here?” said a middle aged dark haired man in a polo shirt.
“Yes I suppose so,” I replied, “I’m Travis Bone from Lakeland Toyota in Lancaster.”
“I’m Ernie Acton, nice to meet you,” said the man. “My mate Arthur is very interested in the Lexus, he’s just outside sat in the car. He would come in himself but he’s hurt his leg falling off a roof this morning; we were trying to sort out a gutter,” he said.
I followed Ernie out to the black Bentley parked outside the front entrance of the hotel. As we approached, the front passenger window slid down to reveal another middle age man in a polo shirt.
“How do,” he said, “Are you the man we need to talk to about these big Toyotas?”
“Yes that’s me,” I replied. As it appeared Arthur was temporally incapacitated, I offered to drive the demonstrator to his house the next morning.
It was a beautiful morning on the Isle of Man, hardly a cloud in the sky and quite warm considering it was still early, must be the effect of the Gulf Stream, I mused.
As arranged, I arrived at the gates of what appeared to be a small mansion, for 10 a.m. the next day. The entrance was very impressive if not slightly vulgar as it featured high metal gates adorned with fleur-de-lis guarded on both sides by two large gold lions. I pressed the call button on the intercom and waited for a response.
“Is that you lad?” came the reply.
“Yes,” I said shouting into the device.
The gates swung open and I followed the drive round to the very impressive front entrance of the house. I walked up to the front door, which was open, revealing the entrance hall. The inner glass door was shut and there was no sign of life in the large hall. Looking round I noticed another intercom unit so I pressed the button and waited.
“We’re round the back on the deck lad,” said the voice emanating from the intercom, “just come round the left side of the house and up the stairs.”
I followed a small gravel path round the side of the house, which led to the rear of the building. If I had thought the front of the house was impressive it was nothing compared to the rear. A huge terraced garden occupied a large river valley that stretched out behind the house. The entire area was exotically planted with a myriad of plant’s trees and flowers; it was like some grand botanical amphitheatre with a small fast flowing river at its base. Up to the right a large deck supported by long stilts projected out over the garden. I climbed up the wooden stairs that led to the deck to find Ernie at a table enjoying the view. A large jug filled with a dark red liquid and ice sat in the middle of the table.
“Do you want a drink lad?” said Ernie holding up a glass full of the dark red liquid.
“Yes thanks what is it?” I replied.
“Bloody Mary,” said Ernie.
“It’s a bit early for me,” I said, “plus I better not I’m driving.”
“We had a bit of a party last night lad so we are all feeling a bit off, you can’t beat a bloody Mary for bringing you round,” said Ernie. “Arthur wont be long, he decided to cut the grass, said it would clear his head, you’ll see him go past in a minute he’s just down in the bottom,” said Ernie. “I wouldn’t care, we have a full time gardener, but Arthur insists on being hands on, says he likes to keep his hand in,” he said.
At first I assumed Arthur and Ernie might be a couple, on the other bus as they say, as they did appear to live together. This was in fact the case and Ernie did live with Arthur, but lived with his wife in a separate annex of the house. Ernie went on to tell me that he and Arthur had been friend’s all their lives and when Arthur sold his business he had asked Ernie and the wife to move to the island with him and his wife. Fortunately the wives were also very good friends so when the offer came that’s what they had done. Ernie had been plant manager at one of Arthur’s Manchester bottling plants, and when he sold up he offered Ernie the chance to retire with him, all expenses paid.
Arthur Oldham had made his money from fizzy drinks, literally building up a multi-million pound business from nothing, with the help of his best friend Ernie. When they were lads Ernie had worked at the famous Boddingtons Strangeways brewery in Manchester. Arthur however didn’t have a job; instead he used to go round collecting empty bottles in a small cart and with Ernie’s help managed to make a living returning the empty bottles to the brewery under the deposit refund system. Back then, soft drinks were a luxury so Arthur decided to start bottling his own. He made a deal with the foreman of the ingredients section at the brewery to swap bottles for some ingredients. Working out of his grandmother’s kitchen he produced the first batch of Oldham’s Authentic Manchester Ginger Beer, which he then sold door-to-door.
Soon demand out stripped supply and so, with some investment from an elderly friend of his grandmother Arthur was able to rent a modest premise and expand his line up. These included such favourites as Cream Soda, Dandelion and Burdock, Lemon and Lime and Cherryade. His big break came in the seventies, when he developed a totally new type of soft drink, which he called Creamo Froth. Creamo Froth was basically cream soda with more sugar and flavourings; it was coloured thanks to the use of a coagulant dye, a by-product from the screen printing industry. This ingredient gave the new drink a very vivid colour it also made it considerably more viscous, when shaken a thick brightly coloured foam was produced, hence the name. The kids loved this new foamy drink, partly due to some of the side effects it produced. These included intense bouts of wind and brightly coloured phlegm that accumulated at the back of your throat, this phlegm could then be spat out at selected targets. Even though the drink was decidedly awful with little or no capacity for refreshment, it became one of those juvenile crazes achieving huge nationwide success.
The success of Creamo Froth helped to propel Oldham’s soft drinks into the big league and it wasn’t long before Arthur was receiving offers from bigger players. Arthur realised that Creamo Froth was a passing fad, fully aware of its lack of nutritional or thirst quenching properties. With this in mind in the summer of 1984, he accepted a generous offer for the business. It was at this time he made; what some may consider a very charitable offer to his lifelong friend Ernie. He asked Ernie to join him in his retirement and move across to the Isle of Man. Arthur felt that he wouldn’t have achieved everything he had without Ernie’s help and friendship and wanted to share some of his windfall with him. Arthur purchased a large enough house so both families could live separately; he then deposited enough money into Ernie’s account ensuring he would never have to work again.
“Will Arthur want to part exchange the black Bentley?” I asked.
“I hope not said Ernie the black one belongs to me, he’s got a white one,” he said. “I went down to London with him to pick up the cheque when the deal was finalised for Oldham’s. On the way back from the bank we walked past Jack Barclays Bentley showrooms in Mayfair,” said Ernie. “We’d had a couple of bottle’s of champagne so decided to have a look at the cars. Well the excitement of the occasion plus the Moet & Chandon, went to our heads and Arthur bought a couple of New Bentleys, one apiece. Always the businessman he ordered a white one and a black one, so we would have both the wedding and the funeral job covered, if we needed a bit of extra pin money in the future,” he said. “Arthur’s got about ten cars and only ever drives a couple of them, he recently bought a Toyota Pick Up and he’s never out of it, said Ernie.”
As we sat soaking up the morning sunshine, the silence was shattered by the familiar sound of a Briggs and Stratton four-stroke engine. A large lawn tractor pulled up onto the raised lawn to the right of where we were sat.
“Alright lad,” said Arthur killing the engine and dismounting the tractor. “Has Ernie offered you a drink?” he said lifting a large empty glass out of a cup holder that had been screwed to the tractors bonnet.
“Yes thanks, it’s a little early for me,” I replied. “So are you going to sell us a couple of these big Toyotas? I bought a Toyota Pick Up you know and I bloody love it,” he said. “I think we better have one a piece, but you will need to take a couple of cars off our hands as we have run out of space in the garage,” said Arthur gesturing over his shoulder. “We’ll go and have a look in a minute when I’ve had another drink and you can tell us which you would prefer to take, there’s all sorts in there, isn’t there Ernie.”
A couple of bloody Mary’s later Arthur and Ernie led me over to the garage, we entered through a small side door, Ernie fumbled around by the door before flicking on the lights. Several fluorescent tubes clicked and hummed into life revealing a varied selection of vehicles. There were two Jaguars, a Mercedes sports car, like the one Bobby Ewing had driven in the Dallas television show and a Range Rover. There was also a Ford Capri the three-litre Ghia model and a rare metallic gold Lancia Gamma Coupe. Against the back wall sat a Mini and a Daihatsu Fourtrack, which appeared to be boxed in by a Datsun 180B estate car and Arthur’s white Bentley.
“We were thinking of swapping the Mini and the Fourtrack,” said Arthur gesturing over towards the back wall. On closer inspection the Mini appeared to be brand new with only six hundred miles on the odometer. “I bought that for the wife because she wanted a small car for going into Douglas,” said Arthur, “she only bloody drove it a couple of times, said it was too small and she didn’t feel safe. The fourtracks hardly been used either, someone told me they were great for towing a trailer, so I nipped out and bought one, I just never got round to buying a trailer,” he said.
After consulting with Martin back at the garage, I managed to negotiate a deal for two new Lexus cars, one dark blue and one in black which Ernie and Arthur intended to collect. They had apparently being looking for an excuse to get away for a boy’s weekend and to try some new fishing gear they had recently purchased.
Arthur and Ernie appeared to be the most successful of the millionaires I had met, not because they had the most money but because they seemed to know how to enjoy the money they had. They went through life amusing themselves, indiscriminately buying stuff, and carrying out random acts of DIY and garden maintenance. Money hadn’t changed them and they didn’t take themselves or life too seriously. Even though Arthur, with Ernie’s help, had built up a very successful business he wasn’t conceited. He knew that in business you needed luck and that luck had played large part in the way things had turned out. It was like they were like a couple of kids who had found a ten-pound note on the ground outside the sweet shop they were just about to go into. Arthur had spotted the prize, but realised it was far more fun if they shared the money enjoying the experience of eating the sweets together. If there was a reason to work, as a way of achieving success, theirs was the type of success I would like to achieve I thought. Not that I was unhappy with my current situation, quite the opposite in fact, at that time I was genuinely enjoying my job. In addition, my successes on the Island of Man brought with it some modest financial rewards. Enough in fact, for me to provide enough deposit to purchase my first house. This came in the form of a small semi-detached new build, made more affordable due to its location in a less desirable area of Lancaster.
I was now making the trip to the island almost every week and was thoroughly enjoying my success, however as the old saying goes ‘all good things come to an end.’ It was a Tuesday morning and Big Eric had arrived unexpectedly with another man, his appearance was in itself unusual, as he rarely visited Lancaster these days. Also unusual was that he had entered the building via the side entrance, thus avoiding the showroom and enabled him to proceed directly to the boardroom located on the second floor. A short time later the Toyota area manager arrived with a small delegation of smartly dressed individuals. Bill Wheeler the general manager greeted this delegation at the side entrance and led them up to the boardroom.
“I wonder what’s going on Martin?” I said.
“Not sure lad, maybe big Eric’s decided to sell up and retire to the Isle of Man,” he said with a broad grin. As it turned out Martin’s theory hadn’t been too far off the mark, Eric had decided to sell but not because he wanted to retire.
Unbeknown to all the staff and as it transpired Eric himself, the Lancaster site had been losing substantial amounts of money since it had opened two years previously. Toyota had convinced Eric, that he could achieve unimaginable success by applying the techniques he had employed in Barrow to the much bigger Lancaster market. They had succeeded in massaging Eric’s already large ego, persuading him to commit to a huge financial obligation. Unfortunately despite my successes with the Lexus brand the site had been unable to turn a profit.
In Barrow Eric was a big fish in a small pond, but had found the transition to a much larger pond a difficult one. Without the celebrity status that he enjoyed in Barrow, Eric felt less confident; resulting in his visits to Lancaster became less and less frequent. Eric left the day-to-day running of his flagship site in the hands of Bill his general manager; this would ultimately turn out to be a big misjudgement.
Eric had failed to spot the fact that the experienced motor trade professional he had put in charge of his million pound investment was in fact just an actor playing the part of an experienced motor trade professional. As I would later come to realise there were a lot of actors operating within the world of the employed. Not all jobs were suitable for the actor, only jobs that didn’t necessarily require you to know anything about the occupation you were involved in. Actors relied on outward appearance and the ability to fool you into believing they knew what they were doing. They were generally good at securing employment, coming over well during interviews, but would inevitably fail when the time came to prove themselves.
A good analogy for this would be as follows. Let’s say you were a member of a local amateur dramatic society and you were asked to play the part of a heating engineer. You play the part several times and receive great acclaim for your convincing performance. Your performance was so convincing in fact, a member of the audience asked if you would pop round to his house and install a new central heating boiler for him. This is of course is when your utter lack of actual hands on ability becomes devastatingly clear. However if you prepare a little in advance and actually do some research into the part you are playing it may be possible to delay the point your deception is uncovered, this was what Bill Wheeler had managed to achieve.
Sales was one of the many professions where an actor could remain undetected. The ability to lie and deceive coupled with a certain amount of luck could protect the actor from detection. Actors usually entered the motor trade as salesmen where no actual academic qualification was required. They would then inevitably fail, as they had no real interest or knowledge of the product they were selling. Ironically they were quite often the first to receive a step up to sales controller or manager, infuriating their more qualified colleagues. Their advancement was in fact; a direct result of their lack of ability, as the person above them was also an actor. The last thing this more senior individual wanted, was a subordinate that actually had some tangible ability, as this would have the potential to reveal their own fraud. Every morning Bill Wheeler would awaken to the realisation he would have to get through another day in the real world. Possessing little or no talent or natural ability, he would grab the mask that transformed him into Mr Bill Wheeler, highly experienced and respected veteran of the retail motor trade.
Bill had been less than accurate with the reporting of Lakeland Toyota Lancaster’s, financial position. After a while this deception had become impossible to hide after the bank uncovered irregularities following an audit of the dealership stock. The real Bill Wheeler had no idea how to successfully run a business only how to pretend to run one. He had allowed the rest of the management a free reign, allowing certain individuals to operate without the business’s best interest at heart. Eric had been forced to provide his Barrow site and his family home as security until a buyer could be found for the ailing Lancaster business. The delegation that had visited that day represented a large dealer group from the Midlands that were willing to take over the site and its commitments with some backing from Toyota.
Bill had been relieved of his position, soon after the true picture had emerged regarding the true state of affairs at Lancaster. This was a very uncomfortable time as details began to emerge of additional irregularities involving other members of the management team. The friendly easy-going atmosphere had gone, replaced with a feeling of unease and distrust. The new owners were to conduct interviews to see which staff they wanted to retain after the hand over. Eric had indicated that he was expecting me to return to Barrow with him but as of yet I had not given him an answer. Returning to Barrow had not been part of my future plans; I had moved into my new bachelor pad and was enjoying a new found independence. I didn’t want to return to Barrow as that would mean having to make the daily commute from Lancaster, but more than that it felt like a backwards step. Unfortunately I didn’t have much option unless I could secure a new job in Lancaster before the transfer to the new owners took place. There was also the daunting task of having to tell big Eric I wouldn’t be returning to Barrow, Eric was very persuasive and that could turn out to be the hardest task of all.
It was two weeks before the transfer and I found myself standing in a queue at the bacon roll van, waiting to be served.
“How’s that Isle of Man job going?” said a monotone voice from directly behind me. I turned round to find John Bryant had joined the queue.
“Hello John,” I said slightly caught off guard by his enquiry.
I had met John Bryant a couple of times during my tenure working in Lancaster, once at his BMW dealership and again out side the front of our garage. John Bryant was often to be found wandering round the industrial estate checking out the competition and bleeding any salesman he met for information. We had also sold him a low mileage BMW seven series that I had brought back from one of my trips to the Isle of Man.
“Ok,” I replied, “I’ve just delivered number seventeen.”
“Good lad,” said John his monotone reply being completely devoid of any real emotion.
John Bryant was quite small in stature with a medium build and dark hair, I estimated him to be in his early forties. He was instantly recognisable, always well dressed, usually wearing an expensive suit and sporting his trademark slightly unusual hairstyle. He had a strange sort of side parting that didn’t seem to look right. This gave him the look of a seventies footballer, a seventies footballer whose hair looked like it had been styled by Mary Quant.
“I hear your man Eric is selling up to an outfit from the Midlands,” said John with a deadpan look on his face.
“I didn’t think anyone knew about that,” I replied, “but yes things haven’t been going too well as it turns out.”
“It’s a bit of a different job, this Lancaster job,” said John looking me up and down. “You’ve got to make sure you’ve got the right men in the job,” said John obviously alluding to the failings of the management team. “I spend a lot of my time thinking about which of my lads would make good managers, got to be careful and get the right lad into the right job,” he said. “I’m looking for a lad that knows luxury cars,” said John without the slightest hint of enthusiasm in his voice, “do you think you might be that lad, lad?”
“I do like the luxury side, which brand do you need someone for, BMW, Jaguar or is it Mercedes?” I asked excitedly.
“Volvo,” he replied.
“I was really hoping to stay with luxury cars, I feel that I have proved myself as someone who can sell high class, high value products to discerning clients.”
“I haven’t any positions at BMW, jag or merc at the moment,” he said, “but if you do well at Volvo the sky is the limit in my organisation for a good lad.”
“Give Dickey Edwards or Gary Simpkin a call if you’re interested, you know them lad’s don’t you lad?” said John nodding at me as if I should know everyone involved in the Lancaster motor trade. “I’ll tell them to expect your call lad.”
And with that John Bryant turned and walked off towards a large Jaguar saloon, clutching a small brown grease stained paper bag, containing a sausage and egg roll.
I wasn’t going to move back to Barrow so a move to Bryant’s seemed to be the best option under the circumstances. Volvo wouldn’t have been my first choice but as John Bryant had said, it was a big organisation so maybe I could get a transfer later on. I called Bryant Volvo and arranged a meeting for the following evening with Gary Simpkin and Dickey Edwards. Wasn’t Dickey Edwards the man that did the bird noises? The name seemed familiar somehow I thought. The meeting went well and I was offered a salesman position with a view to start as soon as I could. All I needed to do now was tell Eric I intended to leave, I felt sure he would employ considerable pressure on me to stay, so I would need to be strong. Going with Eric back to Barrow would be the easiest and most comfortable option, Eric treated me like one of his son’s and I got on well with every one in the garage. But I felt this was one of those occasions where I needed to leave my comfort zone and experience something new. I would be a big fish in a small pond and I wanted to see what life would be like in a larger one. The only trouble with larger ponds is that it’s always possible something nasty could be lurking in the deep dark depths.
My initial impression of Bryant Volvo, obtained during my brief meeting, was of a very structured and serious organisation. Any attempts at humour or levity I made during the meeting seemed to be quickly dismissed, so as not to upset the formal nature of the discussions. They seemed to promote the idea that working for Bryant’s was a way of life and that the company’s success took precedence over all other things. On the plus side the reward for this total devotion was the opportunity to rise to the very top of a hugely successful organisation. The down side was that you were expected to donate the most precious gift you would ever receive: your life.
Eric looked up from the desk as I approached Bill Wheeler’s old office.
“Have you got a moment Eric,” I said clutching my letter of resignation.
“Yes son of course I have what’s up you look a bit worried,” he said.
The game was on I thought, Eric wasn’t stupid he knew what I wanted to see him for and this was just the first salvo of his emotional bombardment.
“Eric I have decided to leave, now that I have moved to Lancaster; I feel my future lies here,” I said trying to remain resolute.
“What are you talking about son?” said Eric adopting a pained expression, “I thought you were coming back to work with me at Barrow.”
“You’re like a son to me, you can’t leave, your future is with Fulton’s son,” he said. “You haven’t thought this through son, you don’t really want to leave; you’re just imagining it,” he said. “The grass isn’t greener on the other side you know son, better the devil you know that’s my motto. You wouldn’t want to work for any of these Lancaster buggers, they’ll just treat you like a number, they don’t care you know son.”
“You’re not are you son?” he said, my facial expression giving me away, “you’re not going to work for that clever bugger John Bryant?” he said slowly shaking his head. “Son, son, son,” said Eric pressing the palms of his hands together across the desk, “you’re not seriously thinking of going to work for him, are you?”
Eric almost had me convinced, as I harboured some slight niggling doubts about my decision, however I knew that if I was going to progress up the ladder, Bryant’s seemed to offer the best opportunity. “I’m sorry Eric I have made up my mind,” and with that I put my letter of resignation down on the table and left the office.
I had given Eric two weeks notice, but as was common with the motor trade he said I should just clear my desk and go that day. This tactic was designed to prevent sales people that were defecting over to another dealer from taking any customer details with them when they left. I felt slightly disappointed that Eric had suspected that I would have done anything like that. I had a lot of respect for him, but circumstances had conspired to force me to take the decision to leave. Rod Corby the service manager gave me a lift home, dropping me off we wished each other all the best and promised to keep in touch. Later that day Gary Simpkin the sales manager at Bryant Volvo, my new direct boss called round with a car so I would be able to get to my new place of work the following day.
Bryant’s sales people were expected to start at eight 8.30 a.m. every morning, Gary had asked that I be there for 9.30, this was to allow him time to conduct his morning sales meeting. I pulled up in the service loan car Gary had provided and parked in one of the spaces designated for customers. As I stepped out from the car, a middle-aged man in a light suit immediately pounced on me.
“Can I help you at all?” he said with an insincere grin on his face.
“I’m here to see Gary Simpkin,” I replied, “he’s in his office said the man, just ask at reception.”
If he was a salesman they certainly seem keen, maybe a little too keen I thought.
Gary Simpkin met me as I came through the door and took me through to his office. The first day I was given a very thorough and comprehensive induction. A desk had been made ready and a demonstrator allocated. Everything was set up to enable new starters to get straight down to the all-important task of selling cars. I settled in quickly to my new environment and it wasn’t long before I had clinched my first deal.
Bryant’s was by far the most regimented organisation I had worked for so far, there was a process for everything, with little or no room for freedom of expression. A very rigid hierarchy was in place with John Bryant placed firmly at the top of the pyramid like some sort of Mary Quant inspired deity. There was a culture within the organisation that placed huge significance on the position you had attained, with managers being treated like celebrities. They operated a management-training programme, which prospective candidates could attend after hours and in their free time. This was designed to see how dedicated candidates were to ascend the career ladder.
The architect of the rigid regime and survival of the fittest culture was John Bryant’s second in command, Chad Sweeney. I had only met Mr Sweeney once when he passed through the showroom on his way to see Dickey Edwards. I only found out who he was after asking the receptionist, as he didn’t bother to introduce himself, clearly considering that type of courtesy to be beneath him. I was standing near the door when a smartly dressed blond man with a blond moustache walked assuredly into the building.
“You must be Gary’s new lad,” he said in a somewhat sinister way, gazing at me with cold lifeless eyes, “he tells me you’re going to do great things.”
They say you should always go with your gut feelings, my first impressions of Chad Sweeney were far from reassuring, it was almost as if I had been in the presence of evil, or even the very Devil himself.
The Volvo sales department consisted of Gary Simpkin, Don Presley, Tony Townsend and myself. Gary Simpkin was Sales Manager; he was a big lad who exuded an air of authority, although I got the impression this authoritarian air didn’t come naturally. It was very important that Bryant’s managers never showed any suggestion of weakness or display signs of humanity in front of the lower ranks. Tony Townsend the man who had accosted me my first day, Don Presley and myself were the delegated sales people. Tony Townsend was a fairly unremarkable character and clearly an actor. He had adopted a fairly standard character favoured by a lot of sales people, the smiley friendly approachable type, always eager to help. In his defence he did have a genuine interest in cars, unfortunately this was one of the only genuine features he possessed. Tony was never going to set the world on fire but always managed to do just enough to scrape by. The real Tony felt the job was below him and that the customers were all idiots, unfortunately his acting wasn’t good enough to paper over his true nature. Don Presley was a different animal entirely, a personality I had never encountered before, a personality with truly magical abilities.
Don was in his fifties; small in stature and slightly over weight, other than a pair of large brown national health type glasses he had few distinguishing features. He had worked for Bryant Volvo from the day it opened and liked to go by the name Volvo Don, or Don the Swede. He would also constantly make reference to the king of rock and roll whenever he wanted a customer to remember his surname. Don was Bryant Volvos most successful salesmen and was held in great esteem throughout the Bryant’s organisation.
The secret of Dons success however was a mystery, as he appeared to possess none of the qualities you would expect a car salesperson to have. Firstly he seemed to have very little knowledge of the product, in fact very little knowledge of cars in general; in fact his lack of knowledge appeared to extend to just about every subject. Successful operation of the telephone for instance, use of a pocket calculator even the humble ballpoint pen could be a challenge for Don, to all intents and purposes, the man was a blithering idiot. I reasoned that he must hypnotise the customers, or summon up some strange occult force that would compel his subject into making a purchase.
His technique centred round loitering in the waiting area and making small talk while customer’s waited for their cars. Before you knew it, he would be standing by the open driver’s door of a car in the showroom making some obscure observations to a mesmerised customer sitting behind the wheel.
His sales presentation would go something like this: “Well as you can see, it has a gauge to tell how fast you’re going, and it’s positioned right in front of you, which is handy.”
He would then ask the customer to feel the weight of the door; this he did by getting them to swing it slightly from left to right. He would then point out that this demonstrated the Volvo quality, whatever that was supposed to prove, this was usually all he needed to do to make a sale. On one memorable occasion, a man and his son were unsure about the vivid colour of a bright red car in the showroom. Don effortlessly convinced them to go ahead with the purchase, by pointing out it would stand out well against a snow bank.
“That’s fantastic Don,” said the man, “we’ll have it.”
The ease with which Don seemed to conduct business was a constant source of irritation, it didn’t seem to matter how bad his presentation was, or how little effort he put in, he still managed to achieve the sale. I would spend hours diligently studying brochures, not only of our own product but also that of our competition. I read endless books on sales and sales techniques taking cues from some of the world’s most successful sales people. I knew my product inside and out, yet all Don needed to do was get the customer to swing the door back and forth and the deal was done, as you can imagine this was incredibly frustrating. Gary the sales manager was continually reminding Tony and I, not to cut corners with regard to the sales process. Whenever we mentioned Don and his many shortcomings we were told that he had his own way of doing things and that he would never change.
“Don is what you would call an old school car salesman, he’s from an era when things were much simpler,” Gary would say repeatedly.
As it turned out things were about to become a lot less simple for us all, Chad Sweeney was about to introduce a new sales control system; ‘Pentagram.’
Monday morning at 8.30 a.m. we assembled in Gary Simpkin’s office for the morning sales meeting.
“Before we talk about how things went at the weekend,” said Gary, “I have some important news for you all. During last weeks management meeting down at the BMW site, the managers were introduced to a new sales system that is about to be rolled out across the group.”
“New sales system?” said Tony displaying a quizzical version of his trademark grin.
“Yes a new sales system,” said Gary, “believe me lads this was the first I’d heard of it myself.” “Make sure you don’t organise anything for next Tuesday night as you will all be expected to attend a presentation at the High Top Hotel,” said Gary handing us all a memo. “From what I can gather Chad Sweeney is the driving force behind this,” he said, “apparently it a special sales process that was originally developed in the US and is incredibly successful.”
“ ‘Pentagram,’ it doesn’t sound very customer friendly,” I said staring at the satanic looking symbol on the top of the memo.
“You’ll find out all about it on Tuesday, now listen lads don’t let me down, Chad Sweeney is expecting us all to get behind this, he wants everyone to put their heart and soul into it, as he put it.”
At this stage I hadn’t fully appreciated what sort of a person Chad Sweeney really was, if indeed he really was a person in the usual sense of the word. The first time I met him I felt a real sense of unease, the hairs on the back of my neck had quite literally stood up. It was almost like my subconscious animal instinct was trying to tell me to get as far away as possible from the man, if indeed he was a man. According to Don, Chad Sweeney had joined the company as a salesman about five years earlier and had a meteoric rise to the top.
“He went from Sales Manager to General Manager and next thing we new he was group General Manager all in the space of two or three years,” said Don. “When I first joined Bryant’s it was a friendly firm, everyone got along, a bit like one big happy family,” he said. “Chad Sweeney seemed to have some strange influence over John Bryant, we all thought he must have something on him,” said Don winking while moving his arm back and forth in a sort of pistoning action.
“Once he got himself into a position of power things started to change at Bryant’s, he turned everyone against each other,” said Don. “It all started innocently enough, with an inter-dealership quiz after work, group go-karting days, that sort of thing,” he said. “But the rivalry started to get more serious and soon every one was stabbing each other in the back just to get ahead, it’s not the company it was,” said Don wistfully.
It was starting to become apparent, Chad was employing the age-old technique known as divide and conquer. He had created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty in the minds of the Bryant sales staff. He would openly criticise the performance of managers that he didn’t like, going out of his way the engineer their downfall. He would promote young salesmen that possessed little or no experience and even less ability, other than the ability to worship him. No one dared to have an opinion, as there was always a danger anything you might say in confidence would be reported back to Chad through his network of informants. Chad Sweeney was at best utterly ruthless and uncaring and at worst deeply evil and inhuman, as I would realise later in life I had met my very first, true psychopath.
When we think about a psychopath we immediately think of serial killers, mass murderers and the like, however they can come in all shapes and sizes as it were. Anything from someone who murders people and eats them as part of their evening meal, to individuals that are incapable of telling the truth. It is reported that there is as many psychopaths operating within the human population, as there are left handed people, something well worth bearing in mind when operating in the world of work. The psychopath looks human from the outside but that is probably their only real human characteristic. Beneath the surface they are wired up in a totally different way, in fact there are very few creatures within the animal kingdom you could compare them with. A better comparison would be to some sort of machine; something that genuinely has no conscience whatsoever. For example if you inadvertently chop off your hand with a circular saw, the saw is unlikely to lose any sleep over it.
Real humans may have difficulty spotting psychopaths; unfortunately psychopaths have no problem spotting us. From an early age they know they are different and quickly learn to hide these differences by mimicking the behaviour of those around them. They would find it impossible to understand why their little friend cried when discovering their pet cat had been run over by a bus, only joining in the grief because it seemed the thing to do. The psychopath’s only real fear, in the sense that we perceive fear, is that he or she will be identified as a psychopath. Unfortunately for the rest of the working population psychopaths gravitate to positions of power and are especially successful within big organisations, politics, etc. Those at the top need hatchet men, individuals with no empathy for their subordinates, individuals that are more than happy to do the dirty work, without batting an eyelid so to speak. John Bryant may not have been a psychopath himself but had quickly realised Chad Sweeney was more than happy to carry out agendas that he himself would be less comfortable with.
As previously alluded to, the motor trade had its fair share of actors with the psychopath being at the top of the food chain as far as acting went. Not only was Chad playing the role of a professional businessperson, within the retail motor trade, he was also pretending to be a human being. This was actually pretty impressive, considering Chad was probably some sort of demon that had crossed the dimensional divide, intent on bringing misery and destruction into our existence and with little or no real interest in retail. Chad left behind him a significant trail of devastation; this came in the guise of broken lives, broken marriages and scores of illegitimate children. He was an extremely toxic individual; unfortunately if you wanted to succeed within Bryant’s keeping him at arms length wasn’t an option.
Tuesday evening arrived and Don, Tony and myself arrived at the High Top Hotel to get our first introduction into the sales process known as Pentagram. We were greeted in reception by one of Chad Sweeney’s lackeys who directed us into the hotels function room. To our dismay it appeared that we were the last to arrive even though the presentation wasn’t due to start for another 15 minutes. Gary looked over at us with a disapproving look, as we were led into the room, another black mark for the Volvo sales team I mused. Still on the upside we had avoided having to make small talk with rival Bryant sales people. This was always tedious and usually involved being falsely enthusiastic about anything and everything, while at the same time exaggerating our achievements for the month, a truly meaningless process.
We took our seats at the back of the room on the last row of available chairs, another minor victory I thought to myself. Chad Sweeney stood at the front on a small stage next to a tall dark haired individual, between them was a large projector screen displaying an image of a five-pointed star.
“Are they all here?” said the dark haired man in what sounded like an American accent.
“Yes,” replied Chad having received a nod from his henchman at the back of the room.
“Evening guys,” said the dark haired individual, “my name is Craig Devlin. Tonight I am going to introduce you to the most effective automotive sales system ever devised; Pentagram.”
I hate being called guy, I thought to myself. By this stage in my sales career, I had attended several sales courses some more interesting than others; one common theme however was the tutor’s unfettered use of the term guy to describe any member of the human species. In this particular instance I felt I could forgive the dark haired individual, as he was an American. Later in my career I would realise that the reckless use of this term, carelessly banded about during sales and management courses, had ultimately infected just about everybody in the workplace and beyond.
“Guys, success in automotive sales, has nothing to do with individual sales people or products, it about the system,” said the dark haired American bloke. “Following the Pentagram system will result in success when applied to any automotive sales situation, which is why Chad Sweeney and John Bryant have decided to roll it out across the entire business,” he said. “Bryant’s are fully committed to the Pentagram process and will expect nothing less than total commitment from everyone here to night,” he said with Chad nodding in agreement. “Customers don’t come on to the pitch unless they want to buy, correct use of this system guys, will ensure they do just that, so with that said, let us begin.”
Three hours later Don, Tony and myself emerged from a side entrance into the car park at the High Top, dazed and confused.
“We can’t listen to customers private conversations,” said Don shaking his head in disbelief.
“How about giving customers whatever they want for their car, that’s just madness,” said Tony, “what do you think Travis?”
“Well I thought you were supposed to start low and then go up, not start high and go down and as for listening in on the customers, is that even legal? Maybe it was some sort of test, to see how many people in the room would actually think this was a good idea,” said Tony thinking out of the box for once in his life.
“Judging by the sycophantic response in the room they all fell for it, did you see that blond kid from Mercedes clapping when they said they were going to bug the sales office’s. If it was a test I think we would have been the only ones that might have passed,” I said.
The Pentagram sales system was developed in the US and was a five-point system, hence the name Pentagram. Although I couldn’t help feeling the use of an occult symbol had a more sinister significance. The five steps were Presentation, followed by Commitment, then Demonstration, Appraisal and finally Chip. Chip referring to chipping back the price the customer wanted for his part exchange, a figure that had been established during the commitment phase. The process also relied on utilising the old good cop, bad cop routine where an unseen manager had the final say. This prevented the customer from negotiating directly with the decision-maker. To assist the interrogators it was necessary to install microphones in the sales office’s, to help establish how far the customer could be pushed. In the event a sale was not made the customer would be systematically hounded until they, as the Pentagram people put it, ‘they buy or they die.’ A few days later I had the chance to see for myself just how effective Pentagram would be when used against live customers as it were.
From the showroom I could see a middle age couple had spent quite some time walking around a car on the forecourt, usually a good indication they were interested.
“Afternoon,” I said cheerfully, “Can I get you the keys?”
“If you don’t mind,” said the man politely.
I unlocked the car and the man climbed into the driver’s seat and gently caressed the steering wheel.
“Would you like to take the car for a drive?” I said.
“That depends on what you’re going to give me for mine,” replied the man grinning slightly as he spoke. Quite typically at this early stage, customers, especially male customers would adopt an alter ego.
People seemed to be conditioned by popular culture and their peers, causing them to behave in a certain way when confronted by a salesperson. An example of a common persona was that of the professional poker player. I had now become his opponent and we were staring across a card table in a dimly lit, smoke filled back room, my advantage however was that I was playing with a rigged deck.
“What do you have to trade in?” I said.
“It’s the blue Peugeot Estate over by the entrance,” he replied pointing over to the other side of the site, here we go, time to try Pentagram, I thought.
“How much do you want for the car,” I said, pushing a twenty into the centre of the table.
“You tell me,” he replied, seeing my twenty and raising me another thirty.
“OK,” I said laughing, “just humour me for a second, what would be the figure you would really like to get for your car, the figure in lights, so to speak,” I gestured up, to some imaginary number, floating high in the sky surrounded by flashing golden lights.
“Well I would like six thousand pounds for it,” he said.
“OK, so if we could give you six thousand pounds for your car would we have a deal?”
“Well yes I suppose so,” said the man, nervously glancing at his wife. And there it was, my cards were now face up revealing the Royal Flush I was carefully shielding, the prize was mine, commitment to purchase.
“OK let’s go for a drive and we will finalise the details, that’s great,” said the man hardly believing his luck.
Having conducted a test drive we returned to the garage so that the next stage of the system could be put into action, the appraisal.
“I’ll just grab an appraisal form and we will have a look at the Peugeot, I’ll see you over at the car,” I said.
The object of the appraisal was to find as many faults as possible then use these imperfections to drive down the price.
“Does the car have a full dealer service history?” I said looking up diligently whilst still scribbling madly on my appraisal form.
“No,” replied the man, my bewildered buyers looked on as I attempted to unearth as many shortcomings with the car as I could realistically get away with.
My prospective punters were then installed in one of the wired tapped sales offices in readiness for the final stage, the chip.
“I had a look at the Peugeot while you were on demonstration said Gary Simpkin the sales manager, how much is the man after?”
“Six thousand,” I replied.
“Six grand?” said Gary, realising the magnitude of the job in hand.
“The bloody car’s worth no more than three and that’s on a good day with the bloody good wind behind it,” he said, rubbing the top of his head with the palm of his hand.
I was beginning to get the distinct impression that not all the line managers were as convinced by Pentagram as they liked to make out. Unfortunately they now found themselves in a perilous position.
Going back to the poker analogy, Chad Sweeney had pushed up the pot on the back of a pretty weak hand in the hope of a big score, the problem for the managers was that Chad was a very sore loser. Ultimately they would have no other option than to fold and let him win.
Otherwise the poker table would be upturned as he jumped to his feet, pulling out a gun and proceeding to slaughter every one present, that sort of thing. He’d wanted to introduce something revolutionary, something that would take the Lancaster motor trade by storm. As far as I could see, Pentagram was a big dog turd baguette and Chad Sweeney was going to make damn sure, we all took a bite.
“Are you sure we need to change the car?” said a female voice emanating from a small speaker sitting on the corner of Gary’s desk.
“We’ll never get offered that much for it again,” said a male voice.”
“Hey-up said Gary they’re talking,” we both gathered round the speaker, somewhat reminiscent of a scene from Charlie’s Angels.
“I want to go home and have a think about it, you said we were just going to have a quick look round today,” said the female voice.
“Look love, I wasn’t thinking of doing anything just yet, but its such a good price for ours,” said the male voice.
“Its a bit big, I couldn’t see the end of the bonnet and what will it be like to reverse, what if I have to park in town?” said the female voice.
“It looks big but its actually no bigger than what we’ve got, just let me do the talking love, I know how to handle these characters,” said the male voice.
“Ok Travis you’re on; go in there and talk the man down to three and three quarters said Gary, there’s no deal at six grand, go on you can do it, use the appraisal sheet like they showed you.”
I re-entered the sales office, appraisal sheet in hand and sat down opposite my expectant customers.
“So; before we start, there were a couple of minor issues with your car that I need to bring to your attention,” I said spinning the appraisal form round on the desk in front of them.
Fifteen minutes later, having pointed out approximately one hundred and four relatively insignificant faults and trivial discrepancies, the process of chipping began.
“So you’re wanting to take two thousand two hundred pounds off the price you were prepared to give me for my car?” said the man.
“Yes; I mean, no,” I said, “Its not that we want to give you less, not at all, but the car has far more major and minor faults than we would generally have expected to see in a vehicle of this age and mileage.”
“Faults,” said the man angrily, “even the major faults don’t seem that major to me, as for the minor ones, a few stone chips, a scratch on the fuel filler flap and a missing cigarette lighter, how can that be worth two thousand quid. And you expect me to believe a lingering odour of citrus from an old air freshener is a fault.”
“Lets not forget the chocolate on the passenger seat and the seat belt buckle that is the wrong way round causing the seat belt to be twisted when you put it on,” I replied.
“You must think I’m soft,” said the man, “you’ve just wasted my time, you had no intention of giving us six thousand pounds. You car salesmen are all the same”, and with that the man stormed from the office closely followed by his wife.
Selling was all about people, people liked to buy from people they liked and trusted. To be truly successful over a long term, you needed to build partnerships based on mutual trust and respect. Regrettably psychopaths and actors infiltrated the business of sales at every level promoting a climate of distrust within the conscience of the buying public. Farcical ill-conceived sales formulas promising phenomenal guaranteed instant results seemed to be favoured over more conventional approaches. Approaches such as honesty, the ability to find out what the customer really wanted and the expertise to match the customer’s requirement to an appropriate product.
“You were stretching it a bit with a lingering odour from an old citrus air freshener Travis,” said Gary. “All those faults take some finding,” I said, “I just threw that one in, to pad things out. To be honest Gary, I’m not entirely comfortable with this Pentagram business; all my instincts tell me it’s the wrong thing to be doing. I realise I am in danger of being labelled negative but I have a bad feeling about the whole thing,” I said.
“If I was you, I would keep your opinions to yourself,” replied Gary, “It’s early days and I don’t want to see a member of my team be the first to throw in the towel. Chad has told the managers he wants daily updates, and stressed in no uncertain terms that failure would not be accepted.”
It didn’t take to long before the shortcomings of this new system started to have an adverse impact on sales activity across the whole Bryant group. Some of the less diplomatic sales people who were following the programme to the letter were upsetting customers in their droves. It was becoming obvious, even to the most casual of casual observers; the whole idea was quickly taking on the appearance of an unmitigated catastrophe. Pentagram had deceit at its very heart, ironically while trying to unleash it; Chad Sweeney had become one of its most significant victims. These were dangerous times; Chad was now actively looking for some unsuspecting patsy or patsies to take the fall for his massive misjudgement.
Heads started to roll almost immediately, the first to go was the Jaguar sales manager, accused of being an alcoholic. Evidently one of his junior salesmen who had been feeling a little thirsty had picked up a large bottle of Diet Cola from behind his desk. Having taken a generous swig of the soft drink had almost choked, as the contents had been heavily laced with Vodka. The second victim, Bryant Mercedes Dealer Principle, was over heard openly criticising John Bryant. Seemingly he had stated that, John Bryant was a useless spoiled brat that had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He then went on to say he wasn’t even capable of finding his own arse with two hands and a map. Regrettably this outburst had been broadcast across the dealerships Tannoy system for everyone in the building to hear.
The audience that day had included, John Bryant himself, plus a delegation from Mercedes UK who had been invited to tour the Lancaster site. How the sales office microphone had ended up patched into the garage main public address system, was anyone’s guess.
The sudden and spectacular fall from grace of two senior managers couldn’t have come at a better time for Chad Sweeney. This enabled him to shift the blame for any Pentagram failure, from himself and transfer it onto the two unwitting scapegoats. As they had been instantly dismissed and escorted off the premises they were no longer in a position to defend themselves. Unfortunately I was also going to become part of the collateral damage resulting from the demise of Pentagram. I had vocally denounced Pentagram and labelled Chad Sweeney, an evil heartless psychopath in the presence of my trusted colleague Tony Townsend. Soon after my outburst Gary informed me that Chad thought I had a negative attitude and that I wasn’t the sort of lad he considered management material. Unbeknown to me Tony had informed Chad about my feelings after he had done a deal with the devil as it were and sworn his allegiance to him. Seemingly he had been promised a shot, at the now vacant Jaguar Sales Managers position. Needless to say Tony didn’t get the Jaguar job that went to one of Chad’s young and woefully inexperienced lieutenants.
I carried on working for Bryant’s for another year, only to see the regime under Chad Sweeney become more and more oppressive and totalitarian. His grip on power seemed to be absolute; no one appeared willing to acknowledge the clear evidence that this individual was a clinical psychopath. Having recognised Chad for what he truly was there was no point in holding on to the hope of promotion, appealing to Chad’s good side was futile, as his good side literally did not exist. The only defence against the psychopath is to distance yourself as far away as you can from their sphere of influence, which is just what I had decided to do. Chad would go on to achieve even greater power and influence within the Bryant organisation, after the suicide of a manager somehow validated the merciless nature of his managerial style.
I had heard a rumour that South Western Motors had recently secured the Skoda agency for Lancaster. South Western Motors had started out as a small used car operation based in Selkirk, in the Scottish Borders. They had achieved main dealer status after securing the Nissan franchise, after the AJF group had gone into administration. Little was known about South Western Motors within the Lancaster motor trade, because they originated from Selkirk and therefore considered insignificant outsiders. This hadn’t stopped them achieving notable success in their own area, where every other car seemed to be a Nissan.
The force behind South Western Motors was Sam Farina, a Scotsman of Italian decent who had chosen car dealing as an alternative to working in the family fish and chip shop. Like Eric Fulton, Sam Farina had been extremely successful in his own backyard; Sam however employed a very different formula to achieve local dominance. Rather than passionately promoting the brand and mothering the customers, Sam preferred to stack-em-high and sell-em-cheap. The recipe that underpins retail is a simple one, first buy low and then sell high, Sam’s talents lay with the buying. Because his formula didn’t necessarily rely on just local custom, he had managed to make the transition to Lancaster and was beginning to make his mark.
Sam Farina was a small stocky figure, with dark curly hair, glasses, a moustache and an unusually high-pitched voice. The high pitch, combined with a Scottish accent slightly flavoured with a piquancy of Italian, made any conversation hard to forget. Sam was obsessed by money, making money and subsequently holding on to it for dear life. His other great passion was for sex as it later transpired, although he appeared to have more success with money, although this was not for the want of trying. He had the ability to build marketing strategies that were beyond the comprehension of the average businessperson. Sam was always on the lookout for opportunities to buy cars in cheap job lots. Cars the rest of the network found difficult to move, large cancelled orders, unusual colours, unusual engine types, unpopular specifications, Sam would embraced them all.
His willingness to provide a home for all the manufacturers waifs and strays allowed him to name his price. He would then construct some sort of once in a lifetime deal and present it to the buying public in a splash of publicity. Sam was one of the first motor dealers in the area to advertise on television, taking advantage of ITV regional presence. His deals were always extremely attractive and inevitably demand would outstrip supply. Buying cars, way below their intended value meant the margin between the price he had negotiated and the cars recommended retail price was significantly increased. This allowed Sam to employ one of his favourite ploys and offer an inflated minimum price for customer’s old cars. The price would apply to any car as long as it was roadworthy; the vehicles condition was unimportant. Sam would structure his deal in such away that a good profit margin would be retained even if the customer’s cars were worthless piles of scrap. Bizarrely more often than not, customers didn’t go out of their way to get their hands on the worst car they could possibly find, they would trade in very serviceable vehicles. Therefore anything these cars were worth, that was greater than scrap value, was all extra profit for Sam.
I decided the direct approach offered me best likelihood of getting an audience and in the absence of any other options proceeded to make the call. I was put right through to Sam Farina and straight away felt we shared an instant rapport. A few days later I met the man in person and after a fairly informal interview was offered the position of Skoda Sales Manager, South Western Motors Lancaster. I experienced Sam’s talent for buying cheap first hand as I suspected he had managed to secure my services for a knock down price. I was to start as soon as I could extricate myself from Bryant Volvo. Wasting no time I tendered my resignation and in true motor trade style they wasted no time in escorting me off the premises.
Sam had assured me construction of the new Skoda building was scheduled to begin shortly after my arrival. In the meantime South Western Motors Skoda was an office in the corner of the Nissan showroom, with a corner of the yard given over to display a selection of new cars. Sam appeared to be in no rush to start forking out for the new state of the art building and seemed to be doing everything he could to delay proceedings. Six months went by and the delay was beginning to infuriate the manufacturer who had expected the construction to be well underway. On his instruction, stalling tactics would be employed, I arranged several staged publicity stunts involving excavators breaking ground, local celebrities photographed in hard hats while wearing high visibility tabards and lots of people grasping shovels. Eventually the building was completed and myself along with my newly recruited team moved in.
The early years spent managing South Western Motors Skoda and working for the charismatic Sam Farina were happy times. I enjoyed playing my part in helping build the business up from its humble beginnings to selling six hundred cars a year. One achievement I was particularly proud of was breaking into the lucrative fleet market. While working for Bryant’s, I often looked after Gary Simpkins fleet customers, if he was on holiday for instance. Gary often supplied up to ten or twenty cars a month to his fleet contacts and whilst the margins were smaller, the registrations counted towards the dealerships overall sales targets. One of the things that surprised me about South Western Motors when I joined was that they did practically no direct fleet business. Having pointed this out to Sam, he tasked me with the job of attracting some fleet buyers.
“If you can get me into some of those fleet firms I’ll get you a hell of a bonus” he squeaked energetically.
Initially I targeted a large local fleet management company, after managing to secure a meeting with the fleet buyer, it quickly became apparent I was too small a player to be considered. The speed in which the fleet buyer dismissed me made me wonder if he might be receiving special personal incentives, something not uncommon within the motor trade. Undeterred I made a point of faxing his sales team every Monday, with an up to date list of the new cars we had available. To my surprise, after about three months my persistent faxing paid off. The fleet buyer was on holiday and one of his staff was struggling to find a particular car to fulfil an urgent order. As luck would have it someone in the office had a copy of my stock list and we had the car they needed. Moving fast we fulfilled the order and had the car delivered to its customer before the fleet buyer returned from his holiday. This was it, I was in, after that first sale the floodgates opened and fleet sales became a valuable contributor to the business.
Running a busy sales department wasn’t without challenges and the busier it became the more the challenges arose. I was finding that there didn’t seem to be enough time in the day to get everything that was required completed. The minute I would reach into my in tray, in an attempt to reduce the ever-increasing pile, the phone would ring, or one of the sales people would want a car valued.
As a manager I had some good qualities but delegation wasn’t one of them. When I had started, the volume of business had been relatively modest enabling me to do it all myself. While doing everything myself I could be assured it would be done correctly and to my satisfaction, the problem was I was beginning to be overwhelmed by the amount of responsibilities I had taken on. My office phone rang constantly, there always seemed to be a queue of people wanting to ask me something. If I had a day off my mobile never stopped; you get the general idea. Why had I become a manager in the first place, when I could have just stayed as a salesperson? All I needed to do was work on building up a large customer base, a base that could then be diligently farmed to produce a steady crop of repeat business.
Most of us need to work; initially the reason we work is so we can generate an income, which usually takes the form of money. Money is required so we can operate within a capitalist society; the money doesn’t in itself have any real value, it’s either pieces of intricately decorated paper or digits on a computer screen. We the people operating within a society give it value by bestowing it with our trust. You could say that money is just a mechanism for harvesting human energy, the only thing that is truly valuable.
We are conditioned to pursue not only a job but also a career in return for some future reward. Another reason for pursuing a career might be to gain adoration or power, status or a sense of achievement. My motivation was somewhat less complex; the sales manger got to run the best demonstrator. As my workload gradually increased, I was quickly coming to the realisation that having the best car was a poor substitute for your sanity. If I didn’t make a drastic change I could see myself having some sort of spectacular melt down, a situation not uncommon in this line of work. A couple of years previously a well known local sales manager had been found naked in a local park with only a small brown paper bag containing a plastic comb, a Glass’s Guide and a tax disk holder to preserve his modesty.
My office phone rang for about the twenty-fifth time that morning.
“Travis I have Sam on the line for you,” said the receptionist.
“Aye Travis how you doing today?”
“OK,” I replied feeling this was a strange question as I had only been speaking to him about five minutes previously.
“I’ve been speaking with a pal of mine from Aberdeen,” squeaked Sam, “he has a pal that owns a leasing company, buys a lot of cars by all accounts, he reckoned you should give him a call, might be some good business for us.”
“OK Sam,” I replied, “what’s his name?”
“Aye the boy’s names Angus Murray and his company’s Universal Fleet Management,” said Sam, “the boy buys a lot of cars by all accounts worth a ring,” reiterated Sam.
“Good afternoon Universal Fleet Management how can I direct your call,” said the very well spoken Scottish lady on the other end of the phone.
“Can I speak to Angus Murray,” I said.
“I will just see if he is available who should I say is calling,” said the well-spoken lady.
“The name is Travis, Travis Bone from South Western Motors Skoda,” I replied. After a short time spent on hold subjected to a pre recorded message extolling the numerous virtues of dealing with Universal Fleet Management the phone was answered.
“Angus Murray,” came the deep, rather abrupt reply.
“Hello Mr Murray, my name is Travis Bone I’m the sales manager for South Western Motors Skoda, a friend of my boss said I should get in touch with you with a view to supplying your company with some cars.” No reply was forthcoming, so I decided to keep talking, “we supply quite a few fleet companies across the country and we are well versed in providing the type of service fleet users look for,” I said.
After an uncomfortable silence Angus replied in a deep Scottish accent, “Skoda you say, I have an order for an Octavia Saloon in Mauritius blue would that be something you could provide?”
“Mauritius blue, I have a Mauritius blue to come,” I replied, “should be with me next week.”
“OK good, I will have Rachel send you a copy of our terms and conditions, if you could sign them and send them back we will get an order across to you,” came the extremely matter of fact response.
We went on to supply Universal Fleet Management on quite a regular basis, unlike my other contacts any interaction with Angus Murray was extremely businesslike with little or no hint of frivolity. He came across as a very stern man who had little time for small talk; conversations were limited strictly to business matters and business matters only. As a supplier you were expected to follow the instructions you were given and follow them to the letter. There was certainly no ambiguity in relation to where everyone was expected to stand. This was all to change and I was finally going to catch a glimpse of Angus Murray’s, human side.
Angus had placed an order for an Octavia Estate car with factory fitted privacy glass for the wife of a very important client. Unfortunately privacy glass was a special order and could take up to three months to arrive, I suggested we have a standard cars glass tinted with plastic film, an alternative the austere Angus was more than happy to accept. The day the car was delivered I received a frantic call from our delivery driver, who was struggling to pacify a rather irate female customer. Evidently she had been less than happy some dead flies had been allowed to accumulate on her new cars front bumper. Having instructed our driver to find the nearest car wash and then after he had managed to remove the offending corpses the furious female accepted the car. This had been the first time we had encountered a problem when delivering a vehicle, so the incident had stuck in my mind.
Several months later I received a call from Angus Murray; there was a problem with the car that we had supplied to the wife of one of his biggest clients. As I feared it was the same woman who had complained about the dead flies. Someone had tried to break into the car and had smashed the near side rear window. This only became a problem when the genuine privacy glass replacement didn’t match the rest of the windows in the car, the windows that we had tinted, with plastic tint film. To save face Angus had laid the blame for the window deception firmly at my door, unfortunately for him my quote clearly stated windows to be tinted and his signature was on the paperwork.
It seemed to me that there was no mileage in blowing the whole thing wide open and that the best course of action was to maintain the deception. Angus didn’t want to fall out with his customer and I didn’t want to fall out with Angus. I recounted the full story to our Skoda zone manager and with Skoda not wanting to fall out with anyone, agreed to provide us with a full set of factory replacement windows at no cost. From then on Angus Murray’s character changed completely, he started calling me up for a chat, he would make jokes and for the first time, I actually heard him laugh. In fact from that moment on Angus Murray went from being a no-nonsense hard-nosed customer, to being someone who I could genuinely call a friend.
It was around this time that the pressure of working for South Western Motors had become almost unbearable and I had decided to get out of the motor trade altogether. I hadn’t felt like going back on the spanners, as they say, so would continue to pursue a career in sales. A double-glazing company that had purchased cars from me had offered me a position on their sales team and I was giving the offer serious consideration. I had talked in some length about my decision to leave Southern Motors with my new pal Angus Murray, his response; “come and work for me!”
Angus Murray’s proposal seemed like a more suitable option, I was already experienced in vehicle financing and was struggling to get excited about double-glazing. He was looking to expand his business and open some additional offices in England, starting with a presence in Lancaster. His proposal did come as a bit of a surprise however; the new Universal Fleet Management Lancaster Office was to be located in my spare bedroom. Initially I was slightly taken aback by the idea, having assumed a business the size of Universal Fleet Management would want to open a proper office, something with staff on a business park maybe. Still it made sense for him and maybe working from the comfort of my own home would have some significant advantages for me I thought.
The suggestion Angus had put to me almost seemed too good to be true. He would set up my home office, complete with a dedicated phone line. Provide a fully funded company car and guarantee my earnings for the first three months. I would be expected to work Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and report to the head office in Hamilton once a week. Naturally Angus would ultimately expect me to achieve certain sales objectives and there was the small matter of passing a three-day finance course. A course of which the successful completion was essential, as without this qualification you would be unable to work within the finance and leasing industry. There wasn’t much of choice to be made, I could continue working for Sam Farina and look forward to experiencing a nervous breakdown. Or become a double-glazing salesman and look forward to experiencing windows, frames and other window related paraphernalia.
Not working at all wasn’t currently an option, but maybe working from home would give the impression of not working. I wanted a job with no pressure, a job with no staff, a job that didn’t take over my whole existence, a job where I would be left to do my own thing. I felt sure some would say I was making a backward move having achieved the first step on the management ladder. But I had come to realise that I wasn’t cut out for management and that my next step would be over the threshold of the nearest funny farm. Anyway I was sure there would be plenty of people more than willing to step into my shoes.
The process of handing in my notice was a fairly uninteresting one, so I have decided to skip the details. So far all the places I had worked have been OK and I have not had any real issues with the individuals that I directly reported to. All my resignations had been sombre affairs, usually combined with an air of regret and uncertainty. People often fantasise about the day they hand in their notice. They think about all the things they are going to say and all the people they are going to say things to. They might imagine all the sorrow and regret they can instil in the hearts of their tormentors, issuing a final salvo of cutting truths that will leave their antagonist forever consumed with guilt. I might have experienced some of these feelings myself on certain occasions, but by the time it came to say farewell they were long forgotten.
I found myself on a northbound train heading to Hamilton for my first face-to-face meeting with my new employer Angus Murray. Universal Fleet Management’s office, the aptly named CAR House, was within walking distance of the station. I felt I would have no problem recognising CAR House when I saw it even though I had never been there before. I had built up a picture of Angus Murray and his organisation based on the numerous conversations I’d had with him and his staff over the preceding years. Judging by his deep booming confident voice Angus would be a big man, I had an image of a big dark haired chap in his late fifties with a rugby player’s build. The offices must be quite large as I was often put on hold while the person I was dealing with contacted different departments within the building. I felt I should look out for a modern glass office block or a tall office building possibly with some sort of impressive atrium forming the entrance.
I rounded the corner of Tay Bridge Road where the office was situated and proceeded up the hill, this was clearly an industrial area with some warehousing to one side and a builders yard on the other. The road stretched away in front of me, in the distance at the end of the road appeared to be two large concrete buildings surrounded by a high fence. As I got closer, I could see that the first building was a sort of large storage shed with the other being offices. The sign above the office entrance read Caledonian Asbestos Removal, I must have taken a wrong turn I reasoned. Reaching for my mobile phone I highlighted the number I had for Angus and pressed call.
“Hello,” came the deep deliberate reply.
“Angus it’s Travis I’m on Tay Bridge Road, but a can’t see the office, I must have taken a wrong turn,” I said.
“Did you come all the way to the end?” said Angus.
“Yes and I ended up in a yard belonging to some asbestos removal outfit,” I replied.
“That’s right,” said Angus, “CAR House, come through the main doors and the lady on reception will point you in the right direction, I’d come and get you myself but I’m just on the other line,” said Angus.
I pulled open one of the tired looking aluminium glass doors and entered a grim seventies pre-cast concrete building. Inside was a small entrance hall that was cold, sparse and uninviting, the red vinyl floor and light cream walls doing nothing to lessen the feeling of austerity. You couldn’t help but notice a strange odour, sort of a damp dusty smell; I hoped this smell wasn’t an indication of airborne asbestos contamination. A middle-aged lady looked up from her desk and peered at me through a small dirty sliding glass window, before getting up to slide it open.
“I’m looking for Universal Fleet Management,” I said smiling at the ashen-faced lady.
“It’s the last door at the end of the corridor,” she replied.”
“Just go down to the bottom and you’ll see the plaque on the door,” she said pointing in the direction of a corridor that lay behind some glass fire doors.
I pushed open the fire doors and headed down to the end of the corridor, Universal Fleet Management, read the highly polished plaque on the door. I hesitated for a moment before pushing down the handle and entering the room. It took me a few seconds for my mind to come to terms with the dramatic change of environment. The room I had entered couldn’t have been more different form the building I had recently walked into. The office was quite large, bright and airy with large windows running the full length on one side. The light from the windows spilled into the space, perfectly illuminating a striking selection of modern art prints hanging on the opposing wall. A large central desk sat in the centre of the room featuring a huge spray of fresh flowers. If it hadn’t been for the desks arranged up both sides, you might have thought you had just walked into some exclusive art gallery. At first glance there appeared to be two people in the room grinning broadly in my direction, a thin dark haired man and an attractive middle aged blonde woman.
“Here he is,” boomed a deep voice coming from the back of the room, at first I couldn’t see the owner of the voice as he was obscured by the huge flower arrangement. I walked further into the room so I could see past the formidable floral display. The owner of the deep booming voice stood up from behind his desk with his hand outstretched in front of him.
“Angus,” I said lifting up my hand to shake his.
“Welcome to Universal Fleet Management Travis,” said Angus vigorously shaking my hand, “you look just how I pictured,” he said grinning broadly, shame I couldn’t say the same, I thought to myself.
Angus looked nothing like I had imagined, he was about five foot seven inches tall, slightly overweight, with ginger blond hair and a boyish round face, somewhat reminiscent of a chubby Ginger Tin Tin. My preconceived ideas about the appearance of Universal Fleet Management headquarters and its owner had been significantly wide of the mark.
“Let me introduce you to everyone,” said Angus enthusiastically.
“This is Glen, I think you’ll have spoken to him before, and this is Rachel my wife.”
“Its nice to put a face to the voice,” said Glen who proceeded to stand and shake my hand, with the grip and fortitude of an arthritic vole.
“Its so nice to meet you in person after all this time,” said Rachel, “we’ve all been looking forward to you coming up to the office.”
“And not forgetting Mungo,” show yourself Mungo,” said Angus, “Mungo is our I.T. expert Travis, I don’t think you’ll have spoken with him.”
A large individual with long lank hair and acne appeared from behind a bank of computer screens and acknowledged my presence with a grunting sound.
“What about Mackenzie?” I said, “We spoke quite a lot, is he in today?”
“Mackenzie is based in our Inverness office,” said Angus, “but he comes in every Friday so you will see him then.”
Angus showed me round the office and gave me a brief outline as to how his operation functioned. Universal Fleet Management had been quick to embrace the power of the Internet using a well-publicised web site to achieve a national presence. The web site was used to advertise deals and services and then capture customer information. In essence Universal Fleet Management was a hire company backed by a finance house that offered long or short-term hire deals on cars or vans. These rental deals could be anything from twelve months to sixty months in duration. Universal fleet also provided advice to ensure businesses were utilising the most tax efficient methods of financing.
Customers would be attracted by the deals that appeared on the site, these deals served as bait drawing them into the information gathering area. Once there, they would be prompted to answer questions about their requirement so that a personalised quotation could be provided. To obtain this quotation they were required to populate the fields provided, with all their personal details. Having captured the customer’s details a tailored quote would be generated and the customer’s details passed to one of the members of the sales team.
The web site was Mungo McKie’s brainchild and was extremely efficient at generating new sales leads, there were now more enquires than Angus’s sales team could cope with, hence my appointment. Angus and Mungo had been working on a new web site specifically targeted toward the van market. The finance house that provided Universal Fleet Management with their funding had recently launched a unique product, a product designed exclusively for the financing of vans. Angus had realised this unique way of funding coupled with his web marketing would give him a significant competitive edge.
If you were to imagine the archetypal computer nerd, the picture most people visualised would more than likely be an exact match for Mungo McKie. He was a single man who lived at home with his mother; this meant there was little to distract him from his life’s purpose, mastery of the computer. He had studied computer science at university and was proficient in the art of writing code. This set him apart from the majority of so called I.T. experts who were more often than not actors. Actors who could locate the on/off switch, the preferred remedy for the majority of issues, run a de-fragmentation, load a program and have the ability to fit colour coded cables into colour coded sockets. Mungo was definitely the real thing, a true computer genius and Angus was under no illusion that he was lucky to have him. His abilities afforded him certain privileges; he was supplied with as much hardware as he desired and permitted to come and go as he pleased. Years of sitting alone in front of a monitor had robbed Mungo of the few interpersonal skills he had, conversations were limited to computer related topics and were often brief and dull in content.
I was to assist Angus, Glen and Mackenzie in handling the sales enquiries generated by the web sites. Each salesperson operated a customer-handling program called Track; this system automatically scheduled lists of customers to be contacted each day. It also provided the salesperson with the customer’s personal details, details that had been captured by the web site. Mungo had succeeded in linking the site to the Track prospect system, creating a sort of sentient sales intelligence that almost seemed to think for itself. Track would recommend the best product to offer the customer, based on the information they had provided when they had visited the web site. Once the system was live in my home office it would automatically provide me with a list of people to call each day. All I needed to do was convert these web enquires, into new clients of Universal Fleet Management.
As I drove home that evening in my new Ford Mondeo company car it occurred to me that I had succumbed to the artificial reality that was Universal Fleet Management. Angus Murray had successfully managed to create an illusion, the illusion that Universal Fleet Management was a much larger organisation than it actually was. Angus was a bit like the Wizard of Oz, a very impressive presence, but when you looked behind the curtain you discovered a little fat bloke that bore a striking resemblance to a Ginger Tin Tin. It was all about managing customer perception, the web site featured images of towering glass office blocks, pretty girls wearing telephone headsets, handsome men in suits shaking hands, that sort of thing. This imagery served to imbed a particular picture in the minds of prospective clients, this coupled with Angus’s manner and approach completed the entire effect.
Angus was basically a middleman, bringing three parties together and taking a fee from each of them. These parties consisted of the finance house, the vehicle supplier and the customer. The finance house provided the money to pay for the vehicle, the vehicle suppler provided the vehicle and the customer provided the monthly rental payable to the finance house. The beauty of the arrangement as far as Angus was concerned was that he received a fee from all of them. The idea was to collect the largest possible rental for the lowest possible vehicle cost, thus maximising the Universal Fleet Management commission. The finance house would pay a set commission for any vehicles on their system. If you could sell the same vehicle at a higher monthly figure, Universal Fleet Management would get all the difference. In addition, if a deal could also be made directly with a vehicle supplier that bettered the finance houses nationally agreed negotiated terms; this difference would also become extra commission.
All Angus needed to do was find the customer using his web site, convince them he was providing a service worth paying for and then cream off any money he had managed to add on. In his defence Angus was in fact offering the customer a good service, as the finance house only made its products available through its network of representatives. In essence the finance house paid Angus for providing them with the business, however it was then that Angus took responsibility to look after the customer until their agreement ended. It was also very important that any customers Angus introduced were of a high quality, as the last thing the finance house wanted was for deals to go bad. Every time a customer that Angus introduced defaulted this significantly impacted on his profitability. Monies that Angus had received would be clawed back if any agreement failed to run its course. As a result, Angus treated everyone with a degree of suspicion, which helped to explain his standoffish approach.
I was to spend my first week working out of the Hamilton office, getting to grips with the systems and processes. Once up to speed I would be allowed to operate under my own supervision from my spare bedroom. Angus had a very particular style of operation and he wanted to ensure I followed his example. Initially I took up position next to his desk so that I could listen and learn from the way he handled the calls. Angus’s methods were unlike anything I had previously encountered before. Instead of trying to convince a customer to deal with him he’d do everything he could to dissuade them, almost to the point of being rude.
A good example of his customer handling skills came when a lady called the office, wanting a price for two small vans for her florist business. Angus was very reluctant to give anyone prices, preferring to put the customer through a process of intense interrogation first. He spent about twenty minutes asking the lady some very searching and direct questions about her business. Having satisfied himself that she had been open and honest with her replies, he agreed to email an account application form for her to complete, along with a request for copies of her accounts. Minutes later a completed application form and a set of up to date accounts arrived over the fax machine. Having established her business looked healthy and she had no adverse credit information logged against her, he sent out a quotation.
“So that lady was OK then?” I asked.
“Yes she was quite open to my questioning, I think we might be able to do something for her,” replied Angus.
The way he had just spoken to that poor woman there was no way she will want to deal with him again, I thought. The woman from the florist had called after seeing a very competitive rental price for small Citroen van advertised on the web site. Having established some facts about her business Angus had informed the florist the deal on the web site was not for her and that he wasn’t prepared to offer her those terms. His quotation was structured around a totally different product, rental term and monthly cost. As I sat listening to the only side of the conversation I was privy to, it struck me that Angus never tried to convince anyone of anything. He just asked them lots of questions, listened to their replies and then told them what they were going to do, in very direct terms.
Sales people are generally fairly easy to spot; they are always friendly and usually subservient to the customer, using terms like Sir or Madam. They often say things like ‘can I be of assistance,’ ‘are you managing OK,’ or ‘is there anything at all I can help you with today.’ They attempt to persuade, cajole or influence in some way and more often than not, will try to use pressure to bring about their desired outcome. Angus displayed none of these traits; yet his approach was just as effective if not more so. It was a bit like the old adage of playing hard to get; the disinterest seemed to appeal to people.
“Angus there is a Miss Jones from Daily Dahlias florist on the line, she says she would like to go ahead with the quote, do you want to speak to her,” said Rachel.
“No, tell her I will call her back,” replied Angus.
“Was that the lady from earlier?” I asked eagerly.
“Yes,” replied Angus.
“But she wants to go ahead, aren’t you going to call her back?” I said with more than a slight hint of agitation.
“Maybe tomorrow,” replied Angus.
Dealing with people over the phone required the implementation of a variety of different sales techniques. When you deal with people face-to-face you have eye contact, body language and even physical contact. Psychologists have demonstrated that ninety-three percent of human communication is non-verbal. This puts the telephone salesperson at a significant disadvantage. This was precisely the reason Angus operated the way that he did; employing a conventional selling approach to the telephone will generally produce poor results. Most people have received telemarketing calls for replacement windows, energy tariffs or Internet services. The salesperson will always try to convince, sell and pressurise, in an attempt to gain some sort of commitment. This inevitably alienates the recipient of the call, making them more likely to consider all such approaches as a nuisance and not to be taken seriously.
Glen Grant had worked for Angus since the beginning, yet his style could not have been more different from Angus. It became apparent that Angus had long since given up trying to mould Glen’s technique to suit his vision. Glen was a downtrodden character, a sort of victim; he was quite timid and exhibited very little confidence. Having said that his genuine honest and caring approach had won him some very loyal customers over the years. Glen was in his late forties; he was about five foot nine slim with dark hair. His most significant and memorable feature was his incredibly persistent bad breath, I could only conclude his oral hygiene routine must have incorporated gargling with some sort of fox excrement, sulpha dioxide solution.
Glen looked after several quite significant accounts, accounts that had gradually increased over the years. He had become a sort of fleet manager, sorting out and administering his customer’s day-to-day vehicle issues. He didn’t deal with many new enquiries as Angus thought he was weak and that the customer would get the upper hand in any negotiation. Even though he wasn’t generating much new business; he had managed to create a niche for himself, much to Angus’s dismay. Angus felt he was carrying Glen but feared a backlash from his loyal clientele if he was to let him go. So he vented his frustration by bullying him, sending him out on trivial errands, getting him to make tea and generally treating him like the office dogsbody.
Friday finally arrived; I had arranged to stay the night at Angus’s house, before returning to Lancaster on Saturday morning. After locking up the office Angus suggested we should stop off at his local pub for a couple of pints, an idea I was more than happy to go along with. Angus was like two totally different characters, there was the telephone Angus and there was the face-to-face Angus. The telephone Angus was cold calculating slightly aggressive, to the point and with little or no hint of any humanity. The face-to-face Angus however was the total opposite, jolly, friendly, pleasant and considerate, witty and generally good fun to be around. It was almost as if two separate polar opposite personalities inhabited the same body. Angus had finished his pint almost before I had started mine. I watched in amazement as the last of froth from the recently filled glass disappeared into his open mouth.
“Ready for another Travis?” he said jiggling his empty glass.
Angus liked his drink and he liked his food, as a result he was to say the least a couple of pounds overweight. After several more pints we made the short walk back to his house where Rachel, Angus’s wife had prepared us a meal. After a pleasant evening of good food, conversation and significant amounts of alcohol, I turned in for the night.
The following day, after watching the grand prix in the morning with Angus and after several bacon rolls I headed back down the road to Lancaster. I had finished my weeklong stint in the office and felt I was now better equipped to start my new career, if it indeed was a career. Moreover I had also now realised, just how powerful a created perception could be. How the relatively modest and mundane, could be transformed into something far more impressive if promoted in the right way. Even a humble spare bedroom could become a vibrant hub for vehicular fleet management, if packaged correctly.
I was looking forward to being my own man, working out of my spare room and being master of my own destiny for a change. Mungo was scheduled to come down from Hamilton, to help me get the office set up, arrange connection of the phone, broadband etc and ensure all the technology was installed and running. I needed to get things ready for his arrival and with this in mind had arranged to borrow my mates van. My old spare bed needed to go in order to make room for the new office. I had high hopes for my new job, as far as I could see it was going to be a walk in the park, certainly compared to my last job. All I had to do was call some people form a list on a computer screen, talk to them about vans, then sort them out with the financing and all from the comfort of my own home.
Monday morning and Angus’s Honda CRV pulled up outside my modest semi with a rather serious looking Mungo at the wheel.
“Morning Mungo,” I said cheerfully as I greeted him from my open front door.
“Aye it is,” he replied lifting a large box from the rear of the Honda.
“It is,” I said.
“Yes it is, it’s 10.22,” replied Mungo, “definitely still the period of the day commonly referred to as morning.”
“Did you have a good run down?” I enquired.
“The journey fell well within the parameters I had anticipated,” replied Mungo. “Can you please direct me to our new office, I have a lot to be getting on with.”
“Yes of course, just through there it’s the room in front of you at the top of the stairs,” I said.
“It a good thing the office furniture arrived before you got here,” I announced.
“That didn’t happen by accident,” replied Mungo as he pushed past me carrying a large box.
By 3.57 that afternoon Mungo had finished installing all the office hardware, computer, broadband hub, plus various other strange looking devices. The strangest of these devices was a small pyramid, sat to one side of the monitor that seemed to be giving off a strange iridescent greenish glow.
“Travis I have completed the installation of the equipment necessary for you to complete your daily tasks, have you any questions for me at this time?” asked Mungo.
“There seems to be a lot more electronics than I had expected,” I said, with an air of concern “will I need to turn any of it off at night.”
“No! The installation must not be interfered with in any way,” barked Mungo. “Do not be tempted to tamper with anything I have installed, if any adjustments are to be deemed necessary these can be done remotely from Hamilton,” he said. “Let me make myself perfectly clear Travis,” said Mungo “It would be incredibly unwise for anyone unfamiliar with this equipment to meddle, in anyway with this installation.”
I walked Mungo down to his car, “have a safe trip back,” I said.
“That was certainly my intended course of action,” replied Mungo.
I was due to start making calls the next day and was quietly confident I would soon have my first deal. Mungo said he was going to run a Track Synchronisation overnight to ensure my system was loaded with the latest enquiries. After watching a bit of television I decided to retire, as I ascended the stairs I couldn’t help but notice a strange greenish glow emanating from my new office. In addition to the strange glowing pyramid were several boxes, featuring rapidly flashing multicoloured lights. It dawned on me that I was now sharing my home with some strange technology; technology I wasn’t even permitted to touch. My spare bedroom had effectively become the sovereign territory of Universal Fleet Management. It had also become home to some of Mungo’s highly experimental and somewhat insidious computer equipment. I climbed into my bed and was lulled into an uneasy sleep by the feint light flashes and strange sounds that emanated from the office.
The following morning I got up, went down stairs, ate some breakfast, made a fresh cup of tea and set off on my new commute to work. Six seconds later I was sat at my new desk waiting for my new monitor to display the day’s activities. I clicked the Task icon promoting the user code box to be displayed, after inputting my code the main screen appeared displaying my details and my start time. A flashing icon in the bottom left corner confirmed I had a queue of tasks waiting to be dealt with. By lunchtime, I had made several calls and sent out several quotations. I tried my best to follow the Angus doctrine but found that I was unable to remain detached from the person at the other end of the phone. I couldn’t help being pulled into conversation especially if it was a subject I knew something about. Most of the enquiries were from trades people, plumbers, builders, electricians and during the assessment process it was necessary for me to ask them lots of questions. Being from a technical background I was genuinely interested in what they had to say. Whether I realised it or not, I was learning quite a lot about construction trades, knowledge that would subsequently prove invaluable.
I had almost completed my first week, with just the visit to the office standing between me and my first full weekend off. I arrived at the office at about 9.30, in the morning and sat at he desk that I had been allocated. I was due to have a meeting with Angus to discuss my first week on the job and the leads I had dealt with. Angus was on the phone so I used the time to log on the Task system and highlight the contacts I wanted to discuss. The office was quiet with only Angus’s conversation and the sound of Rachel and Glen tapping on their keyboards. The tranquil atmosphere was suddenly interrupted when the door bust open and a man stumbled in. A man trying unsuccessfully to open the door while attempting to hold onto a large bundle of buff files, a brief case and talk on his mobile phone. Everyone looked up as the buff files cascaded to the floor, emptying their contents over a large area of the carpet.
“Morning Mackenzie,” said Rachel.
“Morning all,” replied Mackenzie who had now also dropped his mobile phone causing the battery cover to fly off.
This was to be my first introduction to the world of chaos and disarray that Mackenzie seemed to inhabit. The problem was that the disharmony and confusion that surrounded him tended to affect anyone or anything that he came into contact with.
“You must be Travis,” said Mackenzie grinning broadly, “do you know anything about mobiles?” he said handing me the phone and the dislodged cover.
Mackenzie was in his late forties, medium height, stocky and with a full head of brown hair. He sported a large pair of brown plastic framed glasses with large square lenses that didn’t seem to sit straight on his face.
Despite wearing a shirt and tie he had a distinctly dishevelled appearance, personal presentation didn’t appear to be a priority. I was sure that when he was a child he would have been one of those kids that always had a dirty face, with snot running out of one or other nostril; you know the type. His appearance was genuine reflection of the man not perfect but undoubtedly authentic. Mackenzie was a genuinely nice bloke who knew his job and not an actor hiding behind a cosmetic facade.
Mackenzie was an extremely enthusiastic person, maybe a little two enthusiastic with a tendency to leap into a situation with both feet. He didn’t concern himself too much with detail, preferring just to forge on and worry about the technicalities later. This enthusiastic high volume gung-ho approach produced results, but also generated quite a lot of collateral damage. Problems included, customers backing out of deals at the last minute or ‘cocking’ as it was referred to. Vehicles delivered that didn’t match the customer’s specification, vehicles delivered before all the paperwork had been received back at the office and vehicles delivered to the wrong location altogether. There was also a lot of over promising and under delivering, it wasn’t that Mackenzie was dishonest; he always genuinely believed a last minute miracle would sort everything out. This high stakes gambling strategy seemed to pay off about fifty percent of the time, with his success rate comparable with tossing a coin. Overall his successes tended to outweigh his failures, but a constant stream of costly mistakes were starting to take their toll on Angus.
Angus was still tied up on the telephone trying his hardest to brush the customer off and bring the call to an end and I could see he was watching Mackenzie intently. Mackenzie meanwhile was trying to sort out the mass of paperwork he had scooped up from the office floor. You could see the annoyance building in Angus’s face as Mackenzie proceeded to ram documents into folders with scant regard to their correct location.
“We need to talk about Polar Bear Foods Mackenzie,” barked Angus, “when are they due to get their vans?”
“Next week I think,” said Mackenzie “they’re getting the chiller units fitted as we speak,” he replied.
“Chiller units?” said Angus, “yes chiller units, the things that keep the food frozen,” said Mackenzie with a sarcastic grin.
“There is a big difference between chilled and frozen Mackenzie, chilled is not frozen, I hope you haven’t ordered five chilled vans, instead of five refrigerated vans,” said Angus to a sheepish looking Mackenzie.
This was a typical of Mackenzie; he had undercut the customer’s usual supplier and grabbed an order for five new vans. However he had only achieved this considerable cost advantage because he hadn’t quoted like-for-like. A chilled van was a lot less costly to convert than a van that was required to keep its contents frozen.
“You better get on to the body builder and see how many vans they’ve done,” said Angus holding his head in his hands.
The rest of the day consisted of Angus unearthing various other horrors hidden within Mackenzie’s portfolio of deals. If this was what it was going to be like every Friday, there was little point in me being there. I hadn’t had a chance to have my meeting with Angus as he had spent the entire day dealing with Mackenzie. Even calling customers had proved difficult due to the levels of background noise generated by Angus and Mackenzie’s heated altercations.
The weekend had arrived and I was not going to spend it alone, I had recently met a girl called Sally and I had arranged to take her out on Saturday. I had met Sally in one of the clubs in Lancaster and had been out with her a couple of times. As this account is about my working life and work generally, there is little to be gained by informing the reader about my spare time activities. All I can say is, I attempted to make the times I was free from the constraints of wage earning, as interesting as I could. Work meant working for someone, as this was the limit of my experience so far, although I couldn’t help feeling this wasn’t my ultimate destiny. As far as romantic relations were concerned I had attempted to keep them as casual and varied as possible. However inevitably the hand of destiny steers you in a different direction and even though I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, Sally was to play a huge part in my life.
As the months rolled on, seemingly with increasing speed, I started to get the hang of telephone sales. I had a knack for building relationships, as I was genuinely interested in most of the people I came into contact with. This enabled me to spend less time achieving the same results, a situation I was quite happy with. During my Friday visits to the office, Mungo would often point out that Mackenzie made twice as many calls as me. This was true Mackenzie would make frantic call after frantic call, where as, I preferred to make fewer more productive calls. Both strategies proved to be effective as the monthly deal count usually confirmed, although I felt Angus suspected I could have done more if I was to become more active.
Over time I was beginning to find it harder and harder to motivate myself during the day; this was because the job was essentially quite boring. I spent the days sitting alone looking at the Task screen on my computer monitor. Periodically I would pick up the telephone handset and call one of the enquiries from my daily activity list. Unfortunately this only added to the monotony, as the subsequent conversation would inevitably be almost identical in content to the last. And to compound the tediousness I was required to type out a summary of every conversation, so that it could be attached to the customer’s record. Some would say that I had it easy, working from home no one to bother me, nice and warm, out of the wind and rain etc etc. My last job had been very stressful with far too much to occupy my mind; the problem was I had now swung too far in the other direction. As a child it was noted that I had a low threshold of boredom, my school reports frequently stated; I was easily distracted. Being at home on my own gave me free reign to distract myself in innumerable ways.
The day would go something like this, lie in bed until 8.55 a.m. then get up and log on to my computer. Get dressed, usually jeans and a tee shirt, possibly a fleece if it was cold, go down stairs and put the news on. Make a cup of strong coffee, the caffeine being essential to try and prevent myself falling asleep at the desk, something I did quite often. Make some calls and enter the details on to the system, entering details was key to looking busy as my dairy screen could be viewed remotely from the office. To afford even more freedom I had purchased a cordless phone, which I had substituted for the fixed handset Mungo had installed. This allowed me to sit in the garden, watch television, cut the grass, wash the car that sort of thing, that being said, this was no picnic. There was still work to be done, work necessary to achieve the substantial monthly sales target, but as long as I was on track and kept the deals coming in, no one seemed to care how I did it.
Boredom aside this was quite a cushy number and I was earning more than in my previous job. To break the monotony I would send Mackenzie a message across the Task system asking him to give me a call. There was little point in me trying to call him, as he always seemed to be on the phone. I enjoyed talking to Mackenzie; it was fascinating listening to the unfolding account of one of his latest catastrophic deals. His stories always featured the same elements, metaphorically speaking and yet he never seemed to foresee the impending disaster. His accounts were like the plots from embarrassingly predictable disaster movies. Ships on their maiden voyage steaming carelessly through ice fields at full speed, at night, in fog and with a drunken lookout, asleep at his post. The world’s largest airship inflated with a totally revolutionary but highly inflammable gas, flying into a thunderstorm at full speed, at night, in fog and with no fire extinguishers and with a drunken captain that was asleep. A train loaded with dynamite and petrol careering down a mountain pass toward a small town, the last stop on the line, at night, in fog with no brakes, with a drunk driver at the controls who was also probably asleep.
Mackenzie was one of those sales people who were easy to sell to, I wouldn’t have said he was gullible, just overly enthusiastic about anything and everything. So it shouldn’t have surprised me when he said he had joined a group of amateur clairvoyants. I assumed someone had sold him on the idea that harnessing the power of the spirit world was a sure fire way of increasing his sales This was just the sort of irresponsible scheme Mackenzie was likely to embrace I thought. The truth was that Mackenzie truly believed in the afterlife and had even attended a seance, in the hope of contacting a deceased relative.
“What got you interested in the supernatural Mackenzie?” I asked.
“It all started after the death of my favourite aunt,” he replied. “She left me a cuckoo clock in her will that had fascinated me ever since I was a boy,” he said. “Suddenly and inexplicably the clock just stopped working Travis, now I know you will say that’s not that unusual.”
“What was strange is that it stopped working exactly seventy-seven days after her death,” he said.
“So?” I replied, “What’s so strange about that?”
“ She was seventy-seven when she died Travis, well seventy-eight actually but she had only just turned seventy -eight. I took the clock to a repair man and he couldn't find anything wrong, nothing at all, but when I got home and put the clock back on the wall, it stopped again. It only started working after I placed a photo of my aunt in the room, it was as if the clock would only work for its mistress Travis, now how do you explain that.”
“Maybe the clock was haunted,” I said, trying to conceal the ridicule in my response.
“Exactly,” replied an extremely serious Mackenzie, “the spirit of my dead aunt had taken up residence in the clock. It is very common you know, I found a brilliant book on the subject, Ghosts In The Machine, it confirmed everything I had suspected.”
It was apparent Mackenzie had formulated his beliefs based on very weak first hand experiences, which typified his approach to things in general. I was hoping for a more intriguing reason for is interest in the paranormal; as I had always believed there could be realms beyond the range of our five senses. Based on the flimsiest of evidence Mackenzie had thrown himself head long into the unseen world of the occult. This had apparently led him to a group of amateur spiritualists. The group met up once a month in a room at the local leisure centre where they practised the dark arts. It was at one of these meetings that he had been introduced to Jimmy McCracken, a meeting that would have unforeseen consequences for the employees of Universal Fleet Management.
My involvement with work thus far had been centred round the necessity to generate myself an income. The thought of working for nothing was such an alien concept, I quite literally hadn’t even thought about it. So it came as somewhat of a surprise that I had willingly volunteered to throw myself headlong into the world of DIY home improvements. Despite my best initial efforts I was beginning to find that I preferred my new lady friend Sally’s company than that of my own. Weekends were now spent living between my small semi-detached single man’s house and Sally’s considerably larger Victorian terrace.
Sally’s house was large but lacked some features taken for granted in modern houses, most notable being an upstairs toilet. It had originally been an old railway workers house, which wouldn’t have benefited from an inside convenience. A flat roofed bathroom extension had been added later, grafted on the back of the house, accessed from the kitchen. This meant that if you needed to relieve yourself during the night, it was necessary to make quite a considerable journey through the house to reach the bathroom. Sally’s ambition was to incorporate an en-suite shower and toilet into one corner of her generously proportioned master bedroom. All that was needed was a willing and capable patsy to turn her vision into a reality.
“My brothers mate is a plumber, but when he came round, he said it was far too big a job to fit an upstairs bathroom, all the drains are at the back or something,” said Sally.
Something about Sally’s disappointed expression triggered some sort of suppressed heroic inclination, somehow compelling me to step in and provide for my new mate.
“I’ll fit a bathroom for you,” I said metaphorically beating my chest like some sort of unlikely B-Movie Tarzan.
“Would you really?” said Sally, instinctively adopting the persona of the helpless female.
In this case a helpless female that needed to be plucked from the dastardly clutches of an unsympathetic plumber. A plumber that was more than happy to let the defenceless creature cross a badly frayed and mostly rotten rope bridge, so as to cross the deep snake infested gorge that separated her from her only bathroom; as it were.
The following Saturday I arrived at Sally’s house to survey the job and assess the materials necessary to complete it. This was when the enormity of the task I had recklessly volunteered for became all to clear. Sally’s brothers mate had quickly realised that there was no aesthetically acceptable way of running a large diameter wastewater and soil pipe from the bedroom to the rear of the property. Sally’s house was in the centre of the terrace with the main sewer running across the back of all the properties. Any wastewater and associated solid materials would need to make their way some considerable distance through the house and across the stairs on their journey to the rear of the building. In addition to finding an unseen place for the pipe to run, it would also be essential to provide the necessary fall in the pipe to allow gravity to do its work. The only place you could run any pipe work was under the upstairs floorboards, unfortunately the beams that supported the upstairs floorboards ran from side to side effectively blocking the pipe’s path.
Sally was ecstatic at the prospect of her new significantly more convenient convenience and seemed more than willing to get stuck into the work. Faced with almost insurmountable technical challenges I made the decision to press on regardless. Admitting defeat at this stage and disappointing Sally wasn’t an option; I had to make it happen, one way or another.
This must have been how John F. Kennedy had felt; I mused, after being told a manned mission to the moon was impossible. Yet utilising the relatively primitive technologies that were available in 1961, a giant leap was made for all mankind. Nevertheless I had a lot of research to do if I was going to find a way of shifting the wastewater and associated solids from that bathroom. After all it wasn’t as if I could fake the bathroom, even if I did have access to sophisticated back screen projection equipment, a genius director with unlimited funding and an elaborate film set, in the Nevada desert. The rest of that weekend was spent roaming around DIY centres and while Sally contemplated various bathroom suite designs, I spent my time in the plumbing aisle, contemplating how I was going to design something that would fulfil her vision and address the almost insurmountable sewage situation.
Fortunately my current occupation provided the means for endless and lengthy dialog with a variety of trade’s people on a daily basis. Some of the trade’s people happened to be plumbers, so it wasn’t long before I had the perfect solution for resolving my effluent conundrum.
“How’s the new van working out Shane, did they make a good job of racking it out?”
“Yeah, mate it’s just the job should have got myself a new motor years ago, looks so much better when I turn up on a job.”
Shane was a self-employed plumber from London, who I had recently fixed up with a new van, in spite of him possessing a less than pristine credit history.
“Shane, I need to fit a toilet in a bedroom, but there’s nowhere to run a waste pipe and the sewers are at the back of the house, any ideas?”
“Stick a macerator in mate, you can run the waste through a twenty-two milli pipe, under the floor boards, we use them all the time down here.”
“A macerator, what’s a macerator? I asked.
”It’s like a sort of liquidiser for your shit, it smashes it up and then pumps it away,” replied Shane. “You just fit one to the back of the toilet and it starts up automatically when the toilets flushed, you can feed all you wastes into it, sink, shower even a bath,” said Shane enthusiastically.
“Are these miracle devises easy to get hold of?” I asked.
“All your plumbers merchants have them, I think we pay a couple of hundred pound, down here for one,” he said.
‘Wasting,’ no time; as it were, pardon the pun; I decided to take some time out of my day to visit the plumbers’ merchant. On arrival I found the parking area to be almost fully occupied by a variety of badly parked vans. Vans that featured numerous official looking abbreviated trade association logos, large roof racks, pipe tubes and ladders decorated with tatty bits of brightly coloured cloth tied to their lower rungs. As I parked my car amongst the throng of heavily sign written light commercial vehicles, I couldn’t help but feel slightly intimidated. The lack of parking and the intimidating presence of the vans gave the impression that DIY novice’s were not welcome. I managed to squeeze my car into the only space available next to a small pile of wooden pallets and headed for the entrance. I had no idea that there were so many plumbers in Lancaster I thought as I made my way to the door.
I pushed open the door to be presented with a large counter, which was almost completely obscured by a variety of male individuals leaning and or standing in front of it. They appeared to be chatting while simultaneously consuming some type of steaming liquid from plastic cups. My arrival had little or no impact and I was left to stand unacknowledged next to a large copper hot water cylinder. I waited patiently unwilling to interrupt the serious in depth discussion and debate that was going on. After what seemed like an eternity a man dressed in a long buff cotton coat with Crosswaits Plumbing & Heating embroidered on the breast pocket presented himself after reluctantly exiting the conversation.
“What can I do for you lad?” he said while looking me up and down.
“Do you have macerator pumps?” I asked confidently, my request instantly triggered some tittering and head shaking among the throng of assembled male individuals.
“We do,” said the man in the long buff coat “what’s the height of your static head.”
My initial fears had been realised; this wasn’t the place for a DIY novice; static head, I had no idea what this was. The room fell silent and I suddenly became the focal point of everyone’s attention, I looked nervously at the various male individuals, their scornful contemptuous faces spoke volumes, I was out of my depth and they knew it. Staying silent wasn’t really an option, embarrassment and ridicule looked inevitable. If only the hot water cylinder I was stood next to had been an escape pod I thought, I could strap myself in, then blast my way out through the roof. The answer to whether I knew the height of my static head, blown skyward in a cloud of smoke dust and falling roofing materials.
Best just repeat the question, least this would buy me some time; it always seemed to work for politicians.
“The height of my static head,” I said screwing up my face slightly.
Fortunately for me one of the male individuals felt the need to assert himself, probably to improve his standing within the tribe, or something like that.
“It’s the height above the unit you need the waste to be pumped,” he said while gesturing upwards with his finger.
“I was hoping to send the pipe work under the floorboards, so the waste would be below the unit”, I replied my confidence somewhat restored.
“Is it just for a toilet and sink?” said the man in a long buff cotton coat.
“No,” I replied “I wanted to use it for a shower as well.”
“It’s the 300c you want, I think we have one,” said the man in a long buff cotton coat.
Mission accomplished, I had managed to convince the man in a long buff cotton coat to let me have what I had asked for and was now leaving the plumbers merchant with a brand new Sani Master 300c 3 port SE macerator, tucked triumphantly under my arm. My request to purchase a macerator had generated some more heated discussion among the variety of male individuals leaning and or standing in front of the counter. With most of the participants agreeing it was a last resort device that would never replace the traditional four-inch gravity fed soil pipe. Under the circumstances the last resort was the only resort left in the brochure so I would have to make the best of it.
I had the distinct impression that plumbers were very protective about their trade and didn’t take kindly to amateurs boldly entering their sacred domain. It seemed to me that domestic plumbing was a relatively simple affair, you pipe the water in, get it dirty, then pipe it back out. Your discarded water then makes a journey through some civil infrastructure; the dirt is then removed and then it is sent right back for re-use, for a fee naturally.
As my journey through the world of work continued I was starting to gain further insight into some of the characters that inhabited this strange and complex place. Many professions required the participants to be formally trained, possess certain unique talents or have an unbridled passion for a particular field. However these requirements were slowly beginning to be eroded and participants that exhibited little or none of these attributes were creeping into jobs, where they were seriously under qualified.
Plumbing was one of those professions that was being promoted as a skill almost anyone could master, without the need for formal training. With the advent of plastic push fit water pipe and the rise of the DIY super centre, basic plumbing was now within the reach of the masses. To counter this, the modern plumber had been forced to raise the profile and the perception of the trade. New complexities, perplexing terminology and elaborate industry standards had been introduced to elevate this humble profession to almost mystical heights. I realised that the frosty reception I had received on entering the plumber’s merchant was in fact totally justifiable. I had entered one of their temples, a last refuge, a place of last stand, in the battle against DIY mediocrity.
Feeling certain my newly acquired macerator pump would handle the waste liquid and solid materials from Sally’s new en-suite bathroom. I spent the following weekend ripping up floorboards and installing pipe work, a task that predictably took longer than I had estimated. By Sunday evening the work was completed, leaving Sally and I looking like we had just completed a fourteen-hour shift down the local potash mine.
“That was a good job done Sally,” I said feeling genuinely proud of my first attempt at serious DIY.
“Yes I’m really excited now that we have started, what happens next?” said a grinning Sally her enthusiasm for the job undiminished, despite being covered from head to toe in all manner of grime.
“Stud walls are the next job, so we will need to get some wood and plasterboard organised for next weekend,” I replied with an assertive air of authority.
Later that evening while sitting with Sally, sipping on a celebratory glass of wine, I felt a real sense of achievement, something I hadn’t experienced since I’d been in sales. I felt I had produced something tangible, something solid and something worthwhile. The years I had spent training to become a mechanical engineer had not been wasted. The skills were there, it was just that they had lain dormant for a while waiting for the right opportunity to re emerge.
I felt like a new man, almost as if the work had released some sort of alter ego, an alter ego that was more self-assured, an alter ego with almost limitless technical ability.
As I sat there in my euphoric alcohol induced state I felt a sense of invincibility, a sense that I could overcome any technical challenge. Attempting Sally’s bathroom had awoken the engineer in me, my hidden Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Running Sally’s bathroom pipe work might not have been on the scale of the Great Western Railway but the challenges were similar. I had overcome seemingly impassable terrain, drilled tunnels, spanned valleys, descended inclines albeit on a significantly smaller scale. I liked being the engineer, it felt more dignified than being a salesperson, I wonder if everyone has an alter ego, I mused.
The next morning I crawled out of bed at 8.58 a.m. and made the daily commute to my spare room. After logging on to the task system I noticed there was an internal message from Angus requesting that I give him a call.
“Morning Angus,” I said trying not to sound like I had just got out of bed forty seconds earlier.
“Morning Travis,” he replied. “Travis I have arranged a couple of training days for us all, so I need you to come up to the office a day early this week.”
“OK,” I replied.
“Yes I am looking forward to it, I think it could be a really unique experience and something we could all get some huge benefit from.”
Unique experience, I couldn’t for the life of me see how Angus dictating word for word how customers should be dealt with, constituted any sort of unique experience.
“Unique experience, that sounds intriguing,” I said, doing my best not to sound too sarcastic.
“If this man is everything Mackenzie says he is Travis, this could quite literally be life changing,” said Angus. “I’m not going to spoil it, you will have to wait until Thursday night, apparently for it to work properly you must approach the evening with an open mind.”
As I put down the phone an overwhelming feeling of unease washed over me, what ill conceived, half-baked, foolhardy and potentially unsafe scheme had Mackenzie managed to sell to Angus. Even more worrying was that it had been unique enough to actually get Angus to buy into it.
“What’s this sales course you have organised Mackenzie?” I said curtly.
“Sales course, what sales course?” came the reply.
“Thursday afternoon at the office, you should know it’s your idea according to Angus,” I said indignantly.
“You must mean, Jimmy.”
“Jimmy?” I said, “yes Jimmy McCracken, my mate from the spiritualist group, you threw me a bit when you said it was a sales course,” said Mackenzie.
“Angus told me he was coming to give us some training, so if he’s not running a sales course what is he doing?”
“He’s going to hypnotise us,” said Mackenzie nonchalantly.
This was worse than I could ever have imagined; some bloke from Mackenzie’s spiritualist group was coming to hypnotise us. It would have been better if some bloke from Mackenzie’s spiritualist group was coming to carry out open-heart surgery on us, at least then we would probably all be killed. Better dead than living out the rest of our lives in some sort of vegetative state.
“Hypnotise us, are you fucking serious?” I said.
“Calm down Travis, the man’s a genius, when he’s finished with you you’ll be a new man,” trust me said Mackenzie.
“Its not like he hypnotises you really, he just puts you into the right frame of mind, so you get the most out of his lecture, that’s all, its nothing to worry about.”
“He starts the lecture by meeting us one to one, where he puts us into the right frame of mind, it as simple as that,” said Mackenzie.
“How did you mange to convince Angus to go along with this Mackenzie?”
“Well that’s the spooky thing, it turned out that Jimmy had given one of his lectures to Storm Windows in Airdrie.”
“Storm windows,” I exclaimed.
“Yes you know Glen’s customer, the man with the wig, you know that double-glazing firm with the pink vans, he’s often in the office,” said Mackenzie.
“So Glen’s customer, the man with the wig from Storm Windows, told Angus, it was the best lecture he had ever listened to and that his men were selling twice as many double glazing jobs as they had been previously,” said Mackenzie.”
“In fact he was so impressed by Jimmy that he has contracted him permanently to come in and motivate the staff once a month.”
“Its fine Travis honestly, this man knows what he’s doing, he’s not some charlatan. Look, I once saw him convince one of our other group members that the bit of shortbread he was having with his cup of tea was actually a piece of dog shit, it was hilarious Travis, don’t worry this man is a pure professional.”
I arrived in the office on Thursday morning as requested.
“Morning Travis,” said Rachel as I came through the door.
“Morning,” I replied.
Everything looked normal, Mungo was behind his bank of monitors and Angus and Glen were on the phone. Earlier in the week I had spoken to Angus and voiced my concerns about the imminent lecture. Sadly, I was astonished to discover that Angus was prepared to ignore the fact Mackenzie had a hand in all this, preferring instead to trust the testimonial of a double-glazing salesman, with a wig. As no one else seemed to share my concerns, I had resigned myself to accept whatever lay ahead. Anyway, it would serve them right if he sends us all loony I thought. After all it wasn’t as if I had not tried to warn them, my conscience was clear. Although I couldn’t help but wonder if by the morning I would have any conscience left at all.
As the day drew on I started to feel more apprehensive; I was trying to picture what Jimmy McCracken might look like. Somehow his name didn’t conjure up an image of a lecturer, therapist or someone that might be connected to matters relating to the mind. Our evening session was due to start at 6.30 p.m. with Mackenzie due to arrive around 5 p.m. after first visiting a customer in Glasgow. The door burst open and Mackenzie came reversing in, carrying a large cardboard box while talking on his mobile phone. After carelessly dropping the box on the desk and sending a pen tidy full of pens and paperclips spinning to the floor, he sat down. Moments later the door burst open once again, but this time a man dressed from head to toe in white overalls, with a set of protective goggles perched on top of his head, stood framed in the door way. I was horrified, was this Jimmy McCracken? No, it was just a man from Caledonian Asbestos Removal, coming to tell Mackenzie he had left his car tailgate up, the lights on and the engine running.
At 6.35p.m, and after knocking first, Jimmy McCracken entered the offices of Universal Fleet Management. Rachel had left for the evening so I was closest to the door.
“I’m here to see Angus Murray,” said Jimmy in a gruff Glaswegian accent.
His appearance, whilst still unexpected was a very good match for someone going by the name, Jimmy McCracken. He was a slim, but stocky man, completely bald and with a prominent scar across the bottom of his chin. He was cleanly dressed in a dark suit; dark shirt and grey spotted tie; the overall appearance suggestive of a bodyguard or night-club doorman.
“Jimmy, Angus Murray pleased to meet you,” said Angus who had come round from his desk at the back of the room.
“You found us alright then? Let me introduce you to the team, Mackenzie you already know,” he said gesturing toward a grinning nodding Mackenzie who was still talking on his phone.
“This is Travis, Travis Bone our newest recruit and token English Man,” said Angus.
“Good to meet you Travis,” said Jimmy, firmly shaking my hand.
“And last but not least, this is Glen Grant, Glen has been with me from the start,” said Angus.
“Glen Grant, just like the whisky, I bet you get that a lot, do you pal?” said Jimmy in a low guttural growl, while firmly crushing a wincing Glen’s, small bony hand. After some frivolous small talk and a period where Mackenzie and Jimmy laughed raucously while prodding and throwing mock punches at each other, Angus and Jimmy left, to ready an adjacent room for the one-to-one meetings.
“OK Glen you’re first,” said Angus to a pensive looking Glen.
“Go on Gleny Boy,” said Mackenzie slapping Glen on the back as he went past.
The office fell quite and we found ourselves talking in slightly hushed voices, hoping to catch some of what might be going in the next room. Suddenly the distinct sound of a thud, ominously emanated from nextdoor.
“What was that?” said Angus, as he and I traded alarmed glances.
“Sounded like a body, a body hitting the floor, it must be Glen,” I said.
The room fell completely silent we looked at one another listening intently for any more sounds.
“Do you think Glen is OK,” I whispered looking for reassurances from my two colleagues.
“I’m sure he will be,” said Angus as we both looked over to Mackenzie.
“It’ll just be part of it boys,” said Mackenzie, “Glen has probably just passed out or fainted or something, the big puff,” said Mackenzie unsympathetically.
Ten minutes later Glen reappeared and walked calmly through the office towards his desk.
“Jimmy asked for you next Mackenzie,” said Glen in a deliberate and strangely monotone way.
“Are you OK Glen?” I asked, “we heard a thud, we thought you’d passed out, what happened in there.”
“I don’t remember passing out, but I do remember feeling very relaxed,” said Glen.
Mackenzie left the room, leaving Angus and I to interrogate Glen, “Come on then Glen, what happens, what did he talk to you about,” I asked.
“Jimmy and I had a very good discussion, I really enjoyed talking to him, I am so looking forward to tomorrow’s activities,” said Glen.
“Tomorrow’s activities, what activities, what are we going to be doing Glen,” I said insistently.
“Jimmy will tell you all about it when you have your chat Travis,” said Glen, “it would be wrong of me to spoil things for you.”
Glen seemed to be acting quite strangely; he definitely didn’t seem himself, he looked the same, but the way he was speaking and behaving was unlike him.
“Are you sure you are OK Glen, I mean we heard a thud.”
“I’m fine Travis never felt better,” said Glen with a peculiar grin on his face.
Leave the man alone Travis,” said Angus, “he’s told you he’s fine, you’ll find out what it’s all about soon enough.”
Angus was right I didn’t have long to wait; at that moment Mackenzie walked in and announced that I was next.
The door to the adjacent office was open and the lights were turned off, a dim flickering glow providing the only light. Jimmy was sitting next to a long desk that had been placed in the centre of the room. On the desk were some tea lights, a couple of incense burners and a small CD player with what appeared to be the sounds of whale song emanating from it.
“Sit yourself down pal,” said Jimmy, gesturing to an empty chair that was facing his. I sat down facing Jimmy who was now leaning towards me.
“OK Travis I just want you to relax and try to empty your mind,” said Jimmy. “I want you to listen to my voice and empty your mind, now hold out your arms lean forward and listen to my voice, you’re feeling very relaxed, you feel like you’re floating,” he said.
Now at this point I have to admit that my mind wasn’t exactly empty, in fact my senses were alive, as is usual for me. For starters there was the pungent and overpowering lavender smell, emitted from the incense burners. One of which must have been out of incense oil as it was spitting and cracking in my left ear, then there was the whale song, what was he thinking, I thought. But the final magical element had to be Jimmy’s harsh almost comedic Glaswegian Accent. If there were anything, less likely to lull your mind into a state of relaxation, it would be the sound that this man made when he opened his mouth and no amount of whale song was going to drown it out.
“Now you’re floating Travis I want you to lean forward and I will catch you.” said Jimmy As I leaned forward Jimmy grabbed my arms and pulled them down towards the floor, I was now sitting with the palms of my hands on the carpet and my head between my legs. Glen must have fallen over at this point, I thought, that would explain the thud we all heard.
“OK Travis I’m going to tell you to sit up and when you sit up I will count to five and you will wake,” said Jimmy.
As far as I was aware I was awake and nothing much had changed.
“Sit up Travis,” said Jimmy, so I did. “One, two.”
“But I’m already awake,” I announced to a somewhat startled Jimmy.
“This can’t be; how come you’re not under, this has never happened before,” said an agitated Jimmy.
He spent the next 20 minutes frantically trying various different methods in an attempt to induce me into some sort of hypnotic trance, but to no avail.
“You’re fighting it,” said a rather desperate Jimmy.
“Not intentionally,” I replied and I wasn’t.
“OK Travis, you just stay sat there a minute, while I go and fetch Angus,” said Jimmy leaving the room.
Moment’s later he re-appeared with Angus in tow.
“Thanks Travis you can go next door and join the others now,” said Jimmy, shoving me towards the door.
Squinting my eyes, I entered the brightly lit office and proceeded toward my desk.
“Enjoy that Travis?” said Mackenzie grinning inanely.”
“Which part, the whale music or the bloody lavender,” I said scornfully.
“Was it not the most relaxing experience you have ever had,” said Glen also grinning.
“Whatever was supposed to happen, it wouldn’t work for me,” I said, “he tried to hypnotise me but nothing would work, my mind is too active or something like that.”
“What, so you didn’t feel like you were floating in a giant warm column of beautifully fragrant tropical air,” said Mackenzie.
“NO,” I replied.
With the evening activities concluded we re-assembled in the office.
“Where’s Jimmy?” I asked, “he had to rush off said Angus, he said he would see us all in the morning.”
“I better get off too said Mackenzie.”
“You’re not driving back to Inverness are you?” I enquired.”
“No I’m staying with my eldest daughter in Stirling,” he said.
“Goodnight,” said Glen heading out of the door.
“I’ve called Rachel to come and pick us up Travis, seeing that it was raining,” said Angus.
Angus had offered to put me up for the night, as a late finish had been predicted,
“If you go to the front door I’ll lock up,” said Angus.
Rachel was driving into the yard as I exited the building.
“That was good timing,” I said climbing into the back seat.
“We aim to please,” said Rachel.
“What a night,” said a rain drenched Angus as he climbed into the front of the car, it was fine last time I looked out.”
“That’s the Scottish weather for you,” said Rachel. “So how did the session go with Jimmy McCracken, did he hypnotise anyone?” said a grinning Rachel.
“He didn’t hypnotise me, though not for the want of trying,” I said.
“Come on Travis said Rachel, what happened?”
“Well first, he made me sit opposite him, there was some candles and soothing music and he told me to relax, hold out my hands. Then he sort of grabbed my arms and took my hands down to the floor and that was it, I should have been hypnotised.”
“He was a bit put out when I sat back up and told him it hadn’t worked,” I said. “That’s exactly what he did with me, said Angus and it didn’t work for me either.”
“Maybe that’s why he was so keen to get away,” I said.
The rest of the evening was spent discussing our first experience at the hands of Jimmy McCracken. I had been comforted to find out that I wasn’t the only one that Jimmy had failed to put under, however Angus and I concluded that both Glen and Mackenzie had succumbed to Jimmy’s hypnotic techniques. Angus however later admitted, when under the influence of alcohol, that Glen’s customer with the wig from Storm Windows in Airdrie had never once mentioned that any of his staff had been hypnotised. This was strange, as there was absolutely no doubt whatsoever that hypnotism seemed to play a major role in Jimmy McCracken’s methods.
The next day we all assembled at the office in readiness for the next instalment of our life-changing seminar. With the benefit of a good night’s sleep, I now had a new perspective on the previous night’s events. I was starting to question whether the whole hypnotism thing was just an elaborate ruse. After all, Glen’s customer with the wig never once mentioned anything about hypnotism when he a talked to Angus.
If my own experience had been anything to go by, you would need to be extremely weak-minded or at least a bit simple to submit to the hypnotic technique of a Glaswegian thug. This earth shattering life-transforming experience was just another boring predictable sales course embellished with the promise of mind control, I thought. Trouble was this still didn’t explain the thud we all heard when Glen was with Jimmy and the strange way both he and Mackenzie were acting. The acid test would be if I could detect any subtle differences in the way Glen and Mackenzie behaved during the day.
We spent the morning tying up any urgent business matters while Angus and Jimmy prepared the room next door for the days activities, which were due to start around 10 a.m.
When 10 a.m. arrived we made our way into the adjacent room and took our seats behind our name cards. The desks had been arranged in an ‘L shape’ with the four candidates down one side and Jimmy at the top, I was at the far end of the row, nearest to door. Jimmy stood up welcoming us all to the second session, he than proceeded to walk around the room and tell us how much we would all benefit from the day ahead. Taking up position behind Glen, he momentarily touched him lightly on the shoulder. Glen instantaneously fell face down onto the desk as if drugged, chloroformed, or hit with a tranquilliser dart. I was stunned; I sat there hardly believing what I was witnessing as both Mackenzie and most shockingly of all Angus fell face down from this slight touch to the shoulder.
I sat there trying to come to terms with what I had just witnessed; my three work mates were now laying face down on the desk. Jimmy glared over at me from the other end of the room.
“You’ll have to go a long with this Travis,” he said, “I don’t want you to spoil things for them.”
“Are they OK?” I asked, staring along the table at the three unconscious bodies.
“Of course, said Jimmy abruptly, they are just asleep that’s all.”
“I’ll wake them up in a minute and they won’t even know they’ve been under,” he said.
I had clearly underestimated Jimmy’s abilities; if I hadn’t witnessed it for myself I wouldn’t have believed it possible. OK, Glen I could see; as he was generally weak and spineless right across the board, but Angus this was a real shock. As far as Mackenzie was concerned nothing he ever did, would be a surprise.
“OK Gentlemen, I am going to count up to five and when I get to five you will all wake up, you won’t remember being under and you’re really going to enjoy the next session.” “Right Travis, you need to follow the programme, do what I say and follow what the others do. There’s no point in telling them they’ve been under, because they don’t know they have. If you try to tell them they will just think you’re mad, so take my advice and don’t waste your breath pal,” said Jimmy. “One, two, three, four, five, now wake up said Jimmy.”
As quickly as they had been put under they woke and abruptly sat up as if nothing at all had happened.
Being the only other person in the room that knew what was really happening made me feel very uneasy, in fact, to say I felt uneasy was a huge understatement. What could I do I was powerless; my three work mates were oblivious to the fact that they had been hypnotised. Worse still they were oblivious to the appalling truth that they were now under the complete control, of unscrupulous and potentially dangerously unqualified Glaswegian.
Jimmy’s training strategy was a simple one; first he asked his delegates what part of their job they would like to do better. Secondly he asked if there was a particular element of the job, where they lacked confidence, thirdly he asked them, where they would like to excel. Armed with this information Jimmy simply put his subjects into a trance, then utilising the power of suggestion told them what they wanted to hear. On the face of it the idea was a good one, reprogramming peoples minds to suit a certain agenda, why not if it worked? This was an employer’s dream; the potential to create custom made workers, pre-programmed to undertake any task.
The whole idea put me in mind of Joe Ninety another ’70’s child science fiction series I enjoyed as a boy. Joe was a sort of junior secret agent who could be equipped with expert knowledge and skills essential when you are regularly required to save the world. Joe’s father, a scientist, had invented a machine that could download information directly into a subject’s brain. He would strap his young son into a sort of barber’s chair, then hoist him aloft into a spinning steel cage. In the spinning cage he would undergo some sort of mind transfer process, which would download any ability or knowledge Joe needed to carry out his mission.
I spent the rest of the day as a helpless bystander, forced to watch as Jimmy carried out his nefarious agenda. A part of me felt left out; I was genuinely curious to know what it felt like to be under a hypnotic trace. There was also the possibility that my colleagues would be made better in some way, their shortcomings psychologically erased. I was in danger of being left behind, how would I be able to compete if Glen and Mackenzie had been turned into super salesmen. This could be the end of my cushy little number, my superior interpersonal skills no match for highly motivated mind controlled slaves. As it would ultimately turn out, it wasn’t Glen or Mackenzie I would need to worry about.
Thankfully, the day finally came to an end; all that remained was a last one to one session with Jimmy. I was of course excluded from this, as presumably it involved some more hypnosis.
“I’m all done with you now Travis,” said Jimmy; “you can go back to the office, I’m sure you’ll have some work you can be finishing off.”
I stood up and left my fellow workers, who were too preoccupied listening to Jimmy, to even notice my departure. I Wearily entered the office.
“Is that it, all finished?” said Rachel.
“Not quite,” I replied, “Jimmy’s just doing some final one-to-ones.”
“What happened then Travis?” said Rachel excitedly. “Did it change your life?”
“I can tell you what I thought happened, but I have a feeling no one else will agree with my version of events,” I said. “As far as changing my life, I’m not sure yet, it might have some impact only time will tell,” I replied to a bemused looking Rachel.
Whatever the purpose of the final meeting, Jimmy spent considerably longer with Angus than with either Glen or Mackenzie. I could only assume this final session of hypnosis was to reinforce any suggestions Jimmy had planted during the day. It would also be the ideal opportunity for Jimmy to implant the need for his unique services in the future, I thought.
I spent that weekend working on Sally’s bathroom project, and while the work was hard and technically challenging, it served to help, partly restore my sanity. The week’s events had brought home to me the lengths to which some will go, just to earn money. People seemed to be no more than tools, to be used and abused, then discarded when they were no longer of any use. Angus knew Jimmy McCracken used hypnosis as part of his training programme, as it was the first thing his wife Rachel had asked me about when I got into the car on that Thursday night. Mackenzie was actively promoting the concept right from the start, only playing the hypnosis element down when I expressed some concern. As for Glen’s double-glazing customer with the wig not mentioning anything about hypnosis, knowing what we now know, this was no surprise.
During my time as a car salesman I had endured various schemes and methods of training, some good, some not so good, but I had never come across anyone using hypnosis. This should have come as no surprise, as no sane person would sanction the use of a psychological therapy in an effort to increase the bottom line. Angus had demonstrated scant regard for the mental health of his employees by commissioning Jimmy McCracken. The irony however, was that Angus himself had succumbed to the Glaswegian confidence trickster and his rudimentary version of stage hypnotism.
As the weeks went by I hadn’t noticed any remarkable improvements in Glen or Mackenzie’s sales performance. Fortunately my fears that Glen and Mackenzie would be transformed into unstoppable selling machines weren’t realised. Glen had initially seemed more confident and assertive, but this soon faded and he resorted back to his browbeaten self. As for Mackenzie he was the same as ever, the only slight change was that his arguments with Angus had become more frequent and more heated. In fact it was fair to say that I had also had some minor disagreements with Angus lately, a situation that was new to me.
The only person that seemed to have changed since the episode with Jimmy McCracken was Angus. He was like a different person; he was more forthright and aggressive, almost verging on rude. Also he had unexpectedly taken up jogging, a pastime that previously, would have been completely alien to him. One of the more obvious changes was his car, gone was the restrained silver Honda CRV, replaced with a vulgar fire engine red Audi Coupe. It was as if Angus’s telephone persona had become the dominant personality. The old personable friendly Angus that enjoyed a drink and a good laugh replaced by a driven, humourless, egotistical vain big head, with a fitness obsession. I couldn’t help but feel that Angus may have experienced some blow back as a result of his foray into mind control.
Working for Universal Fleet Management was starting to lose its appeal, I was finding my daily duties agonisingly repetitive and was struggling to stay motivated. To make matters worse Angus had increased our individual targets and had started scrutinising every deal. This inevitably led to disagreements, or all out screaming altercations, especially where Mackenzie was concerned. There was no doubt that Angus had undergone some sort of change, a change that had made him almost impossible to work for.
My full-time job was becoming less and less relevant and I was finding it hard to see how it would play any part in my future. Weekends spent working round at Sally’s house provided my only real sense of purpose, what had started out as DIY had become my new passion.
Sally and I worked well together, we made a great team; she seemed to act like some sort of catalyst, instilling confidence within me. I felt that together there was nothing we couldn’t achieve, as the old saying went, behind every great man stands a great woman.
Sally and I had completed the installation of her new en-suite bathroom with the results being better than we could have imagined. The new bathroom was so good, we had decided to give the entire house a make over, and put it up for sale. Having two houses made no sense so we had made the decision to move in together. Initially we would share my house but only until that too could be sold. This was another one of those moments, a moment where you must follow your heart. Sally and I made a great team and it was time to make bold decisions, if we wanted that team to succeed.
Every weekend and most evenings had been spent working on Sally’s house, room by room the old property received a comprehensive makeover, it was hard work, but rewarding. Our efforts paid off with the house achieving its asking price within weeks of going on the market. Sally had only owned the house for a few years, but this sale had almost tripled her original investment. This was real money; money the ordinary working person could never hope to accumulate as a workaday employee. Admittedly market conditions had also played a part, with the housing market at the time experiencing something of a boom. All we needed now was another project and where better to start than with my old bachelor pad.
Enhancing my modest two-bedroom semi might prove to be a bit of a challenge, it was relatively modern and required virtually no maintenance. It did however lack one very useful addition, an addition no self-respecting man would want to be without, a garage. My house was the last one in the row and had a reasonable sized drive down the side, this area was easily large enough to accommodate a quite substantial garage. Encouraged by our recent achievements I felt that building a relatively simple structure was well within our capabilities. Wasting no time I submitted a set of self-drawn plans to the city council and within a relatively short time had received the relevant consent.
Armed with knowledge gained from a self-help DVD, titled The Beginner’s Guide To Brick & Block Work, we commenced construction. It was far from plain sailing and took us about three months to complete the work. Fortunately, I had bricklayers, roofers and joiners all at the end of a phone who were more than happy to provide any advice. The end result was almost indistinguishable from those garages built by the estates original developer. In hindsight it had been quite an ambitious project for a novice to undertake, but I had come to realise as far as work goes, there’s no substitute for getting your hands dirty.
As my journey continued, one glaring fact stood out above all others, individuals are generally capable of far more than they imagine, as many of our limitations only exist in our minds. We’ve all heard the old saying; ‘you can do anything you put your mind to’ and within reason this was starting to look like the case. Some work requires training, for some professions years of training, but it’s the will and the confidence to embark on the training that is important. For most of us the journey to a successful outcome requires some sort of start point. Alternatively you could always enlist the services of Jimmy McCracken, thus doing away with the requirement, to even make a journey. Either that or have your father strap you into a sort of barber’s chair, then hoist you aloft into a spinning steel cage.
Life is all about tests, some cultures believe we chose to visit this three-dimensional reality we call life as a way to expand our universal experiences. We are nothing more than spirit souls in a material world and that the earth is a sort of educational holiday camp. The spirit world is a place where the soul can have anything it desires, a place where linear time does not exist and you can be in multiple places at once. After a while the soul becomes bored with having anything it wants, so it agrees to go back into a body and have a three-dimensional experience here on earth. The idea is that while alive, many lessons can be learned and experiences had, assisting in the soul’s development. Some souls opt for extreme experiences; being involved in plane crashes, being murdered that sort of thing. Others go for a more gentle experience, building knowledge through small more mundane tests and lessons. So next time someone asks you to tile a bathroom, before you say no, it might be worth trying to remember, why you are here.
Sally and I had started to look around for a new home for us both to share; unfortunately we were not having much luck. The only properties we had liked were either in the wrong place or required substantial remodelling to bring them up to date. We were also attracted by the idea of living in a more rural setting, as we had both grown up in the country.
“We could build a house,” announced Sally, while sipping on a glass of wine. For a second I stared blankly at the glass of wine I was holding, the idea was so sublime my brain had been caught off guard.
“What an idea,” I said turning to face a grinning Sally, “we could do a lot of the work ourselves.”
“The layout could be just how we want it and we could live in the county,” said Sally triumphantly.
It couldn’t have made more sense; we could tackle a significant amount of the work, keeping down the cost. We had already proved developing property while the market was inflating, paid handsome dividends. Suddenly a concept previously considered a dream could actually become a reality, by working together Sally and I could literally build this dream with our bare hands. This was our chance to make our mark and work for ourselves; our efforts would be benefiting us for a change and not someone else.
So far my working life had followed a somewhat conventional path, as far as employment was concerned. I was just another tiny component trying to survive within the capitalist machine, a slave to my monthly wage. I could change jobs, might earn a bit more, get a better car, but I was still trapped. The system seemed to be designed to keep you at a certain level, only letting you have, just enough money to keep going.
It was like being a prisoner, in a prison without walls, the need for a regular income preventing your escape. The best most prisoners could hope for was to serve out their sentence; keep their noses clean and hope they lived long enough to get their parole. If you were one of the very fortunate few, you might be able to buy your escape, or be sprung as they call it. Some money might just come your way, an inheritance, or some sort of lucky windfall. Enough to pay a gang to smuggle you out in a laundry basket, or land a helicopter on the exercise yard. It was now very clear that I needed to escape, I couldn’t rely on luck but I could rely on my ingenuity and the support of my new cellmate, together we could find a way to breakout, as it were.
Tuesday afternoon and I found myself despondently staring out of the window having just completed a somewhat heated phone call with Angus. It was a lovely afternoon and I couldn’t help wondering what I was doing cooped up alone in my spare bedroom. Ever since Sally had come up with the self-build idea, I hadn’t been able to get the concept out of my head. What a perfect day for digging out the foundations, I thought, picturing myself at the controls of an excavator.
My daydream was interrupted by the arrival of a dark coloured BMW saloon pulling up outside of the house opposite. I watched as a tall blond haired man in a suit stepped out, then leaned back into the car, before re-emerging with a clipboard, I know him I thought, that’s Lesley Bayman from Bryant Mercedes.
“Hey Lesley,” I shouted hanging out of my window, “how’s it going.”
Lesley looked round not sure where the voice had come from, “all right Travis where have you been, I haven’t seen you for a while.”
“I work from home now are you coming in for a coffee.”
“Spot on,” said Lesley, “I’ll be over when I’ve sorted this client out.”
Lesley Bayman was a larger than life character in many ways; he was six foot six for a start and brimmed with enthusiasm and energy. Unlike the majority of Bryant employees Lesley was fairly genuine being neither an actor nor a psychopath. He was however unpredictable and had a tendency for exaggeration, but I suppose no ones perfect. Before selling cars he had been a sailor, a carpet fitter, fitness instructor and worked as a chef. I liked Lesley; I felt something of an affinity with him, as we were both on a quest; a quest to find the perfect job.
A short time later Lesley presented himself at my front door.
“Come in mate, what you up to?” I said, “Are you selling my neighbour that BMW?”
“No that’s my car,” replied Lesley, “I’m valuing their house, I’m an estate agent now Travis.”
“Estate agent, when did you get into that?” I said.
“About a year ago,” said Lesley, “I love it, it’s easy and the money is good.”
“So how long did it take to get qualified?” I said.
“Qualified, what do you mean?” said Lesley.
“Well don’t you need to be a surveyor or something, to value houses?” I replied.
“No don’t be daft, you just go off the price of a similar property and if you like it yourself, a sort of guess I suppose,” he said.
“What about you, I heard you were doing van rental,” said Lesley.
“Van leasing, its OK just a bit dull, I work from here most of the time,” I replied.
“I don’t remember your house having a garage, did you have it built?” enquired Lesley.
“I built it,” I replied.
“Get away, you built a garage by yourself?” said a suitably impressed Lesley.
“Well not by myself exactly, Sally my girlfriend helped.”
“I’d love a garage at home Travis, when I get some money one of these days I’m going to have myself a Harley Davidson,” said Lesley.
Highly excited by my self-build garage, Lesley insisted I give him a tour before he went back to his office.
“You’re bloody wasted as a salesman Travis,” said Lesley, as he cast his less than expert eye over my project.
“This will add twenty grand to the value of the house Travis, twenty grand easy,” said a bullish Lesley while pulling a face like a premier league football manager.
“We hoped the garage might add some value, we’re looking to put it on the market when we find ourselves a building plot,” I said.
“Building plot, we get building plots all the time,” said Lesley, “I’ll give you a shout next time we get one.”
“You must be getting them all then, none of the other agents ever seem to have land for sale,” I replied.
“It gets sold so quick mate that’s the problem, any land that becomes available gets snapped up straight away,” said Lesley.
“Building a house, good move Travis, bloody good move make sense, a man like you could build it yourself, save a fortune,” he said.
“That’s what we thought,” I replied.
“I wouldn’t tackle the shell or the roof, but I’m sure Sally and I could handle the rest.”
“Better get back and show face, I’ll give you a ring when I’ve got you a plot sorted out mate,” said Lesley confidently.
I wasn’t one hundred percent convinced Lesley would live up to his claims, as he often displayed a tendency to exaggerate. Yet to my surprise by the end of that very week he was back at my house with the details of a site that had just come on the market.
“I only went out to see this land yesterday Travis, no one else in the office knows about it yet so you better get out and take a look as soon as you can,” said Lesley.
He produced a folded A4 flyer from his jacket pocket and surreptitiously handed it to me.
“Don’t get me wrong Lesley, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but Damp Beck Road where the fuck is Damp Beck Road,” I said.
“Its out behind Long-Row, not far really,” said Lesley nonchalantly, “you know up in the hills near Fenton.”
“Look mate I have to get cracking, I like to get away early on a Friday, you and the girlfriend get yourselves up and have a look, you’ll love it up there,” said Lesley grinning broadly.
The following day after Sally had finished work we headed off in search of the exotically named Damp Beck Road. Lesley had said it was just up behind the small market town of Long-Row only half-hours drive from Lancaster.
“According to this we turn right at the Spar Shop in Long-Row and head for Fenton,” said Sally excitedly.
We turned right at the Spar as instructed and followed the road out of Long-Row, after what seemed like an eternity we arrived at our next landmark a pub called The Dog, where we were to turn right. We drove on for a few more miles, our surroundings becoming steadily more dramatic. True to form Lesley had seriously understated the proximity of Damp Beck Road to anywhere, least of all Long-Row.
“This can’t be right, we are in the middle of nowhere,” I said.
“Look said Sally there’s someone up ahead at the side of the road, we can ask them.”
I stopped the car next to a hunched individual in a shawl that appeared to be collecting grass from an area at the side of the road.
“Excuse me,” I said, “can you tell us if we are on the right track, we’re looking for a place called Damp Beck Road.”
The hunched individual, who turned out to be a woman, dropped the grass she had collected and hobbled over towards the car.
“Damp beck’s further on, you’ll want to go further on for damp beck,” she said, grinning and pointing along the road.
“Is it much further?” I asked.
“Not much further,” she replied, “not much further at all,” and with that she turned and hobbled back towards her mound of grass.
“Thank you,” I said as I set off. “The locals are a bit basic,” I said, “I wonder what she does with the grass.”
“Maybe she has animals and feeds them with it,” said Sally.
“By the look of her she could easy be eating it herself,” I replied.
We finally reached a crossroads and turned right onto Damp Beck Road pulling in to get our bearings. The photo on the flyer Lesley had given me seemed to show a fence between some trees with a small field lying on the other side. Damp Beck Road consisted of a row of detached stone cottages down one side and a row of bungalows down the other.
“Those cottages look like they might have been built for the railway workers or something, the plot must be on the other side between the bungalows,” I said.
We slowly drove down the road until we came to the area that matched the picture on the flyer.
“That must be it,” I said, pulling the car in to the side of the road, “it’s there on the other side of that small stream.”
A small stream ran between the road and the land occupied by the bungalows.
“I hadn’t noticed the stream on the picture,” said Sally.
“Maybe that’s damp beck,” I said sarcastically.
Negotiating the stream we climbed the fence and stood on the plot for the first time. “Are you sure it’s alright just to climb over the fence?” asked Sally nervously.
“They want to sell it don’t they,” I replied, “I wonder how far it goes.”
The land looked like it was split in two, by a row of six-foot tall conifers.
“There must be more land on the other side of those trees,” I said.
Finding a gap we pushed our way through.
“Wow said Sally.”
The trees had been hiding the rear part of the plot and a beautiful uninterrupted view over rolling countryside.
Don’t ask me why, but the place just felt right, maybe it was the sunny afternoon, the quiet, the beautiful views, I’m not certain. It wasn’t just me I could see by Sally’s expression that she was thinking the same. We had found what we were looking for, but it was our hearts not our heads that had made the decision.
“It’s such a lovely place,” said Sally, “so peaceful.”
“I think we should go for it, snap it up before someone else, I’ll get on to Lesley first thing Monday,” I said decisively.
The land opposite the long row of cottages had been sectioned off into a series of individual plots and sold off to self-builders. The only stipulation was that any dwelling must be single story structures, this would account for the row of bungalows. When the plots were originally sold they were relatively inexpensive, due impart to Damp Beck Road’s remote location. As a result some buyers had purchased more than one plot as an investment for the future. The plot we were interested in belonged to the owner of adjacent property, who had decided to cash in while the market was on the rise.
It was a large rectangular plot with uninterrupted views to the rear and came with outlying permission to build a single story home. Unusually for such a rural location Damp Beck Road had mains sewage, provided by a small treatment works. Access to the site was limited to an area between two large beech trees and required the building of a bridge to cross the stream. Apart from the added complication of the bridge, the site was ideally suited to a first time developer. First thing Monday morning I called Lesley to say we were happy to pay the asking price for the land. Twenty minutes later he called back confirming the owners were happy to accept our offer.
The proceeds from the sale of Sally’s house were sufficient to fund the purchase of the land, but we needed to sell my house to pay for the initial construction costs. Wasting no time I asked Lesley to put my house on the market and it wasn’t long before it started to generate some interest. The possibility we might sell our house raised the question of where we would live while building the new house. The thought of moving back in with our in-laws didn’t seem that appealing, so we would need to come up with an alternative. Ideally we would want to be on site, this would enable us to work on the project whenever we wanted and keep a close eye on everything. We needed a fully furnished home, with heating, cooking facilities and a bathroom, but it would need to be mobile, it would need to be on wheels.
“We could get a caravan and park it at the back of the plot, it would be like being on holiday,” said Sally.
The caravan idea had crossed my mind, but having never stayed in a caravan, I wasn’t sure what the experience would be like.
“Have you had much experience with caravans Sally?” I enquired.
“No, never been in one, but I really enjoyed camping in a tent when I was young,” she said.
“A caravan must be so much more comfortable than a tent, luxurious in comparison, so I’m sure it would be fine,” said Sally.
“Excellent; that’s that problem sorted I thought, Sally’s up for it and I was happy to give it a go, we would live on site, in a caravan.
The caravan idea wasn’t as enthusiastically embraced by everyone however, a fact that I had somewhat naively overlooked. The new post-Jimmy MacCraken Angus, had little time for personal matters and had exhibited very little interest in my dream house scheme. Things finally came to a head when I informed him I was planning to live in a caravan. Apparently this wouldn’t be a suitable place from which to represent Universal Fleet Management. A room rented from an asbestos removal company, or the spare bedroom of a two-bed semi, that was fine, but a caravan no way. If I wanted to continue working for Angus his minimum requirement was that I rented an office, until presumably I could provide another spare bedroom.
This was typical of the new mind controlled Angus, rent an office for his business, or be out on your ear. This at a time where he knew fine well, I would need to provide evidence of a strong regular income, to secure the funding for our grand project. The ruthless new Angus had me over a barrel; my only option was to find a new job. I estimated that it would take at least a couple of months after my house was sold before needing to vacate. This should provide enough time to find a new job; a job that was Monday to Friday included a car and paid the same as my current post. Realistically I knew it would need to be another sales job, as these were the only sort of position’s you could just walk into. The motor trade was out, as you were almost certain to be asked to work weekends, not much use if you’re an aspiring property developer.
The trouble with sales was that you tended to get trapped, the only jobs you could hope to get had sales in the title. Sales consultant, sales executive, sales manager or maybe sales director, but these weren’t real jobs. They were jobs that didn’t require any real skills, knowledge or talent, all that was required was that you looked and sounded the part. It didn’t seem to matter if you had previously been a nuclear engineer or a ship’s captain, the minute you became a salesperson your credibility was sunk. In hindsight I felt like I had given up a career as a Shakespearean actor, to play the part of Mr Spock. If I were ever to tread the boards again I would probably need to build my own theatre and star in my own production, as it were.
Later that week I was to get another visit from an old motor trade acquaintance, the impressively titled Charles R. Lipton. Charles R. Lipton was a fascinating character, but a character not a real person; the real Charles R. Lipton was the tortured soul that inhabited his body. Nothing about him was authentic and required a huge amount of effort on his part to maintain the disguise. He had worked as a salesman in almost every garage in the town, only moving on when his lack of results became too conspicuous to hide. I had first been introduced to him socially as he had been a regular participant in the Lancaster nightclub scene. The first time I met Charles, despite my judgement being impaired by the intoxicating effects of alcohol, I knew something about him was wrong.
Charles R. Lipton was tall and very slim, verging on slightly puny, he had fair hair with a side parting and wore large round metal-framed glasses. He always dressed impeccably in dark suits, light shirts and tasteful ties, knotted to perfection. He was the eldest of four brothers and came from an upper middle class family. His father had been a high-flying executive, holding several high-ranking managerial positions. Although by all accounts, had almost brought several successful firms to their knees. His three younger brothers had all been extremely successful, one a doctor, one a solicitor, with the youngest working in television. Charles however had been the least successful having only ever worked as a car salesman, that is until recently it subsequently transpired. He had also failed in his personal life having had two unsuccessful marriages, the first wife literally leaving him at the altar, the second, after only a few months.
Peer pressure probably accounted for the elaborate façade, the well-dressed professional with an eye for the ladies. Unfortunately the façade had little or nothing in common with the real Charles whose pursuits inevitably ended in failure. If he would only be honest with himself he could have made a success of his life, come out of the closet, got a job in a ladies boutique, or a flower shop and lived happily ever after. Unfortunately he wasn’t brave enough to be honest, or to besmirch the good name of the highly successful Lipton family. He would wreck his life so the façade could continue, regardless of how many other lives, or businesses could be wrecked along the way.
“Hello Charles, come in, have you got time for a cup of tea or a coffee?” I said.
“All the time in the world Travis. Is the Audi OK parked out front?” said Charles his car locking with an annoying bleep.
“Nice car, is it a demonstrator?” I asked.
“Good lord no Travis, its mine actually. Well I say mine, technically it’s a company vehicle.”
“Tea or coffee Charles?” I asked holding up a jar of Nescafe.
“Coffee please,” said Charles, “with cream and brown sugar if you have it.”
“So what are you up to now Charles?” I asked.
“I’m an Area Executive Sales Consultant for a leading media company.”
“Wow,” I said trying to appear impressed. “
Yes I was head hunted about six moths ago by a customer I sold a car to,” said Charles.
A stroke of luck considering the minuscule number of cars you sold I thought.
“So what’s the company called you work for?” I said.
“Pineapple Business Link,” said Charles proudly.
“Pineapple Business Link, can’t say I’ve ever heard of them,” I confessed.
Pineapple Business Link was a business-to-business Directory Company whose aim was to encourage businesses to place advertisements in their directory. Only businesses were allowed to advertise and the directory wasn’t available to the general public. The company was relatively new, an offshoot of a much larger and more established directories business. The idea was to sell space in the directory; the more space the better. This was achieved by trying to persuade the advertiser to place large adverts, or multiple adverts under different headings within the directory.
“So Charles, what’s it like to be an area executive sales consultant with Pineapple Business Link and what’s the money like?” I asked.
“It’s a walk in the park Travis, Monday to Friday, no weekends and you practically choose when you want to work.”
“As far as the money goes, it’s a basic salary of forty thousand, plus bonus and a fully expensed company car,” said Charles.
“I love it Travis, it’s the best job I have ever had, it really isn’t like work at all,” he said.
“Travis it’s so easy, basically you are given accounts to deal with, customers that are already advertising with pineapple, all you have to do is call them up and go and see them. You show them an advert that’s bigger than the one they had last year, and they usually buy it, it’s as simple as that really,” he said.
“The best thing about the job is you can choose how many customers you want to see per day, if you want an early finish you make your calls in the morning, it’s so flexible Travis,” said Charles.
“Sounds fantastic Charles, I don’t suppose there is any jobs going is there,” I said laughing slightly.
“Why, would you be interested if there were?” asked Charles abruptly, “Only I didn’t ask, as you seemed to be on to a good thing yourself, working from home.
“Things have changed Charles, this job’s a lot harder than it was when I started. You know how it is, Angus the boss keeps moving the goal posts,” I said. “To be honest I’m sick of being cooped up in here on my own, day in, day out, its driving me mad,” I said.
“I’m sure they are looking for someone else to join our segment, Gary the manager asked me a couple of weeks ago if I knew anyone,” said Charles. “Would you like me to put your name forward if there is a vacancy Travis?” said Charles.
“Yes, if you wouldn’t mind,” I replied.
That evening I told Sally all about Charles Lipton’s visit and the possibility of working for Pineapple Business Link.
“It’s ideal Sally, you get forty grand basic and a car and you can literally work when you want, perfect for doing the house,” I said excitedly.
“Are you sure its right?” said Sally, “it all sounds a bit too good to be true.”
“I thought the same when Charles was telling me about it, but that’s how it is, maybe these jobs are out there, but you just never get to here about them. According to Charles, they get thousands of applications every week from people wanting to work for them,” I said.”
“But they only want people that come recommended, so unless you know someone who works there, you don’t get a look in,” I said.
True to his word Charles managed to get me an interview at Pineapple’s office in Blackburn the following week. Managing to swing the day off at short notice, I made my way to the appointment where I was to ask for someone called Gary. I parked the car straightened my tie and headed over to Pineapple’s office, a large pineapple coloured, pineapple symbol indicating I was in the right place. I tried the door only to discover it was locked, looking round I spotted a Tannoy with a button labelled Pineapple.
“Hello can I help you?” said a voice.
“I’m here to see Gary Kendrick,” I replied.
The door buzzed, a clicking sound indicating the door had been unlocked; I pushed it open and proceeded up the stairs that lay directly behind it. At the top lay another door that was also locked, they take their security pretty seriously I thought pressing another button on another Tannoy.
“Hello,” said a voice, “Yes?”
I said, “I’m here to see Gary.”
“Just a moment,” said the voice.
The door opened revealing a heavily made-up, fake tanned blond lady in a short skirt.
“You here to see Gary?” she said while looking me up and down.
“Yes its Travis Bone, I’m here for an interview,” I replied.
“OK lovey, sit yourself down I’ll tell him you’re here,” she said, “would you like a coffee.”
“Yes thanks, sugar and milk please,” I said. The office was quite busy, lots of people milling around, I couldn’t help noticing however the conspicuous lack of male faces. Not only that, but the women, with possibly one exception all shared a similar appearance long, blond or brunette hair, liberally applied make up, false tan and a short skirt. You could have been forgiven for thinking you had accidentally walked into a perfume counter assistant’s seminar, either that or a brothel.
“Travis,” said a voice, “Gary Kendrick, pleased to meet you,” said a tall slim well-groomed man holding out his hand.
“Yes, Travis nice to meet you,” I said shaking it.
“Come through Travis,” said Gary leading the way towards a glass partitioned office. “This is Gary; another Gary,” said the first Gary while doing one of those insincere, ha ha, type laughs. “This is Gary Bess he will be your line manager if you’re successful,” said the first Gary.
“Nice one Travis,” said the second Gary leaning over the table his had outstretched.
The two Gary’s couldn’t have been more different; Gary Kendrick, the first Gary, was one of those perfect types, resembling a male model from a golf shop catalogue. Gary Bess on the other hand was short and stocky with greased back dark hair; he also seemed to display the same curious orange pallor as the women in the office. The first Gary spoke slowly, softly and deliberately, in a sort of condescending sickly sort of way. The second Gary was loud and brash with a strong south London accent. He also spoke quickly, so quickly in fact he had a habit of not completely finishing certain words.
“What we want to do Travis, is give you a quick overview of what pineapple expects from its sales consultants,” said the first Gary. “Then we’ll talk a bit about you and your achievements to date; if we may,” he said. “Does that: Make sense?” said the first Gary tilting his head to one side while giving me a quizzical questioning type of look.
“Yes,” I said, “that’s fine by me.”
The interview followed a fairly standard format; although I got the impression my interviewers felt the questioning was highly imaginative and ground-breaking. They gave the impression that Pineapple sales people were the elite, the best of the best and that working for Pineapple meant you’d reached the pinnacle of your sales career. Apparently successful applicants underwent a two-week intensive training course. A training course that was so highly evolved in nature, attendees would never be the same again; we’ve I heard that before, I mused. What I was finding hard to reconcile, was the disconnection between their claims and the dismal sales track record of the man who had recommended me for the job.
By the end of the interview I was starting to have serious doubts about the morality of my potential new employer. For starters there was all those female sales staff, they didn’t look like they were on top of their game, they looked like they were on the game! And then there was Gary Bess, the slick haired Londoner, who prior to being promoted to segment manager, had apparently been Pineapple’s most successful salesperson ever. Not only that, but he was, regarded as something of a legend within the organisation. Rarely had I ever encountered such an insincere, unconvincing, vacuous, moron. The short time I had been in his company had been enough, to make me feel truly ashamed that I worked in sales.
Driving home I mulled over my first experience of Pineapple Business Link and the people I had met. My gut feeling was, this wasn’t the job for me, but it was the ideal job for the aspiring self-builder. If I get offered the job, I would be foolish not to take it; after all it wasn’t as if I had any other options. I’m sure it wouldn’t turn out to be that bad and I would love it once I got started. Just because the second Gary wasn’t my cup of tea, didn’t mean every one would be like him. Maybe the sales girls were all dressed like tarts, because that was the company dress code. It didn’t necessarily mean they had dressed that way in order to influence some gullible male, flashing a bit of leg, just to get a deal done. Maybe I was just being paranoid, and it was a good honest operation, after all Charles said it was the best job he had ever had.
Three days later I received an offer of employment from Pineapple, subject to successful completion of their residential training course. Angus reacted calmly to the news of my departure, commenting only that I was making a terrible mistake. We agreed that I would continue working until the end of the month, giving me enough time to introduce my customers to Glen and Mackenzie. Mungo would then travel down by train, clear my office and collect the company car. The timings couldn’t have worked out better, as we had completed the purchase of the land and accepted an offer on my house. I had five weeks before I was due to attend my Pineapple sales induction training, giving me enough time to source a caravan and get it onto site.
Activity at the plot had alerted some of the residents of Damp Beck Road that the site had been sold. While some of the inhabitants seemed to look upon us with a certain amount of suspicion, others appeared to be very friendly. Our neighbours to the right rented their house from the people we had purchased the land from and seemed to keep themselves to themselves. The ones to the left had built their property several years before and had made a point of introducing themselves. Now the land was ours we needed to provide access from the road, so we could get a caravan on to the site. Building a strong bridge capable of carrying any vehicle no matter how heavy that might require access to the site was technically challenging. Tackling this complex bit of civil engineering at this early stage was something I could have done without.
My neighbour to the left had given me the name of a local contractor called Tommy who had carried out the ground works for their project. After meeting me on site, Tommy quickly came up with a simple solution to my bridge question. His idea was to create what is known as a culvert; this would be achieved by dropping a large diameter pipe onto the streambed, allowing a gravel road to be built over the top. Suitably impressed by his practical approach, I asked him to start work as soon as he could. With my access issue solved, getting a caravan on to the site would no longer present a problem; all I needed now was a caravan.
“I’ve found a place advertising second hand caravans,” said Sally; “it’s on the way to Milnthorpe, looks like they have a really good selection.”
“We better go and have a look then,” I said, “or we are going to have nowhere to live.”
We had decided to look for a large touring van, as oppose to a static. This would negate the need for planning permission and would be easier to manoeuvre on and off the site.
“That looks like the place up ahead, with all the flags,” said Sally. After wandering around some of the caravans we were approached by a man who asked us if he could help.
“We’re looking for a large touring caravan we can live in while building a house,” I said.
“Not many used vans to choose from at the moment,” said the man, “these are all we have.”
“To be honest folks, these vans are not much cheaper than the brand new ones. Our new van yard is just a bit further up the road and there is a much larger selection,” he said.
“You seem to get a lot of van for the money,” I said.
“That’s because we import them from Germany,” replied the man. “The reason they are cheaper than UK specification vans, is because they’re slightly wider and require a larger vehicle to tow them.”
“Ideal for what you want,” he added, “travellers are some of our biggest customers and they live in them full time.”
The man wasn’t wrong, when he said there was a much larger selection up at the other yard. It was like walking on to a small housing estate made up of caravans, there was about a dozen, connected by green-mat walkways.
“I wonder what the differences are, they all look similar from the outside,” remarked Sally.
“That must be the office,” I said pointing over to a building with a sliding patio door. “Would it be possible to have a look inside some of the vans,” I said to a lady sitting at a desk.
“Yes certainly they are all open,” said the lady.
“What are the differences between them?” asked Sally.
“Mainly the way they are laid out inside,” she replied.
“How many people would you want to accommodate?” asked the lady.
“Just the two of us,” I said, “we need something to live in while we build a house.”
“All the specifications are detailed on a sheet in each van, take your time and try every one,” said the lady.
The vans were all different, some differences being small, the colour of upholstery, carpets etc, other differences however were more notable. You could have a fixed bed, or convertible bed, rear toilet, centre toilet, square lounge, curved lounge, central kitchen, end kitchen. There were chocolate box windows, standard windows, big skylights, small skylights, leather trim, cloth trim and mixed combinations of them all. It was good fun trying all the different vans and debating which layout would be easiest to live with. We literally spent hours getting in and out of the different models trying to come to a decision. The vans were fantastic, very luxurious and fitted with everything you could possibly need. It had been years since I’d last been in a caravan and I was literally shocked, to see how much they had advanced.
The variety of models meant it was almost impossible to make a final choice, without having at least one last look at another contender. I now fully appreciated why the lady in the office allowed the customers a free reign, wisely opting to stay well outside of the continuously evolving decision making process. Having finally made an uneasy selection, we returned to the office.
“We would like a seven-fifty HYTR,” I said to the woman.
“The HYTR is one of our most popular models; the fixed bed is a must if you’re going to live in the van full time,” she said.
“You might also want to think about an awning, it would give you some extra room outside, living in it you’ll need all the space you can get,” said the woman. “We have a van in stock and should be able to have it ready for early next week.”
“It’s exciting isn’t it,” said Sally, “the van was lovely inside, I wasn’t expecting them to be as nice as they were.”
“You get a lot for your money, even with the awning it only came to just over twelve grand,” I said. “Once we get it all set up I’m sure living in it will be a breeze, hopefully we can buy some electric from the neighbour.”
“How are we going to get it up there?” said Sally.
“I was going to ask Raymond, his fathers got a big four wheel drive that should tow it no bother,” I replied.
The following week my mate Raymond’s dad lent us his Landcruiser and our new compact home was rolled into position on the top of our site. We spent the remainder of the week building a temporary flagged area as a hard standing for the awning. Electricity and water was to be courtesy of our neighbours to the left, who we bribed with a case of wine and a cheque. They had also agreed to let us empty the contents of our chemical toilet down the manhole at the side of their house. This was somewhat of a relief; pardon the pun, as getting these technicalities figured out was critical to living successfully, in our new compact home. With the completion of my house sale imminent, our compact home was about to become the only home we had.
Tuesday morning and we moved out of my old house and after taking one last look; we set off in the direction of Damp Beck Road. I was only due to experience one week’s caravanning, before being sent to Solihull by my new employer for training. This wasn’t ideal, as Sally would be left to fend for herself for a couple of weeks. If she had any concerns about being all alone in a caravan in the middle of nowhere, she wasn’t admitting to them. In any event, I felt that after my initial experience of Pineapple and its people, I should be the one to be concerned.
Before I could start my new career working for Pineapple Business Link, I was obliged to attend a two-week residential training course held at their head office. This course apparently had two functions, firstly to fully assimilate new starters into the Pineapple family. Secondly to ensure Pineapple sales consultants were fully conversant with the legendary Pineapple sales process, a process that was the envy of the rest of the commercial world. I knew all this because Pineapple had sent me a congratulatory welcome pack. Contained within the glossy pineapple coloured pack was a pineapple coloured DVD. When played, the DVD went on to further cement the idea that as a successful applicant I had achieved the peak as far as employment was concerned. I wondered why they felt it necessary; to constantly remind you, just how lucky and privileged you were to get the chance to work for them. There was also the insidious idea I was joining some sort of family, the only family I kept thinking about was the Manson Family. I thought I was joining an advertising company not some sort of murderous fanatical religious cult.
Sunday afternoon arrived and Sally dropped me off at the station so I could catch a train down to Solihull. After an uneventful journey I arrived at the hotel Pineapple had booked for me and checked into my room. At 7.30 pm I was to attend an introductory meeting, hosted by some representatives from the company. It would be here that I would get my first look at my exceptionally gifted fellow candidates. I decided being slightly anaesthetised during the meeting, would assist in protecting my sanity, so I made my first stop the hotel bar. Looking round the room I tried to see if I could spot any other potential geniuses. There were two or three blokes in suits dotted around, and a heavily made up, chain-smoking blond girl. I felt the blond was a certainty, as for the blokes they were a bit harder to spot.
Having quickly downed several pints I followed the pineapple coloured signs to a large function room. Entering the room I was greeted by a heavily made-up woman, who asked my name.
“It’s Travis, Travis Bone,” I replied.
“Hi Travis,” replied the heavily made-up woman in a predictably familiar way. “Here we are, this is you,” she said picking up a pineapple-coloured badge and lanyard from the adjacent table. “Just take a seat with the other guys,” she gushed pointing toward some seated individuals with pineapple coloured lanyards around their necks.
Obediently hanging the pineapple coloured badge and lanyard around my neck I took a seat with the others. Reassuringly all three suited blokes from the bar were in the room, two of them seated with the third stood up at the front. The heavily made-up blond was also present, sitting just in front of me, pawing at her mobile phone.
The man from the bar, who had been standing next to a table at the front, had started talking and was pacing up and down gesturing with his hands. His movements and changes of direction forcing him to periodically steady his swinging lanyard and badge. The swinging badge and his efforts to keep it under control helped to take your mind off the banality of his presentation. Needless to say there was liberal use of the word guy and guys mixed in with some more hype about Pineapple. It was only near the end that a more insidious part of the programme was revealed. All new candidates were subject to intense monitoring and only the highest level of conduct would be tolerated. Not only were you to be under constant evaluation during the day, you were also being monitored in the evening. He concluded by suggesting, in no uncertain terms, that after the meeting we should retire to our rooms for an early night.
This last statement was quite unsettling, I could only conclude Pineapple must have spies operating in the hotel. I looked around at my fellow candidates for a reaction but they seemed oblivious to the significance of this disclosure. They just sat there, with a glazed look in their eyes, evidently happy to accept anything. Surely I wasn’t the only one that felt uncomfortable at the prospect of being watched day and night. How much of your precious life were you expected to surrender for forty grand and a company car? We left the meeting in a small flock moving toward the lifts as if shepherded by an invisible dog. My heart was telling me to rebel, go to the bar and have a few drinks but the urge to conform was too strong. I was on my own in a strange hotel full of strangers; best tow the line for the moment.
As I lay in my unfamiliar hotel room, I couldn’t help thinking Angus had been right and I had made a terrible mistake. From the start everything about Pineapple made me feel uneasy and things were getting worse. What had been billed as a straightforward induction course, turned out to be some sort of ruthless Orwellian nightmare. I consoled myself with the thought that passing the course couldn’t be that hard, after all, Charles R. Lipton had got through.
The next morning we were to be collected by coach at 8.00 a.m. outside the front of the hotel. I arrived 10 minutes early to find a small crowd had already gathered and were busy talking amongst themselves. This was the first time I’d had the chance to get a good look at some of the people I would be sharing the next couple of weeks with. I reckoned there was about thirty of us, of which the majority, were young attractive and female. I did notice there were two token older women, probably only employed to compensate for all the dolly birds, I mused. As for the men the only thing they seemed to have in common was they all looked under forty.
Apart from saying good morning, I hadn’t as yet spoken to anyone, so decided to sit by myself. This did however give me the opportunity to listen in on some of the conversations the others were having. Some of the men were sitting behind me, stereotypically positioning themselves at the back of the bus. Their discussion centred round money and how much of it you could make working for Pineapple. By the sound of it, the claim that Pineapple only wanted people that came recommended might actually be true. All the blokes at the back of the bus claimed to have friends that worked for the company. Not only that they were making a fortune for doing very little, if the boasts were to be believed. Maybe my misgivings about Pineapple were unfounded and this really was one of those rare jobs, where ageing rope could be exchanged for hard cash.
Arriving at Pineapple’s head office we made our way toward the main entrance to be greeted by a blond heavily made-up lady with a lanyard around her neck.
“Morning guys,” she said in a typically superficial manor, “if you would like to follow me with your name badges at the ready. “Hello everyone my name is Nikki Duncan, I’m one of the members of the training team here at head office,” she said forcing a smile. “Now what I will need all of you to do for me, is to take your name badges out of their holders and put them in one of these envelopes, along with the passport photo you were asked to bring with you.” “You will be issued with a day pass for now, but please ensure you collect your official passes before you leave later this afternoon,” she said. “You must wear your badge at all times with the lanyard provided as it’s required to open doors throughout the building,” said Nikki. All this security; they really must have something special they want to protect, I thought.
The group made its way up to the second floor and after negotiating several swipe card operated doors we assembled in a large classroom.
“Good morning everyone,” said a middle aged man with unusually dark hair, “don’t be shy grab yourselves a seat,” he remarked whimsically.
“OK Guys my name is Noel Edward’s and no, I’m no relation before you ask,” he said smirking pointlessly. “I’m on the training team and it’s my job to turn caterpillars, into beautiful pineapple coloured butterflies, is that OK?” he said with a scornful expression on his face. “Seriously guys its going to be hard work, but I’m sure we’ll have a lot of fun,” he said unconvincingly. “Now we need to split you into two teams, so everyone on this side of the room you’re team A.” “That means the rest of you on that side you’re team N; no just joking team B,” he said, failing to raise a snigger from anyone.
After Team B had been led away by the heavily made up blond woman known as Nikki, those remaining spaced themselves out around the desks.
“That’s better now we’ve got rid of the riffraff,” said Noel finally managing to provoke a slight chortle at long last. “Right guys lets have some introductions, a bit of I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours,” he said sneering suggestively.
This was just typical, not only was I required to endure the training; my spirit was to be crushed by an endless barrage of witless remarks.
Noel had worked for Pineapple for fifteen years but had spent the last three working as part of the training team. Prior to that he had been a regular sales consultant working for the larger directories business. I estimated his age to be around the mid fifties, despite the application of a male hair-tinting product intended to make him look younger, he was very average looking, with no real distinguishing features. He had a habit of continually playing with his wedding ring and I got the impression he was quite a nervous character. This would possibly explain his constant and unsuccessful attempts at humour. It also transpired that he lived in Bournemouth, commuting up to Solihull on a Sunday evening, where he spent the week in the very hotel the rest of us were staying in. It was one thing staying away from home occasionally but to do it for three years showed a hefty commitment to his job. Either that or Pineapple required its employees to selflessly dedicate their entire lives to the company.
My fellow trainees were a mixed bunch and almost all with the possible exception of yours truly, were from a sales background. There were estate agents, telesales people, double-glazing sales people and shop assistants. The girls were mostly young and attractive with fairly unremarkable credentials, appearance being their greatest attribute. The men were loud, confident and competitive, all having been extremely successful in their previous careers; apparently. If I was looking for a clue that there was a place for me within this organisation, it was becoming more and more apparent; I wasn’t going to find it.
“OK Guys it’s time for me to put my Father Christmas costume on and hand out some presents, that is if you’ve all been good little boys and girls,” said Noel tapping his nose with his finger. “Now don’t worry I’m not going to ask any of you to sit on my knee,” he said smirking. “At the back of the room are some black leather bags, if you could all take one each,” he said gesturing toward the back of the room. “Ok, these are you new laptops, if you would like to get them out; the laptop that is,” said a leering Noel. “I can see I’m going to have to watch you lot, I think some of you have got dirty minds,” he said winking. “We’ll do the initial set up together, but it will take you until the end of the course to be fully familiar with all the functions.” “But the good news is, by the end of the day you will be able to access the company car list,” said Noel nodding his head. The mere mention of the company car list was enough to induce spontaneous whoops of excitement from the men and excited chuckles from the women.
It was easy to see these were the sort of people that were easily influenced by symbols of status. All Pineapple had to do was dangle the keys to some shiny new bauble and they would sell their soul. Don’t get me wrong, cars were the reason I’d started work in the first place so I understood the appeal. Years spent working in the motor trade had lessened my desire for all things automotive. I was beginning to discover the more varied my experiences, within the world of work became, the less interested I was, in its trappings.
To ensure candidates didn’t spend every night in the bar fraternising with one another, Pineapple provided nightly homework assignments. It was possible to complete this work in the periods before and after dinner, this allowed for a couple of hours of fraternising before bed. The girls tended to stick together and were usually to be found huddled round a table, while the boys propped up the bar and attempted to out brag each other. The company was generally OK if not a little uninspiring, conversations generally revolved around money and cars, or cars and money.
The legendary Pineapple sales process turned out to be nothing more than an elaborate script; a script that sales consultants were required to stick to without deviation. This script was split into several component parts; this allowed the customer some input. This customer input then dictated which part of the script was to be used next. It operated like a flow chart, if the customer says this, we follow the line to the square box, if his answer is this, we drop down to the round box. To ensure consultants would stick to the script, each new section was tirelessly rehearsed, by role-playing it, over and over again. Written tests would be randomly carried out to check the trainees had fully absorbed the information. As an added incentive the candidate that received the best scores from the written tests and was deemed the most effective at communicating the script, would be crowned course champion, or Top Pineapple! This was the ultimate accolade entitling the winner to a gold pineapple trophy; a framed certificate with a pineapple watermark and a small enamelled top pineapple lapel pin, in the shape of; you guessed it a pineapple.
Evidently the factor that set pineapple sales consultants apart from your usual everyday salesperson, was their ability to stick word for word to a script. The glaring downside to this strategy as far as I could see, was that the script was awful. Not only was it awful, it was glaringly obvious to even the most gullible and naïve simpleton that you were about to sell them something. Not only that, but to sell them something they didn’t really want, need; or would be of any benefit to them, now or ever.
Figuratively speaking, within minutes of the script being implemented the customer would start to realise he or she were being tied to the train tracks by a dastardly individual with a top hat and moustache. Soon after they would start to feel the tracks vibrate as the Pineapple express, its boxcars filled to bursting with bull shit, inexorably bore down on them. It would be at this point that they would realise they were being set up and scream for help. At the very last minute they would free themselves, or alternatively, someone would step in and throw the points just in the nick of time. Catastrophe avoided the dastardly individual would then be run out of town and told never to show their face again.
The entire purpose was to steer the customer into accepting a much bigger advertising programme than they needed. Once their advert was printed it would be a full twelve months before it could be altered. As far as repeat business and customer satisfaction was concerned, that bridge could be crossed next year. Obviously this was my own assessment of the Pineapple sales process, having read between the tracks as it were. As far as the company was concerned the sales process was only there as a tool to ensure the customer received the best advice possible. Under no circumstances would they condone its consultants; mislead or otherwise influence customers. Well that was certainly the company line; but it would be; wouldn’t it, I mean how many times had I heard that old banana before, I thought.
This was old-fashioned foot in the door selling; it was an old-fashioned method for an old fashioned type of advertising. Using dolled up girls in short skirts and slick desperadoes with little of no concept of right and wrong could never be sustainable. By the end of the second week I was feeling very nervous about doing any of this, for real. Short-term gain is a concept quite often embraced in the world of sales, but it’s also a concept favoured by confidence tricksters and criminals. Now I’m not saying companies that operate this way are doing anything illegal, but the line between honest and dishonest was a little hard to define. Most people have an in-built sense for what is right and wrong hardwired into their psyche. They don’t necessarily need a law to point out that they are doing someone a disservice.
The course finally drew to a close and the awards were handed out to the students that had demonstrated the greatest capacity for being taught what to think. An attractive heavily made- up brunette girl achieved the ultimate accolade and was crowned Top Pineapple. Much to the dismay of another heavily made-up girl and one of the men, who were conspicuously outraged. Not to be left out I presented myself with the coveted Lip Biters Challenge Shield; awarded to; opinionated know all’s; who have continuously managed to keep their big mouths shut in the most extreme of circumstances. As for passing the course, everyone had passed, which was not at all surprising, given what we had subsequently discovered.
On our very first day, we were all issued with brand new laptop computers individually encased within expensive black leather, laptop bags. On closer inspection of my laptop bag, I discovered a grocery receipt from a well-known twenty-four hour supermarket. Items listed on the receipt included, one litre of vodka, a frozen pizza, nail varnish remover and a roll of cling film. Essential ingredients for a great night in, they may have been; nevertheless this evidence could only lead to one conclusion; this bag had belonged to someone else. At some point during the second week it became clear to some of us that Pineapple Business Link had a high staff turnover. An average of sixty new trainees a month passed through the so-called training centre. Training centre, it was more like some sort of depraved sausage factory.
One of many possible explanations for the hideously high staff turnover came to light when our trainer Noel Edwards explained the terms of the company bonus scheme. We had all assumed the job attracted a basic salary of forty thousand pounds plus a substantial target linked bonus. This was technically correct, what they neglected to tell you was that a proportion of the quarterly bonus, was paid up front. Approximately two thirds of the salary, was in fact bonus. This money was paid on the assumption you were going to achieve your target; any additional bonuses were only paid if your target was exceeded. This essentially meant, that if by the end of the quarter things weren’t going your way; you could end up handing your wages back.
Noel Edwards attempted to quickly gloss over the alarming new information regarding the salary structure. When pressed on the issue by one of the more sceptical girls, he attempted to reassure everyone, by insisting the bonus threshold was child’s play to achieve. His reasoning, was based around the way customer accounts were allocated, simply keeping your customers advertising would be enough to achieve bonus. With that little matter dealt with Noel moved swiftly on and the subject was never mentioned again. Mercifully it was time to return home, we all said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch. Ironically, if any of us were going to succeed we would need to accustom ourselves, to breaking the odd promise.
Travelling home on the train gave me a chance to consider the nature of the new vocation that I was about to become involved in. This new job may have still been about selling, but this was selling hope, not something tangible like a car or a van. Advertising is speculative, gambling that a small stake will bring a large return. In reality the odds were stacked in favour of the house, no matter what happens the house always wins. You may also find that, unscrupulous advertising companies are more than happy to accommodate unscrupulous advertisers. Allowing them to place big glossy adverts to promote their less than glossy, goods and services. The losers, those who ultimately pay for all of this, are the genuine and the trusting, those that believe everyone has a good side. Genuine individuals are often seen as weak, this makes them legitimate targets for abuse, literally asking to be deceived.
It wasn’t hard to see why selling often received a bad press, because in the wrong hands it could be quite destructive. The problem was it could be used to do good things, or to do bad things. Selling was a type of psychological process, a process that could be used to uncover needs, or to encourage desires. It was a process designed to influence or reassure, unfortunately it was also a process with which to mislead. If selling were always conducted ethically, technically the profits would be about the same; they would just be spread out more evenly. Inevitably an organisation will make the decision to be economical with the truth to gain a competitive advantage and that’s when the rot sets in.
Sally collected me from Lancaster station and we made our way back up to Damp Beck Road. The next few weeks were going to be busy, not only was I due to start my new job, but the ground works for our new house were about to get underway. Tommy had stripped the topsoil and levelled the site the previous week ready for Donnie our newly appointed builder. We had managed to enlist the services of both an architect and a builder at the same time, courtesy of my friend Raymond. Malcolm Maynard and Donnie Ridley had both worked for Raymond’s father’s haulage company in the past and came highly recommended.
The process of designing a house, as far as the customer was concerned, proved to be simpler than Sally or I had imagined. Malcolm simply asked us to provide a rough floor plan for each story and he would do the rest. We had made the decision to build the largest house we could possibly get away with, but in line with the rest of the street, we only had planning consent to build a single story structure. This meant the second story would need to be accommodated within the roof space. To achieve this we intended to build a large L shaped dormer bungalow with a tall wide roof. Malcolm wasted no time and soon had a set of plans ready to submit and after a couple of tweaks, permission was granted. Now that we had the green light we needed to get to work as soon as possible.
Building a house could certainly come under the heading work, but it might not be the sort of work most people get involved in directly. This story is about why we work and not an instruction manual for the aspiring self-builder, with this in mind; most of the mundane details have been omitted. In recent years television programmes about DIY property renovation and the building of dream houses have entered the mainstream. A good story requires a hero or heroine, some overwhelming odds to overcome a pot of gold and a happy ever after ending. This type of programming often serves as a vehicle to provide all these elements. In reality the process for creating the average new house is relatively dull in nature and generally speaking would make pretty tedious television. Houses are built in a very similar way and are fundamentally quite simple to construct. After all, if they were really all that complicated how is it there are so many of them? Still it would be naive for the novice property developer to think he could sail majestically through the process without encountering the odd bit of chop.
As far as our build was concerned we were now entering the latter part of the year, allowing us only a short time to complete the ground works before the weather turned. Ideally we needed dry conditions for the foundations and frost-free conditions to successfully concrete the floors. The plan was to get the building out of the ground and up to floor level before the winter weather halted our progress. Donnie was keen to start pouring the foundations on Thursday, so had arranged to be on site Saturday morning to mark everything out for Tommy the digger driver.
Donnie Ridley was a broad, squat, well-weathered Scotsman in his early fifties; he looked more like a deep water Arctic trawler man, than a builder. Years spent living south of the border had done nothing to lessen his broad Scottish accent.
“Morning Travis I didn’t think you’d be out of your bed yet,” said a grinning Donnie.
“It’s nearly 10 a.m. I’ve been up for hours,” I replied indignantly.
Whenever Donnie spoke to me I always suspected he was having some sort of private joke at my expense.
“I wasn’t sure if you were coming on your own, or if you might need some help,” I said.
“Colin is here with me Travis, but you know what they say, many hands make light work, Aye they do say that Travis,” said a grinning Donnie.
Donnie and his sidekick Colin spent the day carefully marking out the positions for the foundation trenches. I spent the day making tea, sitting on a pile of topsoil and occasionally holding a large telescopic aluminium level staff.
Monday morning and Donnie arrived to supervise the digging of the foundation trenches.
“So where’s this digger driver of yours then Travis?” said Donnie with a big grin on his face.
“He said he would be here,” I replied, “it’s only just gone eight.”
“Aye he’s probably still lying in his bed Travis, more than likely, still in bed,” said Donnie.
“He said 8 a.m. and its only 10 past,” I said, “I’ll need to get to work Donnie, I don’t want to be late for my first day.”
“Aye you don’t want them to think you still tucked up in you bed Travis,” said Donnie, “aye you wouldn’t want them to think that now.”
As I walked toward my car I heard the unmistakable sound of a JCB Site Master excavator making its way down Damp Beck Road.
“He’s here Donnie,” I said, “any problems, you can get me on my mobile, Sally will give you the number.”
“Aye I think we can manage without you Travis, aye I think we’ll manage, but if I get stuck I’ll be sure to give you ring,” said Donnie tittering.
Tuesday lunchtime and after a soul destroying morning on the telephone spent trying to make appointments, I found myself staring at the rain from the window of the Pineapple Segment office. Alone in the office, my first job fresh from the course was to make appointments to visit customers that had been allocated to me. I had been handed a large printout, alphabetically listing all the accounts I was now responsible for. All I had to do was call them and politely ask if I could call round for a chat, a simple enough task, or so I thought. So far I had made eighty telephone calls but had only managed to make three firm appointments. It was incredibly frustrating, either there was no answer, or the person you needed to speak to wasn’t available. If you did mange to actually get to speak to someone, they were usually far too busy to even think about seeing you.
A welcome interruption from the demoralising task came when I received a call from Sally. She only worked up until 12.30 on a Wednesday so had returned to Damp Beck Road early.
“Travis I’ve just got back, it’s pouring with rain and the foundations have got water in them,” said Sally.
“I suppose you would expect there to be a bit of water especially seeing it’s raining,” I replied.
“I’m not sure how deep the water is but it seems to be in all the trenches,” said Sally, “I’ll give Donnie a call to see what he says,” I said.
“Donnie its Travis, Sally’s up at the site and she says the foundations are full of water.”
“Aye, we can handle a few puddles Travis, I have some wellingtons I can wear if need be,” said Donnie sarcastically.
“Sally seemed to think it was more than just puddles, she said every trench was full,” I said.
“Give the plant hire place in Long Row a call Travis, see if they have a pump for dirty water, you could pick it up on your way home,” said Donnie.
“The first load of concrete is booked for 10.30 a.m. so the water will need to be out before then,” he said.
By the time I got back to the caravan with the pump, it was dark and the rain was getting heavier. Sally came down to the car with a torch so I could inspect the foundations for myself. Damp Beck Road was starting to live up to its name; I estimated there was at least a foot of water in the trenches.
“We better check to see if this pump is going to work Sally,” I said, “Donnie wants the water out before the first concrete arrives at 10.30.”
“I’ll get changed and we can give it a quick test run before the morning.”
Sally and I manhandled the pump out of the back of the car, dragging it over the mud to the side of one of the trenches. Having managed to connect the suction hose I lowered the strainer into the bottom of the trench. Switching on the fuel and setting the choke I attempted to start the pump. Despite my best efforts the damn thing just wouldn’t co-operate, I must be missing something obvious I thought. Kneeling down with the torch I discovered the ignition switch was in the off position. Just as I flicked the switch, part of the side of the trench I was kneeling on gave way and I slid sideways into the filthy water.
“Are you OK,” said Sally shining the touch into my muddy face, “it’s deeper that I thought,” I spluttered scrambling out of the trench.
Despite the slapstick, I managed to get the pump running and after a few gurgles was now producing a steady flow from its outlet hose. Satisfied the pump would do its job; I retreated to the caravan awning for decontamination.
As we settled in for the evening the rain got steadily heavier, highlighting a new and somewhat tiresome feature of our compact home. The noise produced as the rain beat down on the caravans thin aluminium shell was defining. It sounded like a heard of cloven footed animals, folk dancing on the roof. Despite the noise, we somehow managed to grab a few uneasy hours of sleep. The next morning I was woken by a beam of sunlight, shining in past the roof-light blind. Mercifully the rain had stopped and by the look of things had given way to a cold but sunny morning. Unzipping the awning I made my way across the sodden ground to the top of the site. The foundation trenches were now completely flooded, and there was a small stream flowing down toward the beck at the entrance. My neighbour’s garden was submerged and the beck looked like it was struggling to cope with the volume of water. The word damp no longer seemed an adequate description for the raging torrent that was threatening to submerge the entire street.
As I stood surveying the watery scene Donnie’s white Transit van splashed onto the site and parked next to one of the newly formed ponds.
“Where’s all this bloody water come from Travis?” said Donnie grinning from the open door of the Transit. “I leave him in charge for one day and look what he does Colin,” said Donnie winking at his sidekick. “I hope you’ve got that pump Travis, because it looks like we might need it, aye that’s what it looks like.”
Having first amused themselves with jokes about swimming pools, canoes, wetsuits etc Donnie and Colin got the pump started. “I better get changed or I’ll be late for work Donnie,” I said turning back towards the caravan.
“Aye don’t you worry about us now Travis, you just concentrate on picking your Pineapples, Colin and me will get this lot mopped up,” said Donnie.
Thankfully the level of the water in the trenches had noticeably fallen by the time I was due to leave for work.
“Looks like it’s working Donnie,” I said getting into the car, “we’ve got it under control now Travis, aye its all back under control now,” said Donnie.
Later that day I received a call from Donnie, the operation to pour the foundations had gone almost to plan. Seemingly during the excavations earlier in the week, they had inadvertently dug through a main field drain. This drain traversed the site piping water from the field down to the Beck; this explained the voluminous amounts of water that ended up in the trenches. Fortunately the rain had stayed off, so by the time the first load of concrete arrived the flow from the damaged drain had all but stopped, allowing Donnie enough time to successfully cast the foundation. As a temporary measure Donnie had dug down to the drain to allow any water to rise to the surface. In the last twenty-four hours, Damp Beck Road had proved to be damper than anyone could have imagined.
It was Monday, a Monday that I hadn’t been looking forward to. I felt sure that after this Monday my spirit might give Damp Beck Road a run for its money, as far as general dampness was concerned. To my horror Gary Bess, our esteemed segment manager and legendary Pineapple salesperson was due to spend the day accompanying me. To make matters worse I had only managed to arrange two genuine appointments, despite making in excess of fifty phone calls. Even after following the Pineapple appointment script, to the letter, convincing my customers to see me was proving depressingly difficult. Hopefully Gary Bess would provide me with some helpful hints and show me where I was going wrong. I arrived at the office early only to find it deserted; this wasn’t unusual, as it always seemed to be deserted. I could only conclude, my fellow sales consultants had perfected the dark art of appointment making.
I made myself a cup of tea, opened the blinds and sat down at my desk staring blankly out of the window at the almost deserted car park. My trance was broken as a gold Audi convertible swung into view and pulled up sharply, outside the window. I watched as Gary Bess climbed out; his mobile phone pressed firmly to his ear. Entering the office, Gary winked at me as he disappeared into the kitchen while talking loudly on his phone.
“Don’t you worry mate, It wont be long before you see some results,” I overheard heard Gary say. “I know it was a lot of money mate, are you sure you’re not getting any response,” he said. “I really can’t believe you haven’t had one single call from the ad mate, have you checked to see if your phones are working OK?” “Look, I’m so sorry mate; I’m going to have to go now I have to sort out a customer that wants to double the size of his ad.” “Listen mate, how about you give the ad a couple more weeks and see how it goes.” “You know I’ll do everything I can to help you, after all that’s what I’m here for mate,” said Gary adopting a sycophantic apologetic tone.
“Morning mate,” said Gary emerging from the kitchen clutching a cup of coffee, “what have you got planned for us today then?”
“We’re seeing a company that makes fireworks first, then we’re going to see a firm that sells industrial plasma cutters,” I replied.
“Just the two calls mate? You’ll struggle to get round all your accounts seeing just two per day,” said Gary pulling a concerned expression.
“I was going to ask you about that, I said, on the rare occasion I actually get to speak to someone they are usually too busy to see me.”
“I don’t understand it, they told us on the training course that if we stuck the script, making appointments would be easy,” I said.
“Listen mate you’ve got be a bit clever if you want to get round your accounts,” said Gary. “If they say they are to busy to see you, tell them you’re too busy to see them and you might not get another chance.”
“Tell them, there are that many new customers desperate to get into the directory, you can’t even guarantee them a place,” replied Gary pulling another apologetic expression. “That gets them thinking mate I can tell you; tell them you might not be able to get them back in; that’ll get your diary full mate,” said Gary.
It seemed to me there was another reason the customers weren’t exactly over the moon at the news a representative from Pineapple Business Link wanted to see them. For a start, it appeared you never dealt with the same customer more than once. Most of my customers had previously been allocated to either Gary Bess or Charles R. Lipton. This was one of the reasons I was having such a hard time getting in front of anyone. Time after time I would get the same feedback, you’re not the man I dealt with last time, what’s happened to him, I would like a word with him; he told me; he promised, I think you get the general idea. So far my short experience in the field, only served to reinforce my earliest reservations with regard to my new employer.
Taking my car we left the office en-route to our first call, Sunshine Fireworks Ltd, for a meeting with their sales director. Fortunately it was raining which had saved me the embarrassment of pulling up outside my client’s premises in a gaudy gold Audi convertible presumably with the roof down. Finding a space in the car park, we headed over toward the main entrance.
“Right mate, I’ll let you do all the talking, but if he starts getting a bit smart I’ll be sure to put him right, OK,” said Gary.
“Morning,” I said to the receptionist “we have an appointment to see Mr Guy Spooner, it’s Travis Bone and Gary Bess from Pineapple Business Link.”
“If you would like to take a seat I will tell Guy you are here,” said the receptionist gesturing toward an area of seats.
“Morning gentlemen,” said a tall slim dark haired man with a moustache and small beard, “come through, my office is this way.”
We followed Guy Spooner; if that was really his name, into a large brightly lit corner office.
“Take a seat gentlemen,” said Mr Spooner.
“My name is Travis Bone, we spoke on the phone and this is my colleague Gary Bess.”
“It’s an honour to meet you Guy,” said Gary thrusting out his hand.
“Yes nice to meet you Gary and you as well Travis,” said a rather bewildered Mr Spooner. “I was pleased you called Travis, I have been wanting a word with a representative from your organisation,” said Mr Spooner.
“OK that’s fine,” I said, we want to ensure you are getting the best possible returns from the ads you have placed with us.” “Before we start Mr Spooner, would it be all right if I ask you some questions about your business, just to see if anything has changed,” I said trying to remember the script.
“Yes that would be fine Travis, although I will say that I have gone through a similar process with all of your predecessors,” said Mr Spooner politely.
“So where does Sunshine Fireworks get most of its business?” I said.
“Well Travis, up until recently from a variety of wholesale and retail groups,” said Mr Spooner. “However we have just secured an exclusive contract with a budget retailer which will absorb all our capacity.” “The contract is so large we will be forced to terminate some of our smaller obligations, which brings me on to the reason I wanted to see you,” said Mr Spooner. “You see Travis: for the foreseeable future we no longer need to attract any additional business.”
Game set and match, cheque mate, even snap, these were all phrases that suddenly jumped into my mind. The chances of talking this man into buying more advertising had, to pardon the analogy just gone up in smoke.
“So it’s like this gentlemen, Sunshine Fireworks won’t require a presence in your publication next year,” said Mr Spooner.
“OK Mr Spooner,” I said, “I see your dilemma, so how about we keep a small presence so your current customers.”
“Guy mate Guy,” butted in Gary, “You don’t want to be doing that; that just makes no sense at all mate. Listen mate, we’ve got other firework places doing a bomb out of our directory, they get so much business it’s not true mate, honestly.” “You’d have to be barking mad not to be in the directory Guy, barking mad or stupid or something, if you don’t mind me saying that is Guy,”
“Listen Guy, I’ll let you into a secret, now I haven’t told anyone else about this, but I we might have a way of getting you to the front of the listing for fireworks,” said Gary whispering slightly. “Now Guy mate, I’m not guaranteeing anything mate, you understand, but I’m here for you Guy.” “Look Guy, I’m going to do everything I can for you mate,” said Gary to an incensed looking Mr Spooner, who to pardon yet another pun was about to go off like a bomb.
“What a stupid sod that was Travis, you can’t just come out of the directory, he didn’t know what he was talking about,” said Gary. “I had him there mate, he couldn’t deny I was right in what I was saying to him, I mean anyone could see I was talking perfect sense.” “Now that’s selling mate, that right there, that’s what you call selling, I hope you picked up a few pointers there mate,” said a self-satisfied Gary, as we got back in the car.
“Gary we were thrown off the premises, I’m not sure if everyone would consider our sales performance as all that successful,” I replied.
“You’re being a bit dramatic there Travis mate, being asked to leave isn’t the same as being thrown out,” said Gary. “Give the daft old sod a couple of days and he’ll be back with his tail between his legs, Better, still give him a couple of days and call him up, tell we’ll come back and see him, no hard feelings and all that,” said a totally oblivious Gary.
Our next appointment was about an hour’s drive away; happily Gary spent most of that time talking to disgruntled customers on his mobile phone.
“This is the place Thomas Holland Ltd,” I said out loud as we pulled up outside a long building.
“I’m so sorry to hear that mate,” said Gary still talking on his phone, “maybe we need to look at the layout of the ad, bit busy right now mate I’ll need to come back to you.”
“We’re running a bit late Gary, it took longer than I thought to get here,” I said. “Treat ’em mean keep ’em keen mate, that’s what they say, who are we going to see here then?” asked Gary.
“Its another Gary actually, Gary Holland he’s the operations manager, I think it a family business,” I said.
“Now you’re talking mate, Gary now that a name you can trust, this will be a walk in the park, believe me,” said Gary.
We walked along to the end of the building to a set of double glass doors, which led into a showroom. A man behind a long counter acknowledged us as we walked in.
“Can I help,” said the man.
“We have an appointment to see Gary Holland, it’s Travis and Gary from Pineapple Business Link,” I replied.
“Give me a moment and I’ll get him, I think he’s down in the warehouse,” said the man.
There were some fantastic machines on display in the showroom, fantastic that is if you had any sort of interest in high velocity ionised gas cutting equipment. This was the sort of stuff real workers used I thought, the sort of equipment you needed skill to operate, the sort of equipment that made things.
Where would we be, if it weren’t for the people that actually produced real things, yet these were the people that were becoming the minority? Industry and manufacturing was in a decline, now the biggest employer was the service industry. Service industry, it wasn’t very industrial or industrious, it was in fact, just a breeding ground, a breeding ground for actors and the perfect hiding place for the untalented and the unskilled. This was a place where you could go about your daily business without ever contributing anything to the evolution of mankind. We had progressed from the Stone Age to the Iron Age, passed through the Industrial Revolution to the Information Age. Would this ultimately mean civilisation would cease to evolve and the age of the Service Industry would be the last great age?
Maybe our evolution had halted somehow, or maybe our civilisation had split, into two distinct groups without our knowledge. The first group, the majority had been left to service what was left of our now obsolete manufacturing infrastructure. This group didn’t have to innovate or create; they just needed the ability to talk about innovating or creating and keep what was left behind cobbled together. The second group, armed with true abilities and talents had developed technology beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Utilising this technology they built a better society, a society that no longer needed to work to survive. Free from poverty, illness and crime, they could spend time pursuing their true passions. Ultimately enabling them to travel to the stars where they could seek out new life and new civilisations and boldly go where no man had gone before!
“So which is the bit that cuts stuff then Travis?” said Gary, twiddling the dial on the front of a large red, plasma-cutting machine.
“It’s the torch at the end of that large black cable,” I replied.
“What this?” said a puzzled looking Gary, holding up the torch.
“That doesn’t look sharp enough to cut anything,” said a quite serious Gary.
“It works by generating an electric arc, which then melts the metal, a jet of air or gas then blows the molten metal away,” I said.
“It’s all a bit boring if you ask me Travis,” said Gary while doing that pretend yawn thing with his hand up to his face.
“Morning lads,” said a dark haired man that had appeared from behind the counter, “I’m Gary, Gary Holland.”
“Morning I’m Travis and this is Gary,” I said.
“Always a pleasure to meet another Gary,” said Gary thrusting out his hand. “I’ve just been admiring some of the cutters you have on display Gary. “I had no idea cutters came in such a nice range of colours,” said Gary to our bemused host.
“Come through lads,” said Gary Holland, “would you like a tea or a coffee?”
“Coffee for me please Gary, milk and two sugars, if it’s not too much trouble, please mate thank you,” said a fawning Gary.
“Tea with milk please,” I replied.
“Have a seat lads, I won’t be a minute,” said Gary Holland, as he left the room.
“See that Travis,” said Gary, “I bet he’d never thought about the colours being a good selling point.” “Advertising’s all about the hook Travis, you’ve just got to know what the hook is my old son,” said Gary winking knowingly.
“What happened to the lad I saw last year, a tall well-spoken skinny bloke with glasses, is he still with you?” said Gary Holland.
“That sounds like it could have been Charles, Charles Lipton, yes he’s still with us,” I replied.
“Every year I get someone different, I don’t think I’ve ever had the same person twice,” said Gary Holland.
“Very well spotted Gary,” said Gary, “you see advertising’s all about new ideas, looking at things with a fresh set of eyes,” said Gary adopting an apologetic tone. “To be perfectly honest with you Gary, we would be doing you a huge disservice if we kept sending the same old consultant year after year.” “Gary if I had a penny for every time I’ve heard my customers say; why can’t we see you again this year Gary, I’d be a millionaire Gary,” said Gary.
“Before we start, would it be all right if I ask you some questions about your business, just to see if anything has changed,” I asked.
“You can if you want Travis, but we made quite a lot of changes last year when we went for national coverage,” said Gary Holland.
“Your man Charles Lipton fell lucky last year, as we had just become agents for two new manufacturers and they agreed to contribute towards our advertising.” “It was a lot of money to go national, so I made sure all our new enquiries were carefully monitored.” “The results weren’t as good as we had hoped, but the business we did get probably covered the cost of the extra adverts,” said Gary Holland. “Look lads, you’ll be pleased to know, that having given the matter some careful thought, we’ve decided to continue with the programme we had last year,” said a grinning Gary Holland. “I’m a little bit busy today lads, so if you’ve got some paperwork for me, I’ll sign it and you can be on your way,” he said.
My heart had been in my mouth for a second there; Thomas Holland Ltd was my biggest single account, an account that I couldn’t afford to lose. This was a good result, best quit while we are ahead I thought, reaching for my contract pad.
“Gary mate, it’s good that you want to do the same again, don’t get me wrong Gary, but are you sure it’s the right thing to do?” said Gary shaking his head.
“Travis, have you got a copy of Gary’s ad from last year, it should be in his file.” “Ok lets have a butchers shall we Gary, it’s not a bad advert but it is missing something,” said Gary.
Stunned by Gary’s intervention, I felt like a rabbit frozen in the headlights, all I could do now was brace myself and hope for a quick and painless end.
“What struck me straight away was the lovely colours these cutters come in Gary, that’s a great selling point Gary.” “If I was looking for a new cutter because I had some stuff that needed cutting, I’d be tickled pink if I knew you could get them in different colours; Gary.” “I think we need something in the ad that says something about the different colours what you can get, what do you think Gary?” said Gary.
Judging by the expression on Gary Holland’s face, he was trying to work out if Gary was being serious. Fortunately he must have concluded that Gary was just an ignorant cretin, so had opted for the polite diplomatic response.
“The make and size determine the colour of the machine; it’s not something that you can specify,” replied Gary Holland.
At this point and for no other reason than to save some of my personal credibility, I jumped to my colleague’s aid. “I think what Gary is suggesting is that the ad might benefit from a splash of colour, just to lift it off the page,” I said.
“That’s how it’s done Travis,” said Gary as we walked back to the car, “did you see how I hooked him in to spending more, by pointing out about the colours.” “If you could get every punter to add a bit a colour to their ad you’ll have no trouble hitting your target.” “You’ve got to learn to be a bit clever in this game Travis, a bit subtle.” “It’s all about making little suggestions, just a little suggestion that’s all it needs mate,” said Gary with a knowing smirk. “Make them think it was their idea, it works every time, they’ll fall for it every time, you mark my words.”
“That’s good advice Gary,” I said astonished I had been capable of making such an insincere statement without throwing up. Mercifully I was spared from anymore of Gary’s insights, as he spent the entire journey back to the office, answering voicemails from disillusioned customers.
Winter had now arrived and as the temperatures dropped, Damp Beck Road was beginning to solidify. Donnie was keen to get the floors cast so work on the main building shell could begin in the New Year. He had managed to get the foundation block work in place, which allowed us to see the outlines of the downstairs rooms. If the downstairs was anything to go by this was going to be a huge house, with huge rooms. One of the characteristics of caravan living is that it brings the occupants much closer to nature. One aspect that became particularly noticeable was the cold, Damp Beck Road’s extreme rural location only serving to intensify the problem. Prompted by this, I decided to investigate the effects temperature could have on large areas of freshly laid concrete.
“Morning Donnie,” I said as I walked down the makeshift path from our caravan to the site.
“Morning Travis,” he replied. “Its nice to see you’ve finally managed to drag yourself away from your bed,” said a grinning Donnie.
“I didn’t think it was that late,” I replied.
“Not that late he say’s Colin, aye it’s not that late,” said Donnie grinning at Colin. “Aye you can’t beat an early start especially when you’ve got concrete on the way Travis,” said Donnie.
“Actually it was the concrete that I what I wanted to talk to you about Donnie,” I said. “You see, I was having a look on the Internet and apparently its unwise to pour concrete if the temperature is below minus one degree centigrade.”
“The Internet you say?” said Donnie, “Travis is talking about the Internet Colin, I might not know much about the Internet, but I know about pouring concrete, aye we know a thing or two about concrete, don’t we Colin.”
As I left for work that day Donnie and Colin was busy directing a steady flow of concrete from the chute of a large ready mix concrete truck.
“Are you sure we’re all right to poor this concrete Travis, its not to cold is it,” shouted a Jeering Donnie as I scraped the ice from my car windscreen.
That night the temperature plummeted and a thick layer of ice formed across the newly laid concrete floors. It remained in this state for several days before the temperature lifted enough for the ice to finally thaw. With the ice gone I took my first steps onto the huge concrete footprint of our new house. It soon became apparent something wasn’t right, there seemed to be what looked like a layer of loose gravel covering the new concrete slab. Grabbing a stiff brush from our caravan awning I proceeded to brush some of the loose material away. The top surface of the concrete was breaking up and the more I brushed the more came away. It was a depressing thought, but it was starting to look like the entire concrete floor slab was potentially ruined. Even more depressing, was the fact that our highly qualified and experienced builder had failed at such an early stage. This was a big blow and I was starting to feel a lot less confident about the whole project.
Donnie was unusually quiet as I described the condition of the floors to him over the phone, other than saying he would be over to inspect them in the morning. On hearing Donnie’s van, I pulled on my Wellington boots, unzipped the awning and made my way down to the site. Donnie was stood on the concrete kicking bits from the surface with his foot.
“The frosts got into it Travis,” said Donnie despondently.
“What can we do to fix it?” I said, “we’ll need to re screed the floor, once the shell is water tight,” said Donnie. “I can build the wall plate up an extra four inches and that should be enough to compensate for the thicker floor,” said Donnie.
In hindsight we should have waited for warmer weather before trying to lay such a large area of concrete. In Donnie’s defence he had successfully laid concrete under harsher conditions in the past. Current building regulations require the use of far more insulation then was deemed necessary previously. We had decided to have solid concrete floors because we wanted to floor tile a significant area of the downstairs. The specification for the floors as laid out by the planners required us to provide one hundred and fifty millimetres of high-grade insulation beneath the concrete. This would serve to insulate the floors from the underlying ground and retaining heat in the floor slab. Unfortunately in this case the insulation had worked to keep out any latent heat from the ground and hold the cold in the slab. This allowed the water in the setting concrete to expand, fracturing the surface layer of concrete. To remedy the problem we planned to lay an additional layer of fibre reinforced floor screed. This would be laid over the top of the damaged surface; the additional floor height would then be allowed for, by raising the height of the downstairs walls.
Spring arrived and despite the initial set backs, work on the house was progressing extremely well. Donnie had almost completed the brick and block work and was due to leave site until the joiners had finished the structural elements of the roof. In view of the scale of the project we had decided early on, to leave some of the specialist trades to specialist tradesmen. These included the building of the shell, the roof, windows and external doors, electrical installation and plastering. Sally and I would be responsible for internal joinery, dry lining, plumbing and heating, bathrooms, kitchens, decorating and landscaping. As the building became closer to becoming a watertight shell, the enormity of the task we had set ourselves began to become clear. It wasn’t that I doubted we wouldn’t be able to complete them; it was how long it was going to take us to complete them.
As far as working for Pineapple was concerned it was most definitely going from bad to worse and I wasn’t sure how much more of it I could endure. It was around this time that I visited an accountant who’s advertising account I had been allocated. During this visit and our subsequent conversation I had mentioned my self-build project. It turned out that he had a number of successful property developers as clients. The housing market had been rising steadily for several years; this had provided an opportunity for some tradesmen to develop properties of their own. During my visit he took the time to calculate what my potential hourly rate could be if I decided to sell the house on completion. It turned out that based on the rough figures I had provided, I could potentially be earning ten times more working on our house, than I would working for Pineapple.
Seeing this illustration in black and white only served to strengthen my resolve; I had to find a way to work on the house full-time. Not just for the money, but so I wouldn’t need to spend another day of my precious existence in the employ of Pineapple Business Link. The accountant had kindly scribbled down the name of a bank contact that had helped one of his client’s finance a property project. Driving back to Damp Beck Road that night, I felt I had almost everything needed to secure a better way of life for both Sally and myself. If we could successfully build one house, we could do it again. This could be the opportunity we had been looking for, a chance to make our own way in life, a chance to escape. Unfortunately I was missing the one fundamental element we all require if we want to break free: Money!
The following day I sat alone in the Pineapple Segment office staring at the scrap of paper the accountant had given me. Freedom felt so close, yet so far away, how would I be able to convince any bank to lend us money if I resigned from my job. Even if they agreed to take us on, how would we be able to pay back the loan if I had no income? Who in their right mind would lend money to someone with no previous business experience and no way of paying them back? Despite these seemingly overwhelming obstacles I picked up the phone and dialled the number.
“Good afternoon, Mark Randall,” said a voice at the other end of the phone.
“Hello, my name is Travis Bone, I was given your name by Ian Woods of Ian Woods accountancy services,” I replied nervously.
“Oh yes how can I help,” he said.
“Yes, well I’m building a house, doing a lot of the work myself and well Ian Woods thought you might be able to help fund the project,” I said.
“Are you a developer?” said Mark.
“Yes I suppose so,” I replied. “My partner and I developed a couple of other properties before this one.”
“I’m not sure if you will be able to help, we have finished building the shell and I wanted to give up my job so I can work full-time on the project,” I said. “Initially we were building the house for ourselves, but have since decided to sell it on, with the view to developing property full-time,” I said.
“OK,” replied Mark, “we might be able to help, it is the sort of thing we get involved in.”
At first I wasn’t sure if he had heard everything I had said, so before I got my hopes up I thought it was best just to clarify the position.
“So the fact I wouldn’t have a job and wouldn’t be able to pay anything back, that’s OK is it?” I said tentatively.
“Naturally you would need to pay any monies we lent to you back, plus interest of course,” replied Mark. “We would expect repayment when the property was sold, or within a pre agreed time period,” he said.
“Look, Travis, give me call next week on this number and we will set up a meeting. I will need you to provide a set of plans and copies of all relevant documents appertaining to the land purchase planning consents, that sort of thing.”
“Right Mark, that’s great,” I said hardly able to contain my excitement, “I will call you next week.”
Driving back to Damp Beck Road I couldn’t stop thinking about my conversation with the man from the bank. It felt like I had been let into some sort of closely guarded secret that only a select few were privy to. Up until this point I had no idea you could borrow a large sum of money and pay it back when it suited you. Up until now I had always been an employee receiving a wage, either at the end of the week or the end of the month. Having received my wage I was then able to spend the money, buying the things that I needed or wanted. Based on my own experience I had assumed if you borrowed money you would be required to pay it back from your earnings every month. Ironically this was probably just an example of the reckless lending practices that were driving the property boom that had brought us here in the first place.
In the weeks that followed the bank agreed to finance our project, allowing both Sally and I to become full time developers. Working for Pineapple Business Link had served its purpose; it had allowed me to get our building project underway. It had also served to add credibility to the idea that our lives are already mapped out. Straying from your designated path instinctively feels wrong but sometimes you have to travel the path for a while before you realise. Pineapple had been an unpleasant experience, but an experience none the less, an experience that was never meant to last. It certainly served to confirm that being an employee was no longer something I wanted to be.
Sally and I worked very hard working room by room to get the house finished as quickly as we could. The development loan we had secured from the bank attracted monthly interest charges, meaning the balance we would pay back when the house was sold got larger as every month passed. We wanted to get the house finished for the summer to maximise the chances of a quick sale. The work was hard but enjoyable; every completed job brought with it a real genuine sense of achievement. We would often find ourselves returning to the house after we had finished, just to admire the day’s handy work.
Having made the decision to sell the house we had decided to give it the best possible chance by including some luxury features. This was partly to add a wow factor and partly to indulge some of our own dream house fantasies. These features included a two-person spa bath, a steam room; a James Bond inspired staircase and electrically operated garage doors and gates. These indulgences helped to create a sense of fun that we hoped would excite potential buyers as much as they excited us.
By late summer we received final approval from the building inspector and the house was complete. Most things had gone pretty much as we had envisioned, but we did suffer some minor irritations along the way. Minor irritations included; managing to impale myself on a five inch long roofing nail having jumped off a small earth bank in my carpet slippers. Breaking my hand in three places, while attempting to bore a large hole through one of the external walls. Both these irritations resulted in a high-speed dash to the accident and emergency department of Lancaster Infirmary.
The time had come to see if all our hard work was going to pay off and find out how much our dream house was worth. This involved putting our future prosperity into the hands of an estate agent. Ironically all our hard work, imagination, ingenuity and flair were to be judged by a salesperson, a salesperson who would be plucking this valuation out of thin air. We invited six different companies to asses the property, the lowest valuation being one hundred thousand less that the highest. After all what’s a hundred thousand pounds, it only represents five years work for the average employee. The valuations only served to confirm that the agents had no real idea how much the house was worth. In the end we chose the valuation we concluded most accurate, based on what we had spent and then went with the agent that came closest to that figure.
During this whole process we had never really considered the possibility the house wasn’t going to sell. Emboldened by our previous successes, we had expected to find a buyer straight away. Unfortunately Damp Beck Road’s less than fashionable location seemed to be deterring the type of customer the house was attracting. As the year dragged on, it was starting to look as though our planned quick sale wasn’t going to materialise. Money was starting to get tight and we didn’t have a workable plan B to fall back on. Finally in early September our luck changed and we received an offer from a young self-employed couple who had recently relocated to the area. They ran a specialist requirement agency and needed a large enough property so they could run their business from home.
As far a luck was concerned this was a commodity that I had very little experience of. Luck was for other people, I had to work for everything; nothing ever seemed to come easy. Six weeks after accepting the offer, the world financial system literally collapsed overnight. It was another couple of weeks before we felt the fallout. Our self-employed buyers bank had been caught up in the chaos and subsequently pulled their funding. For several weeks the buyer assured us he would be able to raise the funds, but in the end no one was prepared to lend them any money. To add insult to injury, we received a letter from our bank informing us that we had four months in which to pay back our development loan in full. In the absence of a more appropriate analogy, fate it seemed had chosen to evacuate the contents of its bowel into our toaster.
If you subscribe to the theory that our life here in the physical world is pre-ordained before we arrive and that the purpose of our existence is to develop our souls by experiences in this physical world. Then nothing that happens should be a cause for concern, as it was always intended to happen and part of your grand earthly experience. It’s also true that without bad experiences you wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate the good ones. Even though I strongly suspect this theory could be accurate. I couldn’t help falling into a deep pit of despair every time something didn’t go as I had hoped. Fortunately I had someone with a rope, not so I could use it to hang myself, but so that I could use it to climb out of the pit. Sally always looked on the bright side and never doubted for a minute that better times were just round the next corner. Just as I thought all hope was lost and that Sally’s rope wasn’t up to the job this time, my old friend Raymond turned up at the mouth of the aforementioned pit, holding a ladder.
“Alright Travis,” said Raymond as I picked up the phone, “seeing as you’re having a some difficulty selling that house of yours I wondered if you might want a job?” he said. “I’m looking for someone to run the depot in Barrow, as I need to spend more time at our Lancaster place. It would only be temporary, maybe a year, but it would give you some breathing space, what do you think,” he said.
R.W. Arthur was a long established haulage company that had been run by various members of the Arthur dynasty for generations. They currently operated out of two depots, one in Lancaster and the other in Barrow. RW Arthur started out as a haulage and storage company, but had diversified into truck sales and repairs in the last few years. The main operation was run from Lancaster and headed up by Raymond’s father Jock. Arthur’s had recently secured a very substantial new contract, which required the Lancaster site to be extensively developed and Raymond wanted a temporary stand-in general manager to run the Barrow truck sales operation in his absence.
On the face of it, this was extremely good news; the bad news was that I would be required to manage twenty-five staff. Considering our current situation was less than ideal, I would have no choice other than to accept Raymond’s proposal. So far I had learned a lot about others and myself during my journey through the world of work. One of the things I had learned about myself was that I wasn’t really cut out for management. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the required business acumen; I was just no good at dishing out orders. I had also learned that you can only really be very good at things you truly love doing and you ignore this rule at your peril. Once again my heart was telling me this wasn’t the job for me and once again I would be forced to disregard its advice.
As predicted, managing R.W. Commercials was for the most part soul destroying and generally uninspiring. On the plus side the large salary had enabled me to secure a mortgage, enabling us to settle our development loan before the bank marched in like the Nazis to repossess the house. To survive I had been forced to become the one thing that I despised, an actor. For the first time in my working life I got to experience what it was like to live behind a façade and it wasn’t an experience I would recommend. The saving grace was that I would only need to keep up the pretence for another few months. This of course raised the question of what I would do next, a question I was struggling to find the answer to.
The relatively short time we had spent being self-employed had been the happiest period in my working life so far. I had seen the light, tasted the forbidden fruit, opened Pandora’s Box as it were and now working for someone else just didn’t feel right. I needed an idea for a business; I needed one of those light bulb moments. The question was would I be able to recognise the moment when it presented itself.
It was a Saturday morning and I found myself sitting in the R.W. Commercials sales office covering for the truck salesman who was on holiday. Alone in the office I was attempting to while away the time until midday, by staring mindlessly at a well-known Internet auction site. Much to my irritation the door of the office swung open to reveal a small slightly dishevelled older gentleman with a tartan flat cap.
I recognised the dishevelled older gentleman as Arthur Swift, a customer who had brought his rather elderly tipper truck in to us for some work. He was working as a contractor leading stone for a bypass project around Temple Marrowby, a small village near Barrow.
“Morning,” I said as he walked up to the desk where I was sitting, “what can we do for you today?”
“Aye said Arthur, I was wondering if you could get someone to have a look at my motorhome?” he said in a broad Yorkshire accent.
Motorhome, we’re a truck garage what the hell do we know about motorhomes, I thought?
“Motorhomes, I’m not sure if any of our lads will have much motorhome knowledge,” I replied.
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked, “It won’t build up air,” said Arthur with a perplexed look on his face.
“Won’t build up air, it must be one hell of a motorhome to have air brakes,” I replied getting up from behind my desk.
I followed Arthur out to the road that led up to the garage where his motorhome was sitting. It appeared at first glance to have more in common with a small coach than motorhome. I estimated it to be about thirty-six feet long with tinted windows down both sides.
“That’s some vehicle you’ve got there,” I said.
“It didn’t start out as a motorhome,” said Arthur, “I bought it at an auction for ex emergency vehicles, It was originally built as a mobile response office, for Merseyside Fire Service, come and have a look inside,” said Arthur enthusiastically.
I followed Arthur up the access steps that led up to the driver’s seat; sliding back a large door, he led me into what to could only be described as a living room. The living room featured a two-piece suite, a television that sat reassuringly in the corner and a tall standard lamp just to complete the effect.
“It’s just like a living room in a house,” I said to Arthur, who hardly able to contain his pride, was grinning broadly.
“There’s more,” said Arthur, pulling back another sliding door and disappearing though it. The next section featured two bunk beds; reminiscent of what you might find in a boat and some badly made cupboards with drawers. Yet another sliding door led to the rear, which housed a small kitchen and then finally a fully equipped bathroom, minus the bath of course.
Arthur went on to explain that the coach had hardly been used and had spent most of its life in a shed. It was twenty years old, but in that time had only covered six thousand miles. After seeing it listed in a local commercial vehicle auction he had decided it would be the perfect starting point from which to construct a cut-price luxury motorhome. It turned out he’d only paid five thousand pounds for it and by the look of his workmanship hadn’t spent much more on the conversion. He was currently living in it while he worked away from home, but ultimately his intention was to use it to make a grand tour round Europe. After inspecting the brake system we discovered a leak between the compressor and one of the coaches air storage tanks. After carrying out the necessary repairs I stood and watched as Arthur swung his creation out of the yard.
As he drove away I found myself rooted to the spot, my mind buzzing with ideas, what a fantastic opportunity I thought. A motorhome that size, in that condition would have cost a small fortune to buy. If only he’d made a nice job of the conversion, it would have been fantastic, I thought. Why would you even need a house if you had something like that, after all we lived perfectly comfortably in a caravan for over a year. What a superb idea, building your own luxury motorhome, you could save yourself a fortune. I wonder if there are any more ex fire service, mobile offices out their just waiting to be re-born into someone’s dream vehicle. All these thoughts and more streamed through my head and I felt truly inspired for the first time in ages.
Driving back to Damp Beck Road I realised this had been one of those light bulb moments. Converting a bus or large van into a motorhome couldn’t be that much different from building a house. This could be the answer; this could be the business idea I’ve been searching for, this must be the path we’re destined to follow. What are the chances of a man with the surname Swift, randomly presenting himself with a motorhome he had built himself? You just couldn’t have made it up; I mean Swift, one of the biggest names in the world of caravans and motorhomes. I didn’t work a Saturday as a rule; it was just a sheer fluke that I had been there, or was it. As my life progressed I was starting to suspect that there was no such a thing as a coincidence.
That afternoon Sally and I went for a long walk in the beautiful countryside round where we now lived. Brimming with a newfound confidence, I enthusiastically recounted the events surrounding my inspirational encounter. Unsurprisingly, Sally was equally enthusiastic and was in no doubt that the idea felt right. Suddenly the future seemed more certain; suddenly we had a plan and a workable plan at that. We would buy a van, convert it into a motorhome and sell it for a profit, bringing into being our new business. What should we call ourselves said Sally, I’ve already thought about that I replied, D.B.M.C, Damp Beck Motor Caravans!
(If there is such a thing)