links to the past

rusty bike chain

Finding a broken bicycle chain in the street today sent my mind spinning back into the past, when, many, many years ago I was employed through a temp agency during the Easter vacation to work in the Toy Division office at the TI Raleigh factory.

It was my first job and I enjoyed it so much that I was delighted to go back in the summer, this time employed directly by the company. It was only a holiday job, so I can’t really have worked there very long, particularly as there would have been a “factory fortnight” in August. It’s surprising, then, just how many thoughts and memories that chain has triggered.

I don’t remember how I received my pay for the two weeks at Easter, but during the summer my wages were paid along with those of the other office workers, in cash, in little brown envelopes handed out to us on Friday mornings. Of course, that meant that Friday lunchtime was spent round the pub. (I’ve just had a quick look on Google and, although it was a fairly nasty modern pub, I have fond memories and am saddened to see it has been replaced by a Tesco store.)

The factory was huge, so if something was needed from another department, you could grab a clipboard and quite justifiably wander off for an hour or so. If it was needed urgently, though, you were expected to take the office bike. My colleagues were horrified when I said I couldn’t ride a bike; if I’d stayed any longer, I think they would have made good on their threats to find some stabiliser wheels for the office bike and teach me.

As I was only a temporary clerical worker, I didn’t have a desk of my own, but sat between two male colleagues whose desks were next each other. Life was much simpler back then and it didn’t occur to me to complain when the older of the two would grab my knee and pull his wheeled chair alongside me when he needed to talk to the other guy. To be honest, his flippancy and innocent vulgarity amused me: it was from him that I first heard, “If I said you had a beautiful body would you hold it against me?” and I laughed aloud.

For me, the fact that the boss sent me to buy his cigarettes from the local corner shop was far more offensive and an abuse of power; but he was the boss, and I was the most junior person in the office, so I did as I was told.

One of our colleagues was getting married and came into the office one day complaining how much the new washing machine was going to cost. It was a huge figure that made no sense to me as a student, so I did a quick calculation to make it more accessible. Whether my reputation was made or ruined that day, I’m not sure, but apparently bottles of whisky are not a standard unit of money.

I used to do a lot of handcrafts and my particular interest that summer was patchwork. I’m not sure how the subject arose, but I remember explaining that I needed a hexagonal template and someone suggesting they get the guys in the workshop to cut me one from scrap. It didn’t occur to me that more explanation would be needed. I suspect that somewhere in my boxes of junk there is still a lovingly crafted metal pentagon, which, as any mathematician – or patchworker – knows, is no use at all for tessellation.

There are many other memories: the old guy whose wages went directly on the horses; the new girl referred to as “the plastic lady” because she wore make up thick enough to be a mask; the blue fake fur “teddy bear” coat one of the guys gave me that I wore until it fell apart; the guy who played in a local band and who suggested I try out as singer, as the girl who was with them at the time had “as much stage presence as a wet lettuce leaf.” I declined, and then always wished he’d asked again – one of my very few regrets; but I spent many happy evenings watching them play in pubs, and Saturday afternoons drinking coffee with them at the Kardomah…

I made good friends at the factory and lived for a while between the two communities of Town and Gown. On the Sunday before my finals, instead of revising, I played Cluedo with friends from the factory and I went on seeing them for a while after I graduated.

I could go on, but perhaps the other memories are best kept to myself, so instead I’ll end with a poem that talks of links to the past, although they aren’t the links of a rusty bike chain.

Ring bound

She wore rings,

and I wondered

how she could write

with those things

on her fingers.

Those links to the past

how they last!

Chains of gold

hold her fast

to that bastard.

But think of the things

you can do without rings:

with no ties

and no strings -

spread your wings!

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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