28. Hot wire and strange ladies

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Eyeing me trotting off clean and smart to Westcliff each morning, Eric made sure he showed his eldest the value of an education. By highlighting grimier alternatives. As part of our pocket money deal, Neil and I would help him at Pitsea dump. Against an ashen landscape, he would burn the insulating materials away from copper wire. It was the dirtiest work imaginable, and uncomfortable, even with gloves, to compress the still-hot wire into sacks. Before you could think about climbing into a hot bath, oodles of Swarfega was required to get your hands even mildly clean.

In his garage, we would earn extras for sorting out sacks of metal into brass, copper and aluminium. Eric’s was a non-ferrous business. It was freezing cold on winter evenings. An electric fire in the corner and Radio Caroline provided meagre comforts.

Other days he would take us in the van on his Monday and Tuesday rounds, up to Hackney and nearby environs. Never will I forget an East End warehouse where a bent-backed individual of indeterminate age lugged monstrously heavy sacks up and down a narrow set of stairs. Dad saw the Dickensian impression this left on me. “That’s why you need to study son.”

He also impressed the need not to get in trouble with the police. Without providing details, he hinted that he could not obtain a clean reference from his last employed job. Years later he admitted being sacked for selling some of his governor’s metals ‘on the side’. I had begun to flirt with crime, when sussing out a way to cheat British Rail. On my journeys from Pitsea to West Ham. It involved purchasing the shortest return fares at either end of the trip, saving about seven shillings by travelling free mid-journey. Dad cottoned on and bollocked me big-time.

Pocket money also involved a range of gardening tasks in the summer. Boring, but with the good outcome of a growing work ethic, so that I was never poor as a teenager. Age 16, I started earning a Sunday wage in the kitchen at Planters coffee house in Southend High Street. An Italian chef named Joe cussed and swore behind me. My sink became steadily darker, colder and greasier until the flotsam from the dishes required fresh hot water. I got a holiday job at Sketchley laundry in Hadleigh. Then a Thursday night pools collection round, earning me about £12 a week.

I could never bring myself to call down one dark lane in Bowers Gifford, at the end of which lived two women. The previous collector hinted very loosely that they were morally lax, possibly lesbians or witches, and perhaps prone to orgies. Maybe all these things. They could be ‘troublesome’, he added, enigmatically. I never tested their inclination to ‘Spot the Ball’.


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