The Britvic clock was formerly one of two landmarks announcing one’s arrival in Chelmsford, the other being the Army & Navy roundabout. Little more than a couple of weeks after our wedding, it became a too-familiar sight each morning, presaging another day of dreary gloom.
In the job interview, I had said nothing about academic qualifications, spinning a line about working for my dad, being going into betting shop management and then needing a change. One of the few amusing things I recall about Britvic is a dressing down from the interviewer, having told him that I had enjoyed “the crack and the laughs” on the night shift at Thermos. “If you get this job, we won’t want you larking about,” he warned, his face darkening. “This is a business, and you will have responsibilities.”
My critical remit turned out to be standing at various positions on a production line that transmuted dirty, recycled bottles into squeaky clean receptacles for fresh influxes of fruit juice and other drinks.
Coming out into the fresh air at the end of the first week was pure joy. The 20 minute walk home was dizzyingly happy.
The good company of the lads and lasses at Thermos had made the work bearable. Jokes, stories and more than a few intimacies traded. Drinks outside of work, occasionally. This lot were on a different planet.
Mick the foreman was a wiry little git who let people know that he was very good at martial arts, and not afraid to use those skills in a fight. His mate Tony was more overtly aggressive, a tall fucker from a big family. Always protected by Mick, he would let out his temper by smashing bottles, and looking around to dare any challenge. Alan was just a miserable bastard. A few set phrases to describe his loathing for the job, the bosses and life in general. Darren had a bit more joy in him. His ambition was to go in Ladbrokes one Saturday afternoon and win every last penny in the shop. Then drink himself into a celebratory stupor. I could resonate with the first part of that, but not the aggression that popped out too regularly.
Was it naïve of me to expect these poor buggers to be warm and welcoming, consigned as they were to a life sentence at the factory? The only bloke I took to was Gene. Always smiling, chatting to everyone in the building. So content in himself. He was the first person I heard say “another day, another dollar”. But his kind nature was unfortunately tucked away, at a machine on an adjacent line. Female company would have been a godsend.
I stuck it for about 11 weeks, by keeping myself to myself, albeit with unlimited conversation for anyone who wanted a thoughtful exchange of words. Then one morning all my alarm signals flashed red. I used to spend my breaks with a cup of tea and that day’s Sporting Life in a quiet little alcove where few others passed. Wish I could remember the words. Mick and Tony were chatting nearby, about me, unaware of my proximity. Was it something about my unsociability? My hair? The gist was that it was time to have some fun, winding me up. A derogatory pigeonhole, or worse, was on its way. I felt the beginnings of some of the panic that used to pour through me at school when the teasing began. These two were bullies. They could fuck right off. I had no intention of walking their gauntlet.
At lunchtime, I walked across to the building with the human resources office. “Sorry to be a real pain, but an emergency has come up. I just phoned my wife and was told that my grandmother has had a serious accident. She is in her 80s, lives alone, and has nobody to look after her. I know it will muck up your rotas here, but I need to go and see her right now. She will need me to help her for at least the next month, and maybe longer. I don’t have any choice but to leave this job immediately. Really sorry, again.”
I made it up, some of it on the spot. And the Britvic administrators were life savers. To help me cope financially, they would tell the DHSS that I had been laid off due to a mini-business slump. I could have punched the air. The mortgage would be paid.
There are unexpected advantages to being sensitive. The walk home on that warm July day was ecstatic. Better, Maureen showed empathy, having listened to me moaning ceaselessly about the job. We would survive and move on.
The Britvic factory closed in March 2014, after 60 years of drinks production. But the iconic clock tower remains, jutting up over a retail park.