The first job I ever had was a paper round when I was fourteen. It paid £16.38 a week, and the man who hired me said the girl in the town five miles away managed to deliver the same number of papers in two hours. Ten years ago, when you could get a Freddo for 10p in any corner shop – or a Curly-Wurly for 15p if you were feeling flush – I thought I was on to a good thing.
It was a hot summer’s day when I set off to deliver my first week’s papers with a luminous wheely trolley and a pocketful of dreams. Although the thrill of earning had been watered down somewhat because I’d already spent my first pay cheque (foolishly advanced by my father) on a monstrous white and silver polyester top from Etam, I was still excited to have my first job.
Unfortunately, I’d forgotten to factor in that the town five miles away was mostly terraces and the village where I was distributing the good word of MK Property News was mostly vast, detached houses with miles of driveways and immaculate lawns the size of football pitches. I had 200 papers to deliver and it took six hours. SIX FUCKING HOURS, I shit you not. I delivered the first sixty or so with fresh feet and boundless enthusiasm, lugging them around in my little trolley. I must have covered about three miles, over gravelly drives and around ornamental lakes to ram the thing through those unfriendly bastard letterboxes that’ll have your fingers off if you’re not quick enough. I was barked at my dogs, tutted at by old people and at one point chased by enraged peafowl. I returned home to pick up the next load after about two hours, bruised and muddied from falling over some dickhead’s ha-ha, and thoroughly dejected. My mother took pity on me and helped me to deliver the rest in the car, but I didn’t get home until after 10pm. AND I had school next day. AND the paper went bust the next week. AND my cheque bounced. So overall I had to pay Nationwide £8 for the privilege of spending my Wednesday evening delivering some sorry-ass rag and missing The Bill, which was always on Wednesdays. Of course nobody in our house knew how to work the video recorder and this was before the days of Sky Plus, so if you couldn’t watch something because you were dicking around doing a paper round you knew you’d more or less missed that shit forever.
In the following two years, I managed to avoid almost all work except once half-arsedly washing my mum’s car for a fiver (I wasn’t asked again) and babysitting for my parents’ friends, which doesn’t really count as work because being paid £7/hour aged fifteen to watch television and eat fun-sized Mars bars is a pretty sweet gig. The day after my sixteenth birthday, I was told that my clothing allowance was being taken away and that I was going to have to work to pay for the things teenagers need, like Mickey Finn’s Sour Apple Vodka and jeans. Thus my formative years, like those of most of my peers, were spent waiting on my elders and learning to carry four roast dinners at once. I was told it was character-building.
Although I didn’t get paid for it, I did spend every Saturday for eighteen months working in an Oxfam shop for my Duke of Edinburgh award. It wasn’t too taxing and I didn’t mind it much, even though I always came out with that weird charity shop smell and Mavis, the sassy octogenarian in charge of the till and therefore also the CD player, liked nothing more than to listen to Mr Tambourine Man on repeat all afternoon. My job was mostly sorting through donations, which was an eye-opener. The shit that people think it is cool to give to charity is fucking ridiculous. People of Britain: ripped clothing, stained sheets, soiled underwear: nobody is going to want to buy this shit. It actually costs more for charities to dispose of it, so get rid of it responsibly. On at least two occasions I had to put on rubber gloves to remove articles that had actual poo on them, so consider the poor schmuck whose job it is to do the sorting too. Grim.
Of course, higher education was a completely different ball-game. The weeks at university when I drank much less and worked much more (i.e. the holidays), quickly became the typical carousel of drudgery familiar to most students. I tried to keep it to a minimum during term-time, because it is hard to throw off a hangover when you have to polish cutlery and dick around smiling at customers like they’re not fucking idiots. For a while, though, I had a job at a Varsity bar on Thursday and Saturday nights. To be fair, the time passed quickly because it was so busy and you were pouring about three pints a minute, but we had to wear ear plugs and it was sticky and you didn’t get to go home until 4am. It was also while collecting glasses at Varsity that I got my very best chat-up line from a man who looked very much like one of the giant heads on Easter Island.
“Hey,” he rumbled, in exactly the voice you might expect from someone who looked like a giant stone head. “D’you want to hear a funny joke?”
“Go on then,” I said, without enthusiasm. It was 2am and I just wanted everyone to leave so I could drag my sorry ass to bed.
“If you want a seat,” the head said slowly, “you can sit on my face.”
I stared at him while his mates sniggered at his rapier wit. I didn’t know what to say. What CAN you say? Absolutely fucking nothing, so I didn’t. (I did get security to kick them all out though, which was gratifying.)
The very worst job I ever had was working at a greengrocers in Loughborough during term-time. Christmas was coming and times were hard; I had spent my entire monthly budget in November on a pair of sensationally impractical shoes from Kurt Geiger and was consequently living off dry jacket potatoes and Chardolini, the knock-off Lambrini Iceland sold for 72p a litre. (Note to foreigners and sheltered types: Lambrini is a very cheap low-alcohol sparkling wine made in Liverpool, popular with juvenile delinquents and semi-professional twats.) In short, I didn’t have a pot to piss in, and the dingy vegetable shop in town paid weekly, cash in hand. Even if the manager did draw up his balance sheets in chalk on cardboard recycled from yam boxes. Even if the open-fronted shop was as cold and frigid as an Inuit’s outhouse. Even if my colleagues were all, without exception, total fuckwits.
My co-workers were a motley band of gangling teenagers, middle-aged luvvies and swaggering, ear-ringed types who might be described by a certain type of person as ‘the salt of the earth’, but were described by me as gormless, socially incontinent halfwits with all the charm and tact of a cup of cold sick. Everyone at the veg shop spoke with a thick, grating Midlands accent and so my own was a source of much amusement. The Little Britain phenomenon had completely passed me by, so it was a good three weeks before I realised that they hadn’t just got my surname wrong when they called me ‘Emily Howard’, after David Walliams’ cross-dressing parasol’d posho. The day I told an old dear she owed me four-pounds-and-tuppence sent most of them into gleeful convulsions (admittedly the word ‘tuppence’ is a bit fucking weak, but it certainly didn’t warrant the weeks of ridicule that followed), but the absolute worst thing was when I apprehended a man I suspected to be pilfering root vegetables.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said craftily to the possible shoplifter, “would you like to pay for that parsnip in your pocket?”
The man looked at me, mystified, as he slowly reached into his anorak. “It isn’t a parsnip,” he replied. “It’s a baguette from Greggs next door.”
How they laughed. Even the people in the queue were cracking up, which I thought was a bit cruel considering that a parsnip and a baguette are sort of the same colour, and, you know, some people do use their pockets instead of shopping bags. Could have happened to anyone.
Although everyone constantly took the piss out of me and it was a bit lonely because it’s hard to have a proper conversation with someone who is constantly taking the piss out of you, I did stick it out until Christmas. Unfortunately, just before I went home I collected my pay packet to find I had been diddled out of £32. No amount of reasoning would make them cough up, so I did what any normal, decent human being would have done: got drunk and reported them to the Inland Revenue for tax evasion. (I did feel a bit bad when they got shut down six months later, but then thought, no, I was defending the honour of hard-working taxpayers! And also they did owe me £32.)
One Christmas holiday I spent the most cripplingly dull month of my life working in a multiplex cinema, which I can affirm was exactly as stimulating as you’d think. Not quite a full month though, because working at Cineworld requires five full days of training in mopping, sluicing, fire drilling, till training and ladder safety. I didn’t see any ladders of any kind while I was there, so fuck knows what that last one was for. It was nothing if not comprehensive though, I guess. Over the three weeks of actual work, I watched hours of film (not in order) and cooked up hundreds of bags of popcorn while roasting to death in an outfit that looked unsettlingly like an army surplus radiation suit. I was also subjected to some of the most unusual and penetrating body odour my poor nostrils have ever endured. I swear to God, people who work in cinemas are some of the most foul-smelling creatures that walk the earth. Don’t get too close, is my advice to you. And stay away from the food.
Most horrifically, I had to wear a baseball hat.
But it could have been worse; I never had to work as a scarecrow or in a cardboard box factory. And I did have quite a few decent jobs. Also I do have quite a nice job one now, so maybe it was character-building after all. Last week I had a pest controller come round to remove a wasps’ nest just above my bedroom window. His name was Morty, and he was exterminating things as a holiday job before going back to university.
“Do you get stung a lot?” I asked absently, handing him a bag of ice after a bunch of livid wasps had swarmed him unexpectedly on our balcony.
“Not too much,” he said, “although I’ve always had a horrible phobia of flying stinging insects. The money’s quite good though.”
I told him he should try babysitting.
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