Friday, November 09, 2007

Pig Alley

At one time I was an apprentice Upholsterer. I worked in a tiny Victorian building halfway down Pig Alley. There were four of us and we each wore leather aprons that contained a variety of specialised tools. We also had a high-pressured staple gun each, which was connected to a high-pressure generator.

Being the apprentice I was put in a corner next to the generator. Often I would sneaks look at the generator out of the corner of my eye and wonder what would happen if it blew up. Instant death, I ruminated, but I never told anyone of my concerns, for fear of ridicule. The generator generated a good deal of noise, and because of the noise I always had to get people to repeat what they said, until I began to think I was deaf.

Sometimes we had staple gun wars. Being the apprentice my gun had the least amount of power. The others could fire round after round of high-pressured staples, while mine could only splutter out a few staples at a time. So during the wars I was at an obvious disadvantage. The others would gang up on me, but I was young and nimble, and able to get a few well-timed shots in of my own.

It was three days before I discovered that a woman worked upstairs, alone. No one had bothered to mention that she existed. Upstairs was really just a loft in the roof, with sloping sides. The woman sat behind a big old sewing machine. She looked to have been there forever. Scraps of material littered the floor, hiding her dainty feet, which pressed the pedals of the machine. The machine made a whirring noise. It was gloomy up there, no natural light, just a single low-wattage bulb, glowing dimly.

Opposite the cottage was a barn-like structure. The barn had two floors. The ground floor was crammed with lots of old furniture, some of which had been there for decades. The older furniture was covered in thick layers of dust. Sometimes I would blow away the dust and a golden leg would be revealed, or a patch of bright, beautiful colour.

But upstairs was an even greater wonder. It contained the foam room. I loved the foam room; it was wall-to-wall foam, all different sizes, shapes, and colours. About once or twice a day I’d be asked to fetch a certain type and thickness of foam from the foam room. I would dive into the foam, wrap myself up inside the springy sheets, and caress the sponge. And there I would lie, safely ensconced, until the cry went up from across the road,

‘Where’s my foam?’

Most of my days were spent stripping settees and armchairs, pulling staples from worn-out furniture, thousands of staples, a never-ending supply of staples needing to be pulled out. After a few weeks I began to dream of staples at night, millions of staples marching off to battle against millions of other staples, in the great staple world war of death. And one time I even shot myself with a volley of staples to the stomach. The other upholsterers said nobody had ever done that before, it was a first, and for a short time I felt unique. I showed my friends the wound in the pub, four dots, not much of a wound, but a unique wound. Everybody laughed.

Being the only apprentice I also had to make the tea and get the lunches. I didn’t mind because it got me out of the gloomy cottage, and sometimes into the sun. I would eye up the girls in the tanning saloon on the sly. Most of them had orange faces, but given the chance I would’ve poled each and every one of them. However, dressed in my funny leather apron, and with bits of foam and staples hanging from my hair and clothes, I always passed by unnoticed.

Another job was button production. I liked this job. I cut out tiny squares of material and then covered each square around a metal disc. Then I inserted the disc into a punch machine, and with a swift twist of the handle, out would pop a button. I made new buttons every week. Despite making thousands of buttons I always liked the look of a new button, perfectly formed, like a conker or a kingfisher.

Then there were deliveries, another chance to get away from the ever-present threat of an exploding generator. We rarely got tips, but if we did it was from the poorer people. The rich never tipped and always appeared annoyed, but that’s just the way of the world. We also had contracts with luxury London hotels. This meant a drive into town. I enjoyed the drive into town. I could watch the people going about their business and wonder where were they going and why they were in such a rush. And then there were the sites, the river Thames, Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, the houses of parliament, and other landmarks.

Each hotel had a tradesmen’s entrance situated at the rear of the building. We always entered through the tradesman’s entrance. Often I observed the rich hotel guests. Mostly they looked bored, aimless, senses dulled by comfort. As I moved furniture around the hotel I was amazed to see toilet attendants and cloakroom assistants, and the food delivered to the loading bay made my mind boggle. Live lobsters and crayfish and boxes and boxes of champagne. For a while I thought the rich lived off nothing but lobster and champagne.

One week I had to work outside. It was mid-winter and very cold. I had to clean the legs of five hundred chairs from a banquet room of the Dorchester hotel. It needed a special chemical to clean the legs that could not be used in a confined space. My hands got very cold. Every now and then one of the other upholsterers peered through a window and laughed at me.

It was while I was cleaning the endless legs and freezing to death that I saw a plane flying high in the sky. I swore that one day I would be on a plane just like that, flying to some exotic location far, far, away, never to return. I was paid each week in cash. For some reason the boss always paid me in five pound notes. Despite the fivers my wage was very small, well below the minimum wage. Every Monday I was broke again.

After nearly two years I decided to quit the upholstery trade. I’d found another job, which paid better, not much better, but enough to make me want to leave Pig Alley. When I told the boss he appeared disappointed. He didn’t want to lose me, he said. I had a moment of weakness then and asked if he could match the salary of my new job. It was only a few pounds extra, but the boss shook his head and didn’t look me in the eye.

After that I walked out of Pig Alley and never once looked back, and although I didn’t know it at the time, I was about to embark on a series of great adventures, which would change my life forever.

Joe Ridgwell

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