Good news: I was on the last leg of my RAF application. The Armed Forces Careers centre had recently relocated to Nottingham Victoria and my last and closing interview was to be held there in mid-September about a week or two hence.
Frank had badgered me about finding a temporary job to tide me over and though I hadn’t resisted, I still couldn’t work out what to do. Mum and dad didn’t seem concerned, as the RAF process was ongoing, and I was occupied with that.
However, my sense of sterility and sense of shame was pushing me into isolation. I didn’t feel like going out to hang around smoking ciggies and that, and I felt numb, uncomfortably so.
Then, frightened by Frank’s increasing scorn I made a push to find something, anything, and in the Job Centre downstairs from Frank’s office I spotted a temporary job. The advert read: Wanted, temporary labour for two weeks. Storm and Calling Fireplaces, Mansfield. Apply via desk clerk. I took down the job number and went to the desk.
‘Yes, it’s two weeks temporary cover and it’s for a small firm who built stone fireplaces and surrounds. Is that the sort of work that would interest you?’ Of course not. But it was something. ‘Oh yes, I’d be happy to apply.’ The clerk rang and, hand over mouthpiece, asked, ‘Can you go for an interview now?’ A rapid increase in heart rate notwithstanding I replied that I could.
I was given directions and 10 minutes later I found myself on a side street of terraced houses and outside the double gates of the yard of Storm and Calling Fireplaces. The yard had once been open to the elements, but now had a corrugated plastic and tin roof. To the left was a showroom and to the right a staircase leading wherever. Ahead of me was a tall, stout man in overalls working at a bench. Opposite him was an area stacked with blocks of stone beyond which was an area with two piles of a different types of sand.
‘Hello,’ said the man looking up. He introduced himself as John Storm and and shook my hand. He had a jolly demeanour and seemed pleased to see me. ‘What’s your name, kid?’ ‘Phil.’ ‘What do you know about the the job?’ I gave him what I knew, and John took me into the showroom. Set on two levels, it featured a range of natural stone fireplaces in several different designs. Each one with its own hearth, a few homely things like ornaments, vases of artificial flowers. Each fireplace was individually built by carving and shaping each piece of stone; therefore, each fireplace was unique. I was inspired, impressed and excited; I’d always loved Lego. ‘Where do you live kid?’ I told him. ‘Blinding ‘ell, kid! How long does it take you to get here then?’ I told him the bus took 20 minutes each way. ‘Blinding ‘ell kid! Right, go home and get some old clothes on, a flask of tea and some sandwiches and see me back here.’
I got a job, I got a job! I told everyone that I passed walking from the bus stop to our house, I got a job! I was that thrilled. Genuinely, there was lightness in being employed. Only later would it become unbearable.
I was back in the yard of Storm and Calling in just over an hour. John was impressed and explained my first task: a mix of concrete for a hearth he was making. Hearths were cast upside down on the a bench formed from the slate beds of old snooker tables, which are extremely, flat smooth and heavy.
The mix consisted of four measured buckets of washed sand and one of cement. Once filled I had to carry each bucket to the mixing area and make a combined pile of sand and cement. The by-hand method of mixing concrete and mortar involved shovelling the sand and cement to one side of the original pile and then shovelling it back several times over. In this way, the sand and cement were thoroughly combined. Once this was done, you dragged the mix outwards to form a broad crater into which you poured water. Next you drew the sand and cement back to the middle incorporating the water and then you fold the sand and cement together till it bonds into a paste.
It killed me. I told myself, this is an easy task and you’re knacked already. But I had youth and willingness on my side.
The rest of the day passed quickly with John giving me jobs to do like sweeping up, stacking the sawn stone into same size piles and mixing concrete again. He chatted to me throughout asking me questions about what I wanted to do. I told him about the RAF application, and it turned out he’d served in the RAF too, stationed in Berlin in 1961 at the time of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall.
I felt enthralled by the involvement, doing something constructive, and the thought of being a part of building one of those fireplaces motivated me on through the sheer physical effort my puny body had never experienced before. This was work. And at fifty pence an hour, forty hours a week it was a hundred times more than my twenty pence a week pocket money.
He let me go at 5:00 and I crawled to the bus stop with his cheery see you on Monday ringing in my ears. Thank crunchie tomorrow would be Saturday.
Next time, in part eight of The Accidental Achiever: First and Early Steps