The second thing I did to earn money – this time an actual wage paid by a third party rather than just extra pocket money from my folks – was when I was eleven going on twelve. My dad got me the job helping out in a greengrocers owned by some guy he knew. I seem to remember the shop was on Lambeth Walk, but I can’t swear to that. It’s all so long ago, my memory of it is hazy to say the least.
The chap I worked for was quite young, as I recall, though I couldn’t tell you what he looked like. He didn’t let me serve customers as I had for several years in my parent’s shop, I was simply a fetch and carry boy, humping sacks of spuds, onions and sprouts, restocking the fruit display, sweeping up, cleaning windows and the like. By then I could add and subtract as quick as a mathematician and had a well-developed knack for charming customers, but I guess he just saw me as a kid and not capable enough to be trusted with his punters.
The one job I really hated doing was preparing the beetroot. Out in the shop’s back yard was an enormous copper cauldron and when a couple of sacks of beetroots were simmering away in it, the stink it gave off was horrible. Can’t remember the exact smell now, but think combination of cooking sprouts and boiling laundry and I reckon you’ll be somewhere close. That was the only chore I really didn’t like, but while humping heavy sacks about all day was no problem for a strong kid like I was, most of the time I was just bored stiff, a theme that was to follow me throughout most of my working life – bored, bored, dreadfully bored.
Though my time working there is more a ghost of a memory than anything more concrete, a few things have stayed with me – the first time I was told to go down the cellar for some empty boxes, for example. The cellar was at the bottom of a rickety wooden staircase and boy was it inky black down there. I was never happy in dark places, my over-active imagination peopling them with all kinds of witches, ghouls and monsters – the same ones that tormented me in nightmares – and the damp, musty smell, only helped flesh out my grim imaginings.
No intention of venturing into what had, in my young mind, now become hell’s vestibule, with only the glow from the open doorway behind me for company, I duly fumbled around on the wall for a light switch. I only discovered the switch had no cover on it when a jolt from the unprotected wires threw me against the opposite wall and I found myself, after a rapid tumble from top to bottom, in a crumpled heap at the foot of the stairs.
Winded and battered, heart playing bongos on my eardrums from the shock, I lay still for a moment, monsters forgotten, trying to assess whether I’d picked up more than a few bruises from my short, painful trip. A sound from above finally made me look up and there, framed in the doorway, stood my employer. Obviously come to investigate what all the crashing was about, he was peering down at me, holding his stomach and laughing fit to bust.
Back in the late 60s, health and safety, or anyone being sued for damages by a no win no fee solicitor, had never been heard of, so he could glean maximum amusement from my accident without fear of consequences. What a prick, I thought, he knew those live wires were hanging out and didn’t even bother to warn me.
When he got his laughter under control, to make me hate him a bit more, instead of asking if I was alright, he just told me to stop messing about, like falling down the stairs was my own stupid fault and to hurry up and get his boxes. In revenge, I sulked for the rest of the day, spent as much time as possible skiving off in the toilet and made every task last twice as long as usual.
While I again couldn’t tell you what she looked like now, this guy had a young wife, or possibly girlfriend, not sure which she was. I do know she was pretty and that from the first moment I clapped eyes on her, I was immediately in the grip of a major crush. She only had to crook her finger and there I was, a moon-eyed puppy dog, desperate to please and begging for praise.
One afternoon, I was in the back of the shop and when I heard her calling out from the flat above, I was off up the stairs like a rabbit out of a cannon, taking the stairs in threes, a blur of eagerness. Turned out that while decorating, she had managed to lock herself in one of the rooms. To avoid getting paint on them, all the doorknobs had been removed and without thinking, she’d pushed the door shut and trapped herself inside.
I didn’t know what to do, so I ran back downstairs to get help. I told my boss what had happened and it was then that the loathing I’d felt for him laughing at me for falling down the stairs was confirmed. “Leave the silly bitch where she is,” he said. “I’m too busy, she’ll just have to wait.” Well, I hated misogyny before I even knew there was a word for it, just as I’ve always hated injustice or bullying of any kind and if I’d ever felt any respect for him, I certainly didn’t after that. How dare he call my beloved a silly bitch. Not only that, but I figured she’d believe I was complicit in leaving her locked upstairs and to think she wouldn’t like me anymore cut deep.
One other thing about my time working there springs to mind and I’m not sure whether to laugh about it, or die of embarrassment. The shop hadn’t always been a green grocers, a fact born witness too by a number of mannequins that, along with piles of empty boxes and disused shelving units, were also stored in the dank cellar. Now, until I managed to get my hands on a soggy copy of Fiesta, which I found in the street, half floating in a rain puddle, I had little conception of what lay beneath a lady’s togs. My mother was brought up by Roman Catholic nuns, so flesh in my household was never on display and discussion of anything relating to the body or sex was such a terrible taboo, when a school mate once asked me if I’d ever spied on my sister in the bathroom (as he had on his), I remember my stomach knotting in horror and my throat constricting with revulsion at the mere thought.
Fiesta was a nudie mag, but by today’s standards, tame to say the very least, being no more than a collection of page three type topless poses, any possible glimpse of pudenda being painted out or waxed over. Oddly enough, this matched with my only previous experience of curiously looking up the skirts of my sister’s dolls to find out what delights they hid and here I was confronted by a number of female shop dummies who were anatomically the same. That is too say, smooth.
Hormones fizzing and knowing no better, I found those dummies oddly arousing and spent rather more time in the cellar than I otherwise would have, or indeed, had need to. I was fascinated by them and let’s just say, I wasn’t always down there only collecting empty boxes. All part of the growing up process, I suppose, so I harbour no deep sense of shame about it.
I would like to point out that this didn’t tip over into some kind of macabre lifelong fetish and neither do the dead eyes and painted on faces of blow up women bring back any similar lustful rushes of blood. It was a brief love affair and once I left that job and moved on, my mannequin harem was soon forgotten, as was the pretty partner of my chauvinist employer.
At that age, passions burn bright, hurt for a time, then fizzle out as quickly as they came. Exquisitely painful while they last, admittedly, but gone in a flash. As for the beetroot cauldron, I couldn’t see the back of that foul-smelling bugger soon enough.