I love my job.
A lot of people I encounter tell me that I’m a pretty happy chap, and I guess this is true. Sickening as it is the current happiness in my life is due to many reasons: I love my girlfriend, the discovery, early in my life, of the joy of cold mead, and for the simple fact I’m not living in Aleppo. My contentment may be the reason I love my job, it’s possible I’d be likewise satisfied in any number of horrible places, like Yarmouth, AKA Great Yammy. But part of my happiness is surely down to my work. If I enter glum I’ll leave content and if I enter content I’ll be buzzing come end.
I’ve just finished a shift that should’ve left me tumbling all day in a righteous pissyness. I’d failed a few deliveries two days ago and so I needed a perfect run today, yet the van was playing up and I had far too many drops to make. I made good speed and was just about to turn the tide of work when a tire blew out, back left, putting me out of action for the rest of the day. More deliveries failed, yet, for all I tried, I couldn’t stress. That’s mainly for three reasons.
That the work is honest. That the work is manual. And that the work is a privilege, more importantly a privilege I’ve earned.
A possible fourth reason would be that I hate doing nothing, I have to be doing something at the minute. Otherwise I don’t trust myself. Because it’s not that left to my devices my days are boring, but that I’ll try and amuse myself by doing something stupid. Some new sensation to experience. Case in point, last night. I wasn’t working and so decided to do something that scared me, something that taught me about myself. I wanted to know if I still had a phobia of needles, syringes exclusively…. I have to type quickly as my head grows light already. So, last night I watched a documentary about blood doping, (the award winning Icarus).. Got to about seven minutes in (fantastic seven minutes) and then, raa. I’ll have to type it quickly.
Genuinely that was difficult to write. Needless to say it was impossible to watch. My body felt like I was travelling in too high a gear, sending shivers of feedback through my feet up to my feet. I stood up to leave the flat and get some air, my head instantly stalled and some time later I woke up on the floor. I stood up again, and fell again. My limbs comically helpless in slowing my descent.
So work, when I have it, keeps me away from pushing and prodding my mind and body into strange, and uncomfortably rewarding places.
The work that I do at Argos is rewarding in it’s own way. The company has its own spirituality, reinforced by the many people who are members of both the brotherhood of electrical items, toys and toilet seats, and the Evangelical Christian churches of Norwich. After the desperate, cosmetically fervent godlessness of University, it was a joy to discover that those who gravitate towards retail by headset tamper their work life with the other almighty catalogue. I had never been an Evangelical church until I worked at Argos. I was invited by my colleagues, and taking my girlfriend for security, I accepted. I was surprised by the noise of the house music, the free sweets for turning up, the zealous focus and celebration on the church’s finances. But I was mostly suprised by the number of employees from Argos! There were guys who used to work in my store, who worked at other stores, who had family in management and some who were applying to work at Argos. I spent the night half expecting that I’d have to put on my headset as the church leaders unveiled a gilded catalogue and demanded I “pick a page from twenty to… one thousand three hundred.”
I’ll cut that one short for fear that Argos’ public relations/internal security team (the dreaded shrinkage & compliance) will deem it industrial agitation.
Argos, or the Argos that I know, has three integral departments to its operation, a holy trinity if you will. And, like at work I become I slightly different person, in each of these departments I become a slightly different worker, as the nature of employment requires. There is first the front of house, the Shop Floor. Here I am the navigator “Do you need any help turning the pages Sir? At this hour the laminate can be sticky.” Here I am also the till boy, where the correct procedure of selling goods is equally as important as selling financial services, “because what if I told you that you could pay nothing for these items until mid-November?” This doesn’t come naturally to me, but with low prices come furiously sharp profit margins. If more than one expensive electrical item is returned in a week the store would make no profit from selling goods, mainly due to overheads of staff and the phenomenal rent of shop space under the Castle. Thankfully something like 80% of Argos’ profit comes from FS; the £2.70 care taken out on a toaster, the credit scheme for the LCD television. It keeps the company and myself afloat. So I sell.
But it is the second department that I can really immerse myself in. The Stockroom. Though the shop floor is fifty meters below surface, in the bowels of the Castle mound, it’s lit with bulbs that mimic sunlight, and is filled with songs that incentivise purchase. Here you are permitted to only see the face of Argos, but behind it lie the internal organs of the stockroom and they possess a captivating beauty I struggle to describe. I can well describe the physical aspects of the room. It’s a vast, dim, concrete chamber on two levels, ribbed with shelves three meters high. Each shelf bursting with consumer satisfaction from Alpha Alpha to Zulu Zulu. Here I am a picker, rarely visible, save for the raising trails of dust I pull from the shelves as I run between them. The yellow lights flicking off as I depart. The voice in the headset gives me vague clues as to where I’ll find what some else wants. The headset is often silent, her voice catching in the corners and alleyways of the stockroom where the lights have failed. Other times she’ll suddenly boom through the headphone. Working in the stockroom for any length of time has a very real effect on the senses. Seeing so many different types of packaging would be underwhelming if they were cardboard bound. But each was unwittingly destined to be seen by potential customers, and so the shelves are walls of screaming colour and font. I see enough wide eyed cartoon creatures and superheroes, specifically designed to arrest attention, that soft headaches often roll through the stockroom in which I keep the memories of what I’ve seen at work. Because to pick isn’t just to fly down the aisles, but to fly whilst also interrogating every item to decipher its catalogue number. There is no real order to the best stockroom, bins are next to barbies are next to clothes, chairs, televisions, books. But that”s not to say there aren’t distinct districts of the stockroom. Aisle 10 is the community of age restricted items, blades bustle from toe to scalp as sets of poker cards deal themselves in the darkness behind the power tools. The corners of aisle 8 are time stamped, each item shuffled front back as the film exposes itself to the slimming tablets as they degrade. It’s difficult to pass through here without the smell of protein powder sticking to the hair. This is the only aisle that consumes itself, all others sit, plagued with dust, hoping we’ll run past and pull them from the threat of ‘return to manufacture’. This is not the only aisle that smells though. Aisles 65 to 70 are the largest flat pack, often soft wood, and, as demanded items, are all usually still fresh cut and sweating sap. Whenever I go down to these towering subterranean pinelands I am reminded of Tasmania. But unlike the central wilderness it is much easier to escape claustrophobic intimacy and breach the canopy in Argos. All I have to do is reach for the step ladder and I can climb through the skyscrapers of confined commerce and rise above the dusty shelf tops, where I can peer to the other end of the concrete chamber. The stockroom can also present a darkness usually alien to retail. With the lights out you can achieve a true pitch, one I’ve only ever found in the flint mines of Norwich and opal of Andamooka. Small sensory events like these bring back long forgotten memories. Re-entering the city surface in the glass lift after time spent in the stockroom delivers a similar experience to climbing the rope ladder up into the outback. Even at cloudy dusk the sun is always staggering, bright enough to stand you still for fear of falling, or walking into the road.
In the loosest of links. The shop floor is reconcilable, the familiar father. While behind it sits the the holy ghost of the stock room, shelved with memory and experience. The third department is a fledgling son, Fast Track Delivery. Here we have a little bit of both till Joe, and picker Joe, but most of the time we can find Joe Stuttle, sitting back listening to the radio as he drives through the sunlit lowlands of the Eastern counties. And it’s in this role, the role I initially applied for, that I’ve changed the most. Being without a car for four years has been bliss and more importantly dirt cheap. Yet throwing myself back onto the road has been such a happy liberation. All sorts of people from all sorts of places order all sorts of things online. It’s a privilege to visit silent industrial estates at night, to give children their toys and to spend time talking to the many people who order online because of health or mobility reasons. (Though the care homes and residential houses are warrens of blind turns and locked gates.) Another van driver can come up to me and say “Trowse Newton”, or “Costessey” in despair at a certain time and I’ll have a fair idea of what they mean. For the first time ever I know every song in the charts and can can listen to each for the sixth time in one shift, every time enjoying it more. I’m outside, I’m doing honest manual work at speed and it’s work that involves responsibility. I sign my name in the tread of my tires, in every reflector and click of the handbrake. It really is good work, if you can get it.
P.S. To briefly describe a puncture on the A140.
I heard a large motorbike coming up on me from behind. I was doing fifty on a main road. I couldn’t see the bike in the mirror but it was clear for them to pass so I edged slightly to the left. The motorbike got louder and louder. But didn’t pass. It got much louder still and I started to lose full control of the steering. I put on my hazards, braked and pulled over. The tire had hit a large screw fallen from the underside of another vehicle. Decompressed and shredded, ribbons of thick white cord spilled out of three inch cuts at every hour of the wheel’s clock-face. The tire from four to six lay in a thin rag, pressed between the metal rim and the road. When the wheel was taken off the rim it was full of tiny black curls of rubber, like finely blended licorice, I have some in my hand now.