Warehouse Adventures for Beginners – Part 2

May 5, 2020 - By 
Sam Burns Montage Banner Image

Or, ‘How an Ageing Choirleader Briefly Sullied His Hands, & Became a Spokesman for All the Worlds Downtrodden Workers.”

First Shift

You clock in/out at the door. A second late equals 15 mins docked pay & a bollocking.  Ant-like & vaguely 2m apart, our feisty platter of misfits files down to the evening briefing.

Good news!  Last night we were (again) the most productive shift of the 24hrs …and the lowest sickness rate. We scoff of course, but are secretly proud. Night shift represents.  Bays assigned, the teams head out.

It’s a tower of babel, with few speaking English as a first language.  Polish, Somali, Asian, Jamaican & (as everywhere) a mouthy Scouser or two.  The casual racist/not racist banter flips me back to the building sites in Normandy, when I was the immigrant. Yep, still English & it’s still funny. Yay.  Having said which, it’s almost less offensive to be called an English **** or Polish ****, than simply a ****.  The Lithuanian **** is particularly proud of the additional syllables required to honour him with his full title.  It’s always nationalities, never skin colour which is invoked, & as there’s so many, it feels quite harmless.  Initial protocol is taciturn blanking. Scowl & ignore. But the ice melts readily once we work together.

My fellow newbies are 2 teenagers on gap years & Bulgarian Dave -a wily old warehouseman with all the tricks. This is worrying as I know from building sites that teenagers are usually moping, entitled wimps. Physically weak, psychologically worse. They tend to lose their morale quickly and openly and in any crap job, dark moments should be swallowed, not shared! As for Dave, I guessed he’d be good for a few tips, but would somehow escape any heavy lifting. Fair shout. He’d been there a long time.

Then cometh our mentor, trainer & spiritual leader, Bazza.  Judging the book by its cover, he is clearly a homeless meth-head.  But nonetheless a nice chap & much less dangerous with a fork-lift than you might expect.  …And an inimitable, -nay, pioneering training style…..

“Ok Bazza, so what do we do?”  “Well, MAINLY….there’s boxes & stickers but don’t forget the stickers coz when the lorries come it must under 24 but at least 20 and sometimes sideways coz the pallets need the stickers coz the food is blue on top. …and don’t forget the stickers”.

……”Um…. ok…. Shall I move these boxes over there?”


“And do they need stickers?”

“Er…. Dunno”


Despite misgivings, the 2 teenagers turn out fine. “Samwise” & “Danny-Boy” both sag at moments over the long night, as we all do. But they try not to show it, and we’re convinced that we’re the fastest new team they’ve ever had. (No one’s said anything, but all the same, we’re pretty sure). The harder you work, the faster turns the clock. But I’ve not seen either of them for days now.

Reckon they must’ve cracked after all.  Changing the teams means more new friends!

There’s weird angry junkie guy, who proudly claims to spend a third of his take home pay on industrial strength weed, talks often about murdering members of his family (theoretically, I presume) and particularly favours necrophilia as a conversation starter to while the hours away.

There’s Marcin, who somehow manages to spend the whole night, every night, leaning on a broom in the pickers bay. Always in an utterly foul mood. Never helps, rarely even responds, but suddenly comes to life when the young pickers come in. Polish banter abounds. Marcin is firing on all cylinders. The body language comes alive – vigorous, spivvish & just a hint of wacky…?  The girls respond in kind, then giggling whirr off into the darkness, and Marcin deactivates and slumps back despondently on his broom. The spectacle would be adorable if only he’d work a bit between solicitations.

Ollie, shy to the point that if he speaks at all it’s in a barely audible whisper, though he’s been there years and is as good at his job as any. Yet when a pallet started collapsing on me he gave a mighty roar and charged over to pitch in under the tumbling boxes. Eats 4 packets of crisps & 2 cans of coke for lunch. Legend.

Bill, seasoned hard-hand, but with terrifying V.A.C. (Visible Arse-Crack). Sometimes as we tango around parallel pallets I look up to find myself actually staring into the abyss, merely inches away from my face.  I have nightmares of a physical collision & will certainly need counselling when this is all over.  SURELY health & safety legislation should cover this!  Bill is very professional for the first 3 hrs, then descends into mumbling and becomes almost useless, then after the break just giggles insanely till end of shift. Presumably it was just exhaustion, but striking nonetheless.

Mikey, an unkempt & scowling Polish bear. Highly intolerant of incompetence, but softens if he decides you’re on the ‘get it done’ team.  Like all menial workplaces there’s a chasm between those who survive by doing the best they can as fast as they can and those who try to do as little as possible without getting caught.  One bloke attempts to spend the whole night brushing dust up & down whatever bay he’s working.  I just don’t get it.  Surely that’s the same amount of work as actually cleaning the bay? But to him it’s beating the system.  Mikey is doing overtime, so he starts 4 hours before the rest of us and also does a bit at the weekend. He’s clocking 70 hrs this week and is chuffed to bits.  “Can’t go out, so what else am I going to do?”.  Turns out he’s a physiotherapist, has only been here for a year, sends money home and hopes to set up his own practice as soon as he’s saved up and improved his English. He will surely succeed.

And my latest ‘trainer’, Maff.

At first I was pleased as he could definitely construct a sentence, so I looked forward to building on Bazza’s estimable foundations. Even better, he was actually keen and enthusiastic on doing the job as well as it can be done. That’s the attitude that gets a watch spinning.  I was a shameless teacher’s pet, clinging onto his every word and he loved it and rose to the crowd. His thing was to be ‘the character’.  Noisiest crew, crudest banter etc.  He constantly rotated a very few leitmotifs:

1) The first four bars of “La Marseillaise”, except with one wrong note. “Da-da, da, da, da, da, DAH….da-da”… Same wrong note every time. Harmonically it was a reasonable choice, but irritating just the same.

2) A charming little nursery rhyme, perhaps even of his own invention?  “I like to play with my ding-a-ling, my ding-a-ling, my ding-a-ling.”…etc. -That’s about it. No really.

3) A noise which I imagine, HE imagined as some sort of Indian War-Cry.  Then back La Marseillaise. Round & round. 8 hours straight.

All this was fatiguing, but tolerable. I was finally learning something.

The next night I was paired with him again. Actually, it turns out he has major mental health issues. He’d already proudly namechecked OCD & PTSD as part of his collection. Tip of the iceberg, says I.  From the outset he is completely different. Moody, introverted, constantly muttering. Within a couple of hours this has grown to full blown paranoia. The muttering definitely mentioning cameras everywhere & CIA plots. He no longer gives any sort of useful instruction, but breathes fast & loudly through his nose, in fact I’m fairly certain that he is very close to randomly punching someone (anyone, perhaps even himself) and decide that, in the case of such an event, my best course would be to stab him in the face with a pallet shard. That theory remains untested, happily, as soon after he disappears entirely for the rest of the shift. No idea where.  He hasn’t been back since and I’ve just found out that he did time for GBH, so my face/stab/pallet instincts were probably a good call. Many people find him hard to cope with, but others love him warts an all & the whole shift misses the energy he brings to the floor. Damn good driver too.

N.B. There are also lots of normal-seeming people who work here, but they make less good copy.


Next Episode, The Day to Day

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