This is the true story of the first of my three shifts at the massive Argos warehouse just outside Stafford.
The background story
Coming to the end of my first year of study/alcoholism at Staffordshire University I found myself needing some work in order to pull together enough cash to take with me on a lads holiday to Greece the following month. I didn't have much time to make this cash, so I turned to a mate of mine for some advice on how I might find a job quick-sharp.
The friend in question, Noka to those who knew him - was living in my student house and had been doing a few temping jobs in the area at the time to pay the bills. Noka had been working some god-awful sounding jobs over the past year and had only recently declined an offer of employment at a cheese farm - a job which had been described to him by the temping agent as a "dream-job paying mega money". The reality of the offer was a measly £6.50 an hour for 12-15 hour shifts in a big vomit inducing shed full of Stilton.
Using this and similar examples as a litmus test for job satisfaction, he informed me that he was presently happily employed working night shifts in a warehouse job over at the mammoth Argos factory near the M6 in Stafford. The pay wasn't bad, the work was okay and as such, he suggested that I contact the same temping company that employed him to see if they had any more jobs going.
So on the morrow I set off to a cigarette stained recruitment agency on Stoke High Street and explained to Janet the chain smoking agent that I was looking for a job in the Argos factory. She said that there were several vacancies but that I would need to pass a phone interview. Expecting this to occur at a later date, I was rather taken aback when she dialled through to their offices and handed me the phone there and then. My phone interview was as described here:
Voice: Argos Human Resources Department, John speaking.
Me: Err, the temping agent has asked me to enquire about a night-shift vacancy at the Stafford Warehouse.
Voice: Do you have a criminal record?
Voice: You start on Sunday. Bring some ID.
Flimsy clearances aside, I was given my start time and was employed on a 'pay as you play' basis for the princely sum of £6.35 per hour as the newest member of the Argos night-shift family - and what a remarkable and diverse family it was!
Shift 1 - Freddy's knackered Fiesta and the 'Goods-In' Terminator
With a twelve hour night-shift and the prospect of £82.80 in earnings ahead of me, I left my humble student dwellings and embarked on the fifteen mile journey to the Argos Factory.
Noka was working the same shift as me and had managed to blag us a lift from a colleague he'd met recently. In advance he warned me that the chap taking us was not exactly the full ticket and I should probably avoid engaging in any form of conversation on the basis that the outcome of such an interaction was highly unpredictable. "Fair enough", I thought, and I resolved to keep my head down and get on with things quietly and respectfully.
Unsurprisingly, it was absolutely hammering it down in Stoke. I've been told that Stoke on Trent is one of the wettest places in England, due to its location at the foot of the Pennines. All I know is that if miserable were a place, it would be Stoke on Trent.
After standing on the street corner in the pouring rain with Noka waiting for about 10 minutes, a knackered old Ford Fiesta pulled up. The driver was entirely invisible to me as his car windows (including his windscreen - we'll get to that) were completely obscured by a splattering of thick, heavy raindrops. Noka ushered me towards the back seat as he claimed 'shotgun' and we both climbed into the car.
Noka greeted our designated chauffeur for the evening and introduced me. Turning around suddenly, our driver took me rather by surprise as he was the absolute spitting image of Robert Englund - aka Freddy Kruger. Seeing him took me instantly back to the terrifying two hours I had spent watching Nightmare on Elm Street round a family friend's house at the age of 9. I'm sure at this point I gasped audibly, which must have seemed odd, but nevertheless, I graciously greeted the notorious child killer and thanked him for the lift.
Freddy (as I have always since referred to him as) set about driving us to the factory. Immediately I noticed his driving style was rather strange - he was driving with his face practically pressed up against the windscreen. Quickly I realised that the Fiesta had no working windscreen wipers. Unsurprisingly, we were of course driving in a deluge. I'm convinced to this day, that Freddy couldn't see a damn thing and was driving solely by using 'the force'
Remembering Nokas advice and deciding not to engage the supernatural murderer in conversation, I managed to catch Nokas eye in the rear view, which prompted the following non-verbal conversation between us:
Me: RAISED EYEBROWS - meaning - he's got no bloody wipers!"
Noka: RAISED EYEBROW - meaning - "I know"
Me: HEAD NODDED TOWARDS CAR DOOR - meaning "let's get the hell out of here before this maniac kills us both"
Noka: FURROWED BROW - meaning - "chill out, we'll be there soon"
Me: ROLL OF THE EYES - meaning - "fine. but if we die, I told you so"
This lack of visibility made the following 30 minute trip down the M6 motorway a quite terrifying ordeal all round. My memory of the journey consists broadly of nondescript shapes in the distance, flashing lights, car horns and the occasional screeching of brakes.
Miraculously unscathed from our MOT violating terror ride down the M6, we arrived at the vast sky-blue monolith that was the Argos Warehouse - truly a giant metal fortress of 'tat'.
Departing from Freddie Kruger's death wagon, Noka, Freddie and I headed towards the main doors which opened menacingly quickly as if urging me to rush to my toil with all haste.
Before buggering off to haunt some teenager's dreams, Freddie told us to meet back there at the end of our shift for the lift home, which was going to be in just over twelve hours time at 6am. I remember praying that it would have stopped raining by then.
Noka too had to leave me at this point. He was assigned to 'order-picking' duties and apparently needed to dash off, ironically to get picked himself (I will explain more about that in shift 3).
I had been told to report to the 'Goods-In' supervisor who was waiting in the main reception. I can't recall his name, but he was a stern little man, built like a miniature tank but probably no taller than 5ft 3".
He looked me up and down with the clinical eye of a boot camp sargeant and pronounced;
"Where's your hard boots duck?" (Duck is a term of reference apparently unique to the Stoke on Trent area - i.e. alreet duck? How's them oatcakes?)
Roughly translated, this meant;
"Excuse me young man, but may I enquire as to the whereabouts of your steel toe capped footwear?"
I said I didn't own any boots and was told I couldn't enter the factory without a pair, due to issues of 'elf and safetee'. The supervisor also reminded me that I wasn't working in an 'effing' cake shop.
Fortunately though, the warehouse kept spare boots for people and I was able to borrow some. The supervisor took me to a room and told me to pick some out from a large fabric container full of the things. This, I felt, was rather like a disgusting lucky dip. Pick wisely and get a nice pair of boots in your size, but rummage around too long and you'd probably acquire a mild fungal infection or get fatally bitten by a scorpion-like wood beast (ala Peter Duncan in Flash Gordon).
Booted up, the supervisor advised me to leave my rucksack in a lockable unit near reception and proceed with him to the warehouse floor.
The warehouse itself was truly colossal. From the outside it was simply a massive blue building, but inside it was a buzzing hive of activity, a metropolis of shelves over fifty foot high as far as the eye could see. Various motorised wagons buzzed past, men of all shapes sizes and colours rushed hurriedly about and voices shouted angrily over the din of clatters and bangs.
I was assigned to a chap called Andy. He was probably one of the toughest fellows I've met. He looked harder than a prison cell door and had the air of someone who could knock out a rhino with a single blow should he wish. Despite his savage appearance, he was very fair with me and explained everything in a matter of fact sort of way. He explained I was doing 'Goods In', otherwise known as 'empty the lorry as quick as humanly possible'. This seemed straightforward enough.
To explain in a little more detail, 'Goods-In' work requires strength, speed and good teamwork. Many people have probably emptied a van at some point - perhaps while moving house. If you have, you'll know it is hard work and ideally requires a couple of bodies to shift the contents. Well, Goods-In is similar to this, but on a massive scale. Instead of a van that is 9ft long and 4ft wide with a crudely arranged set of contents inside, you're dealing with a container that is 30ft long by 8ft wide and is stocked from ceiling to floor from front to back. The best way to describe the act of emptying one of these bastards is likening it to playing a real life game of Tetris in reverse.
Unsurprisingly, I found myself to be ill-equipped for this job. I'm just not built for manual labour. Pure and simple. I've got softer hands than the fairy liquid woman and my general idea of physical exertion is stretching for the remote control. My new colleague Andy however, was like the Terminator of 'Goods-In'; a relentless furniture shifting cyborg sent back from the future to empty lorries until he withers away to his metal-endoskeleton.
He nearly killed me that shift. We emptied four full lorry loads in the twelve hours with only two half hour breaks and barely a word spoken between us other than my persistent moans and Andy's instructional banter; "grab that end", "put that down there", "mind your feet"
At the end of the shift, I found myself battered, bruised, thoroughly exhausted and actually longing to be reunited with Freddy Kruger and his chariot of impending doom.
Andy the Goods-In Terminator ironically enquired if 'I'd be back'. At that point I really felt like saying Hasta La Vista baby...but he'd have probably just punched me in the head.
Coming soon: Shift 2 - The Iraq War