Westerns were Dad’s favourite kind of film. He would sometimes imagine himself as the grouchy rancher in one of his beloved John Wayne movies: with his trusty men, his hands. Together they would get the stage home or the herd through. The group of “ranch hands” formed a distinctly motley, though not uncharismatic, crew. Dad often called them the Merry Men. Over time the cast of characters changed but the main ones I remember were all associated with Elliot Road though many had worked for my Dad since our first large bakehouse, Kimberley Road. The Italians, Justino and Vincenzo and Luigi, were bakers and drivers. The English – Trevor and Robert the pastry, Bernard the clean, Big Rod the driver, Town Centre Sean, John the Ugly, Annie the Huge, Dave the Foreman, Dave the Hippy Baker, Ginger Gordon, Sleeping Terry, Ed the army (and we learnt later the paedophile), and others who have faded from my memory. Then there were the Swamp brothers who ran dispatch.
John (Jumbo), Ray and the youngest, Terry. Terry reminds me now of the young Robert De Niro in Mean Streets – all edge and energy. Jumbo was a crawler who flattered my Dad and the rest of us but who also worked with energy, packed and drove a delivery van and was obsessed by Poole Pirates speedway team. He used to call me Blue after Blue Boy in the cowboy series the High Chaparral. Ray the elder brother worked very hard and always looked grumpy.
The Italians, and the actual bakers -Bernard, Robert, Trevor, Dave and Gordon – were basically honest and decent workers who were paid too much overtime. Vincenzo and Justino’s worst offence was to claim to be stranded in Italy at the end of their annual holidays for no apparent reason, sometimes for weeks. Many of the rest, whose names I cannot remember, were chancers who charmed or conned my father into keeping them on or would simply turn up when no one else did. They would also, if not too hung over or late, work decently hard for the money. The clock ticking, my father shouting, the dough rising, providing the impetus.
They all played along with the notion of forming a crew. But the reality was that the only person being “got out of the shit” was my father himself. I remember an exchange in the bake house once, I do not remember whom it was between. My father was asking someone to help him with something. They agreed saying “Yes, I only do it for love”. Someone else shot back: “Yeah, love of money like the rest of us”. Dad looked crestfallen.
Sometimes we arrived in the middle of the shift when it is more difficult to get things organised because you have to work around others. However, more often I worked from the beginning of the night or on a Sunday morning when we baked especially for our most successful shop, Gigi in Christchurch. On this morning I was coming in to fry the doughnuts and then help with the packing up of the orders for dispatch.
Jumbo once made a very basic error. Someone gave him a tee shirt with “John the Baker Boy” written on it and he wore this to the bake house. He had a naturally enthusiastic nature and had not stopped to think. He was not a baker. There was a solid demarcation between those who baked and those who packed and delivered. It was a divide that could not be crossed. But Jumbo’s family who gave him the tee shirt did not understand this. The bakers, especially the bread bakers, teased him hard for his audacity. He had crossed a line and made a claim, which inside the confines of the bake house made him look ridiculous.
The otherwise mild and sensible Bernard led the charge. He seemed to be genuinely affronted by the tee shirt. There were those who made the stuff and there were the others. The makers were the artisan elite in this little world. They made, and as the word implies, they confected, and were therefore on top. Then there were the packers and the drivers.
Jumbo’s tee shirt brought home the uncomfortable reality that the backroom boys, the bakers, were not the ones the public associated with the bread. The front of house deliverymen were, to the outside world, the baker boys. Jumbo with his good humoured energy was the bringer of the morning goods. He liked the smiles that spread across faces as he arrived with the delivery but he forgot about the rules of the bake house and was made to pay. I remember him walking out of the bakery visibly upset by the taunting. We never saw the tee shirt in the bake house again, though he might have put it on once he was out on his round.
One of the perfect moments in a shift was taking a break just before dawn. Watching the beginning of a sunrise. Some of the drivers would by now have begun to load their vans. Less smoking and grumbling from the drivers was a sign that the emphasis had shifted in the focus of the night’s work from production to distribution. The packers now became the centre of activity. These packers worked in different ways. Some laid all their orders out in their designated part of dispatch. They began adding to each order every item that was ready when it was ready. Other packers who worked on the smaller later rounds could afford to work their way down the list in order and leave only a few items to add at the last moment. Those who worked in the daytime came in when all the fancy cakes had been made. They could put their orders together from start to finish in good time for the driver to pick them up. For the night time packers these day timers were not the real thing. They did not have to manage the process of adding goods late as they became available. But the nuances of bake house life went deeper than this. In someway the packers were the most complex of all the sub-species in the bakery.
Ray did the big town centre rounds with a lot of volume of cut bread, large numbers of crusty and dinner rolls and substantial, ie by the dozen, quantities of morning goods. He moved with his head down concentrating hard on his work. He was like a mouse darting around the bakery assembling his orders. Ray was the only packer I remember going into the production area to ask how long before things would be ready. If he was short just a few things and Bernard or someone else other than my father was working the oven, he would try and take the still hot things off the trays and put them into his baskets. He was paid on a sort of piecemeal rate or as a charge or senior hand, so his incentive could always be presented to his brothers as financial. Actually he was, like his brother John, just naturally a person who is keen and energetic and tries to do a good job.
My father always called him a good worker. There was another packer, called Stephen I think, whom my father never really liked. He was employed in busy seasons like this Christmas to help out. The swampy brothers ganged up on him when he was in and used him as the butt of these jokes when he was not. They ridiculed his ability to work, called him slow and inefficient, questioned his ability to count, demeaned the size and complexity of the orders he was packing. At tea breaks the attack became much more brutal. Ray would pause rather than take a break and he would continue to add things to orders and sort his orders right through the statutory break period. Once settled on turned over bread baskets or flour sacks the brothers, with Ray occasionally pausing in this endless movement, would turn their attention to Stephen’s love life. This was their favourite theme. The youngest swampy would be particularly insistent on this theme.
It would begin in a gentle way. Did Stephen, they asked, get any? Had he ever had any? What were his prospects for getting it? Then they would begin to describe the sex they were having, or rather I suspect would like to have been having. The assaults on Stephen were not at all provoked – he was mild, non-descript individual with a broad Dorset accent and nothing else that I can remember about him.
Why they should have chosen to torment him about what they assumed was the lack of sex life I do not know. I suspect that early on he must have mentioned, as a way of gaining their confidence, something about an unsuccessful seduction. But I was very grateful for him being there because I assumed that if he had not been then these brothers would have turned on me and began to question me about my sex life! On the snowy night the conversation was intense. Perhaps the nature of the evening, the tension of the snow made them more extreme.
It began by the youngest swampy asking Stephen if he knew what a period was. I had a vague idea myself but wanted to hear more.
“Do you fucking know what we are talking about?”.
“Pardon, so you know?”.
“But if you know then you must have been with a woman for more than a month”.
“Yes that’s right,”
This from another brother, “but how could you have fucking afforded it for a whole month”.
“I mean a shag is one thing.”
Then another one, “Yeah, I mean a one off, what £50 or £30 for a hand job.”
“Yeah but for a whole fucking month?”
A third brother, perhaps Ray joining in for a change, “Did you win the fucking pools then?”
“To afford it?”
“To afford a bird for a whole fucking month.”
Stephen’s face crumbled. He finally understood the implications of what they have been saying and stands up. For a moment all was quiet. I never remember him reacting like this before and the tease had never been so intense. The swampy’s pause, sensing like good bullies do, that their verbal attack had hit the target. “Fuck you all”. Stephen walked out, with considerable dignity. The swampys collapsed laughing. I pause not sure about what was said or what it all meant but sure that Stephen was really angry. I can’t follow him out directly, though I am not sure why I can’t, so I go to the loo. Jumbo seems to realise for the first time that I had been there the whole time. “What are you doing hiding there Blue, run along”. I go to the loo. Then into Dad’s office, were only I am allowed, then out the front door and to the side of the bakery to try and find Stephen. He is sitting on the steps smoking and swearing slowly, deliberating and strongly under his breath. He looks up: “It just gets a bit fucking much listening to all this crap from those cunts all the time.” There are tears behind his eyes. Signs of real pain, genuine anguish. Suddenly I realise that he really hates coming to work, that he is a really unhappy grown up. He hates it in the same way that a very hairy boy called Tubby at school must really hate it. A boy who is teased everyday, not bullied he is much bigger than anyone else, Stephen is much bigger than the swamp brothers. This is not about physical pain but about forms of mental torture. This part I realised later, that night I realised for the first time that not everyone loved the bakery. That some of the merry men just had to come.
Over the year my Dad employed many people that no one else would. A entourage of misfits around the central characters with skills. They are like a strange procession in my mind now, it seems unreal to me that this world, this night in which I learnt about sex during the menstrual cycle ever actually existed. I turned from Stephen, it was cold and I had orders to pack.
I heard someone else coming out, it was Ray. “Tea break over”. “Fuck off”. “Come on, lets get on with it”. I wonder off, Ray retreats. I am conscience for perhaps the first time that Ray and the others cannot tell me what to do. I walk out across the yard. As I round the corner of the unit the sun is just beginning to rise. As the light reaches the corner both Ray and Stephen say together, “fuck”. It is later than they had realised. I sit a while. It was the first time I had actually watched the sun rise.
I was 14 years old and sat wondering what the point of the bakery was. Then I went back to work. What was the point of this kind of life compared to other kinds of life? It was the first time I thought to myself something that keeps me awake at night somtimes worrying that I am lazy: We have only one life on this earth, how to live it. It may have been that night, it was certainly around this time, that I began to wonder if being a baker was really what I wanted to do with my life. I spent most of my time at the bakery thinking about castles, knights, the industrial revolution and football. I found most of the jobs I was asked to do around the bakery boring and repetitive, there were still and there would always be moments of magic and this that I loved doing, but I realised that I did not want to be my father and that meant I did not want to work in the bakery.