Saturday, 6 May 2017

The Stamping Job

As I progress in life I sometimes reflect on my first job after leaving school. I had been at a boarding school and left with no qualification to do anything useful except a clutch of examination passes that I think were called 'O-Levels' at the time but may have been 'Oh!' levels as that was my mother's response when she saw the grades.
With no direction, no ambition and no idea about what I wanted to do except get a job and earn some money, I applied for an office job. That's what you did when you got 'oh levels' back then. It was advertised in a well-known London evening paper (The Evening News, well known at the time but now defunct) and was an office clerk's position in Central London, between The Strand and Fleet Street to be precise. I'm not sure how I managed to convince anyone at the interview that I should be worthy of a clerical job in a grand building with plush offices. Somehow I did. I sat at the interview in my three piece suit, kipper tie and long hair (everybody under 30 had long hair back then... even the women) and tried to answer the questions without stuttering or passing out. I wasn't dim but I was naive, unworldly and excruciatingly shy, each of those 'qualities' a product, no doubt, of being closeted away in the boarding school for three and a half years.  Nowadays you can burgle a house, assault a pensioner or cause criminal damage to public property and not get put away for three years. I'd done none of those things. In fact I'd done nothing of note at all... except cope with the early death of my father through illness a year or so earlier. I guess, after that, I'd run away. Escaped to the 'safety' of a world that was a complete contrast to my earlier happy childhood. Imprisoned myself by choice. And now, out in the real world, I was trying to adjust to three and a half years 'exile' from the 'ring,' the arena of normal teenage development.
A few days after the interview I received a letter in the post, enclosed in a crisp, expensive looking envelope with the organisation's crest on the front. I opened it and found I was being offered the advertised position. I was bemused and then ecstatic. I'd been offered a city job at my first attempt. The only way was up. And then ecstasy gave way to self-doubt, fear even. Not fear of work. I have never had a problem with that. No, fear of entering the unknown world of work which I was ill prepared for (if you discount my 'oh levels'). And it wasn't a job in some provincial, one-horse town. This was in the capital of England. Would I be able to cope with a high powered role in a big organisation? (I had decided that the position of office clerk was 'high powered' given that it was in London). Would I be capable? Could I cope? Of course, I had 'oh levels,' after all.

The reality was something else.

On my first day at work I was given 'The Stamping Job.' I had my own desk but that was a necessity, not a status symbol, as it was a filtering station for every single piece of paper, letter, memo and telex that came through the organisation. (For those of you accustomed to the modern digital world of communication, telexes were a prehistoric electronic communication tool, a bit like a caveman sending a text). And my job was to stamp each one. Stamp them all with the date and department name… with a stamping device. Stamping was authenticating it as an officially received document. I didn't even have to read the documents. Just place them on the desk and 'kerrthump' them with the stamping device. And it was no ordinary bit of kit either. No, not for a high powered city job. It was a large, silver piece of mechanical machinery with a big red knob on the end of it. The handle, I mean... not me. Although, having said that, I did blush a lot. I say a lot but perhaps it was only when anyone looked at me, spoke to me, smiled at me, walked past me or was a girl. Part of the problem was the fact that I had had no real interaction with girls before I got The Stamping Job. Three plus years incarcerated in a school for boys meant that I was as familiar with their species as I was with the Nile crocodile. They never crossed my path so I didn't know how to handle them. So, like you should with the Nile crocodile, I gave them a wide berth.

Anyway, my first day in my new high powered City of London job began with a training session on how to 'stamp.' My training was conducted by the existing 'Stamping Job' incumbent, a guy named... perhaps he should remain nameless for the simple reason that he is actually still a real life friend. So I will call him 'Phil' mainly because I cannot think of him as anything else and Phil is a great abbreviation for his proper name! Phil was one of the good guys. Within seven nano-seconds he recognised that I was a naive young lad way out of his depth and totally lacking in social skills. I could use a knife and fork but my ability to interact with other humans was somewhat underdeveloped. Phil began the training by explaining that the stamping process involved placing a document flat on the desk, positioning the stamper thing onto the document and then pressing the knob down in a firm, emphatic manner so that it made contact and left an imprint of the date and department (in this case ‘Shipping’) on the surface. Kerrthump! Simple. There were only two other additional tasks in the training programme. The first involved putting the stamped document into a filing tray marked 'pending' (to this very day, nobody knows what pending means. I concluded that it meant don't do anything else with this document because somebody else will. The problem is, everybody thinks that and, as a result, some documents 'pend' forever). The second task was to ensure that I moved the date on by one digit each day. 

I'm a fast learner and within two and a half minutes I had grasped the whole concept and was ready to take on the responsibilities of 'The Stamping Job.' Phil looked relieved that I had picked up the process so quickly. I assumed that he was pleased that his teaching technique had been successful but I suspect it was because he had previously dealt with a succession of morons who hadn't made the grade. However by the end of the next day when my right arm was inflamed with a dull ache (Repetitive Strain Injury, RSI, had not been invented back then so you couldn't sue anyone - in fact, I don't think suing people for having to do your normal job had even been thought of as a money making concept), I realised his wide grin the previous day had been a reaction to the knowledge that the organisation had now recruited another sucker and he would no longer have to face the daily boredom that would eventually vegetate normal thinking processes.

I had no other function in the office other than to 'stamp' and by day three, my right arm had adopted an automated involuntary action of its own so that even when I was not holding the stamping device, my hand would randomly punch down on the desk, much to my embarrassment since fellow office workers would turn and look in my direction. They all thought I had some sort of spasmodic tick and back then, unusual behavioural patterns were not immediately considered worthy of an 'employee support group' but were simply categorised as 'weirdo' behaviour. I would respond by going red and then staring at the table as if it had been propelled upwards by some seismic shift of the earth's crust. The worst happened when Phil brought me a mug of tea on my third day. I raised it to take a sip but some reflexive action caused me to smash it down again onto the table. A fountain of tea shot into the air as the shock wave reverberated through the base of the mug and slopped the hot liquid over my pending papers. I blushed the incident off. It was what I did.

By day four of my first week I had communicated sufficiently in a series of stuttering responses to colleagues to make them realise that the red thing with the long hair and the involuntary fist thump, sat at the back of the office, was in fact human. This revelation made them confident enough to give me additional tasks but only tasks at a level of difficulty that a semi-comatose chimpanzee could carry out. So I was given routine photocopying. I was at the bottom of the office food chain, the amoeba of office life forms. But I didn't mind. It broke up the boredom of the stamping task and I viewed it as a trust thing, that my colleagues considered me a part of the team and were getting me involved. You have to start somewhere in the big city.However, my first experience of the photocopier didn't go as well as it should have done. For a start it was positioned in a corridor bordering another department which meant that I had to walk into unknown territory, an unnerving experience for a shy kid who had only just begun to feel at ease behind a pile of papers that needed stamping. Armed with a wad of documents that I had been asked to copy, I headed for the machine. I turned the corner into the corridor and stopped in my tracks. There was a girl. No... not just any girl. A blonde vision from the Planet Stunning. She was using the copier. And she had a short skirt on which meant that she had... had legs. I stopped, not deliberately. No, some part of my brain sent a message to my feet to say, 'you can't go there. This is Nile croc territory.' As a result I stopped some six feet away from the photocopier, the wad of papers held out in front of me, an improvised protective shield.  My instinct was to turn and run... but she'd spotted me. "Hello. You're Patrick aren't you?"At that point I had no idea who I was. A blonde vision had noticed me, spoken to me. And knew my name. I wasn't equipped to deal with it. So I went red. Maybe it works for chameleons, going a different colour. Meant to frighten off predators apparently. But it wasn't helping me. For a start the decor was pale magnolia (whatever that is - I think it's a colour name people made up when they had considered that 'bland' wouldn't sell as a paint product) and there was nothing red anywhere in sight for me to 'chameleon' in to. I felt my face flashing as the blood tried to disguise me as a tomato.The girl at the copier noticed but she was cool, even though my lack of a verbal response could have seemed impolite."I'm Agneta." (Agneta. Again I must protect the innocent. She may well have a Neanderthal husband now and if he recognises his wife in my narrative he may come after me with a twelve-bore shotgun. Or maybe just twelve boars.) Agneta. The name was... original, exotic, sexy. Not that I knew what sexy was. Why couldn't she have been called... I dunno, Mabel or something. Blonde, stunning and called Agneta was too much for me. I shifted the documents to my other hand. Agneta continued to press buttons on the copier, casual, unperturbed. Meanwhile, I was experiencing a mild seizure that left me unable to speak or move."I won't be long," she said, as she placed another sheet of paper on the machine.Be as long as you like, I thought. I can stare all day long, even from six feet away. She smiled and I dropped all my papers. My already blushed face now pulsated purple. I sank to my knees and started to scrabble about on the floor in an attempt to retrieve the spilt pile. And, in an instant, Agneta was beside me, effortlessly collecting my scattered documents and shuffling them into a neat, orderly pile. I knew I had to speak even if it was just to say thanks. But I was not that cool. "I am… " I said.She stopped shuffling and looked at me. Her wide eyed gaze and the subtle aroma of her perfume both in my face. "You are...? You are… what?" she said.
I am... I am... yes, I am Patrick, like you said. I am... erm... doing the stamping job."She giggled. "The stamping job? What's that?"My purpleness had relaxed into a sunset shade of blood orange, cooled perhaps by the beads of perspiration that had started to run down my face. I tried to be coherent. "It's the... the, you know, high power... err, office clerk job. I overtook it... I mean, took it over. I'm in that position... stamping… head.""Do you mean head of stamping?"
"Uh... well, yes. If you... if you ever want anything stamped just come and see me.
She smiled as she gathered up the rest of my papers. "Thank you Patrick. I will. Kind of you to offer." She stood up. "Will we see you tomorrow in the Surrey?"
The Surrey. I had no idea what that was but I nodded. If Agneta was going to be “in the Surrey,” then I had to be there. 
"Uh... yes. In... in Surrey. I'll... be there."She smiled and handed me my papers. "All yours now Patrick. I'm done."My blank look clearly suggested that more information was needed. "The photocopier. I've finished," she said, indicating the machine.It was my first real look at it. It was bigger than a small tank."Oh... yes. Err, thanks... erm... " I couldn't bring myself to say her name. No idea why, other than chronic shyness and perhaps the thought that doing so implied some familiarity that I was not worthy off."Agneta. It's Agneta. People have difficulty with it. Ag - net- ah." My face instantly returned to the molten lava look. She thought I'd forgotten her name or was too dim to pronounce it. "I hadn't forgotten. I know. Sorry," I blurted.She smiled. "See you tomorrow then. Hope the stamping goes well." And off she went.Tomorrow. See you tomorrow. I felt like I had a date.

I left the papers on the copier and went back to find Phil."You okay mate?" he asked. A normal question I suppose if somebody looks like they need an ambulance."Yeah... I am." I took a deep breath and decided to ask. "What's the Surrey?""The Surrey? It's a pub down the road. In Surrey Street. We all go down there Friday night for a few beers. Why?"We! All. 'We' meant lots of people. Not just me and Agneta. It threw me for a nano second but then I realised that me, lots of people and Agneta was still me and Agneta in the same room. "Uh... nothing. Just Ag... err, somebody mentioned it. Just in case... I need to know... things.""Yeah mate. It's a laugh. Bit of end of week down time... bonding thing. You coming?""Err... Yeah... sure."I returned to the desk buoyed with enthusiasm and stamped like a maniac all afternoon. Nothing went unstamped... everything that landed on that desk got stamped including a cheese sandwich that Phil had got me from the canteen. And then I remembered that I had never had any alcohol before. Never had a drink other than a sneaky tipple from a family member's sherry glass one Christmas when I was nine. And that had put me off for life. I remember wondering why my parents and their friends had decided to poison themselves but as they were still alive in the morning I dismissed alcohol as just something big people did. Now I was one of the 'big people' and if I was going to impress Agneta I would have to behave like big people and try alcohol. I was jolted from my daydream by a stern voice. "Have you done the copying, young man?"I looked up. It was the department head, a guy in his fifties who looked twenty years older, probably because the routine of holding down a mind numbingly dull admin job and negotiating the daily tube ride for decades had drained every ounce of individuality, passion and desire from his spirit... probably took his spirit too."Err, sorry, Bob. Yes... the copier was, uh... busy. I'll get it done... right now." Having been hypnotised by Agneta I had totally forgotten the copying task.
Friday came... and dragged. I stamped all day, stamped like the Chief Exec of Stamping would if there were such a position. It got me through the interminable wait for five-thirty. At five-thirty one Phil appeared at my desk, his jacket flung over one arm."You still coming over the road son?"There was no real discussion. "The Surrey? Yeah.""Yep. The Surrey. Get your jacket."I grabbed my jacket and followed Phil. Straight down the ornate spiral staircase into the lobby, out through the vast gated entrance and onto The Strand. We crossed the road and two minutes later we were outside the Surrey Arms. I had no time to allow my apprehension to take hold. Phil just walked straight in, comfortable and confident in his surroundings. I followed him. The place was heaving. Phil pushed his way to the bar and within a minute I was holding a can of Fosters. But these were not the cans of Fosters that you see nowadays. These were large, fat cans that held at least a litre of the amber fluid. The pub was mainly Australian and it catered big time for Aussie drinkers.

Phil flipped the ring and raised the can. "Cheers mate. Here's to your first week." I followed his lead and opened my can. A deep breath and I took my first sip of the cold contents. As the liquid hit my tongue it swirled around consuming my taste buds, an alien invasion of bitter sweet fizz that took control of my senses instantly. I gulped it down and stared at my surroundings, a heaving mass of laughing faces, a buoyant 'out of the grip of work' crowd giving vent to their end of week freedom. I was with the big people now. I gulped down another mouthful of beer, almost choking on the ambitious slurp. And then the gas began to impact, firing at my throat, a sensation I was not familiar with. I looked at Phil but in that instant he was distracted by an office colleague. My eyes began to 'pop', sensations washing over me as my young, inexperienced and totally unprepared system decided how it should deal with alcohol. I gave it more to consider by slurping another mouthful. It went down more easily but within seconds my face started to protrude. Probably not literally. It just felt like it was doing its own thing expression wise. The muscles in my jaws clenched as the alcohol injected itself quickly into my unprepared brain. My nose went numb, my eyes blurred momentarily and my jaw began to spasm  between tight and relaxed. The sensations confused, not something I knew how to deal with. I took a deep breath and stared at Phil. He was in deep conversation with a colleague and then, in slow motion, I saw him move away, towards the bar but get swallowed up by the throng in the process. Phil was my lifeline. Mentally I took a step forward but my feet didn't take the command. If I lost Phil I was alone. Alone in a packed pub. Everyone knew one another. Laughing faces, familiarity, joshing banter, but not directed to me. I was nobody again. Nobody, like when my dad left... I mean... died. I slugged the beer thinking that another hit would do the job, desensitise me and enable me to cope. Maybe it did. The hit fuzzed my brain, distorted my vision and then told me I could walk. I stumbled forward, a step at a time, each one precise and deliberate. You shouldn't have to place your feet that precisely unless you're a newly born antelope. The crowd parted, not because I was the new high powered Stamping Job exec. No, they parted because a glazed eyed kid should be avoided. They parted and in the space they left I spotted Agneta.

The blonde vision from Planet Stunning was there... as she said she would be. But not as I thought she would be. She was sitting on the lap of a tubby, moustachioed hippy, who should have stayed in Woodstock. He had to be a hundred and four years old which is what forty-ish
  seemed like to a seventeen year old. I looked. My Foster's head took in the scene. It made no sense. I wanted to speak, to say 'hello Agneta. I'm here.' Like you wanted. But I froze, mortified by the fact that the vision was contaminated. She smiled at me, a smile of recognition but not acceptance; not pleasure. My face warmed, this time not a blush, more a crushing disappointment fuelled by the fact that I was ill equipped to deal with rejection. I was unable to speak. A fleeting thought that I was supposed to be one of the big people scrabbled for acceptance in my head. It gained a momentary foothold causing me to attempt to return Agneta's smile. My mouth made it, but my eyes didn't mainly because they had fixed on Woodstock Moustache. As a result he thought I was smiling at him. And he winked. The wink destroyed me. Now, I can look back and see that it was nothing more than a simple greeting and a complementary reaction to Agneta's smile of recognition.  And maybe even a greeting directed towards a gormless, naive idiot who was standing staring at him and the Blonde Vision like someone who had just encountered Medusa and was morphing into a statue. But I didn't see it that way. To me it was a wink that said, 'I got the girl... the girl you want and can't ever get even in your wildest fantasies 'cos you're the stamping sucker and you can't even handle your drink like us big people.' It was too much. I glanced at Agneta, raised the oversized Fosters can and took a hit. The slurp didn't even touch my mouth. It blasted the back of my throat like the first jet of a car wash. Combined with a reflex inhalation of oxygen there was never going to be a good outcome. The Fosters tidal wave, did a reverse flow and surged back the way it had come, ejecting a spray of fluid straight over my jacket and shirt. The portion that did go the right way, driven by the eject reflex, suddenly found another pathway and splurted from my nose, onto my chin. The sudden convulsing cough mechanism that accompanied this reverse drinking process brought tears and spittle, never a good look when you are trying to impress beings from the Planet Stunning. I looked at Agneta. Yeah, she'd seen it. I turned away, wiping dribble from my face. "You alright son? You look a bit peaky."Phil."Uh... yes. Just went down the wrong way. Sorry.""Don't be sorry. Nothing to be sorry for, mate. C'mon. Let's get you down the tube."And so I got home. Phil knew I was out of my depth. Agneta knew I was out of my depth.
I resolved never again to swim with Nile crocs.