Goodbye to School.
Exams over I determined I would have my last long holiday. Once I started work I would be down to one week a year plus bank holidays. Surprisingly Dad allowed me the "looking around" time but he continued to press his preferred option.
"The opportunities in the Civil Service are endless," Dad said. "Ambassadors take their office staff with them when they go abroad."
My spirits rose, maybe it wouldn't be such a boring old job after all.
The Head poured cold water on that. "You need to stay on for your Higher," she said. "Perhaps you had better ask your father to come and see me."
There was no point, too much emphasis had been put on the sacrifice they were making keeping me at school until I was sixteen and anyway I'd had enough of school.
"What about teaching?" my House Mistress suggested to no avail. I wouldn't be a teacher if it was the last job I did!
I loved children and spent a good deal of time taking my young brother and his friends out so I applied for a job in a children's home. They offered me the post but Dad was totally opposed to it and I was still very much under his influence.
Whilst I was still searching my mind as to what job wouldn't bore me to tears the City Library advertised for school leavers to train as library assistants. Now that had immediate appeal. I loved books and I loved libraries. The musty silence satisfied my soul. Beside there, one might meet lads with something between their ears.
I had an interview along with five other girls from my school. They accepted me conditionally. If I hadn't achieved five passes in the "School Certificate" I would have to leave. I agonised over the conditions. I couldn't be sure of the passes. I knew I'd failed in Geography because I had written nothing but my name and number on the paper and the Domestic Science paper had been all about building a house, a subject so alien to my way of living that I had not even thought about it. Houses were, in my experience, rented ready-made; usually about a hundred years ago. Nor had I had the chance to shine in the practical since it was "a braised meat dish" and I hadn't any idea what braising meant.
The thought of all the others knowing I had failed devastated me so to my lasting regret I turned down the opportunity and began work in the education offices.
There were two of us taken on a three-month trial and I gave the job everything I'd got. My work consisted of checking invoices and so diligently did I apply myself that before the end of the day the chief clerk had to tell me to pack away and go home.
Not so my opposite number. She took regular smoking breaks in the loo and retired there to renew her makeup fifteen minutes before finishing time. I was shattered when she was asked to stay on and I was told I was to be transferred to school medical. One of the other girls said she was dating the boss. I was grateful for the sympathy but I didn't believe it. He was old enough to be her father.
Apart from the humiliation of being considered inferior, I wasn't unhappy about the change after all the work could be more interesting.
Unlike the Education Office, School Medical had an all female staff and the girlish giggles, bitchiness and a tart supervisor, soon had me hating the place.
We sat in a long double row sorting the mail. Any talking was in whispers until the lunch break when a couple of girls would go out to buy buns.
After just a few weeks that dragged like years, I was sent out to the clinics. At first I enjoyed this. I had been warned of the disgusting diseases of the scruffy working class. Of the head lice that crunched under your feet after the kids had been deloused but I had been familiar with these conditions all my life. Local children at the elementary schools had their lives blighted by having their heads shaved when they were discovered to be infested.
Once as I sat combing my hair and reading the newspaper several of the little beasties fell out. I screamed in horror but Mam sent me to the local hardware shop for a pint of paraffin. This was applied to my head and I sat with an old towel round my head for two hours before I was allowed to wash my hair. The stink remained for days but I saw no more of the horrors in spite of using the "dick comb" nightly.
I liked working at the clinics for I was relief clerk and so got a change of venue but before long I fell foul of a clinic doctor because I couldn't get the hang of the switchboard. Beads of sweat started on my forehead when the lights buzzed and I found I had cut her off again.
She called me an idiot. "A two year old could operate it," she stormed. She thrust a test tube into my hand. "Take this to the health laboratory on your way home.'And don't dawdle it's urgent."
Smouldering with resentment I went. The laboratories weren't on my way and I was late home. But worse was to come the next morning.
The nurse greeted me. "You are to report straight back to the office."
I looked at the clock. "I'll hang on a bit, till the next bus," I said. That was another mistake. The doctor arrived and lambasted me as soon as she entered the door.
"Do you know what you've done, you lazy slut?'
I thought she had gone barmy.
"You've killed a child."
Now I knew she was mad. I think I just stared open mouthed. She gave an exasperated "Oh" and stalked into her room slamming the door.
I was told I should have waited for the result of the swab test she had taken from a suspected diphtheria case, furthermore I should have written the name and address of the child on the clinic label. The lab had been obliged to contact the police and they had needed to scour the streets for him. By the time they found him it was too late.
Although no one had told me the procedure, I felt guilty. I knew I should have asked and would have done so if I hadn't been made to feel such an idiot over the switchboard. If I had known it was a case of suspected diphtheria, I would have realised it was too important to be left until morning and I did tell the man at the lab that the doctor said it was urgent.
I was taken off clinic work and relegated to filing in the cellar.
It was cold and dark and I was alone with thousands of clinic cards. I wasn't supposed to read them but naturally when I came across Fred's card curiosity got the better of me. He was blind in one eye as the result of a snowball containing a stone and he had severe weakness of his left arm.
Later I made the mistake of telling my discovery to my brother so that the next time I took up with Fred he taunted me with the ditty applied to Nelson and Lady Hamilton:
"He'd one eye and one arm gone west,
And our Joan ran in and grabbed the rest."
Christmas ended my time with School Medical. The girls all put five shillings in a kitty and two of them went shopping for presents. I thought it was just about the daftest thing I had ever heard and I told them so.
"Leave me out of it. I'd rather choose what I spend my money on."
At that time I tipped up my wages at home and had ten shillings pocket money. Once again I was in Coventry.
Christmas Eve one of the girls delivered cards from a box placed in the office and then came the great moment two girls stood like Santa Claus calling out names and handing round presents. Each of which had to be unwrapped and oh'd and ah'd over before the next was presented was handed out.
What a charade, I thought. I congratulated myself as I saw the things money had been wasted on; broaches hand made out of bits of felt decorated with acorns or tiny cones, the fasteners were safety pins; then to my anger and astonishment, Miss Wells, (we were all addressed by our surnames) came simpering over with a gift for me.
"I haven't paid anything in." I said.
"I know," she replied, smiling round at her audience. "but we felt we couldn't leave you out."
"Well you should have done. I don't want your charity."
After that, it seemed advisable to hand in my notice before I got the boot. Beside which the experience at the clinic had undermined my confidence leaving me feeling very vulnerable.
I decided to check the evening paper for something more interesting and applied to the telephone exchange. I thought if I was trained, surely I could learn to use a switchboard.
There, once again I came under the beady eye of a female dragon.
The first two weeks were like school. We had lectures on the standard procedures and phrases: "Number please.''Trying to connect you.'Once the connection had been made, you were instructed to switch through to check it was going smoothly but not to listen to more than a few words and you were sworn to secrecy.
Certain numbers had priority and when those lights flashed they were top secret. Whether they were coded I don't know but we had many a giggle about a certain colonel's calls to a very randy female.
Once on the switchboards we were not allowed to leave our post until relieved by the next shift. I had been on duty since eight o'clock and was it was already well past my dinner break when the dragon appeared behind me.
"I'm sorry you will have to stay on, your relief hasn't turned up," she told me.
I protested that I hadn't had my dinner.
"I will try to find you a relief," she said. But her tone suggested she would not try very hard.
By two o'clock I was bursting for a pee but she was nowhere in sight. Blow this I thought and I left my post.
As I walked down the long row of girls their eyes registered amazed horror. One didn't leave the switchboard without permission.
The canteen was closed and I was hungry besides I'd finished my shift so I went home.
The next day I received a rollicking. According to the Dragon, my behaviour was synonymous with desertion from the front line. I told her I had enough of the job and was going to hand in my notice.
Her beady eyes narrowed and she gave a tight-lipped smile. "You can't," she snapped. "This is work of National Importance, no one is allowed to leave."
That morning my switchboard went haywire. I couldn't concentrate. I made wrong connections and cut people off but I managed to keep my temper despite being harangued by furious callers. "I'm sorry, there is a fault on the line," I lied. All my concentration was on how I was going to get out of this job.
Dad provided the answer. He'd never been keen on my doing shift work and in a few weeks I would have to work the night shift which he thought fraught with moral danger, though what I could get up to sitting at a switch board was beyond my comprehension.
"Health grounds," he said. "That's the only way. That and compassionate.
Nothing loath I composed a letter of resignation on "Health grounds."
I had to attend an interview with the exchange manager who questioned me closely. I was concentrating on avoiding any direct replies until he said, "Have you told your parents?"
Suddenly all his questions made sense, he thought I was pregnant. For a brief moment I contemplated going along with him but realising I might be subjected to a medical I abandoned the notion and pretended I hadn't understood.
"Oh, they know," I said in a flash of inspiration. "I've had a lot of ear trouble ever since a child and the headphones make them worse. And give me headache," I added for good measure.
The former was quite true and I think he was relieved to have a medical cause to grant my release.
Dad became alarmed at my "fly by night attitude" and concerned that I was "out of work" for a few weeks. To placate him, Harry, who was stationed at Blackpool and got home most weekends, asked his boss if he could do anything for me.
Through my brother's boss I was given introduction to two office managers who agreed to interview me. Both offices were dark tiny rooms up gloomy wooden staircases. I deliberately acted dumb and my indifferent shrug and laconic reply as to why I had left my previous post made sure they had nothing available at the present.
Now Dad again pressed for a "Civil Service" application and I desperately scanned the "Evening Post."
I found exactly what I was looking for, "Trainee laboratory assistant for small textile firm."
I applied and got the job before telling my parents.
Dad wasn't pleased. "What prospects does it offer?" he asked. But Mam didn't mind, after all girls only worked until they married and I might as well do a job I liked.
I didn't tell them my intention was to stick it only until I was old enough to join the Wrens. I was in the GTC and our leader assured us we'd get commissions in the service.
Working in an all female environment had not prepared me for practical jokes the two young male lab assistants played on me, and, as in my school days, I did not find them funny. The initiation joke was being sent to the suppliers for "a long weight.'I took my revenge by going home instead of straight back. "I didn't think the wait was long enough.'I said sweetly.
The next trick too backfired. Jack, the younger of the two cried out as I walked into the lab. He held out his hands, flames leapt from them. I grabbed the fire extinguisher and doused him in the white foam. Unfortunately once started I couldn't stop it. The lab cupboards were highly polished mahogany. What a mess! No amount of beeswax ever restored them to their former glory.
We daren't tell the boss that he had set fire to ether on his hands and was in no danger, Instead we burnt a hole in his overall and pretended the fire was real.
On my birthday, a tea chest, addressed to me, was delivered to the lab. Again I spoilt their fun. It did not occur to me that they had actually bought a present for me so eventually they had to unwrap the layers and layers of newspaper until they could present me with a slide rule. I felt really mean and bought them both a teacake from the local shop.
The lab work was fun especially as the manager obviously fancied me. Today, the male attitudes would be classed as sexual harassment but I confess I enjoyed it, even more so when the manager asked me to go with him to visit customers and took me out for a meal. I had never had a meal in a restaurant let alone the posh hotels he took me to.
He told me he was married and his wife was in a mental home. He would never desert her but he couldn't have her home for she had attacked him, more than once, with a knife.
I didn't believe him. I had read all about the wicked ways married men who tried to gain women's sympathy but the lads at work confirmed his tale when I asked if he was married.
Going out with him was wonderful. He treated me like a princess and limited his sexual demands to "neck up and knees down" which I thought a small price to pay.
I was sorry when he moved to another factory but I began to flirt with the elder of the two boys. He was engaged and was quite sickening in his praise of his girl. Cynically I wondered how vulnerable he was. I soon found out and although I had never met him outside the lab he told me he loved me.
That I hadn't expected! I persuaded him that he really loved his fiancée and it was just because he was with me all day. I really didn't want to break up his engagement but he had espoused such puritanical views that I wanted to see if he would flirt. He was really nice and I became fond of him and if he hadn't been engaged I might have taken up with him but he would have been miserable with me.
Soon after this, he joined up and I worried as to whether his decision was anything to do with me.
After he left another girl joined us. She was taller than me and had very thick dark hair. She suffered from eczema and shouldn't have been working in a lab at all. I was supposed to train her which was all very well until I learnt she was being paid more than me.
Indignantly I went to see the managing director. That was his title although he was the owner of the factory. He explained that she was more highly qualified having passed her School Cert.
"I passed too," I said. "And I had a credit in Biology."
My original interview had been with the manager and he had been too taken with my legs to worry about certificates.
I got my raise but shortly after this I was in trouble again.
The factory did the "sizing" of yarns, which is coating the yarn with either an emulsion or a gelatin solution according to the fabric to be made. The yarn came in cakes. These were soaked in the size and tinted with fugitive dyes for identification purpose, and then hydro extracted before being sent to the driers. It was essential to maintain the driers at a steady heat and for that they relied on the boiler man.
There was a clock chart in the drier area that made a graph of the temperature. I had to change this daily and report on any deviation.
I felt sorry for Tom, the boiler man and I did appreciate how difficult it was to keep the boiler stoked sufficiently to give an even temperature but I had a job to do and it was obvious he had let the boiler fire out.
The factory girls were rough tongued and I received the edge on my trips through. I remember stopping dead in my tracks when one girl called another an f-ing C-. I was so shocked I almost ran to the boiler room.
Theirs was a horrible job. The factory was a converted row of houses and the hydros were in the cellar. No floor could have supported these great black machines. The uneven brick floor was constantly puddled with water and dye and their arms were stained to the armpits. All were gaunt with yellow skins. They began work at eight o'clock in the morning until six at night, six days a week. There were no paid holidays, no sick pay and union membership was forbidden
No Dickensian bottle washing factory or Blake's "Dark satanic mill" could have been worse than this hell hole. The sickly smell of palm oil mingled with sulphonated laurel alcohol, the rumble and whine of the great hydros and the obscene yelling of the girls as they attempted to communicate over the noise made me thank my lucky stars for the scholarship which had saved me from factory work.
Not that the lab smelt sweet. Here the chemical smells mingled with palm oil. We used asbestos covered wire pads over the Bunsen burners to heat crucibles and asbestos wool in filters. I marvel at our survival. We used ether to extract and measure oils and benzene to treat dried oil stains.
Due to our use of solvents we were allowed a pint of milk each per day. I didn't drink mine but let it turn sour and hung the curds in muslin over the sink. Later in the war the milk issue stopped and we were given a powder of dried milk and cocoa. I think the so-called milk powder was a vegetable substitute for it was revolting, sweet and sickly. The lads liked it and had mine as well as their own.
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