The conversation to accompany the rich Italian food was proper chirpy, boasting of the good things in life, and while we gulped at a Chianti that worked (sometimes they don't), a sentence started by one was finished by another without feeling like interruption. It was the sort of occasion often punctuated with darted comments like "isn't life great?" which was strange, for we had just returned from a tour of cemeteries, and had been met at each solemn grave by dreary rain.
Flowers were planted, and small pines (oh, how you have grown since we saw you last) resisted trimming, but the hedge clippers were mainly to blame for they were blunt and lazy. We tousled the pines instead to shake them to attention and, all the while, gardening, we sheltered beneath large bright golfing umbrellas.
Content with our lot for this brief period --who would blame us for wallowing in the moment-- we sat around the table in the noisy Italian restaurant, with an open kitchen like a stage, and reminded ourselves of the worst jobs we ever had. I found it hard at first to retrieve that recollection, so caught up I was in the positive mood, but something L said found the memory:
I was young, and having just been released from my blessed captivity of life before twenty-one, I headed for London and to my friend. Desperately in need of money, I was told when I got there to sign up at a Temp Agency, which was one of the first things seen by arrivers at Ealing Broadway. It reminded me more of a Travel Agency than a place to find work, with its large shop front windows covered in handwritten cards that requested things like "Drivers Wanted" in a manner very similar to proclamations of "Ibiza from £60."
I spoke at first to a large girl, with bright red lipstick and dressed all in black. She sat behind an office desk and as I sat in front of her, it was obvious she had one of those effervescent personalities. Her face was beautiful and her demeanor prettier. Another friend from Ireland who was with me, looking for work also, was to leave the agency that day with a date to meet her the following Saturday for drinks at the North Star. He did not go, and stood her up, which hurt me then, and hurts me still, and extinguished the roaring fire of optimism she had. She became colder, rightly cynical, but I still got my temporary work whenever I asked.
But on that first day, she told me that I was getting a week-long stint at somewhere or other. All I heard was the word 'week', and I thought about the money. She told me to show up at the entrance to the train station the next day and I would be picked up by a work bus.
Eager as you are on your first day, I was there slightly early, and circled at a distance sizing up the others already in line before I joined them. I met a guy from Liverpool. Instantly talkative like my preconception of all Scousers, I liked him immediately. Not only did he wear his heart on his sleeve, he served it with condiments, and like a butler, pulled up an imaginary chair and offered a seat, so I could be more comfortable as I helped myself to his heart.
I do not remember the journey to the workplace or the orientation when we got there -it couldn't have been much. We stood on a factory floor in front of a large metal machine, like an old-fashioned oven, and dark green, it was as tall as we were. Just above waist height, it had an opening, fat and boxy; the bottom of this opening was shiny silver like a fancy serving tray. To the left were five large pallets of books; each pallet had a different type of book, some thick, some thin. They were instruction manuals for Epson printers (It did not occur to me then that a printer could be so complicated; later in life, I was to yell at them).
We had to pick one book from each pile to form a package of manuals, place the package on the silver tray, and press a foot pedal at the skirt tail of the green machine. Ga-clunk: Mechanical arms, green too, flailed inside the machine's bowels, and if we were careful, they bound only the books and not our arms with that plastic, slightly corrugated tape that is so hard to remove and the bother to new printer owners.
The two of us, Scouser still talking, quickly formed a rhythm, and alternated back and forth from machine to pallets. While he formed a package, I ga-clunked another. Evidence of our appetite for breaking the monotony of this trial can be found in my recollection of the Southern Asian guy - my only other real memory of the job.
Thin as wheat spaghetti he was, and he wore a white shirt too big for him unbuttoned at the collar, with a black tie shaken loose about two inches. He always arrived at the same time, his disproportionally big black hair finely coiffured, and we always stopped our rhythmical chore as he casually crossed by us on the bare warehouse floor. His right hand was always buried deep in the pocket of black trousers which, although drainpipe-style, refused to cling to toothpick legs.
We guessed he worked in the offices upstairs, had money, or more than we had at least, and although it was probably the same unwashed shirt and tie each day (we didn't think about that), we were suitably impressed by his vague officiousness. He broke his gait across the factory floor only to skip on to a large platform, a scale used to weigh many pallets, and as he stood there, a model paused at the end of the catwalk before returning, he gazed at the alarm clock red numbers declaring his weight.
At that moment, each day, the Scouser would say,
"Does he look any heavier to you?"
And we would go back to our ga-clunking, back to our eternity of repetition, and the spaghetti man would make his way back upstairs, probably happier or sadder with the result, and you would not be far from the truth if you are thinking right now that the small weigh-break was not a break at all, but part of our Sysiphusian routine.
After the tales at the Italian restaurant, and double espressos to try to level our emotions, we arrived back home from a day that had differed from our normal days. As I stepped into the house, I remembered another job I did as a youngster that would probably top as the worst job in the world, worse than the ga-clunking. I reminded myself to tell my friends about it, and I will tell you too, one day. Our visit to the cemeteries had somehow encouraged us, subliminally perhaps, to think bright things and of the good in life, and the visit to the Italian restaurant was something we had not done before as a group. There is safety in sameness, but change is good.