I’d been badgered for a while by mum to get a Saturday job but this time the threat felt real. Dad was kind of on my side, but he also was adding the pressure lately.
‘You have to get a job, Michael. We’re not going to pay for another computer game, and that’s that,’ my mother said.
‘Your mother’s right, Mikey,’ my dad said, briefly lowering his newspaper across the breakfast table.
This was a typical Saturday morning at the table, the day after I’d been at school all week. Like I didn’t have enough to deal with. The computer games tactic was a new one; and felt heavy to be honest.
Newspaper lowering again. ‘When I was your age, Mikey, everyone had a Saturday job. There was the Wimpy, Shoe World, any one of the market stalls down the Roman Road – hell, we even got paid to pull the market stalls in at the end of the day, now that was hard graft. Two-pound-fifty we got for that… we were grateful.’ And back up went the newspaper.
‘You see…?’ she added. ‘Now come on, go get ready and get yourself down the market.’
So upstairs I went, got into my finest attire (Arsenal football top, tracksuit bottoms and Reebok Classics) and went hunting for a job.
It was already 11am when I reached the market and the place was teeming with people. They travelled from all parts of London to attend the Roman. The smell of salt and vinegar on an open portion of chips always caught my attention, no matter how early it was and today was no different. Before I’d even started I was tempted to abort mission and head to the chippy, claiming ‘No luck job hunting,’ upon my return. Somehow, I don’t think that tactic would wash this time round so I continued on my quest.
My first port of call was to try the Wimpy. It was closed down. Not sure how I didn’t notice that previously. They did have the best milkshakes when I was a kid, but obviously that wasn’t enough.
I knew Shoe World had closed down a while back so didn’t attempt there; but with my Dad’s words echoing in my head, ‘Any one of the market stalls, Mikey,’ I found new motivation and proceeded to ask pretty much every stall holder the same question: ‘How much would you pay me to work for you?’ I received all kinds of funny responses, most of the stall holders being cockney, I couldn’t tell if they were having me on or being deadly serious.
One or two of them said, ‘I’ll give you a free trial, to prove yourself.’ I naturally replied no and moved on. It was quite disturbing to be honest that they’d have the cheek to ask me to work for free. Others said things along the line of… well, ‘No,’ which was quite hard to take. I felt like giving up and going home every time I heard it. I’d just tell my mum and dad: ‘I’ve tried,’ and that they all either said ‘No’ or wanted me to work for free which is just ridiculous and I’m sure they would understand. No one works for free.
On my way back up the Roman Road, having scoped the whole of the market one way, I decided that I had done enough and made my way back the other way which would lead me home. I was upset; partly because at this rate I wouldn’t be able to buy the latest instalment of FIFA on my computer, but also because I felt like I’d failed and didn’t want to go back home without a job. Hands in pockets, head down and feet dragging, I walked on.
Half way back down the market, some loud cockney-sounding voices caught my attention. I lifted my head and looked up: it was the Pie & Mash shop. Very clean and fresh from the outside. The sign above the entrance door read ‘Nelly’s Pie & Mash’, and below it on either side read ‘Pies and eels’, and ‘Est. 1894’. Slim wooden double doors were open wide and a side window – from which they served customers on the outside, like an ice-cream van would – was also open, ready to serve the public. There was a glow and freshness about this place that I hadn’t seen before. To be honest I hadn’t paid much attention to it at all in the past. I only ever remember my dad saying how much he loved a good pie, mash and liquor.
The voices inside were loud and bellowing. A female voice shouting things like, ‘What can I get ya, sweetheart?’ and, ‘Single or double, luv?’
I decided to enter the shop so I could ask the dreaded question I’d been asking all morning. I queued up like everyone else and when it was finally my turn to be served, the lady behind the counter dressed all in whites, an apron and a net hat, asked, ‘What can I get ya, darling?’
I stuttered, naturally because I wasn’t actually there for food. There were people waiting behind me and I was sweating like a pig. I answered back, sheepishly, ‘Do… you have a Saturday job?’
‘Speak up, luv. What did ya say?’ she replied, cupping her ear with her hand.
‘Do you have a Saturday job?’ I said a bit louder.
‘Yes, ‘course we do. Bill?!’ she shouted towards the back where the kitchen was.
A young man in his twenties appeared at the kitchen door, dusting his hands. He had gelled-back hair and wore shiny black shoes with black trousers and a white shirt with an apron. ‘What’s the matter, ma?’ he said.
‘Got a boy ‘ere looking for work.’ And then to me, pointing in the direction of the kitchen, ‘Go on, off you go.’ I was scared but it was all happening so quickly that I just went along with it. Plus, there were customers eager to get served behind me and I didn’t want to hold them up any longer. The man threw me an apron – which I just about caught – and turned into the kitchen where I followed.
‘Right then. Ever worked in a Pie and Mash before?’ he said.
‘I’ve never… never worked,’ I replied, still trying to get the apron over my head.
‘Right. Not to worry. That there was mother. Otherwise known as Mary Nelly – not to be confused with Mary Shelly or the Mother of God. This ‘ere is grandad Nelly. Also known as… well, grandad,’ he said pointing into the corner of the room where the giant oven stood. The old man appeared from behind the oven to say hello; without really saying anything at all, more of a mumble and a nod. ‘I’m William, but you can call me Bill, an’ this ‘ere will be your station.’ He pointed, indicating the sink and the dishes. ‘What’s ya name, again?’
‘Michael,’ I said, finally having mastered the apron part of the job. ‘Michael Brown.’
‘Right then. Crack on with those, and if ya lucky, you’ll be promoted to mash by this afternoon,’ he said, meaning mashing the mash. A whole bucket load of it. Although, it did look like a better job than washing the mountain of dirty dishes all day.
I was so pleased with myself. I had managed to get a job against all odds. I couldn’t wait to tell my parents so the first chance I got, I made for a toilet break to give them a call.
Having reached the toilets I pulled out my phone only to find I had no reception – heart breaking. I sent a text message anyway in the hope that it would get through at some point during the day before I got home. It read:
Mum, I did it! I’m at work in the Pie and Mash shop down the Roman Road market. Don’t come in and embarrass me though. Tell you all about it when I get home x
Back to work I went. It was killing me washing the dishes. I’d never washed a dish in my life, I’m sure of it. The closest I got was running one under a cold tap, not even waiting for the water to run hot; the water in the shop was always piping hot, never having the chance to run cold. Dish after dish I washed in the big old butler sink. It was that big you could have a bath in it.
The shop was run like a factory. Bill prepared the pies by filling them and closing them up in pastry, passing them on a tray to grandad, who then put them in the oven, taking the baked ones out. Come to think of it, grandad didn’t move much from the oven all day. Maybe he’d done all his duties for years and now it was his turn to relax. I wanted to get to his stage fast – maybe a year or two and I’d be there. Come to think of it, grandad did move slightly every now and then – to add to and stir the special green gravy that most people flocked to the pie and mash for… liquor. A closely guarded secret, he wouldn’t give away what the recipe was, he said. He’d turn his back to you after peeking around to see if you were looking before adding whatever it was he added. Bill took care of the mash before passing that over to me because, as true to his word, I was promoted quickly. Although, I’m sure with a promotion there’s supposed to be more money. There was no talk of more money. Did I mention that the promotion didn’t involve someone else taking on my past duties? Now I mashed and washed. I didn’t get to see the eels. They were kept out front in a big pot, thankfully.
Throughout the day I heard bellows from the front every ten minutes or so, mother Mary shouting for more pies or more mash or more liquor. I was asked a couple of times during the day to bring food out to the front, which I mostly did with my head down due to being so tired. On one occasion I looked up to say sorry to a man after nearly tripping up over his foot and noticed that he and his female friends were dressed quite… differently. I remember thinking maybe it was a fancy-dress party they were going to. Anyhow, they didn’t look out of place because the whole place looked like it hadn’t changed in a hundred years. All Pie and Mash shops looked the same, I thought.
I’d watched Oliver the musical as a kid and could only describe the way in which people ate and were served in this shop as a really fast version of how the kids were fed in the workhouse. Even though it was hard work, once I was in the swing of it, I quite enjoyed it. It was like being part of another family. It grew on me. I was even given a free lunch of – you’ve guessed it – pie and mash.
In what seemed like a flash, the day was done and the shop was closing. I knew this because Bill had to shout my name around three times to let me know. ‘Our work is done, Michael. Closing up shop for another day, another dollar. You’ve ‘ad a good day today, son. I expect you’ll be back next week? Hopefully not ‘avin’ scared you off, an all that,’ he said with a big smile on his face.
‘No, Mr Nelly—,’ I said.
‘Call me Bill, Michael,’ he replied.
‘I’ll be back next week, Bill.’
‘Good, good, because we’ll be glad to ‘av ya, won’t we grandad?’
Grandad appeared once again wiping his hands on the apron he had just taken off for the day. He nodded approval as usual, with an added, ‘Yeah…’
‘Right, well, I imagine this has been your first day in a job, yes?’ he said and I agreed. ‘Do expect to be feeling some aches and pains, we all have them on our first days. Whatever you do, don’t let this put you off. Push yourself through it and you’ll come out the other end a man.’
I was super impressed by my whole day and already feeling like a man. I excitedly made for the door when Bill called me back waving an envelope in his hand. ‘Forgetting something my little mucker?’
I grabbed it, shouting, ‘Thanks!’ and ran out the door, shouting goodbye to mother Mary on my way out.
Super impressed with myself, I explained my whole day to mum and dad without taking in a single breath. Or at least it seemed that way.
My dad, reading a TV guide at the kitchen table (something from the past he just couldn’t let go of) and lowering it, simply said, ‘Oh, there’s still a Pie and Mash in the market. That’s good.’
‘Dad?!’ my mum said, expecting more from him.
‘Oh no, yes, I mean, well done son, we are very proud of you. I remember my first day at work—’
‘We are very proud of you, Michael. Are you going back next week then?’ my mother said.
‘Yes, definitely. They paid me and everything!’ I said, holding the envelope in the air. I was just about to head up to my room and remembered something. ‘Did you receive my text message earlier, mum?’
‘Oh, yes. But look here, it didn’t make much sense,’ she said showing me the phone.
‘That’s weird,’ I said. The message was just zeros and ones like some kind of digital code. ‘Oh well,’ I said, ‘I’ve told you now anyway.’ I ran upstairs still proud of myself.
The next week I woke up bright and early, very much looking forward to my next day at work. Mr Nelly was right, I did have muscle ache shortly after my first day but I’d had a whole week to recover and felt just about ready to have another crack at it.
I’d never been so chirpy in my life. I felt like a man now and even kissed my mum goodbye on the way out of the house. She wished me good luck and waved me goodbye while dad sat at the – you’ve guessed it – kitchen table, with the newspaper to his face.
I must explain that at this point I hadn’t opened my wage packet, because in fact, it wasn’t mine. It had Mr Nelly written on it and so I had it on me to bring it back on my second day.
The market was busy as usual, same as any Saturday was, but this time I didn’t smell open portions of chips, I smelt fry-ups being cooked in the cafés. It was a nice day and people were eating their breakfasts at the cheap, shiny metal tables outside. I remember thinking: I could murder a bacon sarnie, but kept moving because I didn’t want to be late for work.
I reached the Pie and Mash shop and half expected to see the shutters half-way down as it was still before opening time, but to my surprise, the shutters weren’t open at all. In fact, when I looked up at the sign on the door, it looked vandalised; the G was hanging sideways and one of the L’s was completely missing. My first thought was that the place may have been robbed but the shutters were down so surely it couldn’t be that. I tried to open the shutters with a bit of force but they didn’t budge.
‘You alright there?’ a man’s voice said. I turned, still baffled by the closure. ‘You won’t get a pie and mash round here, son. If you’re that desperate, the nearest one would be… well err… Greenwich, near the Cutty Sark. Not too bad either,’ he said, as he carried on walking, whistling. I watched him walk off, then looked back at the shop feeling let down.
I carried myself all the way home and delivered the bad news to my parents.
‘Ah, not to worry. At least you got a taster day out of them,’ dad said.
A look of disbelief at dad before mum said, ‘You’ll find something else, Michael. Something else will come up. Maybe they couldn’t afford the rent and had to go.’
‘But why wouldn’t they tell me? Instead of getting my hopes up. It just doesn’t make sense,’ was my closing statement before heading up to my room where I sulked for a while like I’d lost the most beloved thing in my life.
It was in between sulking and blinking that I realised I still had the envelope with the wages in. How would I ever get this envelope back to them if they were gone? I thought. I decided to open it. They had screwed me over as far as I was concerned and I deserved what was inside. Otherwise, how else would I get paid?
I opened it slowly and pulled out its contents. It was payment – well, I say payment, it was a single shilling and a signed ‘Thank you’ note to me from Mr Nelly.
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