'I'll bloody flashdance you in a minute...'
It was on the advice of a couple of mates of mine called Tommy and Linner that I went for an interview at Steelo. I’d had a bit of a rest after the bins, but it was now November and I needed money for Christmas and a trip to Amsterdam the following January. Three miles outside of Bridgnorth on the Stourbridge Rd, everyone knew about Steelo. The working conditions were said to resemble that of a Manchester cotton mill from 100 years ago and most of the workers were illiterate, but I’d been assured that you were out of the door by three and that there was a bong hidden in the ceiling panels above trap two of the bogs.
I was sat in the front office reading a copy of The Daily Mirror when Jim the foreman walked in. “You must be Owen,“ he said. Before I could reply he followed up with an incredulous, “you can actually read?” It was clear from the off that Jim was an arsehole. Short, stocky and with a face that has launched a thousand shits, he wore a shirt and tie with combat trousers, a blue fleece and had hair that glistened with oceans of 20p gel from Superdrug. The interview went like this.
“So you can read then?”
“Think you’re a bit of a clever clogs, do you?
I shook my head.
“Good, we need readers here, I’ll start you on packing but if you play your cards right you’ll be on the computer in no time. You could have a very bright future here, young man. You can start Monday, the mini bus leaves from the Spar shop in town at 5.45am.”
From the outside the minibus didn’t look anything to worry about. Royal blue with a huge sticker saying STEELO on the side, the only worrying thing was that it was rocking. Then the back door opened and I stepped through the clouds of smoke to face my fellow workers. After finding a seat between Linner and Tommy, I looked around the braying crowd, each and everyone of them howling at the moon, to see who I recognised. The only people I definitely knew were Chunky Bill Foxall and the Hilloways.
Chunky Bill Foxall
Everyone in Bridgnorth knew Bill. A big, strapping bloke, he’d been dropped on his head at birth and was a bit slow. He looked a bit like Friar Tuck and, according to local legend, he had a cock the size of a marrow and balls like pineapples. The travesty being that he’d never used them. Bill was alright, he knew my Nan from Bingo and had always stopped to talk to me in the street. Billl liked a few pints every night and, even though he was 50, paid people to get him copies of Razzle in case his 80-year-old Mum found out.
Ron and Pat Hilloway looked like an experiment between humans and rodents. They both had ridiculously large ears. Pat, the younger ‘clever’ one looked like a Rat. Hunched over with shifty eyes, he talked at a thousand words a minute, most of them insults at his elder brother, Ron. Ron looked like a big, dumb, friendly mouse. He couldn’t speak properly and had no volume control. I suppose you could call them a small town version of George Milton and Lennie Small from Of Mice and Men. I worked between the Hilloways for my first three weeks on the packing line.
Steelo produced steel and iron blanks of varying sizes. When these blanks had been put onto pallets, they would come down the line and we would either have to pack them in metal that we bent on the bending machine or, if they were the long ones, band them with the banding gun. It was shit, but you could get lost in your thoughts and the day could pass fairly briskly. I say could because of the fucking Hilloways. To stop them killing each other, I had to work in between them, but after three days of their constant fucking chatter I began to engineer fights to alleviate the hell. I’d tell Ron that Pat said he was a virgin, Pat that Ron said he had pictures of men on his bedroom wall and then stand back as they went at it. I think it was in my second week when I found out that Pat and Ron had once been on a fly drive holiday to Florida. Neither of them could drive. They spent two weeks in a hotel at Orlando airport. And when they used to fight, I could see Rhino chuckling in the distance.
It was written in Steelo law that, ‘you don’t fuck with Rhino’. 5’2”, 60-years-old and with the shoulders of a bull, Rhino looked like a cross between Frank Worthington and one of the evil fuckers out of The Dark Crystal. He’d also apparently shot his wife or son-in-law point blank with a 12-bore. Rhino didn’t really speak. He constantly had a rollie in his lips and worked on his own machine in the back right hand corner of the factory. Every lunchtime, Rhino went to the cider house for three pints of special. The special was about 9% and it was regularly said that they should hand out boxing gloves with every pint such was the amount of fights that kicked off back in town. On occasion, when he was feeling friendly, Rhino would nod to Linner, Tommy and I and we’d jump in his orange Mazda 323 and go with him. He hardly spoke a word. Saying that, we’d all had a hat-trick of bongs on the bell for lunch most days and didn’t say much either. Three pints of rocket fuel in 21 minutes (lunch was half an hour, three minutes there, three back and three for bongs) is good going if you have nothing to do afterwards. When you’ve got to operate highly-dangerous machinery it’s just plain stupid.
On the Machine
I probably only spent about two weeks on a machine out of my seven weeks at Steelo. Although the time flew by, I hated it. Basically, you’d have to pick up the large sheets of metal, feed them into the machine and press your foot on the pedal every time the end of the sheet hit the stopper. That bit was ok, it was handling the metal that was horrible. The machine I was on did very thin, long blanks. If you wore gloves it was impossible to separate the large sheets because of the oily grease that they were covered into stop them rusting. So your hands got cut and filled with the solution, which not only stank but gave you dermatitis. In the end, it was a machine that ended my time at Steelo.
I wasn’t actually on a machine that day, I was back on packing as Ron had broken his thumb attempting to punch his brother. He missed and landed on it. I’d gone to help Pete on the back of machine 15. There was something wrong with the tampers that made sure the blanks were all level on the pallet after they emerged from the machine. I was pushing the blanks into position when the tampers kicked into life and crushed my right hand momentarily. Luckily, they went so quickly that nothing was broken, and then I heard the laugh. “HA HA HA, Noel (I had a Britpop haircut) crushed his hand.” The comedian was George, a huge fanny of a man who played in goal for the Bridgnorth 2nd Xl hockey team. He also drove a forklift. As he drove off laughing, I picked up a small piece of wood. After he’d dropped off a pallet at the loading bay, he came hurtling back down the central aisle, pointing at me and laughing. I threw the piece of wood along the floor and watched with glee as he braked hard and flew head first out of the forklift. The whole factory erupted in laughter.
Unfortunately for me, Jim and old man Steelo watched all this from the offices. I was already on their shit list for not turning up for overtime on the previous Saturday and I knew I was for the chop. In reality, I was glad. We were due to break up for Christmas that week, I’d already had my bonus and my girlfriend at the time wouldn’t let me go near her with my disgusting hands. As I walked out of the office with the pay they owed me, the bell rang for lunch. I hopped into Rhino’s car and we went to the cider house. Out of solidarity, Rhino stayed there with me all afternoon and gave me a lift home. He hardly spoke a word. And no, they didn’t sack him.
You just don't fuck with Rhino.