Easter Eggs; I wonder if I would still remember how to foil wrap them? A skill I learnt one winter many years ago. I had joined a job agency in desperation; a bit of a come down after the Christmas season in Harrods toy department, but then that was the point of a working holiday, different experiences.
Croydon, South London, early on a grey winter’s morning, a disparate group of people get into the agency mini bus. We are being taken to a sweet factory to do the Easter Egg run. ‘Paynes’ it certainly isn’t, Paynes stands large, bold and gleaming white on the main road; we pass it on the way to our factory, shabby and forlorn down a side road. We are going to help produce anonymous eggs, for cheap mugs in unknown shops.
My heart sinks as we walk in, staying on at school and going to college was not meant to lead here; but everyone should experience real life, preferably straight after leaving school. My ex schoolmates, probably all successfully teaching, nursing or doing post graduate studies, would have been astonished to see me on the factory floor, earning sixteen pounds a week.
The first and only skill we have to learn is how to wrap the egg in foil. There is a knack, you either get it or you don’t; if you think about it you don’t. We take it in turns to wrap or put them in packing boxes. If an egg breaks we are allowed to eat it, the only perk of the job. Everyone says it will put me off chocolate for life, it doesn’t.
The regulars operate the machinery, centrifugal force turning liquid chocolate into eggs. They clean the machinery with the managers torn up old vests.
Now I cannot remember any names.
The West Indian woman is the most articulate, in contrast to the homely local woman who says all she knows is work; after a full day she goes home to cook separate meals for all her family. I vow never to do that and I don’t.
A tiny coloured woman has tears in her eyes as she tells us her brother is in prison on Robben Island, I have no idea where that is or what it is. A young woman from Ghana has immaculate, copper tinted, strangely straight hair; after several weeks I notice with surprise there is a join, a glimpse of natural Afro hair; why did she want to wear a wig? Her husband is studying in London and they have left their two young children behind in Ghana with their grandparents. I am shocked.
A young local girl wears tight trousers, only West Indian woman has cottoned on that she is four months pregnant and tries to persuade her to tell her parents and wear more comfortable clothes.
Two young French women, friends who love English pop music and giggle a lot, are probably the people I have most in common with.
Lunch is only half an hour, but we don’t want to spend any longer in the so called canteen. I take sandwiches and there is an awful drinks machine, from which unrecognisable hot and cold liquids pour into flimsy plastic cups. A world away from Harrods Staff Restaurant, but we get to meet the regular staff; one lady has spent twenty years dipping bars of nougat into coconut.
Above the basins in the dreadful toilets are notices such as ‘Don’t spit in the Basins’. Who would do that I wonder?
It took two or three buses to get to and from Croydon, most of my journeys were in winter semi darkness. Now I can’t remember where the factory was or what the area looked like. Maybe the new tramline has ploughed through the site. But every Easter I wonder what happened to those people I only knew for a few weeks.