After a year or two of working Friday nights at the bakery, I got moved onto forklift truck driving. This was great. The forklifts were electric and fairly zoomed about. My job was to pick up the bread pallets and load them on to the trucks. If you got it right you could swing a pallet on and brake so that it came off the prongs and came to rest in exactly the right place in the lorry. This was an art. I enjoyed that. You could spin those trucks on a sixpence.
One of my fellow forklift truck drivers was called Tiny. Tiny weighed about twenty stone and was not at all tiny. He was Scottish and he’d been a paratrooper and had fought in Korea. At tea break he would tell me about his exploits. On one occasion he had been part of a small patrol who had gone behind enemy lines on special operations. He showed me these huge scars on his legs. He explained that this was where he had got strafed with machine-gun fire on one of this particular ‘jaunt’. He’d been badly wounded in both legs and could not walk. One of his colleagues had incredibly carried him on his back for over twenty miles, over rough terrain, to get him back to his own lines. The alternative would have been to shoot him. Tiny was a huge man. That was almost a superhuman feat.
“We didn’t leave anyone behind alive to be captured,” he explained. “The North Koreans used to torture you, tie you up with barbed wire and leave you screaming for days. They wanted your mates to try to rescue you so that they could shoot them.”
So many people are traumatised by the horrors of war. Tiny was one of them.
Another guy I worked with was Henry. Henry was a huge Jamaican guy. He even made Tiny look small, but he was the gentlest man I have ever met. He spoke in a deep whisper and had this great rumble of a laugh. Because I was so little I think he felt very protective towards me.
One day I was doing a run up to one of the lorries and made a miscalculation. I accidentally put a prong through the side of the lorry. I went to find the driver to explain.
Now drivers are notorious for taking great care of their lorries. It was like a personal pride. The fact that I’d been careless, nay, malicious and stupid enough, to put a hole through the side of this guy’s lorry was inexcusable. The driver was a big guy. As soon as he saw what I had done to his lorry he became incandescent. He grabbed hold of me by the throat and was going to smack me right in the mouth. Just as I was grimacing in anticipation of seeing stars, a big black hand encompassed the driver’s fist as it hurtled towards my face and stopped it dead. Effortlessly the guy was spun him round to face Henry. It must have been quite a shock. Nonchalantly Henry picked him up with his other hand, by the scrunching up shirt and jacket and lifting this large man into the air. He then held him off the ground at arm’s length.
The guy was so shocked that at first, he didn’t even struggle. He could feel Henry’s enormous strength.
“Now what do you think you’re doing hitting my little friend?” Henry asked in a deep murmur.
I can to this day still see this guy being held off the floor with his feet dangling and hands clutching at this enormous arm. His mouth dropped open and his eyes widened and he tried to get loose – to no avail. Henry, as placid as a rock, held him tight. I don’t know if it is my memory playing tricks but I can see his legs kicking wildly in the air.
“Now calm yourself down,” Henry drawled.
Henry stood as firm as a rock and held that driver up there until he’d stopped struggling, then he gently put him down. The driver was in shock and quickly shuffled away muttering and casting wary eyes at Henry and me.
Another of my work colleagues was John a sixties freak like me. He had hair halfway down his back and the ambition to grow it down to his feet. To this end, he refused to brush or comb it. He reckoned that brushing or combing broke the ends off and so it took longer to grow.
John and I would spend the breaks discussing which albums we’d purchased, whether the Doors were better than Country Joe and the Fish, or Hendrix was as good as Cream. We’d talk about Middle Earth, UFO Club and Klooks Kleek, which club was best and who was on next.
John was really into acid and would take it regularly for his trips into the psychedelic cellars of London.
He was always telling me tales of coming out into the morning sun, still tripping, how one night the mounted police in Parliament Square all turned into centaurs, the trees breathed and pavement sweated. He even came into the bakery tripping and spent the evening saying ‘Wow’ and moving his hands slowly in front of his eyes to create slow motion trails. He said that the ovens glowed all colours of the rainbow, the bread was alive and throbbing, and the dough was luminous and pulsed as it was being plopped in the pans.
It freaked him out a bit to think that the bread was alive as it was going through the ovens.
All told, the bakery was an interesting place to work.
Some are obsessed with their physical shape and spend their lives counting calories, planning magic diets and refining exercise regimes in-between binge eating.