Thursday, March 25, 2010

Broken in Transit

All working people experience that wonderful exhilarating feeling that you get when you receive your weekly wages or monthly pay cheque.

A gratifying sense of achievement, a job well done!

The head of any family has a sense of security; the larder can be replenished, new shoes can be bought for the kids and maybe a couple of pints of grog can be supped in the local. The famous line from the musical Cabaret, “Money makes the world go round”, has an unnerving ring of truth to it.

The feelings of a jobbing actor are no different.

When his agent calls and says, “My darling, you remember that job you did last year?”, of course he bloody well remembers! It was the only one he did.

“Well, the Israeli-Lebanese producer, Mohamed Reuben Punter, has just finalised the deal with the American distributors in Hong Kong and he’s finally paid! You can come and pick up the cheque.”

Often the only problem the poor actor has is that he hasn’t got enough readies to buy a bus ticket to get to his agent’s office. I do not care to remember the number of times that I have been in that predicament. But I always fell back on those lovely words sung by Frank and Nancy Sinatra, “Those boots were made for walking,” and plodded off down the Strand whistling the happy tune.

Or I made a plan and tried, like many of my fellow Thespians, to secure an evening’s work behind the bar of a local hostelry. Unfortunately there was never a bar within fifty square miles of my abode where I had not already established an over-extended tab. So I had to resort to finding a sideline that could keep my Toddie well stocked.

In my youth I held a job at a cash-and-carry liquor outlet in the northeastern town of Billingham on the edge of the Durham coalfields in the UK.

At the time I was employed by the local repertory company and was moonlighting at the store on the days I was not required for rehearsal. The production was a modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

I was playing the role of Octavius, who only appears in the fifth act, so I was able to nip off down the road and offer my services to Mr Higginbottom at the newly opened “King Geordie Liquor Market”. 

The rehearsal schedule suited my activities perfectly. I even managed to hold onto the job after the show had opened. So Octavius Caesar became a heavily laden carrier of liquor by day and an Emperor of Rome by night.

Fridays were always the busiest day. The store opened at eight o’clock in the morning, and by nine there were at least three delivery trucks lined up waiting to unload their wares. Scottish and Newcastle Brewery’s was always the first. The draymen were a crafty bunch, and I quickly learnt to keep a watchful eye on them. They had the fast moving and dexterous hands of a magician and could extract a bottle of ale from the flying crates with ease. This meant that, after they departed, I would suddenly discover that several crates were a bottle short. I had been fleeced of a couple of crates of Newcastle Brown Ale, the highly popular local poison.

Mr Higginbottom was no slouch went it came to tricks of the trade. He was a retired coal miner. “Why ay, lad, divina worrit, we can claim ’em as lost in transit. Fill in t’ form!” He quickly instructed me how to fill in the required requisition form and the following week the brewery supplied us with the missing crates.

It was, however, from his artful son that I learnt my own trick of the trade. Jim Higginbottom Jnr, like his father, had gone down the mines, but because of the miner’s strike and Ted Heath’s three-day working week he had been forced to spend the last two months above ground, as no proud-hearted Geordie would lower himself to be a “Scab”. Besides, Arthur Scargill was a close family friend and it was through comrade Arthur’s connections that Higginbottom Snr had got the job as the liquor store’s manager.

One Friday Junior and I were loading cardboard boxes of vodka onto our trolleys, wheeling them into the store and stacking them near the entrance ready for the evening rush. I suddenly noticed that one of my boxes was extremely damp. I mentioned it to Junior, who immediately said, “Pass it o’er ’ere, Cess!” 

I passed him the box. Taking it firmly in both arms and positioning it a full arm’s length away from his body, he gave the top edge of one side of the box a violent jab with his knee. Junior was a rugby league player and his movement reminded me of the similar action often delivered by a prop forward on the nose of the opposing hooker. His aim was deadly accurate. His large, bony knee crashed into the cardboard box exactly four inches below the top. I heard the muffled sound of glass breaking and watched the telltale damp patch appear on the outside of the box. “Tek it inta back,” he said.

We finished unloading the rest of the vodka and then unloaded four more trucks during the rest of the day. By five o’clock the store was bursting at the seams with newly stacked boxes of vodka, gin, whisky, rum and brandy. The Friday hordes could now descend on the store and quench their dried palates. I, of course, had to rush off to the theatre and deliver my Octavius. 

Before I left Junior said, “Meet me after y’ve done t’ show. I’ll be in t’ storeroom!”

When I returned after the performance I found Junior in the dimly lit storeroom. He had lined up four plastic buckets. In the top of each of them was a finely meshed colander with a piece of muslin cloth laid over the top. “Reet, Cess,” he said, “welcome to Higginbottom’s filtration works.” 

Neatly placed behind each bucket were several very damp-looking boxes of liquor. “Open ’em up and do it gentle like. Do ’t whisky first.”

Delicately, I ripped the top off the first box to discover five broken bottles of very expensive Chivas Regal Scotch. One was smashed completely but the other four had been broken off cleanly at the neck by Junior’s well-trained and well-aimed knee. “Lift ’em out and pass ’em over.” I willingly obliged, as my Machiavellian mind had already guessed the next step.

Three hours later we had five buckets full to the brim of beautifully filtered whisky, brandy, rum, gin and vodka. “Wash out them cloths, Cess. Mek sure y’ git all the glass out, hang ’em up to dry and we’ll use ’em again nixt wake.” While I did the washing, Junior decanted our boodle into empty used Newcastle Brown bottles and kindly filled Toddie with ten-year-old Chivas Regal.

Five weeks later the production closed and the company manager asked me if I could, with my connections at the Liquor Bonanza store, organise the drinks for a wrap party. That last Friday night after the penultimate performance Junior and I worked overtime. We slaved away till the early hours of Saturday morning. I had fully mastered the knee-jerk and we had over thirty damp stained boxes to process.

The Saturday night party went on till the early hours of Sunday morning and a roaring time was had by all. It was about five in the morning when Sir Ralph Richardson, who had been playing Brutus, sidled up to me. Sir Ralph had served in the Royal Navy Reserve during the Second World War and had developed a life-long liking for rum. Each of us was holding a bottle of Newcastle Brown. “Damn fine stuff, this,” he said, raising his bottle. “Tastes remarkably like Captain Morgan! Wouldn’t like to let me in on where you got it, would you, Cess, my boy?”

“Same place I got my Chivas, sir,” I replied, clinking my bottle with his, “Higginbottom’s filtration works; Broken-in-transit.”

1 comment:

Iain said...

Well done, lad. I never tire of Sir Cess's adventures.