Loneliness - Moving On

by Andrew Foote

Chapter 17

We ambled back to 'Spook' once we'd seen Gill off in a taxi and once on board I asked Jus why he hadn't said very much during the meeting.

"I was always convinced that expanding the business was the right thing to do but I thought that Tim and Granddad were better placed to outline the arguments in favour of it rather than me. I mean I've no business experience so what could I say apart from I just had a gut feeling that this was the way to go.

Do you still have any reservations?"

"Actually no, I don't. What your Granddad said was the clincher for me. We're not running a virtual business, it's for real and we owe it to the guys to make it as successful as possible. The extension will look fantastic and also not to have the constant worry about production backlogs and staff shortages will be a major relief too. I'm rather excited about it!"

"Good! I think it might be a nice idea if we have a quick meeting tomorrow morning, get the guys together and let them have an idea as to what we're going to do. Put the plan and the artist's impression up on the noticeboard so everyone can see what we propose."

"Now that is a good idea! Keep them in the loop so they feel a part of everything. What do you think about having an ideas box? If someone has a bright idea and we decide to run with it, we could reward them with a bonus or something."

"Why not? We messed around with the Strong-Arm as a result of me watching a Lacrosse game so it stands to reason they might also spot a gap in the market but feel too nervous about approaching either of us directly. Some might be just plain silly but for every fifty crazy one's there might be a real gem yet to be discovered."

"I'll have to see if my Dad will knock something up for us then."

"No he's got enough on his plate without that. I've got a cash box which I had at school. You know the sort of thing, got a slot in the lid for coins. Bolt that to the wall, which should be enough cos I'm never likely to use it ever again.

Fancy a nightcap? There's that half a bottle of Shiraz open on the side?"

"Yeah go on then. Anyway you've not given me a cuddle since this morning and I'm in need of one."

We arrived at the Mill early the next morning with Joe joining us shortly afterwards.

"If you want to get the moulder on a warm up cycle then as people arrive, get them to come to the canteen as we've got some news for them."

"Sure thing Justin.

Oh while I remember, I managed to get the old cultivator running last night so that'll take the back break out of the gardening but getting it up here is difficult so I was thinking. As Matt is going to bring the lorry up here tomorrow for you to take a look at, would you mind if he comes via my place?"

"Carry on!"

"It might mean us being a bit late though."

"No matter Joe. One of us will clock Matt in at the normal start time so you guys just do what you need to do.

Great news about the cultivator, thanks!"

As always, no one was late arriving so once everyone was seated we broke the news.

"So as you can see from the plans, we'll be extending the Mill to well over two and a half times its current size with a new moulder and some other light machinery on the ground floor with bench production on the first.

We'll be installing a wheelchair lift for all our less mobile guys together with a new toilet block upstairs.

Once the new moulder is up and running we'll think about moving Old Contemptible there as well so that'll mean we can extend the canteen and the offices as well as retaining more production space as and when we need it.

None of this is going to happen overnight, we have to get planning permission but Sir George has his contacts at Reading Borough Council if you get my meaning but if we're successful, we then have to get it built so we're probably looking at late summer before we can move in.

Like you, we are very aware of staff shortages. You guys have been nothing short of fantastic in the way you've all pulled together but realistically, it can't be allowed to continue for much longer without running the risk of burn-out. We all of us need our relax time and so once we have all that extra space, we will be looking at possibly doubling the existing number of staff so we can ease the pressure on you massively. This won't affect any overtime you wish to work but it will mean that it really is your choice as to whether or not to do any rather than feeling obligated so to this end we have had an idea to introduce some sort of flexible working.

We'd still expect you to work a normal forty hour week but the idea being if you want to leave earlier in the afternoon then you can start that bit earlier, conversely, if you wake up one morning with a massive hangover, have a couple of extra hours in bed then work on that bit later or put in the hours another day. This will mean we'll have to have more floor managers and as we like to promote from within, if the prospect of extra responsibility together with a pay hike appeals to any of you, put yourselves forward when the time comes.

One last thing. We'll be installing an idea's box so should you come up with a bright idea of something that would complement our existing range of products, grab a slip of paper provided, give some detail about your idea together with your name and if we decide to run with it, whoever thought about it will receive a bonus in their pay packet and also a recognition on the product packaging like for instance, if Kirstin came up with something, the label would clearly state 'Original idea courtesy of Kirstin Flowers, Assistant Production Manager at Armstrong-Greening Ltd.'

That's about it chaps so grab yourselves a hot drink and let's get started but if you have any questions, grab Alexis or me and ask away."

I cornered Matt as the others left the canteen.

"Hi Matt. Joe told me you're bringing the truck up here tomorrow and that's great, really looking forward to seeing it but he also mentioned that you'd be late getting here.

Don't sweat it, I'll clock you in so just take whatever time you need to collect the cultivator and we'll see you as and when.

Once we get started and you're responsible for all things transport, it mightn't be all a bad idea if we put you on a salary. You'll be working odd hours like early starts if you've got a long haul to do, late finishes if you get stuck in traffic but we'll have to play it by ear because if you find yourself working over a forty hour week then we'll have to look at adjusting it to suit.

Are you okay with that?"

"No that's brilliant! You can easily tell what my hours are cos part of the conditions of your operator's licence is a legal requirement to keep a driver's log or actually, I'm not sure if this truck hasn't got a tachograph installed. I must remember to check."

"Double Dutch mate!"

"I'll show you tomorrow. They're not difficult to read but there are laws which limit my hours behind the wheel and if I get pulled over and I'm over my limit then I'm in serious bother! That's really what they're about!"

"I never knew that. You'll have to sit me down tomorrow and fill me in cos if you get into bother, we probably will as well."

"Yes you would.

I have to sign the log or the tachograph recording then it has to be countersigned by my boss who's you and if you get a visit from the Ministry of Transport and either you've not kept all my old logs or tachograph recordings or if you've countersigned loads of over-hours they would think that you agreed to let me do it or worse, you made me do it."

"Shit! There's more to this than I imagined. What if you just went over your limit once? Still in trouble?"

"If it was two or three hours then yes, I would be but all drivers go over now and again like if for instance I came of the motorway in Reading just as my hours ran out, no one would expect me to park up for the night rather than do the fifteen minute run back to the yard or up here. They'd turn a blind eye to that."

"We'll have to get together, you, Justin, my Dad and I so we all of us understand the rules. Tomorrow being Sunday is usually pretty quiet so once you get here and you've shown us around, we'll have a meeting, you can go through the details and Gill can get everything typed up so there are no misunderstandings on our side.

Great stuff Matt. Catch you later."

As things turned out, they weren't that late. By half nine we had the cultivator offloaded and Matt was showing us the truck. It was very smart and it looked massive to me especially when I climbed up into the cab and sat behind the wheel!

"Jesus Matt, it's huge! I do like the sleeper cab but don't you get cold during the winter?"

"No! It's got warm air heating that runs on diesel from the fuel tank. It's really snug! Do you want to drive it up the lane?"

"You're having a laugh aren't you? I've not so much as used a petrol-driven lawn mower let alone a lorry! This is your domain but thanks for the offer."

He pointed out that it had been fitted with a tachograph. This gizmo recorded start and finish times, rest breaks, speeds, loading and offloading periods as well as driver sleeping times on a paper disc and all fully automatic. Better he thought than a hand written log that could be forged to cheat the system, as this was tamper-proof.

The six speed gearbox was also something new. The old Morris that Sir George liked driving so much only had three forward and one reverse but as Matt explained, first gear was only used when there was a full payload and when doing hill starts.

"How much does your Dad want for it?"

"£800 but if you give him £830 he'll get it sign written for you. My Granddad used to drive but he's retired now so instead he does all our trucks and I'm telling you, he's very good at it."

"What do you think Dad? Pretty good price I reckon."

"Very fair especially with the sign writing thrown in. How many miles did you say it had done Matt?"

"Just over five thousand but you could put over a quarter of a million on the clock and it would still come back for more."

"Then I think we'll go for it. Let's go into the office and get Matt to go over all the rules and regulations with us then maybe we let him take the truck back to the yard. There's only a couple of hours left to us today and by the time we get the meeting out of the way it'll be hardly worthwhile starting on anything else."

We sat in the office and Matt took us through all the things we should be aware of. Terms and conditions of our operator's licence, driving hours and compulsory rest breaks, plating and testing, road tax and insurance. Then he went on to detail servicing intervals daily maintenance checks but then a bonus.

"Dad also said that as we'll be storing it at his yard, we can use his fuel tank to fill up. The yard foreman will make a note of how much we take and we can settle up with him at the end of each month. He buys diesel in massive quantities so gets a really good discount, much cheaper than the average forecourt price so that'll help keep the running costs down."

"Now that's good to know because I had meant to ask what the fuel consumption's like."

"Depends on the run Tim but an average of between eighteen and twenty miles to the gallon fully laden, more on a return run."

"Your Dad's people. They do long haul runs I assume."

"Mostly. South coast and right the way up into Scotland's pretty common. I did a few runs to Northern Ireland last spring but that was only because the other drivers refused to go cos of the troubles but I'm family and couldn't say no to him really. He was desperate."

"What were you driving?"

Matt smiled.

"'Pride of the Islands'. My all-time favourite unit. She's a forty-eight tonne Foden artic with umm……..character!

Yeah believe it. Trucks do have character!"

My mind instantly went back to when we'd been cut adrift and my talking to the old Lister when she refused to start the first time.

"I'll believe that! So do sodding narrow boats! Sixteen tonne of steel with an attitude problem!"

Matt laughed at my remark!

"Yes well that sounds just like 'Pride of the Islands'!

Do you ever find yourself talking, shouting at it even when it just refuses to co-operate?"

"Oh yes!! Do I ever! I'll tell you about it sometime!"

Our meeting went on for longer than we'd anticipated so by the time we'd got out of the office it was almost time to shut up for the day. Jus nudged me in the ribs.

"I wanna go for a ride in our lorry. I've never been in one before so why don't we go with Matt then walk back to the boat?"

"Okay cool! I'll ask Dad to lock up and you ask Matt to wait for us."

Joe wanted to stay on and switch the generator over to grid and do some tidying up and rather argue with him and tell him he'd done more than his fair share, I went outside and joined Matt and Jus at the truck.

Funny how the prospect of riding in a lorry got me going! I was genuinely excited! Matt reversed into our small yard with the ease of a true professional and then set off down the lane. He seemed to be 100% in his element, totally confident and at ease with everything.

I caught Jus's eye and nodded towards Matt as if to say 'he's good at this'.

Jus nodded back.

We arrived at the yard where he drove into a large garage packed with other waggons and turning the engine off asked us to follow him into an office.

Behind a desk sat a man who Matt introduced to us as his Dad.

"So nice to meet you! Matthew loves his work up there at the Mill and he said you were young but I had no idea just how young! Nice to meet new entrepreneurs!"

"Thanks Mr Baylis. It's great to meet you as well but before I forget, we love the truck so here's a cheque for £830."

"Thank you very much. I'll have my father start on the sign writing as soon as possible. Do you have any idea as to what you want?"

"I've brought a letter heading if that helps then just our factory address, phone and telex numbers would be great. Is that okay?"

"Oh that's fine. Nice and understated. Look I'm sorry but Sunday's are my only time to get manifests together so you'll have to excuse me for being in a hurry."

He turned to Matt.

"Run them home son. It's going to be a nasty night by all accounts. Take my car if you want."

"I was wondering if I could take them up in 'Pride' Dad. Is that okay?"

"Do whatever son, I don't believe she's blocked in. Lovely to meet you both and I'm sorry for cutting this short but I've drivers arriving in a couple of hours so I have to get this finished. See you again I hope!"

I'd never taken any notice of lorries before. They were just a part of everyday life but being up close to one as big as the Foden had me in awe.

"Fuck Matt? I thought ours was big but this is a monster!"

"Yes she's pretty big but not the largest Dad has. I'd show you but it went out yesterday bound for Spain.

Climb aboard."

The cab was a mess for which Matt apologised for but it was now only used for yard work so no one took that much care of her.

Like 'Spook' she took some starting with Matt punching the engine cover that sat between him and Jus and me.

"C'mon you hateful piece of crap! I love you so don't let me down in front of my friends!! START WHY DON'T YOU!!"

With that the old engine coughed into life. Matt grinned at us!

"Works every time but we have to wait a minute before we can leave."

"Why?" Jus asked.

"Vacuum brakes. Got to have negative pressure in the air tanks before I can release the dead-man and get us rolling."

"Dead-man?" "

"Yes. The brakes are called air brakes or vacuum brakes. If there's air in the cylinders then the brakes are on then once there's enough vacuum, I can release the dead-man which means this vacuum drives out all the air and releases them. By pressing down on the foot pedal, that allows some air back in, the harder I press, the more air so the harder the braking. This is why you hear this whooshing sound when the brakes are used. Listen."

He stepped on the pedal then took his foot off it and we heard the sound just as if a steam train was pulling out of a station.

"So that's the noise I keep hearing in town! How do you know when you're ready to go?"

"Two air tanks, two gauges, one left, one right so I look to see when they're down there in the black section, then we can head out. If there's a problem, it alarms then applies all the brakes which is why sometimes you see really long tyre marks on motorways. It is enough to slow you down but not enough to stop you from pulling over. Lose vacuum and you can't go anywhere."

Matt drove out of the shed but took a wide turn in the yard,

"Why the really wide turn?"

"Don't want to rip off the doors with the trailer. I've forty-five foot up my arse here. Take a look behind us."

I wound down the window and took a look.

"Bloody-hell! It goes on like forever!"

"It is one of our longer ones but everything's cool. I best get you home so I can get back and help Dad."

The drive across town was brilliant. It felt like we really did own the road but Matt was a very skilled driver and while I thought that this waggon wouldn't fit through some of the gaps he headed for, obviously he knew exactly what he was doing and I began to see him in a completely different light. Academic he wasn't but he had his own unique talents which would prove invaluable to the business.

He dropped us off at the house but refused our offer of coffee.

"I'd love to another time but Sunday between six and midnight is when most of the waggons go out and before that can happen all the routes have to be planned so I normally help Dad with that so I better not hang about. See you in the morning."

We watched as he reversed the trailer in through the gates of the driveway. Very impressive as he had barely two inches either side to spare then with a blast of the air horns he was gone.

We rounded up the dogs and made for Balmore Hill where they could work off some energy.

I was still thinking of Matt's abilities behind the wheel.

"Bloody good driver don't you think?"

"Definitely. I honestly thought that some of the spaces he went through were almost impossible. I kept an eye on the wing mirrors and sometimes he was only inches away from obstacles. I think they call it knowing you vehicle but the bit that I most liked wasn't so much his driving but rather something he said, something you mightn't have picked up on."

"What was that?"

"Well when he was coaxing that truck into life he said something like 'c'mon you heap of crap. I love you so please don't let me down in front of my friends!'

It was only a few weeks ago that he was sort of scared to talk to you but now he refers to you and I as friends and I think that's the best thing that's happened all weekend and as weekends go, there's been loads to celebrate."

"Oh my God, so he did! You're right, I hadn't picked up on that but that's just so sweet!

Maybe my Mum was right when she said about giving people a role which would in turn give them self-worth."

"It's worked in his case but not everyone can carry a title of manager."

"No but we can try and give them all a definitive position and a career path. Let them have something to aim for if that's what they want? Not everyone sees management as something they want to aspire to but if they see that no job we provide is a dead-end street, wouldn't that help?"

"Yeah. We could sit down and work out what jobs might then lead to others, a bit like climbing a tree but another thing that helps is the attitude of those of us that are already management."

"How do you mean?"

"Okay I'll give you an example.

A couple of days ago I was down in the workshop when I happened to notice the floor was somewhat messy. Everyone was hard at work so I picked up a broom and gave the place a damn good clean. Took me about half an hour but the looks I was getting said it all. Instead of collaring someone to do the job for me, I just got on with it myself which while I didn't think of it at the time, sort of demonstrated that nobody is above doing the most menial of jobs but the best bit was, just before lunch break finished, two of the girls, Mandy and Claire came down from the canteen and swept up under their benches.

Okay nothing too unusual perhaps but in their own time?

I think that's special."

"So sort of leading by example then."

"Yes. I mean even if we become really successful, instil the ethos in all of the managerial team that they too, us included must always be willing to pitch in and help out in whatever way is necessary and if it means cleaning the toilet block then so be it."

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