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Two Rooms And A View: 53 - A Lesson In The Canteen

Robert Owen learns a hard financial lesson.

To read earlier chapters of Robert's absorbing life story please click on Two Rooms And A View in the menu on this page.

During the summer of 1950 I also extended my camping experience. Jimmy Hayden, friend from Stanhope Road schooldays, was also a messenger at Reyrolles. He worked in the art/photography section. We often used to cycle to work together and as we had a long Whit weekend coming up, we arranged to go camping on our bikes.

We hired a small tent from the town's Youth Service and on the Saturday morning, headed towards Hexham. Jimmy was in the Scouts and I was in the Boys' Brigade, yet somehow, we got lost trying to find our way out of Newcastle. Also, it never stopped raining. Soaked to the skin and lost, we stopped to ask someone the way. He was a middle-aged bloke and he took pity on us and invited us up to his flat to dry out. We accepted and although I was a little suspicious, it worked out very well.

After an hour and fed and dried, we continued and got as far as Wylam where we pitched our small tent. We spent two nights exploring the Tyne Valley on our bikes during the day.

Unfortunately the week-end was spoilt by thieves. We left nothing in the tent but food, but on our return on the second day, it had all gone. We returned to Reyrolles several pounds lighter after little food and a lot of pedalling.

Perhaps my worst moment while working as a messenger was when one of the draughtsmen asked me to go to the canteen office and get a 1 note changed into coins for him. Not a difficult task but one that taught me a great deal about people. I went to the canteen office and the cashier accepted the note and gave me a handful of change. Unfortunately, I did not check it until I was outside the building. I then found it was 1/- (5p) short.

I returned straight away to the cashier who said, "I gave you 1 in change - you must have dropped it."

I knew I had not dropped anything and I also knew it was now her word against mine. I had been swindled. What to do now was the problem. I could tell the truth to the draughtsman, who at best would think I could not carry out a simple task without making a mistake, or at the worst might think I was a thief.

Alternatively, I could try to replace the missing shilling with my own or borrowed money, and keep silent about my inefficiency. Hiding in the toilet with one hour to spare, I decided on the latter solution.

The problem now was that I only had a spare 3d piece. I had to find another 9d in less than an hour. For obvious reasons, I could not ask anyone in the Cable Section where I worked. I thought quickly, who are my friends and what excuse could I use for borrowing money?

I decided to ask my friend Ken in Costing and Tom, my cousin's husband, who worked in an adjacent drawing office. My excuse would be that I had travelled by train today and lost my return ticket. It worked!

Just before 5.00 p.m., I gave the original draughtsman one pound in change and asked him to check it. Little did he know the problem that simple task had caused. That day, I had learned my lesson of always checking your change after every money transaction!

Apart from this experience, I enjoyed my work as a messenger in the Cable Section. The job kept me very busy and I was often up and down to New Town two or three times a day. Perhaps the main advantage was that it gave me authorised entrance to most of the firm's office and factory departments. By keeping my eyes open and asking the occasional question, I learnt a lot and convinced myself that I wanted to serve an engineering apprenticeship with this company.

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