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U3A Writing: The Well: 8 Jack

Jack, trying to make his way in London and desperate for work, has to pay to get a job unloading trucks.

Paddy Webb continues her account in verse of the life of her great grandfather John Charles Ayling, the first of three generations of elder sons of that name.

This story. set between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Centuries, is based on the recollections of Paddy’s grandmother.

A man in the bar told me there was work to be had
Good money, unloading trucks at the Bricklayers Arms.
It was still dark when I left, hardly a soul about;
A night-soil cart with a sway backed horse,
The knocker up just starting on his rounds, a cab
Getting someone home before his missus woke up.
There was a line of cabs, horses heads down
Dozing into their nosebags, cabbies gathered
Round the stall, with its smoking chimney.
The gas lamps were guttering.
I saw a black cat
Slip inside as a girl began to sweep the step.

There was a press of men outside the gate, pushing
Jostling, a few scuffles, the odd fisticuffs.
Just before six the noise died away, heads craning
Towards the big iron gates.
A man walked out.
He went up and down the rows of men, peering.
Now and then he'd touch a man with his cane
And that man would cross, to stand by the gate.
Everyone was silent, breath held, waiting to be picked.

Then one man broke out, grabbed the Master's arm,
Shouting, and begging.
But he was brushed aside
And sat hunched in the gutter, shoulders heaving.
When enough men had gathered by the gate the Master Waived his stick, shouted "be off with you."
A low muttering grew in the crowd that was left,
A growl of despair, an angry hum that followed him.

The next day it was the same, but I noticed a group
Who did not wait to be picked, who went straight in.
I waited when the crowd went, waited and watched.
When the Master came out, to go to the pie shop, I followed.

The next day I was sitting at the table.
Allow me, I said. orrdered a pie, steak and oysters, with a pint. I asked him outright how to get a permanent job.
He looked me over. Do you read, he said, write?
Yes, I said, though I did not let on I could not do Joined up. Times are hard, he mused, but I reckon
Five pounds on this table would see it right.
Then he took his hat and left, no thanks for the pie.

Five pounds! A year's wage for a maid, three months
Work for my Dad. I counted out my savings, my tips.
It wasn't enough.
So I went and asked Ma.
I'll still work evenings, I said, bring you things,
Spills and stuff from the yard; violets.
Gave me a guinea from the purse at her waist,
Still warm.
Good to me is Ma, like a mother.

Next day I laid out five gold sovereigns,
On the table by the plate of pie.
Five thirty ,sharp, at the gate, was all that he said.


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