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Feather's Miscellany: Deck-chair Attendant

John Waddington-Feather tells a tale with a most satisfying punchline.

Keith Wilmur had a lowly start in life, like many of his generation who made good. He was part of the Ira Fotheringill crowd who bettered themselves at night-school while holding onto a daytime job. Keith went to the same primary school as Ira and both of them passed the school-leaving certificate at twelve years of age in 1912 – when they left school to begin work as young labourers in a tannery.

Though still children, they had to stand in foul-smelling tan-pits for hours at a time up to their waists in a mixture of pigeon and hen muck in which the newly skinned hides were soaked and were turned regularly till they were tanned by the two boys.

It was exhausting work and by the end of the day they could scarcely crawl home; yet they had to be up again at five the next morning to begin work at six. And all for just one pound a week!

Both vowed they’d leave the tanning trade as soon as they could and go to night-school to better themselves. Opportunity came when at fifteen, having good school records, they were offered positions as office boys in a large woollen mill, which left them time in the evenings to go to night-school at the local Mechanics Institute. There they joined a crowed of youngsters like themselves all eager to get on. Ira studied to get his qualifications as an auctioneer and estate agent. Keith aimed at the civil service in the Town Hall and studied accountancy and civil law.

Both achieved their goals and Ira joined his brother’s firm of auctioneers and estate agents in town, while Keith steadily worked his way to the top, ending up as chief executive of Keighworth – or town clerk as the position was called then. In 1939 both went into the war, Ira in the RAF and Keith into the Pay Corps till they were demobbed and resumed their old careers till they retired in the 1960s.

Ira passed his retirement in Keighworth, but Keith departed for pastures new down south. He bought a bungalow on the coast near Hove were he’d spent many happy holidays with his wife. He already had friends there and made many more once he’d settled in for he was a very sociable man. He attended the local church and in time became a church warden. In Keighworth he’d been a member of the Rotary Club and continued involving himself in their charity work once he’d retired.

He also fulfilled a long-held ambition – to become a deck-chair attendant at the seaside. On past holidays he’d chatted with the attendant when he’d hired his chair and rather fancied the job. Though not well paid, it was sociable and not too strenuous. The attendants met a wide variety of folk and Keith being a sociable man had long thought he’d like to give it a try. The chance came when the local attendant left and his job was advertised. Keith applied for it and got it.

All went well for some time except for one hitch which upset Keith’s supervisor, a pernickety little clerk in the borough office, where Keith had to report each day for work. Keith had never been a good time-keeper and turned up ten minutes late for work each day. Finally, he was summoned before the officious clerk in charge of the beach and the attendants. Although Keith had been given good character references, there’d been no mention of the position he’d held in Keighworth before he retired. Nor did the clerk know that the pittance Keith received as a deck-chair attendant each week went to charity.

The clerk was lost for words when he asked sharply: “What did they say in your last job when you turned up late for work?” and Keith replied quietly: “My secretary always asked if I’d like a cup of tea and a biscuit.”

John Waddington-Feather ©

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