The Woods Gang attempting to get a job at the Ross Cafe, M1 Motorway, Leicester.
It was Grub who came up with the next idea as he lay on frozen ground next to the fire we had lit in the woods.
‘If British Shoe haven’t got any jobs, I know who might have some.’
Bear and I looked at each other and smiled.
It was a Saturday night in January 1970. The festivities were over, the cards taken down and Christmas was packed away for another year. The weather was cold and I was trying to remember when I last saw a blue sky as we all hunched around the fire for warmth. The trees stood stark and leafless and the edges of Pee River had frozen over so there was only a trickle of water through the centre. I had my RAF greatcoat wrapped tightly around me with the collar up around my ears, Howard wore his Afghan coat which had finally come into its own in the freezing weather and Rob wore a tatty, fur coat he’d got from Leicester Market before Christmas for two pounds.
Bear had a thicker anorak on than usual and Kev wore his Parka. It was from under the fur-lined hood of this that Kev spoke.
‘You can’t say I know who might it doesn’t make sense. It’s like saying I’m certain something may happen.’
I threw a damp branch into the fire, listened to the hiss and joined in.
‘Maybe you can say I know who might ‘cos as its meaningless it could apply to anything and as you’re not actually promising anything you can never be wrong.’
Kev looked puzzled, ‘Say that again will you? …… No, on second thoughts, don’t bother. I still say it can’t be right to know something may be.’
‘That’s what I’m saying, it can be right as you can know everything may be without knowing anything will be or having to prove it.’
‘It’s certainly a conundrum,’ said Bear. This shut us all up. Where the hell had Bear got that word from?
‘What?’ Kev spat.
‘I got it from a crossword,’ Bear answered.
This was another revelation. I didn’t know Bear did any writing unless he had to.
Howie joined in.
‘Can’t have been from any crossword you were doing the word’s too long.’
‘My Dad was doing it.’
‘Did he let you colour it in afterwards?’
‘Sod off Howie.’
‘Good word conundrum,’ said Steve who thought feeling the cold was for wimps as his coat was just a short, cord jacket. ‘What’s it mean Bear?’
‘Fuck knows.’ Bear had lost interest in conundrums.
Grub roused himself from the frozen dirt.
‘Does anybody want to know about what I might know or not might know about what might be or what not might be.’
‘Yeah, yeah we’re listening,’ said Steve.
The Ross Café was the motorway service station that spanned the six lanes of the M1 at Leicester Forest East. The family cafeteria was on the southbound carriage way and the transport café, or greasy spoon as we called it, was on the northbound. The flyover in between contained the posh Captain’s Table restaurant with exclusive views through sealed windows of the traffic roaring beneath.
‘How we going to get there,’ asked Bear, ‘we can’t walk on the motorway.’
Grub had obviously thought of this, ‘We can go over the fields all the way to the boundary fence, hop over that and get straight into the southbound side.’
‘Aren’t we going to get shit-up over the fields,’ questioned Howard for whom appearance was all-important, ‘we can hardly go in our wellies.’
‘We won’t get shit-up in this weather, it’s all frozen hard,’ was the plausible reply.
‘Haven’t you got to be fifteen?’
‘They won’t ask, they’re not as bothered as British Shoe.’
I looked at Grub searchingly, ‘How do you know that?’
‘My Dad heard it from a mate at work who heard it from his son whose best friend has a girlfriend whose brother works there.’
I sighed loudly, ‘Straight from the horse’s mouth then?’
‘Don’t worry about it.’
We decided to go early on the following Saturday morning and Bear, Kev, Howard and me met up with Steve outside his house at 7.30am. We knew Rob and Nick wouldn’t be there as they already had Saturday jobs lined up but the absence of Grub was more puzzling.
‘Where is the little sod,’ said Steve, ‘he does know we’re meeting here doesn’t he?
‘He should do,’ answered Kev, ‘it was his idea.’
‘We’ll give him five minutes and then we’re going.’
We had all dressed as smartly as we could which basically meant school uniform without the blazer and tie. Our shoes were polished and our school trousers pressed. We had all agreed with Howard that our appearance was important in order to make a good impression. The parka, greatcoat and afghan were left at home and we temporarily adopted Bear’s fashion sense and wore anoraks. Five minutes went by.
‘We can’t wait any longer,’ said Steve, ‘we’ve gotta’ go.’
Our route initially went through housing estates in the direction of Winstanley, our old school, then diverted over fields and through a wood towards the motorway. The ground was frozen and firm with frost highlighting the tree branches and we could pick our way around any muddy bits.
‘At least Grub got this bit right,’ suggested Howie, ‘if the ground wasn’t frozen we’d be filthy by now.’
‘Wonder where the grubby little bugger is though,’ answered Kev, ‘he’ll be pig sick if we get jobs and he doesn’t.’
‘That’s his problem, he should have turned up, come on, we’ve got to keep going,‘ Steve ended the conversation.
The trip was looking promising. We made steady progress and were confident we would get there in good time as we exited the last bit of woodland with only a large field left between us and the boundary fence of the café.
‘Bloody hell,’ exclaimed Howard as he approached the edge of the woodland in front of the rest of us.
‘What’s the problem,’ I said. Then as I reached him I saw for myself. The previously level pasture land had been ploughed up and stretched away for three hundred yards in deep, muddy furrows to the line of the café fence.
Kev came up to where were standing and surveyed the scene, ‘Jesus, it will look like we’ve been mud wrestling by the time we get over that.’
‘It might be frozen,’ said Bear.
As we bunched together at the edge of the wood this observation sounded optimistic.
An early morning sun had broken through and although low and weak it was enough to heat the furrows.
‘I dunno about freezing Bear, it looks like it’s steaming to me,’ I said, as water evaporated from the sodden soil like smoke rising from a slow burning fire.
But we had little choice. We had come this far and no-one wanted to turn back. Gingerly, like walking across no man’s land on a forgotten Belgian battlefield, we started across.
Kev and I rolled up our school trousers, Bear took his shoes and socks off but the others decided any precautions were pointless and tiptoed across trying to avoid the muddiest bits. But it was useless. The furrows were deep and soft and sticky with mud. We arrived piecemeal at the fence like stragglers from a defeated army. Our shoes were three times their normal size with the accumulation of clogged mud which carried upwards to cover our ankles. School trousers were hanging limp and heavy lined with filth from the knees down. Bear’s shoes were clean but his legs looked like he’d been walking through chocolate. In his bare feet he had stumbled on the crossing and the right leg of his trousers was slippery with mud.
We looked each other up and down.
‘Probably lucky we’re not going for an office job,’ said Kev.
‘Sod off Kev,’ exploded Steve, ‘I’ll swing for that tosser Grub when I see him.’
We climbed the boundary fence and tried to clean ourselves up as much as possible on the grass banking beyond. Slipping down the banking we stomped over the car park leaving muddy clods as we went. We were acutely aware that we were leaving the same amount of muddy clods on the entrance hall floor of the café as we trudged across to the manager’s office.
A shout from behind stopped us before we knocked.
‘Oi, you lot, where do you think you’re going?’
We looked around to see a bloke in black trousers, white shirt and tie and shiny brogue shoes marching over to us. As he got nearer we noticed he had a square plastic badge clipped to his shirt with the name Dave on it.
‘We’ve come for a job,’ Steve piped up.
Dave looked us up and down and then at the trail of mud over the previously pristine floor leading from the entrance doors to the office.
‘How did you get here….bloody cross-country?’
‘Er, yeah,’ said Bear, ‘but we didn’t know there was a ploughed field.’
Dave gave him a sharp look not knowing whether he was taking the piss out of him. He then decided it was best to get rid of us.
‘You can’t come for a job looking like that, you’re messing the whole place up. Anyway there isn’t any going - I took someone on this morning.’
‘Why did they get the job?’ I asked for no real reason other than to keep him there in the unlikely event he might change his mind.
‘Well, they were bloody clean for a start.’ Now come on lads off you go, I’ve got to get a mop and bucket on this lot.’
With that the job interview was over. He turned and walked away calling out for the cleaners.
It was a week later when we found out who had the got the job. Grub had been unusually scarce all week but he did turn up on Friday night. We had pooled our limited funds and bought two large bottles of Woodpecker from the off-licence at the Winstanley Arms. We were sitting on the paving slabs, our backs against the dark, rear wall of the pub taking turns swigging the cider, when he shuffled around the corner.
‘Where the hell of you been all week?’ demanded Steve.
‘Oh, uh just a bit busy that’s all,’ was the vague reply.
‘Never mind that,’ Howard chipped in, ‘where were you last Saturday?’
In the way of politicians this question was ignored. ‘I was going to ask you about that,’ replied Grub, ‘how did you get on?’
‘Bloody disaster’, shouted Steve, ‘we were so caked up in mud going the way you suggested the bloke couldn’t wait to get rid of us.’
‘Was that Dave?’ asked Grub and then looked like he immediately regretted it.
‘How do you know his name?’
Grub looked sheepish, ‘Any cider going?’
‘No, there bloody isn’t, how do you know his name?’ Steve persisted.
Grub’s mind was obviously racing as he framed his reply because he didn’t answer for a moment.
‘Well, I know his name because..,’ and then he paused again.
‘Yeah, go on.’
‘Well, I know his name because he was the one who interviewed me before you got there.’
There was silence as we all looked at him. Bear took the opportunity to have an extra swig of cider but no-one but me noticed.
‘How did you get there,’ Steve asked deliberately emphasizing every word.
Grub looked around as if looking for escape routes but then took a deep breath, ‘It was my Dad’s idea, not mine honest. He said I would get filthy going over the fields so he drove me there up the motorway.’
‘But didn’t you tell him you’d promised to meet us?’
‘I did and tried to get out of going with him but he wouldn’t have it.’
‘Don’t tell me you got the job?‘ Steve said ominously.
Grub looked at the ground, ‘I start tomorrow.’
We all looked at him. Even Bear stopped drinking and held the cider bottle away from his mouth.
‘Can I have some cider now I’ve told you?’
‘No, you bloody can’t.’
We shouted loud enough for the lounge bar curtains to twitch as some drinkers peered out to see what was going on.