Two rows of women sit either side of a small conveyor belt. I say women, but I don’t think of myself as ‘woman’ yet. I’m eighteen and a half.
On each desk is a grey telephone console with a row of switches and lights. We wear head sets. Pens and pads of special paper sit waiting for action.
The conveyor belt carries small clutches of standard sized paper, three different colours, down to the end where a man will pick them up and make things happen.
I’m probably wearing a short-sleeved, short dress over a pair of flared trousers – the red ones from the Littlewoods catalogue. The men around here tend to notice short skirts a bit too much.
And platforms, of course, for height.
For the first week or so I sat, feeling miserable, next to a normal but grumpy woman. When the phones weren’t demanding attention, winking their pesky white lights, she didn’t make conversation. Just stared into space, or flirted with one of the men.
But today I’m sitting at the top of my row, looking down the line of others. Across the conveyor belt is my boss. Which, as it turns out, is probably just as well.
Diane – it’s not her name, but that’s what I’ll call her – Diane is bleached-blonde, tall – and right Yorkshire.
Bright, but no higher education for her – just life.
She doesn’t wear a bra – and you can tell.
Her boyfriend works here, too. He’s the ex of a woman who sits behind a screen – and the screen’s behind all of us.
I don’t really know what the ex does, but she always looks grumpy. I guess that’s not surprising. Her rival in love is younger and blonder. And ‘smile’ is Diane’s default expression.
Diane’s quite something.
I answer a lot of phone calls, write out a lot of job sheets. Make appointments for gas fitters at homes without cookers or heating. Send men out to leaks. Recite the leak litany – open the windows, open the doors, don’t turn on the lights or use any electrical switches, no matches or lighters, etc.
But Diane and I find time to make friends.
Friday lunchtime we trot up the road to the pub. A hot meat pie – topped with peas, mint sauce and gravy – drowned with half a lager and lime.
Shouldn’t really waste my money.
I’m planning on using the wages I’ve earned to take me on holiday, to Greece, with him – ‘the one’. The everyone-loves-him, rowing, sailing, my dad’s chairman of a business you’ve all heard of, kind of one.
Even as I pick up my brown paper pay packets, it never feels real, that holiday. And as it turns out, it isn’t. Well, not for me.
‘You want me to be deep,’ he says, on the phone.
He’s just taken his Labradors for a walk in the Surrey woods. I’m dogless in Yorkshire. I already know – he’s told me – that walking dogs is great for meeting girls.
‘But this is all there is,’ he says.
My day at Henley, the big event for rowing, is a tipping point.
It’s raining cats and Labradors. There are fields of sodden grass. Do I wear the long, pink-sprigged, flounced-cotton Laura Ashley? End up with mud to my waist? Or the home-made midi denim skirt and checked cheesecloth blouse?
You know, don’t you, I should have worn the dress, mud or no mud.
I chose the skirt and blouse.
We were in the Steward’s Enclosure. That’s posh, far too posh for a home made denim skirt. It has rules about dress.
All too soon my heart was breaking. I knew I had to let him go. And I did.
Diane was great. More lager and lime – and a few nights out. Her beau was fine about it.
Life was probably pretty full-on, living with Diane. She told me she cooked in the nude. Had burnt her boob on an apple pie, taking it out of the oven.
Back at work, I flick the little triangular switch, start to say, ‘Good morning, Negas services,’ but a voice has got there before me.
I’m possibly open-mouthed, certainly open-brained and open-eyed.
It’s a recorded message. From a power station. An emergency.
And I DON’T KNOW WHAT IT SAID!
Diane sees the panic on my face. Calm, she flicks the same key, listens, nods, walks behind the screen.
I have visions of nuclear meltdown, of radiation falling in clouds. I’m thinking of sickness and cancer and …
It’s probably just a routine message. Don’t worry. It’s the power station. (That’s the coal-fired one with the back-up gas turbines.)
You can’t fault her – she can be an ice maiden when she wants.
And pretends she believes me when I take a day off ‘sick’, but actually to cry, after sluicing my crumpled heart with half a bottle of Martini.
We keep in touch for a while. I go back at Christmas – it pays better than the post. We bump into each other in a posh hotel. Then we lose contact. I forget.
Then, today – real today – I’m browsing around online and a news item catches my eye.
Ferrybridge power station is ablaze.
In an instant I’m back there, in Negas Services, panicking, with Diane.
People who smile by default are precious. I wish I knew her still.
I bet she’s not making apple pie in the nude any more. But I bet she’s still making friends.