Silver & Sons was housed in a tatty warehouse just off Lea Bridge Road, Leyton. Security was tight. I was met by a guard and frisked.
‘I’m Chris,’ I said, as he gave me the once over.
He looked at me as if I’d said something inappropriate. Maybe I had. His cheeks were pockmarked, eyes heavy-lidded. His peaked hat was slightly too big for his head, and he needed a shave. His shirt hung out at the back and his black steel-toe-capped boots were scuffed. I supposed he was about forty-five; ancient to my twenty-three.
‘Graham,’ he said.
‘What’s it like, then?’ I asked, ‘working here?’
‘Wonderful,’ he said, flatly. ‘You report to Steve. He’s the fat guy with white hair behind the big desk next to the office.’
I found Steve and his big desk, which was entirely covered with bits of paper, tickets, forms. It looked like chaos. People, mostly men, scurried around the warehouse. The whole place buzzed. Steve hailed me before I had a chance to introduce myself; ‘You! New guy!’ he said, pointing. ‘Go with Humphrey!’
Humphrey, an older man, took a piece of paper from the desk, and walked off.
‘What you waiting for?’ asked Steve.
I followed Humphrey. His back was hunched. We arrived at a vast pile of plastic boxes on wheels. He took one. Then he led me through the warehouse past towering shelves carrying hundreds of pallets of CDs, DVDs and Videos; people rushing to and fro, nearly knocking me over, swearing at me. Humphrey stopped at a section and peered at the sheet from Steve’s desk.
‘My name’s John,’ he said, not looking up.
‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s their little joke. Keeps ‘em happy.’
‘Doesn’t it bother you?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Come here.’ I came. ‘Look at these codes. First two letters are the section. Look; this is AR,’ he pointed at the row on the sheet, then pointed at the shelf. ‘See, AR on the shelf. Then you look at the next two digits. 96. That’s the pallet,’ he pointed down the aisle to a pallet which presumably bore the numbers 96. ‘The rest of it is the serial number of the item you want, and the last digit or digits is the amount needed. Got it?’
‘I think so,’ I said.
‘Go on then,’ he said. ‘Pick the order.’
I didn’t want to. The job description had said picker and delivery driver. I wanted to get out of here and do deliveries. I started to pick. Letters and number swam before me. I got the order entirely wrong.
‘You need to get it,’ said John, ‘Or Steve will kick your arse.’
I tried again. Wrong again. I kept forgetting what the numbers related to.
John sat down on a stool, rolled a cigarette, and tucked it in his shirt pocket.
After many attempts, I finally got the order right. We could hear shouting in the distance.
‘Steve,’ said John. ‘We’ve been too long. Come on, get a move on.’
‘Where the fack you been?’ asked Steve.
‘I had to show him,’ said John.
‘Show him your fackin arse, more like. Gimme that sheet. Show him the Bay, then get him picking on his own.’
John didn’t look too happy.
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Steve, ‘You got the ‘ump? Oi, Gaz! Humphrey’s got the fackin ‘ump again!’ A spindly man with a thin moustache looked up from more papers on another table and gave an expressionless nod. ‘Go on,’ said Steve to us. ‘Fack off.’
We fucked off.
John showed me the loading bay. There were hundreds of baskets full of picked items. A group of men were putting baskets on pallets, and other men zoomed back and forth on forklift trucks, scooping up pallets and placing them in the back of a line of vans.
‘When do I do deliveries?’ I asked John.
‘Afternoon,’ said John. ‘Once the morning’s orders are picked and loaded.’
Now I was on my own, and I kept getting it wrong. It wasn’t long until Steve began to call me Einstein. Suddenly everyone I encountered called me Einstein. Steve shouted TEN! when I came to him with a wrong order. Those in the vicinity cheered. I had no idea what it meant. Next time he shouted NINE! Another cheer.
I found John. ‘If he gets to one, you’re out,’ he said. It gave me an idea, and John read it. ‘If you try to get the sack, it will work,’ he said. ‘But if you get the sack for being stupid, is your agency going to give you more work?’
I tried to get the orders right. Finally, once I’d got the hang of it, each time I went to Steve he would look incredulous and shout “EUREKA! EINSTEIN GOT IT!” I had the impression he was only keeping me on because he was pleased with my nickname.
Lunch break arrived, not a minute too soon. I darted to the door, desperate for a cigarette.
‘Wait,’ said Graham the security guard. He frisked me down.
‘Do people nick much?’ I asked.
‘They try,’ said Graham.
Then I was out. I kicked and galloped like a horse. A horse with a cigarette.
In the afternoon they let me out with a van. In those days, everything I encountered seemed steeped in personal significance. I listened to BBC Radio 3 and navigated to my first drop via a dogeared A-Z stuck to the dash. ‘Elgar’s Cello Concerto’ with Jacqueline Du Pre took me to Wanstead. I parked at a row of shops, and found the right one, a newsagent.
I was to find a man called Waris. I went inside. A woman in a Sari with a baby on her hip was at the counter. She said nothing and disappeared out back. A man arrived.
‘Silver?’ he asked.
‘Waris?’ I asked back.
It wasn’t exactly Stanley and Livingstone.
‘Upstairs,’ he said. I went back to the van with him, and we started to unload. It was pornography. DVDs and Videos. If only my mum could see me now, I thought. Up the flight of stairs was a shaded room full of stock. We dumped the pornography on the floor, and he signed the docket.
I left, and headed to the next drop, this time with Bruckner. Ten or so more drops with help from Copland, Mozart, Stravinsky, Mahler, Shostakovich, and Chopin, and I headed back to Silver & Sons. I left the van, showed Steve I still existed, got frisked by Graham, and went home.
That was 10th September 2001.
Next morning the same; frisked by Graham, yelled at by Steve, who, as it turned out, would shout TEN, NINE, EIGHT, etc. just for fun, whether or not you picked incorrectly. All morning I ran around the warehouse picking CDs, DVDs, and Videos.
After lunch I took the van out. The Radio programme was interrupted at just past two to say there was something happening in New York. I dropped a big order in Ilford, then headed back to Silver & Sons to get another load. The forklift guys were standing by a radio in the loading bay. Steve was there too.
‘Nice of you to show up, Einstein,’ said Steve. ‘The fackin Yanks are in trouble.’
‘Wankers,’ said one of the drivers.
Nervous laughter. They let me listen in. The news anchor kept stopping and starting. She seemed confused. Then she said, “We’re getting reports that another plane has flown into the World Trade Centre.”
‘Fack me,’ said Steve. A chill passed around us. The forklift drivers were no longer saying the Americans were wankers. ‘I need a fackin TV,’ said Steve. ‘You lot, get on with it!’
He headed back inside the warehouse. My van was loaded again, and I went out. Now I heard it all on the radio. America was under attack.
I made my first drop. It was all the record store owner and I could talk about. I desperately needed a TV. I parked at a big supermarket and found the electrical section. There was a crowd. Workers, shoppers, homeless people. Twenty TVs relayed pictures from New York.
“Oh my God”, was all anyone said. That, or “Jesus Christ”.
I stood transfixed, watching it unfold. George W Bush in a classroom as an aid whispered into his ear. The gigantic plume of black smoke. The panicked snippets from on-the-ground reporters. Sirens. Firemen. Dust-covered workers peering skywards, screaming “THEY’RE JUMPING!”.
Amidst my fear and amazement, an idea grew, standing there in the supermarket: This is the moment the Twentieth Century ends. We are in a new era now. Things will be never be the same again.
I thought about New York, somewhere I’d only visited in my imagination; Woody Allen, The Muppets, Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Ross, Chandler, and Joey.
A lady from the deli was handing out Scotch eggs. I took one and thought further. My dad had been fond of telling me about history and philosophy over the washing up. I recalled snippets of what he’d said about the Japanese-American philosopher Francis Fukuyama; his post-modernist take on the concept of The End of History; that humanity’s ideological evolution had reached a plateau with post-war liberal democracy. It was all I knew about Fukuyama, just as all I knew about Michel Foucault was that he said mad people were mad so others didn’t have to be. This is The End of The End of History, I said to myself, as I munched on my Scotch Egg.
Something had clicked. This terrible cinematic-real event had somehow blown me out of a dream, snapped a yoke from my neck. Another plate of Scotch Eggs did the rounds.
Steve was waiting for me when I finally made it back to Silver & Sons. It was after five.
‘ONE!’ he pointed at me. ‘You’re out! We were just about to call the fackin police to report a stolen van!’
‘Sorry,’ I said.
‘Aw, fack off, Einstein,’ said Steve.
I was frisked extra carefully by Graham.
‘Isn’t it incredible and terrible what happened today?’ I said.
‘Shit happens,’ said Graham, patting my sides.
‘Not things like this!’
He shrugged. ‘What do you want me to say?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Doesn’t it amaze and terrify you?’
‘Not really,’ said Graham. ‘They had it coming for years.’
‘But the scale of it!’ I said. ‘All those poor people! Doesn’t it move you, at all?’
‘Look,’ said Graham. ‘I’m married. I have three kids. I have a grandkid. I’m not interested.’
I was going to ask him what he meant, then realised he thought I was coming on to him. He finished patting me down in silence. It was a bit awkward.
I went straight to the pub. The news was being broadcast on a big screen as if it were a sporting event. A Blitz Spirit was in evidence. People were very friendly. Everybody wanted to talk. Everybody said it was terrible. I bought strangers pints. We all got sloshed. I told anyone who would listen about my end-of-the-Twentieth-Century and The-End-of-The-End-of-History observations. No one knew what I was on about. The evening ended in singing. It was as if some terrible weight had been lifted from us all.
Chris Walsh grew up in Middlesbrough and now lives in Kent. His debut novel, The Dig Street Festival, will be published in April 2021 by Louise Walters Books. In 2020 Chris was interviewed by the Philip Larkin Society about Larkin’s influence on his writing. His work has appeared in Moxy Magazine and Ellipsis Magazine, among others. You can find him on Twitter @WalshWrites