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My spirits sank on the waterfront - Jem Clarke

Blog | By Jem Clarke | Jul 09, 2021

Jem Clarke is in his very, very early fifties, is five foot zero inches tall and has never left the family home in Cleethorpes, which he still shares with his parents...

Working on the docks is a lot less glamorous than in Marlon Brando’s day, says Jem Clarke

These are desperate times. I caught sight of my family’s reflection in the plate- cupboard door and we looked like the Waltons (Depression-era mountain dwellers, not the home-county sextuplets): all open-necked shirts, way too much flannel and little sign of belts or razors – even mother could do with a subtle Gillette intervention.

My father and I normally set about her chin if she slumps into an amaretto-fuelled siesta midway through Dickinson’s Real Deal (‘The soul of Bargain Hunt, trapped in a function room, in Scunthorpe,’ as my middle-brow father has it).

There is some respite from hairy matriarchs and doom-laden dads. I have my first new job in a while. They tend not to celebrate till I’m past the first four weeks. They point to past false flags – as my father says, ‘Business-minded people find you an acquired taste, Jem.’ Mother is pithier – ‘They must be bloody desperate.’

Regarding this latest employer, my mother is spot-on.

Steven Dore, who actually works as a stevedore – talk about nominative predestination – phoned me to confirm that the docks, post-Brexit, need 900 new call-centre clerks, ‘regardless of competence, experience or examinations – so I immediately thought of you’.

Steven, who has made driving factory- new cars off ships, with barely more than a couple of scratches per car, into a career, had often touted the docks as the home for the vocationally dispossessed.

After passing an over-phone assessment test in which I had to remember my name and address, I was told that a package would arrive at my house in the next 24 hours with details of my first ‘assignment’.

What had Steven Dore got me into? Was I now a spook? Was Steven Dore (now so obviously a fake name) my handler?

Alas no, as I soon found a Surface Pro computer dumped in my porch with a Post-it note stuck on it reading, ‘Kyle will phone you on Monday, with your log-in details. You will be helping importers reset their passwords. Any probz, call us.’ As far as I know, there is no James Bond film where he goes to Immingham docks to find the third and seventh letter of his recovery word.

Monday morning came and went with no word from the enigmatic Kyle. So I phoned the number and explained, ‘I’m phoning for Kyle. I’m meant to be helping with password resets.’

‘Oh, thank God you’ve phoned,’ Kyle said. ‘I’ve got 900 new starters across five dock zones, and the passwords to get on their Surface Pros won’t work. Can you help?’

Practising skills I had learnt on a locally funded assertiveness course, I proudly said, ‘No. No, I can’t help.’

‘But you’re one of the password-reset team, aren’t you?’ Kyle said.

‘Yes, but I’m one of the 900 new starters. I was expecting a call from you,’ I explained.

‘Oh, right. Yeah, the master password won’t work, so I can’t get any of you logged in until you get your passwords reset. All I can suggest is that you phone the password-reset team.’ He mumbled some digits that I wrote (old-school style) on my palm.

‘But...’ I faltered, trying to process Kyle’s explanation. ‘Isn’t that your number ... our number? Aren’t we the password-reset team?’

‘Yeah don’t expect us to answer quickly, ’cos we can’t get on to the computers,’ he said.

‘So, to summarise – you want me to phone ourselves on a line we can’t answer to tell ourselves about a problem we already know we’ve got, and that we already know we have no solution to?’

Kyle probably winced. ‘Yeah, I know it sounds mad when you put it like that, but it’s our best chance.’

After spending my first working day, feet up, phoning a number that neither Kyle nor I ever answered, I ‘commuted’ downstairs, greeting my parents as I made an ‘end-of-shift’ Horlicks – I’ve gone over to instant to cut down on ‘parent time’.

‘Day One of job 34 completed,’ I said to Mother. ‘Just like what that poster in the gym said: “LUCK is where OPPORTUNITY meets PREPARATION”.’

Mother snorted. ‘How have you prepared? Three months sat in your late uncle’s Parker Knoll, reading comics!’

I smiled to myself, thinking that might well have been just the right preparation.