Friday, April 22, 2011. When I woke up this morning it was still dark and cold. I was having a dream that a large handsome Spanish man was making me a massive cocktail, it was looking so good but he never seemed to finish making it, anyway I woke up and I thought it must have been the middle of the night but to my horror the alarm went off, it was morning already!, what a sorry excuse for a sleep. I want my money back, what made it even more irritating was I had gone to bed so early. Unlike when you stay up all night and the next day’s tiredness is your own fault I felt as if I was unjustly set a pone by feeling so tired. A deep tiredness, in my very marrow.
I got up and ate a bowl of special K, it tasted like cardboard, but I suspect that if I had eaten cardboard it would have had the good manners to have kept out of my teeth. Not so with the special K, it was like glue clinging to my teeth. Everything was subject to my moody scrutiny. Why was walking so hard? Gravity had a personal vendetta against me surly, as we walked to the bus I felt like a lead man. I was so tired I had to remind myself to breath. I would feel a building stress and then I would remember that I had dent breathed in a while.
We had to stand up on the bus on the way to work as well, the movements of the bus as it went round the bends in the road felt unnecessarily forceful, couldn’t this oaf drive with a little more care? Then to work and back to my station, I was thinking to choose a line of boxes which wasn’t moving fast but today I saw the dark green boxes for organic kiwis at all the stations so it wouldn’t matter where I went.
I was to find exactly to what extent it would matter when Muki the boss of shed 1 told me that for the second half of the day I would be trained to take charge of the sticker changing job.
The conveyer belt runs like a straight road through the middle of the shed, at the far end where you can see the graders as they check the fruit and either send it onto the conveyer belt or to be thrown in the bin, there is also a small bridge going over the conveyer belt, a stair case goes up and down to either side of the belt. On the runway over the belt there are many reels of stickers, looking like old cinema film reels, they are attached to an axel which has many octopus like suction pads, they suck the stickers off the reels and moving round at the same speed as the conveyer belt they stick a label onto each fruit which passes under the bridge. You have a small desk to change old reels for new ones, with an assortment of pens, screw drivers and lights which flash when reels need to be changed, pressure valves which periodically need to be released.
The view is interesting as you can see the whole workings of the shed. You can see the graders as they watch the fruit slowly roll into view, they look them top to bottom and all over and then release them into the fast moving conveyer belt if they are suitable, then from there they tumble down a green springy plastic and onto the straight of the belt, under the bridge where they become labeled and then onwards, soon they fall either side and down into an inclined shoots which lets them roll into the readymade boxes to be arranged by the packers, then when the box is full it is pushed along a roller table and sealed by a stacker who then carries the completed box to a pallet and stacks it there. When the pallet is full the stackers will use the trolley and bring it to the shed hanger door were a fork lift will come along and carry it away from sight to be loaded onto a truck.
All this was visible from this elevated platform. The constant millings of the workers instantly made me think of the movements of ants. On the surface they appeared to be moving in random directions but as the eyes adjust to such a large amount of movement you can see patterns emerge. The bridge is also the noisiest part of the Shed 1. It is the oldest shed at Trevelyan’s and the machines are noticeably older and noisier.
I was trained by Andy, an older man from the UK. Although he had dent been back there for 40 years. I guessed he must have been his mid to late fifths but to my surprise he told me he was 72 years old. “Wow, what’s your secrete? No drink or drugs?” I asked “no I used to drink a lot and do drugs” he laughed. Andy took me through the tasks which were part of the job. The first and main job was to take out the spent reels and quickly put in a full one to the axel so that as few kiwis miss being stickered as possible. Then to go through the fiddly and laborious jobs of re loading the empty reel. Cleaning the dusty thing with the air pressure gun, threading through the new stickers, in one hole, through up and over this wheel onto that grip and finally out the end again. “There must be a simpler way of doing this” I told myself as I finally finished my first one. The other job involved watching the reels and checking that they didn’t jam or get out of control. There were three rows of reels each in succession to the next, with 6 reels in each row. The front line as it were got the brunt of the work. The octopus suction caps whirring round as kiwis passed under them at a rate of 10 a second.
The beginning of my training which was the early afternoon was easy. Andy and I chatted leisurely and only had to change a few reels every hour, and only a few stickers flew off and had to be picked up. Although Andy on the outside wasn’t old the things we talked about reviled what time he had come from. He told me about even though he was little and down in Devon he can clearly remember the air raid sirens and being rushed to the air raid bunker. He remembered rationing and he remembered how when he had traveled to New Zealand he was applying for a job at the Ministry of works. His future boss asked the group of job applicants “we have now got a room which we will be putting a computer in, does anyone here have experience with computers?” On seeing that no one raised their hand Andy took the initiative and told the man how he used to use a computer when he was in the navy, it was strapped to his knee and it was used to calculate the air speed and the direction of the ship. This information was then relayed to the air craft which wanted to land. Andy said with this information he got the job on the one computer in the office. “What I didn’t tell my boss was that the computer I used was made out of card, it was similar to one of those astrology charts, like a wheel which shows what star sign you are when you put it on the right date”
Andy seems to have almost completely cut himself off from his past. In 40 years he still hasn’t been back to the UK and only 2 of his three brothers have come for a visit in NZ. I asked Andy if Maoris can stay in the UK in the same way English can stay in New Zealand; his answer was that they could stay for 2 years. “ it’s strange how we invade their country and take it over then only let them stay in ours for a few years, England has always been funny with immigration” I said to him as we lent against the bridge banisters watching the sticker reels do all the work. “ well according to my brothers they should be kicking more of the immigrants out, you know they just let a group of immigrants in from Libya, Jesus what are they thinking?, they are just going to bring their cousins and family as well aren’t they?” Andy said, giving me a smile. “Well after all the grief we have caused the middle east and Africa, taking a few refugees in is the least we can do I think. What else should be done? Where else could they go? If they stay in their country they would probably be killed” I said back, trying my best to round my words and not sound too angry. Andy gave a shrug and a wimpy little smile as if to say the problem was unsolvable, or rather that he couldn’t care less. Indifference is infuriating.
I asked Andy if there were any problems between the Kiwis and the Maoris. “ oh no no, nothing too bad but you know the Maoris are like the girl with the curl, when they are good they are very very good, but when they are bad they are very very bad”
At this point everything went crazy, the machines were sped up to the point the poor old reels kept breaking and jamming and so Andy and I spent almost 3 hours running around the bridge fixing the constantly breaking machines. The reels aren’t the sort of thing which haste works for, you can only fix one so fast, if you go beyond so fast then you make another mistake and the whole process of threading and lining begins again. I felt like a mule, working for the man, working for the machine. Having to keep up with it. My rider is gaining ground by the sweat of my brow.
The noise was deafening, the speed was ridiculous, I was sweating, eyes budging, in a constant state of semi panic as Andy and I were always seconds away from complete collapse, if the labels stop then the whole operation is mucked up and we would get a serious talking to. Almost 100 people stopping work even for a minute costs a lot of money.
The end of the day came and I went home so tired that I was angry. I closed my eyes in bed and saw the reels spinning round and round. The reels on the bridge go round and round, round and round. I am thankful that this will not be my job tomorrow.