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The strangest holiday job I ever had: Pt II

Holiday jobs! We’ve all had them; we’ve all yawned through them. But what of those holiday positions that are a bit less… normal? In the concluding part of our feature, three more Standard Issue writers share their experiences of summer job unusualness. Among the treats: rampaging rabbits, French toilet doors and Europe’s largest feminine hygiene factory.

tampon factory

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

A job on a feminine hygiene assembly line turned Jane Hill into an “absurdly proud” tampon-stockpiling powerhouse.

I spent a summer hand-assembling tampons.

That sentence needs some explaining.

The summer between school and university, I ran a seafront ice cream kiosk in my hometown of Southsea, the seaside resort bit of Portsmouth. It was a great summer job. If it rained, I’d sit on the top of the freezer swinging my legs and reading Paradise Lost, for my university reading list. In good weather I was rushed off my feet. The day the Falklands Task Force returned to Portsmouth, I ran out of Orange Maids by 10am.

But by the following year my parents had moved to a suburb north of Portsmouth, too far for me to cycle to Southsea seafront to work. So instead I signed up with an agency dealing with temporary factory staff. Each morning a group of us, mostly students, were taken by minibus to whichever factory needed us. I spent a few days wiping tables in a staff canteen, and another few days packing frozen lambs’ liver and chicken Kievs.

And then I landed the holy grail of factory jobs in the Portsmouth area: I got to spend the rest of the summer at what the managers proudly described as “Europe’s largest feminine hygiene factory”.

It closed about 10 years ago, with production moving to Eastern Europe. But back then, in the mid-80s, the Tampax factory was a landmark in Leigh Park. I’m told even the nearby bus stop was informally named after it, so that people catching the bus would simply ask the driver for “Tampax, please.”

And Leigh Park was a landmark in the area. Originally a country estate, the land had been bought by Portsmouth City Council in the 40s to develop a massive council estate for the city’s overspill. Coming as I did from the ‘nice’ bit of Portsmouth, all I knew of Leigh Park was what I’d read in the local paper. I thought it was going to be dead rough.

But it wasn’t. It was lovely. The factory was bright, clean and airy and the permanent staff, mostly women, were really friendly to me. I spent a few days on the packing line and I know I semi-subconsciously spoke differently, dropping my Hs and Ts and introducing a few glottal stops. I squirm a bit when I remember that. But on the other hand, I also remember the pride I felt when one of the full-timers told me, “You’re all right, you are.”

“In the mid-80s, the Tampax factory was a landmark in Leigh Park. I’m told even the nearby bus stop was informally named after it, so that people catching the bus would simply ask the driver for ‘Tampax, please.’”

And then there was the hand-assembly work. You might think they’d have machines for that kind of thing. But these were prototypes – the first of the tampon applicators with curved ends. They were still experimental. Four of us, all agency workers, spent the rest of the summer putting them together.

We had to place the tampon itself into the upper, curved end of the applicator then carefully dangle the string (without the tampon falling out) over the lower, inner tube of the applicator. This tube was placed over a hole in the table, under which was a suction device, operated with a sideways motion of the knee. The knack was to coordinate the suction so that the string went into the inner tube without the tampon falling out of the top.

You know what? I was really good at it. And really competitive, too, challenging myself to assemble more tampons than anyone else. I was absurdly proud of my productivity.

But what made the job particularly worthwhile was that every worker – including agency staff – got 20 free tampons a month, and you could specify the absorbency. One of the other students working with me didn’t use them, so she let me have hers, too. I built up quite a stockpile that summer.

Jane-HillJane Hill

Jane Hill has written three novels, all published by Random House, and also does stand-up comedy. She’s currently the Editor of BBC Radio Leicester and lives with her partner in a cottage on a farm. @janehill64

 

For a teenaged Siân Bevan, sanding endless toilet doors on a French campsite was “the kind of futile exercise that wicked regimes use as torture”.

Let’s be clear: I’ve had a lot of weird jobs. I’ve screwed caps onto bottles of medicine, I’ve fixed yo-yos and I’ve been a ghost-tour guide (a terrible life choice for someone who’s scared of the dark).

However, one of the very oddest jobs I’ve had was on a French campsite at the ripe old age of 17, with my best friend. We’d decided we wanted to spend the summer in France and convinced our parents it was to practise our language skills and not to just drink cheap cider and talk to foreign boys.

My Dad knew someone who owned a campsite, and who would let us stay for free if we sanded and painted the doors of the toilet block. Being 17 and not super at understanding what a wage was, we pitched up our tent, bought beer and baguettes and started gently scratching at the 100 million doors that needed fixing.

“Everyone knows there are two ways to be in France: one is to be wearing a black dress and smoking a cigarette in a city. The other is to wear dungarees with flowers in your hair and roll around a field with someone beautiful eating cheese.”

What started as a fun jape (manual labour! We were practically farmers!) soon became the kind of futile exercise that wicked regimes use as torture. It was interminable. We weren’t very good at it. We got shouted at for trying to use our stupid wee stove to cook indoors when it was raining. And the doors never seemed to end. It was one of the most boring, and yet also strangely great, adventures anyone ever had.

I had a very different idea of what being in France would be like. Everyone knows there are two ways to be in France: one is to be wearing a black dress and smoking a cigarette in a city. The other is to wear dungarees with flowers in your hair and roll around a field with someone beautiful eating cheese. We’d had a short holiday with another pal when we’d done a bit of city-ing and we’d gone to bars and sat and watched the lights go off at the Louvre and a boy showed me his willy and it was all BRILLIANT.

This, though. This was a life lesson. This was learning to stand up for ourselves. This was learning that working hard all day and then eating pasta cooked on a stove and getting lightly drunk is awesome. It was learning that you can’t watch a solar eclipse through a baguette. It was discovering what we hated and what we loved and that we definitely did have very itchy feet.

It was learning that the world is there for the taking but sometimes the price is sore fingers and a million toilet doors.

Sianbevan croppedSiân Bevan

Siân Bevan is a writer, performer, creator of joyful things and sometimes she tries to explain things to young people. She’s a mainly vegan feminist who loves elephants, is scared of the dark and likes stories most of all. @sianbevan

 

Think bunnies are snuggly-wuggly bundles of Disneyesque innocence? “Think again”, whimpers blood-spattered ex-postwoman Elaine Malcolmson.

Summer holidays can be full of opportunities: some take the chance to travel; some are lucky enough to be able to spend the time giving something back. You know the sort – the ones that are never out of the local newspaper. The sort your mother wishes you would marry. The sort that spends their holidays in sub-Saharan Africa building hospitals for orang-utans using only the sweat from their own armpits and the goodwill of the local antelopes.

Some people, however, take the opportunity to spend their summer holidays enduring hard work and/or physical labour. Me, for instance, when, one summer, I found myself enduring the hard work of a postie. A summer of heavy postbags, long bike rides and tedious jokes. A classic example of the latter being, “A postie, eh? Well, that will keep you from walking the streets. Ha ha ha.”

“Yes, it will,” I replied. “They’ve given me a bike.” The other standard joke was based on the postman’s relationship with dogs. “Watch you don’t get bitten by a dog.” Or, “Oh, it’s an occupational hazard getting bitten by a dog” Or, “You know Postman Pat has a cat ‘cos he’s scared of being bitten by a dog?” That’s making light of quite a big issue, you know, getting bitten by a dog. The fact is that in the UK around 5,000 posties a year get bitten by a dog. That’s 12 posties every day, all being bitten by a dog.

Me? I got bitten by a rabbit.

“Mr Wilson of No. 63 opened his door and found me, in shock, a mess of blood, mud and dandelions, trying to explain that a big rabbit did it and ran away.”

It was the summer of 1998. You probably won’t remember what the weather was like or what was happening in the world but you might recall that Des’ree was teaching us all about Life. I was experiencing life – life as a postie in small-town Northern Ireland. I’d been doing the job for three weeks before I’d even tried the brakes on my Royal Mail issue bicycle. Luckily they were fully functional, or the little white rabbit that hopped out in front of me could have ended up as a special delivery to the big burrow in the sky.

Anyone with a tiny bit of animal love in their heart would try to save a little pet bunny rabbit that had escaped; we’ve all seen Watership Down. This was my opportunity to give something back. This rabbit was my orang-utan. So I found myself on my knees in wet grass following a white rabbit around with a dandelion.

One hour later, when I finally caught the floppy eared wanderer, I realised I hadn’t thought this selfless rescue through. I was now standing in the middle of a cul-de-sac at 6.30am holding a rabbit, with no idea what to do with it.

If I’d known the true character of this angora assassin, I would’ve released it into a field and hoped that nature would sort it out with a fox (I don’t really mean that, I’m just scarred).

Warning: never hold a rabbit close to your face. People draw attention to their floppy ears and fluffy tails but nobody mentions the claws and the fact they can kick like an angry horse. And the teeth! Don’t be fooled that they’re just for carrots. Fingers and carrots are of similar size and weight.

It was a horrific scene: me trying to save the rabbit while trying to save myself from the rabbit and the rabbit trying to escape, through my skin. It was like Alice’s Nightmares on Elm Street.

Furry Freddy Krueger did his worst and hopped off. Mr Wilson of No. 63 opened his door and found me, in shock, a mess of blood, mud and dandelions, trying to explain that a big rabbit did it and ran away.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

I saw that beast every morning for a week. It was obviously laughing at me. I didn’t attempt another rescue; Bugs could clearly look after itself. I never found out who owned it and I don’t know where it ended up: maybe back in its hutch, maybe in a warren, maybe in a stew.

I may not have saved any orang-utans that summer but let me take this opportunity to give something back: following white rabbits doesn’t always lead to tea parties.

Elaine-MalcolmsonElaine Malcolmson

Elaine Malcolmson is a comedian, writer and science communicator. Raised in Northern Ireland, lived in Wales, now resides in Glasgow – bewildering brogue. @emalcolmson

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Written by Various Artists

Some of Standard Issue's brilliant women's carefully crafted words for your reading pleasure.