Like all teenagers, we craved the company of others. At first we spent time with a local group of school kids, same age as us, who lived in the neighborhood. It all revolved around a church, but we clearly did not belong. They had parents and pocket money. We had to work and did not speak English well. We were a fleeting curiosity to them. Then we started going to a bierkeller in Croydon. There was a strong beer culture in Czechoslovakia, so a "beer cellar", a place where young people gathered was not foreign to us. Except, that the bierkeller was a skinhead hangout. We were naive and had no idea that the skinheads were Hitlerjugend sans hair and with boots, but we sensed that something did not quite fit with the constant crowd affirmations of "Ziggah, Zaggeh, Oy, Oy Oy". We made some attempts to talk to girls there, but we were always rejected and at one point, a group of skinheads tried to harass us, physically. We figured out very quickly that the "bierkeller" was not for us.

We desperately wanted a car and the freedom we associated with it. We longingly eyed a huge Zephyr cruiser as well as the elegant Jaguar E-type convertible; imagining one might be within our means at some point. Instead, we somehow acquired a Vauxhall Victor, 4-door sedan. It needed various repairs, but that was just a minor problem for us. We parked it on the street in front the Morris' house and started messin' with it. We had to break into the trunk, demolishing the latch in the process and from then on taping it to keep it shut. Naturally, the tape did not last and most of the time we would drive with the trunk flopping in the wind. The engine ran sporadically, but that was the least of the problemss. Most disturbingly, the damn car did not run straight. The rear wheels were not quite in line with the front ones, although, thankfully they were aligned to run in more or less the same direction. This had the effect of "crabbing" along–it was almost possible to look straight ahead out of the side window! Tricky to drive and even trickier to fix. After one furious, but unproductive repair session, we managed to leave a pool of old, black oil on the sidewalk that Mrs. Morris insisted that we clean it up. After that, the car became too much of a hassle and we abandoned it. It was towed away a week later to the local junkyard. At Mrs. Morrises' command, we believed.

We downsized from four wheels to two and bought a very used Lambretta scooter. This turned out to be a worse wreck than the Vauxhall. Our first outing on a Saturday night to central London, the exhaust pipe fell off on the way back and we careened through the Streatham High Street with a blaze of sparks behind us. That was the first time we were pulled over by the police. It was now winter and the roads were sleek with rain and sleet. Sometimes we fell off the scooter at the slightest tap of the brakes. Often, we'd wipe out several times during a short ride to work. We did not realize that this particular type of scooter and an overcoat called "anorak" were the look favored by so called "Mods". The Mods were a group prone to violence who frequently fought bloody battles with the Skinheads. We were stopped several more times by the London Constabulary being mistaken for Mods. We'd neglected to apply for driver licenses so we wound up with several tickets in a very short time. We even ended up in court a couple of times and there were fines to pay. These were all important lessons we were learning on how to play by the rules.

We were often broke. Not because of extravagant living, we were just making very little. Later, we were separated at work and I was promoted (or punished, I never knew which) to another department where we applied hot, toxic, purple sludge onto huge rolls of paper. Duskript, it was called. Once the paper was coated with this vile purple stuff, it was baked on by threading it through an oven of sorts. The final result was paper and carbon all-in-one. The machine performing all these tasks was the size of a combine harvester and required two people to operate it. The Great Sludgemaster was Claude, a portly Peter Sellers look-alike, and I became his Assistant. There was one - huge - advantage, the purple sludge work was done at night. My measly income instantly doubled with the overtime time rate.

You'd have to admire Claude. He was assigned a gawky kid with very basic English to work with him for eight hours every night. In a deserted factory. If it ever bothered him, he never showed it and made a valiant effort to teach me the mysteries of The Infernal Purple Apparatus. One starts to understand why the English refer to ships and other inanimate objects as "she", because Her Purpleness was a co-dependant bitch. Constant attention was needed and it was never quite enough. The paper ran too slow and creased through the numerous rollers, the sludge was too thin or too thick...there was always something. Claude tried to teach me Her Evil ways, mostly by yelling and gesticulating and finally, demonstrating. Eventually I grokked what was expected of me and we settled into a comfortable nightly routine with the entire empty factory at our disposal. We took frequent, solitary breaks away from the purple hell, on the quiet main factory floor. There, lounging on rolls of paper, we'd read, drink lousy coffee and...smoke. This was illegal, of course, but not too much. In those days the factory had several areas, away from paper but visible by supervisors, where it was permitted to smoke. But during the night shift, we took a chance, although we were careful.

Until one night, pulling on my hand-rolled "Golden Virginia" I hear Claude yell: "FIRE!!!". I run into the Purple Apparatus Room and there's Claude trying to put out chemical inferno by shouting at it. The purple sludge self-ignited. Aware of my priorities, I run outside and start gathering all traces of our smoking; dog ends, matches, ash. Having cleaned up, I look for a fire extinguisher, find one, drag it to the machine, which is now completely engulfed in flames with foul, green smoke. I try to activate the extinguisher by slamming it on the concrete floor. Nothing. Eventually I get a result - a trickle of white liquid, no more than taking a leak and less powerful. No good. I look for another extinguisher, and another and finally the Croydon Fire Brigade saunters in, vigilantly wiping the sleep from their eyes.
"OK, where's the problem?", the Brigade Captain says, looking at the green smoke and purple flames.

The fire was out in a few minutes, but the Purple Machine was clearly destroyed. The rest of the factory remained untouched. The cause of the fire was never determined. But I have a theory. Claude rubbed Her the wrong way, in the wrong spot or the frequency was a bit off. Out of tricks, the machine must have self-ignited. Or Claude was smoking. One or the other.

I was sent home at 2 am. There were no buses. I had to walk.

The next week I discovered that the four hours remaining on the shift that night were docked from my pay. Not only that, while the machine was being repaired for a number months, I was put on the regular day shift and my income was halved again. The bastards!

Michal and I decided to look for another job, right there and then. We'll show them!



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© 2007 Karel Kriz and Bouncing Czech Productions