Monday, 4 July 2016

The Euro Pioneer

Fifteen years ago, I worked as a service station manager for Texaco. Technically I worked for Star Service Stations Ltd, a wholly owned subsiduary of Texaco. A lengthy name, no doubt part of a tax reduction scheme. Whatever. It was for the most part the devil’s own work and I spent the best part of a decade despising my job. But the pay was quite good, so I stuck around and despised it all the way up to 2005 when I eventually had had enough and fled to Mexico.

The pay was comparatively good. The pay of the people I employed to man the tills, stock the shelves and keep things clean and orderly was not so good. It was national minimum wage plus a few token pence to ensure we weren’t an actual NMW employer. But still, this meant we filled the vacancies that regularly arose with either students, part-time housewives or the dregs of the employment barrel. Sure, they were a few good-uns. But there were plenty of scrapings from the bottom of that barrel too.

Let’s go back fifteen years ago though. I was attempting to manage one of the busiest service stations in Texaco’s four hundred strong network. Funnily enough, it sits at the end of a train station that I now pass through most days. It was early summer and things were heating up, both weather wise and business wise. And I was short on night staff. For a manager there is nothing worse than being short on night staff. Because it means, when worse comes to worse, the manager is the night staff.

I put out the adverts and waited optimistically for the rush of applicants. There was, after all, a 50p an hour premium for working nights. Who would be able to resist such riches? I received two applications. One a scrawled form picked up in store. The other arranged by the local job centre. Neither seemed very promising. But like I said, every manager’s worst nightmare was being short on nights. Providing they turned up with a heart beat and the ability to breathe sufficient oxygen to keep their hearts beating, one of these reprobates was about to strike gold.

First up was a young chap in his early 20s who had recently arrived from Yugoslavia. Svilen was his name. At the time, this was a most unusual occurance. There were next to no immigrants along the south coast. Just a few foreign language students. It was a challenging interview to say the least. I had hoped to discuss his previous working experience and to learn a little bit about himself. I might even ask him about his future ambitions, if I felt able to refrain from openly laughing at the very idea that someone applying for night shift work actually had ambition. As things transpired, it became quickly clear that speaking English was not his strongest suit, so I settled on an explanation of how to correctly conjugate the verb ‘to be’ as the main focus of the interview.

Fortunately for Svilen, the other applicant did not cover himself in glory. When asked at the end of the interview if there was anything he wished to ask about the job, he had one burning question. Was there anywhere suitable for him to go and jack up with heroin? He was one of those. Obliged by the job centre to attend the interview in order to keep his benefits. But determined not to be successful and actually get a job. It was Svilen’s lucky day. He was issued a uniform, signed the forms and put to work.

He might have appeared a bit weird and something of a misfit. But then, he was on nights. So that’s something of plus point. Misfits tend to fit in just fine on night shifts. His appearance was also a little alarming at first glance. Shaven headed, short and wiry, we couldn’t decide whether he looked like someone who had just strolled out of a concentration camp or if he in fact better resembled a serial killer. Given the situation in the Yugoslavia that he had just fled, the former was, I suppose, a possibility. So we settled on the latter and he became Svilen the Villain.

He was, in a nice way, much like a new animal in the zoo. He had to be trained from scratch, even with the most basic things and something of an object of curiosity. He tried very hard, which was essential, given that communication was such a struggle. But the others were good with him, and his trials and tribulations amused them. And he picked up the language quickly. There were some worrying moments. Like the time someone asked him for a pouch of tobacco and some skins. We feared he might produce some human hides collected from recent victims. But after a bit of pointing and gesturing, he sold them some rizlas instead.

There was also the issue of a strange aroma that he carried around with him. Some feared that he had pieces of rotting flesh in his pockets. More likely was a poor standard of personal hygiene. But he turned up on time, every time, did all the hours we gave him, worked hard and his English rapidly improved. In summer, fans were strategically placed to deflect the worst of the smell. But what more could a manager ask for? Nothing, that’s what. If only every employee could be like Svilen. But without the odour, perhaps. Other than that, he earned everyone’s respect.Svilen, it turned out, was the future. We were pioneers, Svilen and I. He wasn’t from the EU, but he still blazed a trail for the EU Europeans who followed him.