My father was buried in a cardboard coffin. Very eco-friendly, said the people round our street; rolling their eyes in shock and surprise. The people round our street are a bit traditional: coffins should be made out of wood, and there should be only one funeral car for the immediate family – two cars is considered uncouth. The women always wear their black dresses for funerals, and the men wear their black suit and tie, which they use for weddings and christenings too; and job interviews – even job interviews at the factory.
They came to the funeral with faces as dark as their clothing. And after the funeral they came to the house and left crumbs of food on the carpet and beer stain rings on the top of the coffee table. And if the coffin had still been there they would probably have left beer stain rings on the top of that too. Everyone said what a fine man my dad had been.
“He was a nice, quiet man,” said Mrs Thomas, who lived three doors away. “Always smart and tidy, and very punctual. I would see him every week-day at four forty-five walking back from work: straight-backed, walking like a guardsman. Was he in the army long before he started at the factory?”
“Oh, a few years,” I lied. If only she knew.
And after the get-together at the house, Mrs Thomas and the rest of the street went back to their houses and put away their black dresses and suits, ready for the next wedding, christening or funeral. Or job interview.
As my old pal, Bill Shakespeare, once said: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” But he was a great man, so he must have been thinking about himself. For the rest of us, the old joke by my old pal, Joseph Heller, stands true: “Some are born mediocre, some achieve mediocrity, and some have mediocrity thrust upon ’em.” And so it was with my father. He wasn’t born on a great landed estate, with a silver spoon in his mouth and servants attending his merest whim; he was born in a back-to-back terrace, to parents who provided him with the minimum amount of clothing, and sufficient food to prevent him from dying of starvation; and for five years he attended a school that was mediocre – in even those mediocre times. And he came out of school with enough knowledge to read and write and add up small sums, and he went straight into work.
And he never joined the army.
When he married my mother, who was also more Heller than Shakespeare, they came to live on the street. Shortly before he married he had been successful in getting a job at the factory – which is where he stayed for the rest of his life. He quickly settled at the lowest rung of the promotional ladder and – apart from a brief burst of untypical success, by getting promotion to the cutting and folding division after three years – stayed on the factory floor at Hobson’s Cardboard And Corrugated Packaging Company. After three years he said goodbye to the smell of the glueing section and said hello to the noise and dust of the cutting and folding division. And for the remaining forty-five years that he worked there, his working life was a giant stack of brown cardboard, waiting to be cut and folded into shape – and a smaller stack of brown cardboard that had been cut and folded into shape.
The job did have its perks though: cardboard.
After eighteen months of starting work in the cutting and folding division, a small amount of Shakespeare’s ‘greatness’ must have settled – like cardboard dust – on my father’s head. A ‘eureka moment’ – like the ‘eureka moment’ of a man jumping out of a bath and inventing an overflow pipe – occurred to my father: he would take home some of the cardboard. So, punctually, at four-thirty every week-day for the next forty-two years, he left the factory gates and walked home with a stack of cardboard concealed up the back of his shirt, underneath his black suit – with a ramrod-straight back, like the guardsman that he never was.
Our house was built of cardboard; not the walls and roof, you understand – the rain would have turned it into a soggy mess – but most of the interior was made of cardboard. The dining table and chairs were made out of cardboard; the wardrobes and sideboards were made out of cardboard; the settee was made out of cardboard. In the parlor, the coffee table (the one with the beer stain rings on it) was made from cardboard – paint and varnish provided the finish. If Father had somehow managed it, he would have made the fridge, washing machine and cooker out of cardboard.
When my elder brother and me came along, even our beds were constructed from cardboard. Wetting the bed was a real problem.
Growing up, I received cardboard toys – for birthdays and Christmas – enclosed in solid cardboard boxes. I wore cardboard hats, and had to wear my older brother’s cast-off cardboard shoes and cardboard Wellingtons.
Have you ever tried kicking a cardboard football round a wet, muddy park, in cardboard football boots? It can affect your life.
Greatness, it seems, would not be thrust upon my older brother. When he grew up and left school he would be destined to work at the factory – Father had already made inquiries on his behalf. I, in my thoughts, rebelled. I didn’t want a life of cardboard: I wanted to achieve greatness; I wanted to be a writer.
I kept these thoughts to myself.
When the time came for me to leave school, I broke the news to my father. He took the news well – he was never one to rant and rave. “Well if things don’t work out, Arthur,” he said, “you can always come and work at the factory.” I left home and took on a series of short-term, poorly-paid jobs – working unsocial hours – ideal for a starving young artist. In the social hours, while the rest of the world was working and living their normal lives, I would clack away at my typewriter, drowning out the sound of my empty, rumbling stomach.
My first novel was brilliant: a sweeping historic epic – over eight hundred pages long; all eight hundred pages packed with well-rounded characters, marvelous dialogue and gripping action – but nobody wanted to publish it: too long, they said.
My second book was a tight, detective novel – only one hundred and fifty pages long. A dark tale with an intricate, intriguing puzzle which only my detective, Steven Leuth – and the cleverest of readers – would be able to unravel. But nobody wanted to publish it: too short, they said, and nobody would believe that the panda did it.
While I was juggling my work-time, washing dishes at a restaurant with shoveling up the animal muck at a non-traveling circus, I found time to write a two hundred and sixty page novel about cannibals in the Amazon jungle – too gory, they said.
Working at the sexual health clinic on Infatuation Lane (somebody has to clean those little plastic bottles), I conceived a hundred and thirty page romantic novella. I cried tears of abject sadness while I was writing the first hundred and twenty-eight pages, but tears of joys overtook me when the heroine finally got her man at the end of the story. Try Mills And Boon, someone advised. Mills And Boon rejected it: they don’t like STDs in their stories.
I was beginning to lose faith: perhaps I would have cardboard thrust upon me?
In a way, I did have: sandwiched between two boards of card, as a sandwich board man on a busy High Street, I advertised for a firm of No Win, No Fee accident claim lawyers. I was two-thirds of the way through my fantasy trilogy about elves and dwarves when I was knocked down by a bus. During the seven weeks I spent recuperating in the hospital, I knocked off a full-blown drama series for television about staff and patients at a hospital’s Accident and Emergency department. When they told me it had already been done, I decided to complete my fantasy trilogy, but this was rejected too: It’s already been done, they said.
The blow to the head from the bus accident must have sprinkled a small amount of Shakespeare’s ‘greatness’ on me – I had a small ‘eureka moment’. I decided that I was going to publish and print my own books. Not only that – my real ‘eureka moment’ – I would give them titles, very similar to the titles of famous books, so that people would buy them by mistake – thinking they were buying the originals.
I had to be careful though: careful not to fall foul of the law. So I wrote War And Peace. But my War And Peace was by Lego Toyshop. Anyone complaining that they had been duped would be shown the name of the author.
I wrote Lady Chatterley’s Hoover by D.H. Eastwood, ‘..a tale of domestic appliances during the interwar years..’ Then I decided to thrust my greatness onto the world when I wrote Gone With The Wind ‘…Scarlet O’Haha is troubled with trapped wind “down South” but a visit to a pharmacist provides quick and lasting relief… I quickly followed this up with Wind In The Willows by Graham Kennet-Canal, a tale of ‘…Frog, who is suffering from trapped wind in the wild woods near Frog Hall…’ And then I revisited and rewrote my elves and dwarves trilogy and renamed it Lord Of The Rings by J.R.R. Toll-Booth – a story about a campanologist called Gabings O’Ford.
The cost of printing all of these books had a serious effect on my finances, especially as there was no money coming in because there were no sales. In fact I was unable to find enough short-term, poorly-paid jobs – working unsocial hours – to pay for it. In desperation, I returned home and received a warm welcome. Like the Prodigal Son, my father agreed to take me back in and find me work.
And so that’s how I found myself working at the Hobson’s Cardboard And Corrugated Packaging Company. I had to start off at the bottom of the ladder, in the pulping department. The first thing I pulped was all my unsold books.
Peter Coomber was once stared at, on a bus, by Windy Miller – one of the stars of the 1960’s t.v. programme Camberwick Green. He also loves making strange howling noises on my electric guitar, but hasn’t quite mastered the ‘putting fingers on the right bit of the fretboard and plucking the right string at the correct time’ part of it yet. Pick up his latest book Tall Short Stories at https://www.kobo.com/en/ebook/tall-short-stories