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Don’t let it kill you…


35 or so years ago, after some years of training, I was sent to high schools and colleges and universities and prisons to service their sewing machines. I’d go with Tony and Paul and Vincent and Fred, our mechanics of various times. Three or four times a week we used to visit these places and service up to 20, or 30 or 40 machines a time and so in some weeks we’d service a 100 or more sewing machines. I had a great time with those guys and they taught me a lot including how to fly fish – thanks Fred.

Slowly and surely the guys retired or went on to start their own businesses etc. So I ended up travellling to all the schools and colleges etc. on my own.
Our area was Greater Manchester which took in Manchester, Salford, Bury, Bolton, Tameside, Stockport, Trafford and Rochdale. I serviced hundreds and hundreds of sewing machines, mainly Berninas and Singers with some Pfaffs, Newhomes, Janomes, Elnas and others.

Most of the high schools I visited were pleasant enough and I’d set up camp in a corner of a classroom and work away for a morning or afternoon. The bigger schools took a full day, sometimes two.
The kinder teachers ensured I got a cup of tea or coffee and some even offered a slice of cake. Some of the schools were quite grand and parents had to pay heavily to send their children to them.
Some of the schools were horrible and the staff and the students just as bad. The worst was a school where the students threw bricks at me and my van. I did the work and sent the invoice and was paid but they are now on my excommunicated list a position they share with just 8 other schools over a 37 year period – so not all bad.

I met many ‘needlework teachers’, as they used to be called, and made some nice friends – even married one of them. But some were absolute horrors and walked about with permanent scowls on their faces no doubt hating their job and their lives and making damned sure it was just as unbpleasant for everyone else they met.

One teacher always sticks in my mind, we’ll call her Mrs E.
Mrs E worked at a small school and most of the students were quite boisterous but generally ok. Mrs E was quite small and slight and she never ever stopped laughing. I imagined she woke up laughing and later on drifted off to sleep chuckling to herself.
She would laugh all day long but she did have a serious side. Let any student step out of line and she could freeze them to the spot from across any classroom – admonish the child and then continue with the hilarity.
I liked her a lot and we got on well.

In the early days many of the teachers I met also seemed to dress in a similar way – Shampoo and set hairdo, a plain cotton or silk blouse – buttoned to the neck, thank you – teamed with a good quality pleated wool or cotton skirt to the mid-calf. Stockings and a nice plain sensible shoe for standing and walking in all day long. Jewellery to a minimum and, if it should be worn, a plain coloured nail varnish. Hardly any perfume and if so something very conservative and nothing to set any pulses racing. Got that?, lovely.

The business of visiting all girls schools was usually always embarrasing for yours truly – painfully shy, quite naive, covered in acne and a frizz of my dear mothers Irish hair. I resembled a pepperoni pizza with a brillo pad on top. A girl would tease and I’d go red as hell which made the whole combo even worse. One day, driving back from a school and listening to the radio, a girl sang a sad song about learning the truth at 17 and I knew what she meant – but we shall move on.

We started to get calls from the merseyside area and before too long I was flying all over Liverpool and beyond. I was always passing John Lennons old house and almost every time there would be a group of sightseers standing about and taking photos – and wondering.
Anyway, some of these schools were enormous and far bigger than any I’d seen before.
One day I was booked to visit one of these larger schools and, being a stickler for timekeeping, I turned up on the dot of 9:30am as arranged.

The hallway of this school for girls was very grand and there were lots of pillars and plaster cornices and mouldings. Along one wall was a line of oak boards displaying the names, in gold, of past students and teachers of note. I presented myself at the secretarys office and was asked to wait for Miss J.
A few moments later Miss J appeared and introduced herself and we shook hands and then I followed her down a corridor. There were even more ‘boards of achievement’ lining the walls as we walked. We reached Miss J’s room and she opened the door and ushered me in. The room was very neat and very tidy and there were no students in at the time. Miss J was extremely well spoken and in every repsect, a lady. She was not exactly a young woman had a beautiful smile and she dressed plainly, but well.

I set to work servicing the group of about 20 Berninas, mainly 801’s, 807’s and the odd 830. I’d remove all the covers and check the motors and the brushes and the foot controls and the leads and clean the raceways and check the belts and balance the tensions then lubricate and then test sew each one of them.
Miss J sat at her desk her desk marking her books, back very straight legs folded at the knee and very prim and very proper and very quiet. A bell rang and she rose from her desk and asked if I’d care for a cup of tea and I said I would – thank you.
Later, when I’d finished servicing the machines I gave my report to Miss J about the state of her Berninas and said goodbye and just as I was leaving the room a bell rang again and suddenly, from the many doors that lined the long corridor, out spilled hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of girls. Shouting and screaming and singing and shoving – it was hometime. I found an empty room and ducked in and waited for the tide to ebb.

I visited Miss J again about a year later and this time her room was full of girls. The room was in riot and though Miss J, who was obviously at her wits end, was shouting at the girls to behave, they took no notice. I stood in the doorway to her room and looked at Miss J and she at me and I could see the pain of embarrassment in her eyes. I spent a morning in the classroom and the girls were vile and obscene and very cruel. Finally it was lunchtime and the girls left Miss J and I alone although their din seemed to ring in my ears for another five minutes or so.

It was about ten minutes later that Miss J came over to me and apologised for the behaviour of her girls. I told her that she had no reason to apologise. Miss J then told me how old she was and I was suprised because she was quite a bit older than she looked. She explained that she had worked at the shool for nearly 40 years and in her time the school had gone from being a shining beacon of manners and acvhievement to an absolute disgrace. This obviously had a very bad effect on Miss J.
I often found in visiting so many hundreds of schools over so many years that teachers would often confide in me about the way they felt about the school and the staff and the students. Probably because I was an outsider and a stranger and could tell no tales in the classroom or the staffroom. Or, despite everything, maybe I had a trustworthy face.

I visited the school again a year or two later. Miss J greeted me warmly and shook my hand and seemed happy to see me. I was always happy to see her. She was, for me anyway, a lady of distinction and well, manners maketh man, and all that.
Miss J warned me that she would be teaching a particularly challenging class that morning and that I should brace myself. Brace was an understatement. About half an hour in I had been invited by two of the girls to, ahem, do whatever I liked with them – only they didn’t say that. This opened the floodgates and soon the girls were in uproar and nothing that Miss J did or said made the slightest difference. She left the room and a few moments later she returned with a male member of staff. A tall and chubby chap and he bellowed at the top of his lungs for silence. The silence came but the shock of it started the girls giggling and the giggles turned to full blown laughter. Suddenly one of the girls shouted out a name at the chubby teacher, which I won’t repeat, and the class sank into demented chaos. Miss J and the male teacher politely asked me to leave and I did so, all too willingly.
A few years passed and one day I took a call from a lady who introduced herself as a friend of Miss J.
She explained that Miss J would very much like to see me and if, next time I was in the area, would I care to drop by her home for tea and a chat. I replied that I would be delighted to do so and I took down the address details.

So a few weeks later I straightened my tie and brushed back the frizz and knocked on Miss J’s door. It was opened by a lady who introduced herself as the one who had made the phone call. She invited me in and I stepped into a very smart house indeed. The lady showed me down the hallway and into a large sitting room. Good quality carpets, wallpaper and curtains – all in pale green and cream pastel shades. I spotted Miss J sat in an armchair with her back to me. The friend invited me to take a seat on a large green dralon couch and I did so. The couch was covered in expensive cushions covered in floral embroidery. I sat and faced Miss J and noticed straight away that something wasn’t quite the same about her. Her eyes were strange and when she spoke she did so rather slowly.

We began chatting and she explained how over the last few years the school and the behaviour of the girls had become all too much for her to bear. She had carried on at the school because of her sense of duty but now she could carry on no longer. We drank tea from her china cups and saucers and picked biscuits from her china piece plates, and in a corner a clock tick-tocked and the afternoon sun picked out motes as they sailed across the room.
She continued and explained that she had suffered a serious nervous breakdown and was under the doctor and on strong medication. Her friend, sat on another arnchair, gave me a slight nod and a smile.
I stayed for over two hours and we chatted and had the odd small laugh and then Miss J looked tired and it was time for me to go. I shook Miss J’s hand and she placed a gentle kiss on my cheek and we wished each ther well and then the friend showed me to the door and thanked me for coming.
I never saw Miss J again and never went back to the school.

These days I’m sat in my office and I don’t go out to schools anymore like I once did. I do travel all over the UK helping people set up their embroidery businesses with the Broother PR655. I work on our online presence and our mail order catalogues etc.
I organise our mechanics, Shahid and Luke, to call and collect machines from schools to be serviced in our workshop and I speak to many teachers on the phone and lots of them come into our store for a chat.

Sometimes they tell me about the problems they face at school and I always tell them – ‘don’t let it kill you’.

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