Please step back in time, 28 years to the summer of 1984
Picture the scene, sheep bleating, sea gulls squarking and the sound of my father in the bathroom shaving…….
It was just coming up to 07:56 hrs BST on July 19th 1984 and nothing much was stirring in our house apart from my father who was getting ready to go to work. You could hear him rinse his razor in the cold water every few seconds and then tap it on the side of the sink, to shake out the residue. The family was just about to hit wake up mode when my ‘baby ben’ alarm clock was about to kick in at 07:00.
That morning we didn’t hear the clocks alarm go off…….something else woke us all up instead.
I woke up, still lying in my bed, I found my myself clinging on to my bed for dear life as it was rocking from side to side. My mother was screaming “John, John…..aaargh” in the other bedroom and our plastic avocado bathroom suite was squeeking and creaking like nobodies business. My Dad shouted out ” It’s ok everyone, no need to panic, it’s only an earth tremor”.
It was the morning of the North Wales earthquake that measured 5.4 on the richter scale.
We had never experienced such an unusual event before and so it was obviously frightening. If you look at the star in the middle of that map, that was the position of the epicentre. Guess where our house was ? Right underneath that red star !
“It was the most powerful recorded in mainland Britain in the last 200 years”
We lived in a little village called Pistyll on the Lleyn Peninsula in Gwynedd overlooking Porth Dinllaen. It was a beautiful place to live but never appreciated as much when we actually lived there.
I was 16 years old and had left school as soon as I could to find work. I never liked having to sit down in a class and be told what to do all day. I had to get out and work.
During this summer I had started to work in a local fishmongers. Pheweee….did I used to stink. I then went on to do other things and eventually settled down at 17 and started work in a job at a local paint shop which I started in early 1985.
During 1985, I was working full time for a Johnstone’s Paints in the market town of Pwllheli and cycled to and from work daily, accrueing 20 miles a day of compulsory exercise.
My mother worked in wholesale administration 17 miles away in Caernarfon and my father was an accountant for the Highways department at Gwynedd County Council. My brother had already left home to seek a new life and a prosperous new future.
Basically, I was a ‘retail assistant’ at a paint shop and loved my job from the first day I started. My boss Frank, always left me in charge of the shop and every now and then came in, hit the ‘NO SALE’ button on the cash register, pull up the spring on the notes tray and lifted a few tenners to keep him going through the day. He was always dipping his hand into the till. I think he saw himself a ‘highflyer’ of a some sort but his brother who also ran the business with him, wasn’t too pleased when the cash never balanced at the end of everyday. I’m don’t think I ever got the blame for it but it did make me wonder sometimes.
To give you a picture of my role and my duties. I opened and closed the shop Monday to Saturday, I cleaned, I stocked, I rotated, I dealt with the representatives, the phone calls, the trade accounts, the dressing of the shop window, the serving of the customers and the deliveries which were downstairs, through the cellar and out the back yard. All of this done and keeping an eye on the security of the business and stopping any shoplifters, or school kids from ‘half inching’ the brooms and paint rollers from standalone baskets outside the shop window.
It was a busy job but I loved every minute of it, apart from the missing money and the takings not balancing nearly everyday. It got so bad, that something had to be done. I couldn’t let Frank’s brother think it might have been me and decided to tell him what was going on.
Frank wasn’t best pleased with me but he took it in his stride, he had a thick skin anyway and his brother let him carry on being the shop manager even though I was always doing the work. Frank did carry on taking money from the cash register but this time, he always put an IOU in as replacement. He didn’t half rack up some debt with his brother but they had come to an agreement so things settled down.
Frank had turned me into a ‘whistleblower’.
Time went on and I settled into my job as a Shop Manager at the age of 17 really well. But I need something more…..
It was now 1985, I was a very active lad, physically and mentally, and always one wanting to help others. Whatever it was in my nature, I felt the urge to pass, on good will and do things for people and I had a brainwave that year. Why not do a sponsored bicycle ride and raise some money for a worthy cause ?
I had decided to do ride my old ‘handpainted’ bicycle from North Wales to South Wales, a journey of 162 miles down to my grandparents in Cwmbran over the Christmas period. I was always full of ideas…..some a little more adventurous and testing than others, nevertheless it was a challenge and I took the idea on and started to raise money to help pay for a new ‘Scanner’ at Bangor Hospital to help cancer patients.
During my working day, not only would I carry out my paid duties, but I’d ‘promote’ my charity fundraising event to the customers coming into the shop. A lot of them would be local tradesmen that were regular customers but every so often some ‘new people’ would walk in looking for something special. Some nice ‘flock’ wall paper, or the new ‘blown vinyl’ wall paper from Graham and Brown that had just come onto the market. You know the type, you just peel it off when you want to change it and leave the backing paper still pasted to the wall. It was a revolution back then because they were starting to be produced in colours so people didn’t have to paint them either. Like ready painted ‘artex’ on a roll.
Hang on, let’s not get too excited about wallpaper here, I was just taking myself right back then and was in my element….
When things started to go downhill……
In this little shop, behind the front door was once a glass shelving cabinet which used to stock all of our ‘Sadolin’ wood treatment products. They were our dearest line and for a 5 litre of Ebony Sadolin satin finish, back then in 1985 was a whopping £54.
Well, this ‘glass’ cabinet fell foul to the rumblings and shakings of our 1984 earth tremor and some of the shelves had smashed with the tins of sadolin onboard. Luckily, none of tins had burst and had only suffered dinks and dents. But some of the shelves had smashed and still hadn’t been replaced. These half priced items had been shoved in the corner for over half a year. I wasn’t there to witness them getting damaged as I hadn’t got the job yet, but I do remember Frank, my boss, explaining to me why they were all damaged. Who could forget an earthquake ?
Hearing that I was doing a sponsored cycle ride for cancer research and the fact we sold ‘Sadolin’ products, Mr and Mrs Jones ( not their real name ) came into the shop to ‘kill two birds with one stone’. I didn’t know these people until then.
I remember the morning well. Too well in fact.
Mr and Mrs Jones walked in and approached me at the counter. I greeted them both with “Good morning, how can I help you today ?”
This ‘slightly’ aged couple were different from my usual customer and I could see in the way they were dressed, they were from a ‘wealthier’ background. Perhaps it’s not good to judge others by their appearance, but in this particular case, there was a definite ‘presence of wealth’. There again, I was only 17 years old and was brought up to respect my elders. I just hadn’t seen two people dressed so smartly before, that’s all.
They asked me about my sponsored bike ride and said they would like to help with the fundraising by sponsoring me £50.
Don’t know about you, but £50 back in 1985, was a lot of money. A bag of chips was 30p back then to give you some idea. It was an incredible amount of money and I was extremely grateful by their generosity and couldn’t thank them enough.
They were only too happy to help and no doubt had a very good reason to put in such a large amount of cash.
Now this wonderful and amazing couple who I respected before they came in through the front door went up in my estimation ten fold. These were the type of people I could never do enough for and if you remember, they had come into the shop for something else.
They also came in to buy some ‘Sadolin’, that marvellous, but VERY expensive wood treatment that was new on the market and we happen to be the exclusive stockists in the area.
I asked them what shade they wanted and had told me ‘Ebony’ was the one they wanted and in a satin finish.
I felt like I was repaying them for their good deed to me by being the only shop for miles that had what they wanted….silly I know.
Now, before I headed off to check the stock for ‘Ebony ‘ Sadolin, I took them straight to the area where our glass shelving cabinet had broken and showed them the dented tins that had been reduced to half price because of the earthquake.
We rummaged through, turning tins, lifting others, turning a few more, only to find the shade they really wanted wasn’t available in the ‘cut price bargain corner’. I was in a quandry…
These people had done everything for me and I wanted to return their good deed with one of my own. I said to them “Give me a few minutes, look after the shop, I’m popping downstairs to the cellar to check the other damaged stock we had”.
Little did they know, we didn’t have any more damaged stock in the cellar but didn’t want to arouse any suspicions.
Two minutes went by and I arrived back in the shop to find the lovely elderly couple waiting patiently for my return.
I stood behind the little shop counter and placed a large undamaged 5 litre tin of ‘Ebony’ Sadolin, onto the counter and said “I’ve found what you were looking for”.
I explained to them I had found a ‘damaged’ 5 litre tin of the very shade they wanted and were going to get it at HALF price. My plan was working……
They looked at me puzzled as to how I managed to call the tin damaged when it clearly wasn’t. There wasn’t a scratch, a dent or even a little dink on the tin and said “We can see what you’re trying to do, there’s no need to make out the tin is damaged and sell it to us at half price because we’ve come in and helped you, there’s no need to do that”. They’d rumbled me…..aaah but, I had a trick up my sleeve.
I picked up the handle of the tin in my left hand, holding the whole 5 litres on the inside of my left forearm and said “but it is damaged”
My devious plan was just about to come to fruition.
I held the tin tightly, and with my right fist, thumped the side wall of the tin to create a dent and by doing so created a large dent but then it all went sooooo wrong.
The tin ‘exploded’ in front of my eyes. This was a time in my life when I’m sure my heart stopped.
I looked up to find thick, ebony wood preservative resembling treacle sliding down Mr and Mrs Jones’ spectacles. Their hair, their faces and their clothes were dripping with what looked like thin black molasses.
I’m sure I caught the moment when I looked up and saw them both ‘gasping’ and almost ‘frozen in time’ poses. They were drenched.
I was horrified…..so were they.
Anyway, I was in shock and they both stood there dripping from head to toe.
Their spectacles were ‘coated’ and had a thick film of dark ooze draping down their lenses. A sight I will never forget.
I couldn’t apologise enough for the ‘mishap’ and being the type of people they were, ‘understood’ I was only trying to help them.
I called my boss and explained that we’d had an explosion in the shop. I told Frank that one of the damaged tins had mysteriously burst all over some customers and it would be a good idea if he came up to lend a hand as it was ‘beyond me’ what to even do next. Bearing in mind, I was only 17, I still went and filled up a large bowl of soapy water and started to help the Jones’ clean up.
Luckily, when Frank turned up. Mr and Mrs Jones ‘covered’ for me and said it was an unfortunate accident and he took them next door to ‘Bon Marche’ to get re-clothed.
Apparently, it set the business back £300 in clothes.
Frank never knew about the events leading up to this ‘accident’ and if he’s reading now, I hope it brings a smile on his face.
I continued working there for a further year and left when I found out I was being underpaid and then reported them to ACAS for using me as cheap labour. I wasn’t to know any better at that age and it was only until my mother stepped in and got involved, that I went down that route and claimed back my unpaid wages.
I bloody loved that job too but I couldn’t stay any longer, I felt I’d let them down even though they were the ones who’d let me down. Strange that….
I have sent this story to Simon Mayo on BBC Radio 2 drivetime but I guess with the amount of confessions he receives, there’s better one’s out there to broadcast. You never know, one day he might read this.
If I remember correctly, I raised £384 for a new cancer scanner at Bangor Hospital and loved every moment of fundraising, well, nearly every moment…..
Thanks for reading
Cwmbran. ( no earthquakes here yet )