I approached the summer holidays with dread. Every year, six weeks off school meant six weeks free to pitch in and help at my dad’s warehouse. I helped to pack orders, counting out reams of paper, preparing them and ticking them off on the order sheet; talked cricket and Hindi movies with my uncles; and counted the days until school started again. The warehouse was filled with boxes. There was no adherence to any health and safety. The fire exit was blocked by a stack of flattened boxes we kept in case we ever needed them. Piles of boxes ran up high, nearly touching the ceiling. Boxes spilled into the office till they became a permanent fixture and Dad and Kaka, my father’s younger brother, stopped taking meetings on site because the office ended up being more storage space.
While friends went on holiday, went to the park, completed Street Fighter 2 for the 30th time or hung around Harrow town centre listening to rap records in Our Price or being dickheads in St Ann’s shopping centre, I was packing orders, counting paper, ticking the order sheet. I was eating thepla and carrot pickle on white plastic plates and listening to Sunrise Radio. I was taking regular breaks to “read books ready for September”, when in reality I was reading Spider-Man comics. And in September, when we all shared stories of our amazing summers, I got to talk about a particularly good jacket potato I got from the caff on the industrial estate, because on Fridays there was no thepla and no carrot chutney.
My wife is a teacher, and I can see her counting down the time to the six-week break from almost the start of the school year. The summer holidays herald, for her, a chunk of time to recuperate, catch up with herself, not have to mark anything, and see people. I still view them as time to work.
The first time we went on a family holiday, I was 16. We went to Rhodes, and with all the freedom we had – to sit on beaches and do nothing, eat ice creams, read for pleasure, openly, something that wasn’t a textbook – I think we were bored. A week later I found myself back in the warehouse, following the same patterns, and I was instantly more comfortable.
While I packed orders, I entered my own make-believe world. I stood at the front, near the shutters. The warehouse wasn’t big but it was chaotically full, which afforded me pockets of invisibility. I stood with the broom handle pretending to be Michael Jackson and singing; or Prabhu Deva, apparently a teacher of Jackson, as he pulsated and jerked his body around impossibly to “urvashi, urvashi, take it easy policy”.
I was in a detective show, every now and then. I was deep undercover, posing as a warehouse worker in a family-run business. The family was using gift-wrapping paper to smuggle drugs around the country. I was investigating, but I was in too deep because I’d made friends with the family and realised that while they were engaged in severely criminal activities, actually they had hearts of gold, and were just trying to make ends meet. They were just middle men and it was the top boss blackmailing them into moving his products I had to investigate. But in order to protect this family that had taken me in as its own, I kept my identity a secret. I had hidden a radio on the mezzanine floor of the warehouse, stashed among the boxes of dead stock. When I was alone in the warehouse, I’d imagine the sensors were on, meaning I couldn’t touch the ground and I had to get from the front, near the shutters, to the stairs, up to the mezzanine to radio the sarge, without alerting anyone to my presence. This meant jumping from pallet to pallet, using stacks of boxes to balance on, creeping, clutching on to high shelves as I shimmied along the bottom one, and at the last jump, hanging on to the metal joist holding up the makeshift mezzanine floor and having it support my weight for a vital few seconds as I swung safely on to the stairs. I don’t know why the stairs didn’t have sensors like the rest of the place, but that didn’t matter.
Being bored in the warehouse, summer after summer, cultivated my imagination. If I was stealing moments among the boxes reading illicit comics, or if I was acting out scenes from a film that would never get made, or just learning the value of hard work while talking rubbish with my uncles, I don’t begrudge those lost summer holidays in the warehouse. They made me. They secured my bond with my family. And they kept me busy.
Still, I’m looking forward to going away on holiday next week.