Authors: Sam Hay
âWelcome to Piddler's, lad,' he said, delightedly. âI'm Ernie Moon, the foreman.'
His face actually looked like a moon, or perhaps more like a big bowl of porridge: cream-coloured and slightly lumpy. For a second I had a sudden panic that my face might become like that if I spent too much time at Piddler's.
Ernie winked at me. âSo, Albert, are you ready to taste the wonderful world of porridge?' He grinned mischievously.
âThen follow me!'
And we were off, down the concrete path and heading for the huge wooden doors at the front of the factory.
I'm not sure what I expected to see. But it wasn't what we found. Through the doors, a small lady was sitting behind an enormous empty desk, and she was knitting.
âThis is Margery, our receptionist.'
The lady smiled. But didn't stop knitting.
Past Margery, we followed Ernie down a long, dark corridor, then up three flights of stairs and down several more dusty old corridors.
Everything looked ancient and broken (a bit like our house); there were giant holes clawed out of the walls, as though someone had started DIY and then given up. It was also a haven for bugs. Woodlice clung to the stairs. Beetles scuttled in the dirt. And cobwebs wound themselves around the banisters and light fittings. (Needless to say Mum's eyes were like pies.)
Eventually, we came to a big brown door.
âThis was your uncle Percy's office,' said Ernie. âI thought you might like to see it again, Timmy.'
Dad mumbled something I couldn't quite hear, and Ernie just smiled a sad sort of a smile. Then he unlocked the door and heaved it open.
Mum gasped. I jumped. And even Dad swallowed hard. Because there, standing staring at us in all his old-boned glory, was Percival Piddler himself.
Of course it wasn't
him. After all, he'd been dead for some time. Can you imagine the smell?
No. Probably best not to.
It was his
. A life-sized picture of the man, taking up almost an entire wall of his office. Actually, he looked just like my dad â a well-ironed ancient version of Dad â as though Dad had finally grown out of bugs, had a decent haircut and taken up carpet bowls. Not that any of those things seemed to have made âDad' happy, because the man's expression was exceedingly stern.
It was quite unnerving, as though the old boy was watching us, judging us, and quickly deciding we weren't up to the job of running his business. I quite expected him to step off the wall and shoo us all out of the factory.
But of course he didn't.
Dad frowned. âDid Uncle Percy still come to work each day? I mean, right up until the endâ¦'
âNever missed a day,' said Ernie grimly. âUntil he decided to go on that final holiday â mountain climbing in the Alps, it was. A strange choice for a man of his age â¦ and then when we heard he'd fallen off a mountain and broken his neck. Well, it was a shock to say the least.'
I gulped. I'd never met anyone who was dead before. I stared up at the scary old portrait and Uncle Percy's eyes seemed to stare right back at me. I shivered and moved closer to Dad.
Ernie sighed. âUntil he died, he practically lived here at Piddler's. That was his bed over there.'
Sure enough, under the window was a rather uncomfortable-looking camp bed, still made up with corrugated-iron sheets.
âBut why?' I gasped. âWhy would anyone want to sleep in their office? Was he too poor to have a house?'
Ernie shook his head and smiled sadly. âNo, lad, though you're right in some ways. The business has fallen on very hard times. Half the factory is empty now. We don't make as much porridge as we used to. But that's not why your great uncle Percy slept here. He was a driven man. He was searching for somethingâ¦'
I wanted to ask
, but Dad coughed and asked
Ernie to show us the rest of the factory.
I noticed Dad's smile was missing again. And it wasn't the only thing. Mum had also disappeared. But there was no time to mention it, because Ernie was off â leading us out of the office, down the corridor, across a landing, and down more stairs. And then suddenly I heard a distant rumble of thunder from beneath my feet.
Ernie grinned. âOld Bertha's awake.'
âThe generator, Albert,' said Dad managing a slight smile. âIt powers the factory. She's known by everyone as Old Bertha.'
I eyed Dad suspiciously. He'd obviously hung out at Piddler's a lot â so why hadn't he told me anything about it?
âNow then, Albert,' said Ernie. âThrough here is the changing room. We'll get you kitted up, and then you can come and see what we actually do.'
I was bundled into overalls, a hairnet, white wellies and a ridiculous-looking hat. Thank God no one from school could see me. Dad looked even dafter than me, but I didn't get a chance to tell him because now Ernie had heaved open another big door and suddenly I found myself being suffocated to death by the pungent perfume of porridge.
It stinks. Honestly, it does. When you get up close and personal with an enormous pot of porridge, the smell knocks your spots off. For a few seconds I thought I might keel over and have to be carried out by a gang of porridge workers. But gradually my lungs started working again, and my nose began to acclimatise. I noticed Ernie and my dad breathing deeply; gulping in large gobfulls of the stuff.
I looked around. The factory was weird. I've seen plenty of those âthrough the round window' sort of kids' telly programmes â where they show you how they put the goo inside a cream egg, or get the bristles onto a toothbrush. There's always loads of machinery involved. Not here. Though there
a conveyor belt. Hundreds of shiny tins were merrily bobbing their way along it, now approaching what I reckoned must be called the âbig blobber', because every second or so it would squirt a big blob of grey gunk into each tin.
Directly above the big blobber was a platform with a giant metal cauldron in the middle, where two enormous workers stood stirring the contents mechanically.
And that was it. That was the extent of the industrial revolution as experienced by staff at Piddler's.
Actually, I'm fibbing. There was one final process. Once the blobbed tins reached the end of the conveyor belt, a large metal hammer thing bashed each one on the head, hammering on a lid I supposed. Then a big bloke with even bigger arms than Ernie, gathered up the tins and carried them to a table where more workers sat, sticking labels on them.
It was like something out of the Dark Ages. Where were the mechanical robots that could stick on a hundred labels a second? Where were the huge industrial ovens mixing up the food, controlling the temperature, and making sure every tin was exactly the same? And, hey, since when did anyone eat porridge from a tin anyway?
This last point I put to Ernie, though I had to shout it out over the din of the clanking tins.
Ernie grinned. âIt's actually quite popular,' he yelled back. âWe have customers all over the world.'
I was shocked. There was a whole global community of tinned-porridge guzzlers that I knew nothing about.
âWe make three types of porridge,' yelled Ernie enthusiastically. He reached into a pallet and produced a tin.
, I read.
âThat's our bog-standard brand,' shouted Ernie. âIt does what it says on the tin.'
He selected another. âThis one's more special. It's our luxury brand.'
Piddler's Premium Porridge â thick and creamy
âFit for a king, that is,' he shouted, winking at me.
I smiled politely. (It was almost as bonkers as the world of bugs.)
âAnd this is my favourite,' he boomed, selecting another.
Piddler's Prune Porridge
Prunes. And Porridge. I suddenly felt slightly queasy.
âLook!' yelled Ernie. âThey're switching to prune nowâ¦'
I watched as yet another gang of enormous porridge workers heaved a new cauldron up onto the gantry above the big blobber. And suddenly the bobbing tins were being filled with purple goo instead of grey.
It was mad â handmade tinned porridge â the factory was truly loopy. But I liked it. Honestly. I did.
I've no idea why, but as we left the porridge room I couldn't stop smiling. Secretly, I'd quite like to have snuck back inside and stirred the porridge myself a few times, or even stuck on a few labels. I imagined myself growing arms like tree trunks and developing a taste for premium brands of Piddler's.
The smell had obviously got to me; addled my brain, or something. Because before today, I'd always thought porridge was about as exciting as a pair of beige trousers. Not now. Suddenly it seemed â¦ well â¦ sort of cool.
As I took off my overalls, I peered down at my wrists and wondered whether it was my Piddler blood that was making me feel this way. Whatever it was, I felt a bubble of excitement in my belly. Perhaps that was Dad's trouble, too. Because he was strangely silent. Even Ernie didn't say much as he led us back to reception.
And then suddenly it came out: âSo, Timmy,
what do you say? Are you going to stick around and see us through?'
Dad shuffled his feet and tugged on his tie. (Bug men don't generally wear ties.)
âWell, I'm not sure, Ernie. I mean, it's great here and you guys do a brilliant job, of courseâ¦' He swallowed nervously a few times, and tugged at his tie some more. âBut as you probably remember, I'm not really keen on porridge, or business, and I think it would be better if we were to sell the firm to someone more â¦ capable.'
What was he on about? How could Dad sell the factory? We'd only owned it five minutes.
I was about to shout when suddenly the front doors burst open and a small group of smartly dressed people appeared. The bloke at the front spotted Dad and made a beeline straight for us, totally ignoring Margery the receptionist.
âAhhh! The Grubs, I presume,' said the man, a towering beanpole. He beamed broadly and stabbed a pin-thin arm at Dad.
As they shook hands, I noticed Ernie gave him a serious scowl. And for some reason I felt like giving him one, too.
âMy name's Snoodle â Smedley Snoodle from Snoodle's Noodles.'
It sounded like a riddle.
I wanted to reply, I'm Albert Grub, rub-a-dub-dub. But somehow I didn't think he'd laugh. And anyway, he wasn't the slightest bit interested in me.
âI'm your neighbour,' said Smedley, clapping my dad on the back and smiling like a crocodile. âMy noodle factory is next door.'
Dad smiled. But Ernie didn't. I could see the hairs on his enormous arms bristling crossly. And then suddenly a small klaxon went off inside my brain.
Snoodle's Noodles. SNOODLE'S NOODLES? They were the finest instant noodles in the world!
I loved them. All five flavours â
Steak and Kidney Pie
Chicken and Chips
and, my personal favourite,
Kebab 'n' Ketchup
. They were great. You stuck them in the microwave and they were ready in seconds. My sort of food. And here, standing in front of me, was the man who made them. I was speechless. I wanted to blurt out how much I enjoyed his noodles, but he was too busy grilling Dad to notice my excitement.
âI heard from old Piddler's solicitor that you were coming here today,' said Smedley, looking around disdainfully. âAwful, isn't it? I mean, they try hard, but they're living in the past.'
Ernie's eyes narrowed.
Smedley looked closely at my dad. âIf you don't mind me saying, Grub, you're not a porridge man, are you?'
No one could argue with that.
âAnd I'd also say â forgive me if I'm wrong â that you're not actually a business bod, either.'