Monday, 14 October 2013

Stories On My Doorstep

Dustbin Men - More Short Story Inspiration

Two weeks ago I wrote a blog post about memory and how sounds, smells and images can spark them. The post was called 'The Spark That Ignites The Memory' and a lot of people commented on it. Several readers were particularly taken with the example of the milkman and the sound that sparks the memory of what was once a trademark sound of early morning in Great Britain. 'The chink of bottles somewhere in the early morning traffic haze,' as I put it in one of my early flash stories. One of these readers was my cousin. She commented that it would be nice if I wrote something about Dustbin Men. I told her she had won this week's 'Request a Blog-post Competition,' and that I would write it this week. So here it is:

Although milk delivery has severely declined in Great Britain since I was a boy, household waste collection to the doorstep is still currently alive and well. Recycling has perhaps made the job more complicated and outsourcing perhaps has made it more of a casual labour affair, but they are still there in one form or another, making a racket in the street. I find it reassuring – heartwarming in fact. These doorstep public services provide a sense of community that is in danger of disappearing. The daily visit of the postman or post-lady is a longed-for pick-me-up for many elderly and lonely people. Their one chance to see a friendly face every morning and to exchange a few words. Yes a few words.

I am not a lonely person. Neither am I old, but I often exchange a few words with our post-lady. Her name is Mandy. She has the happiest face and the cheeriest of dispositions. She's very energetic and wears shorts in summer – a little distracting for some customers, but only in a positive sense. Once or twice I have got her to slow down and chat on the doorstep for a couple of minutes. I asked her about her job.
"I had a friend when I was younger who got a job as a postman," I said. "It was less money than he'd been earning on a factory production line, he told me, but he didn't care. He absolutely loved it. He loved chatting to old ladies and popping in for cups of tea and biscuits. Their stories and their news. He loved helping people out – reaching things off a kitchen shelf for them or opening a stiff jar, and he loved being finished early when other people were only just at work."

"Oh those days have long gone," Mandy said. "They time us now, you know. We can't stop and chat, and as for going in for tea – forget it! It would be impossible. Once we've finished our round we have to go to the sorting office and work the rest of our shift there."

I told her I thought this was very sad. Not just for her. The community was biggest the loser. Especially the old and lonely or people struggling with problems and nobody to tell. In the past the Postie was the person who would notice a vulnerable person with a problem and alert a neighbour, their family or Social Services. I am in no doubt, a valuable service has been lost; not to mention the loss of job satisfaction and the people who left the job because of that change. How unbelievably stupid of us to allow this to happen.

In an effort to salvage something from these lost times perhaps, I often use scenarios surrounding these public service workers as inspiration for short stories. I only need to think of a postman delivering mail to spark memories and very soon I have a story. You can find a story featuring a post-lady in my book "Special Treatment and Other Stories." It's called Topolino and is about a man paralysed by a construction site fall, who is constantly trying to chat-up his pretty post lady, and yes, the post-lady is inspired by Mandy.

Image courtesy of

Dustbin men never had time to call in for a cup of tea in my recollection. They were always in a rush. But they were a part of that same community of essential workers. In the past, like postmen, someone might have remained a dustman all their working life – Eliza's father in the film version of My Fair Lady, comes to mind. They would have been known by most of the local people on their round. They were public servants, doing a job that most of us would not be prepared to do and for that they were afforded a certain amount of respect. These days the job tends to be done by contract workers; often recent immigrants who can't find other work and who leave when they find a more pleasant job. Local people don't know who they are. Invariably they are just people to complain about for leaving a mess. For these reasons they mostly have little pride in their work. My cousin has a vivid memory of the dustmen of old, and it is a memory shared by me.

I lived in various places around the world as a child and would come home to the seaside town of Folkestone in Kent for holidays. It was my father's home town so many of my relatives lived there. One Christmas in heavy snow, I was playing at my cousin Pamela's house. I was around ten years old and she seven, I think. I was a bit of an adventurer (troublemaker). We asked her mum (my aunt) if we could go out to play in the snow. We put on gloves, coats and boots and went into the garden. A snowball fight began. Pamela was tough and determined for a little girl but I felt unkind using her for target practice. I was looking around for something else to aim at when we noticed the dustcart coming along Brockman Road. Quickly I encouraged Pam to help make an arsenal of snowballs and line them up behind the wall. By the time the dustcart reached her house we must have had thirty or more. As the dustmen slithered about on the icy pavements with the old-fashioned metal dustbins on their shoulders, they were suddenly assailed by well aimed snowballs, causing one or two of them to drop their bins, spilling all manner of disgusting garbage over themselves and the street. It didn't take the dustmen long to work out what was happening. Leaving their work, they formed a small attack force and rushed the garden, flushing us out from behind the wall.

Climbing over the back wall and escaping into a neighbour's garden, the two of us frantically set about making more snowballs.
"If we go through to the front of this house, we'll be able to surprise them when they come into that next street," I said.
Hearing the large dustcart rounding the corner, we poked our heads above the front hedge. There they were with their heavy leather jerkins, (most binmen wore them) bins on shoulders, faces red with the cold and a previous pelting. We waited until the right moment, when they were in close range. All of a sudden the men were startled by the animal screams of two small children armed with a dozen hard packed snowballs, pelting them for all they were worth then scarpering to safety over the back wall. The dustmen re-grouped and began to give chase, hurling their own snowballs in reply and calling out after us.
"We'll get yer, you little buggers!"
Women came out of the houses to see what was going on.
"Make them clean up the bloomin' mess too when you catch 'em!" shouted one of the women.

Image courtesy of

All along the street and into several neighbouring streets these guerrilla tactics were followed. The dustmen suffered badly but never gave up. They were a match for us and hungry for the fight. Chaos reigned and bins in vulnerable areas were left unemptied. Customers became angry and joined the dustmen in trying to catch us, sure that we must be part of a large gang of troublesome youths.

"Maybe we should go home now?" said Pamela, cold and becoming fearful of the consequences.
"What! Just when we have them on the run – you must be joking?" I insisted.

Pamela was easily encouraged to continue. However, I should have got followed her instincts and got out while the going was good. As the battle progressed, the dustmen's tactics improved and they began to anticipate our sorties. Soon we found ourselves being the ones bombarded with snowballs and before long we accepted that we should retreat and live to fight another day. Arriving breathless and battered into my aunt's kitchen she asked what had been happening. Fortunately my aunt had a good sense of fun, especially where children were concerned.

"We attacked the dustmen with snowballs," we said.
"Right the way down to Victoria Grove," I said. "They were fighting back but we beat them, just Pam and me!"
My aunt smiled, before attempting a more serious face.
"But you'll get me into terrible trouble, you little monkeys! Those men have a job to do. If people's bins don't get emptied on time, who's doorstep are they going to come complaining to? You'd better get out of those clothes before the policemen arrive, otherwise they'll know it was you!"

She seemed serious. Quickly we got out of the wet clothes, boots and coats and went to play in the living room. It was about twenty minutes later when we heard the dustcart coming back along the road. Sure that they would not now recognise us, Pam and I went out into the garden to watch them sweep up what they had dropped during the initial attack. They recognised us immediately.

"Hah, we won in the end didn't we, you little buggers," they laughed.

We stood there open mouthed. Astounded to see them waving kindly to us from the back of the dustcart as they drove off.
Ah, they don't make dustmen like that anymore!

The book 'Special Treatment & Other Stories', including the Kinglake Short Story Prizewinning title story, is available via amazon.

Monday, 7 October 2013

The Travelling Storyteller

On The Road Again – A Message To My Children

I knew a boy who was from birth, lured by a life on the open road. Some of his first memories (at around 3 years old) were of sitting at his bedroom window looking out at the big wide world and planning his escape from the confines of home. Some days his mother would see him in the garden with his fingers clinging to the fence, looking. I hear she came out once and asked him what he was looking at.

"When will I be big enough to go, Mummy?" he asked her.

It was not that he was unhappy with his family. He loved them, and they him. In fact I think it was feeling so secure about home and family that gave him the confidence that he could leave it. And it was not long before he did. Much to his parents' horror, some months before his fourth birthday he set out. He had worked out how to get over the tall side gate to the house. Heart racing with excitement, he headed off up the hill with a chocolate spread sandwich and an piece of cheese wrapped in a handkerchief on a stick, just like the one he had seen in a storybook. He was not sure where he was going – just out there. After about a mile he had the idea of visiting his grandmother to tell her about the adventure upon which he was embarking. She had a great sense of adventure too and would surely not tell him off. She was pleased to see him and after about half an hour, was careful not to let him see her telephone his mother. Just as he was saying that he needed to continue on his travels, his mother arrived in a frantic state. The boy's journey was cut short and he was severely warned about the dangers of being out on his own along busy main roads at only three years old. The mother, of course, did not understand that her son was completely safe and capable. He had been planning the trip for some time.

As time progressed, the boy continued to escape - small sojourns that were a practice for the big escape. The gate having been extended in height, he resorted to crawling under the hedge. There was no holding him. The parents wondered what kind of child they had produced. Soon the boy discovered atlases, maps and children's encyclopaedias. He began listening intently to radio and television programs, learning about places he could travel to. Lying awake thinking about them at night. More thought was given to the things he needed with him and he packed a secret running-away bag. A small duffle bag. It had a front zip pocket, into which he put the odd few coins he found lying around the house. Generally when he ran away, his mother had a good idea where to look. He would usually call into the corner shop, where he was popular with the three elderly sisters who ran the place. His mother would call there first to confirm his route and time of escape. Then she would try the swings and slide at the park. If he was not there she would try his grandmother's house and after that a petrol station and car repair depot on the outskirts of town, on the London road. This was about two miles away. At three or four it was usually as far as he could get in the time before she noticed him missing from his bedroom or the garden and caught up with him. Being unable to drive in those days, this provided his mother with a good deal of exercise as well as worry. No amount of warnings would deter him. Even when told of a little girl of eight along the road, who had been killed by a lorry when sent to the greengrocers by her father, he felt not the slightest hesitation about escaping again. It was his destiny.

It may also have been destiny that protected this little boy from the perils of the road. Some would say it was simply good luck. He himself believed it was due to his careful attention to detail. He remained convinced throughout his early years that a small child could learn to be as effective as an adult at getting about safely. Nothing his parents did or said would deter him from this view or from continuing to escape from home and in the end they came to accept it as something they could not change. They bore it as an affliction, you see; regarding themselves as parents with a problem child. A 'disturbed' child, perhaps.

Eventually, after continuing to cause havoc and worry within his family, the boy reached adulthood. Free to make his own choices in life, he took time away from higher education, and then from work, to hitch-hike around his native England, before venturing further afield into Europe and then on to India and North Africa. Years of his life were spent in happy wandering through new and fascinating countries, meeting local people and sleeping under hedgerows, on beaches or in haystacks. He loved this life and put study and career ideas to one side for a number of years, in order to travel further. People he met on his travels and his friends and family back in England alike, loved to hear the stories he told of his adventures. They told him how they envied him his life, but could not bring themselves to join him on the road, for they were busy climbing the ladder.

Although the young man loved his wandering life, he knew deep inside that one day he might meet someone who would make him want to give it up, and one day that event came about. Returning from the Orient with a beautiful young woman, the young man soon channelled his sense of adventure into life with a young family, albeit taking his family during his children's early years to live in some of the countries that he had previously come to know during his travels. His children seem to delight in the stories he told them at bedtime or on long car journeys.

In middle-age, drawing upon his experience of life and people, the young man set up a business that became a big success. He became wealthy and comfortable, although he never forgot the simple things he felt were most valuable in life. As the man's children grew, they developed a similar longing for the adventure of travel. As teenagers they sometimes asked him to take them on wandering journeys on the road, but he was too busy with work. At the same time he began to find his life cluttered with possessions and responsibilities. Fortunately, however, his wife valued him for his free spirit and encouraged him to take time away from work to go wandering with his son. For a year they travelled overland together to the Orient, telling stories and drinking-in the variety of cultures and landscapes. The man realised that this was the true purpose of his life. The sense of destiny he had felt as a small boy flooded back and when they returned home he put commerce to one side. Travel, wandering, sleeping out under the stars and storytelling became his purpose again.

And so it was that a sense of happiness and calm became the true reward of this man's life. His life had followed a long and eventful circular journey, rather in the same way that his physical wanderings had. He had set out full of enthusiasm with a singular focus. He had encountered obstacles along the way, causing him to divert in another direction. But he had learned from mistakes. He had overcome difficulties that had made him stronger and wiser, and eventually he had come to reap the rewards of his efforts. Now that his children had grown-up, he was encouraged by his wife to take her on wandering journeys with him and to write down the stories that previously had lived only in his head. Sometimes his adult children joined them. No longer did he feel he needed to choose between a life with his family and a life on the road.
And the stories? The stories came forth from his mind like a river in full flood. Stories he had been telling for years as well as new stories, gathered from the memories of his life and the people he had met along the way. People were moved by the stories, and he was happy. Happy to be back out there, on the road again.

Hold on tight to your dreams.

Picture courtesy of www.nocaptionneeded