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.

1 comment:

  1. Yes. I most definitely think they deserved a cup of tea.