Speedy Barron had been on the bins for donkey’s and he really liked it. I mean, he really liked it, it was his vocation. He hardly ever talked about anything else. This was because he hardly ever thought about anything else. If people were talking about football, he’d always steer the conversation round to refuse collection in and around sports stadiums. Well, what he really did was back into the conversation, just like he reversed his bin wagon into the alleyways and cul-de-sacs that littered his route. He wasn’t very subtle about it. You could almost hear the warning beep-beep-beep and see the flashing yellow lights as his mouth revved up and his words started grinding out. His friends, what few friends he had, didn’t mind. But they thought he was a bit of a joke. Speedy didn’t notice though, his brain was taken up with visions of bins and bin bags, industrial sized rubbish receptacles and, on a good day, vast landfill sites that stretched as far as the eye could see. He loved the human contact that his bin round offered him, especially when people came to him with bin problems, wanting his advice on how to foil scavenging cats or how to cram more waste into a bin bag. But what he really loved was at the end of his round, when he went to offload the rubbish at the tip. He breathed in the stench like other people fill their lungs with sea air on the first day of their holidays. He puffed up with pride at the sight of all that waste, carefully chaparalled into this monument to not-wantedness...
As the years trundled by, he broke all the council’s refuse collection records, helped by the introduction of the wheelie-bin. His already ample backside started to get bigger. The arse-end of his orange work overalls started to ease away from his body, looking like a pelican’s beak, but backwards. If you went near him, which fewer and fewer people did, you could hear a groaning sound, which blended in with a whirring and clanking, a mashing sound, you could almost say. People who heard it assumed it was indigestion, that something was repeating on him, but there he was, puffing on his pipe and beaming away, no doubt lost in some refuse reverie. He never pulled a face or complained. I think his wife had had enough though, because he started puffing on his pipe at the bottom of the garden. That’s where the kids used to see him, when they were playing football. His garden came right down to the edge of the football field. All the games were peppered with a strong element of acting the goat. Goals were celebrated with a lengthy swing from the goalposts making monkey noises. This was de rigeur for goalkeepers as well, whenever the action strayed upfield. Speedy contemplated all this in silence, acknowledging the kids with a wave if they shouted to him, which was a kind of dare rather than a genuine greeting, but otherwise kept his self to his self. Most of the menfolk are like that in villages, so it didn’t strike anyone as strange. Men who talked to kids, such as teachers and the vicar, were viewed with suspicion. Speedy wasn’t like that, but he did have his idiosyncrasies. Every so often the ball would go over his fence, but he wouldn’t just chuck it back straight away. Someone had to go right the way round to the front door and ask for it nicely. Character building, he called it, much to the mystification of the local boys. Inside the house, it always smelt of dinner and coal. No one ever wanted to go, so they took it in turns. Tonight it was Tim’s turn. Reluctantly, he trotted round. Past the tall wooden fences that doubled as a climbing frame and the metal bars where children sometimes used to sit and talk and swing and do clod-hopping gymnastics. Until the bloke over the road smeared the bars with grease so he’d have more peace and quiet. It obviously wasn’t enough peace and quiet, because he eventually ran off to Kuala Lumpur with a Malaysian lady, thus breaking the village record for exotic activities, formerly held by a trip to France organised by the Top Pub. Tim jogged along the gitty, through the gate and bounded down the front garden path, which was really four or five long steps leading to the frosted glass door, which was well below the level of the gitty. There wasn’t a street, the houses had been built between streets, so they were a bit out of the way, cut off form what little movement there was in the Wensfordby. He knocked and waited. Nobody opened the door. Tim rang the bell and knocked the knocker several times in the gloom. Perhaps Speedy’s wife was out. Tim gave up after a few minutes longer than would have been generally considered wise and ran back up the path in quick leaps and round to the football pitch. The others looked scared. The twilight was gathering like a growl in the throat of a guard dog. They still didn’t have the ball and all the bravado had drained from their faces and their posture told a story of defeat. They told Tim that Speedy had just walked backwards until he reached the row of carrots where the ball had come to rest. He stood there, puffing on his pipe, smiling a gentle smile all the time. A clanking noise seemed to come from his belly, followed by a mashing of gears, a low rumbling sound and a heavy metallic slam. Still smiling, Speedy walked forwards and the ball was gone. He seemed satisfied, had the look on his face that he usually wore when he got home from work. The birds started singing again, which made everyone vaguely realise they had stopped. Now they resumed their argumentative screeching and twittering as Speedy shunted off to the back door where Tim was surprised to learn Speedy’s wife had been waiting for him with a creased brow hovering over her familiar flowery frock. It looked like the blooms on her bosom and belly were closing for the night. The streetlamps flickered on, contaminating the scene with a weak orange glow. At first Tim thought they must be joking, but the ball was nowhere to be seen and their palpable fear was contagious and expansive. They knew their mums would clobber them for making up stories, and there was no question of anyone ever confiding anything in their dad, so they resolved to keep it a secret.
Speedy’s wife had first noticed something wrong when her husband’s visits to the toilet were accompanied by a violent clanking, as if the plumbing was possessed. Speedy came out of the lavatory looking bashful and went to sit in the kitchen instead of watching Midlands Today as he usually did. Mrs Barron had to watch it on her own. She thought it was pointless with no one to talk to, just a load of boring news, none of which seemed important, so she went and sat with him in the kitchen. He didn’t say anything, so she got up again and shuffled to the sink.
“Tea?” she asked.
“Yes please, love, that’d be grand,” he answered, still gazing at the things on the window sill. Washing-up liquid, j-cloth, ceramic hedgehog in period costume. Behind them were the tops of trees, the darkening clouds. Mrs Barron busied herself tidying the already tidy kitchen until the kettle boiled. She switched it off before it clicked off automatically. She had a theory that the manufacturers were in league with the electricity board, because it always took so long to switch off, it was a damn waste of electricity. She made the tea in a pot, although Speedy normally did it straight in the cup.
“Summat’s up,” she said to him as she plonked his cup in front of him.
“What?” asked Speedy.
“You tell me.”
“How should I know? I’m not a bloody mind reader.”
“Not with me, you fool. There’s something wrong with you. Are your bowels all right?” asked Mrs Barron.
“Can’t complain,” said Speedy, “I’ve just been.”
“I know. The whole bloody street knows. The pipes were clanging fit to burst!”
“Our bloody pipes.”
“But it wasn’t the pipes, was it? The radiators were all right, and if the pipes make a racket, the radiators play up as well. It must’ve been you, Speedy.”
“Don’t talk so bloody daft!”
“Tell me about it. I’m your wife. That’s what wives are for, for telling stuff to. A problem shared, share and share alike.”
His face went gloomy. She switched the light on because it was dark out now. It flickered for longer than it ought to, and she thought he looked like one of those Frankenstein films. One of the sad ones, with a sad monster.
“Don’t get going mad if I tell you,” murmured Speedy to his teacup.
“I won’t get mad,” she said, smoothing out a non-existent tablecloth.
“And don’t laugh either.”
“I won’t laugh. I won’t laugh. Promise.”
Speedy paused, like he was in his bin lorry, about to turn off a quiet lane onto a busy road. He looked left, he looked right. Then he looked straight at his wife.
“I think I’m turning into a bin lorry.”
She laughed. She laughed loud and long. Through her tears, she saw Speedy was serious. She wiped her eyes.
“I should bloody hope so. Fat lot of good your promises are,” he said, downcast.
She recovered quickly when she saw she had hurt his feelings. She spoke gently, saying, “I’ve said I’m sorry. Now tell me about this bin lorry business.”
Derek didn’t get up when Speedy came into his office. There was no need for any palaver, standing on ceremony. He’d known Speedy since he started working for the council, and that was more years ago than he’d care to remember. Even then, Speedy was already well-established on the bins. They’d had plenty of dealings with one another, and there’d never been any unpleasantness. All the same, Derek felt uneasy as Speedy clanked into the room. It sounded like he was wearing a suit of armour.
“All right there, Speedy?” he asked, feigning nonchalance.
“Not so bad, Derek, not so bad.”
“What can I do you for?”
“Derek, I’m going to be straight with you. I’ve got a bit of a problem. It’s no good beating about the bush, so I’m just going to come out with it. No point wasting your time and mine with a big long preamble, is there? No, that’d be daft, I’ll just come straight out with what I’ve got to say and have done with it. I think that’s the best idea, don’t you?”
“I do, Speedy, yes, Brevity, I’m all for it myself,” said Derek.
“Well, you see...”
“It’s about work. I’ve come to you because I didn’t want to just barge in on the gaffer and just blurt it out just like that. I’m sure you can see my point of view.”
“I’m sure I can, but you’re going to have to tell me what the problem is,” said Derek smoothing his tie and looking at his big belly.
“Right, I’ll just come straight out with it.”
“You do that, please. I’m a very busy man, as I’m sure you can appreciate.”
“No you’re not.”
“Fair point. But all the same, tell me what it is, there’s a good chap.”
“I think I’m turning into a bin lorry.”
“Ha ha, Speedy, good one.” He tried to punch him playfully on the shoulder, but that would have involved getting up out of his swivel chair. “Now what’s the real problem?”
“No, it’s true. I am turning into a bin lorry. Strange but true. I back into things and they disappear. There’s a big grinding noise that comes from my rear end. It frightens the kids. I had their ball the other day. I mean, I’ve kept it overnight a few times, just to teach them a lesson, but my arse has never eaten it.”
“Just start at the beginning, Speedy.”
“That is the bloody beginning!”
“So you just backed up and the ball disappeared, is that it?”
“Yes, the missus was watching, but the ball was in amongst the vegetables and she didn’t really see what happened.”
“This is very strange, Speedy, very strange.”
“It’s a good job I didn’t go to the gaffer, isn’t it?”
“You’re right there.”
“He’d have gone spare.”
“He’d have you off the yard like a shot.”
“Yes, he’s not one for taking things in his stride, is the gaffer.”
“When you came in, you were clanking rather a lot. Is that normal?”
“Yes, I’m afraid it is.”
“It’s very noticeable,” said Derek.
Speedy looked at the carpet. He had to lean sideways to do so, otherwise his belly would have got in the way.
“I can feel my joints going rusty as well,” he said sheepishly.
“Well, you are getting on a bit, Speedy.” Derek bit his lip and frowned. “How long till you retire?”
“Ooooh, at least ten years, Derek. Besides, that’s not what I mean. I mean really rusty. Difficult to move. On the point of seizing up. In need of lubrication. I’m not playing word games here.”
“Right. Encroaching mechanisation.”
“Turning into a bin lorry.”
“We’re going to have to put our thinking caps on, Speedy.”
“Yes, we are Derek. You’re not wrong there.”
It took Speedy and his wife a long time to come round to Derek’s idea. They didn’t like the idea of leaving Wensfordby. Nobody ever did. Nobody liked living in the village, but nobody liked leaving it either. It was that kind of place.
In London the streets throbbed, and so did Mrs Barron’s feet. People bumped into her when she went shopping, and when she got home she could hear the neighbours screaming at each other through the wall. In Wensfordby people hissed at each other, so that arguments sounded more like the hydraulics on Speedy’s bin wagon than all-in verbal wrestling matches. She didn’t like how they did it in London, but she didn’t like it in Wensfordby either. Why couldn’t people just get along? Lord knows, she and Speedy had had their differences, but here they were, still together, still overcoming difficulties with each other’s help. Mind you, this difficulty, this turning-into-a-bin-lorry business, was bigger than all their previous difficulties put together. Derek had had a think about it and gone round to their house one evening, not long after his meeting with Speedy. She’d turned down the sound on Midlands Today and made a pot of tea and got the biscuits out. Derek didn’t dilly-dally. He pointed out to them what they already knew, that they couldn’t stay around Wensfordby, people would notice. People would talk, children would laugh. He wouldn’t be able to work once people got the idea there was something wrong with him. They would be frightened, and if a binman was already something of an outcast, a bit of a pariah, Speedy would be even more of an outcast. He would be on the scrapheap, in the landfill. Up to his neck in knackered plaggy bags. No work means no money, and besides, it wouldn’t be long before he was entitled to early retirement, with a decent pension. Nothing spectacular, but enough to live on without too many worries. They both nodded at this. Speedy rubbed his chin and his wife adjusted her hair. Speedy slid the biscuit tin back towards Derek, who held up his hand.
“I was thinking that perhaps you could go to London. Everybody clanks or makes some funny noise or another in London, nobody would even notice you, Speedy. What’s more, they have a lot of rubbish down there. Refuse collection is a big headache for the authorities. They have mini-bin wagons on the go all day, otherwise the tourists complain about the filth of the place when they get back home. That’s what the authorities don’t want, for people to go home with something to moan about. It’s a good place for a binman, never short of work. I’ve had a word with my contacts down there, because I’ve got a few contacts, even in London would you believe it, and they said they’d see what they could do. And then this bloke, who’s a good mate of mine, a big cheese in metropolitan bins, Refuse Rex they call him, because his name’s Rex and he’s the King of Effective and Economical Refuse Collection...”
Mrs Barron looked flummoxed. Speedy held her hand, but she still looked puzzled. He shrugged and Derek scowled a scowl that meant “never mind, it doesn’t matter” as Speedy well knew, but Mrs Barron didn’t. Derek didn’t beat about the bush, and he didn’t like being interrupted. Otherwise he might lose his thread and start beating about the bush.
“Where was I?”
“Refuse Rex,” said Speedy, sneaking a quick slurp of tea.
“Oh yes, Refuse Rex. Done very well out of privatisation, has Rex. Well anyway, Rexy gave me a bell and said they’d had a chat and come up with a foolproof idea. You’ll have noticed that all this is without the gaffer’s knowledge. You, Speedy, get to keep working. You keep going for a few more years until you can retire, if you want to. But I don’t know if you’ll want to retire, because this is a great opportunity. It turns your problem into a blessing, not just for you, but for the whole community.”
“I’m all ears,” said Speedy, “I’ve got ears like bin lids.” He chuckled half-heartedly at his own joke.
“Don’t be so sarcastic. Wait till you hear their idea. It’s a one in a million.”
Derek picked up his tea and took a long swallow before placing it back on the coffee table.
Speedy’s job was to get rid of all the refuse that would otherwise flap about all day trapped in the drains, or clog up the gutters, or sit in heaps on the pavement waiting for someone to tread in it or trip up over it and go flying. There was too much rubbish in London, and too many people who weren’t supposed to see it. People from other countries, other places. Speedy could see how people might want to see a clean place. He was from somewhere else himself, and when he went to places, he liked them to be clean. So he had what Refuse Rex called “motivation”, which was very important to Refuse Rex. Not that Speedy took much notice of Refuse Rex, he was just happy to have a job he could get on with. Refuse Rex mattered about as much as the gaffer used to matter. Keep on the right side of him and you were laughing. But he missed Derek.
The ordinary binmen had just about finished by the time Speedy was out on the streets. He missed having mates on the job, of course he did. But that wasn’t his job any longer. His job was to be like one of those mini-bin wagons and a mini-street sweeper combined. Although they were small, those vehicles forced people to get out of the way. They drew attention to themselves with orange flashing lights. Sometimes they had what Refuse Rex referred to as “acoustic signals” which apparently “get on everyone’s tits”. Speedy, on the other hand, could just sidle up to any rubbish or mess and back into it, light and nimble, like an overweight ballet dancer. He could get rid of it no problem. He had to Pac-Man his way around the crowded streets and Tetris up all the litter. Small bits of rubbish he hoovered up his trouser leg, big bits of rubbish required the use of his mechanical backside. For this reason, he had been equipped with trousers with a discreet flap at the back, like wild west underwear worn by frontiersmen and gold prospectors. Practice had made him quick as a flash. If someone was watching him from up above, let’s say with the well-oiled eye of a bored store detective taking a break in Debenham’s window, it might look as if someone, maybe a homeless person, a beggar or someone of that sort, had disappeared after Speedy sidled up to them, but that was just because people were moving so quickly and in so many directions, this way and that. From street level, all anyone would notice is a tubby gentleman with a rural aspect standing around whistling and looking beatific. If there was some kind of special event or parade, he would wander around the outskirts of its area of influence and pounce on any offending litter. If anyone looked his way and noticed he was loitering about with a watchful demeanour, they’d probably just think he was a plain clothes policeman. Well, that was the theory, as outlined by Derek and Refuse Rex on two separate occasions.
At the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, this theory proved itself less than watertight. A big fucker of a father came over and corner him.
“What the fucking hell do you think you’re doing?” he spat, towering over Speedy.
“I’m on litter duty. I’ve got a mechanical backside. I’m half-man, half-bin lorry.” That’s what Speedy would have liked to say, but he couldn’t. His arse was top secret.
“Nothing,” said Speedy. The man looked ready to belly-flop him, Giant Haystacks-style.
“You were looking at my kids,” he snarled, and pointed back towards a group of little’uns.
“Yes, they’re smashers,” said Speedy. “You must be very proud.”
“I’ll give you proud, you cunt!” He’d raised his voice now, and his fist was following it in an upwards arc.
“Wh-what’s wrong?” Speedy began to tremble. He didn’t see how the man had rumbled him. His litter collection had been especially subtle, in honour of Her Majesty. It was a momentous occasion, and this was a matter of pride to Speedy. He’d been daydreaming earlier in the week of the Queen congratulating him, even though in his heart, he knew that social recognition was impossible.
His nuts and bolts began to rattle. He could hear them inside his head.
“I know about your sort and your filthy fucking webrings,” said the man, going purple with rage.
Speedy held out his hands. “Look, I haven’t got any rings apart from my wedding ring...” His voice tailed off as his wife came into his head.
“Are you taking the piss?”
“No, I’m not.”
“So you’re married are you?”
“Yes, I am. Have been for donkey’s.”
“Fucking typical. Always putting up a front. Does your wife know what you are?” His shadow had now completely swallowed Speedy. Sweat was dripping off him.
“Er, yes, she does.”
“Fucking hell, they’re both at it.” He looked around, mumbling something vicious to himself. He was really worked up.
Speedy decided to try a different tack.
“I don’t see what it’s got to do with you. Why don’t you p-push off and leave me to get on with it?”
The guy went even more purple. He was now Public Information Film purple. Speedy was terrified he would be able to hear his nuts and bolts now. His hydraulic system started to make little hissing noises.
“Push off? You telling me to push off? I’m going to fucking panel you, pal, I’ve had enough.” He grabbed hold of Speedy’s collar.
“Gerroff! Help!” shouted Speedy. People started to gather round. They thought Speedy was someone planning to shoot the Queen. It had happened before and it could happen again.
“Batter the cunt!”
“Don’t let him get away!”
“String him up!”
“It’s a disgrace!”
There was a big circle around Speedy and the man, who was now shaking Speedy like a dog shakes a balled-up sock. It looked like a scrap in a school yard. Even above the savage noise of the crowd, Speedy’s nuts and bolts and mechanical malfunctions were clearly audible, the whine of his hydraulics becoming more and more high-pitched as the shaking increased in ferocity. The purple-faced either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
“Pervert! Pervert!” he yelled in Speedy’s face. Turning to the crowd and spinning Speedy round the circle, he bellowed, “Look at him! Fucking child molester! Bleeding paedophile! He’s been prowling round my kids!”
“Shame on you!” shouted a woman. She belted the spinning Speedy with her handbag. It was really hard and it hurt. Speedy’s engine cried and whined. It sounded like he was going along the motorway in second gear. Some of the other women decided the handbag treatment was a good idea, and they started belting him as well. The man continued spinning him round, holding him by the scruff of his neck, first one way and then the other, so that everyone would have a chance to clobber him. Meanwhile, he boxed his ears as well. A chant of “PAE-DO! PAE-DO! PAE-DO!” had got under way. Speedy tried to defend himself as he was spinning through the air, his arms and legs flailing flimsily as the blows hammered in on him. He felt like a lolly stick striking against the spokes of a pushbike. Speedy’s clanking, whining and grinding was really loud by now.
“Make way, make way!” came a cry.
Then another. “Out the way, stand back!”
Two policemen were struggling to break through the crowd, but it now had a mind of its own, or was it several minds? It was hard to say. It was like one of those monsters thrashing about with several heads on several necks, all breathing fire and all seemingly at odds with each other, yet all dead set on the same objective. The policemen would get near the front, and Speedy’s hopes would lift as caught a glimpse of them as he spun round. Then next time he came round, the policemen would appear to be right back where they started from, and the blows were still raining down. This made Speedy even more frightened, and as his cogs and bearings and hydraulic hoses and God knows what else had grown inside him over the last few months made a noise like the whole of London was being bulldozed, his fear reached breaking point and his cries of pain merged into the tears brought on by the panic of a cornered, utterly defeated man. The purple-faced father finally decided to hurl Speedy down on the ground. The crumpled Speedy made a racket like a junkyard crusher. The policemen finally broke through the cordon of rage. A guardsman’s bark and the clatter of horses’ hooves on tarmac made the people crowding round scurry back to their vantage points for the parade. They vanished in a second. The two young constables righted their helmets in the increased elbow room and were confronted by the sight of a confused conqueror gazing down in disgust as a day’s worth of rubbish and filth oozed out from the bottom of Speedy’s trouser legs.
“I want to go back to Wensfordby,” said Speedy.
|Copyright ©||Peter Miller, 2003|
|By the same author|
|Date of publication||April 2003|
|Collection||The Fictile Word|
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