Nobody gets to know a town like a milkman.
You get paid a bit more – not much – if you’re on relief. You don’t have a fixed round. Just turn up at the depot, look at the board, or see Spud Murphy, and take the books for whatever round they’ve put you on. There’s always someone off sick, or people’s free days to cover, given we do Sundays, too. It’s all the same to me.
True, there’s a hell of a difference between, say, a Saturday in January, out on the diesel, all round Saltdean, on Jack George’s pig of a round, collecting and all, in the sleet – or a Sunday morning in June on 110 round.
I’ve been out from five in the morning until six or seven in the evening, in the dark, doing Jack George’s round or doing one of the other ones out that way, ’blind’. ’Blind’ means when you’re on your own on a round you’ve never seen before. You’ve got to do it ’book order’, hoping you find all the right back entrances, unnumbered houses, and so on – possibly in the snow and dark. ’Book order’ means following the book: first address first, last address last. When you know a round, you do it to please yourself – even if old Spud gets irate phone calls from the old dears who want their milk delivered first, and not at eleven or twelve! Stands to reason. When you know a round, you choose where you’re going to have breakfast, don’t you! So you work it to end up at the transport caf, where you know you’re going to get a good nosh, at seven or half-seven. Or if you happen to be on one of the rounds near home ... stands to reason.
But 110 round ... I dream about 110 round! Spud must like me or something, because there’s even been times he’s given me ’help’, on 110 round, when it wasn’t even a collection day! It’s a doddle. Right near the depot, so you get an electric float, no question. That means you can hop on and off both sides – not like the old diesel vans, where you’re always climbing up and down, on the driver’s side, running round the back to get your pints off ... no comparison. Of course, in the winter, you’ve got somewhere to warm your hands – but in the summer ... no way.
But the best thing is, it’s all town deliveries: all the houses are close together – rows and rows, with their doorsteps next to each other, right on the street. Not like out at Saltdean or Hollingdean, where there’s pages and pages of detached houses, with long pathways to go up, and gates to close behind you – and miles and miles to walk between houses. Takes forever.
And the people are completely different, too: stands to reason. Them lot out Roedean way are the sorts with a bit of money, and they’re the first to complain if you don’t take their one pint all the way up to the house, and put it in exactly the right place in the porch, and close the gate with the extra latch, or whatever. In town, you stick down the three pints anywhere you can on the steps, pick up the three empties, and you’re already at the next doorstep.
And then, there’s the Egremont. True, the transport caf out Rottingdean way is slightly better on the quantities, and there’s more company, but I like the Egremont.
Fact is, you can do all the Quebec, Toronto, Montreal bit, plus the circle around the council houses; all down Queens’ Park Road – and then decide if you want to get Tillstone Street and the two blocks of flats done first – or break off early, and leave them till after. Sometimes, I’ve even done the whole round, first ... and you still pass the Egremont, on the way back to the depot. Magic.
I was showing one of the new blokes the round, today. Lucky b. reckons he’s got Spud to promise it him for keeps: I’ve been ’filling in’ on it for near on two weeks, now, since Ray left. Half a mind to pack in the ’relief’ and settle down on 110 myself, but Spud wouldn’t have it. I’m too valuable to him, now, filling in on the others: I don’t reckon there’s more than two or maybe three rounds I don’t know, by now. And there’s no-one as reliable as me on the money, apart from the fixed rounds, of course. So there’s no way he’s going to pension me off on 110 for good, is there? I could always threaten to pack it in, but he’s heard that one before, and I’m not ready, yet.
Funny about the money. You have to do a maths test, when you apply for the job. Nothing wonderful: adding, subtracting, multiply and divide. Stands to reason: one of the questions was: "a customer pays with two pound notes. She owes for a pint every day, for two weeks. One pint costs thirteen and a half p. What change do you give her?" When you’ve been collecting for a few times, you don’t even have to think about what fourteen times thirteen and a half is. You know a pint a day is ninety-four and a half p – so that’s a five p piece and a tiddler back, out of a pound. Two weeks – so it’s eleven p, isn’t it. An old florin, and a new p. Same with the stamps: but they didn’t give us questions on that in the test.
Anyway, funny thing was, the secretary – couldn’t have been much over sixteen, herself – gives me the test paper, like, I don’t know – like at school: face down on my ’desk’; a table in a room, with no one else – and she goes, looking at her watch, "You can start now, Mr. Hobson," just like she’s heard her teacher say! So I turn over the question paper, and she’s made sure I’ve got spare paper, and pencils and a rubber, and off she goes.
I can’t help grinning to myself. It’s a doddle. What would the lads make of me?! Anyway, I scribble down all the answers and check my watch. Ten minutes down, and twenty left before she’s going to march back in and say, "I’m sorry but the time’s up ..."! So I figure I might just as well go over it and check. And I found about three or four mistakes! So I rub them out, and check it all again – then decide there’s no point sitting there, so I go along to her office, where she’s having a smoke, and some sort of joke with her mate. The friend isn’t bad-looking: I make a mental note of the phone number on her desk, while I hand over the paper, and she’s mumbling something about how there’s more time, if I want.
She sits there, all embarrassed, comparing my answers with her copy, with the right numbers written in, in red, while I’m standing looking at the two of them. She looks across at her mate and giggles, and goes back to the top of the page, to double check she hasn’t missed anything. Then she passes my paper over to the decent-looking one: "You better check, Janet ... Mr. Hobson, you are the first person I know ever didn’t get even one sum wrong!"
’You sure?!’ I go, thinking maybe I wasn’t so clever after all – if I go making a name for myself – might think there’s something funny about me. Still, with a Cambridge degree in maths, what do you expect, I laughed to myself. Didn’t tell any of them that, of course. No need to put that down on the form. Didn’t want them to think I was messing about, did I.
So I got the job. Still had to do the week’s training course with the other new ones – about half a dozen of us taken on together. Just after Christmas. I worked it out after: why they were taking on that many all at once – what with the unemployment and all. If you’re going to jack it in, you wait until after the Christmas tips, don’t you! But anyway, there was a good bit of turnover: the older blokes, laid off from the factories – or transport, more like, couldn’t stick it.
Poor buggers: it was all right for someone like me to laugh about the maths, but these blokes never got their books to balance, and they’d be up all night, trying to fiddle it right, or work out where they’d forgotten to mark down extra pints and so on. Don’t laugh – but even I, with my unprecedented 100% test – never really got my books to balance exactly. Pennies, or a pound or two, that usually came out in the wash, the next week, if I was on the same round – but there’s no way you don’t forget to pencil in some extra pints, or a passer-by in a hurry who leaves a fifty p for a carton of juice, or something like that. Or just counting the number of crates you load, or take back, and forgetting about Stan having run you out an extra couple of crates, when you were running short. It happens, when you’re cold, and you’ve been out with the lads the night before, and you’re up at half four, all the same!
So these blokes in their fifties would be really miserable – having to make up the shortcomings, and convinced they were being done. But what could they say? They just packed it in and went back on the dole, joining the miserable crew smoking fags around the ’job vacancies’ boards at the Job Center.
There are times I really love Brighton.
You get to know a few people, even when you haven’t got your own round, and anyway, there’s always company for breakfast. A June morning like this one – I wouldn’t even mind the Saltdean rounds – at least, the ones you get an electric float for. Driving up, almost silently, towards the race course, at five in the morning, and there’s the sun coming up – or already up, ahead of you, as you go up that long hill. Then running around in shorts and T-shirt, in tennis shoes, as the day warms up: hopping on and off; carrying two crates of empties, maybe – getting into your stride. Then, when you’ve broken the back of it, you can stop with a Mars bar, and have a good old guzzle of creamy milk! Make sure you only drink half a pint from each bottle you open, and leave the silver tops on the bottles, for when you take back your ’returns’. That way Spud can mark you down for credits, making out the bottles weren’t filled properly by the automatic bottle fillers. Don’t overdo it, of course. Still, it’s amazing how the automatic plant seems to be less reliable on a hot summer’s day, than in January!
Anyway, even on the Saltdean runs, you can be back home for eleven or twelve, on a Monday to Wednesday – and even earlier on a Sunday. If you’re on a round for a while, you can train your customers to ’double up’ some days, to be able to miss out whole streets on the next day: especially if you can get your collecting organised so as not to be messing about going back to areas where no-one’s ever at home. Mind you – I always reckon to play fair by the regular blokes: not making them come back to a round that hasn’t been collected on, and so landing them with more work, and headaches with disgruntled customers.
But this June morning, Monday, with no collecting – and Chris standing there waiting for me, at the depot. I wouldn’t say this to Spud – but there are times I’d do it just for the hell of it, even if they said they couldn’t pay me! Better not say that to Derrick, though. He’s the T and G man – and anyway, I don’t really mean it. They don’t do us any favours over the pay – and let’s face it, when they pay you for ’unsocial hours’, and ’dark money’, you realise, it’s no job if you’ve got a family, or value your nights out.
In fact, my relationship with Pauline was a complete mess. I say "Pauline": that’s not her name, and my name isn’t Paul – but it’s what we call each other.Last night was another disaster – but more of that, later. I’ve always been best in the mornings, and I was already in a normal, good mood when I turned up at half five, and found Spud waiting for me with Chris.
He looked exaggeratedly at his watch, Spud, as I hauled myself up an to the loading dock, by the blackboard, where the day’s assignments, and phone messages got scribbled up.
’Thought you was off sick again ...!’
’Me? Off sick, Spud?! Wouldn’t miss a doddle like this one would I?!’
’Told young Chris ’ere ’e’d ’ave to go blind! Thought I was going to poke ’is eyes out, didn’ ’e!’
’Sorry if I kept you, Chris. Old Spud here should’ve told you I don’t break a gut to get in before him, when I know I’m on 110!’
’In before me? Like to see that ’appen!’
Chris got a chance to come in on our little ritual exchange: ’What time do you get in, Mr. Murphy ...?’
’Told you – they all call me "Spud", so don’t worry about that. Reckon I’m Irish, because of the name, but I never known nowhere but Brighton. Anyway. I’m always ’ere. Never go ’ome. Wife’d get a fright if she ever saw me!’
’He’s having you on, Chris! He’s just too old and lazy to get out on a float and do an honest day’s work! No – give him his due: Old Spud’s always here. Reckon he’s in before three …’
So we took the books off Spud, and he told me of someone who’d rung in to complain about her milk being ’off’ for the third time running.
’Mind you don’t use yesterday’s milk, if you’re doubling, right ...?!’
Chris had already got the milk loaded neatly on to the float. ’Is that all right ...?’ I praised him for having done it ’just like the teacher said’ and checked the long green sheet, for what was supposed to be debited out to me.
’This is where they do you, Chris: always check these bits of green paper, before you sign for it. You’re signing that you are responsible for paying for it all, at the end of the week!’
We climbed aboard, with my insisting that he drive, ’To get used to the route better ...’, and I showed him how to fix the black book, with its rows of addresses, and columns of standing orders for each day of the week, onto the tin support. ’Always carry a few of these strong rubber bands with you: they’re indispensable. It’s a disaster, if you have to keep opening and closing the book, or trying to find the right page. And check you’re on the right day ... here before you start. Right? That’s another classic way of messing up your books: if you write dovn Monday’s "extras", on the Sunday page…’
’That’s all right,’ he laughed, ’don’t forget I’ve done my week at "school", with old Ted ...!’
We were already out of the depot, and I told him which way to turn. There was a slow bit to do, up Islingword Road, with the full load, so I decided I’d tell him the latest on my mate, Matty. I laughed: ’Remember I told you about Matty, that first time you came out on 132 round with me ...?’
He’d had one day to ’fill in’, as improvised ’experience’, when Ted had been off sick. That’s how we’d first met: we’d got on fine, and I’d put in a word with Spud for him.
He smiled. ’Your teacher friend. What’s he been up to now ...?!’ ………'); //-->