The Milkman - Mick Shawyer
Michael’s legs ached as he walked along Ashton Lane. He’d been knocking on doors for three hours, every farm and business he could find but Saturday jobs were scarce. ‘Times are ‘ard young ‘un, there’s nowt goin’ round yere,’ was all anybody had to say.
He stood to one side of the narrow lane as the whine of an electric motor grew louder. A milk float, Leguards Dairy emblazoned on the side and bottles rattling as it turned through a pair of gates. Michael perked up, a second float humming by and he followed. Five floats in a yard and a milkman stepped from behind the nearest.
‘What’s on nipper?’
‘I’m looking for a part-time job Sir.’
The milkman’s eyebrows rose, wondering if he could lift a bottle of milk, never mind a crate. He’s just a sprog. ‘How old are you?’
‘Twelve! Does your mum know you’re out?’
‘Yeah she does. Why?’
‘You’re too young to be out gallivanting around looking for a job.’
‘I’m almost thirteen and very reliable.’ Michael puffed his chest out.
‘My sister. She always says get Michael to do it he’s reliable.’
‘Hmm. What about your mum, what does she say?’
‘Gizz on out from under my feet. Time you got a paper round.’
‘Yes Sir, she’s from Cornwall. It means get out of here.’
‘Have you got a paper round?’
‘No Sir, there’s none going so I could be a milk boy.’
‘Can you get out of bed in the morning?’
‘I need a hand four hours Saturdays and Sundays. Can you run at 5:30am?’
‘I can Sir, I’m quite a fast runner for my age.’
‘Fast?’ The milkman thinking of customers with dogs. Or geese.
‘I beat Roger Wilde, came first on sports day.’
‘Roger Wilde? The Tinker’s Bottom lot?’
‘I don’t know where he lives but no one’s beaten him before; he wanted to fight me.’
‘No. Adrian Ponting told him I beat up Michael Hopgood.’
‘Bloody hell,’ the milkman exclaimed, taking a fresh look at the skeletal boy. He’d had an encounter or two with the Hopgoods. ‘You mean them by the flour mills? His Dad and brothers are a proper ‘andful always up before the beak.’
‘I’m new here so I don’t know families or anything,’ Michael said, a question springing to his lips. ‘What’s a beak?’
‘Never mind a beak where did you fight young Hopgood?’
‘At school, we got caned. He was hitting Adrian Ponting, making him cry. I don’t like people crying.’
‘John Gimblett still the headmaster?’
‘He’s a fan of corporal punishment that one. Did you cry?’
‘Why would I cry?’
Because it hurt, the milkman recalled a caning he’d received at primary school. ‘What about Hopgood?’
‘Yeah he screamed and hopped good,’ Michael replied with a grin. ‘I put my hand under the cold tap.’
‘He hopped good?’
The milkman chuckling as he manhandled a crate from the float. ‘Come here son,’ pointing at the crate filled with bottles.
‘Can you lift that?’
The twelve year old locked eyes with the milkman as he raised the crate to his waist. ‘How high?’
The milkman flapped his hand at the ground, ‘That’ll do.’
‘Wanna see me run?’ Michael offered.
‘No you’re fine. Be here tomorrow 5:30. I’ll give you a try this weekend. Don’t be late, pay’s two bob. My name’s Ernie, Ernie Hill.’
‘Thanks Mr Hill. I’m Michael but everyone calls me Mike apart from my mother.’ He pondered a moment. ‘Two shillings each day?’
The milkman nodded.
‘So eight hours over the weekend. I’ll deliver, you drive?’
‘You’ve got it Mikey.’
‘Sounds more like it should be half a crown each day, five bob for the weekend’s work. After all I’ll be doing the work you’ll be the driver.’
Cheeky beggar! Ernie hiding a smile, ‘It’ll be two bob, a tanner bonus if you make me laugh. And you’ll get a thick ear if you break anything.’
‘Best I can do,’ he added in a take it or leave it tone and Michael shook his hand.
‘Agreed. Thanks Mr Hill. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.’
‘Call me Ernie and Mikey? A beak is a judge.’
The youngster waving an arm as raced home to share his news. He can run all right Ernie thought as his new milkboy disappeared from sight.
Michael hurdled the gate, skidding by the back door and burst in the kitchen. The door bounced off the wall, Kookie the cat yowling in surprise.
‘Sorry’s too late, doesn’t fix broken glass,’ his mother scolded, nodding at the stack of rock buns and pasties fresh from the oven. ‘You need to slow down my boy or you’ll do yourself a mischief.’
‘Gotta job,’ he announced. ‘Milk boy, two bob a day plus bonus. Ernie calls me Mikey.’
He scooped a rock bun from the trivet.
‘The milkman. He’s really funny, sings like Pat Boone. And a beak is a judge.’
His mother wondering at a job interview that involved judges as the door closed behind him. A moment later clattering feet shook the ceiling before he slid to a halt at the bedroom all three sisters shared.
Access by invitation only and he rattled the handle. ‘Viv. Viv.’
No reply and he pushed the door, prodding at the bedspread. A head poked out, fingers pushing auburn hair to one side and rubbing at eyes that squinted as the sunlight rushed in.
Wanting to try a swear word she’d discovered but her mother might hear. Anyway this was her favourite brother. No one swore at him.
‘Gotta a job with the milkman, start tomorrow.’
His sister couldn’t hold the upside down smile and twisted, pushing the pillow against the headboard as she eyed the rock bun.
‘Give us a bite.’
He broke it in half. ‘Two and six a day, can you believe it?’
He’d decided the bonus would be inclusive.
‘Eff off!’ She spluttered, attempting the word and feeling grown up. ‘Half a crown!’
‘Yep, I’m gonna be rich,’ and they screamed with laughter.
The next morning Michael ran to the dairy and the moo of lactating cows.
He wondered if they were talking to each other and let out a long moo, jumping as Ernie rode past on a bicycle that creaked in harmony with his pedalling.
‘Mooo,’ the milkman imitated and the milkboy upped his pace.
Fresh cow pancakes adding a pungency to the dawn chorus, five milkmen racing to load their floats and Ernie firing questions.
‘How many in your family?’
‘How long have you lived here?’
‘Where did you live before?’
‘What were you doing there?’
‘My Dad’s work.’
‘What does he do?’
‘Works for the government’
‘What does he do?’
‘I don’t know, Prime Minister?’
‘Are you the oldest?’
‘No second youngest.’
‘How long were you in Malta?’
‘No need to shout son I’m not deaf,’ The milkman admonished as he ushered Michael in the cab. ‘Stand there and hold on.’
Ernie moved the lever and the electric motor groaned into life. ‘Does your dad still work for the government?’
Michael wondered if the milkman had a list of questions written in his head, ticking off the answers. Did a lightbulb flash for correct answers?
‘Where does he work?’
‘Flowerdown. It’s near Winchester. We’re waiting to be allocated a house on the government base.’
They pulled up, a block of three houses at the end of a short track. ‘Two silver tops, number three. Run fast they’ve a big hairy dog. He almost ate my last milkboy, Michael Hopgood.’
Pity he didn’t the new milkboy grinning - it would have saved me a caning.
Number three was the end house, a plume of smoke and guardian gnomes at the gate.
He squeezed the latch, pushing the gate and tiptoeing past the pots and gnomes.
Not a sound and breathing slowly as he lowered the crate on a “WELCOME HOME” doormat.
A robin perched on the windowsill watching him swap bottles, the big hairy dog asleep.
Nooo surely there was no hairy dog! Ernie had made it up.
One of the milkman’s jokes and Michael sauntered past the gnomes, almost at the gate when a howl came from the back garden.
A black and tan missile hurtling round the corner paws scrabbling for grip and the milk boy leapt for the gate, slamming it shut as teeth snapped at his fingers.
He walked to the float and the noise of water gurgling down a plughole. The track was dry and no sign of water anyway. Strange? Why was the milkman coughing and spluttering?
‘Ernie. Ernie what’s wrong?’
Michael sure he’d swallowed a fly like his sister last summer - their mother had slapped Viv’s back and the fly shot out. How is it mum’s know what to do he wondered as tears poured down the milkman’s face.
‘Where does it hurt Ernie, shall I call a doctor?’
‘Oh Mikey, funniest thing I’ve seen in years.’
‘You, jumping the fence, Rex trying to bite you.’
‘Rex? You know his name?’
Ernie wiped at the tears with his sleeve. ‘Yeah. I meant to tell you, give him a dog biscuit and he’ll be your friend for life. I always carry some in my pocket.’
‘Forgot? Huh I don’t think so,’ Michael realising the laughter meant one thing. ‘That’s a tanner bonus!’
Ernie smiled; it was worth every penny. The milkman lived with a fertile imagination and didn’t laugh at home. His sour-faced landlady would call the men in white coats.
‘Next one Miss Blume four gold tops,’ Michael read from the book as he eyed the double cream pushing at the foil.
The float lurched to a halt outside The Bakers Dozen, a cottage where citrussy sweet honeysuckle filled the air and multicoloured flowers jostled for sunshine. A black cat eyed him from under a heart-shaped rhododendron. No dogs and the milkboy uncrossed his fingers.
I’ve earned a bonus, maybe I should ask for danger money. Surely there’s nothing more scary than Rex? The front door opened, a thirty something female in a froth of lace startling the milk boy.
His mind raced. What strange clothes, does she wear them under her other stuff? Miss Blume’s eyes sparkled at someone different bringing milk to her door.
‘Thank you,’ bottles on the windowsill and searching over his shoulder. ‘Where’s Ernie? He usually comes in for cocoa on Sundays.’
Michael was uncomfortable, this strange and intimidating female unlike any he knew and he pointed towards the road as she fired questions like a suspicious teacher.
‘Who are you, what’s your name? Come on boy, cat got your tongue?’
‘I’m the milkboy.’
‘And what’s your name, milkboyyyy?’
Her voice dripping with honey and his unease grew. ‘M-M-Michael.’
‘Pleased to meet you M-M-Mickey,’ she teased. ‘Some of my regular visitors like to call me Miss Blume.’
She winked, ‘You can call me Sue,’ the last syllable drawn to a pout.
She moved closer, Michael torn between running for his life or searching for pointed teeth. Parma violet breath tickled his nostrils.
She can’t be a vampire, they don’t drink cocoa.
But the idea wouldn’t let go and he retreated, wishing his mother was there. She’d whip out her crucifix and drive the vampire back in its lair.
Sue Blume extended her hand, ‘Would you like to come in for a cup of cocoa Mickey, like Ernie does?’
‘Err no, no thanks Miss Blume,’ he stammered, eyes popping wide at the blood red fingernails.
The milkboy fidgeting, trying to make space for quick exit and took another pantomime step backwards. She followed.
Save me Lord! There was no escape and he wished he’d tried harder to get a paper round. Or a farm boy. Anything but vampire bait.
‘Call me Sue,’ she whispered and Michael’s imagination shot into overdrive.
She is a vampire! I deserve danger money if I get out alive!
Taking another backward stride and his foot hit the gate. Trapped and Sue Blume tiptoeing in a slow pursuit.
‘Come on my cocoa is the best,’ she urged, making it sound like an exotic cocktail.
Michael’s hand behind his back, fumbling at the latch.
‘Tell Ernie he’s a naughty, naughty boy and Miss Blume will see him Tuesday.’
He turned tail, whipping the gate open, his feet spinning to a blur as he raced for the safety of the float. Images tumbling through his head - blood dripping from pointed teeth, red fingernails, arms raised to grab him.
The cat quivered, tail lashing as the milkboy came skidding to a halt alongside the float.
Empties in the back and he scrambled in, Ernie eyeing him quizzically as he pressed the pedal. Neither of them noticed Sue Blume clutching the gate post and giggling.
‘I want danger money.’
‘Yeah and what’s a baker’s dozen?’
‘It’s from olden times Mikey, bakers gave an extra loaf of bread when someone ordered twelve. A baker’s dozen means thirteen.’
‘So they couldn’t be accused of selling loaves that were too small. They would get a whipping.’
‘Why’s her house called a baker’s dozen?’
‘Miss Blume’s old man Bernard,’ the milkman explained. ‘He was a baker, top man. Worked down at Stainers Bakery near the school.’
‘Oh, I see.’
Michael’s curiosity was still piqued. ‘What does she do with four bottles of gold top every day? That’s a lot of milk for one person and a witch’s cat.’
The milkman’s ribs ached but he managed a knowing wink.
‘Well Mikey,’ and tapping his nose. ‘Miss Blume has become very sociable since Bernie passed on leaving her penniless. She’s very good at cocoa.’
‘Not a vampire then?’ Michael’s hopes of danger money evaporating. ‘Her teeth seem quite pointed.’
The ultimate proof pointed teeth and a witch’s cat.
Ernie was unable to speak; This nipper will be the death of me and imagined his heart bursting with laughter. They would carve on his headstone, “Ernie the Milkman - he died of laughing.”
‘No Mikey, Miss Blume is not a vampire.’
The milk boy relaxed. ‘She said tell Ernie he’s a naughty boy and she’ll see you Tuesday as usual. I understand now, she’s a cocoa expert who dress’s funny.’
Not noticing Ernie’s face redden Michael nodded to himself. ‘She must be good at it and very kind. She offered me a cup, said she’s the best at making cocoa.’
‘Whaaaaat?’ Ernie’s foot slipped off the pedal.
‘She said I can call her Sue but some of her visitors call her Miss Blume. That’s very polite of them.’
Ernie couldn’t keep his foot on the pedal and the float jerked.
‘Perhaps we could both get one next weekend?’
The two cups of cocoa a week milkman silently staring ahead as they followed a bumpy track to the next drop, Sunny Hill House.
Michael ran in, four silver tops. A mum was hanging out washing and waved, ‘Money’s in the cup.’
He raised a hand, waving back, noticing a foliage of female fripperies on the washing line.
‘She left the money out,’ and handing it to Ernie. ‘Does everyone make cocoa around here?’
Maybe the fripperies were part of some cocoa drinking ceremony?
‘It’s a big family, three teenage daughters. I feel sorry for the parents, these girls a proper handful and well known down at the youth club. But I don’t think they make cocoa.’
At the next drop Michael counted potted bushes bordering the drive. Twenty two each side, the number forgotten as they approached the mansion house, a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow on the drive.
‘That’s a tasty motor, does someone rich live here?’
The milkman’s head bobbed in time with their passage. ‘Yeah a farmer, John Parrot. He made a smart move, married old money.’
He snorted. ‘You’d laugh, talk about chalk and cheese. His wife Margot’s posh. Very hoity toity.’
The milkman’s voice took on a well-spoken tone, ‘I say milkman one is having visitors today, leave an extra gold top, there’s a good chap.’
Michael grinned, an adult talking to him as a friend. It felt good.
‘John likes a beer down at The Lonely Duck every Friday,’ Ernie switched characters. ‘Oooarr Sandie, Oi’l have a paint a boilermaker luv, a propa glas’ wi’ an ‘andle.’
‘What’s a paint?’
‘That’s how he speaks, he means pint. He often has more than one.’
Does he take Margot?’
‘Not on your life she’d never go there. I’ve heard young Jack, ‘im that’s a bodybuilder calls round Fridays. They have cocoa in the greenhouse. Several cups I’m told.’
‘Blimey, Cocoa is very popular around here.’
‘It is,’ Ernie agreed as a flock of geese stormed from the service entrance. They weren’t as quick as the two tone missile from number one Brickmakers Terrace but still a scary sight, wings raised and flapping. Ernie’s laughter re-ignited at his milk boy fleeing from the feathered guards.
‘What’s old money?’ Michael asked as he hopped in the cab.
‘It’s money that came through the family, handed down.’
‘What’s a boilermaker?’
‘It’s a half a brown ale mixed with half a mild.’
‘And hoity toity means posh?’
Bugger me this kid’s mind is all over the place, questions, questions, questions, I love it, and wondering if he’d ever have kids of his own.
‘Yeah sort of. Snobby fits as well. If you wrote a book hoity toity goes well with old money. Make sense?’
Michael looked vague, sure he’d missed something. After a moment shaking his head and thinking of Alan, his eldest sister’s boyfriend. He drove a convertible Humber Hawk and a good fit for hoity toity.
Ernie was at least three tanners down but Michael hadn’t been counting the laughs, the milkman distracting him as he whistled “When the Saints go marching in” and encouraging the milk boy to sing. He couldn’t afford too many laughter bonuses.
The downhill return journey was steep, blind corners and the high spot of Ernie’s day.
He urged the float faster, rear wheels lifting and Michael hanging on as the milkman screamed, ‘YESSSS.’
The locals kept clear of this hill whilst his comedian brother sang songs describing him as the fastest milkman in the west.
‘Have you ever met someone coming up the hill?’
‘There was the time I met old Joby with his tractor and trailer from Oliver’s Farm.’ Ernie chuckled, ‘We ended up in a bit of a tangle, blamed a runaway horse. the insurance coughed up.’
‘Was Joby Ok?’
‘Oh yeah I arranged for a cup of cocoa from Miss Blume, he was very pleased smiling for days.’
‘Crikey that was a bargain, I was sure it would cost more than a cup of cocoa.’
‘Well it was gold top Mikey.’
Gold top must have magical powers the milkboy not believing a cup of cocoa made things right.
‘All I can say is her cocoa must be good. I hope I get a cup sometime.’
Bio: Mick is a Cornishman, an avid reader who admires well written prose and an occasional poem. Much of his life spent in construction where he honed a sense of humour which is evident in his story-telling. He has no writing qualifications.