Bottles and Jars

I was so excited. It was Saturday tomorrow and I was to start a job helping to deliver the milk. I imagined myself trotting through the streets for a whole morning, perched on the cart as Dobin, harnessed between two enormous shafts, sweated in front and the milk bottles clanked behind.

I wondered if the horse would do another wee – like the one I had watched in fascination a week before. A big steaming torrent, just like the hot tap of our bath, came out from his tummy. It seemed to run for ages, long enough to have filled the whole bath tub. The gutter had become a disgusting smelly pool by my feet.

“Come on Joe, off with your uniform.”

My mother’s standard greeting met me as I entered the porch and skidded on the smooth tiled floor.

“Then you can do your homework.”

“Oh, Mum. Why can’t I do it tomorrow?”

“Because tomorrow morning you’ve arranged to go out with Bert, the milkman, and your Gran’s coming round in the afternoon.”

The milk round was just as I had imagined. Sometimes me and the other helper, a girl called Joan, were kept busy running between the front doors and the milk cart carrying full pints and returning with empty ones while the cart moved slowly up the street without us. Dobin was so clever Bert didn’t even have to tell him what to do. Other times we sat high up behind Dobin’s clopping hooves and seemed to cover huge distances. At the end of the morning Bert sent us off with a six pence and said he’d like to see us both next week.

One of the milk drops in the next road to ours was a jam factory that Joan said paid 1/2d for empty jam jars. I had the idea of going round people’s houses, collecting the jars and then selling them to the factory. Joan wanted to come but my Mum was a bit reluctant to let me go. She said it seemed like begging and we shouldn’t do it since we weren’t poor. I knew that was true for we were the only people in our road with a car.

My Mum hated waste so I managed to persuade her as I told her most of these jars normally just got thrown away. So next weekend, on Saturday afternoon, Joan and I set out on foot to explore the streets we’d got to know since we started the milk round, each carrying a basket.

Knocking on the doors took a lot of nerve. So we took it in turns. Most of the houses in our neighbourhood were large with dark front gardens enclosed with hedges and gates that sometimes swung shut behind you. We had to enter these scary places without the security of having Bert and Dobin with us unsure of the kind of welcome we would get.

Lots of different kinds of people opened their doors to us – fat, thin, old, young, even children. A lot of them thought we were doing a good job. One man wearing a grey suit told us we had a lot of initiative, whatever that means. The houses mostly looked very gloomy inside and funny smells came out of all of them. Our baskets filled up quickly as most people gave us at least one jam jar. One old lady had ten jars and seemed really pleased to be rid of them. I would have thought it worth her while to take them round to the factory herself for 5 whole pence.

We were just about weighed down when a really odd thing happened to us that just about spoilt the whole day. As we opened the gate of a big house next to the old lady with the ten jam jars the front door opened and Joan’s Dad came out. He looked really shocked to see us. For no reason at all he got cross and started to hit Joan over the head. A lady came to the doorway and shouted to him, “What’s happening, Bill?”. She half hid behind the door and peered round it. I noticed she was wearing a long blue nightdress although it was the middle of the afternoon.

“Get in Mavis,” Joan’s Dad shouted, “Our Joan’s here.”

He dragged Joan off. I don’t think he even noticed me. I had to take both baskets to the factory by myself. It nearly killed me and my Mum told me off for walking about on my own. But what could I do? I couldn’t just leave the baskets there.

Anyway I gave Joan her basket back and her share of the money, six pence halfpenny. She didn’t tell me why her Dad had been so cross nor was she allowed to come again. My brother David came next time instead. We went to all the houses where there had been no answer before. I made him go up to the house where we’d seen Joan’s Dad even though it should have been my turn. A man with a soldier’s uniform opened the door and said they didn’t have any jars. He didn’t seem very nice and I never called round again or saw the woman with the nightdress on. But I can’t forget her face. She was pretty, a bit like my Mum, but she looked ashamed as if she’d done something really bad.

Later that year we had new motorised rubbish carts that replaced the horse drawn ones. The whole back part tipped up when they were full so the rubbish fell down and made more room. Bert said he was going to get a new cart too, an electric one. I was looking forward to it but when it came up the road it looked small with a funny handle thing at the front that you controlled it with. I thought it was neat until the first Saturday when I had to walk the whole round. There was nowhere to sit.

I gave up the milk round shortly after. It was no fun and Bert seemed pleased to be rid of me.

At one end of our road there was a bombsite where we used to play. There was a high bank where we raced our Dinky cars to see whose would go the furthest down the path. It wasn’t worth cheating because if you pushed your car at the top it would always crash before it reached the bottom. So you just had to let them go. I had a green BRM, a red Masaratti and a red Alpha Romeo, all of which were winners when they were new. We used marbles as prizes.

Sometimes we would go inside the bombed out houses although we weren’t supposed to as they were dangerous. One day a bit fell off one of the roofs and hit my head. I ran home with blood streaming down my face and had to have a stitch to hold it together. The doctor gave me chocolate for keeping still.

We used to get up to all kinds of trick on that bombsite, some quite wicked ones really. One of the worst was taunting the blind men from a nearby blind peoples’ home. We used to sit on top of a high wall armed with stones or conkers and drop them into their hats as they walked past on the pavements below. It was really funny. Some of them knew what was happening and shouted at us, “Young whippersnapper,” or some such thing. Others completely ignored us and walked on with the stone or conker rolling around in the brim of their hat for ages while we watched doubled up with laughter.

Then my mate of the time, a lad called Jeffrey, started to get up to worse things. He and some older boys used to drag girls there and fiddle with them. Take their tops and knickers off and touch them up. He showed me the place where they did it. I didn’t want to go there much. It was a sort of grass-lined hollow concealed by brambles.

As we walked away from this horrid place something hidden in the undergrowth caught my eye. When we looked closely it was a dead body with no clothes on. I knew her face straight away. It was the woman we’d found Joan’s Dad with.

I was really sick afterwards – off school for days. It was dreadful.

Apparently the soldier my brother had asked for jam jars had killed her with a knife. She was his wife and he’d found out about Joan’s Dad going round there. He tried to kill him too, with the same knife, but Joan’s brother hit him over the head with a brick while they were fighting in Joan’s house and knocked him out. Joan dialled 999 and the police came and took him away.

We moved shortly afterwards and I never saw any of those people again.

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