This short story was written by Karen Campbell when she was writer in residence at Dumfries and Galloway Council last year. It is part of the Atlas Pandemica arts project which explores local responses to the pandemic.
‘So tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be a ….binman!’
‘Can we get a wee twirl, son?’
‘At last, they’ve found something to fit you!’
‘Och, check you out. You’re a proper Tango-Man now, bud.’
The young lad in the split-new orange overalls gives us all a bow. Sniffs the air.
‘Aye. I’m even staring to smell like yous and all. Eau de… scaffie.’
‘Cheeky bugger.’ Auld Stuart takes a kid-on swipe at the lad’s head. But you wouldn’t mess with him, not really. Brian, the boy’s called. Built like a brick shithouse: not that tall, but see the muscles on him? See the muscles on his muscles? Biceps like footballs, thick, sinewed neck, thighs thick as your waist, which gives him that bouncy, strutting way of walking. Ken, the type you just know could handle himself in any situation? Including here.
We’ve had all sorts here, since the call went out. Mostly boys from the Roads, who’ve been great. Proper grafters. It’s funny how we’re kind-of the same department, yet we’re not. Used to be if Waste were short, we’d get in agency workers. Must’ve cost the council a fortune, but it was all ‘no, that’s my man. You canny use him.’ I guess we were just as bad here. But now, it’s as if the lines have been blurred. I hope that lasts. We should be a multi-skilled workforce, not just guys stuck in our own wee silos. I like how it’s been, recently. Like we’re more of a team, ken? Only we’re the top-dogs. No longer the ‘wasters’. Numero Uno. To hang with all you roadies, filling your potholes. Potholes can wait.
Our RCVs cannot.
Can’t get more frontline than a binman. We have a statutory duty to collect the region’s waste, see. Can you imagine if we didn’t? Mice, lice, rats – it would be the bloody bubonic plague, on top of the Covid. So we – this motely crew of Auld Stu, and Billy Liar (don’t ask – it’s all to do with his poker-face playing cards), and Frank the … aye it does rhyme, but we don’t say it to his face, and Jimmy Whizz (fastest binman in the west) and young Brian and me; well, we have been elevated to key workers.
Us. The men who pick up your rubbish. Who scoop your spilling, malodorous bin bags off the kerb. Who wrestle with seagulls as they peck your discarded chip pokes. Who cut our fingers on your jaggy cans and broken bottles. Who reverse down hidden, dead-end lanes, who collect your coughed-in hankies, heave up your old, stained mattresses, who manage all the debris of your lives.
We, it seems, are key workers. Not that we get the clapping, but that’s ok. Tell you one thing though, the complaints have dropped off, so I’ll take that as a bonus. No, I do not miss dealing with them: ‘To whom it may concern. My bin was put back 10 yards from my property this morning. It’s really quite unacceptable, especially as it was pouring buckets today, and I only had my slippers on….’
‘C’mon lads. Rock’n’roll time.’
Auld Stu starts up his RCV. At least, that’s what I call the vehicles, because I train the newbies, so you need to use the right words. At first anyway, until they start to learn what’s really what. RCV : Refuse Collection Vehicle. Bin lorry. Ash cart. Freighter. Scaffie cairt.
And my new office too. I climb into my cab. Brian takes the other seat. A crew of two, not three, so we can keep far enough apart. Driver and loader. We’ve done the checks already, made sure everything’s in order: brake lights at the rear. The packing plate, the crusher. All primed and ready for action.
First time Brian and I have been on together.
‘Good luck with the gaffer, Brian,’ shouts Billy Liar. ‘You’ll need it!’
‘Aye, blind leading the blind, so it is!’ calls Stu through his open window. ‘Don’t know what you’ll learn fae him, son. You’re just a penpusher now, Col!’
Not the most classic of banter. Not really worthy of reply – so I give them the finger instead. But I’m smiling as I do it. Smiling and shaking my head. I love this. It feels great to be out of the office – I didn’t think I’d enjoy it so much. I mean – I’m knackered at the end of the day. Hours are longer than they used to be. But it’s all just…good.
Is that wrong? We’re fighting with a pandemic, and here’s me, reliving my youth. I’ve been here since I was a seasonal worker. They’re sound here, you know? We’re all trusted to do what we’re doing and just get on with it. And I’ve helped out before, when folk are off sick or on leave, but this is different. This is full on labouring again, day in, day out. It’s a right physical job, and I tell the guys I’m faster than they are, so there’s aye a wee bit of competition.
Mind, I’ve nothing to prove with Brian, for this is all new to him. Got a lot of time for him already – he was great in training. Proper switched on. And he gives as good as he gets. Boy volunteered, you know. He’s a gym instructor, for God’s sake. Didn’t need to do this at all.
‘Alright? That you?’
‘That’s me, boss.’ Brian circles a muscled arm towards the windscreen, and the road beyond. ‘Wagons roll.’
I indicate, inch my way forwards out of the depot. There’s been some right prima donnas come to us recently. A few of the ones who’ve been sent here – nose wrinklers I call them. You can just tell, the way they poke gingerly at the equipment: ‘What’s that bit for?’, or shudder at the suggestion they might like to hose the cart down at the end of a shift.
People who think our work is beneath them. That’s harsh, so it is. To see a job you value and take pride in, reflected in another’s eyes, as a thing to be despised.
To see yourself reflected.
I did have to have words with Jimmy, mind, after I heard him shout at one lad: ‘So does your shite smell different from mine then, son?’
He’s right though. We are all the same, all of us. Doesn’t matter if you’re a binman or a boss, we’re all the same. We all work hard, and we all deserve respect. The trees flicker by; the lorry picking up speed. Green and gold, the long low hills of Galloway behind. A Beltie calf looks up as we pass. It’s a beautiful, late spring morning. Sun just bright enough to ease your bones, but not so warm you’ll be dripping after half an hour.
‘So, how you finding it then?’ I ask Brian. We’re nearly at the start of our run.
‘Aye, great. Good.’
‘They’re a nice bunch of lads, eh?’
‘Aye, aye. Good craic.’
‘Bit different from pumping iron though?’
Brian laughs. ‘No really. Lifting bins, lifting weights – what’s the difference?’
‘True. And you don’t mind the…’ I glance at him. ‘Well, it’s no exactly glamorous, is it?’
He shrugs. ‘I dunno. We work hard, we get sweaty, we make folk feel good about themselves.’
‘We do?’ I turn the RCV into the first of our streets. ‘Right pal, jump out.’ Painted cottages either side of the road, their doorframes picked out in blues and mauves and reds. A wee boy in a green jumper is playing in his garden.
‘Aye. Have you not had any notes yet?’
‘What?’ I say, but he’s down and out. We work steadily, to a rhythm. Loader goes out, fetches bin. Stands at the back, presents bin. Press the button at the back of the chair (it’s what we call the lift), bin goes up, contents in, contents crushed, bin returned. Repeat. And repeat and repeat and repeat, for the next thousand bins.
Slowly, every fourth bin or so, I move forwards. I’ll need Brian to guide me down the next road – it’s a swine, really narrow, no turning circle, so you have to beep-beep backwards all the way down, craning your neck in the mirror, searching for that thumbs-up from your loader to tell you you’ve hit the mark. (Only not really hit anything, obviously.) Near the end of the street, I park up properly, get out to give Brian a hand. We used to work task and finish, so you’d batter through to get off as quick as you could. But this way is better. Steady is safer, I reckon.
‘What did you mean about the notes?’ I ask, as we finish up the street.
‘The fan mail, you mean?’
He grins, searches in the pocket of his overalls. ‘Have you not had any yet? Wee notes, like? I’ve been keeping mine. Quite a few of the boys have got them. Just been happening in the last few days. Here, look. This one got left on top of a bin yesterday, with a box of sweeties.’
I read the note.
Boys, thank you for still working in these conditions. I hate to think what it would be like if our rubbish wasn’t cleared all the time, on top of everything else. A huge cheer to you all. A grateful resident. Be safe and take care.
Standing there, in the soft, easy sun, I feel my throat go a wee bit tight. And then, it happens. The clapping. We look back down the street, and there’s a lady, leaning out her window. Another one, at her door, and an old couple on their front path. All applauding us, just like they do on the telly every Thursday. My cheeks grow hot, but Brian, he’s lapping it up. Does that same daft bow he did at the depot. Then I see the wee lad, who’d been playing in his garden. He’s coming up the street, carrying a toy car. As he gets closer, I hold up my hand. ‘You need to keep your distance, wee man.’
‘I know,’ he whispers. He lays his toy on the ground. It’s a chunky orange bin lorry. ‘This is for you.’
The people in the street are clapping louder. The sun is positively beaming on us. I’m looking up at the sky and trying not to greet, and the light is so bright it makes me blink. And I am blinking and blinking until all I’m seeing is stars.
© Karen Campbell December 2020
This short story will be published later in the year as part of the Atlas Pandemica project: find out more in this blog. Thanks to Karen Campbell for letting us premiere the story as part of Unlocked: local stories from a global pandemic – our week of reflection on the past year and what it has meant for individuals, communities and local government. .