Howard Benson’s a lovely man. He’s been the milkman in Adverse Camber ever since his uncle Albert’s eccentric behaviour crossed the line from ‘endearing’ to ‘Oh Good Lord’, necessitating his rapid removal to a comfortable and triple-locked place of safety.
In the normal course of events the milk business should have passed down the family line to Albert’s offspring, but as Albert never married nor – as far as anyone knew – ever showed the remotest interest in members of the opposite sex, he had no children. So it was that his nephew Howard donned the brown overall and gumboots and climbed into the milk van to ply his trade up and down the mean streets of Adverse Camber.
Uncle Albert was not a methodical man. He was, in fact, the antithesis of his brother Ronald. Their father William had spent a lifetime building up the Benson farming empire which encompassed milk and beef cattle plus a thriving dairy. On William’s death, Ronald took over the farm and Albert the dairy; but whereas Ronald ran his business with all the single-minded and ruthless efficiency of an eastern European dictator, Albert ambled through life pretty much making it up as he went along – to the extent, as Howard found out after his Uncle was taken away to be looked after by kind people, of never keeping any records of any kind. Not only did he not keep accounts, he didn’t have a list of customers written down anywhere either. He kept his money in the pockets of his voluminous and filthy overalls, decanting it into an assortment of tea caddies, shoe boxes and – yes – milk churns, only when he started shedding fivers like confetti up and down Main Street. His customers and their weekly requirements he simple kept in his head.
It has taken Howard almost two years to sort out the resultant mess, and he still occasionally comes across little stashes of bank notes rolled up and stuffed in unlikely and insanitary places. I know this because he tells me so as he loiters hopefully in the kitchen door, dropping hints about kettles and digestive biscuits.
I know everything about Howard. He spares me no details of either his personal life or his medical problems. Shortish and tubbyish with thinning hair and a slight case of duck’s disease, he’s as clean and scrubbed as his Uncle was apparently foetid and encrusted and comes, he tells me proudly, from a long line of milkmen.
He’s an entirely harmless and obliging soul who quite literally wouldn’t hurt a fly. Unfortunately he also has absolutely no idea what the phrase ‘too much information’ means.
It’s my own fault, I suppose. I’m too polite not to listen to him telling me his troubles and too much of an bossy little know-it-all to be able to resist the temptation to offer advice – which only encourages him. So I’m intimately acquainted (so to speak) with his ‘waterworks’, his piles and his flat feet as well as his financial woes, his lack of a love life and how it wasn’t his fault when that bus rear-ended him at the Nether Camber roundabout.
One thing he has never been however, is forward. No smut, no innuendo, no suggestive nudge-nudging … he’s just a big shiny-faced human teddy bear to whom unfortunate things seem to happen on an astonishingly regular basis.
Yesterday, he turned up considerably later than usual: something I didn’t notice until I looked outside the back door to get the milk in, and it wasn’t there. I was just wondering if I should go down to the Post Office Stores to pick up a couple of pints when there was a diffident knocking on the door. When I opened it, there stood Howard, with his head bowed in a rather odd manner.
‘Sorry I’m late.’ He tried to look up, but didn’t get any further than where my cleavage would have been if I’d been wearing a low-cut dress instead of an old boiler suit. (I was painting the spare room – so shoot me, fashion fascists.) ‘Woke up this morning with this terrible pain in me neck.’
‘Have you taken anything for it?’
He stood there for a long moment without saying anything and, thinking he might have dozed off on his feet, I was just wondering whether I should poke him when he came to with a slight start and said, “Some pills of Uncle Albert’s I found in the bathroom cupboard.’
I felt my eyebrows trying to crawl up over my forehead.
‘What sort of pills?’
Another silence descended and I half bent over to try and see his face. ‘What did he take them for, Howard?’
‘His arthritics, I think.’
‘They seem to be working.’ Another silence as he stared at my bosom. ‘It’s better than it was, any road.’
‘Should you be driving?’
‘Oh I’m not. Eddie’s driving today.’
Eddie is Howard’s half cousin. (The Benson family tree is complex, with shadowy hints of intermarriage.) Eddie drives like a maniac even when sober, which he seldom is. I didn’t find the news that Eddie was driving encouraging and was digesting this new information when Howard unexpectedly continued:
‘I find looking at your bust very comforting.’
‘I hope you won’t take that the wrong way.’
‘Of course not.’
‘It’s not a frightening bust, if you know what I mean.’
I glanced down at my denim-clad embonpoint, and tried to imagine what a scary bust looked like. I came up with a cross between Madonna and Boudicca, possibly with a bit of Brunhilde thrown in for good measure.
‘It’s a friendly sort of bust …’ He sounded almost wistful and was plainly about to expand on the subject even further when, to my considerable relief, the van horn sounded loudly from the road, where Eddie was getting impatient.
With a brief, ‘Nice talking to you,’ Howard shuffled off to startle the hell out of his next customer, leaving me and my friendly bust alone in the kitchen doorway feeling everso slightly bemused and wondering what, exactly, was in those pills that Uncle Albert used to take for his arthritics.