‘We’re expanding the milk business into Upper and Nether Camber.’ Howard looked positively apologetic. ‘I’m going to be doing Upper and we’re bringing in two sort of franchisees to do the deliveries here and in Nether’
‘Sort of franchisees?’ I felt my eyebrow starting to crawl impatiently up my forehead. I was right in the middle of making mincemeat to put in the tarts that the Vicar had heavily hinted would be very welcome at the Christmas Fair. I was, therefore, in no mood to unravel Howard’s wandering thought processes. ‘Either they’re franchisees or they’re not.’
‘Oh. Well. Dad said they’re franchisees.’ He looked a bit clueless- but that was par for the course for Howard. He travels cluelessly through life, even on his good days. His father Ronald has the nearest thing to brains in the Benson milk empire.
‘Is it still Benson’s delivering my milk?’
‘Are you paying these people to deliver the milk?’
‘No. They’re paying us.’
‘They buy your milk from you, sell it to me and pay you a percentage of the profits?’
‘Aye. That’s it. ‘ He looked as if he might be in pain. ‘I think.’
‘Okay. That’s a franchise.’
‘Is that alright then? His name is Gordon and he’ll be starting on Monday.’ Quite what he would have done if I’d have said ‘No’, I have no idea – although it might have been fun to find out – but I assured him that it was fine and he handed me a sheet of paper torn from an old exercise book bearing the shakily written details of my new milkman. He loitered for a moment, as if contemplating some sort of emotional farewell, then just quietly shuffled off to the break the news to the next customer.
On Monday, I opened the door to bring in the milk and there was nothing there.
I stared at the empty doorstep stupidly for a few seconds, then looked around the immediate area, on the off chance that the new milkman might have decided to leave it somewhere other than the obvious place. (I mean, they aren’t referred to as “doorstep deliveries” for no reason …) I even looked outside the front gate, around the back, in the large wooden postbox and in the shrubbery. Nothing.
Thinking that he might be having trouble finding his way around on his first day, I forgot about it for a while, but when I was still milkless in the middle of the afternoon, I found the note of his details, cleaned the mincemeat off it and rang him up. A pleasant male voice with a slight Lancashire burr answered.
‘Is that Gordon?’
Mentally giving him three out of ten for his telephone manner, I introduced myself, and announced that no milk had arrived.
There was a moment of puzzled silence before Gordon said. ‘You’re not on my list. I must have forgotten to write you in the book. Sorry. If you give me your details, I’ll do it now.’
‘That’s fine … no problem. I have milk in the freezer. Tomorrow, then?’
Tomorrow dawned. No milk. I rang him again.
‘You didn’t remember to write me down, did you?’
The silence was even longer this time. Eventually he said,
‘I delivered to you didn’t I? Cottage on the hill with the high hedge and the blue gate?’
‘With the name of the house on a sign outside. Yes. Where did you leave it?’
‘I’ll ‘phone laddo who delivered it and ask him. I’ll get back to you.’
It was only after I’d hung up that the import of what he’d just said crystallized in my early morning brain. He didn’t deliver the milk himself. Someone else delivered the milk (or not, in this case). The franchisee was sub-contracting. Deep joy. I immediately felt nostalgic about the good old days of bumbling, harmless Howard.
I wandered around outside for a while, looking in all the places that someone might conceivably have left a pint of milk. My total haul was three forgotten and squeakless dog toys, a plastic jug I’d lost a couple of weeks before and a cattle salt lick container that must have arrived on the last high wind. Milk was there none.
I went round to all the near neighbours and asked if they’d had an unexpected milk delivery. They said that no, they hadn’t, but you’ll never believe what happened to my sister’s boy down in London/at the doctor’s surgery yesterday/to my poor daughter and her budgie and by the way, isn’t it terrible about Edna …. ?
I’d forgotten, of course, that in Adverse Camber you can’t just pop round to the neighbour for a quick chat, you have to allow at least half an hour per conversation – so it was nearly an hour and a half later that I reeled home to find a message from Gordon on the answering machine. I’m not quite sure, but I think he may have been talking through clenched teeth.
He said that he’d been unable to find out where ‘laddo’ thought he’d left the milk – although he definitely left it somewhere – but that tomorrow, he’d deliver my milk personally, to make sure it got to me. Promise.
I rang him back to report on findings at the neighbours and remind him that tomorrow was my day for TWO pints and half a dozen eggs.
‘I know. I know. I won’t forget.’
Morning arrived. The milk and eggs did not.
I left it until lunchtime before I ‘phoned him. Mid-ring, the line switched over to a mobile and this time, he was definitely talking through clenched teeth.
‘Supply problems.’ He said in the tones of one acquainted with grief. ‘I’m three hours behind.’
I was out in the vestibule throwing shiny things haphazardly at the Christmas tree when he finally appeared at the front door, balancing half a dozen eggs precariously on a flimsy section of torn-off egg carton.
A tallish, youngish, baldish man of above average height, he was dressed in a tracksuit and donkey jacket and sported a gold ring in one ear. He looked more like a builder’s labourer than a milkman, and was carrying the eggs with all the care of a small child bearing an over-full cup of tea to its mother as a birthday treat: all that was missing was the tongue of concentration.
‘Take these and I’ll go and get your milk …’
He vanished off again and reappeared a few moments later with two pints of milk.
‘Did you ever find out who my missing milk was delivered to?’ I asked conversationally, after he’d finished explaining to me that Ronald Benson might be an excellent dairy farmer but he had no more idea how to manage dairy distribution than a turnip.
‘No.’ An ineffably weary expression crossed his face. ‘It was my step-dad. He swears he delivered it somewhere … but I’m not even sure it was in the right village. I’m delivering your milk myself from now on though. So there’ll be no more problems.’
We parted on excellent terms, and for a couple of days, everything went swimmingly … but on the third day …
‘Er. Daniel – I don’t want to nag, but -‘
‘Don’t tell me …’
‘I’m afraid so. Is it your step-dad again?’
‘Aye. I’ve had to work today. ‘ A note of menace entered his voice. ‘Leave it with me. I’ll sort this out. I’ve had just about enough …’
Putting the ‘phone down and wondering if I was going to be reading headlines in the local paper about the still-twitching remains of his step father being found in a ditch – I mulled his words over.
‘I’ve had to work today.’
A moonlighting milkman. The Bensons had landed me with a moonlighting milkman.
A couple of hours later, a car pulled up outside my gate and a strained-looking middle-aged woman got out, put a pint of milk on my doorstep and scarpered.
I rang Gordon to tell him that we had a result.
‘That was me Mam,’ was his only comment. ‘Do you want half a dozen eggs every week?’
‘If it’s not too much trouble.’
I felt we had been through a baptism of fire, but had emerged stronger and wiser, our friendship forged in the flames of adversity.
Today, I got milk but no eggs.
I’m expecting his grandma at any moment.
(Image: from a photo by Richard Cocks on Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.)