#299 – The Mailman Milkman Affair

This is a short story about a good old fashioned punch up between a milkman and a postman on a Bristol common. While this event is fictional, it may have happened at some point in the past. Listen or download the audio version below or read the text. Or both?

I was walking across the park the other day when I saw a postman and a milkman boxing on the section of grass normally reserved for cricket.

They were still wearing their uniforms: white jacket and black trousers for the milkman. Blue trousers and red polo shirt for the postman.

A small crowd had even gathered. Passersby drawn from their daily lives to watch this strange spectacle being fought out on a damp municipal park in North Bristol. As though a page had been ripped out of a fairytale and blown on the wind to this part of town. Picked up by the protagonists and played out as best they could without props or a stage.

Whatever it was – improvised theatre or simply an ongoing feud – I was as transfixed as everyone else and it didn’t take long before people started taking sides.

‘Go on postie! Come on milkman!’ came the shouts as more and more people joined the crowd.

Whether the fighters heard any of this or were simply intent on getting the fight over, so perhaps they could go home, they both seemed to raise their game. The blows becoming faster and more direct until moments later the postman caught the milkman on the jaw with a fierce right hook. Sending him down onto the compacted earth of the cricket square with a loud thud.

But he wasn’t down for long and once they had restarted some shifty character in a flat cap and thick grey trousers started taking bets.

Most of the initial money seemed to be going on the postman, but I wasn’t convinced. While the mailman was certainly the younger and fitter of the two and had already floored the milkman once, the dairyman definitely had the weight advantage. And I was sure he needed only one good hit to finish the contest.

By now there must have been over a hundred people round the ring with money changing hands faster than a Vegas showdown. The bookmaker wasn’t stupid either and quickly realised that in order to maximise his takings he needed to prolong the fight for as long as possible.

He quickly ran into the ring to split the fighters up and announced to the excited spectators that there would be a two minute interval. Slightly bewildered, the two fighters went to opposing corners where some people who seemed to have a knowledge of boxing started relaying tactics and splashing water over their faces.

I’d never gambled before in my life, but if ever there was a time to take a punt, it was now. I waved a ten pound note in the air and immediately a small boy forced his way through the crowd towards me. The boy, no more than nine years old and who had clearly been commandeered by the bookie as  his skivvy, snatched the tenner out of my hand and asked who I was for: Postie or Milko – their official fight names.

I told him my bet and he quickly scampered back to his master to place it. Someone who’d been a boxing referee at one time or other volunteered his services and the bookmaker, who was now all-round promoter, manager and gangmaster, happily obliged him.

What was certain on that Monday morning was that no-one was going anywhere. This was high entertainment.

The fighters were greeted by a huge roar as they bounded back into the ring looking revitalised and eager to go.

‘Milko!’ screamed the fans of the dairyman against the opposing yells of ‘Postie!’ from the mailman’s followers.

Both fighters were now stripped down to their trousers making the whole scene feel like an old French short story set on the damp plains of the Solonge or the Vendee. Two  story-book characters fighting over land, a girl, money, a pig. Who knows? – I was pretty sure no one had bothered to ask them.

Despite their initial enthusiasm the opening encounters to the second round were fairly tame with neither fighter taking any unnecessary risks. This didn’t please the hyped-up crowd and a few boos rang out around the arena. The fighters took their cue and the blows started to rain in much to the delight of the braying mob.

And then Bang! Postie’s guard went down allowing Milko – just as I’d predicted – to slam a perfectly weighted left hook into his opponent’s face. Blood spurting out from a deep cut under his eye as he went down to the floor.

The referee started counting. One – Two – Three, triggering a riotous roar from Postie’s supporters urging him to get up. Four – Five – Six. Postie was hardly moving though. Seven – Eight. The roar became louder and slowly Postie began to get to his feet. Nine! Postie stood on one leg and then after what seemed like an age, finally forced the other one up, until he was standing tall and ready to fight. A giant roar went up from everybody. Nobody wanted this to finish yet.

When the battle recommenced each man was giving it his all. The punches were coming in from all sides as each fighter pushed for the final victory. The noise level increased as the supporters demanded a knockout. Especially as I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be long before the police turned up. Some idiot jobsworth concluding enough fun had been had for one day.

After about another minute of frenetic action, the fighters started to tire. Their work rate dropped and they seemed to be content to lock arms and hug each other, occasionally delivering the odd punch to prove they were still interested.

The crowd egged them on, trying to push one of them on for a final knockout. But they were done. Who knows how long they had been fighting for. They could have been at it for hours, days, years.

So when they finally collapsed to the ground, embraced like two lovers in a tragedy, a huge roar erupted over the park.

And then, just as quickly as they’d arrived, everyone drifted away. Leaving the two fighters, the referee and the bookmaker in the ring.

At first I couldn’t understand why nobody had asked for their money back – it was clearly a draw. It was only when I saw the bookmaker take his roll of money from his pocket and stuff it in between the bloodied bodies of the fighters that I got it.

And then like everyone else I walked away leaving a postman and a milkman lying on the ground, the best of friends. Two men who’d given several hundred people a marvellous morning’s entertainment.

Copyright Philip Ogley 2019

The Mailman Milkman Affair taken from The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd. Available here

#298 – The Great American Bookshop

When I lived in Bristol I ran a second hand bookshop. This is a short story based on those days. Listen or download the audio version below or read the text. Or both?

I’d never been much of a reader. I found novels daunting, weighty, difficult to finish. Even the good ones with their catchy covers and gushing praise rarely kept me hooked for more than a few chapters. If that.

So when my flatmate at university insisted I read A Farewell to Arms, thrusting a copy of the tattered book into my hand like a grenade, I didn’t expect to start it. Let alone finish it.

A few days later, much to my surprise, I was in the literature department of the college library.

‘Have you got any more books like this?’ I asked the librarian, showing her my book.

‘Hemingway,’ she murmured unenthusiastically picking up a pencil and writing out a list: Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Twain, Kerouac, Thoreau, Updike, Mailer, Bellow, Burroughs, Vonnegut, Bukowski, Wolfe, Faulkner, Miller, McCarthy, Pynchon, Auster.

‘And they’re just the men,’ she said as she gave me the list. ‘When you’ve read those, come back and I’ll give you the really good ones. The women.’

‘Oh yes, I will,’ I replied weakly. Then disappeared off down the dusty aisles to get my books.

The next three or four weeks were spent in my room drinking coffee, smoking and reading. Lectures and labs passed me by. Food was delivered. My favourite TV programs missed. Even the girl I was seeing on the Humanities course took a back seat.

I was obsessed and yet it was only when I went back to the library to pick up my new stash that I realised all the authors were American. Explained by the fact that on my first visit I’d wandered into the American Literature department.

I said ‘Hello’ to the librarian at the desk again.

‘Finished?’ she asked.

‘I’m here for my next assignment.’

She half laughed and wrote me out another list. A longer one. ‘Here. And good luck.’

 

 A month later I decided there seemed little point in continuing my studies. So one Friday evening I packed my bags and told my flatmate I was leaving.

‘I’m going to my brother’s in London,’ I told him. ‘If my parents phone, tell them I’m on holiday.’

 

When I got to the capital and explained my idea to my brother, he agreed instantly, even insisting he lent me money. Since the age of 17 he’d worked as a fashion photographer and understood the importance of feeding your soul. Listening to your inner voice and ignoring the wishes and advice of other people, your friends, and especially your parents.

After a few months of searching for premises I opened a small oblong bookshop off The Edgware Road. I called it The Great American Bookshop.

I had two rules. The authors had to be American and every copy had to be great! I wanted the old, weird, limited, foreign, promo, signed editions. I wanted stuff you couldn’t buy anywhere else except at The Great American Bookshop. I wanted people to walk in and feel like they were walking back in time. Back into the dark soul of American culture.

And it worked. Business boomed.

I developed a knack for going to the right places at the right time, picking up great books for next to nothing. Charity shops, house clearances, auctions, book fairs, car boot sales. You name it, any place where people were getting rid of books, I was there.

Some days I could feel my hand quivering when I was near a first edition Steinbeck or a signed Updike or a rare promo Kerouac. My ability was uncanny and I soon made a name for myself flogging rare books I’d picked up for pennies. Crap I’d found in bargain bins then flogged off for a huge profit. In the 19th century I’d have probably been hanged as a fraudster. In 2019 I was regarded as a genius.

True I wasn’t cavorting around America in a station wagon with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy. But I wasn’t far off. Authors, actors, musicians, journalists, directors, even politicians, all came into my shop to talk about books, some even invited me out for dinner and drinks. I became known as The Book Guy, almost a minor celebrity, almost as popular as some of the authors in my shop. A remarkable turnaround for someone who was destined for a dull career as a Plant Biologist.

Then one day I put a sign above the door of the shop. It read:

Never Judge a Book by its Cover

My sales doubled and it dawned on me exactly what I was doing in this small shop in North London.

I wasn’t selling books. I was selling memorabilia. Curios. Gifts.

When my customers flicked through my precious first editions like they were browsing store catalogues. They weren’t assessing the writing, or checking out the blurb on the back. They were making sure their rare piece of American culture wasn’t ripped, defaced or had pages missing.

For them the writing was irrelevant. They were just rather annoying lengthy footnotes. Even the author and title weren’t that important. Mere references to distinguish one book from another. Here in The Great American Bookshop it was all about the book – the cover, the design, the edition, the signature. How much was it worth?

When I realised all of this, I could hardly stop laughing. It was hilarious. There I was thinking I was some high brow book seller, some intellectual. When I was actually running a damn gift shop. All that missing were sticks of rock, a wind breaker and a bucket and spade. If it wasn’t for the fact that I was making a packet, I’d have gone back to my studies years ago.

I didn’t. And ten years later my book/gift shop was still going strong, my ability for digging out great books undimmed. I now had a wife and a small child called Ben, but the shop and its philosophy remained the same. No fancy Penguin reprints here. Everything, just as before, had been dragged out of soggy books bins in Carlisle, Comellell, Caithness or Criccieth.

I’d even made trips to New York, Paris, LA, Stockholm, Moscow to meet other sellers and talk about books. Or more invariably talk about books for half an hour before hitting the pub to watch the football and get blind drunk. Even obsessive bookhunters needed a break.

My peers were in awe of me. Drunk or sober no one could match me. I was unique, I had the Midas Touch they said. An ability to find rare books in places where before there was just stacks of Mills & Boon, John Grisham and Dan Brown.

Where this gift came from I had no idea. Certainly not my parents. They were fuddy-duddy science teachers who believed in fact and analysis. And who according to them I only found these books because statistically speaking I was bound to find a good one once in a while.

But despite them things were good. Very good. At 30 I couldn’t have hoped for or planned anything better. Except one thing.

As if my ego wasn’t big enough. I too wanted to write a novel.

I expected my wife to laugh at the prospect. ‘You, write a novel!’ I was braced for. But she was remarkably supportive. Even suggested I took some time out to write.

‘But the books!’ I countered. ‘I’ve got to keep getting the books – it never stops.’

‘We’ve got millions of books in the cellar,’ she argued. ‘Half of them you’ve never seen, all those ones people have dropped off over the years. Why don’t you go to write somewhere and I’ll sort through them. It’ll be fun. Maybe I’ll find some real gems of my own?’

My eyes narrowed. I was unsure, I hated letting go of my books, it had been my life for ten years and I wasn’t sure how I would deal with not being involved.

But in the end she insisted: ‘If you don’t do this now. You’ll never stop going on about it.’

She was right. So I decided to take three months out and leave my wife to run the shop. An actor friend suggested I use his holiday home in Devon to lay down my masterpiece in. No-one would bother me there especially as it was winter. So one bright morning in February I set off on my adventure into the realms of authordom.

From years of working in the shop I felt all my cast of characters were already in place. The hard bit was going to be the story. But what story? I mean what on earth was I going to write about. I loved reading. I loved film. I loved plot and intrigue. I loved life. But I had no real imagination of my own. Not that I thought it mattered I told myself. It was perhaps buried deep down somewhere waiting to be unleashed onto the waiting world.

When my wife came to visit me on my second weekend in Devon, I couldn’t stop talking. Asking her about the shop, what had been sold, who had been in. Even though she would visit me every two weeks to keep me sane and assess my progress, I was already feeling intensely isolated in my hidey-hole in Devon.

She filled me in with the news and gossip but I could tell she was anxious to find out about my progress with the book. And that was the bit I had been dreading. Because for two long weeks, I had done nothing. Except stare out through the window from my desk at the pie-shaped hill on the other side of the valley.

I lied and said I’d been busy making notes. She nodded understandably, but I could tell she knew I’d done bugger all.

The next two weeks were worse. I would get up early with good intentions, have a coffee, sit down at my desk, make another coffee and then look out of the window for another hour trying desperately to come up with something. Anything. A Western, a sci-fi, a crime thriller?

After my third coffee, I would make breakfast. A large breakfast that took time and effort: black pudding, poached eggs, sautéed mushrooms, bacon, sausage, fried bread, heart attack.

This I would eat while I read the paper which I had delivered each morning. Then at around 11.30 I got down to work. Real work. Now I was ready.

Only I didn’t. I ended up staring out of the window wondering how long the pie-shaped hill had been there. Had people once lived there in ancient times? Why was it there in the first place? What was it called? Maybe I should go and visit it. Get some inspiration. Anything to avoid writing this damn novel.

By the third Saturday I decided to give myself the ‘afternoon off’ and went down the pub for lunch. The two mile walk along the coast to the nearest village might jolt my mind into action.

But of course it didn’t. I became a regular and a mixed grill and three or four pints every lunchtime was as far as my novel got. I mean who was I kidding. Was I really going to write a novel. A novel as good as all The Greats I was surrounded by in London. Never in a million years. I hadn’t even written a paragraph. Yet alone a full novel. I was a charlatan. A joke. A dreamer.

On the fourth Saturday I was awoken by knocking at my door. It was my wife and I was a wreck. She asked me what was happening and I told her.

‘Look,’ I started. ‘Just because I like A Moveable Feast. Love Under The Volcano. Adore This Side of Paradise. Fawn over Cannery Row. It doesn’t mean I can write. Or even want to write. I’m a bookseller and I love it. I’m the best there is. No one has the ability I have and the thought of sitting here month after month on my own writing a book when I could be out looking for books using my God given gift is the worst thing I can imagine. My version of hell.’

As we drove back to London that night she asked me if I had actually written anything.

I said I had, ‘Four words.’

‘Four words,’ she laughed. ‘Is that all?’

‘Yes. Four weeks. Four words.’

‘What were they?’

I grinned. ‘Guess?’

‘The Great American Bookshop, perhaps?’ she ventured.

I was gutted. ‘How did you know that?’ I asked. ‘Did you see my monitor or something?’

She sighed and shrugged as best someone can while driving.

‘Because I know you. You were the dopey teenager who came into my library that morning asking for a list of books by American writers you’ve never even heard of. Who then reads them, gives up his course and comes to London to open an American bookshop and who within six months knows more about American literature than people who’ve studied it for decades. Then this man, no longer a clueless boy, rings me up on a whim asking for a date, saying he’s got some great books for me to read. You’re like Casanova or someone and I’m bowled over and make a three hour train trip for a drink with someone I’ve met twice in my life in a library. And now you are asking me how I know what you are going to call your novel? Probably the first thing that comes into your head. The place you’ve been living in for the past ten years. The Great American Bookshop.’

‘Wow!’ I swooned. ‘Am I that predictable?’

‘In a word. Yes.’

‘OK smartass,’ I replied. ‘What would have happened if on that morning I had taken a turn to the right and walked into the French Literature section instead of the American one. Then what would have happened?’

She seemed to scoff at the suggestion. ‘Well nothing. Most likely you would have ended up reading Balzac instead of Burroughs. Married someone called Florence. Ben would have been called Bernard, Beaufort or Benedict. The Great American Bookshop would have never existed because The Great French Bookshop would have sounded ridiculous. And I would have probably married some boring academic called Carl. That’s what would have happened.’

I shook my head in disbelief. ‘Now that’s a story. Why couldn’t I have thought of that?’

She patted my leg gently. ‘Because I’m the writer and you’re the bookseller. Maybe we should keep it like that.’

She winked at me before looking back out of the window into the streaming lights of London.

Copyright 2019 Philip Ogley