‘Hiya babe, you all right?’
Ooh, love that man! Big grin, hard hat, hi-vis jacket – and he’s calling me babe.
(I know, I should be offended. Just cut me some slack here would you? I can’t always be right-on …)
‘Hi,’ I say with a big grin back, ‘great, thanks. Which way’s metal?’
I’m on my way to the kind of place that used to bring out the glums in me.
The car’s stuffed with metal and cardboard and old plastic flowerpots. A few dead shrubs thrown in for good measure. And an invisible cargo of spidery hitch-hikers.
Yes, I’m off to the tip.
‘Americans don’t call it a tip,’ says Tex.
I don’t think we call it a tip any more. Some places it’s still a ‘refuse disposal site’, or, more euphemistically, a ‘civic amenity site’ – which sounds like it ought to have a tennis court and a library. (Actually given what’s happening to libraries locally ours probably does. The books bit, anyway.)
But now it’s mostly ‘waste management’ or ‘recycling’.
The first one I encountered was in the genteel British county of Hampshire, a name that for me summons up retired major generals and gentlemen farmers. But even the county set generates rubbish.
And, so far, the Hampshire tip’s my favourite. Whoever ran the place selected the best of the cast-offs to make it a little spot of civic amenability.
Tatty deckchairs and umbrellas were placed for maximum exposure to the sun and least to wind and rain. Old plants were nurtured back to life in chipped and battered pots, garden gnomes winked over white picket fences as you tipped your old linoleum – well maybe they didn’t wink, but you get the general idea.
In our current local tip’s defence, the Hampshire one was way smaller.
Plus they didn’t have awesome giant Tonka toys rumbling around in the Hampshire tip.
And no-one there ever called me babe.
You might be interested – OK – surprised, to learn that I have something of a pedigree in things superfluous.
Landfill sites and recycling depots. Waste management shows, the vast acres teeming with gleaming front end loaders and imaginative solutions to those run-off problems.
I once helped saved a ‘moss’ from development as a rubbish dump. (‘Moss’ is a regional name for a bog or marsh – a rather rare habitat nowadays.)
One small achievement amid the trash.
But mainly, I was working in sewage. Sewage treatment works, hundreds of them – vast ones in cities, tiny ones up overgrown country tracks.
The last time I heard a cuckoo calling was at a rural sewage treatment works.
They brought out something down-to-earth in people, sewage works. I was never called babe at one – but I was once called ‘darling’ over the filter beds.
I was chatting to a worker in overalls. He was ignoring me completely. No doubt I was saying something pompous about communicating with the public.
He took off his heavy rubber gloves, took me by the hand and said, ‘Now, darling, can you help me?’
I was a little bit proud of my senior (hierarchically) status and that ‘darling’ took me aback a bit. Not to mention having my hand held. But once the shock wore off I realised I deserved a bit of peg-taking-down, always inclined, as I am, to pontificate (my sister’s word for it).
It seemed Mr Sewage Treatment Operative had read in the company newsletter that I liked writing. He wanted my advice on how his wife could go about getting more of her short stories published.
More of her stories.
And me with only landscape features and house-snooping pieces in glossy mags to my name. No fiction. Sewage in my eye!
But going back to the smelly stuff.
I liked sewage treatment works and the people who worked in them – something about the job, being outdoors a lot, dealing with stuff that was pretty vile and turning it into something innocuous and clean – it seemed to turn people into salt of the earth, too.
Not that I liked the smells.
Sewage got up my nose. Especially on a sunny day, then the smell always lurked in the nasal passages much, much longer than the visit. And if a manager tells you that a well-run sewage treatment works doesn’t smell – take that one with a large pinch of salt-of-the-earth.
Exposure to the actual sewage I always found a wee bit stressful. I’m a latter day miasmatic – you know, believing miasmas carry diseases as well as foul smells (they don’t). I’m also a hypochondriac.
I traipsed around a flooded works one day out in the country, eeeurgh. For weeks I refused to touch the black wellies dumped in the boot of my car.
And you really don’t ever want to be in a sewage well. No – don’t ask.
OK. Condoms, toilet paper, handrails. See? Enough?
But then, to make up for it, there was the clean stuff – drinking water.
The most bizarre arrangement I have ever been involved in – as far as business is concerned – came from the clean water side of that world. We did lots for the fantastic charity Wateraid, as you might expect, but then one day …
An old friend contacted me on behalf of another old friend. She, in her turn, was working on behalf of a lot of other people in a war-torn country far away.
Did I think I could get them any standpipes?
Well, why not?
It was remarkably quick and relatively easy. Phone calls. Surprised replies and a happy discovery that the company had a stock of leftover standpipes from the 1970s drought. Within days they were ready to leave and on their way.
Mostar. Does that name mean anything to you? The historic bridge that was destroyed during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993?
To me it means, pause for thought. Do what you can. Make that phone call, ask that question.
How amazing the things we can do if only we connect. Even with rubbish.