t shirt purple5.  Dump Raking

“Tell me again, what are we looking for, exactly?” Jess said, teetering on top of an old water tank and pinching her nose. To judge by her chosen outfit, she could have passed for a seventeen-year-old on a Friday night out in town. Her wide-belted and very shiny white PVC mac hung open. Underneath she wore a white blouse with large, blue polka dots and an orange mini skirt. The platform heels of her matching orange shoes were not helping her balance. Everyone else had dressed in wellies and their school raincoat.

“You look ridiculous,” Tom said, as the four friends peered over the edge of the tip.

“I know,” she replied, completely unaffected by Tom’s opinion. “But that’s me.”

Alan threw down the empty beer crate. “OK, we’re going to fill that with bottles. They have to be ones you can cash in at the offie: Guinness, R. Whites, Tizer, stuff like that. If in doubt, read the label. You can get fourpence for each of them. It shouldn’t take that long to fill a crate. Twelve bottles at four pence each…”

“Is four bob,” Katie said. “That’s enough for tea and toast all round at Tony’s. Let’s get cracking.”

“We just need to watch out for bin lorries tipping their rubbish,” Alan informed them, tapping the side of his nose. “There’s not many working on a Saturday, but you never know. You do not want to be under one of those when they empty out. And watch out for the rats.”

Jess screamed and everyone looked at her. “Sorry, it was just the thought. Look, why don’t I keep a lookout up here while you, er…”

“Good idea!” the others chorused. They left Jess standing at the top with the empty crate while they set off down the cliff face of rubbish, doing their best to avoid getting ash down their wellies.

The first essential job, to find a stout stick of some sort that they could use to turn over the heaps without having to touch them. Tom and Alan had done this before hundreds of times and did not waste any effort searching in spots they had already picked over. New to dump raking however, Katie was fascinated by everything she saw. The mind-boggling amount of junk people threw away every day amazed her. A vast pile of free stuff just there for the taking, with nobody trying to stop them! Just the sheer variety of it apart from anything else, you simply never knew what you might find next. To be fair, a lot of the dump comprised utterly worthless rubbish, like the stuff her gran chucked in their dustbin at home – tins, jars, newspapers, food scraps, ash from the fire (lots of that) – but people also threw out books, radios, clothes and furniture, among other things. She wished she’d brought a bag with her. Free books! It seemed too good to be true and, even more amazingly, every day of the week brought more.

Tom and Alan worked their way along the ridge-top of the rubbish mountain where they knew they would find the freshest stuff. Every so often, a shout would go up, “FOUND ONE!” and Jess would totter along to whichever child held up a bottle to retrieve it and add it to those already in the crate. After an hour, “It’s full! You can stop now!”

“Aww!” Katie called over.

The four met at the crate. Tom examined each bottle to verify its value then looked at his watch. “It’s still only half ten.” He looked over at Alan, who held up an old shopping bag and pointed at it. “We’ve got plenty of time.”

Jess looked puzzled. “Time for what? We’re done here, aren’t we? I thought we were going to Tony’s to eat.”

“Oh, we are, Jess my dear, we are,” Tom said with a knowing grin.

“But first,” Alan announced grandly, pulling a handful of newspapers from the bag, “WE BURN STUFF!” He gently elbowed Jess and pointed to the end of the cliff face. “Go round and we’ll see you down at the bottom. It’s not bad going, even wearing those.”

Jess looked down. She picked up each foot repeatedly, while hugging herself as if she might be cold. “But, I don’t…” she began.

Tom winked and grinned broadly. “Trust me, it’ll be fun. You’ll see. Meet you down there. You coming, Katie?”

Katie looked across at Alan who had pulled a copy of the Daily Express from the shopping bag and waved it while grinning manically, as if the pages might contain news of a recent competition and they had won top prize. She nodded and linked arms with Jess. “Ever lit a fire?” she said and without waiting for a reply tugged the reluctant girl into wobbling forward motion.

When they arrived at the chosen fire site Alan had already found a wooden orange crate, which he proceeded to dismember by repeatedly jumping on it. The slats cracked and splintered, and he gathered the smashed wood into a heap and dumped it onto the screwed-up newspaper. After the third match, the paper caught light. Katie picked up an evergreen branch from a nearby pile of garden waste. “I love fires. Gran lets me make bonfires in the garden.” She dangled the branch in the small, yellow flames that had begun to emerge from the choking clouds of wet smoke. Then she threw the branch on top of the wood.

 “Not yet!” Alan shouted, grabbing the branch and tossing it aside. “You’ll smother it. What we need first is more dry wood.” Katie needed no second bidding. “Yes, my captain!” she replied with a brisk salute and, with the agility of a mountain goat, hopped away up the face of the rubbish cliff, zig-zagging from an outcrop of empty paint cans to the frame of a half-buried bed. Down flew a cascade of chair legs and cupboard drawers and even a tea chest, which the boys proceeded to destroy and add to the proto-bonfire.

In no time at all, they had generated a crackling, roaring blaze. Soon, it had become so warm that even Jess had to take off her coat. She hung it on an abandoned hat stand well away from the fire. However, small fires aren’t nearly as much fun as big ones, and they need feeding if they are to grow. Soon, the boys (plus Katie) were tossing anything they thought would burn into the flames. Jess looked both horrified and fascinated by this scene of wanton destruction, but she didn’t join in; instead, she sat on a dressing table and let the others have their fun. Soon the fire had grown big enough to throw on whole pieces of furniture – chairs, tables and even a chest of drawers.

After forty minutes of continuous effort, even hardened pyromaniacs like Tom and Alan seemed satisfied with the fire’s size, and joined Jess on her dressing table perch for a breather – sweaty, red-faced and gleeful. Even Katie’s normally milk-pale skin had reddened slightly and she continued to ferret around for anything flammable the others had overlooked, to add to the inferno. “I wish I’d brought my camera!” she shouted across to Jess. “You got yours?”

Jess shook her head. “Next time,” Alan said, and returned Katie’s grin. “Meanwhile, this dressing table’s next! Come on, Tom, we can take an end each.”

Like a scalded cat, Jess immediately leapt off. She looked dismayed, as the boys prepared to lift it up, and stood behind the large, oval mirror, hugging it protectively. “You can’t burn this! I forbid it. Have you no romance in your soul?”

The others looked at her with genuine puzzlement. Tom stood up and folded his arms. “What are you wittering on about, woman?”

“Well, look at it. It’s a dressing table. My mum has one just like it. Try to imagine, over its lifetime, how many women have sat in front of this mirror. Think of all the faces that have been made up, all the hair that’s been brushed. Think of…”

Alan held up a hand to interrupt Jess’s declamation. “Actually you know, Tom, I think she’s absolutely right. You’re right, Jess,” he replied to a rather surprised Jess. “We can’t just burn it.”

“She is? Why the hell not?” Tom regarded his companion with deep puzzlement. It was made of wood. It burned. End of…

“No, my friend. We cannot possibly burn this wonderful example of the furniture-makers’ craft. No way can we burn it.” Alan turned and walked solemnly away, shaking his head and still muttering, “No way can it be burned.” Then, after a few paces, he stopped. He bent and picked up a half brick. Turning, he pointed dramatically at the dressing table and bellowed, “IT WILL NOT BURN! NOT UNTIL I’VE SMASHED THE MIRROR!

“Jess, GET BACK!” Tom yelled.

Barely waiting for the others to scatter, Alan pitched the projectile with violent force at the glass. It exploded with a cartoon-like smash-tinkle, sending splinters in all directions. Jess screamed and crouched, covering her ears, even though none of the glass actually landed anywhere near her.

“That’s another seven years’ bad luck,” Tom noted, grinning.

****

They stayed and watched until the fire had engulfed the dressing table in roaring, yellow flames. “Right,” Tom announced. “Let’s cash in these bottles and get down to Tony's for a well-earned cuppa.”

“Not forgetting the toast,” Katie added. She smiled sympathetically at Jess who she noticed, in the end, did not actually look that bothered about the fate of the dressing table. “Don’t forget your coat,” she said, and watched as Jess retrieved it. On one side, the PVC material had become too hot even to touch and, instead of wearing it, she carried it by the coat tag, swinging it to cool it down as the four picked their way over the uneven ground. Jess wore a tired half-smile; it was not often that she looked happy. Katie linked arms with the coat and skipped along beside her tall companion. “Did you enjoy your morning?” she asked.

“Not sure. Here, you can wear it if you like.”

Katie slipped the coat on. It hung on her and made her look about nine. “I’d go again,” she said. “Would you?”

Jess shrugged. “Dunno. I’d definitely have to buy some wellies though,” she said non-committally.

The green ones with a buckle, of course, Katie thought, like people wore at the racing stables; she couldn’t imagine Jess wearing ordinary black wellingtons. She glanced at Jess’s feet. At some point during the morning, her orange platforms had sunk into the mud, which by chance had lent the footwear a rather attractive brown and orange two-tone effect. “Oh go on, Jess. Why should the boys have all the fun?”

“Mmm. I suppose I have to admit that burning stuff is a laugh, but the whole place is so smelly and unhygienic. At least we didn’t see any rats, thank God, but even so… I’d have to think about it.”

“Can you think of a quicker way to earn four bob?”

Jess didn’t speak but Katie could tell from her faraway expression that she was gathering her thoughts. “How about ten quid?” she blurted, then bit her lip.

Katie regarded her friend with a quizzical half smile. “For doing what, exactly?”

“He said it will only take an hour, two at the most. And I can bring a friend for company, if I want.” Jess’s bottom lip stuck out defensively, even though Katie had said nothing. She pulled a business card from her shoulder bag. “I phoned him up the other day. While Mum was at work,” she added quickly. “He remembered me. Said he could arrange for a professional photographer to take the photos at his studio in Canterbury. It’s all legit. It’s even in the phone book – Napier Photographic.”

“And you’ll get paid a tenner. What sort of photos?”

“The kind you see in clothing catalogues. You know, Freemans or Grattan, that type of thing. And I get to try on lots of different outfits. Sounds good, doesn’t it? What do you think? Would you come with me?”

Katie frowned. “Sounds a bit too good to be true, if you ask me. What’s in it for him?”

Jess sighed. “He says if the photos sell he’ll have earned a nice profit.”

“And if they don’t?”

“If they don’t, then he’s lost a tenner. Either way, I’ll have a set of pictures to start my modelling portfolio.”

It sounded to Katie as if she’d already made up her mind. Sounding a note of caution might not do any good, but she had to give it a try. “You trust him, then? Not sure I would. Seems like a smarmy toad if you ask me.”

“Maybe, but his money’s as good as the next fellows, isn’t it? Oh, come on, Katie, don’t be a spoilsport.”

By now, the girls had stopped walking. Katie could feel Jess’s eyes on her and heard her say, “You’re not jealous are you? Is that it?”

There was a pause. Katie said nothing. She couldn’t think of a reply that wouldn’t merely confirm her friend’s suspicion. The idea was too ridiculous. Instead, she said, “What does your mum think?”

Jess looked uncomfortable. Her gaze dropped to her feet. One shoe tapped on the other. “To be honest, I haven’t got around to telling her yet.”

Katie could easily imagine why, but decided against stating the patently obvious. “So, when’s it happening, then?”

“So far, I haven’t actually said yes, but I will if you’ll come along too. It’ll be fun. He’s even going to give us the bus fare, so we could have a day looking round the shops.”

Katie could think of better ways of spending a day, if she was honest. Down the tip with Alan, setting fire to stuff for one. In the end, Jess’s pathetic expression proved potent enough to sway her. “OK, I’ll go, but only on the condition you tell your mum about it. Promise?”

“’Course I will, you bet. And your gran won’t mind?”

Katie gave a chuckle. “Nah, she won’t care. And I won’t even have to lie about it.”