The weeds were lying in wait across the path, conspiring as much with the mountainous dog turds as with the enemy lurking behind the dingy curtains for a chance to cause trouble.
She tiptoed through the debris, configuring her features into a serene tableau that gave the impression that nothing would shake this woman, that whatever life -- and in particular this sodding job -- threw at her she would handle without batting an eyelid or disturbing a hair on her totally capable head.
The officious-looking woman with the ledger of doom rapped hard on the doorknocker: Rat-a-tat tat. She waited, imagining the occupants scurrying round like little mice hiding under sofas and beds in their attempt to appear out. Harder still this time: RAT-A-TAT TAT; the same tune percussed into a hundred doors twice a week. Still she waited, painfully aware of the heel of her too-new shoe rubbing relentlessly against the tender flesh of her foot; there would be blisters on her blisters by the time she got home. Oh, the sheer ecstasy and joy that a cup of milky coffee and a long hot soapy bubble bath would bring.
The door was finally flung open, the tenant obviously realising her ‘keep quiet and she’ll think we’re not in’ ploy had not worked, as indeed it had not worked on the previous two occasions that the collector had called. The lady of the house had decided direct confrontation was the only way to go.
“Y’ll `ave t’ come back next week, Ah can’t pay yer.”
The collector looked down ominously into her ledger. “Well Mrs. Hale, you did faithfully promise a payment this week. We can’t carry on like this you know. You are now quite seriously in arrears.”
“Well I’ve got a fella bringin` me some money next week. I’ll giy yer summat then.”
“I’m sorry Mrs. Hale, but I’m afraid that is just not good enough. This is the third week you’ve tried to send me away without a payment, and if I don’t get a result my boss is going to think I’m not up to the job, now isn’t he?”
“Listen, yer snotty old cow, I `AVEN’T GOT ANY MONEY! So what yer gonna do about it?”
Hmm, now this was a good question, and one that was rapidly occurring to the collector too. What was she going to do about it?
The two women squared up to each other on the doorstep. A look of open hostility, even open warfare, had sidled into the client’s eyes and she wasn’t about to kow-tow in a hurry.
The collector looked the woman over. One way she might be able to get some money out of the woman was by going into the fortune telling business. After all, she could tell the lady straight away that she had eaten egg and chips for her evening meal, although “eaten” might actually be a little on the optimistic side seeing as the lady appeared to be wearing most of the food as accessories.
Without being unkind, the lady was large: five hundred pounds plus at a rough guess. She wore a summer maternity type dress, yet it was February. The lady must have been cold standing there arguing on the doorstep in her thin dress and holey cardigan. Her feet were bare, kept warm only by the overspilling mounds of flesh on her lower legs. Her ankles had long since disappeared and her purple legs were severely ulcerated. Dirt was ingrained into the creases of the lady’s neck, and her overshot jowls had caused a nasty, sore-looking sweat rash to spread under her chins.
Did the collector’s face soften, as her heart went out to this woman? She hoped not. For then all would be lost.
She smiled at the client, with what she hoped was a look that said that although she was sympathetic to the woman’s plight, she was going to take no messing from her.
“Now listen here Mrs. Hale, there are two ways we can do this. The first way is that you and I talk this through and come up with something that you can afford, and more importantly afford to stick to, or I can get the bailiffs out who will take goods to the value.” This time her smile was warmer. “I’d prefer it to be the former, because the rotten sods won’t give me a mobile phone so I’d have to go all the way back to the office. Unless of course I can use your phone to call the bailiff’s.”
Her little joke was unappreciated. “You cheeky bitch” the other woman blustered. “I’m going to knife yer in a minute if you don’t just piss off.”
The collector again looked down at her little black book, this time in an effort not to grin. She felt the muscles at the corners of her mouth trying their damnedest to defy her and lead her into trouble. The thought of this tired lady pulling some manky old bread knife on her with last year’s ketchup still clinging to it amused her.
Her eyes glanced down towards her pocket, and she thought about the Balisong in her pants, a Japanese butterfly knife with an eight-inch blade. If she concentrated hard on it, she could even feel its reassuring weight rubbing against her outer thigh.
In this area, gangs of youths watched the collectors, learned their rounds and then lay in wait on cold dark rainy nights to relieve them of their night’s takings. The bosses were on the point of laying all the woman collectors off; three times in the last year at the company’s expense, extravagant bouquets of flowers had been delivered to wards in the local hospital where some unfortunate woman was recuperating. This was one collector who was not going to be their next victim.
The thought that the lady could pull a knife on her before she could draw and prepare her “Balli” was a funny one.
But that sounded cocky, and that is not how our collector wanted to appear to her clients. She had struggled enough in her own life to know that life isn’t always easy, and the pits of debt are lined with slippery mucus that makes it almost impossible to crawl out. She wanted to try and help her clients out of those pits. Wanted to befriend them, she hoped that she would be approachable, that if someone couldn’t “pay up or else” one week then it would be all right to leave it until the next. Parting with some of the pittance their benefits allowed was never going to be a happy experience for these people, but she hoped that she could help make it a painless one.
At that moment a feral urchin of about twelve squeezed passed his mother’s frame, and glared balefully at the collector.
“Hey mate, how ya doing?”
“Piss off” said the young boy; his mother grinned for the first time.
“Well,” the collector said, “I’m soaked to the skin, freezing cold, hungry and dying for a cuppa, and to top it all I have to have a cute kid like you swear at me.”
“My heart bleeds for ya” said the client sarcastically.
“Tell you what,” the collector said to the boy, “I’ll do you a deal. You promise never to swear at me again and I’ll give you fifty pence.”
The child looked up at the collector. That confirmed it, the woman was mad. Not many people gave him money for nothing, and certainly not someone who was getting a load of abuse from his old lady. His eyes narrowed slyly as he considered how best to manipulate the situation. “Fifty bloody pence. Make it a quid and you’ve got a deal.”
“Nope, not a chance. Fifty pee, take it or leave it” the collector said.
“Well then you can f…”
“Aaahh” jumped in the collector quickly. “But if you don’t take the deal I’ll tell all your mates on the street that you wet the bed.”
The collector cringed as she saw that she had obviously hit a nerve. The child’s defiance ran from him like pee in the night, and he hung his head in shame.
“Okay, deal” he said quietly.
“Is that all right Mum? Can I give him fifty pence?” It was important that the woman should have the final say. This was something that she had ultimate control over, and the collector wanted the woman to have that control.
“Do what you like, it’s your money.”
The collector dug in her pocket and found fifty pence for the child.
“There you go. And I’ll tell you what, if you want to make some more money, you tidy this garden up for your mum, and pick up all the dog muck, not forgetting to wash your hands afterwards, Then next Monday I’ll give you a quid.”
“What! You’ve got to be joking. A quid for clearing up all this mess? No chance.”
“Well, we’ll see how badly you want some spending money next week won’t we? It’ll be here for you in case you change your mind.”
“What the hell are you?” said the client, “Florence Nightingale of the knockers?”
“No I just like kids and shoes.”
“Eh?” said the client.
“Well, if he cleans the path, my new shoes aren’t going to get ruined are they?”
For the first time the woman’s grin was genuine.
“So,” said the collector, are you ready to talk now?”
The woman bristled.
“Listen.” Said the collector “You give me just one measly pound, and then I’ll tell you why you feel good about it.”
The client laughed bitterly. “So you think I’m going to feel good about giving you money?”
“Yep, it’ll be the best quid you’ve spent all week.”
“Go on then. I’m biting.” The client’s eyes had opened with a look of interest, and her retort showed for the first time a shrewd and nippy intelligence that had previously been hidden beneath the heavily cowled eyes.
“Okay. You owe just short of three grand. I know you are on benefits and so that must seem like an insurmountable amount to pay back. So you hide from it; avoid it; push it from your mind and cover your worry with a tough ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude.” She held up her hand to stem the woman’s angry response. “If you paid me just one pound, it’s the first step in getting this bloody millstone from around your neck. Gradually, week by week, you will see the balance come down, and you can feel good that you have the self-respect to want to get out of the debt you’ve landed in. Of course it’d take years to pay off three grand at one pound a week, so later when you feel more confident about it we can increase the payments, and before you know it you won’t have to suffer my ugly mug on your doorstep every Monday night.”
“What are you, a collector or a fucking social worker?” The client asked, a note of belligerence in her voice.
“I’m a collector who sees a woman with very little self-respect. I’d like to see you take some respect for yourself.”
The client turned into the doorway and shouted for her son, who had taken the fifty pence without so much as a “Thank you” and had run upstairs with it. She yelled at him to bring her purse.
The collector made out a card for the client and after taking the first pound coin off her, she marked in the new balance as £2987.65, one pound less than the previous figure.
Mrs. Hale smiled. “One down” she said.
The boy pushed past his mother again. “And where do you think you’re going”, she asked.
“The shop, of course.”
“Well,” said his mother, “get back in there and get your coat on, it’s cold out.”
The collector didn’t notice the look that passed between mother and son, she just moved forward to help when the child stumbled on the step.
The next time the boy appeared, he was duly wrapped up for arctic conditions. “Hey Sue, thanks for the fifty pence.”
“How did you know my name?” asked the collector with a puzzled look on her face, though she knew perfectly well how he knew.
“Your name tag, stupid.”
“Oh of course. Don’t forget to wash your hands after you’ve cleared the garden. By the way, what’s your name?”
“Bye Pete, bye Mrs. Hale”
“Yes?” She turned back to the little boy with the soulful eyes.
“You won’t tell the kids about, uh…you know, will you?”
“Not a chance mate.”
The collector wet her finger and crossed it across her breast. “Cross my heart” she said.
She wandered down the path with a grin on her face. God she hated being a knocker. It was a dirty job but someone had to do it.
The client leaned against the back of the closed front door and fingered the rumpled twenty-pound note in her hand. Pete was turning into a right chip off the old block, that do gooding, frigging` collector hadn’t felt a thing. She must remember to tell his dad about it next visiting day at the nick.
That night Susan sat in bubbles up to her neck in her clean house, and gave sincere thanks for what she had, even if she was twenty pounds lighter after her balance wouldn’t tally. She really would have to be more careful. Maybe she had dropped it out of her purse at one of the stops.
Copyright © 1999 Sue (Sooz) Simpson