The ashmen

Another chapter in my story about the young girl Peggy who with her sister Barbara is staying with their granny near the sea.

It was raining, really raining, and I couldn’t see the sea, but I sat by the window and tried to read my book, but I kept looking out of the window… The mizzen mast was broken and the ship was heaving to and the fore-deck was awash…
“You’re so rude!” screamed the first mate – except it wasn’t the first mate at all, it was Barbara. It took me a moment to leave my stricken vessel and come back to Granny’s sitting room and I didn’t know what was the matter this time.
“Barbara, will you stop this silly noise, I expect Peggy was busy reading!” as usual Granny stuck up for me… as usual… I Golly! That was an incredible thought, I suddenly realised – no I had a revelation! But then I had to concentrate, what on earth was the matter this time?
Apparently (my teacher says that a lot) apparently, Barbara wanted me to play mummies and babies with her dolls. She wanted me to be the teacher, so I said sorry I didn’t mean to be rude and yes I would play teachers and children with her dolls. Granny said well done, well done girls and went back to the kitchen.
I was teaching the dolls about history and Barbara was bored and apparently Granny had given us some magic painting books, so she went into the kitchen to sit at the table and do some painting. I carried on teaching the dolls and I had to be them to ask interesting questions so I could teach them interesting facts. Then one of the dolls who I call the blind doll because her eyes have fallen out but Barbara calls her some name like Sylvia, and the blind doll asked me about Dr Livingstone, so I told them the story about Henry Morton Stanley and him finding Dr Livingstone and saying “Dr Livingstone I presume.”
“You should be a teacher when you grow up Peggy, you would be very good! All your girls would pass their exams!” Granny was all dressed up in her mackintosh and gumboots and had a plastic bonnet over her hair.
“Thank you Granny, where are you going? Are you going to see Mr Benbow?”
“No dear, I’m going to take the rubbish up for the bean men,” she was pulling her gloves on.
“Bean men? Do they sell beans? What are the bean men?”
She laughed as if I’d said something funny, but not in an unkind way, and she explained that she had said binmen, dustbin men. It made me laugh, and we had a little chuckle about bean men, and I didn’t feel silly that I had made a mistake.
“Shall we tell Mr Benbow about the bean men?” I asked, and she said yes, he would enjoy that. I asked her if I could help her. I was jolly bored actually, but I didn’t want to be rude and say so. It’s funny really, I’ve hardly been rude at all since I’ve been with Granny, I’m always being rude at home, mummy says. Perhaps it’s the sea air. Mr Benbow says that, it’s the sea air he says.
“Can I help you with the rubbish, Granny, I’m really strong and good at carrying things!”
I thought she was going to say no, and I think she was, but then she smiled and said thank you that was very kind and told me to put my mac and boots on. I don’t mind going out in the rain, even if it’s not the monsoon in a tropical rain forest.
Granny had put the rubbish in an old sack and it was quite heavy, so she found another old bag and put some of it in that for me to carry. Granny asked Barbara if she wanted to come, but Barbara said no she didn’t want to carry smelly old rubbish and anyway she was scared of the ashmen, they stole children, mummy said.
Granny made her promise to be good and not touch anything, we don’t want anything broken again, do we, she said, and I think she meant the juggler but she was talking to Barbara. Hmmm that’s interesting… If everything was in order when we came back she would have a cup of tea and we could have a glass of milk and she would find some cake.
It wasn’t cold outside even though the rain was lashing down. In fact it was quite fun being out in the rain, braving the storm. We went out of the back door and through the vegetable garden and out of the gate at the back. We walked across the field, and the grass was really tall. It was like being on the savannah except I don’t think it rains on the savannah, does it?
“What’s a savannah, Peggy? You do know some unusual words!”
Was Granny being polite and making conversation? No, she really didn’t know about the savannah, so I told her and she said she admired me for knowing so much and being so interested in everything. I was amazed and I peeped at her to see if she was joking but she smiled in a lovely way and said she was proud to have such a clever granddaughter.
It made me feel a bit peculiar and after a while of walking across out across the sodden savannah I asked her something I’d not dared ask anyone else.
“Do the ashmen really steal naughty children? I’m sure they don’t, Granny, but I just sometimes wonder if they do?”
Granny looked at me in surprise, the rain dripping off her plastic hood. Was I not supposed to talk about the ashmen? I hoped we wouldn’t see them, I hope they would come with their ashcart later.
Before granny could answer there was a shout from up the field above us. Leaning over the stone wall was a jolly man with a red face and a leather cap on back to front.
“Ahoy, Mabel! You’ve got a shipmate I see!”
“Ahoy, Jimmy!” lovely weather for ducks, and yes I’ve got a strong helper with me today!”
“Hello, young shipmate!” Jimmy said to me as we got up to him. He had the smiliest face I think I have ever seen. Wreathed in smiles, I read that in a book and it seemed strange because wreaths are what you have at funerals Mummy said when I asked. My teacher explained what it meant with wreathed in smiles, and then found a picture of a Roman emperor with a laurel wreath and told the class about it.
“Hello Mr Jimmy,” I said politely. He stretched out to take my bag which was very kind and helpful and he took Granny’s as well. The chatted for a few minutes, just the things that grown-ups say about the weather and rationing and me and Barbara staying with Granny.
Then Granny said goodbye to Jimmy and he said a friendly goodbye to both of us, and we turned to make our soggy way down the field.
“That was very kind of Mr Jimmy to take our rubbish,” I remarked to Granny.
“Well that’s his job,” she said. What did she mean? She guessed I didn’t understand. “Well Jimmy is the binman,” she said.
I was so shocked I just stopped and looked at her. He didn’t look a bit like our binmen, he was so smiley and happy. Our binmen were always grumbling, and Mummy was always getting into arguments with them and then they would accidentally on purpose spill stuff on the garden path which would make her even more cross. They had angry faces, and their clothes were dirty with all the ash and cinders in the rubbish. That’s why they were called ashmen, because they took away the ash.
I believed Mummy when she said they took away naughty children. I had smiled at one and he’d said naughty words and asked me what I was smiling at. I’d been trying to be friendly and he frightened me.
“You’re frightened of the ashmen, aren’t you?” Granny asked. “Well you’ve just met Jimmy, he’s a very nice man and most binmen are nice men. There’s no need to be scared, Peggy.”
I didn’t know what to say, but I felt a horrible feeling in my chest.
“Sometimes you have bad dreams about the ashmen and their ashcart, don’t you?”
I looked at the ground.
“Well you don’t have to be frightened any more. When you think of the ashmen, think of the brave binmen coming to your rescue – Jimmy would soon see off a dozen ashmen! He’d turn them all to dust and take them away in his bin lorry.”
Maybe Mr Jimmy would be the first mate on my ship – he would chase away the buccaneers and pirates.
“Yes, Granny, thank you Granny.”
“When we get home we won’t have cake, we will make some magic moments and they will doubly get rid of the ashmen, won’t they?”
Magic moments? What are magic moments? I cheered up. This sounds a very exciting plan!


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