Although we have only met once Mr B and I have had a long business relationship, every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, going back decades. Our only meeting was about 15 years ago, early one summer morning. I was coming home after a night out and he was delivering milk. I strolled over and introduced myself and he did the same and that was that. We have never met since although I have occasionally woken to the gentle hum of his milk float coming up the street or the rattle of bottles in his crate.
I was once a newspaper boy and consider that Mr B and I are members of the same exclusive freemasonry - the Dawn Patrol. We are the men, woman and young people too who get up before dawn to kick start the day - delivering milk and newspapers, posting letters, collecting the community’s rubbish and sweeping the streets. We share the animosity of those who complain about us - noisy dustcarts rumbling up the empty streets or the crash of fancy letter boxes slamming shut. We have our own complaints too. People who do not sort out their rubbish properly, fail to wash their empty milk bottles or have robotic letterboxes built like Hitler’s Atlantic Wall - with metal spikes and brushes inside designed to resist any insertion and rip your fingers to pieces at the same time…but all these things we cope with because it is our duty to do so and deliver. When I delivered newspapers back in the 1960s the newsagent said that there was direct line from the journalist crouching in a foxhole in Vietnam to me sticking a copy of the Daily Mail through the front door of “Cherry Garth”. We were part of an important communication chain and that responsibility weighed heavily on my teenage shoulders.
Mr B has never let me down. He has never deviated from his three-times-a-week delivery or failed to leave my order just inside the porch on the right-hand side. I was so impressed by his reliability that I decided to write a piece about his early morning life from load-up time in Hanworth to finally getting home for breakfast. I left a letter for him tucked amongst my empty bottles asking if I might go out on the round with him one morning but he said that the milk company was ‘rebranding’ at the time and probably would not support the idea and that was the end of that.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this year things began to go awry with Mr B. Instead of the milk being delivered to the right side of the porch as usual it appeared on the left. Strange! It was often late. I suspected that this was due to more people having milk delivered, along with bread, yoghurt¸ butter and a yard of other larder essentials. Whatever the problem the milk still arrived. A week or so ago I heard Mr B at the door so stepped out to see him but it wasn’t Mr B at all. It was another milkman, Chris. He said that Mr B was ill and in isolation. Since then I have heard nothing more. The milk still comes and the float still hums and the bottles still rattle in their crate but I know that my unseen friend, Mr B, the keyworker who comes with the dawn, has briefly stepped aside. I wish him well and all his nocturnal colleagues too.
EARLY in the morning, when the dawn is on the roofs, You hear his wheels come rolling, you hear his horses hoofs; You hear the bottles clinking, and then he drives away: You yawn in bed, turn over, and begin another day! The old-time dairy maids are dear to every poet's heart- I'd rather be the dairy man and drive a little cart, And bustle round the village in the early morning blue, And hang my reins upon a hook, as I've seen Casey do.
Christopher Morley 1890-1957
– from Martyn Day