The Dignified Mendicant

Many years ago, I was on my regular seven week call out rota; and at about 4 pm I got a message from the Hackney call centre one Saturday, I’m guessing about, 1976 -some forty years ago. I was asked to attend an address in Shoreditch right to the east of the borough between Hackney and Islington. The controller was the caretaker come night watchman at the Defoe Road depot in Stoke Newington. He was vague about what the call out was, in fact he had no knowledge about the building trades. He was probably the worst person to  take emergency calls from the tenants. It was common knowledge that he had been made up as the night controller from working “on the dust” (a dustman). I suppose he was no longer fit enough to lift heavy bins or cope with the newly introduced heavy “Paladin bins” on the many Hackney housing estates. He could be very feisty when questioned in any depth as to the detail of any call out, so after some years we (the plumbers) just settled for the number and address of the call we were to attend. We then were ready to turn up and assess whatever the problems were without any prior information.

That Saturday was even a surprise to me however, I considered myself as both streetwise as well as tough when it came to dealing with Hackney tenants or indeed the public. Anyway I duly arrived at Cavendish Court that Saturday afternoon and the flat door was opened to my knocking, was eventually responded to by an elderly woman, whom I guessed was perhaps in her early eighties. I soon discovered that all she was concerned about was the drain from the block in the front appeared to be defective as sewage was backing up both into the outside gulley’s as well as gurgling in the water trap of her toilet each time someone in one of the flats above flushed their W.C. or discharged waste water from their bath, basin or kitchen sink. The tenant was very apologetic about calling anyone but could not understand why her toilet pan was making such peculiar and unusual noises. In minutes I returned to my van to retrieve my tools and set of drain rods and immediately located the nearest 24” x 18” manhole cover that I lifted with some difficulty as it had obviously been some years before the lid had been lifted before. Within about 20 minutes I had freed the drain blockage and returned to the tenant at her ground floor flat to ask for a bucked or bowl of water in order to throw over my rods to clean them, I asked permission for be to collect the water from her bath or sink, which was freely obtained, before I returned the rods and tools to my van,.

On returning her empty bucket, she asked me in again – I think because she wanted to be sure her toilet was no longer going to make weird noises, and being as it was a Saturday afternoon and I was on callout wages, I agreed thinking she would make me a cup of tea. In her neat clean front room with the sun shining through her window, she in her armchair with its old fashioned antimacassar lace on the back and me on her red patterned cloth sofa we chatted a bit. I was a bit forward in saying “may I ask how old you are Mum” to which she replied she was “old enough to have known both good times and those now on her”. She wasn’t exactly posh, but something about her was!

I was intrigued and asked “how long have you lived here” and pushed a little harder about the ‘times now on her’? I was shocked to learn that she hadn’t eaten at all that day  and was worried about how she would manage to get by, as she could not collect her pension from the post office until the following Thursday. That statement hit me like a sledgehammer, I resolved in that instant that she would have a decent meal that day and I would give her enough money to at least see her through to the Thursday.

I got her into the van with some difficulty, as she was very frail and drove to McDonalds on Kingsland Waste the name given to the High Street where, I had to park a little way away. Slowly, very slowly, with her holding my arm, we walked the 100 yards or so and I told her to order anything she saw on the menu that she might like.

It was not a lavish meal and not that particularly expensive, but I feel even now, pleased that on that one day in my life I had been a bit of a good Samaritan. With a great deal of persuasion, I pressed £30* into her hand as we parted back at her flat door.

*Corrected for inflation that is equivalent to £206 in 2016


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