It’s a sunny Monday morning in February (2019). I’m sat on the sofa drinking my usual two cups of coffee and getting some reading in before I head to work. As I get up to leave I spot the weird black stains on the sofa I inherited when I moved in six months ago. I’ve been meaning to order a throw since September to cover the whole thing up.
I’ve got a few minutes to spare. I sit down and open the Amazon app. I spend ten minutes measuring the sofa and choosing a black and white throw to match my rug. I notice that both next day and same day delivery are free. Why wait when I can get it today at no extra cost? I’m chuffed. I head to work.
At 19:35 my buzzer rings.
Third floor my dude. I buzz him in. People often get lost, baffled that flat 19 is on the third floor. “Only the English could design something as confusing as this place,“ one delivery driver said when he finally found my flat. Another was guided to my front door by a helpful kid she bumped into on the floor above and on the other side of the block.
I flick the light on in my small, square hallway in the privately-owned council flat I rent in East London. I can hear the patter of feet coming up the stairs already. It sounds like the delivery man is running. That’s just one of the charms of living in a post-war council block: you can hear everything that goes on in the stairwells and landings. Every morning at 8.25, as I’m sat reading on my sofa, I hear the clip clop of the woman on the fourth floor who wears high heels to work.
There’s a soft knock on the door. I open it.
The man’s voice is gentle and he’s quite well spoken. I’d say he’s about 35, a little overweight, bespectacled, a little flushed.
But it’s the two kids with him that strike me. A girl and a boy no older than six or seven. The girl is snivelling and she looks cold. Maybe she’s bored or hungry. Or maybe she’s been told off for something. I don’t see much of the boy.
Thanks. I take my parcel.
And off they go. I shut the door. I stand in place for about 10 seconds.
I feel guilty. Kids should be at home, no? Instead they’re out doing same day Amazon deliveries. I’ve no idea the guy’s personal or financial situation but it surely can’t be great if he’s taking his kids around with him delivering parcels on a Monday evening in February.
Is their Mum at work? The gym? Ill? Dead? Perhaps they’re divorced and it’s one of his days. I know that one. Maybe he’s doing it just to earn some extra cash. But no family or friends to look after them for a bit? I wonder how long they’ve been out. Maybe it’s a one off thing.
I know stories about the low pay, long hours, shitty working conditions of delivery work from friends and family. For a couple of years I didn’t even use Amazon. Yet here I am now with a Prime subscription. It was half price because Amazon thinks I’m still a student. I beat the system! Except I didn’t because I gave my money to a company that exploits its workers and dodges tax. I know this. Yet I still buy things I don’t need from Amazon. And I’m chuffed when I get free same day delivery at the expense of someone who’s forced to take his kids with him when he does deliveries. (I don’t know this but I can’t see why he’d do it otherwise.)
But now I’m thinking of my childhood. I used to spend all day with my Dad driving around in his van, repairing cars on the roads in all sorts of weather. When I was really young, probably before school age, we’d sometimes go out in the evenings. I had toys and books to amuse myself. I liked sitting up high watching the world go by. But I’d always be able to stay in the warm van. I didn’t need to run up the stairs in confusing council blocks.
When I was older he’d pick me up from school. I’d hang around the garage (he’d given up mobile mechanics by then). I’d sit in the damaged cars he’d bought cheap to repair and sell on, making racing car noises and pretending I was in a police chase. I’d get mucky. I’d eat cheese and onion sandwiches, leaving black fingerprints on the white bread. Sometimes I’d break stuff. Sometimes we’d go to the auctions. I’d often do something I shouldn’t and hurt myself. It wasn’t unusual to stay late and for me to unrelentingly ask when we were going home.
I stayed with my Dad Sunday-Tuesday and we’d often go to the cinema on a Sunday. We usually drove past the garage on the way home, just to make sure. It was in one of the most deprived areas of the city, a trait shared by most of my old man’s garages.
I remember the Sunday evening the lights were on when they shouldn’t have been. I remember the shifty looking dude stood outside the front gates. The place was being robbed. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last. My Dad pulled up and jumped out the car. I was ordered to stay put.
“You got the time mate?”
The shifty dude did not. My Dad peeked through the slender gap between the 12ft metal gates.
“What you standing here for?”
The shifty dude did not have a reason.
Back in the car we raced down to the corner of the street and rang the police from the phone box. As we raced back to the garage my Dad was cursing himself for leaving his brick of a Sony Ericsson at home. Once again I was ordered to stay in the car and keep the doors locked. The shifty dude was gone.
My Dad ran to the side door and disappeared inside. The lights were on but the place was empty. He’d scared them off. I was allowed out of the car but told to sit in the office instead. The police came not long after. I was spooked. Not as badly as when your home is burgled but I was still spooked.
At the time I wasn’t much older than the girl and boy doing Prime deliveries with their own Dad. I must’ve been around eight. Maybe a bit younger but not much.
The spookiness wore off as the police and my Dad went around the garage. I wandered around. Someone had found some spit on the floor. It didn’t belong to any of us. A forensic was called to take a sample. My memory is sketchy here but I think they found the person and it eventually went to court. I don’t know the outcome.
The next afternoon, after a school day spent telling my friends about the now-exciting story of catching thieves in the act (how different everything is in the light of day), my Dad picked me up. We had a task to do that afternoon. We were breaking glass milk bottles, the old kind I used to love drinking from, into big pieces. Then we were sticking them to walls and floors with glue around the perimeter of the garage, or at places inside where you’d be likely to break in.
My Dad showed me how to break the bottles and glue them without cutting myself. I’d never done this before but he certainly had. As we worked we found a £20 note round the back, where the burglar the night before had likely jumped the wall.
This memory washes over me and my guilt. I know what it’s like to struggle for money sometimes. I know what it’s like to go to work with your Dad in the evenings and on weekends. I know what it’s like to break glass milk bottles to deter and maim would-be intruders.
My Dad still tells stories of him and his siblings sewing quilts in the back of the corner shop where they lived in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Then the eldest of them bundling into a van and driving to London or Leicester from Birmingham, going door-to-door with their Dad selling quilts in the evenings and on weekends. How his Dad wouldn’t leave until the last quilt was gone. Or how my Dad would drive home along deserted motorways with blocks on his seven year old feet because his Dad was too drunk to drive.
I feel guilty because I’m the reason two kids ran up three flights of stairs on a Monday evening. And it feels even worse because I know what it’s like.