THE TROUBLE WITH HIRING SKIPS

Norman knew that hiring skips was a risky business. It was said that once the lease forms were signed, and a container was placed outside one’s home, a curious and ancient lore of nature was invoked. Mysteriously, magically, always during the cover of darkness, an old and tatty mattress was destined to appear in the skip, and no one would ever be able to explain its origins.
+++So on the morning Norman’s skip was due for collection, it came as no surprise that this enigmatic item had somehow materialised overnight. Every bit as old and tatty as legend dictated, the mattress crowned his pile of garage rubbish like a springy mountain summit. Norman accepted its presence with a kind of knowing forgiveness, but in the circumstances, what made the situation a trifle uncomfortable was the dead body that lay upon the mattress that lay upon his skip. To be blunt, Norman thought it a bloody liberty.
+++Dressed in a bathrobe and slippers, Norman stood on the driveway outside his house, a mug of tea growing steadily cold in his hand. Frowning thoughtfully, he studied the dead body: a man wearing blue and white striped pyjamas. His open eyes stared up lifelessly at the morning sky.
+++For an hour Norman stood staring at this grim vision, and was only vaguely aware of the yellow recollection lorry pulling up outside his house. Distantly, he heard a door open then slam shut again, and then a voice saying, “Bugger!”
+++Mentally applauding the remark’s suitability, Norman looked at the short and tubby man who had appeared beside him. He had very hairy arms.
+++With a tut, the man called back to his lorry. “Can you see this, sunshine?” he said to a shadowy figure still sitting in the cab. The shadow made no reply. “What a mess,” the tubby man muttered. The name ‘Bernie’ had been embroidered on the breast pocket of his company shirt.
+++“There’s a dead body in my skip, Bernie,” said Norman. “You don’t see that very often, do you?”
+++Bernie shrugged. “Third this month, actually, squire. Been a right pain since they changed the laws.”
+++“Of course it has. What are you talking about?”
+++“Sanitation,” Bernie replied, “Amended everything, they have. Plays merry bloody hell with my rounds. Still, someone has to do it, and as long as they’re paying me, eh?”
+++“Yep.” Norman quickly surmised that Bernie made no sense to anyone but himself. “I’m calling the police,” he decided.
+++Bernie sucked air over his teeth. “No point really, squire. They’ll only tell you to let me deal with it.” He chuckled.
+++“Only in England, eh?”
+++Norman tapped a finger against his lips. “Are you mental?”
+++“Pardon me?”
+++“At some point in your life you got hit in the head really hard, perhaps?”
+++“I don’t follow.”
+++“An ill-timed joke, then?”
+++“Is there a problem, squire?”
+++Norman’s grip tightened on the mug of cold tea. “Bernie, there’s a dead man in my skip.”
+++“Yes, I can see that.”
+++“On a mattress . . . in my skip . . . my dead neighbour.”
+++“Neighbour? Knew him, did you, squire?”
+++“Yes. Yes I did. It’s Frank Tilden.”
+++“Oh . . .” Bernie leant towards Norman conspiratorially. “Just between you, me, and the weather, like – was Mr Tilden having any problems?
+++“Problems?”
+++“It might be important.”
+++Norman frowned. “Well, he’s been finding it hard since his wife left, but-”
+++“Say no more.” Bernie tapped the side of his nose. “Do away with the old man, did you, squire? Clear the path for you and Mrs Tilden?”
+++“What?” Norman was aghast. “I didn’t kill Frank, and I certainly wasn’t having an affair with Sandra!”
+++“As you please.” With a knowing grin, Bernie took a yellow invoice pad from his shirt pocket, and produced a stubby pencil from behind his ear. “Now, there’s a surcharge for the dead body. All the extra handling and paperwork, you understand.” He licked the end of his pencil and poised over a fresh invoice ticket. “Who gets the damage?”
+++As a boy, Norman had been a cub scout. It should have prepared him for much in life. But he couldn’t recall ever earning his Dead Neighbour badge, or, indeed, the badge for dealing with lorry drivers called Bernie who were insane enough to find complete normality in a dead person’s presence.
+++He cleared his throat. “I just wanted to get rid of the rubbish from my garage,” he told Bernie. “I’m making room for a model railway, you see. I had it all planned. I bought the controller’s uniform, the whistle and flags, everything. Only yesterday, Frank here said he was looking forward to seeing it, maybe even popping round occasionally as a guest conductor. But now . . . “ Norman blinked and then baulked. “What do you mean there’s a bloody surcharge?”
+++“That’s right, squire. Payable on collection.”
+++“But I’ve already paid!”
+++“It’s all explained on the hire form,” Bernie said, “small print, of course. A whole separate department deals with dead rubbish now, and it don’t pay for itself.” He pointed to the shadowy figure still sitting in the lorry. “And the Undertakers ain’t exactly on minimum wage, either.”
+++“What are you talking about? I didn’t kill Frank.”
+++Bernie pulled a face like he’d heard it all before. “Whatever occurred here really ain’t none of my business, squire, but at the end of the day it’s your responsibility to ensure your refuse doesn’t get mixed, which you haven’t done, and that carries a penalty.” He licked the end of his pencil again. “So that’ll be a hundred pounds – cash, card or cheque.”
+++“A hundred pounds!” Norman was momentarily speechless. “That’s ridiculous.”
+++“Should’ve thought of that before you did away with poor Mr Tilden,” Bernie replied. “Just think yourself lucky I ain’t the recycling mob.”
+++“I don’t care who you are! I’ve never shared a cross word with Frank in my life.”
+++“I suppose he just magically appeared overnight as well as the mattress, did he?” Bernie chuckled. “Listen, squire, stick to your guns all you want if it makes you feel better, but if I were you, I’d just take this one on the chin. It’ll only get worse if you don’t. Savvy?”
+++“You’re a bloody idiot!”
+++Bernie’s expression fell. “Is that right . . .?” With the measured calm of a gunslinger cocking his six-shooter, he flipped the invoice pad closed, and thrust it back into his pocket. “Can you prove this particular item ain’t your handiwork?” he asked levelly.
+++Norman pursed his lips. “Well . . . I’ve got nothing to hand, but-”
+++“Well I have,” Bernie snapped. “And I warn you, if the Undertaker catches you in the lie, there’ll be a fifty-pound fine on top of that surcharge. Is that really what you want?”
+++Norman drew himself up. “I’ve nothing to hide,” he declared. “You’re not getting a penny more than I’ve already paid.”
+++“Your choice.” Bernie stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled loudly. “Come on, sunshine,” he called to the lorry. “Time to earn your wages.”
+++The door to the cab opened, and the shadowy figure got out. Norman gulped. This so-called ‘Undertaker’ was at least seven foot tall and dressed in a long black cassock, buttoned up to the neck. Upon his head was a black top hat. There were no eyes in the sockets of his pale and gaunt face, just empty, dark holes. He floated towards the skip, his massive bare feet gliding a few inches above the ground.
+++“If you’d like to stand back,” said Bernie, taking Norman’s arm, and leading him away from the skip. “Your life-force might interfere with proceedings.”
+++“W-What’s he going to do?” Norman asked.
+++“What he’s paid for,” Bernie said smugly. “He’s going to tell us the cause of Mr Tilden’s death. But I think we already know how this one ends, eh, squire?”
+++Confused and fearful, Norman decided a good sip of cold tea was the best way to calm his nerves.
+++The Undertaker loomed tall and stick-thin over Frank Tilden’s dead body. He raised his hands and began chanting in a whispery voice too low to understand, though Norman thought he caught the word rise.
+++Bernie rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, almost excitedly. “You might’ve got away with a thing or two in the eyes of the police,” he told Norman, “but you can’t hide from the refuse mob. Oh no. We’ve got eyes everywhere.”
+++Norman flinched as the Undertaker clapped, once, and began rubbing his hands together. Grey flakes of dead skin fell onto the corpse’s face like morbid snowfall. This time, Norman definitely heard the word rise, and then flinched again as lifeless Frank Tilden suddenly sneezed and spluttered.
+++“All right!” Frank shouted. “I’m awake, okay?” He sat up on the mattress, wiping skin-dust from his eyes, and then looked around, confused, until he saw Norman. “Norm!” he said chirpily. “How’s the railway coming along?”
+++“Oh, won’t be ready for a few days yet,” Norman replied, and the mug of tea slipped from his hand to smash on the driveway. “What the bloody hell are you doing, Frank?”
+++“I’m not sure, to be honest.”
+++Norman waited patiently as the gaze of his resurrected neighbour rested on Bernie, moved to the big yellow lorry, and then lastly to the ghoulish Undertaker. Finally, his confusion became realisation.
+++“Oh,” said Frank.
+++“Exactly,” said Norman.
+++“If you wouldn’t mind piping down,” Bernie said, and then looked at the Undertaker expectantly. “What’s the word, sunshine?”
+++Ignoring the tubby driver, the black-clad ghoul floated back to the lorry, folding himself into the cab once again.
+++With an uncertain frown, Bernie strode to the foot of the skip, where a brown paper tag had mysteriously appeared, tied to Frank’s big toe. He read it, and his smug confidence vanished like air from a burst balloon.
+++“Bugger!”
+++Norman barged him out of the way and read the tag for himself.
+++“What does it say?” Frank asked.
+++“Council Property,” Norman growled. “Suicide by rat poison.”
+++Frank nodded. “Sounds about right.”
+++Norman rounded on Bernie angrily. “I told you I didn’t kill him, but oh no, you wouldn’t believe me, would you? You had to get all high and mighty with your pencil and your pad and your big stupid lorry with your ridiculously tall man with no eyes who floats and raises dead people and – hold on!” He swung back to Frank. “You killed yourself? What the bloody hell for?”
+++“I didn’t mean to,” Frank said. He was now resting up on one elbow, cradling his cheek in a hand, and appeared quite comfortable on the mattress. “I was crying out for help, that’s all. You were supposed to find me before I kicked the bucket.”
+++“Frank, that’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever said.”
+++“Have a heart,” Frank said. “I am dead, you know.”
+++“But why?”
+++“My wife,” Frank replied sadly. “I couldn’t live without her. I thought if you told Sandra about how I’d tried to kill myself, she’d come back out of sympathy.” He shrugged. “Not my best plan in retrospect, but I don’t suppose it matters now that I’m dead. It’s very liberating, actually.”
+++Norman was speechless.
+++It was then he realised that Bernie, in his shame, had sloped off to his lorry, and had now reversed up the driveway. The tubby driver jumped from the cab, and quickly connected the skip to the thick chains hanging from the hydraulic lift arm.
+++“No extra charge after all, squire,” he said, forcing a light but nervy chuckle. “All square, like, nothing to sign. I’ll just be off now.”
+++Norman no longer had the energy to form a retort. Bernie jumped back in the cab, slamming the door shut after him. With the hisses and churns of machinery, the skip rose from Norman’s driveway and settled onto the back of the lorry.
+++“Sorry to put you out, Norm,” Frank called down. “I really didn’t mean things to turn out this way.”
+++Consoling himself with the knowledge that a day like today couldn’t possibly happen again, Norman tried to raise a smile for his dead friend, but failed. “At least you brought a mattress to get comfy on,” he said weakly.
+++“This old thing?” Frank replied as the lorry pulled away. “Nothing to do with me, old boy. It was already here when I arrived.”