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The Rag and Bone Man

by Sandra Crook

The Rag and Bone man came round every Friday morning, his old pony dragging a flat-backed cart wearily up and down the streets of our Lancashire town. His arrival would be presaged by the cry “Ra-Bo” echoing along the neighbouring streets, a sound that would suddenly energise our mothers.

Women would scurry out of their houses to dump old clothes on the back of the cart, wrinkled clothes that smelt of death, just like all the blankets and sheets my mother had inherited when Gran died. The odour was, in fact, just general damp and mustiness.

Death, I learned later, has quite a different smell.

I used to wonder what use those stinking rags could be to anyone; no-one in their right mind would surely want anything from that sorry pile accumulating on his cart throughout the day.

I also used to wonder who on earth had bones to give away to the Rag and Bone man. Any neighbour who may be fortunate enough to afford a joint of meat in those days, would be more likely to consign the bones to the neighbour’s dog, in the vain hope of buying peace for a couple of hours. After it had been boiled and re-boiled for soup stock, that is.

The rags that our mothers gave were exchanged for one of two items; a large donkey stone, traditionally used for cleaning the worn stone steps of the long rows of terraced houses, or a goldfish, which would be scooped from a large bowl into whatever receptacle was provided. In reality however, few mothers wanted a goldfish, and despite our pleas, they’d hurry back indoors clutching their donkey stones. The fish would only die the next day, they insisted; better to have something useful.

The Rag and Bone man was a menacing apparition, with his dirty old coat that flapped at his calves, a battered hat, fingerless gloves and a grubby white scarf. Why, I used to wonder, would you wear a white scarf when your neck was thick with grime? Yet the white scarf was just about the only thing that was ever clean about him, seemingly being washed at least every week.

Instinctively we treated him with caution, avoiding his gaze, though none of us could have articulated the reason for this. His arrival was a signal for us to scurry to the side of the road, well out of his way, leaving our hopscotch half-finished, and our tops, with their brightly chalked surfaces unwhipped. The Rag and Bone man was not like the milkman, who was a friendly soul, allowing two or three of us to clamber onto his cart, and maybe letting us ride to the top of the street, our heels drumming against the huge steel urns of milk under the seat. The Rag and Bone man wore a perpetual scowl, and his pony had a nasty temper, unlike Ned, the milkman’s affable old nag.

The only one of us who seemed unafraid of him was Maisie Wild, a girl, who at thirteen, was older than the rest of us but who, it was generally acknowledged, had a mental age of someone far younger. Maisie lived with her mother at the bottom of our street. There wasn’t, and never had been any sign of a father, and those of us who listened at doors or paid attention to the whisperings of our parents might have gleaned that Maisie’s condition was due to her mother having bound herself up in tight corsets to hide her pregnancy for as long as possible.

If this engendered a sense of disapproval amongst our elders, we were completely unaffected by this censure. Maisie was no problem for us; she might take a little bit longer to understand the rules of our games, and she was unable to run as fast as we could. But we tolerated her, and in the main defended her against the taunts of groups of kids from neighbouring streets.

Maisie was fascinated by the goldfish swimming around in the large bowl on the back of the Rag and Bone man’s cart, and whilst we would wander off to play elsewhere until he’d gone, she would hang around at the back of the cart, her nose pressed against the bowl, watching the fish flit this way and that.

And then one day Maisie disappeared. Censure was forgotten as neighbours from all the surrounding streets formed search parties and joined the local bobbies in the hunt for her. The search went on right through the night and every day for the following week, as neighbours scoured the fields, streams and gullies for Maisie, calling out her name. Eventually the worst was assumed, and the search was called off.

It was weeks before her body was found. My brother Jimmy and I were taking a shortcut home from school, crossing the heath despite our parents having expressly forbidden us to deviate from the main roads. There were a lot of ‘out of bounds’ places since Maisie’s disappearance.

“What’s that pong?” I asked, my nostrils quivering in distaste.

To our right the bushes had been flattened, as if something had been dragged through into the deeper part of the wood. Jimmy approached the clearing cautiously, with me behind, hanging onto the back of his coat. There was a white scarf draped around the base of an old oak tree, and beneath it...

We never described what we saw; at that tender age there were no appropriate words in our vocabulary. To this day we remember the scene though, just as we also remember running screaming across the heath and down our street, neighbours throwing open doors as we passed.

No-one ever mentioned Maisie in front of us again, not even our friends.

Nor did we ever see the Rag and Bone man again, not after the police took him away.

We did, however, finally come to understand why he was called the Rag and Bone man.

Copyright © 2012 by Sandra Crook

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