Mondays mean early. Mondays mean fifty loaves of bread are available from the Greggs store on the High Street where all vehicle access ends at 8 am.
Technically the sun is up, but there is little evidence of that being the case. Downtown Dumfries is a country mile from making onto any kind of Christmas card as a half hearted wind wanders through the empty streets like an aimless beggar. It is a world of dismal orange as street lamps spill their light down onto wet pavements.
Not many people about. A street sweeper and the East European driver who parks up his artic wagon outside the Ryman shop at the same time every week with the cast iron punctuality of a German train.
Fifty loaves of bread for the hungry. 20 kilos worth of free and gratis carbs care of the nation’s favourite purveyor of fine pies and pasties. Our fifty loves will feed exactly fifty people for we have yet to learn the happy knack of taking a mere seven loaves and making them into enough to feed five thousand.
The next stop is usually Morrisons where we have a collection box. A rare chance to park up more or less next to the front door and walk into the store as it is rubbing its eyes and waking up. Donated tins and packets are scanned through on 'training mode' to give a total but no bill to pay. For the next year we also get the chance to empty the dog collection bin as the local sanctuary for the town’s lost and stray four legged friends is being sponsored by Pedigree Foods. And here’s the thing. There is always at least twice as much food in the dog bin as there is in the human bin. Ah yes. The Brits and our dogs. The Daily Mail likes dogs of course. And the Daily Mail feels sorry for any dogs who have fallen on hard times. Well of course it does. It’s not their fault after all. They deserve sympathy and support. Human beings on the other hand…….
Shirkers and scroungers. Obesity and daytime widescreen TV. Support and sympathy? Come on. Be serious.
But this week Morrisons will have to wait until Tuesday morning because there are too many other things to do.
I open up the front door and there are three hand delivered letters waiting on the mat. A card smothered in silver glitter. A country church almost swallowed up in snow. The paper is cheap and thin but the handwriting is scrupulously careful. The words are well worth quoting in full.
‘To all at First Base (Hand drawn smiley face)
Thank you for helping me and my family with food parcels this year! I know I couldn’t have done it by myself. Thank you again. Great work!’
So what do you make of that Mr Daily Mail. Nice careful handwriting and not a word misspelt. Not bad for a shirking, scrounging wastrel.
The second Christmas card is a snow covered pine tree.
‘Thanks for all you do. A little contribution to the food bank. Best wishes.’
The signature is illegible which is frustrating because it makes saying thank you an impossibility. And thanks are certainly in order as the little contribution is five crisp twenties fresh out of a cash machine.
The third card opens onto a cheque for £200. I was expecting this one. It is from a couple of fellow travellers from the ‘Yes’ campaign who rang last week to say they had decided to trust us to spend their Winter Fuel Allowance on people who needed it more than they did.
The phone rings for the first time in the week before Christmas week a minute or so after nine. It’s a guy who has got lucky at the bookies over the weekend and won himself fifty quid. Well it’s always nice to share the luck around, so has cashed in his winnings and headed into Tesco to roll his winnings into fifty quid’s worth of food for the hungry. Can he deliver it? Sure he can deliver it. I give him directions to the back door.
Next call. A voice on the other end of the line gears up to tell a complicated tale. It’s the captain of an Irish Sea trawler working out of Kirkudbright. He’s had a decent week and the scallop haul has been good. As his boat chugged back into the home port he has decided it would be good to share his catch around some.
So first we get the bread and now we get the fishes. Bloody hell. Next up will be three wise guys knocking the door with a satellite-bright star bathing the street in film set light. I cock my ear for the sound of a braying donkey but I hear nothing more than the sound of engines idling at the lights outside the window.
Anyway. My man from the sea tells me that he has put a 35kg bag of King Scallops up onto Facebook and invited bids on the basis that any proceeds will find there way to somewhere the hungry go for food. He says he’s had a few responses suggesting that the proceeds should find there way to First Base. But nobody has stepped forward to buy the scallops. So here’s the thing. There’s a 35 kg bag of King Scallops sitting on the deck of a trawler right now. If I can find a buyer then the money is all ours. But the clock is ticking. The boat is due to head back out to sea in the late afternoon.
OK. 35g of scallops. Seven hours. Life is seldom dull.
I leave a message with an old neighbour who once upon ran a fishmongers in the town before it closed down a few years ago along with all the other small businesses. Well. In the real world that is. All these shops are still to be found on Christmas cards where every high street shop is still a family run affair.
He gets back to me ten minutes later with a recommendation to call the owner of a restaurant who prides himself on his shell fish.
I call. He’s out. I tell my phone to remind me to call a little later. But not too much later for the boat will sail as the early dusk swallows up the brooding hills of Galloway into a dark December night.
Another call. Guys at the front door. They are from the SNP and they had been out and about on the High Street collecting food. An idea from the time of Dickens advertised through a slick Facebook campaign. One of them shows me a photo of the haul on his mobile. Bloody hell. My old Volvo is a venerable workhorse, but this lot ain’t going to be shifted in a single trip. A plan of attack is put together. Logistics are worked through. There is a lad from Shelter coming with a Land Rover Discovery. The odds are that the two vehicle convoy will be just about enough to haul the load.
Noon arrives and cars from the small village churches start to arrive at the back door to off load carrier bags.
Mince pies and selection boxes and chocolate Santas. Hundreds of kilogrammes worth of carefully considered goodwill.
A call from a lady with a softer than soft Irish voice. Could she deliver? Sure she could. More directions to the back door. By now men from the Council are out and about filling in the potholes of the Great Recession and getting in and out of Brewery Street is far from easy. The lady with the soft voice arrives and she says there isn’t much because it is only from her. But only from her means ten bags worth. Eight tins of family biscuits and four boxes of mince pies. Her eyes light up when we get into the basement. People are really good aren’t they she says. Yes I agree. People are indeed really good. And will you have enough? Oh yes. We’ll have enough. By hook or by crook we always manage to have enough. Only this year we’ve had more help than we’ve ever had before.
The SNP haul is gargantuan. The battered Volvo and the better cared for Discovery are weighed down to the wheel rims. A reporter from the paper lands and wants a picture. The tarmac boys find the whole thing hugely amusing as we make a stack of bags in the newly smooth road out back. I volunteer Iain and Lesley for the photo proving yet again that rank has its privileges. It’s the part I always forget to mention to our volunteers when they sign on the dotted line. Come on board and you get frog marched into the photos for the papers. I share a fag with one of the SNP guys whilst everyone beams for the camera. One of our back doors bears the spray canned daub of a charming gang of Buckfast swilling wannabe’s from twenty miles down the road. They made their mark a couple of years ago whilst on a day trip to town.
As in the Annan Mental Posse.
You’ve got to love it, right?
I wonder if their mark will be visible beyond the piled up food and the smiling faces. Part of me hopes it will be.
John turns up with contributions from the upper reaches of the Nith Valley. For years as an implacable Unite shop steward, John made the life of the management of Brown Brothers an ongoing misery. But once he retired, John buried his hatchet and they buried theirs. He swung us an appointment with the directors of the Kelloholm meat factory and after an hour they agreed to give us 85 packets of sliced meat every week. John ferries the meat south and then ferries food boxes to Thornhill, Sanquhar and Kelloholm in the opposite direction. Thankfully I am on the phone and he is in a rush. He enjoys nothing better than tormenting me about any trials and tribulations Liverpool Football Club might be going through. A three nil drubbing at the hands of the hated Mancs counts as a pretty major tribulation and I am delighted to have seen neither hide nor hair of the retired union warhorse.
At two o clock we get the doors closed and set about the task of unpacking and stacking the SNP bags. Tin by tin and box by box and packet by packet until the basement has the look of an underground bunker set fair to keep the men and women of the Government fed and watered for many a month in a post nuclear world.
I climb into the cockpit of the Volvo and consider my audio options for the 25 mile run along the coast to Kirkudbright. There is a slow dusk and a thin rain. The world is a mixture of black and grey. The stage is set and ready for the words of Boris Pasternak. The audio version of Doctor Zhivago. You really have to be a Russian to tell the stories of life and the universe in that particular way they tell it. I drive empty roads as the Tsarist armies are routed on the Eastern Front and the approaching sound of a revolution begins to fill the air.
I reach the harbour for the last light of day. The sun has managed to find an unlikely gap in the clouds and the scene has the unworldly glow of a Spielberg movie. Boats are being readied for the sea and my man comes over to shake my hand. On board, two hyper polite Sri Lankans heave the bag of scallops onto the quayside and then into my boot. The guys on the decks have a United Nations look about them. I comment on this and hear what I already know only too well. Twenty years ago and the crews would have all been local guys. But the heroin industry made a beeline for the fishing boats in the nineties and sunk its hooks in deep. Many trawlermen became life members of what is now called the ‘Trainspotting Generation’
So now many Scottish trawlers are crewed by lads from Asia and Africa. They don’t half know how to fish but the cold never finds a way out of their bones.
We share a couple of fags and I really like the guy. Night falls and one by one the boats head out to sea with winking deck lights.
Time to go.
The rain comes back for the journey home as Yuri Zhivago starts to deal with the wrecked bodies of lads from the countryside sent off to a Twentieth Century war.
The guy at the restaurant wants to see some I.D. I give him an Annual Report and a leaflet about the food parcels. I just love the idea of a scam artist concocting a tale of being a foodbank manager in order to hawk a sack of King Scallops for £80. The transaction goes through.
First Base is well and truly in the shellfish game.
Tomorrow I will buy £80 worth of tuna and turn shellfish into tinned fish.
One last call. It’s the local paper. Can I comment on the fantastic generosity of the community?
Because the real world isn’t like the dismal abyss of hatred and selfishness which gets pushed into our faces by the likes of UKIP and the Daily Mail. The real world isn’t like the locked down social wilderness Maggie Thatcher seemed to yearn for when she promised us there was no longer such a thing as community.
Not so Maggie.
Not even close.
I know the lady’s not for turning, but your ghost is more than welcome to check out all the selection boxes and chocolate Santas in our basement and then you can turn in your grave if you like.
Because Community rules OK.
Maybe I should spray it on the back door alongside the mark of the good old boys of The Annan Mental Posse. .