Bob-a-Job Week was one of the highlights of the year. I can’t recall whether the week fell in Spring or Summer; the Easter or Summer school holidays. In my memory, it was always warm and sunny, but of course, is not childhood weather always so.
It was the late 1950s in the village of Lasswade not far from Edinburgh. At a meeting our local Scoutmaster, Tommy Green, would hand out the record cards along with encouragement to do our best, our duty, to God and the Queen, along with the challenge to fill the card.
For a short spell, dressed in our Scout and Cub uniforms, we had immunity, a freedom to walk up the long gravel drives of the grand mansions, in the affluent areas of Broomieknowe and the Braeheads, with impunity, and, at times impudence. Any challenge by suspicious resident, who may have in the past, confronted us, up to no good, out of uniform, could now be met with a legitimate reason to be on their private land. A reason to be trespassing, casing the joints for future apple scrumping in the Autumn.
We washed cars, windows, cut grass, weeded borders and numerous odd jobs. Some odder than others. One eccentric householder marched us through his garden to a conservatory, clinging, along with the ivy, to the side of a dilapidated house; the sort of property estate agents would describe, optimistically, as having abundant charm. He had a military bearing and moustache and called us ‘chaps’ and ‘young’uns’. The job was to wash a massive, teetering stack of flower pots. A pointless task, the equivalent of painting stones or rocks white, on some colonial military base to keep soldiers from boredom. After half heartedly washing the pots, we received halfhearted praise, “Jolly well done, chaps!” and half a crown. Some people would employ us with understandable reluctance; car washing created a mess without a discernible difference to their cars, valued plants were pulled up instead of dandelions. I once polished, to the dismay of the owner, not only the shoe uppers, but also the soles. Willie, my brother, was confronted by the very odd and Very Reverend, Pike, a tall, thin, ascetic man, who told him in a sinister voice, “do not darken my doorstep ever again.” Once a job was completed the householder was given a ‘job done’ window sticker, which was gratefully snatched and immediately displayed. The sticker gave exemption from further visits by Cubs or Scouts.
One of the most memorable jobs was clearing out the store room for Mr Scott, our local grocer. At the suggestion of my mother, we trooped into his shop and asked if he had any jobs to do. Mr Scott, a kindly man, probably on the cusp of dementia, led us through his shop and a heady combination of aromas: coffee, biscuits, cheese and paraffin, to the back yard. There, inside a store room, were piles of cardboard and timber boxes. Mr Scott stood in the doorway, as though in a trance, gazing intently at the stack of boxes.
“Och, I’ve been meaning to get rid of all these boxes for a wee while.”
“We can do that Mr Scott,” said Willie eagerly, then suggesting, “we could burn them.”
“Aye, you could do that, Willie. That would be a grand help.”
Mr Scott had no way of knowing that, some years before we had, accidentally, razed the railway station, just down the road, to the ground. My brother was a bit of an amateur pyromaniac. More than a bit, he was the original Firestarter.
We set about stacking the boxes, in a pile that would not disgrace an Indian funeral pyre, with no regard for the restricted dimensions of the yard.
“Fucking hell, look at this,” whispered Willie.
We gathered round my brother in the doorway. The removal of the boxes had revealed a large paraffin storage tank with a tap at the front.
“This’ll help get the fire going,” said Willie as he liberally sloshed paraffin over our bonfire.
We looked sideways at Willie; he had said something similar, a few years before, in the bushes at the back of the late railway station.
Predictably, the pyre erupted in a fireball which vaporised the telephone wires hanging overhead, then settled down to an inferno, a firestorm, the sort we had watched with our parents on TV documentary about the Blitz. The paint on the doors started to bubbled and one of the storeroom window panes cracked. Forced by the intense heat we retreated into the far corners of the small yard.
Across the yard, through the flames, Mr Scott appeared, framed in the shop back door, his spectacles mirroring the flames. He stood there trying, without much success, to make sense of it all, a steamy vapour coming off his overalls.
“Grand job, aye, a grand job lads,” said Mr Scott, then turned, probably just before combusting, and closed the scorched door.
We completed the job, tidied up, leaving the yard looking as though the Lunar Landing Module had recently blasted off the moon’s surface. We filed into the shop to receive our payment to find Mr Scott standing behind his counter, slightly red in the face and lightly toasted. He was chatting to my mother who was probably complaining, again, about the biscuits, which were displayed in glass fronted boxes, tasting slightly of paraffin. She turned to look at her two sons and our friend, Hally, clothes smoke damaged and with blackened faces. She looked back at Mr Scott, then looked again at us, with a suspicious expression on her face. An expression we were very familiar with.
Eventually, probably understandably, health and safety concerns and the rise of the compensation culture, forced abandonment of Bob-a-Job week. A grievous loss to society.