Over the last couple of years, I have noticed more and more signs that I am approaching middle age. Not so much the fact that I am married, have a child and own a house (How did that happen?). No, I can exist alongside all those things and cling onto the belief that I am still the same person who used to stay up to 5am on a Saturday night, wine in hand, dancing to Motown on my sofa.
No, it’s the little things that remind me I’m getting older: the fact that I now mainly listen to radio 4; the occasions I opt for flats over heels for work; the fact that I now prioritise speed and practicality by cycling to work in 20 minutes where before I would happily have put up with a 45 minutes busy commute just to be sure I had good hair for the rest of the day.
The onset of middle age is a slow, sneaky process. Yet there is one issue for which my middle aged-ness abandons its cloak of secrecy and runs screaming down the corridor of my life, proudly announcing its existence.
I knew it was time to end my maternity leave when I saw my husband’s face when I first told him about my bin campaign. The first time we’d brought my mother-in-law to see our new home we’d been apprehensive (as an ex-local council in a fairly on-the-edge-of-ok area we knew it wasn’t the kind of thing you’d see Kirsty and Phil gushing over) but excited – it was our first proper home and we loved it. I’d expected her to question our decision to live on the first floor with no lift when we had a new baby, and the graffiti on a nearby wall was badly timed to say the least. But I had never expected her actual first comment: “there are a lot of bins”.
Fast forward 18 months and I not only agree with her, it’s become a personal vendetta. There are a lot of bins – big, ugly metal monsters which sit outside our block overflowing with black bags. It’s not pretty, but it’s practical for an area housing lots of people, and reasonably well hidden round the back and out of sight. No, it’s not necessarily the system of bins that bothers me, it’s the people who don’t use it. The people who are too lazy to take their rubbish to the big ugly bin area. The people whose lives are so full they don’t have time to walk the extra 30 seconds to the other end of the block to dispose of their household waste and instead feel it is appropriate to just dump it on the floor in front of the main door, providing a veritable feast of old tea bags and half eaten chicken bones to local cats and foxes, and an almost irresistible, bacteria-ridden temptation for a nosy toddler.
(Even as I type a small surge of self-loathing is coursing through my veins. ‘Stop typing’ shouts my inner, younger self. ‘Stop ranting at strangers about your bins. Stop it and get a life!’)
One day, while on maternity leave, it all got too much. I got in touch with the council and the housing association and complained. 2 days later a letter was sent to everyone in our block reminding them of proper procedure. My husband looked at me and groaned. Still things didn’t change.
I complained again, suggesting perhaps they should provide more big ugly bins in more easily accessible locations. This time there wasn’t a generic response. It was a personal phone call from someone asking to meet me to discuss the bin situation. Where did they want to meet me? By the bins of course!
“You need to go back to work” sighed my husband, “You’ve got too much time on your hands”.
He was right. I couldn’t spend the last weeks of my maternity leave literally hanging around by the bins moaning. I made up an excuse, cancelled the meeting and hoped it would all somehow sort itself out.
Still, aside from a few grumbles on the way in and out of the house when the rubbish situation was particularly offensive to the eye, I had managed to put it all in perspective. Until yesterday, when an incident so foul occurred that it brought my middle-aged angst crashing back upon me with more force than could have been achieved had I spent a year listening to Vanessa Feltz’s radio show whilst watching Location, Location and Grand Designs on a continuous loop, throwing olives at the screen every time some smug rich git appeared looking upset about the lack of skylights.
On the way out of the house I noticed two dirty nappies (in nappy bags at least) had been dropped on the stairwell. Keen to remain positive, I assumed perhaps they had been accidentally dropped and not noticed. I went to pick them up, but balancing a wriggling toddler on my hip and a heavy bag on my shoulder decided bending down in the middle of a concrete stairwell was not a good idea. ‘I’ll sort it when I get back’ I thought, ‘though someone else will probably have done it by then’.
Returning a few hours later I noticed that they had indeed gone; perhaps our rubbish issues were finally abating. Then, as I put the boy down, I noticed something unusual by the door: two small carrier bags. It was the nappies. It took me a moment, but the realisation slowly dawned. Someone in the block had picked up the nappies and carried them, not to the bins, but back upstairs and placed them clearly and deliberately on our doorstep. Why would they do that…? Unless… OH NO, THEY THINK IT’S ME!
18 months of grumbling, complaining and carefully ensuring that all our rubbish is put in the right place and not only have I failed to sort out the problem – people actually think I am the problem! Someone equally frustrated by the wayward rubbish bags has noticed that they contain nappies, noticed that we have a small child, put two and two together and come to the conclusion that WE are the rubbish fiends! I am mortified!
What to do? Obviously they had to be gotten rid of immediately, but I still had the toddler whose current favourite activity is trying to cause himself mortal injury by playing with anything and everything dangerous the second my back is turned. It would have to wait until his bedtime. But what if that looked like I was trying to sneak out under cover of darkness? Covering up my crimes? And what if I ran into someone? I’d be wondering if it was them and want to explain myself, but if it wasn’t them I’d just persuade a completely nonplussed neighbour I was totally insane! What could I do?
That’s it…a note. A public note declaring my innocence. I could put it on our door: ‘Whoever dumped dirty nappies on our doorstep, please be aware that they were not ours’. But that wouldn’t really address the bigger problem, and it would mean people peering at our door to read it. Maybe on the main door to the block? Then I could address the person who dumped them at my door and also publicly declare my disdain for whoever is actually leaving rubbish lying around. Would have to be worded carefully, and I’d have to sign it with our address so they’d know who it was…
Then I imagined my husband’s face again. I thought about him coming home from his lads’ weekend to find his wife had gone mad and started pinning notes about bins to the communal door. I imagined him coming home happy having indulged his young, hedonistic side and despairing that I had simultaneously slipped into the most hideous, grumpy stereotype of middle age. I couldn’t do it.
Now, don’t think I’m giving in. I will not be stigmatised as some kind of neighbour from hell, throwing soiled nappies around just for the fun of it. And I’m not putting up with walking past mounds of mouldy tea bags every time I come home either. I’m just going to take my time. Think things through a bit more. Tactics, that’s what I need, tactics…
I may have lost this battle, but the war is not over. And this is a war – in every possible way – a rubbish war.