The Dustbin Millionaire
"Boss wants to see you," called out young Jenkins as I entered the office. "Said I should tell you as soon as you got in. About ten minutes ago! Better go right away," he smirked. I could have smacked his spotty face.
I put my things on my desk and made my way to the Editor's office. Susie beckoned as I passed her desk but I ignored her. She pouted but said nothing.
I knocked on the door and entered. He didn't stand on ceremony. He acknowledged my presence with a wave of his hand, pointed to a chair and returned his attention to some papers before him. I noticed his glance up at the clock on the wall.
"Sorry I'm late Gov'ner, I had trouble with the car."
My car had started OK but died on me about ten minutes into my journey, seriously delaying me. He continued to ignore me and went on shuffling his papers. Standard practice. Then he looked up.
"Stan Denton has died. Denton the Dustbin Millionaire. You did that piece on him six or seven years ago. Want you to write his obituary he'd been ill for some time and we kept his obituary notes up to date, and some photographs. Susie has the file. Give me half a page or so, I want to run it at the weekend." He started shuffling his papers again. The interview was over.
On my way back to my desk, I picked up the file from Susie. She handed it to me with a 'tried to tell you' look on her face.
"Get me a coffee, love, there's a good girl."
Opening the file, my interview of several years ago readily came back to mind. He was a nice old chap, Stan Denton. Salt of the earth. No pretensions. There was a copy of The Examiner in the file and I took it out and opened it. There was the article, just as I remembered it. I found myself wincing at the headline 'The Dustbin Millionaire' I must have been very naive as a young reporter; it had taken me quite a while to realise that it was headlines that sold newspapers and often have little to do with the story! There were a couple of pictures in the folder; one showing Stan as a younger man in his work-clothes standing beside a old-fashioned dustbin, and another take by a staff photographer at the time of my interview, a head-and-shoulders portrait of a distinguished older man, the Stan Denton that I knew.
Then I noticed the crossword on the opposite page; Parkinson was our crossword compiler. He had been on the paper for as long as anyone could remember. When he more or less retired from reporting, he had been given the job of running the crossword, and the children's page on Saturdays. He'd since passed away, but here was one of his crossword puzzles as fresh and pristine as the day it was published. I was looking at the clues when Susie brought my coffee. She leaned somewhat provocatively over the end of my desk; she was a very pretty girl but at that moment, I had other things on my mind. When I ignored her pose, she pouted again and flounced off.
I was never any good at solving Parkinson's cryptic crosswords (or any other come to that) and I remembered struggling over these very clues all those years ago. Two across caught my eye; 'Approve automatically, but would it bounce?' (6-5). Two words, hyphenated'. Six letters and five letters. 'Rubber-Stamp', of course! Now that gives me five down, beginning with 'T' 'Suitable in every way' (5,3,3,5). Easy! 'Ticks all the boxes' Now why didn't I see that before? Had my brain been working at it all these years? Churning away in the background? What my Dad used to call 'unconscious cerebration' the brain continuing to work on a problem long after you had stopped thinking about it. Perhaps he was right after all!
There was a distinct danger that I might get stuck into this crossword with my seemingly new found knowledge and finish it, but I had work to do! I reluctantly turned the page to read again, the article I had written about Stan Denton, the dustman who became a millionaire. It was quite a remarkable story...
My Editor, (not the present one, but his father) had arranged for me to interview a local hero; a man from humble beginnings, who had become rich enough not just to subscribe to, but to build from scratch a Children's Hospice at entirely his own expense. I had reached a stage in my journalistic career to move beyond simply reporting the news to contributing to it as a feature writer. I was still the office hack, but at least I had a by-line.
He lived in a rather respectable part of town but his house was certainly among the more modest in the area. It lay back from the road in very pleasant surroundings. As I approached the house, I noticed an open garage to one side of the premises. In front of the garage, a man was cleaning a very smart-looking Mercedes. Inside the garage was a small sports car, awaiting its turn to be cleaned perhaps; I thought about asking to clean my car, jokingly of course, but decided against it.
The man who opened the front door was Stan Denton himself. He greeted me warmly, and suggesting that we use the kitchen for the interview, showed me into a large 'farmhouse' style kitchen with a table and chairs at one end. His wife, who had prepared coffee for us, left us to 'get on with our business'. He reached out for the coffeepot, gave it a shake and proceeded to pour out two large mugs of coffee. His wife had placed a plate of biscuits on the table and we each took a couple.
He began by telling about his background. He had a happy but relatively poor upbringing, one of four children. His father had been killed in the war. Although the eldest boy in the family he was too young to serve during the war but was conscripted for National Service in the late '40s. Discovering that he liked the life in the Army, he signed-on at the end of his term and served for another seven years. Demobbed into post-war Britain with very little prospects for a lad who left school at fifteen with no qualifications, he applied for a job with the local council and became a dustman.
He smiled to himself. "Not the politically-correct 'Environmental Waste Operative' of today, with different-coloured wheelie-bins and a mania for recycling everything," he said, "we had good, old-fashioned galvanised metal dustbins gosh, they weighed a ton, I can tell you, and we had to lift them up to put the rubbish into the dustcart none of today's purpose-built self-loading vehicles. But it was a good life for a fit young man and the camaraderie wasn't dissimilar to that of the army.
"The whole attitude of people was different in those days," he continued, "dustman were seen as an important part of everyday life and we collected the rubbish every week, remember. We had our 'regular' customers, so to speak. We got to know them, they got to know us, we were like friends together."
"It's not like that today, is it? I ventured.
"No, sadly it isn't, "Denton responded. "I did twenty years on the bins before my finances improved so dramatically, and they were twenty very happy years, I've got only good memories of those times."
"When your 'finances improved' as you put it, you became something of a philanthropist I'm referring to the building of the Children's Hospice. That's the part of your story that our readers will be most interested in," I said.
"Well, yes, of course," he agreed, "but that came later. There were other things in my life that began the change earlier the paintings, for example."
"Paintings?" I queried, "I'm sorry, I don't know anything about paintings."
"They were a very important part of the improvement, my renaissance if you will; they broadened my horizons. You see, in the old days we dustmen collected everything. People put out all their rubbish and we collected it and took it away for them. Anything that was too big for the bin they stood alongside and we took it away. Old rugs, bits of furniture, anything. This was before they stopped us collecting anything not in the bin with the lid shut!"
I realised that they were the local authority!
"It was a public service, don't you see, and it suited all sides. We always had places that would take that sort of rubbish and pay us a fair price for it. It's a pity we didn't have car-boot sales then, they would have been a useful outlet. If it was anything out of the ordinary, we put it in the cab and got rid of it through more upmarket channels. It was a very healthy supplement to our wages, which were not very special at that time. And it encouraged a team spirit among the crew for we shared whatever money we made. In those days even 'gratuities' were allowed and some of our customer showed their appreciation in tips, especially at Christmas."
"But paintings? You mentioned paintings."
Denton turned to the coffeepot and poured another two generous mugs of coffee. He pushed the plate of biscuits towards me, but I shook my head; he helped himself to a couple and quietly munched them before proceeding.
"One day, a nice old lady, Mrs Jones, beckoned me over. 'I've got a few things to be rid of but there's no way I can get them out by myself,' she confided, 'and you'll never get them all on your vehicle, can you come back later and look at them?'
"Of course I agreed, and went back after my shift. One of the benefits of the job then, I don't know about now, was that if you finished early, you clocked off and sometimes had a whole afternoon to yourself.
"She had several items of furniture, old-fashioned but good stuff. She was a widow with no family of her own and she was going into a home. She had arranged for a 'house clearance' firm to deal with most of her stuff, but she wanted to give something to 'you and the boys' on the dustcart. Then she showed me some smaller pieces, bric-a-brac really, and quite easy to dispose of. Finally, she showed me two pictures, oil paintings. 'I'd like you to have these,' she said, 'you've been very helpful to me over the years. I'd like you to have them.'
"Now I knew nothing about art but these looked really good. They were each in an ornate frame probably worth a bob or two on their own and the scenes were strangely familiar. One was a general landscape with a big stormy sky, nothing more specific than that; the other was a country scene with a boat or a barge under construction in the foreground. They looked as though a competent artist had painted them, an amateur perhaps, for they had a sort of 'unfinished' appearance about them; but there was nothing amateurish about the frames they were positively professional."
I decided to help myself to a biscuit or two; this was getting interesting.
"Well, I took the pictures home with me. The lads and I collected the other items later. I didn't say anything to them about the paintings, as she had been very specific in giving them to me personally. In any case, I wanted to find out more about them. I showed them to a friend of mine who said they were certainly not the work of a professional artist, rather copies by an amateur. He said that you often saw artists copying famous pictures in art galleries. Now they had quite a big art gallery at Fairfield Court so on a whim I took them along to show the curator. Did he get excited! He said they were not copies as such, but sketches, field sketches that an artist might make before going back to his studio to paint the picture proper. He said he recognised the subjects, 'Hampstead Heath, Harrow in the Distance' and 'Boat-Building near Flatford Mill' both famous works by John Constable. But more to the point and this is what got him really excited..."
"But sketches, you said," I interrupted, "artists who make field sketches, as you call them, do so in a small sketch-book and use pencil or perhaps watercolours. They don't mess about with a large canvas and oils, not out in the countryside."
"...but this is exactly what got him so excited. John Constable did! Apparently, he made super sketches, studies that many an amateur would consider a finished work. Constable painted these 'rough' sketches on a smaller scale, then took them with him to his London studio and worked them up onto a larger canvas the finished pictures that we know today. It appears he was renowned for this method of working and many of his studies are still in existence and documented as such. Anyway, the curator recommended that I contact either Christie's or Sotheby's in London and get them looked at by an expert."
"And did you?" I asked.
"I certainly did," he responded. "I got in touch with Christie's and gave them the story I've just told you. Eventually they sent a man along to see me. He seemed delighted when he saw the pictures but was intrigued to know how they ended up in the old lady's possession."
"Mrs Jones," I said, "and was there anything she could add to the story?"
Denton pulled a face. "Sadly no," he replied, "Poor Mrs Jones died a week after going into the nursing home. Anyway, this chap from Christie's some Professor or other as I recall said he would need to examine them in their workshops and discuss them with his colleagues before he could make a definite decision. He needed to determine their 'provenance'. I had to look that word up in a dictionary it simply means their history and where they came from, although why he didn't just say that, I don't know."
I smiled and nodded in agreement.
"About a month later I got a phone call to go and see them. When I arrived, they treated me like royalty. I met with a number of people who were involved with the technical aspect as well as some of the management. They showed me into a room where my two pictures were mounted on easels looking resplendent, not only did the pictures themselves look brighter the frames did too! They had obviously done a very thorough job in restoring them. On a table were a number of black and white photographs, x-ray photos and photocopies. They explained to me that they had forensically examined and researched the paintings I had been given, and determined that they were genuine sketches by the great man himself in preparation for the full-sized pictures he later exhibited. On the reverse of the canvases they found notations that matched up with his journal notes giving the dates and details of individual studies. Then they asked me to sit down."
"Sit down, whatever for?"
"They thought I had better sit down to hear the next bit of news they had for me. How much they were worth."
"They said their conservative estimate, for the pair, in auction, valued them at between 800,000 and a million pounds!"
"No wonder they asked you to sit down!" I gasped.
"Well, for the next twenty minutes or so they took me through some of the photographs and documents that led them to their conclusion but to be honest I could take any of it in, I was too bowled over by the value they had put on my pictures! They said I should think about what to do with the pictures but if I wanted to sell them they would put them into their catalogue for the next international sale."
"And that's what you did?"
"Yes. Three months later, they invited me to the sale. They had already sent me a catalogue and there were my pictures along with many others and the prices! You wouldn't have believed it! There was a lot of interest in the Constable studies, not only in this country but also from all over the world, on the telephone, in the room. I could hardly contain my excitement when the bidding started and the bids rocketed. It was a good job I was sitting down again. Eventually they went to an American buyer for the record sum of $1.9 million dollars, nearly 1.2 million pounds!"
"That was quite a windfall," I said, "enough to change your life."
"It certainly did that," he responded. "I took early retirement; leaving my job on the bins was not without some reluctance, I might add. It was a bit of a wrench leaving my mates after all those years. But I gave them a share of the money; I thought I owed them that. And it enabled us to buy this place," he signalled our surroundings with a wave of his hand, "and a few luxuries to go with it."
We sat quietly together for a few moments; he thinking about his good fortune no doubt, me worrying about the next question that I needed to ask.
"What about your gift to build the Children's Hospice, that was a very considerable sum, wasn't it?"
He seemed to rouse suddenly from his reverie. "Ah, yes," he said, "but that was some time later, as I told you earlier." There was a slightly uneasy pause but I did not pursue my question; he appeared to be mentally gathering the facts to explain it fully. "My wife Mabel and I, married late in life and we have no children of our own," he began, "but she has a number of nephews and nieces of whom we are very fond, especially one little chap who was unfortunately poorly right from the start of his short life. He had a degenerative condition that got steadily worse over several years until at the age of eight or nine his parents learned that he only had a few months to live. At first, they nursed him at home but as his condition worsened, it became more and more difficult for them to cope they had two other children in their family to look after as well.
"Since there was nobody among their relatives who could assist, they reluctantly made the decision to allow the local hospice the care for him. They continued to see him regularly and often, of course, but they were acutely aware that although the care provided was far better than they could offer at home, it was geared towards the needs of adults. What the little chap really needed were other children around him, albeit sick children, in surroundings more suitable for youngsters.
"Mabel and I discussed the matter with the Trustees of the home. They told us they had plans to build a Children's Hospice but simply did not have the money. We asked them how much they needed; they said three and a half million pounds, and half a million pounds a year to run it. Mabel and I looked at each other, and nodded. It would take three years to build, far too late to serve the needs of our little nephew, but established in his name, it would cater for sixteen sick children for many years to come. I wrote out a cheque there and then for six million pounds, enough to build the home and run it for five years. It was one of the proudest and happiest moments of our lives."
I was shocked into silence. Tears pricked my eyes. This hard-nosed hack was lost for words and anything that I might have said at that moment would have been crass, puerile and unworthy. I could see that Stan was emotional too.
After a little while, I composed myself.
"That was a wonderful gesture, Stan but surely the money from your pictures fell well short of that amount of money?"
He looked at me earnestly and smiled. "Of course it did. Anyway, I had long since spent most of that money. Three years after selling the paintings, I won the National Lottery jackpot! A triple rollover twelve and a half million pounds!"