Best to think of this story as a kind of fairy tale puzzle. It has plenty of interest as it moves along, and generates questions in our minds. What’s happened that he’s out of work? Why is he so suspicious when the door is knocked? We begin to think perhaps he’s in debt, behind on the rent, or even that he’s a squatter. He’s been there for some time as he knows the quirks of the floor sounds. And yet later we find he’s hardly ‘moved in’.
The person at the door does bring good news, of a kind, but not for the narrator. As they talk we wonder if the man is Mr Slater, the way he avoids acknowledging it. And then where’s Mrs Slater who’s won the prize. In all this story there are no explanations given. But perhaps most people we come across casually in life are like this.
The demonstration by Aubrey Bell has its fascination, even though we feel – and he seems to as well – his hygiene is wasted on this flat which seems to be almost bare. But why does Aubrey Bell go through with his so impressive display of skill? It shows his ability in his job, but skill is often fascinating for its own sake. And it shows his sense of duty in going through the routine whatever. And it also focuses on dirt, the large amount of gunge that our bodies leave behind is, and that we live in, forget, turn our backs on. He shows the narrator how to clean, how much of himself is left in and on what he touches, anonymous as he is, outsider to society as he is. Aubrey Bell has a job and is very professional in fulfilling its requirements – even though he’s not well. It would have been so easy for him to skip this one.
So there’s an opposition between the outsider and the insider here, the man with a job and an income and so an identity and a pride, and the man with none of these. And there’s the ‘winner’, Mrs Slater, who has won, really, only the privilege to have this demonstration and buy a hoover. She’s a winner by being a potential consumer. She’s a winner without realising. The narrator, by contrast, is ‘not in the market’.
But Aubrey’s hygiene message is a philosophical one, too, perhaps.
“You’ll be surprised to see what can collect in a mattress over the months, over the years. Every day, every night of our lives, we’re leaving little bits of ourselves, flakes of this and that behind. Where do they go, these bits and pieces of ourselves?”
He answers this is physical day to day terms, of course,
“Right through the sheets and into the mattress, that’s’s where! Pillows, too. It’s all the same.”
But the philosophical idea is still there, and with it perhaps the idea of Aubrey Bell as a kind of messenger - whom the narrator can’t get rid of. And his message? The need to clean up, sort things out? Unexpectedly, he does make some knowledgeably academic comments, first about W H Auden the poey who wore carpet slippers, then about the German poet, Rilke who lived at the expense of a rich countess, which wasn’t “fair”. He’s drawing a distinction between people like him and perhaps the narrator and people of a different class and degree of privilege. Yet why do we assume a hoover salesmen would be ignorant about poetry? Or is that itself a comment a bout the unpoetic nature of a buying and selling society?
The narrator adds more to the theme of collecting bits of ourselves, when he points out that the mattress isn’t his anyway. He seems to have no roots. Perhaps he is a squatter, and lives ‘nowhere’? Like Rilke!
Then a letter does arrive and we think of the one the narrator’s expecting from up north, to do with a job. But Aubrey Bell – surprisingly easily – prevents him picking up the letter, tells him it’s for a ‘Mr Slater’, revealing he knows that the narrator is not Mr Slater, but never shows him, and then takes it off himself to return to the sender. It’s as if the narrator doesn’t want to be identified as Mr Slate. And we assume Aubrey’s got the idea that the man is a squatter. He’s nothing to do with Mrs Slater, yet he’s still given him this demonstration. Why? To make a buck?
A more bizarre interpretation of the story would be that Aubrey Bell has come on purpose to intercept the letter, his demonstration being just a way of passing time till it comes.
But still, in the end, we’re left thinking, Well what was all that about? Well, what about the title? Who are the collectors? They are all collecting dust and dirt as life goes on. Are they the dust itself? Aubrey does collect a letter on behalf of the strangely absent Mr Slater. Mrs Slater in a sense ‘collects’ her prize, but then it’s sent back on her behalf by the narrator. The narrator collects nothing, except minimal dust and dirt, from which anyway he’s moving on. He doesn’t collect a letter which would let him enter society. He collects this experience.
So the story, perhaps, is about not belonging, not even having a home, not even having detritus of your own. The story is about the empty vulnerable present.