SELECTIONS FROM VOICES
THE MANCHESTER BASED MAGAZINE OF WORKING CLASS WRITING
“During the Autumn and Winter of 1971-1972, an English class met at New Cross Ward Labour Club, which I conducted. Its purpose was twofold: to discuss literature on the basis of a Marxist analysis, and to encourage free and original expression by the class members. These aims are distinct, and are not easily brought into one focus in a series of class meetings. The collection of writings by 20 contributors contains the work of 15 contributors who attended the class, including me. Six other contributions have been included because we knew them as the work of worker-writers.
I can make no great claims for these pieces, except that they are, it seems to me, varied, interesting, freshly written, and in most cases the work of men and women taking up a pen late in life; with some qualms, though with real curiosity as to how it will turn out. We offer this collection to the Labour movement at large, but especially of Manchester and district. We hope to produce another collection towards the end of 1972, and will welcome any contribution from anyone in the Labour and T.U. movement and we would also welcome criticisms and comments from all who may feel able to make them.”
Ben Ainley’s modest introduction to issue 1 of Voices had much to be modest about. A glance at the facsimiles of that truly rats-arsed production show a ragged collection of pages, execrably laid out, typed by two different typists (one on quarto the other on foolscap, just to make things interesting) and hurriedly stapled together (my own copy has several duplicate pages). Could he have imagined that ten years later the magazine would be on sale nationwide and still going strong four years after his own death? Issue 2 is missing from this collection. Issue 3 appeared a year later. The format had settled down to something approaching A4 and now the pages were punched and held together with treasury tags (bits of string with toggles). Issue 4 had the ingenious front cover of a V sign repeated the other way round on the back to look like a victory sign. Issue 5 was the last of the big format With issue 6, the house-style had become A5 at about 60 pages and began to include drawings and photographs in a progress which owed more to Xerox and Bill Gates than Communism and Karl Marx.
One added confusion was in the numbering system. Issue 7 became issue 1 “New Series” (perhaps the “new start” syndrome – just like the French revolutionaries restarting the calendar in 1793.) But after issue 14 (labelled as Issue 8 – still with me?) Issue 15 reverted to the original numbering system and became – issue 15. Simple really.
Even Cyril Connolly, the editor of the wartime Horizon thought that any literary magazine had a natural life of no more than ten years – and so it was with Voices. Rick Gwilt a young lorry driver with a degree from Lancaster University (an acolyte of professor David Craig) took over after Ben’s death but couldn’t disguise a lack of novelty and nerve as the production staggered to its death. The gap between issue 22 and 23 had pushed out to 15 months. It may have gone on longer but I saw no issues after 23.
Not much in Voices had great aesthetic merit although it did have contributions by two writers who became nationally known figures – John Cooper Clark and Jimmy McGovern. It was, however, genuinely working class and a great outpouring from a previously unheard community. Poetry was a preponderant mode in the early issues and some readers complained of this. But poetry in Voices is mostly just chopped up prose and should be read as such. Extended prose works were either factual reminiscences such as Frank Morgan’s The Glass Works or Joe Day’s Recollections of the General Strike. These might get some literary processing to become stories such as Vivien Leslie’s Bronchitis Mk. II about working on a production line, John Small’s funny account of Liverpool binmen in A Dead Dog Story or Roger Mills’ story of removal men in The Movers.
Maybe Voices did flip across the boundary between sociology and literature but it’s that strange hybrid quality which gives it a unique fascination. There are boring longeurs and much trite, derivative, sentimental, propagandist claptrap but the apparatchiks were just as often sidelined to make way for the authentic proletarian voices.
Ken Clay Feb 2000
The complete text and graphics of issues 1 - 31 are now on a website at www.mancvoices.co.uk
A 5 volumed paperback reprint of the complete Voices is available via this website's BOOKS page
The Glass Works – Frank Morgan
Recollections of the General Strike – Joe Day
The General Strike – B.J. Hill
Bronchitis Mk II – Vivien Leslie
Dead Dog Story – John Small
The Movers – Roger Mills
Whatever Happened to the Good Samaritan – Jimmy McGovern
Them and Us - Mike Rowe
Jubilee - Mike Rowe
Memoirs – Ben Ainley
Michael's Story - Mike Weaver
The Glass Works was now owned by the Co-op, purchased to meet the ever growing demand for milk, jam and sauce containers. It had previously been owned in the old glass blowing days, by Mr. Jones an important figure in the town, and a City magistrate, who sold it for a sum reputed to be around £50,000 The co-op had immediately installed three large, second-hand automatic bottle-making machines, made in Cincinatti. So, whilst mountains of silver sand and soda-ash went into the factory at one end, an endless stream of bottles and jars came out at the other, an average of 20 a minute, off each machine, 24 hours a day, millions of jars a year.
Johnny wondered, "who could eat all this jam? Even the Co-op couldn't surely be selling all that much sauce." He had never worked in a place like this glass works. The loud clatter of the machines, the oil and dust, the pungent smell of burning lubricant liberally used to regularly swab the hot machines; the intense heat of the large furnace operating at more than 1250O centigrade, with large annealing ovens in close proximity to the machines. All made for almost intolerable conditions in the heat of the summer but in winter it was warm and pleasant. Above all the character of the men fascinated Johnny. They appeared to be moulded by the conditions of manufacturing within the factory. He had found that all the machine men and helpers were rogues, liars and thieves. He found to his cost that anything of value, tools or materials mysteriously disappeared if he turned his back or misplaced them. Nothing was sacred. There was no respect for authority, no discipline, except that imposed by the machines, their speed determining the bonus earnings. The supervisors and foremen were regarded contemptuously as supernumeraries as far as the men were concerned, except when the machines broke down or were held up for reasons outside the men's control who as a result, lost their bonus. Earnings were high for 1936, in the region, a consistent wage of £7 to £0 a week for 37.5 hours when generally a skilled engineering craftsman received £3.12. per week for 44 hours. Thus any stoppages were violently dealt with by the men and the foreman was suitably abused.
It appeared that when Jones the previous owner was a magistrate on the bench during the First World War the culprits before him were given a choice of either a sentence in the army in the mud and blood of the Flanders fields or to work in his Glass Works. Most of those who thus appeared, being sensible men, preferred the Glass-works to the Glass-house, especially as the slaughter in France was at its height.
Jones died just after the sale of his factory to the Co-op but he left all his money to his secretary - not a penny piece to his wife. The lads told Johnny 'he did it to spite his wife because she made scenes at the factory about his secretary. He got on well with his secretary they said. 'Cow Elsie we called her'. She did most of her secretarial work on the new couch in the office that Jones had bought specially. We used to watch 'em from the stairs and she knew we were watching. They were the rummest crowd that Johnny had ever seen or worked with in his job as a skilled maintenance engineer.
There was 'Mad Alf', a scrawny wisp of a man who had been in trouble with the law more than once. On drawing his wage of £7.10/- he would separate £2 to give his wife. 'Is that all you are giving your wife out of that packet and you are keeping all the rest for yourself?" "Course I am" said Alf, 'Don't forget, I buy my own clothes out of it'
Then there were the two brothers who had a tremendous reputation as lady killers. Many a time a husband arrived at the factory enquiring with violence in his voice as to the where-abouts of Dickie. Dickie was never around of course, but unfortunately had his love life ruined later when somebody, either by accident or design, dropped a blob of hot glass down his trousers.
After a while Johnny came to realise that he had no longer to face hostility in his relations with the men. They even returned his tools or materials that he had inadvertently left on the machine floor. He had been accepted 'on all fours' with the rest of the shop.
There was nothing these men would not do to help you once you had been accepted. Their comradeship which was so tightly knit, was in fact Johnny came to realise, directed against authority. This was their common denominator.
An example of this was the occasion when a foreman nicknamed 'Knocker', (he was a joiner by trade) had the gall to sit outside the main exit to prevent the men leaving before their recognised meal-break at 12-30 Somebody, by arrangement, from an upstairs window conveniently placed, poured a full bucket of water on to Knocker. It was said by an eye witness that he received every drop in the bucket. Every worker in the factory knew who had tipped the water. The management however does not know to this day who the culprit was.
Alas, the old glass works is no more. Its inadequate lay out and out-of-date machines proved unable to cope with the expanding demands of new generations of bottled-food eaters. Its workers scattered with their specialist skills to the four winds of industry. New gigantic factories have been built to serve Co-op customers, but where-ever the bottles were made, it's quite certain that the workers in those factories will have the same disregard for authority as those employed in the old Glass Works.
In another 4 years and a few months, 50 years will have passed since the General Strike of 1926.My memory is not the best in the World. In fact I have a struggle remembering what happened last week, yet some of the happenings that took place during and shortly after the General Strike are as clear to me as if they had happened yesterday.
I was 16 years old at the time and worked for the L.M.S. Railway Company, and I was considered to be fortunate in having a job that brought in regular wages and holidays with pay. Very few people had holidays with pay in those days.
The General Strike itself only lasted a few days, and during that time every town and City in the land had it's march and demonstration. The march that took place in Manchester culminating in a huge meeting held in Platt Fields, seemed and still seems to me to be the greatest march ever held. Never have I had the feeling of excitement that I had that day. Maybe it was because I was very young and this was my first march and everything was very new to me.
I walked along with my young workmates and felt as proud as Punch. It seemed to me that all the world was marching that day.
There were policemen everywhere, almost one policeman to each row of marchers and their normal duties such as traffic control etc. were taken over by the Special Constabulary.
We saw many of these Specials on the march to Platt Fields and booed and catcalled every one of them with great enthusiasm. We, the young ones really enjoyed it all.
Finally we reached Platt Fields, where platforms had been erected and speakers were already addressing the huge crowds round each platform.
At the particular platform we arrived at the speaker was describing how God had made the world. Eventually he reached the point in his speech of the last and lowest form of life God had made - a jelly fish. He paused and then apologised to his audience, "I am sorry," he said, "there was something he made that was lower than a jellyfish, he made a scab." This got a great cheer from the crowd and a man standing near where I and my workmates were standing, shouted in a loud but most beautiful Oxford accent, "Hear, hear, Oh hear, hear." We had never heard this form of applause before, and we nearly died. - it bowled us over completely.
It was a huge source of fun to us on our walk home, each of us every few minutes would mimic the man in our best cut glass accents.
That march was my first industrial and political commitment and it made a great and lasting impression upon me.
After the Strike was ended, partly because of the disorganisation to industry, and partly I think for punishment revenge not all the strikers were taken back immediately. Each day a list of names was placed in the window of the lodge naming the men who had to start back the next day and I was out of work for 5 weeks before I started back This long wait to start back was the cause of some concern to my mother, who badly missed my wages and was convinced that I would never start back again.
The hatred, anger and bitterness of the men after this Strike was really astounding to me. I have never encountered it in such a widespread manner since.
You must remember that I was only 16 at the time and all this was new to me and I didn't fully understand what was happening around me. It was impossible not to overhear the men talking and arguing and you couldn’t avoid this intense anger, it rubbed off on one.
One man, who, it was said had been a warder at Strangeways sometime in his life and who had been a blackleg during the Strike, was given regular work, whilst many of the strikers still remained unemployed. Although this man had never worked on the railway before the strike. The men felt that this was another way of rubbing their noses in it, and were not prepared to stand it.
It was with great difficulty that the Union Officials at the station prevented them from going out on strike again.
They gave this man a terrible time, he was constantly in arguments and fights until one day he never came back. I don't think the Management sacked him, I think he left of his own accord.
During the Strike our strike headquarters were in a room over a coal yard. To reach this room it was necessary to climb several steep wooden stairs which finished with small platform surrounded by a handrail. This led to the door of the room where the strike committee met every day and all day.
It was the habit of the Chairman of the Union branch, who was also the Strike Committee Chairman, to come out of this room, stand on this platform and give us the news of the strike or read out a telegram to us, This he did several times a day.
One day when we were all standing about in the yard waiting for news of the progress of the strike, he came out of the room and stood on the platform. We all looked up expectantly and immediately it was obvious that he was drunk. He stood there for a couple of minutes swaying and then shouted down to us "Stand firm and solidarity", and then fell from the top of the stairs to the bottom and lay there sleeping.
He was a big man this Chairman, and was popular and well liked by the men.
Some 12 months or so after the strike, he was offered a Foreman's job by the Management and he took it. The anger and bitterness of the men hadn’t abated very much and they took this appointment very badly. He was a traitor and they did everything possible to make his life a misery. This attitude of his old comrades was too much for him.
We watched him shrink visibly and after about 13 months as a Foreman, he died. "They" said it was with a broken heart, whatever that may mean.
For many years afterwards, you would hear the men talk about others who had played a bad role in the General Strike, with the same viciousness and contempt that Irishmen are able to put into their voices when they talk about the "Black & Tans".
Looking back I think that 1926 was the nearest thing to Revolution this country has been in my lifetime and I can't help wondering how different the situation would have been if the Government hadn't had the foresight to imprison some of the Left Wing leaders in l925 and to keep them in prison during this confrontation of 1926.
And so I could go on with many more memories of the 1926 Strike, but that would make a book and that is not what was asked for.
B. J. Hill
I left school when 13 years of age to work in a pawn shop for 8/- per week. My job was to obtain the keys from the local police shop in Belle Vue Street, now the British Legion Club, dash to the shop for the manager to open up. There was always a big queue on Monday mornings and woe betide me if we didn't open up at 7am. Pledges such as suits, boots, costumes etc taken out at weekends for one day's sartorial splendour were the first things to be 'popped' and cries of "Hurry up you little so and so. He is waiting for his dinner money" were mild compared to some. It was late in 1918, the Great War was soon to be over and industry was sacking men and women left and right, and my few months at the pawn shop revealed to me the many hardships and poverty unemployment brought. I had three sisters doing war work on the Great Central Railway and my eldest sister got me a job on the railway as I had reached the manly age of 14, celebrated by my mother buying me a new suit, my first pair of long trousers. Talk about walk tall, as I escorted my two other sisters to the Palace Theatre as a treat. They had both lost their husbands, killed at the Dardanelles battle thanks to Churchill and his blundering. So here I was working on a main line signal box for £1.00 for a 48 hour week as a train register boy. You entered all trains and times they passed your section, and I loved every minute of it. The signalman to whom I was attached was a bearded Tom Griffiths, a Methodist lay preacher and city councillor who used to rant and rave about the injustices of the capitalist system, and as I was with him for four years he had me at it - tub thumping.
Bear with me. I am coming to the General Strike and what it did for me. By 1926, I had left the signalbox, for at 20 years of age I became an adult and was made a station porter for £1/15/- per week. I was on the late shift finishing at 11 .30pm and at midnight the General Strike began. What worried me most was the station cat who was about to have her umpteenth lot of kittens and as she was a real station cat, the station was her castle and many a dog has fled yelping during her pregnancies. Also four churns of milk had arrived from Rowsley on the last train, a regular thing to happen but with Kitty locked up in the cosy and warm porter's room, as I locked the station gates, I remember thinking Kitty and her brood will be OK for milk. The pickets were already at the station entrance, watching me lock up, and just as I made to get on my bike I was handed a picket armband and told I would be relieved at 6am the following morning. I was there when the horse-drawn milk float drew up. Now this chap was built like a tank. I told him he couldn't get his milk as we were on strike and the station was locked up. I was expecting the roof to fall in, but all he said was he would come back and as he turned the horse around he said "Give Kitty some milk out of the small churn" He always had a tit-bit for her.
The time, 5 o'clock in the morning of the first day of the General Strike and as the clip-clop of the horses hooves and the rumbling iron rimmed wheels died away, I suddenly realised how still and quiet it had become, no factory hooters, clanging tramcars, it was the stillness of a Sunday morning a hundredfold. As I walked wheeling my bike home, the streets were empty, no shops lit for early trade, it was ghostly, a grave yard, which it was to become, of jobs and hopes, dreams and human endeavours. My heavy tread seemed out of place in such silence, so I mounted my bike for the rest of the way.
When I joined the railway I was told I had a job for life, which I had for the next fifty years. There was a large number of neighbours children of my age. How they envied me my job as one year led to another and still no work. The General Strike affected lives so deeply that the scars are still there after all these years. (Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, was spoken of on the Tele the other evening and the way I went on about the b . . . my family asked me if I was losing my marbles.) I could sing a bit in those days and I used to join the pathetic little groups of Welsh Miners who had to resort to begging in the streets, singing their hearts out in neighbourhoods that had nothing to give. It was nearly two years before I went back on full time. Some of my mates never got back. When the strike was over this was how we had to work: on Sundays with few trains running, sign on, open station for ten minutes before train due, ten minutes later, sign off on duty twenty minutes. This went on until 11pm, when finished, total hours to be paid for: 6 hrs 20mins. for a day lasting from 5.30am until 11pm, a total of 17hrs. 30 mins. And we were glad of it!
Kitty had her kittens. The milk churns had to be emptied in a hole we dug. The students whom I curse the memory of, tried to play trains. What a mess they left with their strike breaking efforts! Because there was little to do when we returned to work, one of the jobs we had to do was tidy up this mess and two of us were sent to clean the very signalbox where I started my railway life. How I loved to polish the levers and instruments, scrub and shine. Two students had manned this place and the sight that greeted us made me vomit, buckets used as toilets, dozens and dozens of beer bottles, empty of course, fouled bedding, stale and rotting food, and a beautiful Atlantic type steam locomotive off the rails and on its side, wrecked. These engines were the pride of all of us. We nicknamed them "Jersey Lillies" after the beautiful Lilly Langtry. This was an unpardonable sin and here I am living through it all again though half a century ago. I don't know if my ramblings are anything like what you want but it has done me good to hammer this out with one finger although I am getting dirty looks from my family as my click-click-clicking is spoiling the TV programmes for them.
Ellie stood handless as a relative at a deathbed as she watched them dismantle Bronchitis MK I in a frenzy of spanners and wrenches. It came apart so easily and Ellie saw its metal guts for the first time, spilled out in a tumble of gears and rods and plates and screws at her feet. She thought it disappointing that the source of all its familiar tempers and judders and jerks should turn out to be this heap of cold metal pieces that couldn't muster a shine between them. It was a sorry looking sight now that it was pulled clear of the assembly line and stood in lonely glory in the aisle, with its flaking islands of paint sticking defiantly to sheltered edges, its leads sprawling from its belly like tree roots, leaning on its bent legs now that the support of the neighbouring machine was gone. Ellie knew the history of each patch on its body, the oversized lever that had replaced the original, the cardboard square where the inspection plate had been, and the place where her tools hung, bearing light patches, each the perfect outline of the tool which hung in front of it. The men quickly captured and roped up the snaking leads, levered the whole lot onto a trolley, shovelled the screws and gears onto the sides and suddenly, Bronchitis I was gone.
Ellie turned to the space and picked up a brush. There was only a silhouette in dust left now and she was loath to sweep it away and make the space truly empty. People were looking at her though and she drew the brush across the floor quickly and it was all gone. She went and sat with the girl at the next bench and waited and presently heard trolley wheels again, also a speculative hum advancing down the line, but she did not turn to look even when she felt her arm brushed by a man's back as he worked the new machine into place. The men were talking, advising, warning, taking care with the new machine because it was very expensive and still wrapped in polythene, littered with printed cards saying TAKE GREAT CARE. USE NO HOOKS. FRAGILE, and various other technical instructions. Out of the corner of her eye Ellie saw the power lead wriggle across the floor, bright new flex and a white plug. She shuddered. Then her supervisor was at her side and talking to her.
"The instructress will be down in a minute to start you off. Dou you want to get the feel of it? Sit down at it and look it over?"
As she could not put it off any longer, Ellie rose and nodded and looked at it. It was smaller. The same shape near enough, but neater and sleeker, a glimmering burnished silver thing with sharp square edges and a funny smell. Slowly she sat down and began to examine it. There were no levers, no foot switch, no clicking indicators, nothing to touch except two buttons. ON and OFF. At eye-level a glass square looked at her. Peering into it she saw dimly a black word. NIL. That was it. A hole at either end and two buttons. Ellie's heart sank at its dullness and she sat wishing that her wheezing, rackety Bronchitis I was in front of her and that she was listening and guiding it through its work, coaxing it over its sticking stage and banging on the indicator till it rattled home. The pitch of her longing surprised her; she felt sick.
"Haven't you plugged in yet, Ellie?"
Ellie looked up at the instructress and grimaced. She bent under the machine and pushed the plug into the socket and flicked the switch down. The machine buzzed loudly and Ellie cracked her head on its belly as she jerked up in surprise, Bronchitis I had been silent when switched on. The instructress laughed and helped her into her seat. She stared at it amazed.
"Like bloody Blackpool!" she said, regarding the sudden appearance of coloured lights in some awe. They were everywhere. Beside the two buttons, along the top, inside the glass square which now pronounced NIL in a disapproving red glow, and from inside the machine the buzz was now constant and anxious. When she leaned closer Ellie saw that the machine was studded with glass squares behind which monosyllabic information was offered. SET. MIN. MAX. CUT. LOW. OVER. She shook her head.
"What's all that about?" she asked the instructress.
The instructress handed her a manual opened at a coloured diagram and Ellie scanned the closely printed page in some alarm.
"Am I supposed to learn all that!" she asked indignantly, noting the number of long words and symbols that dotted the page.
"You'll get used to it. It's easier than it looks. A lot of long words to describe simple things as usual. Come on now, Ellie, they wouldn't give us a machine we couldn't work, now would they?"
She was brisk now, anxious to get on with more important things and she appealed to Ellie's pride in an attempt to get started.
"It's easier than the other old crock, all electric and all automatic. You just shove a unit in here, check the indicators, press the ON button and out it comes all done. It stops itself if anything's wrong. You try." she said.
Ellie pushed a unit in and stabbed at the button sulkily. The buzz deepened and the unit appeared at the other end, finished.
"Simple as blinking!" announced the instructress.
Ellie stared at the unit in her hand, it was finished and yet she had heard nothing, no click as it settled into place, no whirr as the air driver descended, no bobble as it jumped out of the machine. It had all been silent except for one little click as NIL rolled over to ONE. And her hands, just a finger used, one prodded finger. Ellie was horrified.
"Oh no! I can't do this all day. I'll go nuts. I want to see the foreman. I'm not doing this." she announced firmly.
In the end there was a discussion on the line. The supervisor, the instructress and Ellie all talking in low voices, Ellie with some fervour, and it was agreed that Ellie would try it for a week and then they would all see how things were. Ellie agreed because she knew she would feel no differently a week hence and the other two agreed because they had been allowed a flat two hours change-over time and they were already ten minutes over that, and a week was a long time. Ellie sat and moodily prodded her button and the units went in and came out in silence and perfection - there was no need for Ellie's hookless tools - no hand repairs - just the glow and hum and complacency of the machine and Ellie's finger. She felt a bitter jealousy stir in her at the completeness of her dethronement, she wished it would burst into flames or blow up or just die on her but it stayed cool and efficient and accurate and disclosed no hint of a fault to Ellie.
She suddenly thought of her library book - a science fiction -about a world where machines did everything and people did things like walking and reading and dancing all day. Their machines had set them loose from work but hers had brought her misery in a few hours. She knew very well that her finger was all that was keeping her in her job and the knowledge came so hard and blunt at her that she said out loud. "It's not fair!" The book was stupid.
She could not bear the futility it forced upon her. In that trial week her fingers began the day loyal to Bronchitis I by reaching out for the lever and the crank, and each day she kicked herself for not remembering when it hurt her so to jerk herself back to its replacement and begin the weary prodding over again. She could not trust it, nor shake off a fretting that took hold of her more and more as the perfect units slid out of the machine and she looked them over for some fault that was never there. With Bronchitis I she had felt things happening, it had been loud and she had come to know the exact moment when each stage was reached even though she could see nothing and did not know precisely how it worked. But the Thing (she called it that, unable to bear christening it with a thoughtful name) remained silent. It had only one other noise than its buzz and this she had discovered when she poked a unit in back to front to see if it was up to a little fight. Then the glass squares had blinked all together and the belly of the thing had emitted a shrill angry whistle at her. Thereafter she poked at least one unit in back to front every day just to hear its indignation, sometimes prolonging the fault until her companions begged her to right it and stop the awful whistle. The fretting continued and so increased that she found herself so wound up that she had to switch it off and sit still for a moment while she forced herself to calm down. She began to fear she was turning out nothing but rejects, that real work had to be more effort, she took boxes and boxes of units to the supervisor pleading with him to look them over for her, and he became annoyed with her and told her to get back to work and stop fussing. She had cried and he had been frightened.
She couldn't sleep for frustration plucking at her muscles. Her husband had wakened, ill-tempered, and snarled at her. "For Christ's sake, lie down and be still!" She nudged him. "Tom, I want to leave the factory. Get another job. "There was a short silence before he mumbled. "We can't afford it." and fell back into sleep noisily. "That's another daft thing about that book. Where'd they get the money from for dancing all day?" she said to herself in the darkness. She laid down and tried to be still.
They all sat together in the tiny office, the supervisor, Ellie, the instructress and the foreman. The foreman had offered cigarettes and was fixing a genial smile into place before he spoke. Ellie looked miserable and the others, concerned.
"Now then, what's the trouble Ellie?"
She shifted in her chair, too miserable to speak and the silence embarrassed them all after a few moments so there was a rush to speak and a tangle of words, then a short polite silence before they all rushed in again. The foreman hauled out his authority.
"I understand the new machine is giving you trouble, rather, causing you some distress, Ellie?" Ellie nodded mutely.
"Don't you understand it? Surely, Mrs Peebles here, showed you how it works. I understood it was automatic. Has it been having teething troubles, anyone?" he asked them all.
"Oh, I showed Ellie but I have to say that she didn't . . well like it from the start. It's really very easy to operate and there's been no stoppage due to the machine." the instructress finished.
"Her work's fine. Target's up of course, with it being so much faster than Bronchitis I . .
"Faster than what . . . !" interrupted the foreman.
"Bronchitis I. My old machine. It was a real machine." Ellie said flatly.
"Compressed air." explained the supervisor. "It wheezed".
"Oh, I see ... well, look Ellie, can you not explain what is wrong. We'd like to help." the foreman asked gently.
Ellie straightened herself in her chair and looked hard at him. He was smiling encouragingly at her. She took a deep breath and spoke slowly, like an advocate assembling facts.
"Bronchitis I and me worked together - we were both important. I had to wind him along and watch him and he had to punch the units. You had to know him - you had to earn the right to work with him, by knowing the job and understanding him. My hands, well, my hands knew the job, they listened to him and knew when he needed a bang on the box. I felt him working. But now, I push the button and the electrics take over. I don't know what I've done. Christ! A monkey could do what I'm doing now and you wouldn't have to pay a monkey. I'm taking home pay for nothing and it's like I was stealing. I've no respect for myself. I used to feel tired at night because I'd worked all day and that meant I'd earned my money. I want off that job . . please." she finished in a low voice and her emotion filled the office as if it were a gas cloud stunning them. Such an appeal was unheard off in these surroundings - human to human, and the three listeners, threw their frantic gazes out of the window while their identical lumpish throats swallowed furiously in the silence.
"Okay, something mechanical, I think. Ellie, we'll work it out today and start you somewhere else tomorrow. We can't get Bronchitis back now, unfortunately. Run along." the foreman said to her departing back.
"Funny sort of girl that, she made me feel ashamed of something for a moment. Silly." he said to the supervisor, trying for their usual masculine conspiracy. "You don't think when they say you can have some new plant that it might interfere with things like this. I remember ordering that machine."
The supervisor faced him frowning.
"Just the same, someone's got to work it, and tomorrow since you let Ellie off from then. What if it happens again?" he asked worriedly.
"It won't. She must have been the sensitive type. Transfer one of your wooden-tops, one of the ones that can't tell left from right properly, someone who's doing something dead simple just now. And we'll take it as it comes after that. Okay?"
Next morning a new girl sat at the machine. The instructress was with her for five minutes and after that the girl prodded the button every twenty seconds throughout the day, fascinated by the glowing lights and the soft buzz of the machine. So pretty after that spitting solder bath, so quiet and dreamy, cushy job this, she thought, wonder why that other girl left it?
Ellie sat two lines up, bent over her hands, flexing the fingers around the unit she held, using them all as she tweaked, prodded, poked, wound and twisted multi-coloured leads into place slowly and with loving care. Eyes, ears and fingers taut, she felt her face uncrease as the pile of completed units grew and she saw already, that her units were recognisable in the pile by the way she twisted her leads, a little tighter and closer than the others. It was like a signature, Ellie's work, something that was hers and she was responsible for. A little way off the supervisor watched her and saw from the smooth arc of her spine that she was engrossed and content. "Daft bitch." he said to himself.
At half past one every Friday the big game starts. It's called "Catch the Sweeper". All the lads on the brush speck their carts, shovels and brushes ready to slope off to the alehouse. Uncle Jim Doyle, the "Walking Ganger", normally rides round the patches checking everyone is hard at work, but not Fridays. Fridays he is like the leader in the Tour de France, shooting from one beat to another. He is a man possessed with stopping an ebbing tide.
To anyone ignorant in the ways of the Corpy Cleansing Department, the sight of Uncle Jim roaring down streets, knuckles white on handle-bars, face awash in sweat, means nothing. Woollen-hatted heads popping round corners and earnest young men scurrying across streets fail to register in the public's mind. The game is private and personal to us, like. We do have rules which each side accepts; once inside the bar of Fat Anne's, snug behind a pint, waiting your turn on the pool table, you are home or safe. Each one can tell his story or swap with late-comers.
After hiding my cart and limbering up I made my break. From where my patch is it should have been a dead easy getaway. Down entries, along passages I moved like warm lard on a hot day. Just as I got to the main road, not two blocks from Fat Anne's, I heard the squeal of brakes behind me. I knew it was him before I turned.
"And where are you going, Clancy?", he said, as if he didn't know.
"Just going to the toilet, Jim, Why?" I could have bitten my tongue, no one says toilet, do they? A smile the size of an overripe banana came on his lips. Then his hand dipped in his pocket and pulled out a small white calling card.
"Have you seen anyone? Where's the Bug and Manxie? just going to join them were you?", he said.
"I was just going to the toilet, Jim."
I'd said it again. It was the white card I was thinking about - that meant an extra job for someone. He was getting excited. I can always tell. The nostrils of his bulbous nose began moving like concertinas. They have a magnetic appeal to me and my head started going up and down in rhythm with his breathing. He soon realised what I was doing and we had one of those embarrassed silences with his eyes burning into me.
"Before you go back to the yard, get this," he said with a snarl and handed the card over like it was a five-pound back-hander, dead sly like. One push on the pedals and he was gone, mumbling.
"The pride of England's youth, God help us."
He was in a good mood. I was going to put the card in my pocket and go to the alehouse anyway, but something made me look at it. In long hand script it said: Pick up dead dog, 24 Assisi Street, URGENT.
When I looked up he was half way down the road, his head turned back. Written all over his face was, "I've had you." You can't win them all. I knew it would happen sometime. So, after getting my cart I headed for Assisi Street, hoping to God it was a mistake.
The precinct has three avenues of shops all the same size and shape that sell mostly everything under the sun. Just as I was going through it, passing the Betting Office, the Bug and Manxie sneaked out on me. The Bug stroking his Zapata moustache, sidled over.
"Where are you going then, Plum Duff? No ale today?"
He gave Manxie, who had joined him, a dig in the ribs.
"Rumour has it that Uncle Jim is looking for a person to . . . er. do an important job." Manxie said, laughing at the same time.
Then the Bug really started.
"A sort of fella that likes animals. Have you any sawdust in your blood by any chance, Clancy, 'cause I bet you're favourite?"
He put his face on Manxie's shoulder and began to snigger. What can you say? They know everything that happens even before the Boss. I left them holding one another up in pleats of laughter.
24 Assisi Street was a red-bricked house with brown woodwork and a wrought iron fence. A young piece opened the door. She was wearing no make-up, always a sign of class, that.
"I've come for the dog," I said.
Really nice, she said, "Would you go round the back, please?", and then walked back into the hall.
Her little daughter was standing in the back yard. She was aged about four, with big hazel eyes behind long lashes. Tarts in clubs spend hours trying to achieve the same effect. A mop of black curls hung on her shoulders. She looked vulnerable.
The dog was in a lean-to shed wrapped in an old blanket. I was getting more nervous all the time.. Before her mother could usher the girl into the house she asked me, "Where are you taking my Sally, Mister?"
I know it sounds soft but I couldn't leave her without an answer. "I 'm going to take Sally to the cemetery. I've got a nice spot under the tree for her and I'll give her some flowers."
The little girl burst into tears and ran into the house. Her mother followed, after giving me an envelope. I put the shovel under the dog, Sally, and carried her to the cart. Then my problems started. See, Sally was a big dog with long pale hair, the colour of a Labrador. She was never meant to fit in any iron bin. I tried one way, then the other, until the blanket fell off her head. Two black eyes stared out of their sockets and seemed to follow me round. The way things were shaping up I'd have been there until dark. Finally I managed to get the dog's back legs in the bin. All the time I'd been pushing and shoving, strange noises came from the dog's belly. In the end I hit it with me shovel and wedged it in a forward facing position. Then I headed back to the yard. Sally in the lead with vacant eyes.
The only way back to the yard from Assisi Street is through the shopping precinct or around the ring road, which adds ten minutes to the journey. I was in no mood for a trip around the district so I took the short cut, but it still seemed ages before I was at the top of the precinct. It was packed with women holding bags of groceries, the posh ones pulling wicker carts. Things would have been all right only for this old woman wearing a cloche hat. She was as daft as they come. Give the rest of the women their due, they moved over, dead nice like, when they saw me coming. Some jumped into shops and others stood still watching but saying nothing, like. Then outside the butcher's that old woman heads for me. Everyone was watching her. She had a bit of paper in her hand and was going to put it in one of me bins. There are still people like that you know. I had to stop for her. She didn't even notice the dog at first.
"Thank you, son", she said, dropping the paper in the bin.
"All right, Ma," I said, ready to push off smart like. Then she saw the dog.
"That's a very nice dog you've got there. What's her name?"
"Sally," I said.
"Just taking Sally out for a walk, are you?"
"Yeah, sort of, Ma. She's not too good on her dolly pegs these days."
Well, what else could I say. Everyone in the precinct had stopped, even the shop assistants were staring out of the windows.
"Well, Sally, I hope you enjoy your walk," she said. I knew she'd stroke the dog when she pulled her glove off. The wizened hand seemed to take forever to touch Sally. With long determined strokes on the dog's side and finally a good scratch under the ears the old dear stopped.
"She's a very quiet dog, isn't she?" she said.
I didn't half think quick.
"She's a bit old now, can't even close her eyes when she sleeps." The dog's stomach rumbled.
"You should take her to the vet, you know. I have a bit of eye trouble myself."
"More than you know," I thought. With a happy sigh the old dear left. I was glad to see the back of her.
A sound like a bag of wet mortar being dropped came from the fruit shop. Mrs Dixon had fainted. Just as I got to the end of the precinct, her husband, the shop owner, came running after me. He was shouting, "I saw it. I saw it all!!" You'd have thought he'd been robbed the way he went on.
"I'll report you! I can report you," he kept saying. So I called the yard's open phone number out without turning round. He wants to be a councillor and leads all sort of crackpot committees that make beds of nails for Corpy bosses. The best thing is that he sells second grade fruit at top prices and pays bad wages. A typical dyed in the wool, small time Tory.
The two angels of doom were leaning on the wall outside the yard gate. The Bug started, "What was Rin-Tin-Tin's master's name?"
Then it was Manxie's turn.
"How many puppies did Lassie have in her last film?" The Bug said he didn't know and that I was the expert on doggery. More laughs. I told them to get stuffed and walked away. As an afterthought, the Bug said I was sacked. There had been a phone call about me. The Bug never makes mistakes about things like that. Well, if they were going to sack me I'd give them something to remember me by.
"Watch this," I said. Have you ever had a fantasy? You know, when you see the hero in a film crash a car into a wall and then get out and walk away. Other fellas can kill ten men and lay as many women in between. I think Tarzan's the best. He's my hero, swinging from trees and wrestling lions that have no teeth or claws. I made me mind up to give Simpson a nightmare to remember me by.
The container where we empty our carts is facing the office window. That's where I parked mine. First I gave them a cracking Tarzan call to wake them all up in the office. Then I pulled the dog by the collar from the bin and threw it on the floor. It bounded back at me almost right at my throat but I just pulled away in time. It was so real even the Bug and Manxie liked it and egged me on. Then I slipped over and the dog rolled on top of me. What a performance! Uncle Jim had to spoil it. He called "Clancy, get in this office. Now!"
Simpson, the Inspector, was sitting behind the desk. The office smelt of whiskey. He'd been on the bottle again. Uncle Jim stood behind me.
"Well, what have you to say for yourself?" Simpson said, hoping to bait me and get things going his way. I wasn't having any.
"Can I have a new pair of gloves?" I said. "These have blood on them," then I threw them on the desk in front of him. You'd have thought they were live sewer rats the way he jumped up. The best about it was it was only tomato sauce from a broken bottle in the container.
He shouted "Get them off my desk!"
I picked them up.
"Listen, Mr. Bloody Clancy, I've had phone calls from half the shops in the precinct. You've caused murder up there. People from the town office will hear about this."
Just for a laugh I said, "The dog was dead when I picked it up and it was you that wanted it picked up anyway."
He said, "My God! For what you did today, people have been locked up in lunatic asylums for the rest of their lives." He had the pipe out of his mouth and was pointing it at me.
"Don't take it in the wrong spirit, Boss," I said, hoping he'd take the hint about his drinking. His eyes bulged and his ears were glowing red.
"Well, you won't be picking up any more dogs. You're sacked, Clancy!"
"Right!" I said. "I'll see you at the Industrial Tribunal and if I go, someone will go with me."
Uncle Jim stepped forward and asked me to wait outside as Simpson started screaming "Get out!".
I did and outside of the door I heard them talking. Uncle Jim was telling Simpson that the last fella to take the Corpy to a tribunal walked away with two hundred pounds in his pocket, and what would happen if he did the same. The phone rang and Simpson kept saying, "Yes, Yes. Right, Madam. Thank you."
When he put the phone down, Uncle Jim was at him again. "He'll blow you up about the drinking, Stan. He's a head case."
Simpson waited for a minute and then said, "Go and tell him."
Uncle Jim came out and said I was not sacked after all and winked. The woman whose dog it was had just phoned up and thanked the boss, saying how nice I had been when collecting the dog. Then he went back into the office. I followed after the door was closed. Uncle Jim asked Simpson what he was going to do with me as I couldn't go back to the precinct beat. Simpson said, "Well, if he's a lunatic, a head case, I'll do what Napoleon did with them. I'll get a bigger lunatic head case to look after a little lunatic head case."
All Jim said was, "Not Sharkey?"
"That's right," Simpson said. "Now send the lad home."
Outside the gate the Bug and Manxie were waiting for me. They started howling and barking when they walked over. I gave them the rest of the story and how the woman had phoned the boss. "She even gave me this envelope," I said. "Look there's three pounds.
The Bug and Manxie started laughing and the Bug said, "The phone call was from the tart in the Betting Office. I made her do it for you. You don't think anyone gives a monkey's for you. Christ! One born every day!"
Then Manxie put the bite on me, asking could I see my way to lending them a pound each for services rendered! Well I always was a soft touch
Sleep curtailed by the thick rude call of the horn, Tadpole leapt straight from his bed. He had been laying in an expectant doze for a while, but when the blast came it was as great a shock as ever. Tadpole had only just managed to pull on his trousers and oversize vest when the horn sounded again, several times, and with a chorus of shouts and abuse to accompany it.
He pulled a shirt around himself and stumbled out the bedroom door. 'O.K., O.K.' he called as he ran barefoot through the passage. He pulled open the front door.
'What you doin' of Tad? Get up here' came a voice.
Another voice: 'For Christ sake 'urry up shortarse. But get some bleedin' clothes on first though. We won't see you otherwise Laughter.
'Sorry' shouted Tadpole 'I overslept. I'll be ready in a second, just give me-'. But the voices were by then talking amongst themselves.
He finished dressing. More clothes than necessary really, but they were jumpers and things which he could peel off as things got hotter during the day.
He pulled on his boots and tied the laces quickly. 'Sod it'. What a time for a lace to break.
Warmer and repaired Tadpole just managed to yank the door open in time for a last frustrated blare of horn.
'About time too' said a voice 'We were just about to go off without you'.
Tadpole hardly ever differentiated between the two voices, surprisingly, because they didn't sound at all alike. Len's voice was deep and demanding, the turgid sea of coughs, splutters and snorts of a burly, grey, yet not totally humourless man in his fifties.
Mickey's voice however came out of his nose, a whine which broke out into a chuckle. A couldn't care less, occasionally threatening, spotty, eighteen year old voice.
Tadpole was thirteen and nobody needed to ask him why he was called Tadpole. His thin body, with the head that seemed just that bit too large, jumped into the cab of the van beside Mickey. Len started the engine and threw the gears into a heavy first. The lorry lurched away from Tadpoles front door, mum and dad still fast asleep inside. They didn't have to be up until after eight.
It was a fresh morning. The side window was wound right down and Tadpole watched his sleeve whipped by the wind back and forth on his wrist. The barely developed arm and fist bristled back at him from the vans side mirror.
They stopped for petrol almost immediately. They all got out, Len to fill her up, Mickey for a piss and Tadpole to once more admire the broad and bold lettering on the vans side. L.M. STONES & Co. REMOVALS. 'The M stands for Maverick' Len had once told him.
'Who did all those words on the side?' Tadpole asked Mickey.
'Dunno. Some bloke with a paint brush'.
'It's perfect. All the letters are perfect, must have been a real craftsman'.
When they all got back in Tadpole was centre, the other two shouting frantically over his head. It's more than just noise in the cab. It's teeth, tongue and tonsils all jogging up and down, conspiring with the din to make whatever you say unintelligible.
They were talking grown up. Dirty.
'Look at her arse'.
'Oh yea. Bet she don't go short. Bet she's a goer. Give 'er a wave'.
'Hey, she smiled'.
'Told you, must be a scrubber'.
It was still early morning when they pulled in for breakfast. That's the drill. Get near to the load up point, have breakfast, then straight in the gaff afterwards to hump everything into the van, lunch a bit later on the road, unload and then off home.
'This cafe you reckon?'
'Yea, I reckon. We'll give it a try eh?'.
Morning was the time of day Tadpole liked best. The roads not yet choc-a-bloc and the shopkeepers keys only just in the locks, breath visible out their mouths. Mickey pushed open the cafe door, mornings forever after in Tadpoles mind fused with the promise of frying bacon, popping eggs, exploding sausages, sizzling tomatoes and of course the sniff of two fried slices. Then. the hiss of the giant tea urn, the sudden burst of mighty steam. It was the nearest thing Tadpole had seen to a real railway train. Monster mugs of tea for the workers. Lots of sugar. Len never had less than three teas, he fuelled himself on the stuff.
There were flies treading the sugar in the bowl before them on the table. Tadpole half expected to find rats in the salt, rhinoceros in the pepper.
It was a very tiny cafe that could have been a large cafe if they had got rid of all the 'out of order' pinball machines. The curtains that protected the cafe from the world had never been washed. Tadpole could tell that because he assumed they had once been white.
They were the only three in the cafe until the arrival of a spiky haired youth.
'Wotcha Luigi. I'll have the usual' he called out merrily.
'What's the usual' said Luigi, who wasn't Italian.
'I can't remember' said the boy, who was in the wrong cafe.
It was only a short drive to the house. The van snuck through the thin streets of dockland, the sun obscured by high warehouse walls. The house was one of those flat faced little two up and two downs that open straight out onto the street.
'Stinks around here doesn't it Mickey' said Len 'I don't blame anyone for moving away from here.'
'Bloody right' said Mickey 'Not as if it's really England round here these days anyway. Know what I mean?'.
Len knocked on the chipped front door. It was answered by a boy of about five, clean and smartly dressed. He looked up at Len wide eyed.
A woman’s voice: 'Rickie love. Who's that at the door? Must be the movers Rickie. Go and tell your father Rickie'.
The boy trotted off obediently without saying a word. The three squeezed into the thin passage, stacked high with boxes and crates full of the house's smaller objects.
Thirty, dark haired and chunky, he bounded down the stairs.
'Hello gents. Up bright and early. That's the way to make the money eh?'.
'That's right' said Len 'We like to get things rolling as soon as possible'.
'Coffee' offered the man. He scratched his chest, hairy beneath a fitted shirt and gold medal ion.
'No thanks, as I said, we'd like to get the van loaded up as soon as possible'.
'Sure thing, sure thing. You're the experts eh? Early bird catches the worm eh?'
'Is that the removal men dear' came the woman’s voice again. 'Do tell them to be careful with my chaise-longue. Don't forget the money we had to have it reupholstered. Tell them to be careful with that table too, that's real antique you know?'.
The man shot the movers a grin 'Don't worry about her lads, she worries she does that girl'.
'Don't you worry love' he shouted up. 'These men are experts. They know their job'.
Tadpole realised after just the few jobs that he had done with Len and Mickey that packing the van was the most important part of the whole operation. It was no good just slinging all the stuff in and ending up with a full lorry and half a home full of gear to worry about. It's not a skill acquired overnight either. It's mainly common sense, but that's not a sense that's particularly common, thought Tadpole.
The woman appeared. Bottle blonde and big. 'Looks like the foremans arrived' Mickey whispered down to Tadpole.
'Oh don't you worry about him Missus', said Mickey to the woman 'you’re not paying for him. We only bring skinny along now and again on his school 'olidays to carry out the electric freezers'.
She gave Mickey a funny look too.
The man was giving Rickie piggy backs. 'Look at this place' he said to Len. 'All this furniture is the best, know what I mean? We're only working people but I always make sure we always get the best of everything. We've outgrown this place of course. It's got the lot; damp, woodworm, mice and rot. And as for the area, well we all know what's happened to that don't we?'.
'Oh yes mate' nodded Len. 'Oh yes'. He was humping out a sideboard on his back.
Tables, chairs, sofas, cupboards, beds, mattresses, carpets, stereo systems, fridges, freezers, electric cookers, reproduction paintings, horse brasses, little ornaments, knick knacks, dolls of spanish ladies with light bulbs rammed up their dresses - and a chaise-longue too -were all packed tightly into the van.
They were already in the van with the engine revving when there was a thumping on the cab door. Mickey flung it open. A small shabbily dressed Asian stood waving a piece of card.
Mickey: 'You what Ram Jam - Oh yea - Where's that then? -Oh I dunno about that - Why? Pressure of work mate, pressure of work'.
The Asian: 'Unintelligible.
'What was that all about Mickey?' asked Len as the Asian was shuffling off down the road, chaplinesque.
'Says he wants moving, tonight if you don't mind. Says he's being evicted and he's moving just round the corner. Desperate, he reckons. That's the address there on that piece of card he gave me'. He flung it down on the dashboard. 'I should have told him where to stick it eh?'
They laughed. Tadpole thought it sounded the same way people laughed at him sometimes. They were grown ups. They must be 'in the know'. He pretended to laugh, but he didn't really get the joke.
And they were off, back on the road and looking at girls bums.
The man, the woman and little Rickie pushed off the same time in a shiny new saloon.
'We'll be there ages ahead of you in this pal' said the man. 'Doesn't matter though does it? You know where it is don't you?'
'Thank god they do' thought Tadpole. When Len and Mickey didn't know the way the clients sometimes had to squeeze in the cab while Tadpole had to sit in the back. There were many times when Tadpole had suffered the experience, sometimes with Mickey but mostly by himself. He could never get used to seating himself in and amongst someone elses old furniture. The back doors would be shut and bolted and darkness would reign for an awful minute until his eyes adjusted. It was only when the load was very light that the top half of the swing doors could be left swung open. Then he could see where they had just been and sniff the exhaust deep up into his nostrils. It would seem an age back there even before the engine shook and all hell, heaven and earth broke loose. The piled up and neatly arranged furniture, so stable and still a moment before would begin dancing and shifting. Tadpole would be flung up and down, sideways and inside out. If only Len and Mickey could see him sitting there, straining like some reverse Samson, arms outstretched holding up two pillars of swaying kitchen chairs.
But he wasn't in the back now and save for the risen sun making shapes on his eyes everything was hunky dory.
'You could make a great T.V. series out of his job' said Mickey.
'Eh?' Len screwed his face up, coughed and wheezed a bit.
'Yea, you know, all the things that 'appen, all the foreigners and the jokers we have to move about. Could be a riot'.
'Load of rubbish on telly nowadays, Len exclaimed.
'Yea, not 'alf' replied Mickey. 'How about that bloody thing they had on the other week, two an' half hours of sodding ballet. Load of poofs prancing about in tights'.
'Right. Didn't have that in my day' nodded Len.
'Didn't have telly in your day' ventured Tadpole, his voice barely audible above the motor.
'Exactly, only had wireless. Wouldn't have had all that ballet rubbish on the wireless. Had too much dignity'.
Len put his foot to the floor and the van squeezed out of the lean streets, away from the high walls and towards the motorway. A new house for someone, somewhere, someplace out of sight. Tadpole cast his eye around the houses about him. All houses must be pretty much the same he thought, just four walls and a roof, a front door and a collection of furniture.
He put such thoughts out of his head, settled down for the journey ahead. Time to dream, time to rest his already aching limbs, time to not have to do anything.
Before they reached the edge of the city and the long, thirsty motorway, Len decided that it was time for another cuppa.
Clean curtains at the windows, napkins on the tables and the menu wasn't written on a blackboard in this one. A cafe nevertheless. It was dinner time by then so chips and beans joined the sausages, egg and bacon. No fried slices but instead buttered bread. No flies in the sugar.
Some people talk sense, some don't, Len don't. No sin in itself Tadpole supposed. Trouble with Len though was that he would talk it to everybody he met. He would talk to anybody, anywhere, about anything.
You know those old women - they carry old plastic bags around with them, maybe have a few dogs on a lead, and they stop still in the middle of the street to talk to imaginary people. Well, Len was talking to one of them. Sixty five with white hair and a rat eaten old coat.
'Some bastards broke into my house the other week. Bastards. Pissed and shit all over the place, ripped things up, messed things around.'
'Did they love? Did they? I know what it's like' comforted Len.
'Even if they had to nick things,' she carried on 'even if they had to nick things, they didn't have to mess the place up'.
'I agree' Len nodded. 'That wouldn't have happened years ago. Not in my day. We had decent burglars then'.
'Yes' echoed the old lady 'decent burglars'.
'In fact you could almost call them honest' he said 'it was just a job to them, not a bloody vocation'.
Mickey looked at Tadpole and started to giggle. 'Just listen to all this old twaddle' he whispered. -
Len never drank alcohol as a rule. After his fourth mug of tea however he seemed to be in the exuberant chatty mood that most people experienced after a few pints. He was soon jabbering uncontrollably to the old lady about the movers.
'Of course' he prattled on 'In my father’s day when he ran the business, the furniture had to be shoved around on a handcart. Those were the bloody days. A long move took an entire day from early morning to well into the night, might have to make a few journeys see? Some firms had a couple of horses to pull the cart, we did after a while too. I had older sisters but seeing as I was the only son I took the business on when the old man died. I had three lorries at one time a few years back and three teams to do the work. I'm down to one now though. I just got fed up with all the form filling part of it. I like to know what's happening and to do all the jobs myself.'
'Bastards' said the old lady. 'Bastards'.
Meal over. They rattled along the motorway. All the time the movers talked and joked. Tadpole's eyes fixed thoughtfully on the tiny cars ahead and he listened to the tales of the road, the silly, loony, sad, rude anecdotes that Len had told for years and made better over the years. Mickey chortled along and sometimes tried to match one of Len's stories.
Out through Essex and easing off the motorway they entered the new town. They cruised slowly looking for the correct street, a detailed little hand-drawn map on the inside of a fag packet their only guide.
'This is it' shouted Mickey triumphant 'Letsbe Avenue' (that wasn't it's real name of course). They edged along the crisp surface of the road, high, taut trees to either side. They saw the shiny new car outside surveying their pastures green (the name of the house was 'Pastures Green').
'What do you think of it then eh? asked the man, little Rickie framed between his legs.
'Very nice' said Len without emotion. 'Very nice. What will you do for work around this way then? His eyebrows knitted.
'I'll be travelling down to London in the car everyday' the man answered.
'Cost a bit, won't it?'
'Oh yea, course. But I'm not short of the readies. I reckon it's bloody worth it anyway to be living amongst your own sort'.
'Mickey sniggered. 'Not 'alf'.
Len opened up the back of the van, the tail board smashing down to earth unapologetically. As they say, Len had muscles on his muscles. He pulled out most of the furniture on his back, mechanically and with calculated strain. Mickey brought in the lighter load and collaborated with Len on big stuff. Tadpole carried out the bits and pieces.
'I'll give you a hand with the stereo system pal' said the man 'I know you're a pro but it did cost nearly a grand you know?'.
'Ricki' chastised the woman 'stop playing with that lad, he's supposed to be working'.
'Look pal' said the man 'them beds aren't round so you can roll them up the stairs you know? Hell of trouble getting sheets for them'.
The woman supervised Len and Mickey’s journey from the van with the dishwasher. 'Bloody heavy' said Mickey 'sure you took the plates out?'.
'Hang on lads' exclaimed the man 'I know that you know all the ropes but you just can't have a teabreak until you've unpacked the kettle can you?'.
'Honestly madam' said Mickey 'It won't matter if I carry your colour telly in upside down. The newsreader's toupe ain't gonna fall off is it?'.
'Come off it son' said the man to Tadpole 'I know I told you to be careful with the L.P. record collection but there’s no need to be funny about it is there? You can take them in more than one at a time'.
Ricki rode his own bike into the house and Tadpole took hold of a long think china vase. A pity really.
'You stupid cripple' shouted the man. Fierce. 'You're a bloody clumsy sod ain't you. The woman just stood with her hand to her brow in a mock faint position. Little Ricki looked fearfully from father to Tadpole and then back again and Mickey let his fag go out.
Tadpole was looking at his feet. They nestled uncomfortably amongst the chunks of smashed vase on the stone pathway. Despite the happy marriage of family and home this particular object had refused to be carried over the threshold.
The man was moving slowly towards Tadpole from the hallway. 'If you worked for me I'd clout you, you bloody good for nothing.’
“Look at you. Can tell from a mile off that you're a bloody liability" A cough signalled the coming of Len. He was lugging a sofa in from the van single handed but seemed to have summed the situation up in one.
'Nobody gets moved without having something broken' he spluttered 'it's just not possible. I'll tell you what, we'll knock a bit off the bill. Don't forget, no matter how bad things seem they could always be worse'.
True, worse things had happened on past jobs that Tadpole had heard hushed whispers about, but the Golders Green Grand Piano tragedy was something Len forbade talk of.
'Still, there’s no point you lot standing about staring is there? Get a brush and pan and sweep that mess up. There's plenty more to shift yet'.
And that was that, anger diffused by Lens breezy yet almost abrasive tones had turned the whole disaster into a minor couldn't-have-happened-otherwise incident.
Smiling, Len crouched down beside Tadpole, whispered 'You are a bleedin' silly sod though aren't you'
The man, the movers, sat around the kitchen table. The woman was making tea and Ricki was annihilating the forces of Rommel’s Africa Corps with an animated 'Action man' in his tiny fist.
Len and the man were nodding in sage-like agreement on the wiseness of the family’s move to the new town while Mickey mopped his gradually darkening brow with a greasy hanky. The woman placed steaming cups of tea in front of the men, and Tadpole.
'Sorry if things got a bit narky a while back' the man was saying. 'You know how things are?'.
'Course' Len replied 'Now in my old man’s day he would quite often get involved with hand to hand combat with the clients. We all say things we don't mean sometimes'.
Ricki spoke 'Mum, are all my friends going to move here as well?'.
'Of course not dear' laughed the woman 'You won't see them again'. The boy looked surprised, then a little tearful.
'It's alright said the woman 'You'll make new friends here in the new town, friends more like yourself'..
The boy nodded in incomprehension.
Len was chortling away with the man. He lifted the cup to his lips, his eyes on the pot, estimating how many more cups he might drain from it.
The man sat with his legs astride a backward chair, eyeing with pride the unpacked and still unpositioned furniture. 'Well, Mrs Jones' he said to the woman 'I reckon they're all going to have trouble keeping up with us in this street. He winked at Tadpole.
Tadpole wasn't listening to the man. He was watching Len’s face. Tadpole saw him grimace and thought for one terrible moment that Len was going to spit all the tea he had in his mouth right out again, all over the table, all over the man and the woman and the whole seated assembly.
On the journey back home Tadpole was glad that the noise of the engine restricted conversation to a minimum, restricted it to a maximum shout.
'Bloody Hell'. It was Len. 'Bloody effing muck, what was it? And that snotty bloody woman wondered why I spat it all out again. You see the way she looked at me? Her and that bloody ponced up bloke with all the gold bike chain round his neck. "Oh it's Malaysian root tea' ' she says. "It's posh tea" she says. "Not bloody tea at all" I told her, not English tea".
'Ain’t not such thing as English tea' Mickey mumbled. 'It's all -'
'And just who do they think they are anyway' Len carried on 'the bloody royal family? I haven't seen so much furniture outside the ideal home exhibition'.
'No harm in having nice things though, is there Len?' argued Mickey. 'No harm in having a nice house in a nice place'.
'Nothing very nice about them though was there? I could hear all the things that poncy bloke called Tadpole from inside the bloody van. Didn't hear you say anything to defend him'.
'Well' said Mickey head down 'the customers always right ain’t they? And you didn't say nothing neither'.
'Well I can't argue can I'. I'm responsible for you lot. I have to sit on the fence'.
'Well, that’s not right either is it?' said Mickey 'You can't sit on the fence all your life can you? And anyway we call Tadpole names ourselves don't we? Everybody calls Tadpole names. Names don't hurt. Tadpole don't mind. Do you Tadpole?'
'The word 'Pillock' came from somewhere.
Wasn't Lens voice, certainly wasn't Mickeys.
There was a silence that stretched from Essex to Essex Road, the way Len was driving it didn't take very long however.
'What's the bleedin' hurry Len' Mickey asked irritably, eyeing Tadpole with a new found caution.
Len was studying a torn off piece of card he had lifted off the dashboard, was studying the poorly written out address. Was on his way.
I watched the priest from the shield of smiled-at childhood. He arrived at the door and six feet of shining black and white nodded at the door and with his legs slightly apart and hand clasped around a black leather book just in front of his balls, he addressed and squared up to the door. He leaned forward from the waist, legs still straight, and his right arm came up as he leaned and his toilet soaped knuckles rapped coldly on the door and the knock was a knock of decision, expecting no hesitancy, confident of reply, demanding attention. His right arm went down to clasp the book to his flies again as his body straightened and in the seconds before the door opened his neck, just his neck, twisted as he looked up and down the street benevolently.
Sheepishly Mr Roach opened the door but left his toe behind it so that it opened only slightly and then he said, 'Sorry', to the priest and fumbled about as though he was trying to see what was blocking the door and all the time his grey railwayman's face was pleading at the priest, jabbering to the priest, and hating the priest. The priest beamed silently back, waiting for the man to talk himself nervously silly in the presence of a superior being; patiently waiting for the man to move his silly toe and let him in.
Mr Roach leaned his left shoulder against the lobby wall and the door edged back a little but his railwayman's waistcoated chest barred the way and, more solid now, he felt his head cooling and so did the big black priest but he beamed silently on. Suddenly, desperately, the railwayman stopped and listened to himself, this gibbering, fawning idiot, senseless at his own front door; and he looked at the priest, the quiet presidential figure, this patronising parasite, and loathed him and anger welled within him-the stark, tearing anger behind which he could hide.
The priest saw it coming as it had come on rare occasions in the past, and, looking over the man's shoulder, trying to catch a pale wife's eye, he carefully edged his right leg in between the wall and the door. Mr Roach began to ride on zooming rays of rage and, enjoying it now, he looked down mock shocked at the charcoal leg. 'I beg your pardon, Father, but this is my house.' And with outraged dignity he shoved the priest's leg back off the step. The priest's elbow came up next and, this pushed away, a piece of shoulder or wavering thigh and gradually the railwayman was hot again, pushing and shoving at the door as if trying to close the lid of a small box on some monstrous, black, billowing balloon.
The neighbours were beginning to crawl out now and let their kids go up the street so they could go and get them and get, too, a closer look at the action; in situations like this the advantage is nearly always with the priest-he is used to such goings-on and, being a superior person, he has no sense of shame. Invariably as well the wife comes out and drags the man in and makes the priest a cup of tea and tells him all about the white wine and what it's doing to her feller. On this occasion though Father Delaney came unstuck: Mrs. Roach, upon receipt of three brown envelopes from the kids' school, had just soaked her hair in Lorexane - she wouldn't have come out for Our Lord's sake; and, it being a November evening, Father Delaney had fortified himself with a half-bottle of gin.
The gin didn't help the priest's ballooning balance and after a particularly hefty push, when he was flapping his arms like a tightrope walker, he thrust into the doorway the only part of his body he could use-a shiny black arse-and the railwayman, a Geronimo in his great rage, gave one final heave and the priest, arms whirling around, was sent crashing head first into the lamp-post from which he rebounded into the gutter.
The neighbours went clucking around, gathering in their children and they closed their doors silently out of frightened respect. Mr Roach defiantly slammed his door and went back, trembling and fighting with his face, to face his wife. Father Delaney lay bleeding in the gutter, thinking of the parable of the good Samaritan, and wondering why nobody came to his aid: "Oh why, my people, have you forsaken me ?" The thought of the attractions of martyrdom in the streets of Liverpool slowly became apparent to him. His people watched through rubber plants and lace curtains. How could they cross the social chasm and have a superior being dependent on them? Perhaps that teacher up the road might come past soon; he could help him. As long as he takes him home, like; we don't want him coming here tonight
I was sat up in my bedroom sewing away at my denim jeans. The idea was to transform them from navvie's overalls into rocker's drainpipes.
It was about that time that I realised there were THEM and US. THEM were those who were satisfied with life, or, if not satisfied, would be with slight improvements. US, although I personally knew no other US but myself, were those who hated the whole stinking lot. Those out to destroy.
US to me were the Teddy Boys in the papers, who hurled half-bricks through shop windows.
I desperately wanted a Teddy Boy suit, but my parents would. never allow it. I had only just talked them into letting me wear denims. I had to point out to them that none of my mates were wearing short trousers anymore, and that the baggy things my dad wore were a thing of the past for most young people.
I read in the Manchester Evening News (that squalid rag of reaction) of a young lad in Court found guilty of burning down the place where he worked in Stockport. When the judge asked why he did it, before sentencing him, he replied 'I didn't like the place.' He got two years in borstal. He was my hero for ages.
I liked anyone the older people hated: Oswald Mosley, Bill Haley, Little Richard, Chaz Boon (The Biggest Teddy in our School).
I finished off the jeans. I squeezed into them and rushed off out to listen to the older lads swearing, and talking about sex, on the street corner.
The bigger lads would take the piss out of me, but I didn't mind. I cadged the dimps of their cigarettes off them, and sometimes when there were only one or two there, I would get a full ciggy off one of them.
Sometimes I tried to tell dirty jokes that I heard at school to them, but mostly I kept quiet, just soaking in their talk.
At school they used to back-chat teachers that my year were feared of. One of them, Billy Reilly, once stopped a prefect from caning me for being late back from dinner, by threatening to do him over outside school.
I was sure Billy was one of US, but I never dared ask him.
I'd of forgot all about it if it wasn't for Phil and Charlie. They operate the borers on either side of mine. It was during the tea break on Monday when it came to light. Phil says to me. Here Lobby" they call me Lobby because of my limp. He says: "Here Lobby, it's your Silver Jubilee next week, ain't it ?" I said: "You what ?" and Charlie says: "Next week you'll have been with the firm for 25 years". And then I thought: "Bloody hell, he's right. 25 years with the old firm. I suppose that's something to be proud of. It's gone so bloody quick I've hardly noticed. 25 years, bloody hell!"I remember the day I first got the job. I'd had my name down for ages with the personnel office. The lads down at the pub used to pull my leg about it summat awful, when I used to brag that one day I'd be working at Dunkers.
"You'll never get in there." Old Ted used to say. And Albert Foster used to laugh and say that I'd be waiting ages for 'dead man's shoes'. But I got the last laugh on them, when old George Tarbury got sucked into the machine and mangled to death. I got the letter on the Friday, as he got sucked in on the Tuesday. "Can you start on Monday ?" it said. I was on the dole at the time, so I thought "Not half !" And I was down at the personnel office 7.30 sharp on the Monday morning.
It was damn good money here in those days. It's good money now, I think, but it doesn't seem to go as far somehow. It was worth getting a job, and keeping it, in those days. Not like now. You got bugger all on the dole them days. Bloody hell, look at it now ! Them lazy dossers down at the Dog and Crutch get almost as much as I get for working forty hours. And all they do is sit in the vault swilling beer all dinnertime, and then shuffle down to the bookies when the pub shuts. Everything's different now though. The whole bloody country seems to be going to the dogs. What with the trade unions dictating everything, and the Pakistanis flooding the country, and the Chinese buying up all the chip shops. Old Winston would of stopped their gallup if he'd have still been around. Aye, Old Winnie was the best Prime Minister this country ever had. Not like the bugger that came after him, that cross-eyed MacMillan geezer. Old Winnie wouldn't have gone round giving all them darkies independence., like old cross-eyed MacMillan did. Bloody hell, not half he wouldn't ! The bugger gave them independence, and the next thing you knew they were swarming over here snapping up all the plum jobs. Old Winnie would of kept them right out. He'd of restricted their numbers. He understood the ordinary bloke did old Winnie. That was because he was an ordinary bloke himself.
We've had a few darkies in here at Dunkers over the years. I've seem 'em come, and I've seem 'em go. They never stuck it long. The old boring machine is too complex for the average darkie to handle. They can't get used to it. None of them would admit it though. They were proud sods, some of 'em. They'd never admit that they weren't as clever as 'old whitey'. They'd all come up with some lame old excuse for leaving, like "The money's no good" or "The conditions are not up to scratch". Well I’ve been here 25 years, and Phil and Charlie have been here even longer and we see nothing wrong with the money and conditions. Well, not much anyway.
Aye, I've seen some changes in my twenty five years. I suppose everything changes over the years though. Funny thing, my machine's never changed in all that time and it's still as reliable as ever. Well, nearly.
I've seen a bit of bother in my time too. Like that time when they tried to get the union into the place. Bloody long haired sod it was who tried to get 'em in. A right little shitstirrer he was. Always trying to wind the men up. Always causing discon-bloody-tent. Old Greenie the General Foreman soon had him out on his arse though. The bloody union was taking on summat when they took on old Greenie. He was in that Korean dust up. He fixed the bloody commies over there. And he'd fix 'em over here too, if he got half the chance. They could do with a few like old Greenie up in bloody parliament. Tough as rocking-horse shit he is, and twice as combustible. The union put a bloody picket line outside the gates for a few weeks, after they fired the long-haired 'un and a couple of his shit-stirring mates. But we took no bloody notice of 'em. We let em shout and rant, and stew in their own juice for a few weeks. They soon got fed up of it, and buggered off somewhere else to stir up their shit. That's the way to deal with unions, just ignore the bleeders. They soon sling their hook when they know they're up against someone whose forgot more than they'll ever know about bloody work.
Phil and Charlie are trying to arrange a bit of a do for me in the canteen next Friday. That's if the management will allow it. They've both been at Dunkers longer than me. Charlie's been here since the place opened up in the 'thirties. He started in the loading bay, and then he got a chance of a job on the borer and he snapped it up. It was only a couple of coppers more a week, but it's a trade, isn't it ? Phil's been here since the start of the war. When he heard that war was about to break out he rushed down here and told 'em that he was a skilled vertical borer. It was a reserved occupation at the time. Took a chance he did, but he picked the job up soon enough, without anyone knowing the difference. You can soon pick it up though, if you've anything about you. You can't go so far wrong on a Stevenson & Whipple's vertical. I often wonder how old George managed to get himself sucked into the bugger. Charlie said that one minute he was standing there large as life, next minute he hears a scream and there he is as dead as a doornail. Still I suppose all these things are sent to try us. One man's misfortune is another man's gain.
You don't get operators like Phil and Charlie anymore. I reckon they cracked the bloody mould when they poured them two out. All we seem to get nowadays are young kids. Bits of kids, straight from school. You try to get 'em a good training, but they never seem to stay long enough. When they get to 17, old Greenie sees 'em off. Charlie reckons it's something to do with the management wanting to give the new school leavers a chance.
A lot of people say that I'll be the last fellah to get 25 years in here. They say the place'll be shut down in a year or two. But they've been saying that for years. The Foremen keep telling us that the firm's losing money. But they've been saying that for years too. Charlie says that the firm's been losing money ever since he started here. I reckon they only keep saying it so that they can keep our wage rises down to a minimum.
I'll tell you what's a bloody funny co-incidence though. Me celebrating my 25 years in the same week as her Majesty celebrates hers. Still, when I look back at it, she got crowned the same week as I started here. So that explains it I suppose. Aye, I copped for a day's paid holiday the same week as I started. It fell lucky for me, didn't it ? And now, 25 years later, I'm copping for another day's paid holiday. It makes you feel good inside to be living in a civilised country, doesn't it?
BEN AINLEY, founder and Editor of VOICES, died following a long illness, shortly after publication of our last issue. For a man who had devoted so much of himself to providing a means of expression for others, we felt that the most fitting tribute would be to let him speak in his own words. The two pieces which follow are taken from a 300-page autobiography written in 1969, during a breathing-space between Ben's retirement and his increasing involvement with Unity of Arts. The two extracts printed here offer some insight both into Ben's ideas on literature and society and into his own tenacity and fighting spirit. And perhaps this helps to explain, for those of us continuing his work, how such a small man could leave such a big hole to be filled.
FROM CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR
I would like to look afresh at the years I have covered in this fragmentary survey of my lifetime. The squalor of Ancoats in my childhood was as real as my own love of its associations. Barefoot children walked the pavements, and many must have cried themselves to sleep many a time because they went to bed hungry. I never suffered hunger, but I have seen old men and women for whom life must have been a heartbreak unless they developed calloused minds. And if the Ancoats I knew has largely disappeared, there are still some ugly lumps in Manchester, dirty, rat-ridden bug-infested, damp with a squalor of surroundings which imparts a squalor to the minds and bodies that grow up there.
I saw last night a film version of How Green Was My Valley and heard that the film had collected a number of Academy awards. Many years ago I read Llewellyn's book but I remembered nothing of it, even when I saw the film.
The background of life in a Welsh valley, with its deeply moved miners, singing their heroic or comic hymns and songs, with majestic mountain scenery for their backcloth, and the slagheaps and the huts and cottages for their home, the backbreaking toil of getting coal with the periodic siren blasts that tell of tragedy striking in the mines-this is conveyed in the film, and one sees this aspect of the human scene in its background-luxury, refinement, the arts, good living at one end, and at the other, drinking, chapel-going, hard-headed lads driven from home by unemployment to seek jobs in far-off countries.
But the presentation of the film-and I pay tribute to its artistry-I was deeply moved by the small events that tug at human feelings-had a hollowness sometimes which hurt me. A parson, a priest of the Methodists who at one time says to the beautiful miner's daughter that he's dedicated to his work and therefore can't indulge himself with love and marriage, and on another that he won't marry her because it would drag her down to his own patched and penny-pinching level. The parson performs a touching miracle in the film-he brings a small boy paralysed by infirmity to walk literally by faith. The parson takes the side of the newly formed Trade Union of miners, but warns them not to reply to injustice by injustice. The injustice they have banded against remains at the end of the story. But the parson leaves the valley in a flurry of self-righteous anger because the people there have joined a character-assassination gossip-mongering directed against the pure girl whom he had himself been unwilling to marry, but who continued to love him through an unhappy marriage with the coal-owner's son, and her subsequent divorce from him.
The minister of the gospel, presented as a saint and self-sacrificing martyr to his work in the valley, goes out with a set speech in which he denounces hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness, lack of faith in his community. It is true to say that their faults are his failure-but this is presented not as the truth, but only as a further indication of his saintly self-criticism.
It is films of this kind which really corrupt values, refusing to face honestly one of the many problems they present.
Hardly a year has gone by since I was born in 1901 without a war: tens of millions of people have been killed, and to the cannon and machine gun of my boyhood have been added atomic cannon, atomic bombs (dropped on Japanese towns), flame throwers, napalm, lazydog missiles, blockbuster bombs, chemical and biological weapons which will spread disease more widely than Jehovah's plagues on the wicked Egyptians of bible times. The sum of human misery, the streams of human tears, the throes of human agony, the swollen bellies of starved children, the distended flattened breasts of mothers aged by hunger and want, the bilarzia, scropula, typhoid, trachoma and a thousand tropical diseases-this today, is part of the reality and a large part of the reality of our world. Vietnam, Biafra, these are the latest of the consciously enacted crimes of our society.
There is enough tragedy in the human condition without the piling up of horror by men who sit in offices, over maps, a thousand or more miles away from where the blow will fall to decide to wipe out a city or blot out the growing crops of a thousand helpless villagers.
Is the world a better world than it was when I was a boy ? In spite of a whole spectrum of new modes of inflicting death and disease undreamed of in my childhood, I dare to assert that the world is a better world. Cruelty and cowardice, tyranny and injustice, tears and pain still exist, multiply. But there is more conscious revolt against it, less resigned misery, and men are learning to meet their tormentors upright instead of cringing to them.
FROM CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT
It is a truism in the working-class movement which nobody, not even the Harold Wilsons and the Barbara Castles will deny, that the privileges the working-class enjoy, the right to organise in Trade Unions, the right to organise political parties, the right of free speech, the right to vote, compulsory education, national insurance, the national health service etc., were all won in successive struggles by the people -sometimes of course fierce, bitter, protracted, conscious struggles of the working-class.
When those freedoms therefore are displayed (often by the people from whose forbears they had to be wrested) as if they indicated the above-class character of our society, it is only necessary to point to the historic circumstances from which these freedoms have come about, to prevent any misconceptions from arising.
It is true that in Western Society too, the emancipation of women (not of course by any means a completed fact even in 1969) moved forward rapidly in the first thirty years of this century, and was won by a revolt largely of propertied women, and educated middle-class women against the degrading inequalities-of which the lack of the franchise was symbolic-they suffered and working-class women, and the Trade Union Movement came later into this fight. But the fight had to be fought.
Similarly with the artists. The fragmentation of art, the refusal of artists to accept as patrons the arms manufacturers, the international bankers, and the values of a society as wildly competitive and cutthroat as Capitalism, led us to a deep division generations ago between the artists and their cultured clientele (not always a wealthy clientele) and the Philistines of Matthew Arnold's definition, the people for art, like the caress of a woman, and the whisky and soda and agar, were the superadded refinements to be enjoyed after the heat of the day, and having nothing in common with that day except to bring it soporifically to a close.
The revolt against philistinism, the angry disgust of the artists against the nineteenth century patrons was a healthy revolt. It took the form of poking fun at the establishment, at ridiculing respectability, at discrediting the existing values-whether they were merely bourgeois, or dried up reminiscences of the values of an earlier age. The artists wield a tremendous power: but they are not necessarily informed with an ethic, an aesthetic. They are angry, disillusioned, and shocked with what is flabby in our society. Their response is negative and vitriolic: they are like the anarchist politicians of the day.
What should a socialist society say of western art? How-should it evaluate western art ? The negative revolt of the artists, the students, who want to lash out at the bourgeoisie, but in doing so want to lash out at all which is socially valuable in our society, has to be welcomed, for what it is, revolt-refusal to accept the rat-trap into which they are born, refusal to be bound by conventions which are manifestly out-of-date, refusal to worship mammon, success, the lies and the lying values of a corrupt age. So far we applaud and value revolt. But when it sours, when it rejects, not merely values of the bourgeois society, but all values, all social values, when it is ready to spit at humanity and despise it, when it glorifies a Nietzschean super-ego above all morality, above "the herd", unwilling to live in society and conform to, and contribute to a decent society, non-exploiting society, then it is not fit for society to accept. If a man preaches murder or the return to a slave society or the right of a sadist to inflict his bestialities on others, or the right of a robber to rob, then his preaching is openly to be rejected by society, and society has to work hard at his rehabilitation for he is a case for psychic treatment.
Now some (by no means all, by no means the greater part, possibly only a fringe element) modern art has these basically Fascist, basically backward-looking theses. And it is against these elements in Western art that we should be, and Socialist societies are in revolt.
Introduction by Molly Weaver
In 1917 on December 23rd in the home, Michael Weaver was born in the Republic of Ireland, in County Roscommon, in a small village at Calvagh, at the home of his grandmother, Margaret Sherlock, with whom he lived until the age of fifteen, attending school, and helping to farm the land for the livelihood of himself, his grandma, and his dog.
At this age he was compelled to come to England, as work in Ireland was non-existent. He did this rather than stay behind for a college education since that was only designed in a way which he would have had to become a priest. This was not his ambition, having seen quite a great deal of struggle in the country, resulting from the terrorist regime of the Black and Tans. Having landed in England he joined the growing masses of the unemployed. He searched the country far and wide for work on the farms, roads or land, until he obtained something steady on the London underground. From there he moved onto quarrying, then to road work.
In 1941 I met Michael for the first time at Chequerbent, between Bolton and Westhoughton. His work at that time was heading a gang of men on a construction in Leyland.
Later that year Michael went mining at Mosley Common in South Lancashire. He had applied for the Royal Navy but they had not even acknowledged this. From going in the mine he was in a tied job for the duration of the war. He made up his mind right from then that he would be settled for the rest of his life. He was already a member of the Communist Party and a close friend of Jim Hammond, miner's agent of the day.
Michael was on the branch committee of the NUM and in a few months of joining in meetings he was voted delegate to represent his colliery at area level, then voted to executive committee level delegate. Soon after the committee had him voted part-time union secretary.
In 1956 he opposed the then union secretary William Birmingham for full time union work and swept the board clean. He took to his new job like a fish takes to water, with a determination that miners must be respected for the loyal service they give to his country.
He forwent much free-time to ensure they got their rights, he battled for concessionary coal, visited homes taking statements from sick people at weekends. In order that I myself might have the pleasure of his very magnetic companionship, and the need I had to be with him, I would go to these sick and sadly injured people, seeing and sharing their suffering.
I think in some way I helped, at least I hope, to keep him together. Michael will be remembered for a great personality as well as the work he put in. In the late years, I cannot give a date, but Michael was invited to visit China, looking for knowledge and their mining methods. But the Republic of Ireland would neither give him a passport nor a reason for this. In 1961 he went through the same channel with the same negative result. This time he wanted to go to Russia. He thus had to choose, his application was made and granted through the British Embassy. So he went to Russia for almost a month.
Michael travelled the mining villages of this country as mine after mine was closed following this up with TV confrontations with our so-called experts on how oil would replace coal.
He saw into the future, the disasters these closures would make, and all honesty his predictions have come true. Then in 1968 they sank Mosley Common I think it was then that Mick Weaver Union Official Unique began to die.
He had stood for parliament and only failed to get there because of his communist beliefs. He was no short cut man and he never went back on his principals.
He took up writing when he could no longer work, as he became really bad with arthritis, he wrote for five years. His life ended very suddenly on Thursday 29th January 1976 at 1.50 p.m.
He left a legacy of love ... his wife, his son Michael; two daughters Eileen and Joanne; and our daughter-in-law Penny.
Molly Weaver With love to Michael
John McWanted was a small farmer in County Mayo, Ireland. He was a hard, uncouth, stern man, merciless in anger, but not unreasonable when in a good humour, which didn't amount to much, anyway, because it was very seldom he was in a good humour. He had never been to school a day in his life, for when he was a boy, authority did not provide schools for peasants' children.
He had four sons, the youngest of which was Michael, and long before any of them had reached manhood he had all their careers and obligations mapped out for them. The eldest, called John, would go to England as soon as he turned sixteen years, earn money there any way he could, and send most of it home to help bring up the rest of the family. The next two would also go on reaching sixteen years of age and the youngest, Michael, would stay behind and inherit the place, just as he, John McWanted, had inherited the place from his father, being the youngest son of his father's family.
In the west of Ireland this was a tradition that had become so ingrained in the pattern of peoples' behaviour that each member of a family accepted without question or fuss the tasks and obligations that fell to him or her by the accident of birth and tried to perform those tasks and discharge those obligations dutifully and honourably. John McWanted had no reason to assume that his sons would behave any better or worse than his own brothers had done, or that the sons of thousands of small farmers had done, so he actually looked forward eagerly to the day the eldest of his sons could emigrate, which would ease the burden of poverty he carried, and to later days when his other two sons would join his eldest in England and make things easy for himself and his wife in their old age.
His eldest son's birthday fell on the twentieth of June, nineteen-twenty-nine, and first thing in the morning, with a song in his heart as tuneful and exhilarating as a yellowhammer, John McWanted set off walking to the local shop to buy a suitcase. That night, he packed all his son's belongings in the case and made all preparations for the big event the following day.
"Sure, we'll soon be on a pig's back," he said to his wrinkled, headscarved wife as they sat by the fireside that night. "Sure, in another couple of years, there'll be another one ready, and two years after that another. Ara, devil a one of us’ll feel a thing now 'till they're all away, and then all we'll have to do every week is change the cheques." He laughed closely to himself while his wife contended herself with nodding agreement, and fixing more peat-sods on the fire. "Ara, they'll sink the old boat with all the money they'll shove over when they all get going," he continued. "Jesus, you know they're great lads. Sure that John can do more work than any man now, and he'll get better all the time. He will." He eased out his legs, drew heavily on his pipe and looked at the few ornaments that adorned the wooden mantlepiece over the fireplace. "Wasn't it him made that?" and he pointed up to the mantlepiece with the stem of his pipe. "Twas," his wife replied, then sniffled and sighed. "Sure that's a fine piece of work altogether. Sure a man that can do work like that'll get on anywhere. Ah, we've nothin' to worry about now, nothin' at all. The money'll start coming soon, you'll see."
The following morning, John McWanted walked proudly to the nearby town and carried his son's case. At the railway station, he paid the lad's fare, gave him an extra pound just in case something unforeseen happened, and with a broad smile, a warm handshake, and a final goodbye wave, he launched his son on the journey to England, another 'Spolpeen' to swell the ranks of Irish immigrants there. He walked home more slowly, still with joy in his heart and a sense of great expectation pervading his mind, for he felt that all he had to do was wait a little longer and then the money would start rolling across the waves.
But the money did not come rolling across the waves, for in nineteen-twenty-nine England was experiencing a serious economic slump and work was very hard to come by.
Of course, John McWanted made no allowances for that, for he never would accept excuses for anyone else's misdeeds, that is. So he heaped all the blame on his son, and every morning when he asked his wife: "Any letter from the quare fellow today?" and she told him: "No," he became ever more sullen and bad tempered. :
"Ara, sure I knew well that fella'd never come to nothin'," he told his wife. "Sure, he never thought of nothin' but himself. Nothin' in the world. He's there now beyond in England, drinkin' himself stupid every night and not a thought in his head for us here at home. Ara, may the devil whip him, sure he's no good for nothin'. Now we'll have to wait 'til the next one's ready. See what sort of job he makes of it."
His wife didn't speak, just nodded dutifully and got on with her housework.
"You know, I think meself the next one'll be better. Ara sure he has a great old head on him, a great head altogether. Sure he's twice the man the other fellow was." Again Mrs. McWanted merely nodded, for she knew she daren't cross her husband when he was in an angry mood, and he was in an angry and recriminating mood then.
John McWanted's second son was ready for dispatch in nineteen-thirty-one. The same ritual was observed, the same expectations cherished and the same result ensued — no money, for unemployment still raged in England and wages were so savagely depressed that single men could just pay their way when in work, while men with families merely lived.
Once more John McWanted's disappointment was enormous and his anger fearsome. "Ara, wasn't that the bad arab all his life," he snarled to his wife. "All his life, he was." Uneasily she tried to get out of his way and out of reach of his penetrating stare, for although she did not agree with him, she dare not appear to disagree with him.
He continued cynically between puffs on his pipe. "An' the, the old gleck of him, like a right man. Haa! two nice yokes, the pair of 'em. We have only one left now, and if he doesn't do something, we're buggered. We are, buggered. But, what am I sayin', won't it be two years yet before he can go. That the devil whip the pair of them beyond there in England! Weren't they the bad rearing!"
The third son left Ireland in nineteen-thirty-three and John McWanted's wrath became pathological. "I've a good mind to kill myself," he often murmured. "Sure, I'm 'shamed to show me face at the chapel gate a Sunday morning, with me having three sons beyond in England, and me still wearing the same old suit I wore ... Jesus I don't know when. I don't know where they took this drinkin' from," he remarked angrily to his wife. "It must be from your side, 'cause it wasn't from mine. Jesus, my side were great people altogether. Sure, they'd kill their own ... well I won't say it, but they'd commit murder for a penny, they would. Sure them old dowderies on your side were no good for nothin'. No good for nothing!" and as he whipped himself into a frenzy, his wife quietly slid away, lamenting the fact that she didn't know where her three sons were, how they were faring, or anything at all about them. And she was often heart-sick at her husband's rantings, but she had to hide her feelings. That was the hardest part. She begged God in her prayers to urge them to write to her, even if they had no money to send, but she feared they wouldn't do that, for she had no idea that all three thought that an empty letter would not be welcomed in County Mayo. And, indeed, it would not be welcomed by John McWanted.
Things became worse for the Irish small farmers. The 'Economic War' hit them savage blows. The price of everything they had to sell hit rock bottom, while the price of everything they needed to buy remained stable or increased. So finally, the last of John McWanted's family, Michael, decided to emigrate to England. This time there was no fuss over the leaving, no proud walk into town and no sitting back with mounting expectations.
The morning Michael left home his father acted normally. His mother cried silently, inwardly, but Mr. McWanted sat coldly smoking his pipe as his youngest son, carrying a small suitcase, left the house. The year was nineteen-hundred and thirty-five and Michael, still little more than a boy, considered himself a man and was determined to behave like a man, work as hard as he could in England, save up like hell and send as much money as he could home to his stricken father and mother. He had been listening so long to his father's rantings about the awful drinking habits of his elder brothers that he had begun to believe them, and vowed that he would not be like that. He vowed that he would avoid drink at all costs, and he renewed that vow before he left the small railway station at the nearby town and several more times on the journey to Dublin.
Michael McWanted arrived at Euston Station on a chill, wet, October day. He had nothing to eat since he left home, so he was tired and hungry, but the only money he had was a pound note his mother had cabbaged from her housekeeping pittance and had slipped into his pocket unknownst to his father.
When Michael got off the train, his eyes fairly bulged with surprise at the size of everything. "Jesus, it's bigger than Dublin," he muttered to himself. "Jesus, it's enormous!" and he looked all round, his eyesight diffused with wonder. "God, I bet a man'd soon get lost here, if he didn't know where he was going. And sure I don't know where I'm going, so I must be lost, then, so I must." and he walked out through the huge columned archway.
Outside on the street, he stood for several minutes undecided which way to turn. Then he remembered the tales he had heard about the wonderfully helpful English bobby, and he decided to ask the first one he met. He didn't rightly know what to ask, but he thought that the bobby, being wonderful and helpful, would know how to help him. With his suitcase held limply in his hand he approached a bobby — who happened to be a man who was on his way to take up his position on point duty - and he stammered out disjointly and hoarsely: "P.p.please sir.... p.p.please ... ?
"You what, mite?" the bobby barked angrily, and scornfully eyed Michael all over.
"P.p.please sir, could, could you tell m.m.me where I might meet some Irish?"
"Yes, mite. Get back to fucking Ireland where you fucking well came from." He brushed past the bewildered Michael and shouted over his shoulder as he went by: "And take a half a million of those fuckers here with you, too. You can drop the bastards off half way there if you like."
"Oh, God save us all!" moaned an astounded Michael. "Sure, he wasn't friendly at all. Not a bit friendly, he wasn't. Aha, but maybe that's the way they have here of telling a man they don't know ... or something. I bet it is." He turned to his left and began walking casually along the street.
Coming towards him was a man wearing a moleskin trousers, a heavy pair of boots, a long, thick, black jacket, a khaki shirt, a black scarf wound carelessly around his neck with both ends flapping over one shoulder, and a cap set at a rakish angle on the side of his head. He rolled from side to side as he walked and Michael immediately concluded that he was Irish, for he had heard that Irishmen who had lived in England a long time and had worked on very big jobs dressed that way and walked in that manner.
"Jesus, this fella must've been here a shocking long time," he told himself as he looked at other passers by. "Jesus, he's been here longer than anyone else, and he must'ave worked on some quare, big jobs, too, to wear that lot. So, he's sure to know."
As the weird-geared one rolled closer, Michael hung out his most pleasant smile and began hesitantly, but not nearly as hesitantly as when he had addressed the bobby: "Please, mister, could you tell me where I could meet some Irish blokes? Ara of course, you can. Sure why wouldn't you!"
The weirdly-dressed never stopped but snarled out of the side of his mouth: "Get fucked, you stupid greesheen, you. Get back to the bog where you came from!"
Michael's mouth dropped open with astonishment and his eyes followed the mole-skin clad legs along the street until they were out of sight. "God bless us all!" he expostulated, still looking after the weird one. Then he dropped his head to one side and murmured to himself: "Sure, Jesus, I bet everyone here talks like that now, the Irish and all, well, them that's been here a long time, anyway. God, your man there must've been here a shocking long time all right. But, be Jesus, it's a quare way of talking, just the same. Ah, but... what harm. Sure it must be the right way or they wouldn't all have it. Be Jesus, I better start talking like that, too. Ara, why wouldn't I. Jesus, sure I know all them words right well. 'Course I do. I will."
So resolved, he turned to continue his journey, and as he did so, he swung his suitcase out and accidentally struck a passing woman a painful blow on the knee.
She sucked in her breath quickly, scowled fiercely at Michael and released a shoal of words which he didn't understand, but which he thought had a ring similar to the words used by the other people he had encountered.
"Ah, now," he reflected, "by Jesus, the women talk that way, too, here now. Ah, now, I'll have to talk the same way, too. Sure, a man'd look a proper gobshite if he didn't talk like everyone else, sure he would. Oh, now, indeed, I will. Be Jesus, though, I bet they're grand people if a man knew them properly, so they are. Hah? Ah, but damn me if it isn't a quare way of talking, just the same. Ah ... well ... what harm. I'll do it, too sure."
A little further along the street he saw a man who appeared middle-aged coming towards him. The man wore heavy boots which were bleached white-brown with clay, but he didn't roll when he walked and he didn't wear moleskins or a scarf and his cap was straight on the top of his head.
"Ah, he won't be long here," Michael told himself," and he won't have worked on any big jobs either. But, be Jesus, he might be able to help me just the same. Jesus, I'll chance him anyhow, but this time I'm going to talk right to him. When the older man was within a couple of yards of him, Michael stood still, put both heels together and shouted at the top of his voice: "Scan, could you fucking well tell me where I could meet a few fucking Irishmen in this man's town, hah?"
"Bow-wow!" barked the older man and staggered back as if he had been hit in the face with a brick. He eyed the young stranger carefully, paying particular attention to the lad's clothes, his demeanour
and the suitcase which dangled loosely from his hand and caused passers by to veer one way or the other in order to avoid being hit by it.
"Just come over?" he asked cautiously.
"Oh, now, just, just pulled into the fucking old station there."
"Shush!" screamed the older man, grabbing Michael's arm and snatching him quickly to one side. He glanced quickly over each shoulder before he spoke earnestly to the young lad.
"See, you mustn't talk like that here in the main street or they'll have the bobbies on you."
"Bobbies?" enquires the confused Michael. "Is it the police you mean? Sure, damn me wasn't it a f...."
"Such will you!" roared the older man, fretfully glancing once more over each shoulder. "Now listen, you must not talk like that here in the public street, or anywhere else in public, for that matter. Now, at work everything goes, but on the street ... no. Someone'll set the bobbies on you, you know."
"They bloody well will."
"Sure damn me wasn't it a policeman I first heard talking like that, and wasn't the next one an Irishman, and one that'd been here a long time at that."
"Now, now, listen," warned the older man, "you must not use that sort of language here in the streets. Only old tramps use that sort of language here."
"Be Jesus is that true? Well damn me isn't this a marvellous country. They have tramp bobbies here. Hee, hee!"
"No . . . Hah? Ah ... now . . . well," continued the older man, unsure what to say, "never mind that, now, where are you headin' for?"
"Damn me if I know properly," replied Michael. "I have three brothers here, but I don't know where they are, and, Jesus, I bet it'd be awful easy for a man to get lost in this f........"
"Haaaaaa!" coughed the older man as loudly as he could hoping to drown out the young lad's swear words.
"Christ, have you a bad throat, or something?" asked Michael.
"No, but you have an awful tongue. Now, unless you stop that, I'm telling you, the bobbies'll have you. Now, I'm telling you."
"Jesus, do you mean it?"
"Do I mean it 'Course I mean it. Now, where did you say you're
"Sure I don't know. Sure, I have three brothers here and I don't know where one of 'em is. Do you know?"
"Ara, how the hell would I know where your brothers are? Sure you haven't told me who you are yet."
"Oh, be God, no, I haven't. Michael McWanted, that's me. Well, that's me name anyhow."
"McWanted," browsed the older man, rubbing a grimy, stubbly chin with a dirty hand. "Did you say you have brothers here?"
"I have, indeed, three, but....."
"Jesus, I work with a McWanted. You're not from Killoween by any chance?"
"Oh, now, the very place, the very place."
"Jesus, the bloke I'm working with might be your brother, but he's a lot older than you."
"It'll be me oldest brother, that's who it'll be. A big bloke with fair hair and a grey, striped suit. Ah, but sure he might have bought another one since then. His name's John."
'The name's John all right," the older man said, "but he's not all that big, though. Oh, but, a handy bloke, a nice handy-sized bloke. Jesus, he could be your brother all right, 'cause his name's McWanted and he comes from Killoween."
"Oh, he is, he is, he is, no doubt about it at all," enthused Michael. "Jesus, where can I find him, tonight? Now? Hah? Jesus I hear he's a bugger for the beer, hah?"
The older man shook his head, for Michael's artlessness was becoming perplexing, and he kept swinging the suitcase about as he spoke. "Hi! keep that old bag steady, will you?" warned the older man. "You'll knock some one's chips out..."
"Yes, sure, sure, sound" Michael assured him, and he managed to hold the bag steady for a while, at least.
The older man spoke again: "Now, well, if that's your brother .. "
"Oh, it is, it is, no doubt about it," Michael interrupted.
"Can you tell me where I can see him?"
"Wasn't that what I was trying to tell you, but you wouldn't listen."
"Oh, I will, I will, definitely. Scan, sound!"
"Right then. Well, now, if that's your brother, you'll find him within in Hammersmith 'cause that's where he lives."
"Hammer who?" Michael enquired earnestly.
"Jesus! who in the world's that?"
"Who! it's a place, not far from here. You can take a bus there. I mean, you can catch a bus here that'll take you there," he added just in time to prevent Michael's intervention.
"Phew!" he exhaled loudly. "You catch a number .... but what in the hell's the use telling you that. Sure, you'll end up in Smithfield if you're left on your own." He pondered everything lengthily and then said, as though inspired:
"Tell you what . . . but first let's get rid of that bloody case, for Christ's sake!"
"Get rid of it," exclaimed Michael. "Sure, this is all I have in the world."
"NO, I don't mean that. I mean, put it somewhere."
"Sure, if I put it down, won't someone pick it up and walk away with it? And won't I be buggered then altogether?"
The older man sighed deeply, for the situation was becoming impossible and Michael's gullibility unbelievable. But, the nobler nature within him stirred', and he decided not to leave such an ingenuous, unsuspecting, young lad to wander the streets of London alone, a prey to all the guiles of the very dangerous people who abounded in every side street at that time. Yet, what to do was the problem. "I think ..." he began but broke off without saying much. "What time is it?" he looked up at the station clock and saw that it was half-past six. "Christ, two hours yet. See, he won't be out for another hour and a half, maybe two. But let's get rid of that bloody bag..."
"Now, now. Say nothing, just come on," and they began walking towards the station. "See, there's a place here where you can leave it. It'll cost you twopence or maybe threepence, but it'll be safe, and it'll be there where you want it. See? Oh, give's the bloody thing here, for Jesus' sake!"
The older man snatched the case from Michael, walked straight to the left luggage department, put the case on the counter and asked the attendant: "Twopence or threepence?"
"Two, mite?," replied the attendant, picking the case off the counter, stacking it with many more on one side of the compartment, and writing out a receipt.
The older man paid the twopence, took the receipt, then handed it to Michael. "Now, isn't that better?"
"Oh, great, great, sound!"
"Well, you won't hit anyone in the cod fillets anyway."
"Now, now. It'll be there when you want it. All you have to do is hand that receipt to the bloke there and he'll give it to you."
"Oh, great, great, sound. Jese, thanks a lot. Be God, I never asked you your name, have I?"
"No, well, don't. Just keep it that way. Come on," and as they walked away from the left luggage department, the older man talked confidentially with his younger colleague. "Now, let me give you a bit of a tip here."
"Yes. Well, it's not a wise thing to start bandying names about all over the place around here just now."
"No. See, the bobbies are awfully keen around here just now. What, with this 'Economic War' and that, a man's a lot better to keep quiet. Know what I mean?"
Although Michael had listened very carefully, he didn't really understand what his older colleague had been trying to tell him, but he replied as if he had. "Oh, yes, 'course, sound!"
"Tell you what," continued the older man, "call me Jack. How's that?"
"Oh, fair enough, fair enough."
"That'll do for now, won't it? Well, I'll come for it anyhow, so what more does a man want?"
"Oh, no, nothing, fair enough, sound .... Jack."
Then they both laughed and that was the first time Michael had heard anything he thought worth laughing at since he had left home.
"Right, now I'll tell you what," suggested the older man as they left the station. "I have a bit of an old room up the road here a bit. Now, we can go there now, have a drink of tea and a bit of grub, if there is any, then after I've had a shave and a change out of this lot. I'll have a run into Hammersmith with you."
"Run!" Michael expostulated. "Jesus, sure I don't want to start running..."
"Now, now, will you! I mean, we'll catch a bus to Hammersmith, how's that?"
"Oh, powerful, powerful, great, sound."
They didn't speak again until they arrived at Jack's lodgings. It was a small room which Jack rented. There was a single bed under the window and a small table in the middle of the floor with two cane chairs tucked underneath it. The table was covered with newspaper and on it stood a motley of knives, forks, spoons, greasy plates, a teapot and a tea-stained mug.
"Sit there 'till I get something ready," Jack instructed, setting one of the chairs near the empty fireplace. Michael sat timidly on the chair, but kept looking round the room, for it was not the kind he had expected to find in London, and certainly did not accord with the splendour of Euston.
Jack put everything on the table into a tin basin and carried them into a kitchen which he shared with other boarders. Then he brought back some clean newspaper and covered the table with it. Next he brought two mugs, two pairs of knives and forks, two plates and a loaf of bread. "Hah! well, we'll have a bit of grub whatever happens, even if the sky falls," he joked and skipped nimbly into the kitchen once more.
Michael rubbed his palms together vigorously in anticipation, for he felt like a spent salmon, and the gastric juices were gnawing at the linings of his empty stomach.
Not long after that Jack was back with a huge frying pan in which he had cooked bacon and eggs. "Hah! a bit nearer," he said as he left the pan on the table and hurried into the kitchen once more.
The smell of the cooked bacon nearly drove Michael to distraction and he had to struggle with himself for all he was worth to stop himself from attacking the food. The battle for self control was at a critical stage when Jack returned from the kitchen carrying a teapot. He divided out the bacon and eggs, cut several slices off the load and dropped them on the table centre and poured out the tea.
"Right me son!" he shouted "up to the manger."
The words had hardly fallen from his lips when Michael was at the table, having dragged his chair behind him. They never spoke during the meal, but once or twice Jack looked across at his colleague who was eating like a semi-starved animal.
"A bit better?" Jack asked, when they had finished eating and were languidly sipping tea.
"Better, oh, what!" Michael replied.
"Well, a bit tighter, anyhow. Well, now, I'll tell you what we'll do — well, in a few minutes, I mean, when we've finished this drop of tea. I'll have a shave, change out of this habit and I'll run into Hammersmith with you, and we'll see the quare fella. Hah?"
"Run!" Michael exclaimed, then remembered and a vapid look spread across his face. "Oh, you mean .... bus."
"Yes. That's what I mean. Yes .... Oooh!"
"Oh, good, great, sound that. Jesus, we'll meet the quare fella tonight. Think we'll find him?" and for the first time while referring to his brother a hint of doubt dimmed Michael's exuberance.
"Find Him? 'Course we'll find him. I know right well where he'll be, no fear of that."
"You do? Oh, Jesus that's great, great altogether."
"I won't be long," Jack explained as he left the room.
"There's an old evening paper there you can have a look at while I'm getting ready. Right?"
"Right, right, oh great. Jesus, you're a sound man."
Jack hurried up the stairs, and Michael sat by the table stock still, while in his head fear and intrepidity, disappointment and exultation regularly changed places.
When Jack came back into the room, he was clean shaven, wore a fairly well preserved blue serge suit, a white shirt with a collar, a blue tie and looked, in Michael's eyes, several years younger than he had looked before he left to change his clothes.
"Jesus, man, you look powerful, now, powerful altogether, you do," Michael exclaimed with the utmost sincerity.
Jack smiled amiably as he fixed on his head at a jaunty angle a dark, pork-pie hat. "Right, now, scan, ready?"
"Ready? 'Course. Well, damn me if you don't look powerful.
"Right then, come on, we'll go."
As they were going out. Jack squinted at a clock in the kitchen and announced: "Just eight now. Nice time. We'll be there for half-past, with a bit of luck. That's when the quare fella comes out."
"Well is it?"
"Yes, not a minute before, any night."
Jack locked the door and they walked steadily, shoulder to shoulder up the street.
As they entered the public bar of a public house in Hammersmith, Michael fairly oogled with surprise.
"Jesus, this is an awful big place," he said, scanning every corner of the room.
"Big?" remarked his colleague. "Not it."
"Is there ones bigger than this?"
"Bigger than this? Ger away! Why, they drink out of glasses bigger than this in some places."
"Jesus, they must be fantastic glasses. Can you see the quare fella at all?"
"See him? Isn't he there fornint you."
Just then a slightly built man in a grey suit that hung loosely from his shoulders turned from the bar and when saw Jack exclaimed: "Why, hello Jack. What's brought you to these parts?"
"Hello John. Oh, be Jesus, I thought I'd have a run in here to have a look at you. See how you're all managing in these wild, uncivilized parts, that's all."
John McWanted laughed and showed a clean, even set of well-preserved teeth. "A pint is it. Jack?"
"Yes, a pint, John, but I brought someone to see you. See, here, see if you know him."
John McWanted looked at Michael, shook his head and smiled at Jack. "No, but no matter, two pints," he told the barman without waiting for consent.
"Hi!" demanded Jack. "Look again. See if you think he looks like anyone you know."
John McWanted looked at Michael again, again shook his head and said: "No. But what the hell does it matter, anyhow?" "So, you're sure you don't know him out of anyone?" John smiled amiably this time at Michael who was beginning to feel despondent, because if that was really his brother, he had changed completely from the picture of him Michael had been carrying around with him in his mind for several years. Michael was only ten years old when his oldest brother left home, and Michael always pictured that brother as being a very powerful young man and very stylish. But the man in front of him wasn't like that at all. He was slim with a wrinkled neck and wore a suit much too big for him. Still, he was friendly, laughed continually and that sat Michael's mind at ease.
"Well, this is great," remarked Jack as John paid for the beer. "Now if you come from County Mayo, from the village of Killoween, and your mother never took in lodgers, this is your full brother, Michael."
"Hah!" shouted John. "Me brother?" and as he turned excitedly from the bar, he spilled some of the beer.
"Oh, for God's sake," admonished Jack, "don't spill the holy water whatever you do. Lord save us," and he took a pint glass from John and quickly sipped out of it.
"Jesus Christ, it's not our Mickeen," John exclaimed and thrust out a washed, but gnarled hand.
"That's me," Michael said exultantly and eagerly grabbed his brother's outstretched hand.
Within the next few minutes, they shook hands more than a dozen times, while Jack looked on from the outside, yet not feeling an outsider. For a long time the two brothers talked about Ireland, about their father and their mother and how difficult it was to make a living there then. Occasionally John deliberately turned to Jack and tried to involve him in the conversation, but Jack understood and was content to drink and listen to the two brothers exchange words and thoughts and attribute, for Jack was one of the very few mature Irishmen who liked young Irish lads who came to London. Most of them regarded the new arrivals as unwelcome competitors for the little work that was available. In fact, they often looked on those young lads as undesirable intruders, and scoffed at them and mocked them, especially when they showed innocent and unsophisticated attitudes to the harsh reality of living in economic-torn Britain. But Jack was not one of those. He would help a young lad anytime, and he knew he was doing exactly that when he was standing aside and allowing this young lad to talk freely with his older brother.
Eventually John turned from his brother and addressed Jack: "Damn me, do you know, I've a good mind to bring him out on the job with me tomorrow morning, hah? See what the 'screech' has to say about him, hah? What do you think? Hah?"
" 'Course, 'course, do, why wouldn't you."-
"By Jesus, I will."
"Aha, but what about digs for the lad first," Jack reminded the older brother. "He'll want digs you know."
Ah, Jesus, he'll be all right that way. Sure he can delve in with me for the time being anyway. I was just saying to Jack here; you'll be all right for digs, for a bit anyhow. You can stay with me for the time being."
"Digs!" Michael shouted. "Did you say I can dig in with you?"
"You can for what it is, like. The devil kill me if that isn't a good way to describe them, too — diggin in."
"Oh, well, be Jesus, if I can dig in with you, sure I'm made altogether. Sure that's powerful altogether. Jesus, amn't I a lucky joker to meet two sound men like you two, hah?"
Michael's enthusiasm was becoming so riotous that his brother was about to intervene to calm the lad down, but Jack advised against that.
"Ara, leave the lad alone," he counselled, "Sure, what harm's he doing? Ara, isn't it soon enough he'll know the other side. Sure, let him have his way now while he has the chance. You know yourself, he'll meet the other side before very long. Let the lad have his fling," and he drank deeply from his glass.
John nodded agreement. "I will, I'll do that. But damn me if I amn't thinking about bringing him out there with me in the morning, what do you think?" Let's see what the 'mouth' has to say, eh?"
"Course, why wouldn't you. Sure, he can only say no. But I won't be there
myself. I jacked this afternoon."
"Ara, I did. Ara, sure no one could stick that animal out there."
"Well, be Jese, he never spoke to me today, but I was going to jack anyway. Sure, animals like the 'shout' out there sack so many men every week, or make them jack. That's how they keep their jobs. And everyone knows it's going to come his turn one day. So, I didn't give him the chance to get round to me, I jacked. Mind you, I had seen this bloke last week-end, and he's working in the tunnels, widening that one that's going out to Morden. Ah, it's near enough sort of work. So that encouraged me to jack, anyway." "And are you starting in the tunnels, then?" "Oh, aye. Oh, Be Jese, the job's near enough." "Oh, sure, that's great work altogether. Sure, a man's made when he gets in work like that."
"Aye. Well, there's one thing about it; a man won't have to put up with animals like the 'shout'."
"Are, I don't suppose his type'd be any good at all in that sort of work."
"No, an' I'll tell you something else — them blokes wouldn't stand him five minutes. They would not, indeed."
"They wouldn't, I suppose."
"They would not. Ara, they're nearly all cockneys, regimental sort of men. Now they wouldn't stand the likes of the 'shout' very long. I'm telling you. Another thing; a man won't be bothered too much about the weather. He won't, as the man says, he won't be listening out for a bray from that ass, anyway, raining men off. He won't. But, you were saying, you're taking the young fellow out there in the morning?"
'Yes, I was. Think it'd be wise?"
"Well, what can you lose? Nothing. And damn me I've heard that that animal isn't bad with young lads."
"You've heard that?"
"I have, on my oath."
"Well, by Christ I'll test him in the morning, I will that."
"Do, of course, why wouldn't you?"
"I will. I was just telling Jack here that I'm taking you out on the job with me tomorrow, hah?"
"Jesus, out on a job tomorrow!"
"Yes, think you'll be all right?"
"All right? Jesus that's powerful, powerful. Jesus amn't I the lucky man. Jesus, sure I never thought England's be as easy as this."
Jack and John smiled slowly and prudently, for they suspected Michael's optimism would not be long lasting. They nodded meaningfully to each other indicating that they were anxious to let the lad have a good fling, because they suspected that the harsh reality of life in a country torn asunder by an economic slump which deepened and widened class divisions, sharpened class antagonisms and extended class hatred to its extreme — racism — would soon shatter his first impressions and premature illusions.
Despite all Jack's coaxings, Michael steadfastly refused to have more than one glass of beer, so Jack eventually ordered just two pints and during the remainder of the night, he and John drank steadily. Even when the barman shouted 'time', Michael had a half pint that he couldn't drink. He placed this on the bar and the barman instantly whipped it off, together with other glasses. The three men then walked leisurely into the street and stood on the pavement outside the pub talking earnestly but quietly.
John thanked his colleague. Jack, over and over again for all he had done that evening and night and vowed that he would return the compliment in full one day. Then, after exchanging no end of 'so longs' and 'goodbyes', they went their separate ways home — John and Michael on foot to John's digs, which weren't far away, and Jack by bus to the area in which he lived.
Michael had a terrible habit of talking very loudly, and despite his brother's pleas to keep his voice down, absentmindedly he often lapsed into his old habit, and then his guttural enunciations bounced like sponge balls off the walls of the terraced houses that lined the streets of that area of Hammersmith.
On these occasions, John clapped his hands over his ears and ducked his head, not that his brother's brogue was unbearable to him, but because an Irish accent was not appreciated around those parts at that time, and John hoped that by blocking and ducking he would avoid all consequences, as a little boy believes that when he shuts his eyes, he can't be seen.
Outside John's lodgings they stopped and John fumbled in his pocket for a key, while Michael began to whistle a jig.
"Shurrup!" roared his brother as thickly and sibilantly as he could.
"For Christ's sake, stop whistling those stupid old tunes here on the street."
"Jesus, sure that's not an old tune, sure that's a new one."
"Well give over. See, you're not driving the ass down to the bog now, you know."
"Jesus, you have an awful memory. Sure I told you our bog was up ..."
"Right, up . ..! Jesus, it's awful," and John fumbled so hectically in his pocket that he ripped the linings.
"See, the best thing to do when you're here," John advised, "is do the same as everyone else. Don't act like as if you were over there. Know what I mean?"
"Oh, yea, yea, sound, sound!"
"Yes." He opened the door gently and whispered to his brother. "You stay here while I make it right with the landlady. Right?"
"Stay here? Can't I come in with you?"
"No, you wait here. I'll make it right with her and then I'll come out for you. Okay?"
"Yea, right, right. Don't be long, will you?"
"No, I won't be long, wait here."
Without hesitation, the landlady accepted John's brother as a lodger on condition that they shared the same bed, to which John immediately agreed. He came out and beckoned Michael.
"Right, come in. Don't make any noise whatever you do. If you as much as sneeze, she'll be on to you like a ... She's a bit of an old bitch, you know."
"Jesus, is she that bad?"
"Shush! Come on."
They crept upstairs, John first.
"No supper?" Michael asked.
"Shush! No, no supper."
"Jesus, sure a man'd starve without a supper."
"Shush, give over! No supper here. You have your dinner in the evening and that's it."
"Jesus! Now, I bet if she was Irish, we'd have a supper. Maybe she'd make one, hah?"
"Isn't the old bitch Irish. Sure some of them are the world's worst."
"They are?" Michael exclaimed as he groped in the dark in an attempt to follow his brother. "Jesus, you wouldn't think they would."
John sniggered cynically. "Ah, you've a lot to learn, yet about Irish and that."
"No, and don't talk so loud."
Michael remained quiet after that. He pulled off his clothes, groped for the bed and dragged himself into it. Scarcely had his head touched the pillow when he was fast asleep. He didn't hear his brother come to bed.
* * * *
The following morning, John took his brother, Michael, out with him to the job on which he worked, which was making a branch railway line from Park Royal to Ruislip. It was rough, dirty, slaving work, but it was better than no work, or so those who worked there thought.
In those days, civil engineering contractors chose their gangermen and walking gangermen — they whipped up the gangermen — with great care. Only those who looked like scoundrels and behaved like bullies were considered. Anyone with even a speck of human compassion in his make-up had no need to apply for the job, for even if he got it, he wouldn't last long.
The contractors on this Job were Wimpey & Co., and the ganger-man under whom John worked was known affectionately as The Dog' Brennan. He was called numerous names as well, such as the 'Screech', the 'Shout', the 'Mouth', and a host of other less complimentary ones. But he liked being called The Dog', for he thought that boosted his reputation with the contractors and made him sound more frightful to his workmen.
"This is the 'Screech' now, "John whispered to his brother as a burly man with a huge, blue-red face ambled towards the knot of talking, jesting men who stood waiting for him. As soon as he appeared in sight, all jesting and talking stopped, and everyone looked a bit awestruck.
To Michael the man looked fearsome. He wore the typical ganger-man's uniform: moleskin trousers, hobnailed boots, a black cardigan underneath a heavy, black jacket, a black shirt, a black scarf tied in the usual round knot and the ends cast over one shoulder and a greasy cap slung on the side of his head. He rolled so much when he walked that often he looked as if he was going to topple over, and the outward swing of his free hand — the other was always tucked down in his trousers pocket — appeared often as a guard against the fall.
"Right, blow up!" he roared before he came nearer than ten yards to the knot of workmen, and his voice was hoarse and rumbled with deliberately cultivated ignorance.
Michael momentarily jumped with fright and slid behind his brother.
Scarcely had the scream of the gangerman died down when every workman except John was scurrying for the toolshed, which the gangerman had unlocked. John waited behind, but he appeared a bit uneasy.
"This is the young fellow, just come over, no cards or anything, think you could start him?" he asked tremulously. Just perceptibly the gangerman nodded, and John waited for no other sign, but scurried to the toolshed as the others had done.
"Hello," Michael greeted, but the gangerman didn't reply. If anything, his scowl deepened. Then he said out of the corner of his mouth:
"Wait here 'til I put these men to work," and he rolled away after the hurrying men, one arm swinging straight out from his body, the other thrust deep into his pocket, his shoulders hunched and his head switching from side to side in the manner of a Stonewall Jackson.
More than an hour went by before the gangerman appeared on the horizon, and during that time, Michael allowed his thoughts to run loose.
"He looks like Old Nick," he remarked. "Jesus, I bet he drives men something shocking. They all seem afraid of him, anyway. Ah, but sure, if a man does his work, what can he do? And I'll do my work, no doubt about that. I will that. By Jese, I'll stick it so how bad he is," and with these thoughts Michael consoled himself until the gangerman was quite close. Then he turned all attention to the man and listened very carefully to everything he said.
"So, you have no cards, have you?"
"N.n.no," replied Michael. "Sure, I can't play anyway, only snap."
The gangerman turned away in disgust and scratched his head.
"Hee, hee! you bloody goberloo!" he bellowed. "Hi! do you want a start, or don't you?"
"Oh, Jesus, aye, 'course," replied Michael enthusiastically.
"Well, then, you want a set of cards, don't you? Insurance, hah?"
Michael nodded indecisively.
"Never mind, I'll get you fixed up. Eh, I don't know, what I do for you 'greesheens'! Come on!"
Michael followed the gangerman who had started walking in the direction from which he had come that morning.
"Now, I'll get you fixed up with a set of cards, I will, then, now, well, ah! The rest'll be up to you, won't it? Won't it?" he asked a bit more aggressively over his shoulder.
"Oh, aye, fair enough, fair enough, sound, sound!" agreed Michael as he hurried along behind.
"Never mind that friggin 'greesheen' talk," admonished the ganger-man. "Smarten yoursel' up a bit. You're here now, not driving neddy to the bog. Come on!"
When they arrived at two small, green huts that nestled against a huge embankment, the gangerman knocked boldly on a square, green-shuttered window.
Almost immediately the shutter slid up and a young voice asked from inside: "Yes? Hello? Oh, hello Mac, what can I do you for?"
The gangerman stroked his chin and asked politely: "I wonder if you'd do something for me?"
" 'Course, anything, what is it?"
Still stroking his chin, the gangerman continued apologetically: "Well, now, see, I have a joker here with me an' he's just docked. I'd, like to start him, but he has no cards. Think you could write a letter that he could give to the labour exchange and get some?"
"Oh, good man, good man."
"No trouble, where is he?"
"He's here. Hi! Come up here, you bogdale stump! Jesus, I'm all right with a set of grogeen-builders like you lot, I am. Up here! Talk to that man there. He'll show you how to go about getting a set, a set of cards. Phew!"
"Yes, good man, sound, "Michael replied as he hurried to the window.
"Name?" the clerk asked with poised ballpoint."
"Who! Who what?"
"Ah, I don't know who you're talking about at all."
"What's your name?" the clerk emphasised, "your full name? — N.A.M.E."
"Oh! Oh, Michael McWanted, yes, Michael McWanted, ummm!"
"Yes, Michael McWanted," the clerk repeated as he wrote. "Yes, address? Hi, 'Mac! Haven't we a McWanted working here? Isn't there one on your section?"
"Aye, me brother," replied Michael with a definite ring of pride in his voice. "He's me oldest brother, that one, he is, indeed."
"Oh, now, indeed, he's there," sneered the gangerman, "but for how long, now! I'm going to do a bit of weeding one of these days. Just the right weather, too, for a bit of weeding. Well, that's how you get a good crop of turnips, so they tell me - thinning 'em out," and he laughed vindictively and shook his head. "Ara, great crack altogether!"
The clerk smiled knowingly and shook his head slowly before continuing with Michael. "Address?" he asked a second time. Michael hesitated.
"Where do you live?"
"With me brother."
The clerk flung his pen down on the table. "Where?" he demanded impatiently.
"In London, here."
The clerk walked away from the window, then laughed loudly at the ludicrousness of the reply and the silly posture of Michael, who stood with his mouth open, not knowing what was happening. When the clerk had overcome his bout of laughter, he tried again. "No, I mean where do you live. What's the name of the street you live in, and what's the area?"
By this time Michael was totally confused. "Jesus, I don't know the name of it at all, but it's not far from the pub. You turn up to the right. It's a short street. Mind you, it's not all that short, but it's shorter than the long ones."
Again the clerk burst out laughing, while the gangerman looked savagly from under his obliquely hanging cap. Then he walked to the window, roughly pushed Michael out of the way and said to the clerk:
"Ara, put any address at all down. What does it matter? Sure he won't be here all that long anyway. Put anything down," and he turned away sharply.
"Okay, replied the clerk, picking up his notebook and retiring to the interior of the little hut that was being used as an office.
In a few minutes he was back and handed Michael a sealed envelope. "Now, you take this to the labour exchange," he explained "you hand it in there and they'll provide you with a set of employment cards. Okay?"
"Yea, okay, great, thanks," said Michael, as he took the envelope and turned it over a few times in his hand.
The clerk slid the shutter into position once more, but Michael remained standing there, looking once down at the envelope, then up to the green-shuttered window and uncertain of what to do.
The gangerman watched him with a look of evil amusement on his blotchy, beer-reddened face. "What are you going to do with that now?" he barked, hoping thereby to increase the lad's trepidation.
Michael thought, then held out the form in his trembling hand. "Give it to you," he suggested.
"Awoo-woo!" screamed the gangerman, stomping away from the lad. "What in the frigging hell do I want it for? To wipe my frigging kuyber with it? See, I have my cards, so I'm all right. I've not just left the hob, you know. You as wants frigging cards." He walked back to the lad again and with the index finger of his right hand began to draw imaginary diagrams on the half-open palm of his left hand. "See, here. Now listen, you take that thing there to the labour exchange, give it to them there, and they'll give you a set of cards.
Michael nodded, but looked more disconcertedly at the envelope.
"Know where the labour exchange is?"
"No," replied Michael, now completely rattled, for events of the past hour or two had not only frayed but scalloped the outer edges of his earlier illusions about England and the Irish and life in general.
"Boo-hoo!" snorted the gangerman, puffing out his beer-bloated cheeks in feigned agony. "Well, I'm all bloody right here, I am" Then he spied a lorry standing in the nearby yard with the driver sitting comfortably in the cab.
"Hi! Mac!" he called to the driver.
"You what, mite?"
"Will you be going anywhere near the labour exchange today . . .
"Yes, going right past it now, why?"
The gangerman rolled towards the lorry and spoke to the driver in a quiet, sweetly-toned manner. "Oh, good man, good man. Think you could do me a favour, hah?"
"Yea, certainly, anything, what?"
The gangerman stroked his face as if hesitant to ask. "Well, you see, I've a joker here I'd like to start, but he has no cards. Think you could drop him near the labour exchange so that he can get some,
"Yea, certainly, mite, why not. Without stopping, if you like,"
and the driver laughed peevishly.
The gangerman also grinned and showed his nicotine-stained front teeth. "Oh, now, well, indeed you could do worse, you could."
"Okay, where is he?"
"Here. Hi! Come up here, you heydog, you."
Michael hurried over to the lorry.
"Now," began the gangerman in his usually hoarse, biting voice, "this man'll take you near the labour exchange and drop you off there - head first, I hope - and give them that form and they'll give you cards. Think you can remember all that?"
"Yea, 'course, great, sound," Michael replied with obvious relief.
"Well, jump in, then. He's not going to wait all day for you. Jump.. . I"
Michael's actions had become so erratic and disordered that he gave a mightly jump, cracked his head on the top of the cab door and nearly knocked himself unconscious. Both the driver and the gangerman laughed heartily at his discomfiture.
"Straight from Mary Horan's, is he?" asked the driver sarcastically.
"Oh, now, where else. By Jesus, she keeps dropping them and shipping them across. And everyone's worse than the one before. Eh, I dunno!"
"Starting for you, is he, Mac?"
"Starting, oh, aye, he's starting. I'll have him, but as McGreever said; 'I won't keep him long! Now, see, you lahwohle! Be out here first thing tomorrow morning, and grease them elbows of yours tonight, for by Jesus, you'll need to have them greased, 'cause I'm going to knock some work out of you, or knock some savvy into you, I am that."
The driver laughed again, waved good bye to the gangerman — who didn't bother to return the gesture — engaged the gears and let the lorry slide forward.
The gangerman rolled back to his own section of work. "Jesus, this is great work altogether," he told himself. "Jesus, a man can have a great crack with these lachikoos that are coming over now, ha, ha!" and he hurried his steps to bring him more quickly to the core of his section of work, the work he loved, the work that transformed his inferiority complex to a superiority one, by affording him an opportunity to make people squirm before him, and he vowed as he walked along that before that day was out he would make a few more squirm, make a few more realize who was king and who had the power in that area of life's activity. The thought titivated his sadistic nature, and the imbecilic smile of a drunken man creased his beer-blown face. He spat out a load of catarrhal phlegm, settled his cap at a more rakish angle and exaggerated his roll even more as he headed for his own midden.
The driver of the lorry and Michael didn't communicate until the lorry screeched to a stop.
"There it is, mite," said the driver, leaning over Michael's knees and pointing to a big building that stood a few yards back from the pavement. "That's the entrance, there, see."
"Oh, good man, ta, thank you very much," said Michael as he prepared to get out.
"First job is it, this?" asked the driver.
"Yes, first job. I only came here yesterday. Me brother works for this man."
"Yea, well, best of luck, Paddy."
"Sure Michael's my name."
"Yea, well, best of luck anyway, mite. Tra!"
"Oh, tra! Thanks a lot." Michael jumped down from the cab "Thanks....."
But before he could finish the lorry lurched forward and was soon out of sight.
Michael had no trouble at the exchange. A young lad dealt with him, at first, then an older man came along. After smiling amiably, he sat on a seat on the other side of the counter, right opposite Michael and began to write. "Sign your name there, he said eventually to Michael, turning a sheaf of papers round and indicating with his index finger where he wanted Michael to append his name.
"Yes, that's all right," he said after examining Michael's signature. "Now you want a green card. Oh no you don't. It's not green-card work, that. You just want employment cards. Okay." He took a buff-coloured document from a drawer on his right, copied into it from the sheaf of papers in front of him, then threw the buff thing to Michael. "There you are, those are your employment cards. Good day."
"Oh, thanks, thanks a lot, smashing, great, soun . . . . " But the man had vanished before Michael could conclude his appreciative remarks.
Michael put the cards in his pocket and walked out. A warm ray of happiness raced through him. He was in England, had lodgings, a job and was with his eldest brother. What more could he want? He started whistling, but stopped abruptly when he remembered his brother's admonitions, and walked along the street with his head down.
Time dragged terribly as Michael moped along aimlessly, looking into shop windows, reading advertisements and always making sure that he didn't roam too far, just in case he found difficulty in returning to the digs. By the side of the road, he saw a wooden seat and he eased himself on to it and allowed his thoughts to wander aimlessly to County Mayo.
"Jesus, I'm lucky," he said to himself. "I have a job now and everything. Jesus, I'll be able to send the old fellow and the old girl a few quid soon, maybe next week," and he rubbed the palms of his hands together with glee. "Jesus, I wonder what they'll say when the money drops out. Hah?"
He began to imitate his overweighted, stiff-backed mother reaching for a letter, laboriously opening it, seeing the money fall to the ground, shouting anxiously and excitedly as it did so, then stooping slowly and painfully to pick it up. "By Jesus, I told you he'd make the best man of the lot, didn't I?" he said in the rough squeaky voice of his father.
"You did, he is," replied the mother. "By Jese, he'll show the other scuts up, he will, hah?" He nodded heavily as he thought his mother would do. Again he rubbed his palms together vigorously.
The sharp bark of a dog roused him from his soliloquy. When he looked round, a man was standing a few feet away with a very puzzled look on his face.
"Awright, mite?" the man asked. "Aw . . . Yea, yes, yes, great, sound," Michael returned. "Great, sound," repeated the man as he began to walk past. "You didn't sound so great to me. Sounded like you were ready for the skin suit. Could De Valera not find you a job over there?" "No, now, no job," returned the ingenuous Michael. "No, we have to, though. I know what I'd do with you," and he walked off, whistling up his dog as he went along.
By mid-day Michael was very hungry, but he thought he dare not go to the digs before his brother came home from work. He had nearly a pound in his pocket, so he decided to look for something to eat. Several times he passed a small cafe before deciding to go in. At last he ventured in.
"A cup of tea and a currant bun," he ordered from the man
behind the counter.
"You what, mite?" the man remarked. "You've go' a curly bum?" "No," Michael explained as best he could, "a bun with currents
"Goh, blimey!" scoffed the cafe proprietor. "Go' above!
Well, I've heard of 'em wi' buttons on, but never wi' currants in 'til now. Gooo! They don't come any better, do they?"
Michael stood for a few minutes aghast, for he hadn't a clue what the cafe owner meant. Then, as the man made no attempt to serve him, but just kept on laughing more and more hysterically, Michael walked out and decided to wait and have dinner with his brother.
He waited near the bottom of the street in which the digs were situated until he saw his brother coming towards him.Thenhe walked forward impetuously and showed his brother the buff cards in the inside pocket of his jacket. He was smiling happily. "Right now, amn't I?"
John nodded as they walked side by side towards the digs.
"How did you get on with the 'Shout' out there?"
"The gangerman? Oh, Jese, he was great, sound, great."
"Oh, he was, damn me, sound."
"Now, don't forget," John warned, "take off those boots before you go upstairs, or that old witch'll jab herself up the arse with her broomstick."
"Take 'em off downstairs?"
"Yes, that's it."
"And walk up in bare feet?"
"Yes. No, you keep your socks on."
"Jesus, it's awful."
"Yes. Now, just do as you're expected to do and leave it at that. Right?"
"Oh, right, right, sound."
After having had a good wash and having changed into clean clothes, John and his brother came down to the kitchen, where the landlady had a cooked meal on the table.
"By heck, tell you one thing," commented Michael.
"This old girl knows how to feed a man. Jesus, you can tell she's Irish by the feed she puts before a man. Jesus, she knows how to feed a man."
"You what?" asked his brother.
"She gives a man a good dinner, anyway, whatever about a supper."
"She gives a good dinner! Sure that old hag wouldn't give a man the toothache. She may give a man the hiccups looking at her. Gives a man . . . . . Sure, isn't it I buys all the grub. All she does is cooks
it." He examined some slices of cooked lamb on his plate." Or half cooks it. Tct, tct, tct!"
When they had finished eating, Michael said gleefully: "Well, this time tomorrow night, I'll have earned my first day's wages in this man's country," and he stretched and smiled to himself.
John smiled back, but made no comment.
A few minutes later the landlady poked her long face round the door jamb and yelled: "Now then, you two! This is a lodging house, not the House of Commons," and with that she switched off the light "Stay yacketin' there, you would, worse than a crowd of crows. Must think no one pays for light in this house. Come on."
John and Michael groped their way upstairs.
Michael lay on the bed, looking at the ceiling and thinking, while his brother began getting ready to go out.
"Are you not getting ready to go out?" he asked Michael eventually.
"No, out where?" enquired Michael.
"Out where! Well, the pub is the only place I know of."
"Jesus, sure a man can't go to the pub every night, hah?"
"Well, it's either that or going to bed, 'cause keep-death-off-the-roads downstairs'll put those lights out now any minute. Come on, or you'll be groping about in the dark. Get up."
"Jesus, sure a man'll save nothing if he goes to the pub every night."
"Hi! never mind now about that, come on, get ready."
Michael yawned and stretched lazily, but a frantic screech from downstairs brought him suddenly to his feet beside the bed.
"Hi! you two up there! These lights are going out any minute, so make up your minds. Are you going out or going to bed? I can't afford to have lights going all night just to amuse you two. Hi!"
"Sorry missus, won't be a minute, missus, just getting ready, missus." John replied. "Hi! Will you for Christ's sake hurry."
"You can have another minute and then that's it," came the landlady's final warning.
"Right, missus, we're nearly ready now. Come on, hurry."
Michael quickly brushed his hair, slipped on a pullover and jacket and followed his brother downstairs and out on to the street.
"Jesus, this is awful," he remarked to John as they walked side by side towards the public house. "Are all landladies like that?"
"No, some're worse," remarked John offhandedly.
"Ara, Jesus, how could they be worse?"
"Well ..... ah, never mind. You'll find out before you're here very much longer."
"Find out what?"
"You'll find out that the only time a landlady wants to see you is Friday night, when you're giving her the shillings. Then she doesn't want to see you again 'til the next Friday night. And they're all the same, Irish, Scotch, English, no difference, all the same."
"Jesus, you know, a man'd be a lot better off in a bit of an old room," Michael suggested.
"A room?" His brother pondered that suggestion. "Tell you what, with two of us living together and sharing the one bed, we just could be better off in a room."
" 'Course we would," Michael waxed enthusiastically. "Sure, if a man had an old room, he could sit in by the fire at night and read an old paper, or something, instead of going out every night drinking. Jesus, I hate that old caper — drinking every night."
John had been watching his brother sternly, but didn't interrupt him. When he had finished, John reminded him hotly. "See, you're in England now, and the sooner you forget all those old tales you've been told, the better it'll be for yourself. Jesus, you'll have everyone laughing at you if you keep on like that. Sure, whether you're in digs or in a room, no one'll let you keep a light on all night, these days. Sure, no one can afford to burn lights all night, these days. Sure, no one has any money these days, what are you talking about?"
"Has she no money, the old hag we're digging with?"
"Money! Well, not enough to open a shithouse door. Ara, where would she get it?"
"Money! Sure her husband isn't working at all. Sure all she has is the miserable bit she makes out of keeping lodgers."
"Haa, but I bet that's a tidy old slice, too, hah?"
"Nothing! Nothing hardly. Sure those poor devils are just like ourselves — scraping along best way they can."
"Jesus, you know, I never thought things were like this in this country."
"Well, no you wouldn't listening to all the tales they tell over there. Sure, don't they sing songs there about picking money up on the streets here. By Christ, then, they have a big shock when they come here. They soon find out that there's not much money on the streets here, not even when you're digging the streets up."
By this time they had arrived at the public house, and as John was pushing open the swing door, Michael announced:
"Jesus, I don't think I'll have any old beer tonight."
John allowed the door to swing back into position again.
"What are you going to have, then?"
"Ara, Jesus, I don't think I'll have anything. I think I'll just sit there, that's all."
"Now, get this straight," his brother began earnestly," no landlord is going to allow anyone to doss in his pub. You either drink beer, or something else, or you get out. Anyway, you're living here now, and you have to live the way you have to live, that's all. So, forget all the ideas you came here with, or what people over there told you. You're here and you have to live same as everyone else," and with those remarks, John vigorously pushed the swing door open, walked in, looked all round, them stomped to the bar. "Two pints of Walker's Main Line," he ordered from the barman who merely nodded in recognition, no more.
"We'll sit over there," he said to Michael and pointed to an empty space on a wall seat between two tables, around each of which sat men playing dominos.
Having paid the barman, John picked up his glass and beckoned with his head to his brother to do likewise.
Michael picked his glass up and followed. They sat between the tables and nobody spoke to them, and they spoke to no one either.
Michael sipped from his glass and pulled his face as if he had tasted gall, but his brother drank as if he liked the stuff, then placed his glass on the floor near him.
"Jesus, you don't like this stuff, do you?" asked Michael.
John lifted his glass up to the light, inspected it carefully and asked in turn: "Why not? It's all right, isn't it? I think it's the best of the beers around here."
"No, I don't mean that," asserted Michael. "I mean, do you like drinkin' beer? I hate this old caper — drinking beer every night. Ach! No good to no man."
"Hee, hee, you've something to learn," his brother scoffed. "When you're not able to buy a pint, that's when you'll worry."
"Me? No, I won't worry. I wouldn't care if I never saw a drop of the stuff. God above, it's awful."
"Yea, I heard that before," John scoffed and took another drink from his glass.
Michael ventured another sip and again pulled his face grotesquely. "Aha! You know, this is a funny old country, too, this is."
"Why is that?" asked his brother.
"Jesus how do I know that, sure I've only just come here."
"Now, you don't need tell us that," his brother sneered.
"Tis, though," continued Michael. "See, those men there. They're not talking to one another. No one here talks to anyone, hah?"
John jerked his head first one way and then the other. "Will you for Christ's sake watch what you're saying here, will you?"
"Why, what's wrong?"
"What's wrong!" Again John jerked his head sideways.
"Well, for one thing you're here now, and you don't talk here the way you did when you were going down to the bog."
"Ara, Jesus, wasn't our bog on top of a big hill. Didn't we go up to the bog. Jesus, you've an awful short memory."
"Right, up to the bog then," John snapped impatiently.
"Yes, that's it. Well, that's what everyone had to do round our place. Ah, God surely you remember that?"
John sucked in his breath quickly and made a low whistle.
"Well, may bad luck to that bloody hen," he muttered.
Then he spoke calmly, emphatically, but in a low voice: "See, a lot of people round here don't like the Irish. Shush, will you!" he warned hotly, just in time to prevent Michael from saying something. "For Christ's sake, listen, and don't make an ass of yourself all the time. Well, it all started with the 'economic war' — well, that made things worse."
"What war's that? Jesus I never heard of no war." "The tariffs, then, the tariffs, but they call it here the 'economic war'. Now do you see?"
"Ha, Jesus, them tariffs are awful," remarked Michael.
"Sure they've robbed nearly everyone round our place. Sure you can't sell nothin' now. That old De Valera wants shootin' 'cause he's made it awful bad over there now."
"He's made it bad here as well," John added, stretching again for his glass." But, then, our own don't help — shouting and roaring, drinking and fighting all over the place. They'd sicken you," and he drank deeply, then replaced his glass on the floor." Then, be Christ, as soon as things get a little bad, they swarm into London like a lot of bees. You can't stir for 'em, never mind get a job. They're coming over now faster than ever. Every day Euston is flooded with them."
"And sure what can they do? Sure, no one can make a living over there now."
"I wish half of them'd jump into a boghole and get drownded," John sneered. "Christ, it wouldn't be as bad if they spread themselves about a bit and some of 'em went somewhere else. But no, here, London all the lot. And all they're doing is making it bad for everyone. Thousands of blokes who've been here years, and thousands of people born here are out of work now because cf them. Still, over they come, drove after drove. It's no wonder the people don't like 'em. They can't," and his top lip curled up into a venomous grimace, proving the fact that the smallest speck placed strategically before the eyeball obscures all the imperfections of the world from the affected viewer.
"See, that man we live with?" he asked after having a nerve-relieving sup from his glass.
"Jesus, didn't I think she was a woman," replied Michael.
"Tct, tct, tct! Her husband, I mean. No, you haven't seem him. Well, he worked in a factory 'til lately. Now he can't get a job. So, what's he going to think when he sees the rake of suitcases arrive every day at Euston? Trouble is the ones that've been here years suffer as well as the latchikoos that've just come over." He emptied his glass and held his hand out for Michael's. "Finishing that?"
"Oh, Jesus, no. Sure, this'll do me now, right enough."
John rose, walked to the bar and ordered another pint for himself.
"And what can they do, they who've just come over?" Michael asked his brother as soon as he returned to his seat. John didn't answer.
"What do you think?"
"I think same as nearly everyone else thinks — there're about twice too many Irish in London now for all the work there is. But if they'd go somewhere else for a change, it wouldn't be as bad, but no, here, every bloody one. They'd really bloody sicken you, they would."
During the course of the night, John drank three pints, but Michael contented himself with just one, although he did empty his glass before closing time on this occasion. Then he and his brother began the journey back to the digs.
It was obvious that Michael had listened and noted his brother's warnings, for not on a single occasion did he raise his voice above normal during their journey home.
John opened the door as noiselessly as he could and both groped their way to the bedroom. Michael never mentioned the word 'supper'. Scarcely had either one's head rested on his pillow when he
was asleep, and both remained in that helpless but blissful state until the small alarm clock awoke them next morning.
Michael was so tired that he couldn't believe at first that he had been asleep all night, but the thought of working, of earning money spurred him on, and he soon forgot his tiredness and even urged his brother to hurry. He wanted to get to that job, and as the minutes ticked by, a thousand disconcerting thoughts flashed across his mind and unnerved him more than he already was.
But his brother was understanding, at least about that. He knew how the lad felt and he knew how to assuage the lad's fears and anxieties.
Michael (Mick) Weaver
* * * *
That morning John and Michael were on the job well before starting time, but already there was a knot of men there, talking and jesting with one another. John and Michael joined the group, but did not join in the merrymaking. Suddenly the talk stopped and all eyes focused on the figure that rolled towards them. It was obvious he either commanded their deepest respect or instilled in them the most terrible fear, for they all gaped at him open-mouthed.
Before he came closer than ten yards of the silent group he roared at the top of his rough, hoarse voice: "Blow up, you bastards! Aye, and by Christ, unless some of you change your style of work today, you'll change your place of work. Haa! I'm telling you, there'll be strange faces around here before the end of the shift."
Everyone except John and Michael scurried for the toolshed which the gangerman had unlocked as he passed. Hurriedly they picked up what tools they needed and vanished in all directions, watched by the malevolent eyes of the gangerman.
Michael drew his cards from his pocket and hesitantly went up to the gangerman, "Here," and he offered the cards.
"Me cards," and already Michael had grown more bold.
"Oh." He put the cards in his inside pocket. "In that hut there you'll find a pair of long boots. Put them on, 'cause I want you to dig out a manhole for me. Go on."
"Well, he's not used to this sort of work," John offered, "so, if you like, I'll dig out the manhole and put him down on the tip in my place."
"Hi! you tell me how to do my work again, and you'll be looking for a fresh place, I'm telling you. I'm the kiddy here and he and you and everyone else'll do what I tell them or they'll be knocking on that green little window up there. And if you don't get off to your work, you'll be knocking there in about two minutes from now. Now, get off down there to your work, or get off up there to that window."
John walked away hurriedly in the direction of the tip, while the gangerman shouted after him: "Hi! You can go that way if you want. No one'll cry after you, you know."
In the meantime, Michael had raced to the shed and was eagerly pulling on the long boots. The gangerman watched him from under knotted eyebrows. "Can you not get them on?" he cried.
"Yes, they're all right, sound."
"By Christ, it's taking you long enough. It must be an awful operation, hah?"
Michael didn't reply but hurried back to the gangerman.
"Come on," he cried, and Michael followed immediately. The gangerman wheeled swiftly. "Where are you going?" he shouted.
"You said you wanted me to dig ... . "
"Without a pick, shovel or graff?"
"Oh," and Michael sped once more to the little toolshed.
"Hooh, may bad luck to the hen;" the gangerman snarled after him.
Michael knew all about a shovel, but he had never seen a grafting tool in his life. He selected a shovel and pick, then picked up a queer-looking implement, not unlike a long garden spade, flung them all on his shoulder and hoped to heaven above that he had made the right selection.
"By Christ, that's taken some time," the gangerman greeted him when he came back with beads of sweat glistening on his forehead. "If that's the best you can do, you're no good to me. Come on."
With the tools on his shoulder, Michael followed the gangerman's rolling gait until they came to a roughly dug hole almost full to the top with brown, scummy water.
"Down there," cried the gangerman, gesturing with his thumb, like Caesar demanding the 'kill'.
Michael hesitated, for he felt sure the hole was very deep, and he tried to work out how to dig in a place like that. The gangerman appeared to walk away, but stopped suddenly and looking at Michael sideways demanded: "Well, are you getting into it, or are you getting out of it, which?"
Michael looked at him with fear and consternation in his eyes.
"Jump in!" roared the gangerman, "Jump . . . !"
By this time, Michael had become so disordered that before the gangerman's shout had died down, he jumped three feet in the air and landed in the middle of the hole. The hole was only a foot or so deep, but the water splashed in all directions, and the sudden landing jarred Michael's back. He stood winded for a few seconds while the gangerman shifted his cap further back on his head, then slouched away, chuckling to himself: "Hee, hee! That's the first one today I've shivered the shit in, but it won't be the last. Ha, ha!" He turned again to Michael. "Now, you better dig that out in big lumps and throw the bloody thing well back, 'cause when I come back in an hour or so, I expect to see that finished."
Michael didn't reply, for he was wet to the skin and shivering with excitement and mental exhaustion. But on his own, he soon collected his thoughts, saw there were pipes laid on either side of the proposed manhole, realized that the water was congealed because muck had fallen into the manhole space and clogged the pipes. Michael first unclogged the pipes, allowed the water to flow away, then he set about the digging, slowly and methodically, and by the time the gangerman returned he had dug a neat, square hole more than a foot below the pipes on either side.
The gangerman looked into the hole when he returned. "Is that all you've done? Where've you been. Ah, well, now, if that's the best you can do, you'd better get out of it. Come on, out. Out! Up!"
Michael scrambled out of the hole, his legs like pieces of worn rope, for he was sure he was being sacked.
"See, them wooden sections there," the gangerman said, pointing to some wooden shuttering lying about thirty yards away.
"Well, after you've had a bit of snap, I want you to bring them here, set them up and concrete this. That'll finish the job then. Know what I mean?"
Michael didn't reply.
"Hee, hee, I might as well do the bloody thing myself. Anyway, have a bit of snap now and I'll show you how to go on afterwards. But I'm not going to do your work for you. See, I don't dirty these, you know," and he flexed the fingers of both hands. "You get paid for that, not me. When you came on the job, you asked for work, didn't you?"
"Yes, oh yes," agreed Michael.
"Well, now you've got work, so you better do it, hah?"
"Yes, yes, sound."
"Right, well after snap I'll show you how to go on here, then it'll be up to you. Anyway, have a bite of snap now. You might be better afterwards."
Michael followed him to an open shed that had been erected by the side of the toolshed. There on a fire made from roughly cut logs a big drum of tea simmered. The brew-boy was a man of about sixty, and he felt the lash of the gangerman's whipping tongue same as everyone else.
"Now, teaboy, have you fried my chops? Hah?"
"No," replied the teaboy, "you didn't order any."
"I didn't order any! What do you mean, didn't order any?"
"You didn't tell me to get you any."
"Well, you know I have some every day, don't you?"
"Yea, but I asked you first thing this morning and you buggered off without telling me. I can't buy chops if I don't get the money, mite."
"And what about me when I have no money?"
"Then there's no chops, mite."
"Ah, now, now . . . now that's no good at all, no good at all to me."
"Well, that's how it is, mite. I have only my wage at weekend, and that's spoken for before I get it, it is."
"Well, you should put a bit to one side for times like this. See, I have no money this morning, so what happens now?"
"What happens! I don't know, mite. Maybe you should put a bit to one side."
Ah, now. . . now. . . . you're no good to me at all, no good at all, you're not."
"Well, that's how it is, mite."
"Ah, well, this is no good." The gangerman sat down on a log and began drinking tea from a brown, pint mug.
Other workmen, who had gathered round the fire and were drinking tea from cups, milk tins and every type of container they could lay their hands on, remained absolutely silent, listening to the altercation between the gangerman and the brew-boy and wondering how it would work out. They hadn't long to wait. Soon the gangerman lifted his head, stared relentlessly at the brew-boy and asked icily: "Well? What are you going to do about it, then?"
"About what, mite?"
"About this - me having no breakfast, hah?"
"What am I going to do about it! Nothing, mite. That's your lookout."
"Ah, well, I'll do something about it," and he pulled from the inside pocket of his jacket a crumpled, greasy notebook and a
blackened pencil stump. He placed the notebook on his knee and wrote: 'pay this man of J Brennan gangerman.’
"Here, take this to that green window. Now away you go."
The brew-boy walked casually forward, took the note without flinching, read it and remarked: "One'd expect a gangerman to be able to spell the word 'off." Then he walked away with a calm dignity that infuriated the gangerman, who watched with bloodshot eyes. He wanted to frighten that man, but had failed and in actual fact had frightened himself because he had demonstrated to himself his impotence to do what he wanted to do. Glumly he sat for a few more minutes drinking, then suddenly he jumped to his feet and roared so fiercely that his face turned a nasty blue: "Blow up you bastards! Either to work or to the green window, whichever you want. One man has gone already and there'll be more before the day's out."
As one man, every workman jumped to his feet and without a murmur rushed to his workplace, while the gangerman sat down again and filled himself a fresh cup of tea.
Michael jumped up with all the others and made off towards the manhole.
The gangerman shouted after him: "Hi, you!"
Michael stopped and turned around.
"I'll be down there in a few minutes to show you how to go on ... as soon as I've finished this drop of tea. Come here and sit down a minute."
Michael did as he was instructed, but was careful not to stare at the huddled, grotesque figure who was drinking tea from a brown mug with a noise like an emptying sink. Eventually the gangerman rose to his feet, stretched and bellowed: "Ah, God be with the time I was at it, hah! Come on, you don't want to sit there all day, do you?"
Again Michael bounced with excitement, then followed at a respectable distance.
Michael didn't need much instructing on how to erect the shuttering. He could see at a glance that it consisted of four sections which slotted into one another perfectly and were held rigidly in position by interlacing iron bars and holdfasts. When the shuttering was erected and the bars properly in place, it was a very solid structure that would withstand any amount of knocking about.
The gangerman examined it when it had been erected and lifted on to four bricks to allow a concrete bed at the bottom, underneath the shuttering.
He turned to Michael: "The concrete comes to four feet above the pipe invert," he said. "Do you know what the invert is?"
Michael shook his head.
"Jesus, you're an awful thick man, you are, thick. Now I'm telling you, you'll have to shape yourself on this job, hah? It wants levelling and plumbing up. Have you a level and a tape?"
Michael replied: "No."
"Jesus, you have nothing, nothing at all, you haven't. How do you expect to work with no tools, hah? Here, you can have mine for today, and remember you concrete to four feet above the invert. Sure you don't know what the invert is, do you? Well, it's the bottom of the inside of the pipe, have you that?"
Michael nodded affirmatively.
"Right, four feet above where the water flows, think on," and he walked away, leaving behind his tape measure and spirit level.
Michael worked conscientiously. He plumbed the shuttering, levelled it, sealed all the spaces between the pipes and the shuttering to prevent any concrete flowing into the pipes, mixed a considerable amount of concrete, shovelled sufficient into the manhole sump to form a good bed, right up to the bottom of the shuttering, tamped the concrete in the sump carefully, put the remainder evenly around the sides up to the mark he had made on the shuttering, smoothed it then with a flat piece of wood and made the job really neat.
Just before dinnertime the gangerman came along. Critically he examined the completed job, then walked to the shed without passing a single comment.
Michael was delighted. He had passed his first test as a workman in England, so at dinnertime he ate his sandwiches with an easy mind.
Six weeks John and Michael worked on the section of that job which was under the control of the 'Mouth'. They travelled together to and from work daily, but during shifts they never saw each other, for John emptied wagons to make a viaduct at one end of the section, while Michael dug trenches, laid pipes and made manholes at the other end. Often they talked about the job and their gangerman, and whenever they did, either in the digs or in the pub, they never failed to express amazement that such a poltroon as the person they called the 'mouth' could be so reprehensible and contemptible at all times to all people, except, that is, the bosses of the contracting company. Yet, even though both had been scorched by the burning lashes of the 'mouth's' rough tongue, neither complained, Michael, perhaps, because he was too inexperienced to know who to complain to, and John because he was too experienced to suspect there was anyone to complain to.
By this time Christmas was but a few weeks away, the nights had drawn in, the working day had been cut, and so, of course, had the money. Yet on that job, bad as it was, there wasn't a man who didn't consider himself a lot luckier than the hundreds of thousands of men all over the place who had no work at all, and who had already settled for a very frugal Christmas indeed.
Then one evening Michael had a nasty shock — John missed the train they usually travelled on from Park Royal to Hammersmith. At first Michael wasn't too worried. He thought his brother had just been delayed and would catch the next train, so he hung on. But his brother did not catch the next train, or the next, or the one after that, and then Michael became really worried. He thought about going back to the job again, but realized it was too dark to do that.
He sat on a wooden, platform seat and tried to think the matter out, but the longer he thought, the uglier his thoughts became, until he could stand them no longer. Then he jumped up and with a frightened look on his face, began pacing up and down the platform, barging into some people, missing others by mere inches, debating with himself what to do, sometimes calmly and sometimes hectically, sometimes quietly and sometimes hysterically, snapping his fingers whenever a solution dawned on him, then swishing his arms about disconsolately as some hidden snag suddenly appeared, and all the time his thoughts tumbled over one another in wild confusion. He looked around to see if there was anyone he could turn to for help, but all he could see was a mass of strained, stony faces which screamed at him: "To hell with you and your brother! Haven't we enough to do to look after ourselves?"
Then, just as if someone had switched on an electric light in his head, he could see a way out — he would catch the next train to Hammersmith and his brother could catch a later one.
He was more satisfied after that and his face lost its haunted look. Yet, when the next train halted at the station he hesitated. Several times he leaned forward, rose on his toes as if to walk forward, then pulled himself up with a jerk and all the time he stared wildly at the concrete steps, hoping and praying to see his brother running down them to the platform, but that didn't happen.
Then the automatic doors began to hiss, and as soon as he heard that he plunged forward recklessly, rammed one shoulder between the sliding door panels, and with his feet scraping along the concrete platform as the train began to ease forward, he struggled madly to get inside, which he eventually did, with the aid of a passenger who was standing just inside the doors and saw the lad's predicament.
"Nearly left it too late, mite," remarked his helper, who was a cockney outdoor worker, and who had grabbed a handstrap immediately he saw Michael was safely inside the train.
"Too true, I did, too," agreed Michael, nodding his head and wiping sweat from his forehead, although it was anything but a warm night. "Sure, he was too late, too, for the other two," he continued. "Aye, and this one, too, came too soon. Aha, sure, it's awful hard to judge one, too, hah?"
"Go, blimey!" expostulated the cockney. "More twos and ones there now than in a guards division. I wonder he doesn't breed from 'em. Coo!" and he also wiped his forehead with his free hand.
Over and over in his mind, Michael turned his problem as the train sped along. He felt alone and lost and bewildered, but suddenly he remembered that he was working, earning wages, saving a bit every week, and his troubles dissolved as does the hardest snowdrift at the first pout of the spring linnet. He thought to himself: "I'll be able to send the old fellow and the old lady a quid or so this Christmas." Then he remembered his brother's warning:"
"Now, don't go doing anything daft, will you? How much a week are you saving?"
"Ten bob. Not bad, eh?"
"N.no, not bad, but sure you may want that yoursel' long before this year is out, hah? Sure, they're not so bad over there, after all. They have a roof over their head, the lie-down, and plenty of rough old grub, and now I'm telling you there are millions of people in this country who haven't that. Ara, keep your money, well, 'till after Christmas, anyhow."
"Til after Christmas! Sure, wasn't it for Christmas I was thinking of sending them something. Sure, isn't that the time they'll expect it, hah?"
"Now, hold your horses there. There's a long time yet before the sun starts shining, at least for the likes of us. Now, keep your money, yet a while anyhow, 'cause you know, somehow, when a man has a few quid in his pocket, he feels a lot safer, hah?"
Michael put his hand round to the back pocket of his trousers, and felt the three rolled pound notes lying snugly against his hip and straight away a warm glow of contentment spread over him. He forgot about John, about the 'mouth', about his father and mother and began to take notice of people and things all around him. He became pleased with himself and with life and a slow smile of satis-faction ran across his face and slackened the tautened flesh on his cheek bones and around his mouth, the first time that had happened since he had arrived in London.
When the train pulled into Hammersmith station, Michael's spirits were buoyant, and he walked off that train and towards the station exit with that unmistakable litheness of step that prudent youth so gracefully exhibits and indulgent manhood disgracefully squanders. He started to whistle, but ceased immediately he remembered the stern warning his brother had given him against all such forms of behaviour. He walked along the street after that with his eyes focused on the pavement.
As he walked into the street where he lived, he noticed a lone figure standing by a street lamp almost outside his digs. He couldn't make out who it was, but something about the figure seemed to him to be familiar. He quickened his step and as he drew a bit closer, he recognised the figure — it was his brother John and he was dressed in his best suit and wearing a collar and tie.
"Home early, aren't you, scan?" he called out.
John turned away angrily, for he couldn't bear to be shouted at in the street.
"Finished early?" Michael shouted again, even louder this time.
John didn't reply, but tried to bury himself in the shadow cast by the arm of the lamppost.
"Something wrong, scan?" Michael continued, but by this time was close enough for his brother to turn on him with blazing eyes and contorted mouth.
"Well, for the sake of the old fellow's last shag, why don't you grow up, hah? What the hell do you keep shouting for like that on the street, hah?"
"Jesus, what's up with you?"
"What's up with me! It's what's up with you. Why don't you give over shouting on the street. Jesus, that's awful altogether."
"Ara, sure I wasn't shouting at all."
"You wasn't! Now that shout then came all the way from Killo-ween. I wonder how it got here, hah?"
"And, Jese, I wonder, too. I wonder who told it the way."
"Hee, hee, I'm worse standing here arguing with you. But why don't you try and be like everyone else here. You don't hear everyone round here shouting their heads off in the streets, do you? Hah? I wonder why has the Paddy to be different!"
"Well, damn me if I know. I dare say it's because ....."
"Ara, will you give over! And drop them stupid words too. 'Scan!! God above! And 'Jesus' every second word. You don't hear everyone round here saying stupid words like that, do you?"
"Sure I've not heard everyone round here talking, hah?"
"Hah! That's nearly as bad. You'll have everyone laughing at you if you don't mind out. Jesus .... aha, hell, it's awful."
"But what happened this evening, sea .... ah, John? You're home awful early."
"Ara I jacked out there."
"Shush, will you! Do you want everyone in the street to hear you? Hah?"
"No, but what did you jack for?"
"What! Aha, I had to. Sure, no one could work with an animal like that. Sure he's an awful ass altogether. Now, it's there now anyhow, so that's it, I'm finished out there."
"And what are you going to do now?"
"Well, that's what I've been waiting to tell you. I'm going to have a run into Camden Town to see a couple of blokes who'll know what's going, so here's the key. You'll have to let yourself in. You're dinner's in the oven and I'll see you later up in the pub. Okay?"
"Yea, okay, but what are you going to do if you can't find work?"
"I'll see you up there later and we can talk about it all. I must hurry now 'cause I want to see these blokes before they go home. Right?"
"Right, sea.. . ah, John, sound."
John hurried off muttering sarcastically the word 'sound'.
It was with some trepidation that Michael opened the front door, because he did not like the landlady, and he felt sure that she didn't like him. However, there was nothing he could do about her feelings, or his own, for that matter, but he tried to do as his brother had so often instructed. He opened and closed the door carefully and as noiselessly as he could, took off his working boots, laid them on a sheet of old newspaper that had been put on the floor in the hall for that purpose, sneaked upstairs, washed himself and changed into his best clothes, then came down to the kitchen where the landlady was waiting for him. Michael started a little when he first saw her, but then her gaunt face crinkled into something approximating to a smile and he thought he detected a glimmer of welcome in her eyes.
"Good evening," she said when she saw him. "Ready for your dinner?" and her voice sounded worn and weary.
"Yea, yea, yes, ready, yea. Thanks."
She turned towards the oven with a towel in her hand.
"I've kept it on .... I hope it's not burn .... I kept the gas I ..... No, I think it's all right," and she placed a plate before him and removed the lid.
The pungent smell of cooked meat, boiled vegetables and baked potatoes so activated the craving of Michael's body for a replenishment of all the energy and muscle tissue he had used that day as a result of the gangerman's constant goading and the heavy physical labour he had done, that he lost all his self-control and attacked the hot meal with the voracity of a starved animal.
The landlady snatched her hands away just in time to avoid Michael's fork as it dug into the food. She stepped back and looked horrified and disgusted at the extent of his bad manners. But she soon overcame her initial repulsion, for her many years of dealing with lodgers had taught her an easy tolerance of all such incidents.
"Your brother's gone out," she said in a thin, sickly voice.
"Yes, I know," Michael replied with his mouth full of food.
"I met him outside. He gave me his key."
"Oh, yes, that's right, you haven't one of your own, have you? Oh, dear! And I've intended to have one cut, but I've been putting it off. Now, with this . . . Aha, I dunno! Oh, dear!" And she turned once more to the stove to brew tea. "He's lost his job, you know."
"Yea, he told me. Jacked didn't he?"
"Yes. He has no work now, and it's awful hard to find work these days. Tis. That must be an awful heathen of a man to make a lad give up his job so near Christmas and all. He must. I wonder why God allows people like that to be where they can do that. Ahaa! I dunno!"
"He's gone to Camden Town," Michael said. "He'll find work there all right."
"Eh, I hope so. If he doesn't, he'll have to leave."
"Leave!" Michael screamed so hysterically that the landlady dropped the lid of the teapot on the floor, but luckily didn't break it.
"Ooh! It's all right, it's not broken. Yes, well, no young lad today can live on the dole, you know. It's only fifteen shillings a week, and that's no good to any young fellow. It's not."
"But amn't I working?" Michael reminded her. "Won't I give him money if he wants it, hah?"
"Yes, I dare say you will," she said as she left two cups and saucers on the table, one near Michael's plate and the other at the opposite end of the table. "It's a grand thing to see brothers willing to help one another these days. You don't see that very often now, you don't. But I suppose everyone has enough to do to look after himself these days. Ahaaa, I donno what the world's coming to at all. I don't."
She poured out two cups of tea, one for Michael and the other for herself. Wearily she sat on a chair at the opposite end of the table, leaned her head forward and squeezed her eyes as if she wanted to gouge out the sickening pain in her head. She had a couple of sips of tea and then she said, without lifting her head and in a voice that had less vibrance than a slack drum: "You won't be going out tonight, then, now as you're on your own."
"Yes, I am," Michael affirmed as he pushed his empty plate away and drew a hefty slug of tea. "I have to see sea. . .a, John later on in the pub. Yes."
"Oh. Oh, that's all right, then. I was just going to say that you can stop down here tonight if you like. I'll leave the light on."
"Oh, thanks, but no, ta, I'm going out."
"Oh. Sure, I'd leave the light on every night, if I could afford it. I hate to see young lads being made go to a pub every night, but no one can afford to keep lights burning at night these times. No one. We only just manage to scrape along as we are. My husband hasn't worked now for months and months. There's no work for him, there isn't. It's terrible, it is."
Michael nodded agreement.
"I do hope that boy gets a job soon. He's such a nice mannerly boy, too." She picked up her half-empty cup and walked towards the kitchen door. "I'm going into the sitting room now, but I'll leave the light on, so you can stay down here if you want, tonight."
"Ah, no, no, no thanks. I'm going out straight away, I am. Thanks."
"Oh, all right, then. I'll put it out when you've gone. Goodnight!"
"A go.good. . . ."
The frail-looking woman slammed the door shut and left Michael with a half-formed word hanging from his mouth.
"Jesus, she's not all that bad, neither," he said to himself.
"Jesus, she's ugly though. She has a face now like a quenched lantern. Eh, but I'll have to be off soon tonight."
That night, he was ready to go out sooner than ever, despite the fact that he was late home, for although he had been in London less than two months altogether, his attitude to some things had changed considerably. No longer had he his original antipathy to going to the pub at night. In fact, he recognised that the pub was the only place he could remain comfortable. Besides, it was a social centre where he, his brother and their acquaintances could meet, talk freely and exchange information about work, wages, lodgings and other matters of mutual interest to all of them. And even though he was still unable to stand his corner at drinking, he was no longer stomached with one pint. Always he had two pints of a night, and on one or two occasions had actually sunk three, but the most ominous thing of all was that he was developing a liking for the stuff. Gradually he was settling into a form of life that accorded with his brother's advice — he was forgetting all the tales he had been told about England and disavowing all that he had brought himself to believe.
True to his promise, John arrived at the pub well before closing time, and Michael was so delighted to see him that he plunged from his seat and rushed towards the bar to buy his brother a pint. While crossing the floor in such a hurry, he overturned a stool and in his excitement became so hopelessly entangled in its legs that he hopped skipped and stumbled all over the place.
With quiet amusement, John watched his brother's frantic efforts to extricate himself from the clutches of the stool's legs, and warned facetiously: "Woo, now! Careful now, boy! Careful, that's it. You could do yourself a terrible injury like that — two terrible injuries, in fact."
Sporting a crimson blush of embarrassment, Michael eventually freed himself, rushed to the bar and asked his brother: "What's yours, sea. .. ah, a pint of Main Line, isn't it?"
Still smiling demurely, John nodded.
"A pint of Main Line, please," Michael ordered, but the barman had the order on the bar in anticipation, and nodded towards Michael and then the pint.
"Oh, ta, thanks." He paid for the pint, handed the glass to his brother and asked eagerly: "How did you go on, out there? Hah?"
John drank from his glass, hunched his shoulders. "Umm! so, so. Let's sit down."
They walked to the table on which stood Michael's partly filled glass.
"Jesus, tell us how you went on?" pleaded Michael.
"All right, all right, give's a chance to sit down first."
"Yea, yea, course, but how did you go on? Did you find work? Did you meet those blokes? What had they to say? Did they know anything? Hah?
"Hah? Have you said something?"
"Hi! don't start that, taking the piss. Tell's how you went on."
"Well, I went on the train first, then I went on a bus ..."
"Ah for..... sake! No, tell's did you find a job?"_________
"All right, all right, calm down. You're always in a hurry. Drink your pint."
Michael emptied his glass and went to the bar for two more, this time carefully avoiding all stools.
A few old-timers sitting at the domino table laughed and nodded towards John, who smiled back in acknowledgement.
So carefully did Michael carry the full glasses across the floor that he never spilled a drop. "How did it go?" he asked his brother who was already seated, then carelessly plonked one glass down on the table so hard that the beer splashed out, over the table and down the front of John's best suit.
"Hold on, hold on," cried his brother as he quickly pushed himself away from the table and spread his legs to allow the beer to drip from his shirt on to the floor. "How, did you say? Where more like. God above, I'm soaked .... more so than a poor millionaire. Why can't you be a bit careful. I bet my buckle turns brown with this lot. God above!"
"Sorry, scan, I . . I . . I," Michael blurted. "I was just asking how. . did it.... go?"
After shaking most of the beer from his clothes, John drew his chair up to the table again, lifted the glass from which the beer had splashed, examined it critically and said: "I suppose you'll want a full one for this, hah?"
Michael stood a few moments with a vapid look on his face, then flopped into a chair guiltily. "Jesus, I'm sorry. I just wanted to know how you went on. How did you?"
"How did I what?" John retorted bad-temperedly.
"How did you go out there?"
"How? Well first I went on a train, then on a bus, then I walked a small bit. Anything else you'd like to know?"
"Aw, hell! Sure all I want to know is what happened. But you won't say what happened, will you?"
"Yes, I will. 'What happened'. How's that?"
"Aawaa! Tell's kid."
"Will you give over kidding. I told you before about them stupid words you keep saying. Give over! You'll make a show of yourself."
Michael sat sullenly for a few moments, but his curiosity got the better of him and he tried again. "But, John, for heaven's sake tell us how you went on out .... ah ... there where you went to, hah?"
John drank from his glass, then spread his hands and with an
exaggerated casualness replied: "Well, there's nothing to tell, really."
"But did you find work out there?"
"Sure, I didn't go for work. I told you, I went out there to see a few blokes who'd know if there was anything going around here, and they told me there isn't, so...." Again he spread his arms definitively.
"So what?" Michael asked eagerly.
"So ...... that's it. There is nothing."
"Jesus, you were foolish to jack 'til after Christmas anyhow."
"Foolish! Sure a man has no choice. Sure, when that 'shout' thinks it's a man's turn to go, that man may as well pick up his jacket and walk away."
"A man's turn," Michael repeated, because for some inexplicable reason that word sent a shaft of foreboding across his vision.
"Aye," continued his brother, by this time having regained his composure and shed his ill-temper, "walk away. Before he decides that, if possible."
"But what are you going to do if there's no work?"
"Same as I did out there - walk away," John replied defiantly. "That's not the only job in the world, and this isn't the only place."
Once more Michael felt that emptiness in the pit of his stomach and his beer tasted sour. He swallowed a couple of times before he spoke again because his throat felt dry and tacky. "But you'll have to leave the digs, won't you?" he asked at last.
John drank again, and again adopted an excessive casualness. "Yea, well, there're plenty digs, if a man can afford them."
"Are you going to go somewhere?" Michael asked in desperation.
John stretched and groaned before he answered. "Yes, first thing in the morning, I'll be hitting that road harder than a drayhorse, all the way to Ebbw Vale."
"South Wales!" screamed Michael.
This time John didn't rebuke him for his outburst. Instead he looked into the lad's troubled eyes and saw there loneliness and fear, the same feeling he himself had experienced when he was Michael's age, and when he had no one to turn to for help. He leaned forward and spoke earnestly and consolingly. "Naw, not the place you're thinking about. That's in Australia. This South Wales is here, well near here, only about a hundred miles away."
"A hundred miles," Michael reiterated as wearily as if he had walked every inch of that distance.
"Well, that's not far," his brother assured him.
"You'll have to go on a train."
"Naw," remarked John easily, "walk it. Maybe hitch a lift, if I'm lucky."
After this exchange, Michael sat some time in silence, watched by a dispassionate brother, who knew the thoughts and fears that flooded the lad's brain. He was about to try and assure him that he wasn't really alone, but then he thought: "But he is, really, and there's nothing anyone can do about that. And the sooner he realizes that, the better for himself. "Ah, cheer up," he said, encouragingly, placing a hand on Michael's slumped shoulders and rocking the lad gently to and fro. "It may be all for the good. If you have to leave out there soon, you'll be able to come to me again. You'll be all right."
"Yea," Michael half-heartedly responded.
"Empty your glass and we'll have one more pint, 'cause I must be on that road in the morning before the drayhorses. Empty it."
"No, honestly I don't think I want any more tonight."
"Come on, empty it, have another. It'll do you good."
"Aye, okay then." Michael emptied his glass and handed it to his brother.
While his brother was at the bar, Michael sat brooding. Being a retiring sort of lad, he had made few friends, none in London, for the only people he had become acquainted with in London were people who knew his brother, John, and who had become known to him through John.
"Oh, I wish I could find out where my other two brothers are," he wailed to himself somewhat pathetically. "I'm sure .... but what am I talking about? Sure they may be as badly off as the quare fella. I bet they are, and I bet that's the reason the quare fella there never talks about them, hah? I bet it is. Now, the long and the short of it is, I'm on my own, and I'll have to make the best of it. And I will, too. Sure all the others had to do it, and sure I'm as good a man as any of them. I am." Again he felt the rolled up notes in his back pocket and again they had a hypnotic effect on him. He raised his head and smiled deeply, and then and there he decided that he would never again become dependent on anyone. "Now, from now on I'll stand up on my own two legs, like a right man," he solemnly vowed, straightening up, wiping away his melancholy like a cafe waitress wipes the crumbs off a table, loosened his arms and let his hands dangle freely by his sides, thrust out his chin and looked around defiantly. "Aye, and when the 'shout' out there thinks it's my turn, I'll walk away, too. I will that, maybe quicker than most."
When John returned with the beer he was surprised to see Michael apparently happy and smiling. Only a few minutes earlier he had left him cowering on his chair, timid, almost whimpering, but when he came back the same lad was sitting bolt upright, confident, almost conceited and ready to enjoy himself.
No sooner had John placed the glasses on the table than Michael grabbed one, drank deeply, replaced the glass, groaned loudly and throatily and said confidentially to his brother: "Tell you what: they keep a good drop of beer in here, hah?" He twirled the glass round on the table. "Great stuff, hah?"
In view of the fact that three or four minutes earlier, Michael had to be persuaded to have another pint, those remarks by him took John so much by surprise that he could only mutter incoherently: "Oh, yea, yea, hah? Hah?" He watched his brother closely for the next few minutes and noticed that a fundamental change had occurred in him. The change was so extensive that it astonished John, but it also pleased him, for he knew then that Michael would make out all right.
During the remainder of the night they drank and talked amiably and never once mentioned work or anything associated with it. Both found, to their mutual surprise, that there were other, far more interesting things to talk about. Besides, both felt relieved to put work at the back of their minds for a few hours, at least.
The following morning, Michael was first out of bed, itself very unusual. He came down stairs, made both breakfasts, talked casually and unpretentiously to John when he came down, then just before he went out to work, he shook hands with John, wished him the best of luck, and from that morning forward he never saw or thought of, or worried about any of his brothers. It seemed as if, in those final moments, he was glad to put that period behind him, and that's exactly what he did.
He also forgot about sending money to his father, and old John McWanted sat by the fire, more morose and bad-tempered than ever, sucked more vigorously on his pipe, snarled more cur-like at his wife and cursed the day he ever had a son, every one of whom had disgraced him by their drunken behaviour beyond in England and by their selfishness and thoughtlessness for everyone except themselves, for not one of them cared whether his father or mother lived or died. "Bastards!" he muttered vengefully to himself, then looked again venomously at his silent, headscarved wife.
* * * *
When two weeks had gone by, Michael had grown accustomed to shopping, eating and sleeping alone, doing everything for himself and having no one to talk to until he went to the pub at night, where he had met a few Irish lads about his own age, with whom he had struck up a firm friendship. Gradually the pub became a very important factor in his life. It broke the terrible monotony of the life he led and it helped him to forget about work and the insults and taunts the 'mouth' constantly slung out, as a fruit sorter slings rotten apples. But even more gradually, yet more irreversibly, grew his liking, even longing, for beer, and it was this off-shoot of his character which grew and flourished at the expense of all other facets, like the sucker shoot sucks from the shrub a disproportionate share of the sustenance garnered from mother earth.
One day as Michael was laying pipes, watched hawkishly by the 'mouth', the walking ganger came along. He was also Irish, but one who tried to project a different image from the run-of-the-mill Irishmen who followed up civil engineering. He wore a neat, though well soiled, steel grey suit, brown shoes, a collar and tie and a pork-pie hat, set squatly on the top of his head.
"Good morning Mac," he greeted the gangerman in his well cultivated sycophantic way, a characteristic of all civil engineering bosses above the rank of gangerman.
"How-awo!" growled the 'mouth' in return.
"Yes. Aye." He looked all round. "Yeah. How are you fixed for men today, hah?"
"Oh, now, I want a few, down on the tip, yes, I want a few."
"Sent a few tapping, did you?" and he laughed in a fawning, sickening manner.
"Oh, now, I'm telling you, I made a few dig out, I did that."
"Well, good on you Mac. Never let it be said! Oh, you're a hard man, Mac." and again he laughed in a forced, deceitful way.
"Oh, now, I'm telling you, I'll not let 'em get bedded in, I'll not."
"Now, why would you, Mac, why would you. Keep them moving. Don't let them get cold. Keep them on the move," and he laughed again unnaturally.
"Oh, I will, I will, have no fear of that. Now, I'm telling you, I'll see that they don't get the crippage. I'll give 'em plenty of exercise. Haaa!"
The walking ganger smiled and shook his head in feigned admiration. "So, I best send you a few up, then, haa?"
"Oh, now, indeed, you can send 'em all this way. There'll be room for 'em all, and sure if there isn't, I'll soon make a bit of room. I will that."
"Lord, you're a hard man, Mac. Right then, I'll send you a few up."
"Do, as many as you can."
The walking ganger shook his head as he strode away to the next section, while the 'mouth' watched and added another dimension to his slope in the belief that he had proved his value as a gangerman.
Michael had heard the conversation and remembered what John had told him about a man's 'turn' coming along, and decided that he'd be ready for that event when it came, although he wasn't going to seek dismissal. But he was determined not to be walked on either, for he had well and truly grown out of that state.
Next morning Michael was on the job at the usual time, and the gangerman came rolling along in his usual way, accompanied by four new starters, all of whom were middle aged and wore typical navvys' uniforms.
"Blow up!" yelled the 'mouth' before he had come anywhere near a knot of waiting workmen. They scurried in all directions, but the four new starters stood in a huddle nearby as the gangerman opened the toolshed door.
Michael was there immediately and took out a pair of rubber boots, as he had done every morning since he had started on that job and as he had been so unceremoniously ordered to do that first morning.
"Where are you taking them?" the 'mouth' asked scathingly.
"I'm putting them on," replied Michael.
"Who said you are?" sneered the gangerman.
"You" replied Michael without a quiver in his voice.
"Me Why, you stinking little liar, I've never talked to you today yet. I've just left the office, what are you talking about?"
Michael stood rock still. Instinctively he knew it was his 'turn', and he was determined not to show any signs of annoyance or distress. He dropped the boots on the floor and looked the 'mouth'
straight in the face. "You told me the first morning I came here to put them boots on, and I've been doing that ever since."
"You have! Well, by Jesus, it's awful when a shittin' 'greesheen' like you can have boots and an extra penny an hour, just like a right man."
"I never had an extra penny an hour," Michael returned.
"I never knew anything about that. This is the first job I've worked on."
"Aye, aye, aye, but it won't be the last. Haaa! 'cause you'll soon be . ..." and he simulated knocking with a clenched fist, ". .. . on that green window."
The four new starters became interested in the argument, but didn't take part.
"And should I have got an extra penny an hour?" asked Michael.
"Haah?" screamed the gangerman. "Should you . . . . ? You're lucky to have been paid at all. Sure, they should make a stupid 'greesheen' like you pay to be allowed to work."
"Now, I'm telling you, if I'm entitled to that, I'm having it, whatever you say, 'cause I'm jacking now."
"And isn't it about time, too. Haven't you been here twice too long, you have. Off you go. You lads, get some tools out of this shed and come down here with me and I'll show you where to go to work."
The four men looked at one another, but didn't move immediately.
Then they did as they had been ordered — they picked up a pick and shovel apiece, slung them on their shoulders and ambled carelessly to where the gangerman was waiting for them.
When Michael knocked on the infamous green window of the shabby little office that snuggled into the huge embankment, the young man who had given him a letter that first morning to take to the labour exchange to obtain insurance cards appeared.
"Yes?" he enquired.
"I jacked this morning," Michael told him.
"Ah, you've been working for Brennan, haven't you?" said the young man, screwing up his eyes to concert his memory.
"That's right," replied Michael, "and I jacked this morning, now."
The young man looked round quickly before he spoke again.
"Hi!" he beckoned Michael. "Here. Don't say you jacked or you'll get nothing for today. Say he sacked you and then you'll get an hour's pay for this morning. See?" and he winked meaningfully, confirming the confidentiality of the advice. "Give's your note."
"Note? He didn't give me no note."
"He didn't! Well, he should have." He turned away from the window and spoke to someone whom Michael could not see. "Hi! one of Brennan's men's here and he's not been given a note."
"He's not? Has he been sacked?" asked a husky voice from inside the little office.
"Oh, yes, he's sacked him, but he's not given him a note."
'The stupid idiot, he's always doing that lately. Tell him to go back and see that ass, Brennan, get a note off him, bring it here and we'll pay right up to that time, plus one hour."
"Hear that?" the young man said, turning once more to Michael. "See Brennan, see that he writes out a note, bring it here and you'll be paid right up to the time you arrive back here and one extra hour. Okay?"
The young man was just about to close the window when Michael spoke, "And there's something else."
"Well, I've been wearing rubber boots all the time I've been here and I've got nothing for it, and I've been told today . . . well it was the 'mouth' who told me ...."
"Brennan, you mean?"
"Yes, it was he as said I was getting an extra penny for that, and I wasn't, and I didn't know anything about it, and I was wondering if a man does get paid for that?"
"Wearing rubber boots? Yes, a penny an hour extra. Hi! hear that? The lad's been wearing boots and hasn't been paid for them."
"Oh, what's his name?" asked the man with the husky voice.
"Michael McWanted, Michael
"Oh, yes, there are two of them. Wait a minute."
"No, the other was John, my brother and he left, oh, more than two weeks ago. My name's Michael and I've ..."
"Just been sacked," added the young man precautionarily.
"See, he's never booked that in," remarked the hidden speaker.
"Oh, now, someone'll have to have a word with this idiot. He's not fit to be a gangerman. He books in nothing at all, nothing at all. We have to straighten out his books every time. Well, I'm doing it no longer." A wrinkled, grey face appeared at the window and spoke vibrantly to Michael.
"Tell Brennan that he must give you a note and that he must write on that note that you've been wearing boots all the time you've worked here. Okay? I'll see to the rest," and he snapped the window shut.
Michael walked back again to where he had worked since he had arrived in London, but the gangerman had gone down to the tip, which was a good distance away.
Michael decided to follow him down there.
The gangerman saw Michael coming and went to meet him. "Yes, what is it you want?" he asked in the mildest manner Michael had ever known him to employ." I thought you jacked, eh?"
"Yes, but they said I had to have a note from you. Yes."
"Oh, did they?" the gangerman asked in a manner more like his usual cynical self.
"Yes, and they said as well that you had to put on the note that I was wearing boots ... all the time I worked here."
"Oh, aye, and who are they?"
"And they said as well," continued Michael, "that..."
"All right, all right, for Jesus sake, I'll give you a note. Anyone'd think to hear you that no one ever jacked before.
Sure, they're jacking and being sacked here every day in the week. Sure, I might be after you, what are you snivelling about?"
Michael waited patiently while the gangerman raked his inside pocket, produced the grimy notebook and pencil stub and began to write laboriously, wetting the pencil end in his mouth after completing each letter. He spoke as he wrote." 'Pay this man of. He as wearing boots since he come. J. Brennan ganger man. 'Now, will that do you?"
Michael took the note, acknowledged its contents with a nod and turned to go, just as the walking ganger and a companion arrived.
They didn't notice him, and as he brushed past them he heard the walking ganger tell his companion: 'This is your section, now, from that point there, just past where those men are emptying wagons to the point I've shown you the other side of that little toolshed. Right?"
His companion hitched up his moleskin, touched his cap, raised one shoulder and remarked: "Oh right, right, sound affair."
"Well, now then, there you are, and never let it be said, and go to work now in manfashion."
His companion gave his trousers another hitch, touched his cap another time, raised the same shoulder again, and with a half-smile, half-leer replied: "Well, just right, mate, just right," and he rolled away towards the men who were emptying wagons.
"On, here a minute, Mac.," cried the walking ganger.
The 'mouth' stuffed both hands in his pockets and casually rolled towards his caller.
"Now, damn me if I'm not sorry about this, Mac., but the old agent, old Hoppy, McQuade you know, he's been going through the books these last few days and he reckons that your section is woefully in debt. So he's left word for you to pick up your cards today."
"The gangerman's contorted, blotchy face tightened a little, but in no other way did he show the least sign of surprise or annoyance.
"Right then," remarked the walking ganger, relieved at having discharged that duty, and he brushed past the then ex-gangerman without a flicker of emotion. "Right now?" he called to the new comer, but kept going hurriedly to the next section.
"Oh, aye, right, sound affair," replied the newly appointed king of the section (until his 'turn' came, of course), and hitched his trousers up once again, touched his cap, raised a shoulder and pushed further out his beer-bloated belly.
The dethroned gangerman picked up a blade of grass and chewed on it meditatively as he stood rooted to the spot, his eyes flirting alternatively from the back of the departing walking ganger to the exaggeratedly upright stance of the new gangerman. What puzzled him most, and annoyed him a bit, too, was the fact that he hadn't a clue that it was his 'turn' to go. He spoke closely to himself. "Jesus, I wonder how I misjudged that, hah? Sure, I thought it was only 'greesheens' that stopped on a job 'til they were sacked. Ah, now .... but what harm. Sure if no one jacked or no one got sacked there'd be no work for on one else. Aha, to hell with it, let it go."
He slung the half chewed blade of grass, gave a farewell sign to the man who had just replaced him, for there were no hard feelings with respect to these happenings, waited for the return gesture, then turned awkwardly and began to push his heavy-clothed, heavyweight body wearily towards the green window, a journey on which he, in his time, had sent many a man reluctantly trudging, just to frighten others; a journey on which he was then being sent trudging in the most humiliating way and at the most inopportune time possible, also in order to scare others.
And still it never dawned on him - perhaps because he didn't want it to, because of the conscience guilt it would arouse — that he was just one more victim of that barbarous system of sacking one man to intimidate another which civil engineering contractors had evolved; a system which he and his like had so sedulously upheld for so long; a system which was bound to turn on themselves eventually, for as the hungry wolf will devour its own young, and the treacherous shark will turn on its own mate, so civil engineering contractors, being carnivores, will turn on their helpers whenever they run short of other victims. And anyway, why should anyone expect civil engineering contractors to discriminate between one victim and another, when one victim tastes as succulent as another, supplies the same need and fulfils the same objective?
During the next six months, Michael flit from job to job with no more concern than any other Irish navvy. Sometimes he was sacked and sometimes he jacked and forestalled the sack, often maybe by only hours, and in this, too, his behaviour pattern was no different from that of other Irish navvies, who demonstrated their defiance of society's perverseness by refusing to remain on any job until their 'turn' came, but who built up amongst themselves a fatal idolisation of that futile practice of jacking, which gained so much ground in those hard years that it became as much a part of their characteristics as their dress, their walk and their detestation of the new arrival.
Michael differed from most of his compatriots in one thing only: he was content to stay in the digs he once shared with his brother, while most Irishmen changed digs as often as they changed their jobs.
During this six months, the landlady became very attached to him, and despite her fast failing health, tried to be helpful. And, allowing for the natural repulsion of youth for the old and the sick, he grew fond of her, although he often said quietly to himself: "Jesus, she's a grand old lady, that. Aha, but she's awful ugly, though. As ugly now as mortal sin ..... with a hump on her back like a dog licking a pot ..... and a snout out on her now like a cat going visiting. But, Jesus, she's not bad. Ara, she's all right, sound."
But the landlady was far from being all right. Every day the strain of trying to live with the degradation that poverty brought drained a little more strength from her weakened, emaciated body. Daily she sunk a little lower and became a little more desperate, until finally she gave up the unequal struggle. Then Michael had to look for fresh digs.
The cheapest place to live, he calculated, was in a dosshouse, and the day after the landlady's funeral he moved into one in Hammersmith. This proved to be the turning point.
Life in a dosshouse at that time meant a consubsistence with the old, the helpless, the disabled, the destitute, the wretched, the sick in mind, the sick in body, those with no hope, those with no pride, those with no future, those with a past they wanted to forget, the dross and bile that the sick society disgorged daily into those human sewers, each dollop nudging along the dollop in front to the filter beds, and it was in this crucible of human insult that young Michael's character was compounded. It was kneaded into shape out on the navvy jobs by gangermen who were themselves insults to humanity. So, Michael's training, though maybe not good, was thorough and bound to leave a lasting imprint on the man who would follow the youth.
As thousands had done before him, and as thousands have done since, Michael sought refuge and solace in the public house. At first he convinced himself that he went to the public house mainly for the company he met there, and that drinking was incidental. But it wasn't long until he had to concede even to himself that he went to the public house to drink and that it was the company that was the incidental. So, as often as he could he got drunk, because the booze transported him into a world of unreality, which was what he wanted because the world of reality at that time was indeed a harsh one. He was twenty years old when he moved north to work in Lancashire at Euxton, but by this time his behaviour pattern had been too well honed and ground in the mill of experience to admit change easily, so he stuck with the dosshouse, the public house and the navvy job. In fact, it was in a dosshouse the police found him and picked him up for army service.
Despite all the drill and discipline and polish, the army forged no great change in him. It merely interrupted for a few years the regular life he had become hardened to, the only life he could remember since leaving his father's house, a place he had completely forgotten.
So, the day after he was demobbed he was drunk in a dosshouse.