CROSSING THE LINE
Oversexed radical converts soon realised that if the principal attractions of the Young Conservatives were dancing and fornication then those of the Communist Party remained, inescapably, Marxism and leafleting. Frank Fleet suspected that the transient superiority brought on by a wrestle with the concept of Surplus Value could in no way compare with the more substantial sense of well‑being resulting from a grapple with the well‑fleshed daughters of the bourgeoisie, like those from the riding school who sometimes trotted past his house.
All his political activities were haunted by the spectre of a vague carnal yearning. Bender, a middle‑aged fellow branch member, swore that one of the present Party executive had reconciled similar youthful appetites by being in both parties at the same time. 'He claimed' Bender elaborated, 'to be doing to the ruling class just what they had been doing to his forebears for the past thousand years.'
Frank had a theory that women were natural conservatives somehow unable to imagine, much less risk, violent social upheaval. Their limited, sensually blinkered perspectives, alas, led them straight to the party of preservation. His impotent lust was fuelled by pictures in the local rag showing the Tory MP opening yet another fund‑raising fete surrounded by blooming, nubile voluptuousness. Even if they did think Engels was a nightclub in Manchester their big‑eyed, wide‑mouthed magnetism pulled heavily in the balance of desire opposite the pinched, strident self‑denial of the female Party members held met so far.
The treasurer's wife, for instance, wore slacks and a wide‑lapelled leather coat made in East Germany which Bender said was war surplus from the Berlin Gestapo. Her short black hair was complemented by a wispy, white beard. She smoked thin cigars in a stubby holder and had firm views on the need for discipline and sticking to the Soviet line. When her husband had reneged from the Party in '56 she stayed and nagged him back into it in 1960.
Her fellow female Stalinist took the branch meeting minutes in shorthand and produced immaculately typed copies one month later. She spoke on average about twice a year, usually in a low monotone which no‑one understood. Frank guessed she was somewhere between twenty five and forty and that her hobbies were typing and anorexia nervosa. For six years no branch meeting had been complete without the continual scratching of her fountain pen across the pages of a ring‑bound reporter's notebook. This rested on a leg like a pick‑axe handle which seemed, miraculously, to be wrapped round its partner three times. Both these worthy comrades considered make‑up a mark of slavery. Neither treated Frank Fleet as anything other than a dubious ally in their struggle for emancipation, steeped, as he must be, in millennia of prejudice
They remained, for Frank, the sole representatives of Communist womanhood. He began to suspect the operation of an iron law in these matters; it was probably explained somewhere in a Party pamphlet or a monograph by Marx. Imagine, then, his astonishment and joy, during a film on the 1917 revolution, when in should saunter Marion Strype. The gates of the Winter Palace buckled excitingly over her lilac corduroy jeans. She sat down under the silent ejaculation of the Aurora's guns. Throughout the rest of the film his eyes stuck to the bottom edge which illuminated, like an erratic stroboscope, the filaments of her copper coloured hair.
Later when the others queued for stamps or rummaged among piles of pamphlets and books he asked her where she lived and said he could give her a lift home since it was on his way. It wasn't, but by the time the retired train driver came to look for his regular chauffeur they were driving onto the car park at the Black Swan. There was something about her that was sensual, almost depraved. Perhaps it was the deep eye shadow on lids which seemed permanently half closed. The taut planes of her face sloped smoothly away from high cheekbones. Frank guessed she was no more than nineteen and probably a nymphomaniac. He was happy to buy brandy and Babychams until closing time.
Two months later she turned up again. Not for her the routine boredom of normal branch business; it had to be something special. The General Secretary of the South African Communist Party, Mr. Yusef Dadoo, spoke to them about the problems of underground activity. This time they queued to shake the hand that had shaken the hand of Mao Tse Tung. And again Frank and Marion found themselves in the Black Swan.
She told him about her current boyfriend Bill. After her divorce she had lived with him for a while but now she was back on the estate where Bill would visit occasionally. In some ways it was better, she said, no more violent rows about the kids. Although he had promised they would get married soon she couldn't get an exact date out of him. He was Party too; Widnes branch. As far as Frank was concerned he could have been in the labour camps of Siberia. The two towns were only seven miles apart but the exigencies of Democratic Centralism, a concept haunted by the spectre of grass roots factions, discouraged horizontal contact between members especially the kind of horizontal contact between members which Frank had in mind.
Time was running out again. She drank even more quickly as the clock moved to half past ten. He knew he had to ask her tonight; there were no attractions strong enough to bring her out again for months. He had been keeping up with halves but still found the car park unsteady when they left. She remained dauntingly self‑contained and worked her way noisily through a giant sized bag of crisps. The following Sunday was the day of the massive anti‑Industrial Relations Act demo. She had already mentioned that Bill would be going. He asked her out for a drink. After a long pause she agreed to come. Frank blasted away from her doorstep amazed at his good luck. She seemed to have everything; looks, character, experience and, obviously, a social conscience ‑ why else would she be in the Party?
After dark that Sunday Frank headed north in his freshly polished car. Beyond the canal was the river; it was as much a boundary between classes as it was between counties. The neat gardens of North Cheshire with their magnolias and ornamental cherries fronting walls patched with ivy and honeysuckle gave way to the cramped, grimy streets of the town centre. Upstream of the Howley Power Station the Mersey boiled with a chemical froth whipped up by the weir. It packed into thick, pink floes which scudded against the current and blew, in clods of stinging bubbles, over the parapet and onto the road. Further north still, in South Lancashire itself, the smell of breweries invaded the car; then the pungent, eye‑scorching vapours from the wire works' pickling vats.
There were houses right up to the factory walls; some were being pulled down. A few weeks earlier he had visited this slum‑clearance area on foot. Those domestic ruins with their tiny rooms, basic plumbing and narrow, tiled backyards, aroused in him a sense of fascinated horror. How could people spend a day in such places much less a whole lifetime? He thought of suggesting an edifying branch visit, just as his class from Tech went to John Summers' or Cammell Laird's. Then he remembered that the others knew about places like this ‑ they'd grown up in them. Now all that was visible was a distant bonfire flickering amongst the rubble.
The new estate was opposite the North West Gas Board's Steam Reforming plant. It was a vast, pre‑high‑rise, nineteen fifties conglomeration punctuated by desolate vacancies. Its wide, grass‑verged boulevards were spattered with derelict cars and broken saplings. Occasionally he passed a squat, featureless pub which looked more like a gun‑emplacement with its barbed wire topped walls and steel mesh covered windows. He pulled up outside 16A Windemere Crescent. The front garden, flooded in sodium light, looked like a scale model of the battle of the Somme. A few tough weeds clung to one corner but the rest was hard packed red clay riddled with hollows and hummocks. The rusting chassis of a pram occupied the centre.
'I thought you wasn't coming' she said. The alarm clock on the mantelpiece was half an hour fast. The room was full of steam. In the back kitchen one of the kids was standing naked in the sink while a large pan of water boiled on the stove.
'Just bathing them before we
'Why don't you close your kitchen door? All your windows are steamed up.'
He suddenly noticed the unpainted rectangles where the hinges had been.
'We burned it last winter.' Seeing his look of amazement she went on: 'Coalman was late. Can't have the kids starving to death. You think that's funny you should go and see the Hickman's round the corner. They burned the skirting board as well, and the stairs. Had to get to bed up a rope with big knots on. It was like something out of a Tarzan picture. Mind you I think they were a bit mental. I'll be ready in a minute. You can watch telly in the front room.'
The baby sitter, a girl of twelve, was sitting on the sofa. He sat in an armchair. Its disturbed fabrics gave off an acrid smell compounded of sour milk, stale tobacco and urine. Suddenly Hughie Green dwindled into a tiny, bright dot and vanished completely. The girl shouted: 'Marion!' in a voice tinged with panic. Marion replied over the noise of the squealing kids: 'Got two bob for the telly?' He pushed eight shillings into it and returned to his inspection of the premises.
Out leafleting or hawking round petitions he had often caught tantalising glimpses of these proletarian interiors. His researches had revealed three categories. The garish rooms of the affluent, full of brass and glass, with hot coloured rugs and geometric wallpaper giving them the lively violence of an electrical discharge, permeated, usually with the homely smell of the chip pan and the blare of ITV. Or there was the musty gloom of the pensioner's ice‑box, so quiet you could hear the furniture warping beyond the safety chained door crack. Generally there would be four eyes giving you the once‑over; the milky myopic vacancy of the householder and the bleary stare of the dog. And less frequently, a third type, places like Marion's; stark, ruined vestibules, transit camps, seemingly blasted by their tenants' rage against the system. A lampshade would have cost her less than forty cigarettes yet a bare bulb hung from the ceiling. The windows had no curtains, the stair no carpet; the doors had holes instead of handles. The whole place had been pared down to its essentials. His uneasy social voyeurism was engendering a sense of pity and outrage.
They drove out to a seventeenth century half‑timbered pub deep in rural Cheshire. She asked for a pint of lager, a whisky and dry ginger chaser and a packet of Benson and Hedges from the machine she'd noticed at the entrance. With little or no provocation she recalled her past in intimate detail.
'Yes, they're all mine. I had my first when I was sixteen. Nobody told me how it was done. My old man was very strict about things like that. If there was even snogging on the telly he'd switch it over. The older girls at school went on about sex: ‘You just lie on your back’ they said, ‘and open your legs. Once you've had it you can't do without it like ciggies.’ I never thought much of it though. What a let down! It was a lad in the street. Me mum and dad were in the pub and our Eric had gone to the match. We locked the doors and did it on the couch. The size of it! And he was only fourteen. It hurt a bit and then he wriggled and puffed and then it was all over. ‘Is that it?’ I said. ‘I don't know what all the fuss is about. Wait till I see them girls at school!’' Frank wondered if a more traditionally romantic attitude to these matters could be revived in her with the right treatment.
'Lads never thought of anything else. It'd be a hand up your jumper and then they'd be trying to get your knickers down. Why put up a struggle? I didn't care either way. I was very popular with the lads. It was Jonesie who put me up the jigger. I still had no idea it had anything to do with kids. I went to the doctor. Doctor I says, I've not seen my periods for about three months. Toffee‑nosed old arsehole he was. Treated you like an imbecile. Lie on that bed he says, I'll give you an examination. I thought it'd be with a stethoscope, then he says, Take your knickers off, puts a rubber glove on and pokes his finger up it. It was the glove that got me. You stuck up bugger! I thought. The cheek of it! I felt insulted! Hey! You dirty bastard! I says. Well he says, if that isn't the kettle calling the pot! It's you what's been up to no good ‑ you're three months gone!' Frank guessed her physician's remarks had been freely translated.
'I came home and told me mum. What have you been doing? she says. I've not been doing nothing I says. The old chap went hairless! He belted me so hard I had to go into hospital for stitches. Never spoke to me again for six months. So I got married. Jonesie was at it non‑stop. We lived with his granny ‑ she was pretty deaf. I got absolutely cheesed off I can tell you. I'd just lie there in bed and he'd jump on. Come on love he used to say, anybody would think you didn't like it. But I'd just lie there and he'd roll off after a bit and I'd think thank God that's over, now we can get some sleep. Course I never knew about the pill or anything; I was always out here'.
Frank felt as though he had fallen into a tank of icy water. She sucked powerfully on a fresh cigarette.
'He started wanting it other ways. Tried to force me at first. Said it was his legal rights. I'm not putting up with this, I thought, and one night I nearly bit it off. He gave me a good hiding but he never tried it that way again. Men! They're disgusting! The only person I ever really loved was Sheila. She tapped me up on a bus. Said how beautiful I was and how she sensed I was special. I had no idea what she wanted. It was wonderful. She made me come for the first time in my life. When she packed me in I tried to kill myself with pills, but they stomach pumped me. Then gas, but the meter ran out. Jonesie had buggered off by then leaving me with three kids. It was Bill who got me in the club for the fourth time, but they scraped it out and fixed it so that I couldn't have any more. I said to them: It's a pity I didn't have this done years ago!'
Frank marvelled at how quickly refill time came round. When he looked back from the bar at the dimly lit alcove where she sat he couldn't help being struck by her appearance. There was something arrestingly erotic about her but already any notions of seduction were dissolving under the acid rain of her revelations. He realised she was milking his generosity, but why not? he thought. He was beginning to feel guilty about his relative affluence.
'I told Bill you was taking me
He twitched as though he had been given a mild electric shock.
'I don't think he was keen on the idea. ‘If he's a Party member’ he said, ‘Why isn't he coming on the demo?’ ‘I don't know’ I said. But he thought it'd be all right if you was CP.'
This example of the fraternal spirit reminded him of one of Bender's historical gems.
'Just after the revolution the members of the Moscow Commune made a point of sharing each other's soiled underwear.' Immediately he regretted blurting this out but she seemed unperturbed by the comparison.
'Dirty, sods!' she said lighting another cigarette from the previous one and returning to more important matters. 'It was Bill what got me interested in the Communist Party. We used to talk about things a lot in the asylum. They put me in there for a bit after I tried to kill myself. I don't remember what he was in for; it was nothing serious. He told me how the whole country was owned by just a few idle bleeders who had never done a day's work in their lives. And they'd got it because one of their great great grandfathers had pinched it in the first place, or one of their great great grandmothers had dropped her knickers for Charles the first. He explained how these slimy sods had shit on the working class for hundreds of years and that the Communist Party was going to put a stop to it and share everything out equally just like they did in Russia. It was very interesting. So I try to do 'em in return. I pinch things from shops. Why not? Eleven pounds a week I get off the NAB, and a probation officer comes down once a week to make sure the kids are all right. They can't touch me though. If I was up in court I'd just tell them the facts; stealing to feed my kids ‑ they'd have to let me off. When the Party gets in it should shoot the lot of them: police, NAB inspectors, stuck up clerks ‑ bastards! Three kids! Eleven pounds a week! That's what the Party's got to do. Bill says if I lived in Russia I'd be living rent free and probably get a medal for having three kids before I was twenty.'
Frank guessed she must have been drunk; he was feeling pretty groggy himself, yet she walked out perfectly in control at closing time and did not neglect to ask for more cigarettes and a bag of peanuts on the way.
When they got back to her house he was astonished to see kids still playing in the street. He remembered his own childhood when, even at fifteen, he was still going to bed at half past nine. There seemed to be some kind of bicycle race in progress. Two rickety contraptions built up from pieces found on rubbish dumps, with no brakes, uneven cranks and no tyres, were clattering round the block and sweeping within inches of his parked car. Above the resonant grind of steel rims on the tarmac a group under a streetlamp shouted out lap numbers. They reached seventy eight as Frank and Marion went into the house.
Now she was strangely quiet, truculent almost. Her mouth was set in a downward curve. Frank paid the babysitter while Marion made two cups of sweet Camp coffee. He thought this surprisingly good and asked her what it was. She looked at him as though he was an idiot.
'I can't stand these long skirts' she said, taking hers off and throwing it over a chair. Frank was surprised to find himself unexcited by this gesture. A sense of politeness impelled him to sit next to her on the settee. She moved to the other end and tucked her legs under her body. The two hundred watt centre light had been switched off to allow the fading television to struggle into view. It was the epilogue. She seemed inordinately interested in it. Its ecclesiastical drone was punctuated by wild shouts of joy: 'Ninety four! ... ninety five!'
Suddenly Frank noticed a pale, oval smudge bobbing about on the other side of the steamed up windows. He was about to comment on it when he heard a loud bang like a gunshot. A brick smashed through one of the small panes in the door. Seconds later a shadowy hulk in a black donkey jacket plunged into the room, tripped over a piece of lifting lino and crashed onto the settee. The whole thing turned over taking with it Frank, Marion and a nearby tea‑chest half full of coal. A writhing, rolling tangle of arms and legs scrabbled and crunched over jagged nuggets of stolen anthracite.
The hulk was snarling obscenities while attempting to punch Frank's head. Frank felt a fist smash into him and the roar of voices submerged under the deafening pressure of the blow. He had to get out! There was no time for reasoned explanations. Marion was screaming but it sounded more like rage than fear. A cross appeared on the screen and a great surge of organ music flooded into the room. From outside, louder now through the opened door, came a cheer and the triumphant chorus: 'One hundred!' She pulled at the intruder's hair with both hands. Frank felt the beery mass lift off him. He got to his feet and dashed to the door.
'Bill', You stupid bastard!'
As Frank fled down the path a voice bellowed from inside the house:
'Call yourself a bloody comrade?!'
The car wallowed and slewed up the street. Frank guessed he had four flat tyres but the spectacle in the driving mirror of Bill whirling the pram chassis round his head made him put his foot down regardless.
He never saw her again. In the pub some months later Bender mentioned that she had hitch‑hiked to Newcastle, with the three kids, to stay with her father for a while. Bender had heard this from Bill at a Party meeting in Manchester. Bill himself had only just come out of hospital. Marion's abrupt disappearance had made him depressed. He'd thumped the foreman after a row about overtime and smashed a very expensive machine. They sent him back into the asylum for more shock treatment.
Frank tried to imagine it all and felt as though he were looking into a murky fish tank full of spiny monsters from the deep. He was glad to be on the other side of the glass. Reading Sartre and the New Left Review was one thing but working with the proletariat was quite another.
Soon they were discussing that vague boundary between the CP and the Labour left. Bender recalled Lenin's remark about supporting parliamentary democracy as he rope supports a hanged man. He went on to reveal that after the 1945 election there had been eight Labour MPs who were secret members of the Communist Party.
Notions like these helped Frank make the transition. He was surprised to find a local Labour Party branch which met in the old village community centre. At first he just sat in as a visitor imagining he was engaged in inter‑party espionage. They didn't have the puritanical discipline of the CP nor its tortuous excursions into theoretical Marxism but they did genuinely care about the plight of the under‑privileged. And this concern impressed him all the more coming, as it did, from people who would obviously never fall into that category themselves.
Best of all though were the women: social workers and art students with complexions and poise he'd not seen in politics before. In fact, to look at, they were in no way inferior to the big‑eyed, wide‑mouthed sirens in the Tory press.