The shabby little terrace shared a wall with the mill so the drumming rattle of the looms was always slightly audible; at times the pot Spaniels on the mantelpiece would wobble, the chiming clock shift as if some tiny creature were beneath it and the cockroaches run from behind the fire surround. Bert filled a few empty minutes chasing and crushing them with his clog. When his grandparents weren’t at work, they were in the pub; and when they weren’t working or drinking they were sleeping. Cleaning the house they didn’t have time for, so it stank. So did Bert as his clothes were washed infrequently and the house had only one cold tap on the big, square, white sink in the kitchen under which he could douse himself. The other kids, who were hardly on intimate terms with soap and water, called him Pongo. It hurt him to the depths of his being and opened up a chasm of incomprehension. Why had his mother left him ? Why were his grandparents always drunk ? Why did he sometimes have to go barefoot ? Why did the other children behave so cruelly ? The one thing that worked for him was school. He was top of the ragged class and even though he stank, his pals had to respect that. As soon as he understood he was better than the other kids at spelling and sums and composition, he worked like an ant. School might be a field of nettles; you might get the leather strap across your tender palms for whispering; Mr Colenso might enjoy grabbing a boy by his soft ear and dragging him to the front or whacking him on the back of head with his great, bear paw hands; but it was the only place where he could feel good about himself. It became an obsession to be first in every test and never drop a mark. If he got nineteen out of twenty for spellings, even though the next best was eleven, he chastised himself for laziness and stupidity; if Mr Colenso picked on him and asked him what was half of three eights and he couldn’t answer instantly, he lay in bed reciting fractions to the early hours. He would have had a place at the grammar school easily, but his grandparents drank away the money and couldn’t pay for the books or uniform. At thirteen he started work in the mill next door and he hated the world so much for denying him he could have murdered everyone in it.
He was saved by Adolf Hitler.
He was seventeen in May 1939. In September he signed up for the RAF. He was sent to Italy. The war didn’t interest him but the language did; so did the beautiful women and the elegant clothes the wealthy men wore. When he came home in 1945 he was determined to get an education and make money. And to find a beautiful woman. He voted for Atlee because he knew poverty. He wasn’t mean-spirited. He wanted money, nice clothes, a big house, a car, pretty women; but he didn’t want to deny anyone else. Prosperity for all. The good life for all. Anything that tasted of aristocracy or privilege was as bitter to him as toilet cleaner. It was what had been denied him. It was a fixed, closed world from which he was excluded. No. Men like him needed a society that was opened up, democratic, egalitarian, so long as there was scope to use your brains and your energy to make a good life for yourself. But at the heart of him was the humiliation of poverty; that child Pongo who had wanted to die when the mocking voices followed him down the back alley, and he would not have that inflicted on anyone.
He had to find a job. He discovered that having been in the RAF made employers complaisant. Somehow they thought it meant intelligence and competence. He got a job in the accounts office of a building firm, Edmund Cropper & Co. The proprietor, Cecil Cropper, was a catholic and refused to employee protestants. Bert thought he was crazy.
“But if a man’s a good joiner,” he said to Harry Clow, the accounts manager, “what does it matter where he prays ? Why employee a lazy catholic when you could hire a hard-working protestant ?”
“It’s the boss’s way. He’s a catholic and that’s that.”
Bert thought it summed up all that was wrong with society. His grandparents were catholics so he’d been sent to Sacred Heart; but what good was their catholicism? It was mere fearful superstition. They were as scared of the priest as of the boss. Bert thought that was craven and silly. He didn’t care a donkey’s fart for religion. Was there a god ? The idea seemed mad to him when he thought of the war, of that overgrown baby Hitler bringing the world to the edge of ruin. What god would make a world in which such things could happen ? No, it was men that mattered. It was the choices we made for ourselves that shaped the world. War was just the daftest thing he’d ever seen and Hitler should never have been allowed the weapons. Just as men like him, men from the bottom, needed a world of democracy and equality if they were to flourish, so they needed peace. The only people who got rich from war were the toffs, the high-ups. All men like him got was a bullet through the brain or a bayonet up the arse. Stuff that. No. Peace, prosperity, opportunity, democracy, equality, these were the things that excited Bert. And women. Pretty women.
He asked Harry what he needed to do to qualify as an accountant. Harry laughed.
“You didn’t even finish school.”
“Never mind. I can catch up.”
“Doesn’t bother me.”
“You could do something at night-school. Double entry book-keeping and so on.”
“I can do that already,” protested Bert. “Child’s play. I want a proper qualification like you.”
“But I went to university,” said Harry.
“Then so will I,” said Bert.
Harry looked at him askance with a little smirk of derision . Yes, that’s right. He was an upstart. He was a kid from the drains whose clothes always stank and who didn’t wear socks till he joined the forces but he’d show the world. He’d seen those men in Italy who took as much care over their clothes as any woman. He’d admired the shadow-check suits, the tooled leather shoes. He could dress like that. He could take a shower every day, put on after shave and talc. He understood that elegance could be bought and he was going to earn the money to buy it. Harry sneered at him because he didn’t believe men like him could come through; the opportunities were apportioned to those higher up the cliff-face. He was at the bottom and that’s where he should stay. Double-entry book-keeping. Double-entry up your arse. Bert knew well enough he’d been competing against other gutter kids at school; he knew the middle-classes got a better start and moved on faster; but he didn’t believe they were more intelligent. He’d never come across anything that turned his intellect to rice pudding; he could do maths, he’d picked up Italian, he read Shakespeare and Chaucer with no difficulty, and even Einstein, who everyone had told him was impossible to understand, he grasped by poring over the astringent explanations of the Special Theory. Yes. He was cocky. There was no doubt about that. People didn’t like it. People who thought the opportunities were for them. No. They didn’t like it one bit. But why should he apologize ? The world had made him cocky. It was the only way he could survive. All those toffs and middle-class folk who voted Tory to keep people like him in their place, they’d made him what he was; and if they didn’t like him cocky they’d have to lump him.
So he signed up for a night-school course in accountancy, and though he found it tedious, it wasn’t hard. He went along twice a week to the big, high-ceilinged room in Morris College, and sat at the same desk on the front row on the right. The teacher was a tall, spare, droning man called Biswell, who could have sucked the excitement out of England beating Brazil at Wembley. Bert would look at him and wonder; what kind of life did he have ? How could such a man feel passionate about anything ? He could go on like an idling bus engine, but there was never any fizz, any vim, he was as flat as a paving stone and about as interesting. Bert found it odd that the world was full of people whose minds didn’t pop like his. Life was just endlessly fascinating. There was always something new to see or hear. Why were people so dead ? Why did they drag themselves through life as if it was a burden ? One of the fascinating things to see and hear was the unattainable Mrs Bruzzese. She was a couple of years older, married to an Italian who ran a little restaurant in a converted basement near the town hall, very handsome, well-dressed and with a slow smoky voice that made him think of her in her bra and knickers, black and lacy, enticing, tempting, a cigarette burning between the long fingers of her slender hands, its tip as red as her nail varnish when she drew hard on the filter and blew aromatic clouds into the room. He spoke to her one night as they were leaving the class at nine and the rain was punishing the pavement and threatening to crack the windows.
“Far to go ?”
She looked at him, self-possessed and perfectly capable of flattening him with a disdainful remark.
“St Thomas’s square.”
“You’ll get soaked.”
“Bus stop’s only over the road.”
“Want a lift ?”
She paused and stared at him.
“You have a car ?”
“I do. Nothing fancy. Austin seven. Dry though and quicker than the corporation.”
He was a little embarrassed by the modesty of his car. He’d bought it from an old RAF mate who was one of those men who can fix anything. Forever with his head stuck under a dangerously propped bonnet or sliding beneath a car tilted up on little metal ramps, he fitted reconditioned gearboxes, replaced cracked cylinder heads, welded exhaust pipes and renewed suspensions on bangers he picked up for a nursery rhyme and sold on for an old whore’s profit. Bert bought his for twenty quid and though it sometimes spluttered and wheezed on a cold morning and the right trafficator sometimes refused to stand up, like a man with too much booze in him, it was a start. It was a car. He was making his way by small steps and this was one of them.
“Does your husband have a car ?” said Bert.
“ Why not me ?”
Bert laughed and looked at her.
“Can you drive ?”
“Can you fly a plane ?”
“Could you learn ?”
“So do I. I reckon.”
He laughed again. She had a bit of spirit and a bit of wit and he liked that.
Her house was on the little square by St Thomas’s church, just on the outskirts of town where the wide road began to take traffic away to the suburbs Bert hoped to live in one day. At either side of a an oblong of grass enclosed by black railings they’d built two rows of superior terraces; three-bedroom houses with a little garden at the front and a yard at the back, attractive stained glass in the windows and a good bit of space inside. Bert had moved on from the house by the mill and was lodging with his aunty Alice in a clean, comfortable terrace in Bowker Street overlooking the running track and the meander in the river beyond. Unlike his grandparents his grandfather’s sister was as strict gravity as and as self-denying as a stone. She’d never touched alcohol in her life, wouldn’t eat so much as an apple between meals, was always in bed by ten and up a five, cleaned the house from top to bottom every day, including her front step, and never missed the ten o’clock service on Sunday. After the dirty, drunken chaos of his childhood, her home appealed to him. He had the tiny second bedroom. She cooked for him and washed and ironed his cheap shirts. He shaved at the kitchen sink and filled the clanging tin bath once a week while she was singing Charles Wesley’s hymns and praying for his soul. She was the only person close to him he’d ever been able to respect. He didn’t share her religion or her temperance, but he admired her adherence to principle and the kindness that lay beneath her severe, quiet ways. He handed over his board every week. She nodded in appreciation and put the folded notes in her apron pocket. In the evening she would listen to the radio, knit or embroider. Sometimes he sat with her, reading the paper or a novel by Nevil Shute or Alistair MacLean, but she had no conversation; she was as frugal with words as with money, so as often as he could he went out leaving her to the iron silence of her stern widowhood. She had little contact with her brother and spoke of him only once when she said: “A man who can’t resist drink is a worthless fool.” Bert understood and didn’t mention him. Seeing Mrs Bruzzese’s house made him disappointed and his disappointment sparked his ambition. He would have his own house as soon as he could. A good house like one of these. And then he’d move on to a big four-bedroom with a garden and garage. He thought of his aunty Alice and said to himself he’d offer her a room.
“Nice spot,” he said.
“I like it. Handy for town. Want to come in for a cup of tea ?”
“Won’t your husband mind ?”
“Only if he finds out.”
Bert laughed again. He felt he’d found a fellow spirit.
The place was very neat. They’d spent a bit on the furniture: a three piece suite in maroon fabric with little cream dots, little wooden wall fittings in the alcoves, an inviting matching rug in front of the coal fire. In the corner was a small television. Yes, he must have a television soon. He wondered if he should suggest it to aunty Alice. This was a home. It struck him he’d never really known one. The filthy, stinking place where he’d grown where the floors were bare flags or boards, the furniture sparse and cheap, the curtains frayed and grubby, was a shelter but not a home. In the care and comfort of this place was love and he envied Mr Bruzzese his luscious, obliging wife and his homely comforts.
She came from the kitchen with a white pot of tea, cups and plate of biscuits on a gold tray.
“Warm enough for you ?”
She bent forward to put the things down on the coffee table and he saw the great, inviting chasm of her cleavage. His experience with women was paltry. The war had dragged him away at seventeen. Whores hadn’t appealed to him because he felt they had power: some of his mates had gone to brothels in Italy but he resisted because he couldn’t see himself handing over money. The women were using the men and what kind of experience would that be ? He didn’t have romantic notions about women, but he did have a fierce pride about not being hoodwinked: if you bought your shoes from a backstreet, pay-no-tax cobbler you’d expect sore feet and the humiliation of handing over money and being cheated could have driven him to murder. So all he’d known was a bit of tame kissing and some fumbling petting and now he was faced with this big, luxurious, dark, slow-voiced woman who seemed intent on seducing him.
“Yes,” he said, “nice and cosy in here.”
“Glad you like it.”
“Lovely little house. I’d like a place such as this myself.”
“Where d’ you live ?”
“With my grandfather’s sister.”
“Is that all right ?”
“For the time being. She’s a good-hearted soul but I’m ambitious. I want a nice big house. Somewhere I can spread myself out.”
“This is fine. I’d be happy in a house like this. For a start.”
“What I’d like,” she said sinking into the sofa, “is a nice big back garden.”
“Nice and private.”
“Of course. Somewhere for the kids to play. Do you have children ?”
She became serious and distant for a moment.
“Oh, sorry to hear that.”
“My husband. Doesn’t fire on all four cylinders you might say.”
“That’s a shame.”
He sipped his tea and feeling the silence was painful to both of them said:
“You could adopt.”
“Not the same.”
“I’d like to bring a child into the world.”
“What woman wouldn’t ?”
“My husband agrees.”
“I told him, you see. I can’t not have a child so it’s either divorce or I get pregnant.”
Bert took a custard cream and bit into it so the dryness stopped him replying for a moment. Mrs Bruzzese threw back her head and shook her great tonne of black curls. She lifted her right foot onto the sofa and let her knee sway. Bert slurped his tea.
“And he’s happy with that ?”
“Happy ? God, happiness would be too much to ask wouldn’t it ? He accepts it as inevitable.”
“He’s a liberal bloke.”
“He’s in love with me.”
“And I was in love with him till I discovered he was firing blanks into me.”
“You’re surprised ?”
“I wouldn’t’ve thought you’d stop loving him.”
“Well I did. I don’t know why. We don’t know much about our feelings do we ? They come and go and there we are. We have to deal with them. But the thought of the barrenness and his responsibility for it….Unfair aren’t I ?”
“Not for me to say.”
“You should’ve been a diplomat.”
“You have to go to a fancy school and university to do that.”
“You must’ve gone to school.”
“Not for long.”
“But now you’re studying.”
“I reckon I can get a decent job if I qualify in accountancy. If you think about it, everything runs on finance. Every factory, office, garage, school, everything. You just can’t do without people who can get the numbers right.”
“So you like numbers ?”
“Not at all. I’m a words man. But who’s going to pay me for that ?”
“You could’ve have studied journalism.”
“Aye, but things are against blokes from my background. I reckon I’ve a better chance in accountancy. Not controversial, is it ? You get the numbers right. That’s the point.”
“I find it boring but I’m doing it for my husband’s business.”
“He’s a lucky man.”
“That’s what I keep telling him.”
Bert laughed again, but his mind was working as fast as signals in fibre optic cable: was she suggesting he should make her pregnant ? He couldn’t believe it. Yet the more he ran her words through his head, the more it seemed impossible to come to any other conclusion. It terrified him. Had she been making it clear she wanted to go to bed with him, he would have taken her up; but making a married woman pregnant was a whole different matter. The child would be his. It might look like him, share his tastes and inclinations. He’d want to bring it up. Surely a man couldn’t just fire his spunk into a woman, watch her belly swell and then walk away. He’d always be thinking about the kid. But what rights would he have ? If she simply seduced him and once she was pregnant shut the door on him, what could he do ? It flew in the face of all he believed about women. It was frank and cynical and accepted the brute facts of biology in a way he’d been raised to imagine women didn’t. They were supposed to be romantic, to want everything shrouded in love, to glow with gentle desire over candlelit dinners; to rest a hand as soft as calf’s leather in yours as you walked together on a balmy evening by a lisping sea over which an eternal sun was setting, spreading a red glow as warm as their hearts. They were supposed to be modest and bashful, to shade their eyes from the insolent glances of opportunistic men like the succulent heroines of Hollywood movies. Yet here was this dark, tall, slim, splendid woman with narrow ankles and broad thighs, hair as luxuriant as thick grass on the river banks in May, white teeth as regular as day and night, lovely long fingers and nails filed into gentle points who was apparently talking about the facts of reproduction as if they were as straightforward as boiling an egg. His attraction to her fought his terror and terror was a hawk against a pigeon. He was finishing his tea when her husband walked in. He was a big, smiling Italian with black hair combed into a great quiff, shoulders as wide as a wardrobe and that immediate impression of chic in his smartly pressed trousers and well-tailored jacket which had so captured Bert’s imagination during the war. He shook Bert’s hand, kissed his wife on the cheek and sat next to her on the little sofa. She let her weight fall against him, as if she really was in love with him.
“Bert hopes to find work in finance,” she said.
“Is good. Is very good,” said Gino. “Make a lotta money,” and he rubbed together the thumb and middle-finger of his right hand laughing as if making money was the most carefree activity in the universe and humanity was liberated rather imprisoned by property.
Bert noticed how strong yet elegant his hands were and how carefully tended his finger nails. He was thinking, at one and the same time, that he was one of those men who take great pleasure in knowing they look good, men whose minds aren’t preoccupied with great questions but who live in a perpetual present of tasks to be done and pleasures to be had and who can find enough to propel them through the most frustrating day simply by catching sight of their handsome profile in the mirror; and also that his hands were powerful enough to seize him by the throat, pin him to the floor and squeeze the breath out of him. He wished Mrs Bruzzese hadn’t told him. It was queer to sit there knowing that this big, healthy-looking, smiling man who brimmed with life was unable to grant her the ultimate satisfaction of pregnancy, as it was disturbing to think she could choose him as a substitute. He had no illusions about his appeal to women. He was short and no more personable than any other bloke in the bus queue. He was just a normal-looking northern chap. There were thousands like him. Women didn’t preen in his presence or look twice when he passed them on the street. Almost without knowing it he’d assumed he’d find a woman by getting on in life. Women, after all, wanted a nice house, a car, holidays, frequent trips to the hairdresser; with a good job and an above average income he’d find someone. Someone who’d do. He was trying to make idle conversation with Gino but his brain was assailed by these fearsome ideas. Yes, it was true. He’d always had, somewhere in the back of his mind the notion of a woman who would do. Laura, good-looking and as sensual as a leopard in the sun was the kind of woman who was beyond him; one of those beautiful or pretty women who raised his spirits as readily as a nice tune or a sunny morning and who he’d always idly dreamed about. It was a revelation to him to discover he’d never seriously imagined such a woman might share his bed and his days. Why had he spoken to her ? Had he really been thinking of an affair ? The idea now seemed a ridiculous, childish fantasy. No, it was just his chancer’s way, the cheek as native to him as sap to a rubber tree. Now here he was. The situation was impossible. This was another man’s wife, and Gino was obviously a charming, pleasant bloke. How could he get into bed with his wife ? Wouldn’t it break the poor man’s heart ? Yet he knew that if he’d had the chance to seduce Mrs Bruzzese without Gino suspecting, if he’d been able to win her with his cocky, backstreet ways, he’d have done it without a care. Most men would go through life and never know the ecstasy of making love to such a physically entrancing woman. Most men made do. They accept a woman is a woman is a woman, in the way of dirty bar-room jokes. They knew they would spend their lives listening to tin-pan-alley melodies and the exquisite harmonies of Verdi were for others. And here was music he’d never heard. If only he could accept it. He was anxious that at any moment she might tell Gino what they’d talked about. In his place, he would be mortified and enraged. Would he jump up and punch him in the mouth with his big, handsome fist ?
“Well,” he said, setting down his cup and saucer, “I’d better be going.”
“Thanks for the lift,” said Laura.
“Yes, a-thanks for a-bringing her ‘ome. Very kind of-a you. Very kind.”
Bert shook Gino’s hand and smiled. He liked him. Already in the few minutes they’d been in one another’s company was the basis of a long friendship. Bert was a great believer in first impressions; when something sprang up in his mind on first meeting someone, the image of them doing something underhand or generous, the sense of them as reliable or untrustworthy, he didn’t dismiss it as a fleeting product of vagrant ideas, but clung to it and worked on it and he found that usually this automatic response proved to be right. Blokes he’d known in the RAF who had at once struck him as unsympathetic turned out to be selfish or crude or dishonest. On the other hand, his best pal, Jack Slotover, had impressed him immediately as a genuine and thoughtful bloke; and so it turned out, which was why Bert had kept in touch with him and wrote to him regularly now he was married, with his first child born, and working in a factory near Oxford. Gino was the same. Bert would have liked to get to know him and in that idea he found the solution to his disturbance: if he could make a friend of the husband rather than a lover of the wife, things could stay pleasant and straightforward.
“Nice to meet you. Do you follow football ? Maybe we could go to the match together one Saturday ?”
Gino threw up his hands and spread his fingers.
“Football ! I love it. Good-a idea. What-a you think, Laura ? Good-a idea, eh ?”
The rain was still splashing on the dirty pavements, as if a malevolent god wanted to drive the little portion of humanity that lived in this grimy town indoors, to give them a foretaste of what some future disaster might feel like, to remind them they were at the mercy of physical forces they would never control. In his chugging little car, the valiant wipers going back and forth with the mechanical resolution of donkeys on Blackpool sands, the futile little heater humming away and the windscreen steaming up like the windows of a café full of drenched customers, Bert felt he’d escaped disaster. It was true he’d rolled the dice in inviting Mrs Bruzzese, but he’d barely imagined she’d allow him a peck on the lips, let alone suggest he make her pregnant. But was that what she was getting at? Maybe she was just unembarrassed and was telling him about her dilemma. Maybe he was a bit overwrought and so got the wrong idea. One thing was sure, he needed a woman. All his thoughts had been about getting on and he’d somehow imagined love and sex would sort themselves out; but he realised he was going to have to think about things, to make them happen, if for no other reason than to avoid ending up in bed with Mrs Bruzzese, on bad terms with Gino, at odds with himself and the father of an illegitimate child who might have a bad life by being brought into the world in such an odd way.
It was a few days later when he crossed the young woman from across the street who he’d noticed but never thought about.
“Morning !” he called.
She looked a little surprised and shy but smiled and called back. How had he failed to spot how pretty she was ? He was baffled. He puzzled over it all day like an obsessive crossword solver running an impenetrable clue through his mind and then out of nowhere the answer came to him: she was always busy, tense and preoccupied. There was something rejecting about her demeanour, as if she was intent on such impossibly important private matters she couldn’t possibly find time or energy for something as simple as idle conversation. She walked with quick little steps, always hurrying; he’d never seen her stroll along the street, or pause, or look as though she was just taking the smoky air that smelled of the iron foundry behind her terrace. No, she was forever on the way somewhere, as if the very orbit of the earth depended on her errand. He’d seen her with her shopping basket over her arm almost running to the Co-op or coming back laden and diligent as if from her little trove she was about to feed the five thousand. He spotted her too on a Sunday in her dark best, her Bible clutched in her leather-gloved hand trotting to Flett St Methodist Chapel. He realised this inward, clenched quality was what had prevented him noticing her as a pretty, slim young woman. His instinct was to stick with his aversion but on the other hand he needed to get know young women if he was going to experience the whirl of love and the heavy satisfaction of sex; if he was going to become the married man he wanted to be, successful in his small way in this small town, suburban, accepted, a good citizen, a father, a man who’d found his place. He criticised himself for being negative. His judgement was unfair. He’d never even spoken to her. It might simply be her manner, something utterly superficial. In private she might be quite different, voluble, expansive, charming and loving. In this little, quiet internal conflict between an instinct he felt was reliable and a modifying voice which told him to be more considered, the latter won out, but only because there was a little kick of desperation telling him if he rejected women on the grounds he was refusing the girl across the street, he might spend the rest of his life waiting for the woman to come along who lit up his brain as soon as he met her. It was more difficult than friendship. There was more at stake. Friendship had always come easily but women, love, sex; this was a much more complex and perilous business, as Laura Bressanelli had made him realize.
Like all young men who make it their business to get to know a young woman, Bert was as clumsy as a drunk on an ice-rink. He stopped her in the street, which was the only space they had in common, and talked as if he’d mastered speech in the last twenty-four hours. She was polite and receptive and he was charmed by her complaisant, ready smile and friendly laughter. Their on-the-pavement conversations became regular and she would let him beguile a pleasant five minutes before she excused herself: she had a lot to do.
“You’re always busy,” he said. “You’d think you had more on your plate than the Prime Minister.”
“Well, my mother needs a lot of looking after.”
He felt his attempt at light-heartedness had been badly misjudged and apologised, but she smiled, gave a little laugh and said:
“That’s all right.”
He watched her cross the street and turn and wave to him on her doorstep. She really was a sweet little creature. That’s all right. The words seemed to sum her up. She wasn’t a woman to take offence or to speak ill. In the privacy of his mind he called her that’s-all-right and in the way of exponentially growing affection and interest between the young and inexperienced, he found his ideas running away with him. They’d done no more than chat on the street but his head was full of images of church weddings, comfy nights by the fire, long kisses beneath the eiderdown. He had to force himself to restrain his expectations. A girl as pretty as that, even if she was forever cantering to the shops looking as if the stars themselves were her responsibility, could have her pick of men. He examined himself in the mirror. He wasn’t ugly. He was clean and neat. He dressed nattily. But if she was one of those women who will accept only a man as good-looking as herself, he was done for.
Though he had no feeling for religion, disgusted as he was by the low, hypocritical and meaningless Catholicism of his grandparents, he went along to a fund-raising Bettle Drive at the Methodist church. The brightly-lit hall was full. The tables had been set at funny little angles to create a jaunty atmosphere. He was struck at once by the plainness of the place and the people. There was none of the oppressive ornateness of St Wilf’s, no drooping-headed virgins looking as if they’d just been violated by the lord himself; no banks of candles lit by those seeking remission for sins they were prepared to admit and hoping god wouldn’t notice those they kept quiet. This was the church itself. They didn’t have the money to build a hall for social events. The church served the poor of the streets of cramped houses and outside toilets and got by, like they did, on a shoestring. But it was popular, even with those convinced there was no god, those who didn’t know, those who didn’t care, those who hoped there might be and those whose loneliness would have made them believe in the man in the moon if it had brought them company; because it was the most welcoming milieu in the grimy, harsh, little conglomeration of darned-at-the-elbows streets which tried to call itself a community. He loitered by the entrance, trying to spot his neighbour. A woman of fifty or so wearing an apron came over to him.
“Are you all right, luv ?”
“Yes,” he said, “I’m just looking for someone.”
“Who’s that ? Perhaps I can help you ?”
“My neighbour. She lives across the street from me.”
“What’s her name, luv ?”
He was flustered. It seemed ridiculous or suspect to be scanning for someone whose name you didn’t know. He looked into the woman’s face. He saw a kindness in her eyes and a gentleness in her features which softened him. She genuinely wanted to help him. He was a stranger but she’d approached him to help without ulterior motive. She was smiling at him as if he deserved to be smiled at. She was kinder to him than his grandparents had been. It gave him an odd feeling, as if he’d at last found home, a place where he would be accepted and looked after whatever he was.
“Well,” he began, and just at that moment he spotted her coming from the kitchen, a tray of cups and saucers in her hands, hurrying as usual. “Ah, there she is. There. The girl with the tea things.”
“Oh, Elsie. She’s wonderful isn’t she ? Never stops working for the church. Such a shame about her mother.”
“Yes,” said Bert, immediately regretting his dishonesty. “Thanks for your help.”
“That’s all right, luv. Nice to see you.”
Bert made his way to the long trestle table where there were plates of scones and fruit cake and rows of cheap, white cups and saucers waiting to be filled at the interval.
“Hello Elsie,” he said, beaming.
She looked him full in the face and he noticed the whisper of alarm in her expression.
“The lady by the door told me your name. I hope you don’t mind. Can I give you a hand with the tea things?”
“No, there’s no need. I can manage. You should find yourself a table. They fill up quick.”
He was struck by the appeal of her hazel eyes. One by one the charms of her young beauty were catching his attention like primroses that sway tipsily in the breeze in a hedgerow and whose sudden delicate prettiness makes you want to stop and examine them; but the more you look at them the less you understand why they caught your eye and your breath. You could stand and look at them all day without grasping the secret of their appeal. He could have stared at Elsie for hours. She was as pretty as Rita Heyworth or Elizabeth Taylor. She was a little bit of glamour in the grey, dull, rainy streets of the smoky, industrial north-west. It seemed unlikely. It was odd that such a beautiful product of nature could spring up in such unpropitious territory as if instead of weeds, the cracked mortar of the back-alley walls gave rise to honeysuckle which fragranced the dank evening air with hint of the promise of beauty and happiness. Yet at the same time she seemed to retreat from her own election: she’d been born beautiful but didn’t wear her beauty with the perky pride of a snowdrop; she seemed to shy away from herself. Not that he would have wanted her arrogant or preening, but she could have worn her attractiveness with a modest, happy acceptance. It was a fact of life, after all, that some women were more attractive than others. Beauty was an accident of nature to be celebrated and there was a certain easy acceptance of attractiveness in a woman which was as appealing as the attractiveness itself. Yet Elsie didn’t have it. When he watched her busily getting things ready, it was as if some force at the very centre of her, right at the point of her solar plexus was pulling her down, making her shoulders hunch a little, forcing her to be forever fussing over some little task or other. It made him want to go to her and say:
“Come on. Sit down. Stop working. Relax and let yourself open up.”
In his inexperience and callowness he imagined it was something superficial, something it would be easy to massage away like taking the tension out of a muscle with your fingers. He couldn’t let it stand in his way, even though it troubled him, because there was too much promise in her youth; in her slim waist, in the strong movement of her slender legs, in the curve of her small breasts, in the geometry of her buttocks.
He sat at a table with three people he’d never met but they were friendly and accepting. He found the game boring and more a less a waste of time. He didn’t like things that left him feeling he wasn’t getting anywhere, making some progress to a destination he wasn’t sure of. Yet, as the evening chugged on he began to realize there was an atmosphere he wasn’t used to among these people; they were all of a kind. The thought came to him that maybe it was the influence of Methodism, and then the contrary idea sprang up that maybe Methodism attracted them because of the kind of people they were. They were straight and uncomplicated. His own family was quite different. Aunty Alice was an exception, but the rest were rough, mauling, brazen, vulgar; you couldn’t trust them an inch. His grandfather would have robbed a child for the price of a drink. Yet in spite of their low, cheap ways, they were full of noisy patriotism, waving the flag at any opportunity and voting Tory to keep what they called the “left-wing nowts” out of power. It was queer how these apparently opposing tendencies fought in them: on the one hand they were ugly drunk at any opportunity, slovenly, dirty, careless of simple needs and the feelings of others, and his grandfather was ready with his fists once he’d had a drink or two, relishing nothing more than throwing punches or rolling in the gutter with some other booze-giddy fool on a Saturday night; on the other they thought themselves a cut above because they bowed and grinned complaisantly at a Tory MP, genuflected before the priest and sent a card to the King at Christmas. Somehow, there was none of that here. No-one bore that shoulder-rolling aggression that was visible in his grandfather in doing nothing more than getting up from his threadbare armchair to go to the kitchen. All these people were from the same streets. They worked in the same factories. Yet they were nothing like his family. Here they were, organising sociability and kindness as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world. It made him laugh inwardly. It was something he’d never experienced or thought of. His life had been all about making it through from one day to the next, looking for any handhold on the cliff-face of opportunity and hauling himself up with every ounce of his strength. Not that he felt any maliciousness towards others; he’d just always thought life a battle of everyone against everyone for what you could get. He liked the generous spirit that lived amongst these people as naturally as the hum of conversation. He wanted to be part of it.
At the interval he was quick to the tea table to offer Elsie a hand. As he’d expected she was all don’t-bother-yourself and I’ll-manage; but he was used to batting away refusals like an opener sending easy balls shaving grass to the boundary and forced his way in standing beside her pouring tea from the fat metal pot as he said:
“Milk and sugar at the end of the table, ladies and gentleman. Help yourselves to a biscuit.”
He was a charming and funny host. He loved a little bit of limelight in which he came to like a parched plant given water; if people were watching him and he could speak to attract them he was as comfortable as a lizard in the sun. He had a deep, warm voice which appealed to people even when what he said was as redundant as a sun lamp in the desert. He was aware of this and it was one of those things that lifted him from the poor tenor of his life. So he filled his role as fully as his chest filled his shirt. He’d never imagined he’d enjoy himself pouring tea at a Methodist Beetle drive, but he chatted as the steaming brown liquid streamed and splashed and every few seconds he found something to say to Elsie. He was delighted and relieved that she smiled, laughed and agreed. He felt she’d agree with him if he said the sun was made of butter. She was so complaisant he couldn’t imagine her expressing even the most blunted criticism. It was very different from his family where if you said it was a nice day someone would pick an argument. People often make decisions based on a few minutes’ experience which determine their fate for decades. Bert had no idea he might be doing this. He was lost in the moment. Had he stopped to think he was possibly about to make Elsie the centre of his life for years ahead, he might have felt much less elated; but who can hold back a potentially difficult future when they are caught in fleeting present of joy.
At the end of the evening all the men were shaking his hand and saying;
“Nice to meet you, Bert,” or “Hope to see you on Sunday,”
and the ladies smiling and chirruping, “Hope you’ll come again.”
“Shall I walk you home ?” he said to Elsie as she pulled on her black coat and pulled tight the belt.
Her brother was coming to meet her.
“Well, I’ll come too,” he said, “then you’ll be doubly safe. You know what they say about Dock Lane; even the coppers walk in twos down there.”
But she insisted he shouldn’t bother, she had things to clear away and she didn’t want to hold him up. He wanted to brush her objections aside and hang around till she was ready but he judged it might offend her, so turned up his collar and went through the dark streets where his heels clicked on the flags and cobbles reminding him of the days when he had clogs and those when he didn’t. At home he made himself a cup of strong tea and a thick wedge of toast which he layered with butter and honey and sat in the little kitchen to eat and drink. He felt something was about to begin. His life was taking a turn for the better. Elsie was obviously a reliable, hard-working girl, not one of those frivolous fribbles who bat their eyelashes, open their legs and tug a man by the groin till his mind is as mushy as tapioca pudding and humiliation his only emotion . He had the feeling he’d be all right with her and as he pushed the last corner of sweet, buttery toast into his mouth he hoped he would soon get to meet her family, make friends with her brother and be welcomed into that mystery he’d never known: the love and support of a real family.
Whenever Elsie was hauling shopping back from the Co-op, the bags making her shoulder hunch, he would appear like the genie from the lamp, grab the handles, smile and say:
“Come on, lass, Let me take those. I need the exercise.”
Little by little she grew used to him and his intrusiveness didn’t make her blench. He even noticed a little glimmer in her eye and a shy hint of blushing when he spoke kindly to her: she was starting to find him charming. It was all he could hope for, in the first instance. Later, he intended to impress her with his hard work and ambition. She’d see he was the kind of bloke who wasn’t going to stay around the poor streets. The world was opening up and he believed he could show her how they could find a way through. One of those big semis with a garden front and rear, a driveway, three of four bedrooms, fitted carpets throughout and a bathroom with a shower; that’s what he wanted to offer her; and if he could lead her to that, if together they could make a life, then surely they’d stick like chewing gum to your sole. When he was invited into her house to put down the shopping and she offered him tea, he was astonished at the tasteful neat homeliness of the little place. They obviously didn’t have much money to spare, but nothing in the house was cheap or vulgar. There was a heavy, dark-stained chest of drawers in the living-room, two little drawers at the top and three deep drawers beneath. It was a good quality . They must have saved hard. In his own home, saving was unheard of: if you had a shilling you went to the pub. Putting money by was as exotic as head shrinking. He liked the sense of responsibility the walls of this house exuded. It created a sense of limits his life had always lacked. His grandfather lived as if the universe were too small for him. He thrashed around trying to make room for himself like a pike with a hook in its mouth and like the small-brained fish struggling against what it can’t defeat, the more he thrashed, the more he refused to accept the truth of life, the more damage he did to himself. But these people were different. Their house didn’t stink. It wasn’t filthy. In every detail: the little bookshelf in the corner packed with volumes whose title he bent to read – The Mill On The Floss, War And Peace, News From Nowhere, Britain For The British, The White Peacock; the little wooden frames showing pictures of smiling children and one of Elsie’s mother and father on their wedding day; the vase of tiny white flowers whose name he didn’t know on the window-ledge; the polished brass and copper on the mantelpiece; the neat, clean chrome fender; the bleached net curtains and the heavy, purple ones on brass hangers carefully pulled back and tied; he could read the character of this family – serious, maybe a bit dour, restrained, frugal, sober, high-minded and morally astute. Had he come from more propitious circumstances he might have said to himself that the place lacked a little ease, a touch of humour, a hint of devil-may-care sloppiness; but having lived with chaos and suffered its constant mortification, he found the order and responsibility of this home irresistible.
“Do you take sugar ?” said Elsie.
She swept the teaspoon though the dry granules and he noticed how she shook it as she lifted it to level off the contents.
“Heap it up,” he said laughing. “I like it sweet.”
“ Why not ?”
“It’s wasteful. And it’s not good for you.”
“A bit of sugar won’t hurt me.”
“’Appen not. But you shouldn’t be greedy.”
“I’m not greedy. I just like sweet tea.”
“Two level spoons’ll make it sweet enough.”
“How do you now what’s sweet enough for me ?”
He hoped she’d pick up on his innuendo but she showed no sign.
“Think of the folk who have nowt,” she said. “If we all take more than we need some are bound to end up without.”
“And who decides how much I need ?”
“I do when you’re having tea in my house. Two levels spoons in a cup is enough for anyone.”
He laughed and shook his head but he liked her attitude. It was funny and contained no threat. A girl who thought about folk who have nowt when she was putting sugar in tea wasn’t going to do him any harm.
“I’m sorry, we’ve only plain biscuits,” she said.
“Plain’s fine for me.”
She sat opposite him on the sofa. He made himself comfortable in the armchair. The tea was sweet enough. Maybe she was right and he should cut down, but he had a craving for sweet things and had always piled four or five sugars into his drink.
“I like your house,”he said.
“Do you ?”
“Yes. It’s very…….homely.”
“It’s a good little house,” she said, “well built. But it’s hard to keep clean. There’s so much soot in the air.”
“You’re right. One of those big semi-detached houses over the river, that’s what I’m aiming for. The air’s cleaner up there, away from the factories.”
“It’s nice there,” she said looking to the window, lost in her thoughts. “My dad used to take me walking when I was a girl. The fields and woods by the river. Then we’d climb up behind the church and come home along Priory Way. The houses are lovely there.”
“Then you should have one,” he said.
She turned to him, her reverie suddenly broken, her face a little severe.
“Why should I ?”
“You deserve a nice house.”
“Why do I ?”
“A lovely young woman like you should have a lovely house.”
“I live in a perfectly nice house,” she said with that iron tone of self-denial he was already getting to know. “We shouldn’t envy what we don’t have.”
“Why not ?”
“Because it makes us greedy and discontented.”
“Perhaps we’re right to be discontented.”
“Not with material things. We should want to do good in the world not to get more for ourselves.”
“Perhaps the two go together.”
She looked at him from under furrowed brows.
“I don’t see how.”
“If a man wants to get on and do the best he can for himself then perhaps by working hard he’ll do some good that benefits others.”
“More likely he’ll take what he can for himself and leave others to their fate.”
Bert laughed and took a swig of the good, sweet tea.
“It’s too hard to think about others all the time. Get on as best you can and let others do the same, that’s my view.”
“You’re welcome to it.”
He laughed again. The combination of steely moral resolve and her slender, pretty frame sparked up amusement in him. He realised he’d always taken for granted that people were cutting through the tough undergrowth of life in pursuit of a clearing for themselves, and he’d admired them for it. He’d never felt any animosity to the people at work or the blokes he shared a hut with during the war. He didn’t imagine they bore him any ill-feeling either. He was perfectly well-disposed to them. If he’d won a million on the pools, he’d’ve given his best mates ten thousand each. If he’d heard one of his friends was down on his luck, he’d’ve have done what he could to help him. If his neighbour had a bad back, he’d set his fire for him. But Elsie wasn’t like that; she was in the grip of a moral injunction. She took her Methodism not merely seriously but literally. She had to love her neighbour as her herself and how could she do that if she put her own interest first ? He wondered if she didn’t push the obligation even further than Christ and love her neighbour a little more than herself. He was about to tease her but he held back, fearing he might offend her sincere moral sensibility; and though he couldn’t share her orientation, though he could no more have given up pushing for himself and hoping he’d come through to material comfort than he could have renounced sweet tea or toast and honey, the idea of a woman constantly on the qui vive against selfishness in her own behaviour, permanently striving to set the interest of others as high as her own was irresistible. Aunty Alice had something of the same sternness, but with her it was more a question of conformism, of not showing yourself up as she liked to say. As for his grandmother, she was as base as her husband, never happier than when she was too drunk to know what she was doing. He’d always stopped himself thinking about her sexual behaviour. It would have been too painful. As a young boy full of affection, after all, he tried to cleave to her and the thought of her giving herself to some rough bloke from one of the dockside pubs in a back alley would have shredded his heart. So he’d long blocked all thoughts of her love life. Just as he’d stopped himself thinking about his mother. He knew nothing about her and no-one had ever said anything. He only had to let the idea of her leaving him with her disastrous parents rise from the pit of his brain for his heart to pound unpleasantly and humiliation begin to seep through his marrow. His mind had been formed in denial of those thoughts. From his earliest years, he’d grabbed whatever was positive, whatever gave him the possibility of feeling good about himself and he’d clung to it like baby chimp to its mother. And now here he was in this neat, clean, pleasant little home with the prettiest girl in town who was as firm in her self-denial as his grandparents were lax in their self-indulgence. He couldn’t believe his luck. What it would be to have Elsie as a wife. To delight in her physical charms on the one hand and to be reassured by her titanium principles on the other. For a man like Bert, raised in muck and manipulation, the clean, clear light of her character was as beautiful as her hazel eyes, her trim waist, her delicate, white neck, her lovely even teeth and her soft, pink lips.
“What’s your view ?” he said putting his cup and saucer on the fresh tablecloth.
“ Like I said, we come into the world to make it a better place, not to get what we can for ourselves.”
“I agree,” he said and smiled broadly.
She was standing by the window. How lovely she was, so slim and girlish. He could have got up and put his arms round her. Had she been one of the vulgar girls from the pubs he might have done. He might have tried his luck. But he knew she would be affronted by anything opportunistic and hasty and he was pleased he’d have to behave subtly and take things slowly.
“I’m glad you do.”
“You’ve converted me,” he said. “I’m a sinner saved.”
She looked askance at him slightly disapproving but with a hint of amusement at his silliness.
“Are you a sinner ?”
“I’m too busy working. Doesn’t the vicar tell you it’s idle hands the devil makes work for ?”
“He does. What’s your job ?”
This was the first interest she’d shown in him and he wondered if she was starting to think of him as something more than a neighbour she spoke to on the street and a strong pair of hands to help her with the shopping.
“I work in accounts at Cropper’s.”
“Very good,” she said.
He knew at once that she thought a white collar job gave him a little advantage in the economic jungle and he was instantly worried she might see him as outside her sphere.
“Just a clerk,” he said. “I’d earn more at Ted Parr’s.”
Parr’s was the aircraft factory where thousands of men from the local streets worked. Before the war it’d been a private engineering business and though nationalised and transformed into a producer of fighter planes in the early forties, the locals still referred to it by its former name.
“Good prospects in a job like that, though.”
“Might be. If I work hard. I’m studying at night school.”
“Are you ?”
“I’m going to qualify as an accountant.”
“That sounds a fancy ambition.”
“Why ? I’m as bright as the next man. I can do figures. I’ve always been good at calculation, ever since I started school. Look at Nye Bevan, he started off in poverty but he’s raised himself. That’s the kind of man I admire.”
She was looking at him with a new interest and he sensed he’d said the right thing. Methodism and socialism were the poles around which her life turned and though the former meant nothing to him he was at ease with the latter.
“So do I. The NHS is a godsend to my mother.”
“Is she poorly ?”
“That’s a shame.”
“It is. A cryin’ shame. Worked herself till she’s crippled with arthritis.”
Bert wondered if it were true that hard work had crippled her. Perhaps she would have succumbed if she’d lived a life of leisure. But he wasn’t going to contradict Elsie’s theory.
“So who looks after her ?”
He picked up on the note of defensiveness in her voice and the challenge in her eyes. She was like a big cat prowling its territory, growling at any marauder. He smiled.
“Don’t you work ?”
“How can I ? I’ve looked after her since I was thirteen. My dad took me out of school. There was no-one else. I don’t resent it. You have to do what you have to do.”
But he knew she did resent it; he knew the cast iron trapdoors of her mind could shut off an impulse she felt unworthy as easily as most people could close a cupboard and not to look after her own mother would have filled her with shame as surely as a rubbish-littered back alley fills with rats. He felt sorry for her and that was unusual because most people he met came from better circumstances than him and needed none of his pity; but Elsie shared something with him: a part of her had been denied by her family. He quickly worked it out; she must have been looking after her mother since about 1935. So she’d had that to cope with and then the war had hit her. It was terrible that she’d never known the carefree days of youth. He’d left school early too and gone into the hated mill, but at least he’d had his free hours out with his mates, kicking a ball around the back alley or running by the river to see the big ships arriving from Canada or Russia. At least he’d been allowed to work off a bit of wildness, to climb trees and fish for newts in the little pond behind Myerscough’s Farm. At least he’d been able to wander out of the town through the woods on summer evenings, making little fires with his pals or carving his initials in the bark of a great ash. And at least the war had given him the chance to see another part of the world, to know that these grey, pinched streets, this smoky air, this treeless enclave of demeaning poverty was a tiny part of a big planet and there was a better life, a life where the sun shone and the air was good to breath and you could feel alive. He looked at her and knew she’d given up part of herself to do her duty to her mother. Once more it made him think of his own family. When he had the flu as a child, his grandparents left him alone in the house, shivering beneath his blanket on the floor. Ever since his chest had been bad in winter. What it would be to live with a woman who knew how to care for you. But a woman who knew how to care for you and was plain or ugly would be half way to happiness. In Elsie, there was the beauty and charm that sparked his desire like the hammer of a gun against gunpowder but also, beneath her toughness, the warm, gentleness of a caring nature. It was almost too good to believe.
“I’d better go and see she’s all right.”
“Is she upstairs?”
“Wouldn’t it be better to have her down here ?”
“Then you wouldn’t have to be going up and down to tend to her. It must be hard, taking meals up from the kitchen and so on.”
“But there’s no room.”
“It’d be difficult, I agree. But she must come first if she’s bed-ridden.”
She looked at him as if he’d just told her the secret of eternal life. Her face lost its background severity. He’d said what she wanted to hear and he knew he’d pleased her.
“Yes. It might be a good idea.”
“Would you ?”
“I’d love to.”
“I’ll mention it to my dad.”
“Is he at work ?”
“What does he do ?”
“He works at the power station. Cleans out the furnaces.”
“I’d better go up.”
“Can I come with you ?”
“To see my mother ?” her eyes were wide and he wondered if he’d ruined the good impression.
“I’d like to say hello to her. We live just across the road from one another after all. She might like to meet me, seeing she can’t get out.”
“’Appen she would.”
“I’ll just pop my head in. I won’t disturb her.”
“She might be sleeping.”
“I’ll be quiet as a worm.”
He followed her up the steep narrow stairs noticing her slim, strong ankles and calves. There was a tiny square of landing and two white doors next to one another. She pushed open the door to the front room with preternatural care, as if some fierce beast, a komodo dragon or a hungry panther were dozing behind it. She craned her head to look inside and he heard her say:
“Hello, mum. There’s a visitor here. Bert, from across the road. He’s Mrs Delafield’s nephew. He’s staying with her till he finds a place of his own.”
There was an indiscernible mumble and Elsie beckoned with her head. The bed dominated the little room. It was a double iron bedstead, one of those sturdy items such families hung onto for decades, shaking their heads at newer flimsier products. The elderly woman was propped on two feather pillows. She turned her eyes to him with a tiny, painful move of her head. She had a strong, big-boned face, with a prominent nose and eyes dark as caverns. Her shoulders weren’t covered by the bedclothes and he could see she was a big woman, broad and powerful, not at all like her svelte daughter. Her white face showed all the agony of her condition; not only the physical pain of the arthritis which made her joints as stiff as a rusted hinge nor the stinging, endless irritation of the bedsores which appeared in spite of her husband’s and Elsie’s efforts; but the hurt too of no longer being able to look after herself and the terrible isolation of confinement to this meagre cell. Death was revealing itself through her pallor, immobility and strain. It was terrible to see a human life come to this. Yet it was obvious from the neatness, cleanliness and order of the room that everything was done to keep her comfortable. Life was a cruel business. Bert hated to see this. The thought of the poor woman lying there yet for years, the life being slowly pressed out of her like water from clothes in a wringer was too dreadful. He would have liked to close her eyes; to gently put his hand on her shoulder and tell her the suffering was over. He hoped that if ever such a thing became of him, someone would be kind enough to give him an injection and put him to sleep for ever.
“Hello,” he said quietly with a smile, “I’m Bert, Elsie’s friend. From across the street. Just come to say hello. If there’s anything I can do…”
The old woman was looking at him from her black eyes. Her face showed no expression but she tried to give a little nod and a groan in which he believed he heard a tone approval emerge from her throat. She switched her slow look to Elsie and back to Bert and tried once more to give a small nod. Elsie looked at Bert and indicated with the tiniest of movements that he should leave.
“Well, lovely to meet you Mrs Craxton. I’ll see you again. Don’t worry, Elsie, I’ll let myself out.”
He pulled the door closed behind him and went down the stairs thankful for his young and nimble feet. Just as he arrived in the brief hallway, the front door opened and a man in a sawdust-sprinkled overall, the sleeves of his thick check shirt rolled up to his elbows, his cap pushed back from his forehead and a pencil behind his right ear took a step in and wiped his feet on the postage-stamp doormat. Seeing Bert he smiled widely and held out his strong hand.
“Hello. Nice to meet you. Eddie.”
“Bert. I live across the street.”
“Aye. I’ve seen you comin’ and goin’. You know our Elsie, don’t you?”
“That’s right. I just gave her a lift with the shopping.”
“Good of you. Good of you. Come in and have a cup o’ tea.”
“I’ve had one. I was just leaving. I popped up to see your mother. Elsie’s with her.”
“Aye ? Well, come in anyway. Another cup o’ tea won’t hurt you and I could do with someone to chat wi’ for a few minutes.”
There was such an easy-going generosity in the invitation, Bert couldn’t refuse. He wasn’t used to people wanting his company. The hurtful taunts of his street pals still rang in his inward ear. In some hidden part of himself he was still the kid who stank and others goaded because of it. There was an assumption in him that he’d have to push his way in. He wasn’t the kind of man people would want as a friend. It had become part of him and didn’t trouble him more than an itch. He’d found that people were willing to let him in. They took him for what he was and though he sometimes sensed he was pushing too hard, people were always willing to excuse him. People, after all, were pretty kind. At least if you put them on the spot and forced them to be.
“Been working on a house in Penwortham all day. Parched I am. That and starvin’. I could eat a scabby donkey.”
“You live here, then ?” said Bert.
“No. Married. I live in Hutton. Little cottage. Rented like. We’d like to move further out. April’s family are market gardeners. Keep hens too. Give me the nod if you want to some eggs. But we’d like to be more in the country. Get out beyond Longton maybe. Hesketh Bank way. House wi’ a bit o’land. Keep hens of our own and an orchard. Aye. I’ve allus fancied an orchard.”
Bert experienced one of those instant likings for Eddie which usually turn out to be reliable. There was something missing from him. He couldn’t say what it was, but somehow he wasn’t threatening. There was a naïve openness about him, as if he lived in a small tribe where everyone knew everyone and mistrust was unnecessary; as if everyone shared a set of benign values which guaranteed well-being and no-one needed to be on guard against being used. He was as sweet as a child who knows nothing of the corruption of the adult world and expects love and support from every grown-up like a cat expects to be welcomed on every lap. It was the oddest thing. It made Bert stare at him as he went about the simple task of brewing the tea, as if by looking he could penetrate the secret of his character, as if it were expressed in the sure movements of his hands or inscribed in the heavy shifting of his body around the furniture in the tiny kitchen.
“You’ve a sweet tooth. Our Elsie’ll nag you for that.”
“She already has.”
“Aye, well she will. She’s a beggar for it.”
“For what ?”
“Indulgence. Aye, she takes it all straight, you see. What t’Bible says about give your money to the poor and all that. She’s a beggar for all that right enough.”
“ I have a few sugars in my tea but I’m not rich.”
“Me neither but our Elsie’d say so. There’s folk starvin’ in Africa. All that palaver. Aye, she’s handy wi’ that argument. Count your blessings. She’s a strict’un. But you’ve got t’hand it to her, she sticks to her guns like. Never touched a drop o’ drink. Cut out sugar when she heard they treat workers rough on’t plantations like. Aye, she’s all for that. Unions and socialism and the like.”
“Where’s she get if from I wonder.”
“That’s no wonder. Chapel and my father,” he said the word so it rhymed with blather. “Aye, he’s in’t T and G. Worked for ‘em all his life. And t’Labour Party. Mind you, ‘e’s had it rough all right.”
“I’m a Labour man myself,” said Bert, conciliatory. “We all were when we came back from the war.”
“Oh aye. You’ll not find a soul in Talbot Road votes Tory. They’d no more do that than they’d rob your washin’. But our Elsie’s a rare ‘un. She’d vote communist if she could.”
“She would ‘n’all. She’s stern wi’ ‘erself d’you see and thinks others should be’t same. But we’re not all made o’t’ same timber. I’m all for Attlee and Bevan and such, aye. But I don’ think t’devil’s in a pint of ale like Elsie does.”
“She might grow out of it if she’s given a chance to see a bit more of the world,” said Bert almost thinking aloud.
“She’d not leave mi mother,” said Eddie lifting his pint mug to his lips.
“No more should she,” said Bert. “It’s touching to see how devoted she is.”
“Aye. Oh, I’ll not criticize. No. You can’t fault her. But she’s her own life to live. Sometime or other you’ve got to break away. That’s puzzle. Aye. So long as mi mother’s in that state, Elsie’ll be beside her.”
Bert was tempted to say the old woman didn’t look like she was long for the world, as he would have liked to open up a discussion on euthanasia. It was one of those ideas he thought of as modern. Progress couldn’t be held back. Everything had to be thought through anew as circumstances changed. He relished those moments of flux. They were also times of opportunity. The settled order of things disturbed him as did those occasions which confirmed a life he’d never known. Christmas made him as nervy as a cornered rat. The world shrank. Everything closed as people retreated to their families. They were in warm front rooms with people who loved them, or so he thought. But he had nowhere to retreat to. His home was the public realm. When the town was busy, the streets full of strangers, the cash tills ringing, the trams clanking down the iron rails from Church St to the railway station; the pub doors open, the office girls with their handbags on their arms tripping out for a sandwich at lunchtime; the stately, cool banks taking deposits, the buses chugging out from the little station heading for Deepdale and Fulwood; that was when he came alive for in that world where all men and women were strangers he could feel at home. He had a chance of some kind of belonging and fulfilment. He could get what he needed, one way or another. But when that shut down; when the shops were locked and the lights out; when the pub doors were as firm as graves; when the streets emptied like terraces at the end of a match; when the buses sat silent as bribed witnesses in the locked garages and the tramlines curved to nowhere; when the typewriters were hooded, the telephones as quiet as Trappists, when the town might have been afflicted by the plague or the final desolation of proud humanity; then he was the lonely, frightened child again, dependent on grandparents who let him know he was a burden, whose most tender expression of love was that they didn’t throw him out on the street or make him beg coppers for their beer.
“She needs some time for herself,” said Bert.
“Aye, she does. Who’s to tell her though ? You’ll no more move Elsie than you’ll shift t’ sun in a wheelbarra.”
It was good to sit in the cosy room with a man he liked. He could have stayed and listened to him all evening. He was a working man, his pencil was still behind his ear and he didn’t think to take off his cap because he was indoors, but he was as sympathetic as a warm day in May. How lucky Elsie was to have a brother like this. The idea came to him that if he was to get to now Elsie well, if they could become a couple, then Eddie would be almost his brother. It was one of those deep regrets which clung to him like a cold, wet shirt that he had neither brothers nor sisters. His mother, so he’d heard whispered by his grandparents, had children from her marriage; but he had no contact with them. It was unpleasant, this terrible loneliness of his bastardy, like a bad taste in your mouth when you’re ill that nothing will swill away. It was as if he’d been thrown into a world which didn’t want him and while he’d made the best of this by seeing himself as the agent of his own fate, determined to make the best of raw circumstances, the first touch of the warmth of belonging, the sweet blessing of sharing your life with people whose biology was strongly like your own, made him wish he could relax in the comfortable bed of that curiosity called family.
“How long has your mother been debridden ?” said Bert.
“How long ? Na then. Before t’war. Four or five year. Aye, must’ve been ’35, about then. Never set foot outside th’ouse sin’.”
“Elsie thinks hard work did for her.”
“’Appen. She were never still. That’s true enough. Times were ‘ard you see, when mi father was wi’out work. She cleaned folks’ houses. Took in washin’. That and mi father’s allotment fed us in them years. Aye, it’s a beggar. Depression and next we’re off t’t war. It’s a rum life, Bert, and no mistake.”
Bert was tempted to ask him about his time in the services but the gloom of all that, the knee-in-the-groin poverty of the thirties, the shipping abroad wondering if you’d ever see your home again, was starting to weigh on him. Here was Eddie, after all, a six-foot young bloke, working for his living, obviously trying hard to make something of his life; all that misery of the slump, the rise of Hitler and the slow inevitability of having to go to war to defend a system which had given him nothing but loneliness, poverty, humiliation and struggle, was in the past. The world had learned its lessons. Bert, full of that youthful sense that the future can’t but be good together with the confidence that the difficulties of history will not beset the generations to come, was sure the stupidity of recent events was gone forever. There was no doubt the war had left people unwilling to contemplate armed conflict. Everyone he knew thought the NHS was a wonderful thing. There was new world being made and he and Eddie were part of it. Wouldn’t it be something if Eddie were to become his brother-in-law and they could be friends for the rest of their days ? How he would relish hundreds more moments like these, good male moments, two blokes chatting together over a cup of tea. How he would love the sense of belonging, especially to a family like this; a family of principled people, good people, people you could trust and rely on.
“So you’ve been working in Penwortham today ?”
“Aye, big house. Roof. Six valleys. Hard work right enough but a lovely house.”
“That’s the kind of house I’d like.”
“Wouldn’t we all. Solicitor. Money you and I’ll never see.”
“Who knows, Eddie. If we work at it and the fates are good to us.”
“Aye. But a bloke like me, I could work twenty hours a day and never make what they earn. Things are set up to keep us where we belong. That’s my thinkin’.”
“But they’re changing. We are the up and coming blokes. They can’t ignore us anymore. We fought a war for them. Our votes put them in power. We’re never going back to the thirties. Unemployment. Poverty. All that’s in the past. No. They’ve got to make the system work in our favour. That’s my thinking.”
“Aye. ‘Appen yer right, Bert. We’ll do our best, eh ? That’s all we can do.”
“It is, Eddie. We all must do our best for ourselves and one another.”
In the weeks that followed, the idea of becoming part of Elsie’s family began to grow in Bert’s mind like a clematis in the sun and rain in June. There was something about her people which brought alive part of his mind that had never been stimulated. She had two other brothers, Jimmy, a big, slow, hard-working electrician who smoked untipped Capstan full-strength and drank canals of slow stout in the rough, careless pubs by the docks because, being quiet and shy, he liked the crowd, the noise and the easy vulgarity of the regulars; Elsie, from her tough, unforgiving Methodism despaired of him, though she loved him with a little sister’s élan and tenderness; and Henry, the black sheep who joined the army at seventeen and got a young woman in trouble. He came home to confess to his parents who told him he must do the right thing but he couldn’t. He didn’t even like the girl. His father tore a strip off him and would have liked to take the leather belt from behind the parlour door. But Henry was as obstinate as bad weather. As a boy he’d always been contrary; if his mother told him to go to the sink and wash his hands, he’d stand his ground and cry “No!” as if she was about to murder him, and this defiance riled his slow-blooded father who would slap his legs with his big, reluctant hand. He acted out of anger that grew from fear. He was afraid for his son. The world was harsh and there were as many snares for a child from the poor streets as segs on a workman’s palm. To escape these conditions required discipline and Henry’s refusal pointed to a tragic outcome. So the more the boy resisted the more he was disciplined and the more he was disciplined the more he resisted; but a spirited horse won’t be broken, it can only be brought round by patience and gentleness and too late the parents realised their mistake.
“And who’ll look after’t chile if tha dunt ?” asked his father.
“She will. And her mother.”
“And tha’ll get away scot free.”
“It’s not my fault alone. She were willin’”
“Tha’ great lout. Willin’. Tha’s t’think on’t responsibility not willinness.”
Henry was at home for a sullen week and Bert met him when he carried the shopping back for Elsie.
“This is our Henry,” she said, “as I told you about.”
“Pleased to meet you, Henry,” and Bert held out his hand.
“Aye. And what’s she told you.”
Henry’s handshake was strong. All the Craxton men had powerful hands and arms unlike Elsie who was delicate as a primrose. His face was set and his eyes looked blankly into Bert’s with that animal suspicion of a man who faces an inevitable enemy.
“That you’re in the forces,” said Bert, “home on leave to see your mother. A good son to her. That’s what she said.”
Elsie turned away with the sugar and butter from the shopping in her hands.
“Owt else ?”
“No,” lied Bert. “Except she was glad to see you.”
“Have a seat.”
Bert turned the conversation to life in the forces. In truth, he was at a loss to understand how anyone would want to sign up. He found being in a uniform and subject to bizarre, arbitrary rules thoroughly uncongenial. It wasn’t life. Life had to be choice. It had to be enough space to do what you want. It seemed to Bert war was possible only because men were willing to turn themselves into cattle. If they stood up like men and demanded their freedom, there would be no war. That was one of the ideas that bubbled up in his brain and which he loved to talk about: the common man could put an end to war by refusing to put on a uniform or pick up a gun. But he wasn’t going to tramp tactlessly over Henry’s clean carpet in muddy size tens. So he fed him questions which allowed him to open up slowly and he found that once they got talking about machines and engines Henry was animated. Bert had little feeling for mechanical things. He preferred words or figures. Getting his hands oily on the piston rings of a motorbike or the carburettor of a Morris Minor was as about as appealing as cleaning a toilet; but he was prepared to feign interest to establish a rapport with Henry. He smiled and nodded, raised his eyebrows at those moments Henry produced a supposedly amazing fact or riveting anecdote. It took a little effort and aware himself of the difference between how he truly felt and how he was responding, he wondered if Henry could see through him. But once he was in full flow, recounting how his motorbike spun off the road and threw him into a ditch, how he had to climb out and with the few tools in his panier get the damaged engine working again, Bert could see that lost in his tale and thoroughly absorbed in his own interest, he didn’t notice at all those little nuances of expression which might have given him away. It was curious. Most people were the same. If you could find what really meant something to them and get them talking about it, they were oblivious to the boredom they might be inflicting. As for himself, he was aware that his fear of unpopularity, his dread of being mocked as he was as a child, his bowel-dissolving anxiety at being pushed out and turned into an unwanted outsider, made him seek out whatever made others open up to him. He could have sat for a week listening to a fishmonger explaining how to fillet cod if it were necessary to win his friendship. So he let Henry talk and at length he came round to the girl.
“Aye, she’s a bitch and no mistake.”
“Sounds like it.”
“Led me on all right. She came after me. That’s the truth. I almost wonder if she wanted to get herself pregnant.”
“She wouldn’t be the first.”
“You’re right, Bert. They’re a sly breed women. There’s nowt straightforward about ‘em.”
“Your Elsie’s not roundabout though, is she ?”
Henry looked at him, his face suddenly open with naivety and questioning.
“She’s a pious one. Your right. She’s honest as death, but there’s summat about her gets n my nerves.”
“If there were cakes for tea on a Sunday, as a treat, she’d allus take smallest. If I reached for’t biggest first, she’d start up like a blackbird on a nest of’young: ‘You’d shouldn’t take the biggest for yourself.” ‘Aye,’ I’d say to her, ‘and what would you tek ?’ ‘Smallest,” she’d say. ‘Well, shut tha gob,” I’d say, ‘tha’s getten it.”
Bert laughed though he found Henry’s story vulgar and brutish. What was wrong after all in a bit of politeness ? And the image of the big, hungry lad shovelling his tea with all the ceremony of a navvy shifting clay and then reaching for the best cake before anyone else had a chance made him want to dismiss Henry as a thoughtless rough.
“That’s a good tale, Henry.”
“Like her, do you ?”
“Oh, I just give her a hand with the shopping and chat to her now and again.”
“Aye, but she’s a pretty lass.”
“ Church has got her, though. I’d stay away from a woman like that. Too godly to be good. Are you religious ?”
“Not at all. All medieval mumbo-jumbo to my way of thinking.”
“Mine too. I can’t put up wi’ their pretending they’re not human. Do yer get me? I tek biggest cake. Cause I do. I’m bloody hungry. I want biggest cake. I’m not goin’ ter lie ‘bout it. Aye, I’m greedy. I’ll admit it. I can do wi’ that. It’s honest. But our Elsie, she’s too bloody good to be good to yer. Though she is good to me, in her way. Do yer get me ?”
“I think so.”
“She’s tied, to mi mother, like. Bugger. In her shoes I’d tell me father I want a life of mi own.”
“You’re right. But she’s devoted. You can’t fault her for that.”
“No more would I. But I pity her. Aye, I do. Poor lass. Thirteen she was when mi mother took to her bed.”
Though Bert was wary of Henry after this conversation, in found in him the same gentlessness, the willingness to be generous and the absence of judgement and prejudice which seemed to characterise the family. He knew the snobbery of the working people. They didn’t need more than a decent terrace and a clean door step to start setting themselves above those with less. He knew how a family like his was disdained for its lack of cleanliness and its chaotic ways; and that disdain had fallen on him, though he was innocent. He’d hoped he could shake it off but he would run into people who knew him as a child and he sensed at once from the look in their eyes and their tone of voice they judged him by what they knew of his origins. It was terrible to him to wonder why his grandparents were so slovenly and vicious. Having no answer made him anxious so he sought out theories: he read Freud and elaborated a view of his grandfather and grandmother as neurotics, driven by unconscious conflicts; or perhaps they were borderline psychotics whose superegos had never been given a chance to develop. Having these ideas to help him was like finding refuge in a doorway beneath a thunder storm. It provided him a tiny space from which he could exclude worry and humiliation by talking to himself like a professor of psychoanalysis. He could rise above the difficulties of his life by understanding them. Small though this relief was, it was wondrous. It showed him the straight road out of the clinging, stinking swamp of his past. Knowledge was freedom. What we understand doesn’t need to scare us. The more he could understand the more he would be able to push the lacerating facts of his early life away from him, he could become a quite different person from the poor, cold, confused little Bert Lang who everyone called Pongo, knowing it hurt him ,wanting to hurt him; he could become the kind of person who commanded respect. He could assume responsibility and be called Mr Lang, but above all, he could quieten the howling monsters of doubt and insecurity in his mind; he could slit their strong, foul throats and replace their mean cries with the steady and secure voice of reason. He knew the snobbery of the working people and he knew it was absent from the Craxtons. Why were they different ? It puzzled him but the puzzle wasn’t enough to hold him back; who could have resisted being close to this family with its mixture of astringent principles and gentle emotions ? They didn’t judge him. They knew where he came from. They’d heard the tales of his grandfather’s drunken fighting in the streets on Saturday nights. But they welcomed him. When he met Elsie’s father, Bert felt himself in a very strange presence. He was a curiously inward man of very few words yet he needed to do nothing more than look at him and Bert could see the kindness in his eyes. He was one of those working-class men who had left school at twelve and gone into the mill. Fifty years of hard work had made him physically tough; during the Depression he’d worked as he could on the docks, hauling impossible loads of timber on his shoulders or unloading sacks that might have been filled with rocks from the greedy maw of dark holds; but it wasn’t hard physical work which had marked him most severely. Into his mind was burned the cruelty of a world where fifty hours of muscle-melting effort could hardly put food on the table for his family while a mile away, in respectable, church-going Penwortham people sat down to good dinners in their three and four bedroom comfortable homes, never skimped, never strained, never knew the shrinking humiliation of being unable to afford a pair of shoes for a child using cardboard to fill the holes in their soles in winter. Circumstances had concentrated his mind. He asked himself this question again and again; in fact, he didn’t even ask it: it pulsed through his arteries with every beat of his heart. Why were people divided by property ? Bert came quickly to understand that Tom Craxton would have shared his last crust of bread with a hungry man. It was very odd. Bert had never been able to twist his mind away from the need to get on, to escape, to rise. That was what you were supposed to do. It was a rule of the game. When you played football you tried to score more goals than the opposition. It was simple. And life was like that. It was a simple rule that you tried to get the best for yourself. Bert had always thought it absolutely as straightforward as knitting. He didn’t want to do anyone down, anymore than he wanted to inflict pain or injury on opponents on a football field. He just wanted to win. When he played football, he wanted to walk away with the cup in his hands and in life he wanted a big house, good food, nice furniture, smart clothes, pleasant holidays, friendly nights out, a good, well-made car, a garden, meals in the best restaurants, weekends in the best hotels; it had never occurred to him that his own poverty, the alligator bite of demeaning deprivation from which he was struggling so hard to escape was a result of such desires. He’d always laid the blame on his grandparents. They were feckless drunks who worked only to earn enough for the next pint of bitter or bottle of gin. They had no ambition, no desire to lift themselves. They lacked that tight discipline so characteristic of Elsie. He’d always thought it was no more than that. They were wretched failures whose obsessions destroyed their own chances of any remotely decent life. But Tom Craxton was a man of strict principle. He never drank. His one indulgence was tobacco, but even then if money was short he went without and even during the best of weeks restricted himself to two pipes a day. He’d worked hard all his life and yet here he was in this little house, holding thing together, a wage away from a bare table. It made Bert think. There was something missing from his view of things. It wasn’t right these people should live such a restricted life; and though he couldn’t turn his thinking away from the new world of possibility he believed was coming, though he couldn’t rest on the rotten branch of the old order, the huddled poverty of the streets he grew up in, opportunity being closed down like a manhole cover dropping into place, life being little more than a clinging survival, he looked at Tom Craxton and thought it a tragedy he’d been denied.
Little by little, Bert became almost part of the family. He could knock on the front door and walk in and no-one blenched. The little child in him, the neglected, frozen little boy who’d learned not to cry when he was left alone in the house while his grandparents went to the pub, the back-alley tough who’d found a way to blot out the mean taunts of his playmates, came alive in the Craxton house. Even their rows made him feel at home. The territory between Elsie, Eddie and Jimmy was peaceful. They had a way of keeping space between them so any potential dispute dispersed like smoke in the wind. The three of them stayed on good terms with their father too. Though some of his ways infuriated Elsie – he would spit into the fire when his pipe made him cough which she thought disgusting, and he never poured milk into a jug or cup but drank straight from the bottle – she knew how to make some quick remark and disappear before the fuse could burn. When Henry came home, though, there was sure to be an explosion.
“Don’t put your feet on’t table !” Elsie would say.
“Why not ? Is Queen Mother expected ?”
“We’ve to eat off that tablecloth. We don’t want stink of your socks in our nostrils.”
“My socks don’t stink. I wash ‘em once a year.”
“You think you’re funny but I don’t. You bring this house down with your slovenly ways.”
“Do I ?”
“And what d’you know about owt ? Eh? Tha’s never left threshold o’ this house. Tha knows nowt o’t world.”
“And you think you know summat. If that’s what you learn in’t th’army, God help t’country.”
Tom Craxton, hearing the disturbance and hating friction in his household would come through and seeing at once the cause would say:
“Get tha’ feet off my table, Henry.”
“I’m doin’ no harm, father.”
And before the young man had time to look up the big, hard palm would swing and clip him swiftly across the back of his head.
“When tha’s under my roof tha does as I asks.”
Big as he was, Henry would never physically challenge his father. Though he hated being corrected and was humiliated at being struck, he a soldier, fully grown, a man who handled rifles and was trained to kill, he submitted to his father’s authority because he knew he was in the wrong. It was his house and he could ask for good behaviour. Henry would pull on his shoes and tramp out, slamming the door like a petulant child and Elsie would go satisfied about her little domestic tasks, justified as if the Lord himself had chastised her erring brother. As for Tom, he hated these moments. Henry was like a paralysed leg he must drag through the years. Why was he so different from his other lads ? Where did it come from, his defiance and ugly behaviour ? It broke the old man’s heart and he worried for his son’s future. Bert was party to all this and loved it. It was a real family. In his own, there were no rows just fists. And he had no sister or brother he could quibble with like Elsie with Henry. It must be nice, he thought, to be so close to one of your own to be able to spar like that and still love one another.
Often, chatting to Harry Clow, because Bert liked to talk and saw no reason why work should exclude friendliness, Elsie and her family would be mentioned.
“Courtin’ then, are you ?” said the older man with a sly glance.
“You might say so,” said Bert.
But he knew he’d given himself away. Harry was mocking him. Married with two teenage children he never spoke of his wife except disobligingly but his mouth was full of sewer water about the girls in the office.
“Get that Brenda Marsden’s legs wrapped round you, you wouldn’t get off for a fortnight.”
Bert knew he’d had an affair with Joan Spicer, a dumpy little nineteen year-old from Castlelands estate, the huge stain of council houses two miles out of town; it was one of those post-war estates thrown up in the optimistic belief that if you give people a house with three bedrooms and a bathroom it doesn’t matter if there’s no shop for two miles, no pub, no cinema, no café, no swimming pool, no park; nor does it matter who their neighbours are. If the place becomes a last resort for economic and social casualties, who cares ? The council was doing its bit by providing houses. Shouldn’t people be grateful ? Before the turning of the decade notoriety was hanging over the eyesore like a bad smell over a rubbish dump and the Tories on the council together with the homeowners of salubrious Fulwood, Broughton and Penwortham, not to mention the wealthy with their two acre gardens in Woodplumpton or Chipping or Treales were regretting the folly of spending public money to house the feckless oiks who were never grateful for anything and scientifically proven to be beyond improvement. Joan was one of those girls given a perfunctory education because she was female and working-class who took the first job she could on leaving school and saw her future in finding a husband who could earn a bit,. Because she saw finding a man as the route to happiness, she was excessively conscious of her sex and was flattered when Harry, a man with position, a salary and car ogled her tits and put his arm round her shoulder while she worked.
“Goes like a fuckin’ bunny,” Clow said to Bert. “She’d drop ‘em for sixpence.”
This sexually overwrought atmosphere played badly on Bert’s nerves. Maybe he should be a bit more like Harry. Should he make an approach to Joan ? After all, if she was willing for a married man with a bald head, a paunch and bad breath, why shouldn’t she do the same for him ? But his attraction to her was nothing more than the low need to overcome tension. It had a brutality to it which attracted and repelled him. Little Joan with her bulging tits and her broad backside became his masturbatory fantasy; but when he talked to her, the brutal desire ebbed and he liked her. She was obviously intelligent. Given a chance she could make something of herself. Like him, she had the burden of a bad start in life to shake off. One lunchtime he walked with her to the Farrier’s Arms, the little pub on the corner where the men from the dye works came for pie and chips. They sat in the snug with a plate of cheese and tomato sandwiches. Bert sipped the pale, bitter beer and thought how nice it would be to disappear for the afternoon. It was odd, this truant wish given his drive to get on; but it was true, some impulse arose in him to throw it all aside and take life as it comes. Joan lit a cigarette.
“Want one ?”
“No vices ?”
“None I can tell you about.”
“I’m broadminded,” she laughed.
“Have to be in this life.”
“Aye, especially if you live on Castlelands.”
“Bit rough, eh ?”
“Aye, but it’s not that. Folk are all right. Nowt to do and if you come from there you’re lucky to find a job.”
“Mr Clow interviewed me,” and she gave him a mischievous look.
“You shouldn’t stay though, Joan. You’re a bright girl.”
“Oh aye, top of the form me.”
“You can get on if you try.”
“That what you gonna do ?”
“If I can.”
“I like a man with ambition.”
He looked at her questioningly and she roared with laughter.
“Cropper’s is too small. No scope there. I’m going to qualify as an accountant. Got myself a nice house in Broughton.”
“Well, you’ll need a nice wife to share it.”
“I’ve one in mind.”
“Anyone I know?”
“Just courtin’ ?”
Being asked for the second time shed a stark light on his thoughts of Elsie. There was nothing between them but friendship. They’d never been anywhere as a couple. He’d never held her hand. He realised how naïve this must seem to someone like Joan. He thought of Elsie as a potential future wife, yet he’d done nothing to move the shoreline friendship out into the deep waves of passion. They were paddling with their shoes off and the warm, foamy water caressing their ankles. Yet he knew the peril of asking her to swim for her life. What he had was good. He was happy helping her home with the shopping, chatting, sitting in the kitchen with her father as he smoked his pipe and listened to the football on the radio. Was he just trying to find a substitute family or was he really going to lift Elsie from the security of her island and show her the bigger land she would have to swim for ? And if she said no ? If she decided to spend her life looking after her mother and then her aging father and if her will to self-sacrifice meant that her own life never really began ? There were girls like Joan. She wasn’t unpleasant or malicious. He could have happily spent time with her. Could he even think of marrying such a girl ? It might be all right. She was as easy-going as a cat. It would have been hard to imagine falling out with a girl like Joan. Yet it would have been just as hard imagining a passionate love for her. It was as if there was some extra dimension to Elsie, as if her mind included a room absent from Joan’s and which he must explore. It puzzled him because Joan was appealing. She was nothing like as pretty as Elsie but she was uncomplicated. Life with a girl like her would be straightforward; but it was the lack of complexity which put him off. It was the difference between following a boot-familiar path up a friendly hillside or finding your own life-saving finger-jams on the sheer face of a slippery crag. There had to be some difficulty for it to be worth undertaking. There had to be the possibility of falling into the void, of risking everything to arrive at a summit your own way, through your own power. Joan was looking at him as she drew on her cigarette. He wished she was the kind of girl who roused him to passion, because a packet of fags, a night out with the girls, a gin and tonic, Al Read on the radio, a song by Doris Day and a week in Filey in the summer were enough to make her happy. Something about Elsie scared him. They weren’t ordinary people, her family. They were hard-up and had no airs and graces, but they were rare as Tories in the Rhondda as far as their character went. A girl like Joan would be easy to live with, but she’d just as easily get into bed with the bloke next door if it took her fancy. He knew she’d be forgiving if he got into bed with the woman next door. She’d draw on her fag and drink her gin and shrug her shoulders and that was comforting. Joan was all live and let live, but behind that there was a terrible failure; a refusal to abstract from the average and see the exceptional. The exceptional was worth fighting for. A rubbing along and getting by- marriage to a girl like Joan might be what most men settled for, but he wanted something which asked more of him and which by asking more returned more.
“What’s her name ?”
“What’s she do ?”
“Looks after her mother. She’s bed-ridden with arthritis.”
Joan stubbed out her cigarette and blew a great cloud of grey smoke in front of her.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“These things happen.”
“They do.” Joan paused. “Is there no-one else to take care of her ?”
“No. Well, I think it’s fallen to her because she’s the youngest and a woman.
“She wants to watch it. She’ll be on the shelf.”
“Not if I can help it.”
Joan laughed and Bert was glad he was with her. It was good to simply sit and talk with a girl like her. She was fine, even if she was having sex with Harry. She was essentially good and kind. Her vulgarity was what it was, but she wouldn’t have deliberately done harm to anyone.
He stopped thinking about Joan as a possible sexual outlet; she was a friend. She deserved to be treated properly. He eliminated all thought of her as an easy conquest, though she made it clear she might well be willing. What began to take over Bert’s mind was how he could make Elsie his girl-friend, how they could be courtin’, as folk put it. He thought about the problem for weeks and finally decided the best was to invite her to something which would flow naturally from what had happened between them so far. One day he saw a poster. The church had a dramatic society and they were performing . He could ask her without asking her, almost.
“I see,” he said to her when they were sitting in the kitchen having a cup of tea, “there’s a play on at the church this week.”
“Is there ?”
“I thought it might be nice to go along.”
“I’m sure it would.”
“We could go on Friday.”
“Who’s us ?”
“You and me.”
“Just the two of us ?”
“Why not ?”
“Who’ll look after mi mother ?”
“It’s only a couple of hours.”
“She can’t be left alone.”
“Your dad’ll be here.”
“He’ll’ve worked all day.”
“He only has to sit with her.”
“You think that’s all I do ?”
“No. But for two hours or so. She might be asleep.”
“She might not.”
“Your dad’d cope.”
“He might fall asleep himself. He often does.”
“We could ask Eddie.”
“He might not mind. He likes a chat to your dad.”
“He’s got his own family to look after.”
“I know. But he might be happy to come here for the evening. He might like to do us a favour.”
“I don’t see why.”
“You could ask him.”
“I could but I won’t.”
“Why not ?”
“I don’t like to impose.”
“It’s not imposing. People like to be asked.”
“Do they ?”
“Yes. I’m sure Eddie wouldn’t mind one bit.”
“Well I don’t need to ask him ‘cause I’m not going.”
“It might be a good night.”
“I’m sure it will for them as can go.”
“You can go if you want.”
“Some people have a proper sense of responsibility.”
“It’s not irresponsible to give yourself a night off now and again.”
“You may not think so.”
“I don’t. I think life’s for enjoying.”
“Good for you.”
“The change’d be good for you.”
“I don’t need a change.”
“Shall I ask your dad if he doesn’t mind?”
“You’ll do no such thing.”
But he did. A mood of devilment came over him which made him laugh at the risk. He could square it with her father then present her with the tickets.
“Elsie and me were thinking of going to see the play at church on Friday.”
“Aye,” said the old man, puffing.
“We don’t want to impose on you, but we’d be out only a few hours.”
Tom took the pipe from his mouth.
“What makes tha think tha’s imposin’?”
“Elsie didn’t want me to ask you.”
“She’s very protective of her mother.”
Tom looked at him from those blue eyes which seemed to hold all the hurt of the world in their watery gaze. They always seemed on the verge of tears, as if the old man were responsible for all the stupidity and cruelty of humanity. Bert wondered if he’d made a terrible blunder and spoiled relations between Elsie and her father but the old man looked away to the window, as if in physical distance he could find some salve for his hurting mind. He knocked his pipe into the ashtray balanced on the arm of his chair, took his tobacco pouch from the pocket of his blue cardigan and began to stuff the tender, aromatic strands into the little bowl.
“Tha guzz if tha wantsa. Tell our Elsie tha’s my permission.”
He put away the pouch, took out his sliver cigarette lighter and made the tobacco smoulder.
“Thanks, Mr Caxton.”
Tom puffed and didn’t look at him. Bert sat for a few minutes as the old man filled the air with smoke and then put on his glasses, took up the book from his lap and went on with the reading Bert had interrupted as if he wasn’t there. Bert realised he couldn’t call Elsie’s father Tom. He wondered why. He knew other blokes who used first names with their in-laws, but somehow he liked it that there was a taut little distance of age and respect between them. It was reassuring.
“I’d better be getting along,” said Bert.
Tom nodded without looking at him or taking his eyes from the book. Had he offended him ? As he drove to his evening class, Bert ran the little scene over in his head perturbed and bewildered by what might have been going on in Tom’s mind. He settled on a comforting idea: Tom had realised Elsie was sacrificing herself to her mother’s incapacity; he felt guilty; he knew she deserved her own life and he was glad Bert was going to open up possibilities for her. As he got out of his car, Mrs Bruzzese was going through the school gate, tall, slow and seductive.
The next day, Bert presented Elsie with the tickets.
“Who are these for ?”
“I’ve told you I can’t go.”
“What are you talkin’ about ?”
“I asked your dad.”
Bert was standing a foot away from Elsie, smiling. He imagined she’d be grateful, that the notion of having the chance to live in her own right would at last settle on her mind; she would warm to him; he was the man who had broken the grip of her mother’s dependency and henceforth they would be able to share time and activities together which would allow the long withheld need for autonomy to flourish, like a withering plant moved to rich ground, light and rain; they would be seen together around town and soon everyone would know they were courtin’; she would link her arm in his as they strode down Fishergate or Cheapside and he would be proud to have the prettiest girl in town beside him; they would go to the pictures to see Rock Hudson or Judy Garland and their poor, small town lives, held as tightly by the facts of having to earn a living and get by as a barrel by its iron bands, would take on some of the glamour of the Hollywood stars, as if the huge gulf between rich and poor, between powerful and impotent could be breached by the tawdry products of a dream industry whose very wealth and power rested on the widening of that gulf; they would go dancing at Hopkirk’s Dance Hall where big bands made up of local musicians did their best to reproduce the sounds of Glenn Miller or Duke Ellington and men in smart, dark suits and shining, smoothed-soled dancing shoes swept women in elegant dresses, some of them with hooped skirts so wide they couldn’t fit in any wardrobe, around the sprung floor in a charming competition of grace, poise, skill and style; they would walk hand in hand in the park, by the river, on Sunday and stop to sit on one of the little wooden, slatted green chairs to listen to the brass ensemble on the band stand, eat a cornet or a choc ice and laugh at the jaunty, inconsequential music; and coming home from a concert by the Philharmonic or the Halle to which he would take her to improve her mind, they would kiss in the back alley where the rats scuttled on bin days before entering by the front door to stand before her father and announce their engagement.
“You did what ?” she said, recoiling.
“He was quite happy,” he said, still smiling; but her expression, as shocked and severe as if he had tried to rape her or announced he was about to be tried for bank robbery, disturbed his heart and put him in that impossibly tight space between flight and holding your ground where so many bad decisions are made.
“I told you not to.”
“I know, I know. But he didn’t twitch a muscle. He gave us permission.”
“Why do you keep saying us as if we belong to one another ?”
“I’m not saying that.”
“I told you not to ask him. What did you expect him to say ? You put him in an impossible position.”
“He couldn’t say no could he ?”
“Why not ?”
“Oh, are you so stupid ?”
“We can go out. You can go out for once. You need to get away from your mother now and again.”
“What do you know ?”
“It’s a couple of hours. Your dad is happy to….”
“You don’t know what my dad’s happy with. This is my family. You don’t have a family. Your family are drunks and thugs. Go back to your own family and leave mine alone.”
“It’s just a play, Elsie. At church, after all. There’s no need for…”
“Don’t tell me what there’s a need for. Get out of my house. You’ve no business, no business at all. Get out and don’t come back.”
She threw the tickets at him. He looked down at them on the cold, flagged floor. He wondered if he should pick them up. He’d paid for them after all. Maybe he could get his money back. Maybe he could find someone else to go with. But he looked up at her and the rejection in her demeanour, the dismissal of him, the exclusion from this house which had become his home reawakened all his feelings of being an outsider, of being forever illegitimate, the poor bastard brought into the world between the legs of a wild, irresponsible, thoughtless girl who had given herself in who knows what circumstances to who knows who, turned his feelings ugly. At that moment the prettiness which had charmed him by its unselfconsciousness had disappeared. All he could see was her expression. She was hatred, resentment and rejection. He turned and left. He would have liked to talk to someone, but he was alone. Aunt Alice was kind in her way. But he couldn’t demean himself by telling her about his aching heart. There was no-one. He was utterly alone in the world. In this town of tens of thousands of people there wasn’t one he had real contact with. He had been abandoned by his mother as a baby and abandonment was his fate. He could have done some damage. He walked into town because he couldn’t settle. The shops were closed and the streets were almost empty. He could have gone into a pub but he hated drink. Getting drunk was no answer. It was the stupidity and the failure of his grandparents. They let themselves down. Life asked them to live and they ran away. Was Elsie the same ? Did she just run away to a different addiction ? It was all too difficult. Life was impossible to understand. Even the simplest little conversation hid such complexity the best minds would be minced by it. No, it wasn’t comprehension that was missing but sympathy. Love. He said the word to himself. Who loved him ? It was true. Not a soul. Who’d ever loved him ? He’d come into the world unloved and he remained unloved. People who are loved understand it no more than people who aren’t. All the theories under the sun made no difference. There it was. Some were lucky and were born and grew in the sunny garden of love and others like him were left to do what they could in the dark, cold back-alley of neglect.
That night he dreamed a beautiful woman with no breasts and huge muscles in her arms and legs came at him with a fearsome knife. He woke in a sweat. He felt utterly distant from himself. He went to work and did what he had to do but it was as if someone else was adding the figures and answering the phone. In this state he went on for many days, till he woke one morning with a clear head, a quiet heart and a new resolution. He had to get on. He must make money. Lots of money. That was something he could do whether he was loved or not. He had to work harder and harder till he was rich. Then people might not love him but they would have to respect him, or at least his money. He put on his suit and went to work. That morning Joan seemed particularly desirable.
But the following evening Eddie turned up. He’d changed out of his working clothes and displayed that awkward smartness working men often have when they spruce themselves.
“We’d like you to come to tea a Sunday,” he said.
“That’s very nice of you.”
“At mi father’s like.”
“I thought I was persona non grata there,” he laughed.
“Aye, well. Our Elsie’s a funny bugger. But you’re invited if you fancy.”
“Is it an occasion ?”
“No. Get together and no more.”
Bert took along a box of cakes. He assumed there’d be himself, Elsie, Eddie and his wife and Tom, so he bought six from Baxter’s, reputed to be the best baker’s in town. The assistant tied a red ribbon around the box and finished off with a large bow. When he handed the package to Elsie she said:
“You shouldn’t have.”
“I wanted to,” he said.
“Wasting your money,” she said and turned on her heels.
All the same, she set the cakes on her mother’s best stand and put them in the middle of the little table. As they ate sliced ham with lettuce, boiled eggs and tomatoes, Bert was tempted to recount the little tale of the cakes Henry had told him, but he judged it would probably be taken badly by Elsie so the meal proceeded to the timpani of the cutlery against the plates and polite exchanges about the weather, the quality of the meat and the enduring difficulties of rationing.
“Still,” said Bert, wanting to raise the tone and temperature a little, “Attlee is moving things in the right direction. Opportunities are opening up for people like us.”
“It’s not a matter of opportunities,” said Elsie.
“What then ?” said Bert.
“I’m all for it,” said Bert taking another triangle of buttered, white bread. “Break down the class barriers and let everyone have a share of the good life.”
“Aye,” said Eddie, “there’s much yet to be reformed.”
“There is,” said Bert, “but we’ve got the NHS and the railways, coal and steel in public ownership. That’s a good start.”
“Give people too much, it makes em lazy,” said April, Eddie’s wife.
Bert noticed Elsie blench and wondered if she was going to take off in a rant against her sister-in-law, but she merely blushed a little and went on eating.
“Got to get the balance right,” said Bert. “Let business do what it does well and where it fails, well, there has to be public intervention.”
“Aye, that’s about it,” said Eddie.
“I’ve heard of people going to their doctor for a toothbrush on prescription,” said April. “You can’t change human nature. People are greedy and selfish.”
“Not all people,” said Elsie.
“What d’you mean by that ?” replied April.
“Them as is, allus blames others,” said Elsie, falling into her broadest accent as she always did when she was roused to anger.
“You can’t expect people to run businesses to see all they make taken in tax to keep folk who won’t do a hand’s turn,” said April.
“Like mi mother ?” said Elsie.
“I don’t say that,” retorted April.
“The point is,” said Bert, “human nature does change.” He was thinking of something he’d read in Karl Marx and which had made an impression on his mind. Not that he thought of himself as any kind of Marxist. He was a magpie and whatever gleamed on a page, whether it was in Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, T.S.Eliot or Tom Paine, he seized on and made it his own; it was no longer part of Marx’s system of thought, or Eliot’s poetry, or Darwin’s meticulous science, it belonged to the exciting swirl of ideas in his own mind: A capitalist is not a capitalist because he’s a commander in industry; he’s a commander in industry because he’s a capitalist; command in industry is an attribute of capital, just as in feudal times, command in war and a seat on the judge’s bench were attributes of landed property. He loved the logic behind such formulations. It seemed to him to shed light on a little mystery and to be such a glowing example of human intelligence that it raised his spirits and made him want to discuss it with anyone who would engage. He knew there was no point in reciting the quotation, but the idea it contained he was eager to get across. “Supposing,” he said, “we’d all been born five hundred years ago. Just as we are, if that was possible. We wouldn’t have the ideas we have today. We wouldn’t think the same or behave the same. We’d be different people because our conditions would be different. We’d believe in the Divine Right of Kings and the ducking stool and even that the earth is the centre of the universe. So human nature does change. In fact, it never stands still. It changes every minute.”
He’d expected everyone to be as excited by the idea as he was, but they went on eating as if he’d said it was slightly chillier than yesterday. No-one looked at him. No-one wanted to engage in debate.
“Some things never change,” said Elsie.
“For example ?” said Bert, hoping desperately she’d give him the chance to get a discussion going.
“The battle between good and evil.”
“That’s true enough,” said Eddie.
Bert didn’t like that religious view. Good and evil as absolutes seemed to him absurd. Hitler was evil, but what did it mean ? Perhaps Elsie thought the devil had taken him over or some such nonsense; but it seemed to Bert the explanation was more mundane. Hitler couldn’t have put his evil into practice without the power of the State and if the State had been democratic, he could have been removed before he got a chance. It wasn’t a matter of good and evil as eternally oppositional forces, it was a question of law and politics. In any case, when he thought of Hitler he concluded he was more of a madman than a force of evil. A neglected and abused child, he’d turned out badly. Wasn’t that what it was about ? But he too was neglected and abused. Was he also mad and evil ? He might have been if conditions had been a bit worse. After all, he got a chance at school, aunt Alice took him in, he lived in a democracy and the experience of war made him despise violence. It was all impossibly detailed. The battle of good and evil was too broad, too sweeping. And who defined what was good or evil anyway ? According to the church, sex before marriage was evil, or at least a sin, but Bert couldn’t believe that. What harm were couples doing by getting into bed together ? What kind of god got angry about that ? A god of power. A god who was useful to the powerful. And Bert couldn’t think of himself as good. He had a desire to be, that was certain; he enjoyed behaving well; but he was made up of too many impulses to be able to refine something he could call good and say it was what defined him. The very idea that some people were good and some evil disturbed and upset him. He was the kind of bloke, after all, people were quick to hang a sign on. Were his grandparents evil ? Was it evil to leave a hungry child in a stinking home while you went to the pub ? It was evil enough. But he couldn’t even think of his grandfather as an evil man and only an evil man. There was a good side to him. He was capable of small acts of kindness and patience. There was something wrong in him. He couldn’t control himself, but to call that evil, as though it was a force beyond him which invaded him and meant he must be condemned seemed to Bert impossibly cruel. He needed help. Maybe he needed a psychiatrist. Or perhaps there was a fault in his brain. Time and again when Bert tried to think things through his intelligence quickly ran aground. There were no simple explanations. It was all impossibly complicated. Good and evil. Bert looked at Tom who was slowly eating ham and bread. He was a good man. Bert would admit that. He was rare. Maybe he was the only man Bert had ever met who he’d call good without any reservation. He was taciturn, moody, grumpy and he’d leathered his sons when they were young, but all the same Bert knew he was kind, honest and would never have caused hurt if he could avoid it. And Elsie ? She was sitting very upright loading little packages of salad onto her fork. He noticed how she enjoyed her food. She had a real sensual delight in eating. Did she think herself good ? Did she dismiss people like his father as evil ? What did she think of him ? One part of him felt he was out of place and another that he wanted more than anything to belong to this family.
“Well, let’s hope good wins out,” he said.
“God will see to that,” said Elsie.
Bert’s feeling sagged like an overloaded washing-line. The other-worldliness of Elsie’s thinking depressed him. He wanted to live. He wanted life here and now, while he was young, while the chance was before him. Yet when he looked at her, her prettiness overcame his ill-feeling. She was life. She was a beautiful young woman and no amount of tosh about god could deny that. Nature had made her thrillingly attractive and if he had to choose between eternal life and kissing those lovely lips, he’d choose the latter without pause. God was a kind of death to his mind while Elsie set his brain alight. She was a potential future. She was warmth, togetherness, happiness, laughter, belonging, security, stability. If he could win her, if he could be in bed with her, if he could marry her and make her pregnant, if they could draw close in the hard, joyous work of raising children, what would all the flummery about god matter ?
“And Nye Bevan,” said Bert, hoping to raise a laugh.
“Don’t blaspheme,” said Elsie.
“How is it all to be paid for, that’s what I want to know ?” said April laying her knife and fork across her plate.
“There’s plenty if it’s spread round reet,” said Tom.
“Aye, there is,” said Eddie.
Bert found something he’d read in Shakespeare creeping back into his mind.
“Distribution should undo excess and each man have enough,” he said. “It’s from King Lear.”
No-one looked at him or made any comment. He felt as if he’d brought pork sausages to a Jewish wedding or offered a bottle of whisky to a Methodist minister.
Elsie cleared the table and did the washing up. They all went into the parlour and she brought through a pot of tea and the stand of cakes. Bert was beginning to feel restless. He wondered if they would sit there for hours, the conversation never getting beyond courtesies; it brought a sense of futility to his mood, the feeling he could never tolerate of things having stalled. He had to be pushing on. The overwhelming need to be making way always troubled him if he felt time was passing too idly. He could waste a few vagrant hours if he could think of the day and see it as productive, but today he’d done nothing. What he was here for was to drive forward his relationship with Elsie. Sitting on the little sofa, squashed beside April who clearly didn’t think much of him, he was struck by the thought that this could go on for years. If he didn’t force matters he could be sitting here in ten years time, never having even kissed Elsie, let alone discovered if her naked body was as stunning as her face, her eyes, her hands.
The teapot was empty. There was one cake left on the stand.
“Will you have it ?” said Elsie to Bert.
“No, no. I’ll not be greedy. One’s enough.”
“I’ll wrap it for you. You can take it home.”
“No, you keep it. Eddie, can’t you eat it ?”
“Not me. I’m full as a brewer’s keg.”
“Your aunt Alice might like it,” said Elsie.
She disappeared and came back a few minutes later with the cake in a neat wrapper of greaseproof paper.
“Oh, thanks,” said Bert.
There was a silence. Tom was filling his pipe. He looked over at the window.
“Aye,” said Eddie.
“Tha wants to get out for a walk, Elsie.”
“I’ve kitchen to clean yet,” she said.
“Eddie ’ll see to it. Won’t tha ?”
“Aye. I’m accustomed,” and he smiled broadly.
“I’m not goin out on me own,” she protested.
“Bert’ll go wi thee. Eh, Bert ?” and the old man looked at him with that slow, kind gaze which made him feel at home.
“Of course.” He jumped up. “Come on, Elsie. Put your cardigan on, we can go by the river. It’s lovely on an evening like this.”
She protested all she had to do and the needs of her mother but the others prevailed, so she pulled on her mauve cardigan with all the gravity of a woman going to the gallows and the two of them left the house alone together for the first time.
The walked through Avenham and Miller parks, open spaces close to heart of town endowed by nineteenth century philanthropists. Bert had read about how the place had been a quiet market town before the industrial revolution and the parks by the river always made him think how beautiful it must have been. The mills, the factories, the streets, the chimneys, the smoke, the dust, the filth, the soot, the clatter, the slums, all these had destroyed the gentle sweetness of the natural gift of the area. This was one of the places where the modern world was born. Money had been made here. Lots of money. But it didn’t come to the people. It made him sad and angry and puzzled, but all the same he loved being by the water with a sense of openness and the feeling of possibility which seas or river always brought to him. And now he was here with Elsie. This was his chance to formalise his hopes. She walked beside him, neat and quick. There was surprising strength in her little frame which charmed him. She chatted away in that voluble drift he’d got used to: when she was in the house she would talk and talk to her father or one of her brothers and it was all inconsequential chirping about the things she’d done or seen or what someone had said to her at church or gossip she’d picked up out shopping. He’d asked her if she liked the parks and she’d started talking about the days her dad brought her here or the times she walked out with her school friends and the occasion when a man flashed at them on the path by the belvedere and her mate Jenny who was cocky and afraid of no-one turned on him and gave him a mouthful, calling him a dirty little wretch and a disgusting cockroach who should be locked up for life. She laughed at the memory. And as they walked she talked as if to create such a stream of words he’d be unable to swim against it. Her compulsive talking took on a new aspect now it was aimed at him. He’d always thought it was inconsequential. Now it seemed full of meaning. What she said might be trivial but the way she said it was as fatal as light. Its effort to repel attracted him. It seemed to him that behind the defensiveness of the cascade of words lay its opposite. She wanted a silent communion she was afraid of. He was afraid too but he’d grown so used to layering over his fear with an impulse to betterment, a command of the future as complete as the earth’s dependence on the sun and the bravado of a backstreet kid whose sharp corners haven’t been rounded by years of attention and the daily rubbing up against the love of others, that he hardly knew it. They stood on the tram bridge watching the water spurt and bounce. They started the steep climb up to Frenchwood and it was here, with trees on either side, hidden from view, the two of them utterly isolated in the universe, he dared to slip his arm round her waist. She didn’t recoil or rebuff. She walked on as if it were as natural as moonlight. Bert was lifted on the spurt of pride and amazement; her waist was unspeakably trim and the movement of her hips, as regular as a quiet heartbeat was the voice of life itself. It called to him and he wanted to make good its invitation. As they were about to emerge from the trees he stopped and turned her to him but the kiss he placed on her lips was dry and brief and she walked on quickly so he had to catch up and take her waist in arm again. All the way home he was asking himself how he should turn this physical contact into a pledge but it wasn’t till they were almost at her house that he said:
“I suppose we’re courtin’ now.”
“We might be.”
The words sent him reeling, as if he might fall through space itself and into some unknown void where everything human ceased to signify.
“I’d say we are.”
“Would you ?”
“We could go to the pictures.”
“I’ll see what’s on, shall I ?”
“If you like.”
“I’m ready for a cup of tea now.”
“I’ll have to see to mi mother. Goodnight.”
She was gone so quickly he wanted to hammer on the door and put his contract before her. He wanted some definitive statement, as if he were a judge and could insist by the power of law. All the same, he considered the file opened and if he hadn’t yet become the advocate of her heart, he was her chosen counsel and he would diligently pursue his brief till there could be no reasonable doubt.
In the months that followed there were several of these little outings: the two of them walking in the park or spending a hour together in town on Saturday afternoon; visits to the pictures to see or and nights at Hopkirk’s where he carried off the foxtrot as if his feet had been made for it and waltzed so well, she laughed as they sat down and said:
“I never thought you’d be such a good dancer.”
“Why not ?”
“I don’t know. You don’t look like a dancer.”
“What does a dancer look like ?”
“I don’t know. Tall, long legs,” and she laughed again.
Their physical intimacy didn’t go beyond holding hands, his arm round her waist or a kiss as quick as a wren in a hedge; but Bert felt it wise to be patient. The prize he was seeking was a lifetime of love and mutual support and that was not something to risk by moving too quickly. Always at the back of his mind also was Elsie’s mother: the more he thought about it, the more he felt tom Craxton was wrong to expect his daughter to assume the burden; but what was done was done. The nexus of dependency was established and even if it seemed to him unhealthy and a barrier to Elsie’s fulfilment, he had to tread carefully. Her sensibilities were as brittle as dry twigs. On the one hand, he was delighted to be part of a real family and to have the possibility of a pretty and loyal wife; on the other his back-alley desire to throw himself at life, to cast caution aside and take life by the throat like, a rough heedless boy made him restless and overwrought.
It happened that he was leaving his accountancy class on another rainy evening when Mrs Bruzzese appeared at his side.
“Fancy giving me a lift ?” she said.
He looked at her and was amused by the almost neutral but slightly cheeky look on her face.
“Why not ?”
“How is the car ?” she said as he started the engine and got the wipers working.
“She chugs along,” he said.
“I’d say you were in fine fettle. No need of a rebore yet.”
As soon as the words were out he realised their ambiguity.
“A rebore ?” she said “What’s that ?”
“The cylinders,” he said. “There are four pistons in the engine and they work up and down in cyclinders. That’s where the fuel ignites. So they get clogged and they need reboring so the engine can run properly.”
“Ah,” she said. “My cylinder doesn’t need reboring. It’s a new piston I need.”
He laughed and looked at her. She had a little mischievous smile just perceptible at the corner of her mouth.
“How’s Gino? I meant to get in touch about going to the footie but I forgot.”
“He’s fine. He gets what he wants. I’m the one who’s frustrated.”
The rain was beating down on the windscreen almost as hard as the previous time he’d driven her home. He wondered if she would invite him in and if he should accept. After all, he was courtin’ now. He ran through his head how Elsie might react. She’d probably refuse to see him again. The idea sparked off a little inward rebellion, like a child told to eat his greens who folds his arms and sulks, feeling that this defiance raises him above parental admonition. Why shouldn’t he sit with her and enjoy a cup of tea and a laugh ? She created a relaxed atmosphere, so different from that of Elsie’s home. Everything about her was sensual. She couldn’t put a biscuit in her mouth without making him think of the enticement of her lips.
“But he doesn’t stand in your way,” said Bert.
“No. Not exactly. Not in principle. But once the theory becomes a reality, well, I’m not so sure.”
They arrived outside her charming little house and she invited him in. He sat on the sofa in the cosy living-room where the coal fire had been burning slowly for hours while she made a pot of tea.
“Gino made this cake,” she said, setting the tray down “you must try it.”
“What is it ?” said Bert who relished deserts and exulted in that experience of being indulged which children love so much and which he’d known so little when young.
“Apple ring cake. He claims it’s his mother’s recipe but I don’t believe him.”
She cut him a succulent slice and placed it on a little white plate ringed with a silver band. He bit into it with that relish of a man who likes his appetites and sees no reason they shouldn’t be satisfied. It was truly a well-made cake. He sat back comfortably. He was warm, the food filled his mouth with pleasant flavours and the promise of satiety. Mrs Bruzzese poured his tea. He’d worked hard all day and spent two dull hours listening to tedious explanations of tax law. Now he began to relax. It was always easier, he thought, to relax in someone else’s house. The same was true at Elsie’s: he had no responsibility for the place; he bore no expense, he didn’t need to worry about the repairs. Other people’s houses were refuges from the severe demands of making a living, of staying solvent, of paying the bills, even of holding relationships together. How nice it would be to live forever in other people’s houses. He experienced one of those epiphanies when the current arrangement of life seemed to him absurd and burdensome. Everyone was driven into their little corner. Everyone had their house, their mortgage or rent, their bills for gas and electricity, their rates, their shopping bills, their insurance; everyone lived separated from everyone else by high walls of petty financial responsibility. But if we could all be free of those trivial and ridiculous worries by living in another’s houses, if society were one big house where we could be freed of the irritating burdens of monetary bagatelles by sharing them. He let the idea fill his mind like the moist cake filled his mouth and for a few seconds it was as if he really did belong to a different order and the electric buzz of the need to get on was quietened.
“Is the recipe good ?” she said.
“The recipe and its execution. Delicious. You’re spoiling me.”
“I like to spoil my men,” she said.
He threw back his head and laughed once more.
“You sound like you have dozens.”
“You don’t need a dozen kettles, you just need one that whistles.”
“A kettle can boil water whether it whistles or not.”
“Yes, but there’s no point boiling water if you’ve no tea to brew.”
He enjoyed this oblique banter and he liked Mrs Bruzzese. How different she was from Eslie and her strict, straight ways. She would no doubt have thought the Italian’s wife a loose and disreputable woman whose tongue was moved by the devil. Would he mention this encounter to Elsie ? No. It would be impossible. She couldn’t be made to understand it was just friendliness even if Mrs Bruzzese filled her conversation with sexual whispers. There was nothing to do with a woman like Elsie but keep from her those facts she couldn’t accept. It made him wonder if she really was the right woman for him; but the thought of her family, of their honest and principled ways and especially of Elsie’s extraordinary beauty reassured him. He would just have to learn to be discreet. What Elsie didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her; he took refuge in the cliché.
Mrs Bruzzese asked him how things were and he explained he was now courtin’, in fact almost engaged.
“Who is your fiancée ?” she asked.
“Her name is Elsie Craxton. She lives across the road from me. Looks after her disabled mother.”
“Ah, poor girl. Always the girls who get burdened.”
“Oh, she takes it in her stride. She’s committed to her mother. She’s a woman of some principle.”
“Well I would hope so. You wouldn’t want to marry an empty-headed woman.”
“She should get an education,” he said wistfully.
“An educated woman doesn’t need a husband,” she said.
Bert looked at her in surprise.
“Educated women don’t need to be dry spinsters,” he said.
“A spinster doesn’t have to be dry.”
“Education is one thing, marriage another.”
“Of course,” she said, “but a woman who can earn her own living and make her way in the world doesn’t need to depend on a man.”
“But men can make their way in the world and they still want to get married.”
“Of course they do. They’re possessive. They want their exclusive rights.”
“So do women.”
“Let me tell you a secret. Women want men because they want children.”
He laughed. Her ideas came from such odd angles they sparked up amusement and even though he disagreed with her, he enjoyed the little contest. It was a kind of sport. He might have been batting a ball back and forwards over a tennis net, chasing down her returns and congratulating her on her fine passing shots.
“Not all women.”
“Let me tell you another secret. Women who don’t have children because they can’t or because they think they don’t want to, end up mothering someone else’s children.”
“All of them.”
Bert thought of his own mother. She was a shadowy presence in his memory. She might have been a neighbour or a distant relative who turns up at Christmas, funerals and christenings. He wondered if she’d decided to have him. He couldn’t believe it. Would she have made such a choice and then abandoned him as soon as possible ? Surely he was an accident ? He imagined he’d been conceived in sordid circumstances. At times he let his imagination run over it. He saw his teenage mother in a dark doorway, her skirts up while his father went about his pleasure. It was curious. Why would she behave in such a way ? Of course, her parents were chaotic. She’d been brought up, like him, in booze, filth, foul language, violence, petulance and neglect. Maybe she had sex with men in back alleys because any kind of contact was better than the foul coldness of her parents’ love affair with drink and humiliation. Perhaps she thought by getting pregnant she would force man to stay with her. He might not love her. But any man was almost sure to be better than her father. Of course, she’d left him behind so she could start a real family. He was the outsider. He was shame made flesh. She was a catholic after all. Like her parents she would run to confession and lie to the priest out of fear of eternity in fire. Had the priest absolved her of her sin in having him ? Was he a bit of sin cast out ? Was Mrs Bruzzese right: for women the whole business of men and sex was important finally only because they could have children ? It was an instinct. But what kind of instinct did his mother have ? It was more an instinct to degradation than to motherhood. He couldn’t believe it. She wasn’t driven by instinct but by culture. She’d been ruined by her parents. Her life was mess and he was the result of it.
“It’s not a very romantic view of women,” he said.
“Romance is a male invention. Women are supposed to be bashful about sex. It’s a myth. They’re rapacious. They’re murderously competitive about men because they want children. Women will stop at nothing to get a desirable man into bed.”
“That’s what makes them romantic. They want their men to be desirable.”
“Because they want the good traits of their men to be present in their children. It’s not romance, it’s survival.”
“What happens to the undesirable men ?”
“Hardly any man is so hopeless he isn’t desirable to someone. And anyway, a woman would have sex with Caliban if it was the only way to get pregnant.”
“There’s hope for me yet.”
He laughed at his own joke. Mrs Bruzzese took a bite of her husband’s delicious cake and chewed slowly. She head her legs tucked up in a homely pose on the sofa. Bert watched her as she lifted her cup, finished eating and took a few sips.
“I married a desirable man,” she said, setting down her cup.
“He’s tall, good-looking, healthy, strong, intelligent, kind and hard-working.”
“You made a good choice.”
“Yes. But if I’d been able to see his sperm, I wouldn’t have married him.”
Bert was shocked. Was she saying he didn’t interest her except if he had healthy sperm ? It was terrible. It was cold and calculating and he couldn’t believe it. He thought she said it out of heartbreak. She wanted a child and the desperation of not being able to get pregnant had twisted her mind. But he couldn’t believe she didn’t admire and respect her husband.
“ Imagine the boot on the other foot,” he said. “If you had the defect would you think it fair for him to reject you ?”
“Oh yes. But men are different. A man doesn’t have children, he can feel the loss but a man doesn’t carry a child or give birth. If men were told they could never play football or watch a match, they might know a thousandth of what a woman feels when she can’t have a baby.”
“But you can have a baby.”
“Your husband is very generous. You can have a baby and bring it up as your own.”
Bert drained his tea.
“Once I find a man.”
“Pubs are full of ‘em.”
“Gino has to agree.”
“Would you do it ?”
Bert felt he’d been assaulted. He’d taken her hints but he’d never expected her to ask him outright. He didn’t want to cause her pain but how could he accept ? He was just getting things going with Elsie. It would be a terrible betrayal and if he she found out, the end.
“Why not you ?”
“I couldn’t. It wouldn’t be fair to Elsie.”
“She wouldn’t know.”
“That would be deceitful.”
“Of course, but a good deceit.”
“But I’d be the child’s father.”
“But I’d know it was mine. You can’t forget that.”
“Why not ?”
“You can’t just bring a child into the world and then abandon it.”
His own sentence made him think of his mother. Had she forgotten him or what she haunted by his existence ? Did she have to make an effort everyday to convince herself she was justified ? Or maybe it was the easiest thing in the world for her. Perhaps he represented nothing but negativity. Did she murder him in her mind or did she think of him tenderly as a mother’s supposed to ?
“The child will have a mother and father. A loving home. No-one could want a child more than me.”
“I know. But surely there’s someone else…”
“Bert,” she said, “many men would like to go to bed with me. Men are men, few can resist the offer of satisfaction on a woman’s body, Men pay for prostitutes who provide a cold and hurried service. That’s how men are. I don’t blame them. Nature gave them the impulse. It takes strength of mind to control it. You are hesitating. I knew you would. I like that.”
“How did you know ?”
“Because you think.”
“Do I ?”
“How do you know ?”
“It’s obvious. You see what I’m saying. I’d be happy to have a child who was like you.”
Bert was as surprised as if she’d told him she thought he should be Prime Minister. He was so used to assuming people would think badly of him, as if the stink of his childhood was still on his clothes and everywhere he went people recognised him as the product of debased conditions. His determination to get on in life didn’t convince him he was an attractive character. It was the first time anyone had said anything truly complimentary about him as a person. Teachers had praised his capacities but he knew they despised him. Even if they felt sorry for him they were repelled. His friends in the RAF enjoyed his company but it didn’t mean they admired him. At once the thought of being naked with Mrs Bruzzese became much more appealing. The thought of doing the work of a bull left him feeling diminished but the idea she liked and admired him, that she wanted his sperm because she could imagine loving a child who was like him made him feel simultaneously relaxed and excited.
“But you hardly know me,” he said to conceal his delight.
“What you know of a person in five minutes usually turns out to be all you need to know of them for the next twenty years.”
“I don’t know how it might make me feel.”
“You mean you might fall in love with me.”
Once more a shock ran through him. Was she right ? Would he fall for her ? Would his relationship with Elsie be ruined ? That was all slowness and delicacy in anticipation but this was the offer of immediate satisfaction. She was attractive in every way. Nothing about her made him turn up his nose.
“Or you with me,” he said laughing.
“It’s possible. But it doesn’t matter. Once I’m pregnant I will love Gino again. I can imagine it’s his child. It won’t matter. We will have a child, Gino and me. Who cares whose sperm did the job ?”
“You’re very matter of fact.”
“Not at all. I’m utterly passionate about having a child. It’s passion that makes a woman practical.”
Bert finished his tea thinking that in a few minutes he’d be in his Austin 7 driving home and laughing to himself about this bizarre encounter but Mrs Bruzzese got up, came over and bending to him so the comforting weight of her breasts was visible, paused before she took his hand.
“Come on,” she said. “Let me show you.”
“What ?” he said.
She led him up the narrow stairs into the front bedroom which stretched across the width of the house. It was much bigger than he’d thought . She switched on a bedside lamp with an orange shade. The room was feminine. It was the kind of room he’d never known. In the middle was a big double bed with dark, wooden head and foot boards and a cream, floral bedspread. There was a walnut chest of drawers with her potions and make-up on top and a wardrobe big enough for two. The thick, off-white carpet with a delicate pattern of nodding flowers smelt new. It was the first time he’d been in a room filled with a woman’s desire, sensitivity and warmth. Oddly he didn’t feel like an intruder. This was the room she shared with her husband yet he felt as at home here as a child in his bedroom. This was what he had always missed. It was a place where the raw facts of intimacy, the brute fact of sex blended with the subtle tenderness and care of love. It was a place made by a woman for a man to feel welcomed and wanted; a place where all the lonely cravings of masculinity could find a refuge.
“What do you think ?”
“Lovely,” he said.
She moved towards him so she was only a foot distant. As if it was as ordinary as peeling potatoes, she undid the buttons of her blouse hooked it over her shoulders and let it fall. She was looking into his eyes, serious but gentle. When she slid her arms out of her black bra and dropped it to the floor as negligently as a child drops a sweet wrapper, he was overcome by this first close sight of a woman’s breasts. They were big and white and the dark nipples stood erect. He’d never known that possible. She unzipped her skirt, stepped out of her underskirt and tossed her knickers towards the laundry basket. The thick black triangle of her hair at the base of her flat white stomach made his heart thud and skip. She pulled back the covers and lay on the bed swaying her bent leg so her crutch was on display. He felt stupid standing in his clothes like he was waiting for a bus.
“Come on,” she said and she extended her arm, her red painted nails reaching towards him as if she wanted to weigh his balls in her hand.
He ripped at his shirt like a boy who wants to be first into the swimming pool. She looked at his cock and smiled at his nakedness. When he climbed on top of her he was astonished at the warmth. For the first time he knew what it was like to be held close by another human being, to feel your own skin blend with theirs, to lose the limits of selfhood. He kissed her violently on the mouth as if he wanted to disappear down her throat. One of her hands was on the back of his neck the other stroked the muscles along his spine. His tangled his fingers in her hair. No thought of Elsie remained in his mind.
The next day, after work, he spotted her carrying two heavy bags up the little hundred yard slope to her house. Quickly he ran out to meet her.
“Oh, those are heavy,” he said. “How far have you carried ‘em ?”
“Just from’t Co-op.”
“You’re too pretty for such heavy work.”
“Don’t talk daft.”
“It’s not daft. You are pretty.”
She ignored him, as if he’d said it looked like rain again.
“You’re the prettiest woman I know.”
“You’re the soppiest bloke I know.”
He laughed but her face was closed and she went on in that slightly-bent-at-the-shoulders way as if some invisible, imponderable burden weighed on her.
“Shall we go for a walk later.”
“I’ve a lot to do.”
“I’ll help you.”
“I don’t need your help, thank you very much.”
“It’s a nice evening. We should make the best of it.”
“You make the best of it if you like.”
He sat at the table in the kitchen as she laboured at unpacking and putting away the shopping. He knew if he tried to help she would rebuff him. He was irritated by her resistance but he felt he knew her mind better than she did. Wasn’t it true, after all, that other people always know our minds better than we do ? He thought of Mrs Bruzzese’s compliments. The spoken one had lifted him but the compliment of intimacy had transformed him. It was true, she knew him better than he knew himself. She saw something in him he’d never imagined he possessed. It was amazing. It was utterly amazing how another person’s small act of kindness could have such a huge effect. Just as the same was true of thoughtlessness or cruelty. All those years, as a child, he’d lived with people who were almost incapable of kindness. He realised his mind had been made by them. But it wasn’t final. It was incredible but true: your mind could be remade by new circumstances. He’d knew he’d been right all along to fight and strive for a better life. The worst thing was to give in to circumstance. It struck him that’s what people did. Perhaps it was Elsie’s shortcoming. She accepted. As if the brick-coloured ugliness of these little streets was meant to be. As if at the start of time it was ordained that Elsie Craxton should live a narrow life in a little terrace house in a dull town. Bert couldn’t accept such an idea. He’d discovered for himself how his mind could be transformed. That was worth straining for. Circumstances existed to be subverted. It always struck him that people went along with the hard, grey, unremitting joylessness of their streets and back-alleys when with a little imagination and cheek they could transform them. Why didn’t they get together and put hanging baskets by the front doors ? Why didn’t they plant clematis in their back yards ? Why didn’t they make their streets blaze with colour and life in spring and summer ? In the suburbs, June, July and August were months when the gardens were rich with green life. But here the brick, concrete and asphalt endured season after season. It was as if some rule were imposed: as if some unseen authority forbade that the hard-up folk in the poor streets should have any freshness and scent in their lives; as if they pleasure of grass and flowers and hedges and the lovely softening influence of plants, bushes and trees must be reserved for people with money. The idea maddened him. People shouldn’t accept that. They should rebel into beauty, joy and happiness. What did it cost, after all ? Lots of the blokes smoked and drank. What they spent on fags and beer could easily make these little streets gay and jaunty. But there was some horrible spirit of submission abroad which made people accept; as if to plant a rambling rose at the door of a terrace house was an offence against creation. He could see it in Elsie. Yes, she did submit. She did live her life as if it was given that it must be lived this way. But that was only because she lacked education and experience. He could show her. He could open her up to some of the things he’d seen. It wasn’t much, he knew. But he’d read a bit of poetry and philosophy and science and novels; he’d listened to Bach and Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven as well as Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong; he’d been to the theatre and seen Ibsen and Chekov and Sheridan and Shaw; and he’d been to Egypt and Italy and he knew the world was various and the worst thing you could do was to live as if it was uniform.
“Shall we go to the pictures at the weekend ?” he said.
“On what ?”
“If I can get away.”
“Must I ?”
“For your own sake. To open up to life a bit more.”
“My life’s here, doin’ what I have to do.”
“How do you know what you have to do ?”
“Don’t talk soft.”
“It’s a hard thing to know.”
“You talk nonsense. I know what I have to do.”
“You must have a life other than looking after your mother.”
She looked at him sharply.
“Why must I ?”
“Because it would be a waste otherwise. A waste of life. You’re young, pretty, intelligent. Your life should be fulfilled. It would be a crime for it not to be.”
“It’d be a crime to neglect my mother.”
“Aye, but you can look after her and yourself too. You don’t have to be a martyr.”
“I’m not a martyr. I do it because I want to.”
“And because it’s expected of you.”
“By who ?”
“Your dad. Your family.”
“They’ve a right to expect it.”
“Have they ?”
“Should I abandon mi own mother ?”
“You’ve three brothers. Why should the burden fall to you ?”
“Jimmy and Eddie have their own families and Henry’s in the forces. I’m here.”
“Yes, but you should have your own family too.”
“Someday is now. Don’t postpone starting your life or it’ll be over before it’s begun.”
“I don’ think like you. I put my duty first.”
“How do you know what your duty is ?”
“I just know !” she said petulantly and seeing he’d touched the aching tooth of her uncertainty he wondered if he should stop; but at the same time he thought it was right to go on, like a man cutting glass who senses it might crack or shatter but continues with his stroke in the hope it will split along his straight line.
“Your mother’s at the end of her life. You’re at the start of yours. She wouldn’t want you to sacrifice yourself for her, would she ?”
“How do you know she’s at the end of her life ? She might go on for years.”
She was looking at him as if he’d said they should bring her suffering to an end.
“Maybe she will but they’ll be years of decline and pain and life that is hardly life at all. It’s right to care for her. It’s right to make sure she’s as happy as she can be. But it’s right to look after yourself too.”
“That’s a selfish idea,” she said putting a blue bag of flour into the cupboard and slamming the door.
“I don’t see why.”
“Well I do.”
“If you were in your mother’s position would you want your daughter to give up her life ?”
“I don’t have a daughter.”
“Someday you might.”
“Someday I’ll deal with it if I do.”
“Of course you will, you’re practical.”
Over many weeks this theme was taken up. At the same time, Bert was hoping to be able to get into bed with Mrs Bruzzese again. Her husband wasn’t always out when she got back from her night class. It would have been difficult to explain his presence on any other night. The days were sucked up in a whirl of work. He was impatient. Like all young men after their first taste of passion, he was eager to repeat it. Mrs Bruzzese was a luscious, welcoming woman. There was no harm in it. On the contrary, there was a lot of good. But almost two months after their encounter she smiled widely at him as, at the end of their class, they walked down the echoing corridor which smelt of disinfectant:
“Bullseye,” she said.
“I think I’m pregnant.”
“How do you know ?” the stupid question came from his disappointment, almost his despair.
She looked at him indulgently, like a mother whose son has asked some question of extraordinary naivety.
“The usual way.”
“Are you sure ?”
“No. But it’s very likely. I’m never late.”
“Well, good news.”
“Have you told Gino ?”
“No. I’ll get it confirmed first.”
“Will you tell him it’s me ?”
“Of course. I couldn’t leave him in doubt, could I ?”
They paused at the double doors. Now the possibility had become a fact Bert felt the weight of his action. How would Gino respond ? It was all very well imagining he’d be happy, thinking she’d be able to persuade him it was all for the best, expecting him to smile and hold out his strong, warm hand to the man who had seduced his wife. But what if the reality drove him mad ? What if it made him violent? What if his Italian blood rose like a river in spate and washed away all the flimsy defences of social nicety ? What if he turned up at aunt Alice’s his face dark with hatred and humiliation and his fists as tight as a vise ? And then the mere fact of him being in the know was a humiliation. She was going to tell him it was a matter of instrumentality. She’d needed his sperm. Now it was done. But most of all it was lost, the sweet anticipation of watching her take off her clothes, the warm joy of her skin against his, the liquefying embrace of her wet vagina.
Mrs Bruzzese sensed his trouble.
“Don’t worry. It’s between me and Gino now. I will handle him.”
“That’s good. But…..”
She looked at him with gratitude, indulgence and gladness.
“Can I give you a lift ?”
“It’s not raining.”
“All the same.”
“Thank you, but I think it’s better if I catch the bus.”
For the few days that followed, Bert couldn’t settle. He worked furiously all day hoping he would collapse into sleep as soon as he got home; but his mind was running like a lathe set to turn out the same part over and over. The same ideas pounded his consciousness like a boxer’s glove against the face of a dazed opponent. His desire for Mrs Bruzzese was a sharp as thorn and it pricked and scratched him at every turn. Somehow he’d imagined his arrangement with her would go on for months. Why hadn’t it occurred to him that she might fall pregnant quickly ? Had he thought that it always takes dozens or hundreds of times before the sperm do their job? No, he hadn’t thought about it all. That was his fault. He should have driven a harder bargain; but that idea repelled him; to agree to make her pregnant only if she accepted he could have sex with her as long as he wanted or needed was despicable; and what good would it be to make love to her if she didn’t want him to, if she was accepting only out of desperation ? No, he had made a fool of himself. He’d allowed himself to be used. She’d got what she wanted and he was as far from the fulfilment of his needs and desires as a man adrift after a shipwreck. He was shipwrecked. His only possibility of security and safety was Elsie. He wanted to run to her and take her in his arms. In his worst moments he wanted to confess to her, beg her forgiveness and propose. Yet he knew he must continue his slow campaign. He wanted with Elsie the warm mutual abandon he’d found with Mrs Bruzzese. He wanted to smash all the petty road blocks to her heart and her body and drive on to intimacy, love, marriage and children. He was trapped. His only chance with Elsie was to patiently wait for the right cards to come into his hands. He could no more rush to his conclusion than a poker player could determine what he would be dealt. Yet his experience with Mrs Bruzzese had taught him that the delay served no purpose. Elsie was coming to depend on him though she didn’t know it. She was thinking of him as her man though she would never have had admitted it. She would have been psychotically jealous if he’d taken up with another woman, though she would never have acknowledged it. He had to find a way of opening her up to herself.
`Elsie’s best friend was Maggie Nightingale. They’d grown up a few doors from one another and in the less burdened years before Mrs Caxton had been confined to bed, played happily in the streets in that joy of self forgetfulness which is the bliss of friendship. Once Elsie had her mother to look after day after day, they saw one another less, but Maggie was still a great source of joy. She worked as a seamstress and Elsie envied her the simple freedom of going out of the door every morning to exert a skill and earn money. Bert had met her once or twice when she’d come to the house while he was there. She had a boyfriend, Max, a tall, thin quiet man who sat on a straight-backed chair in the corner, his spider legs threatening to reach from one side of the room to the other. Like Bert he’d served in the RAF and sported a little officer’s moustache, though coming from the working-class he’d no opportunity to learn to fly. He was one of those people who speak only when someone prods them and who let others talk, as if they have some terrible secret about their inner life they risk giving away in the most banal conversation. He was a perfect foil for the voluble Maggie but Bert wondered what made her like him. He seemed a blank. He was a postman and Bert knew he would do the job till he retired. He couldn’t understand that. His own restless desire for advancement and change was so natural, the willingness to accept an allotted role and to stay in it decade after decade seemed to him a defeat.
“Maggie’s getting married,” Elsie said to him one day.
“Aye, well, needs must.”
“Oh, I see.”
“I won’t blab.” He paused. “Turn up for the books, though.”
“Can ‘appen to anyone.”
Bert was about to reply that it couldn’t happen to her, but stayed his tongue. All the same, it set his mind working. Maggie was a Methodist. The two of them sat side by side in the stiff-backed pews every week. Perhaps she wasn’t as ice-rigid as Elsie: she took a drink now and again; but she’d been raised in the demanding doctrine and nonetheless had found her way into bed with Max-the-lamppost who could hardly have charmed her with mellifluous love-talk. He took a bite of the scone Elsie had baked and buttered. He tried to imagine Maggie and Max naked and entwined. It was a laughable scene, but then the thought of other people’s intimacy always was funny. From the outside, sex was either gross or hilarious. Like drunkenness, you had to be within it to find it charming or sweet. But what he was trying to see was how it could have happened. He couldn’t help thinking Maggie must have made the running. He thought of Mrs Bruzzese and her desperate need. Perhaps Maggie had been struck by the same lightning. Maybe the storm of longing for a child had hit her and she’d seduced the silent telegraph pole whose sperm were more articulate. Or perhaps it had simply been the urgent curiosity to experience intimacy, like a child who can’t resist finding out what’s in the bottle and takes a swig of bleach. On the other hand, could they be so much in love they couldn’t bear not to know one another ? He found it hard to believe any woman could long for intimacy with Max. It seemed as ridiculous as craving cold tea or flat beer. Yet at heart of his speculation was a seed of opportunity: Elsie and Maggie had grown together, been to school together, went to church together, knew one another’s families as if they were their own, lived a few doors apart; if Maggie was getting married, wasn’t it time for Elsie to think of it too ? And if Maggie had shown her bare backside to god himself, defying his unbreachable strictures about copulation, why should Elsie persist in her brick-wall allegiance to the Bible.
“I lay no blame,” he said. “Flesh is weak.”
“That’s why you shouldn’t give in to temptation.”
“Who do you think gave in ?”
She turned from her ironing and stared at him.
“What d’you mean ?”
“Well,” he rubbed the crumbs from his fingers, “do think Max seduced her or was she more than willing ?”
“That’s not for us to think about.”
“Interesting though, isn’t it ?”
“Not to my way of thinkin’.”
“And Maggie a devout Methodist.”
“Anyone can stray.”
“They can. Looks they haven’t strayed an inch or two from the straight and narrow but have gone roaming the hills as if they own them.”
“You don’t know.”
“Might have been just one mistake.”
“You think so ?”
“You never know.”
“Unlikely,” and as the word fell from his mouth he thought of Mrs Bruzzese and his atrocious luck. He wished it could have taken a hundred times or a thousand but then he looked at Elsie, her busy arm pressing on the little yellow iron as it ran over her father’s shirt, and was amazed at his deception. He would have liked to tell her. He wanted her to accept him as he was. But he knew how her mind was hemmed in by the barbed wire, spotlights, guns and Alsatians of chapter and verse.
“Well,” he said, “in any case I suppose Christian forgiveness is called for.”
She looked at him sharply again.
“Judge not that ye be not judged,” she said.
He realised she needed to trump him. She knew well enough he believed in the Bible as little as his parents’ drinking. Piety was hers. It was a kind of competition. She’d been raised in fear of failing to comply with the church’s demands and in the promise of reward for those who stuck to them most fervently and she wanted to win the race. It struck him it was really no different from his wanting to be top of the class. That had saved him. He sometimes wondered what would have become of him if he’d been slow. Might he have followed his grandparent’s example ? Might that have been the one thing he could cling to ? Might he now be a sodden bar-prop looking for a fight like his granddad ? The thought of it terrified him and made him realise how flimsy was fate. A chance of nature had made him intelligent and that had been the branch to break his fall. He was competitive. He was proud of his good marks at school. He wanted to get on. But Elsie was no different. She just wanted to get on in a different way. She wanted to be first in holiness. He knew she disliked it if he trod on the perfect lawn of her Christian virtue. It was a garden where only she could go. So she quoted the Bible at him as if she’d written it herself. It always troubled him how religious people did that, as if he were to quote Shakespeare with an assumption of authorship. He was acutely aware of what his scavenging mind had stolen. He knew what he’d taken from others and what was his own. It was curious how for Elsie there was no distinction between what she received and what she invented. It bothered and amused him simultaneously.
“I judge Hitler to be evil,” he said, “and if I’m judged for that, too bad. But I won’t condemn a man or woman for doing what comes naturally.”
“It’s natural when you’re married.”
“The problem for Adam and Eve,” he said, “was they had no vicar to marry ‘em.”
“Don’t talk daft.”
“What were they to do ?”
“You talk rubbish.”
“What would you have done in the Garden of Eden ?”
“I won’t blaspheme.”
“I’d’ve taken the advice of that snake.”
She clanged the iron.
“You talk like the Devil.”
“It was impossible for them. They weren’t to have sex yet how could they marry ? What kind of god puts two young people alone and naked in a garden and says “Now, don’t touch one another.” If he thought he was going to get away with that he must be a fool.”
“They were supposed to resist temptation.”
“But then the species would have died out. If men and women don’t have sex, the world will be left to beetles.”
“God would find a way.”
“He gave us a way. If he made the world he made sexual reproduction.”
“For married life.”
“Sex must have come first.”
“How can you know ?”
“The church itself is less then two thousand years old,” he said. “Homo sapiens have been around for two hundred thousand. We must have been copulating happily for a very long time before the church decided it was a problem.”
The iron rang once more its note of anger and disdain.
“We don’t want your fancy ideas round here.”
“They aren’t fancy ideas, Elsie. You just have to think.”
“I’m not interested in your kind o’ thinkin’.”
“Well,” he said, suddenly feeling daring and reckless, “if Maggie’s getting married, perhaps you should be thinking about it.”
She looked at him with fierce shock as if he’d said the Virgin Mary was the Devil’s lover.
“I’m not in trouble and I’m not going to be.”
“Can happen to anyone,” he said.
He felt he’d breached a defence which had kept him from interesting territory, like a rambler who deliberately trespasses and when the landowner appears with his dog and his gun, stands his ground, smiles and comments on the beauty of the day. In the weeks that followed he kept returning to the discussion with the relish of a man who has found a dish he especially savours and goes back time and again to the same restaurant. Elsie remained stern and dismissive but he had the advantage of his desultory reading. His mind wasn’t organised. He lacked that discipline of proper education which permits someone to explain the physical world step by step from neutrons and protons to television or powered flight; or to recount the development of literature from Homer to James Joyce. He hadn’t built a well-designed, robust and spacious house of knowledge but a little, flimsy nest of dry sticks and dead leaves. Yet to Elsie his references to Darwin, Freud, Einstein, Marx, Shakespeare or Tolstoy seemed extraordinarily learned and in spite of herself she couldn’t help admiring and being seduced by his phoney intellectualism. Bert was one of those people who reach into the profundity and subtlety of great minds and grab snippets to parade like advertising slogans in front of the easily impressed. He couldn’t have explained to a class of bright fifteen-year-old how random mutation works but he had hold of something essential in Darwin which he felt made him modern and advanced.
“Well,” said Elsie, “if we evolved from monkeys why aren’t monkeys turning into humans ?”
“Because they’re not the monkeys we evolved from,” he bluffed. “They died out long ago.”
But it was the matter of sex and marriage which jolted Elsie into her most frozen objections.
“You know,” he said to her as the walked through the market one Saturday morning (letting him help her with the shopping was safe), “I’m beginning to think Max is a lucky man.”
“Why ?” she said, reaching for a cauliflower.
“Maggie’s a good woman. She’s kind and loyal and works hard. She’ll make a good wife and mother and he hasn’t had to wait till they’re married to get to know her.”
“Is that what you call it ?” she said, putting the few coppers of change into her little brown, leather purse.
“She’s the kind of woman I could marry,” he said.
“Well, she’s spoken for.”
“There are plenty like her. Grand lasses with their feet on the ground who know how to make a man content.”
“Is that what a woman should spend her life doing ?”
“A contented husband is a good husband.”
“Most men are babies.”
He looked at her as she held out four just-ripening bananas. He could have lost his temper. It was one of those moments when he felt he was wasting his time and should give up; when a sprightly devil of cynicism sprang up in him, like the desire to do mischief in schoolboys left unattended; he could have walked away from her and gone after vulgar women, one after another; he could have satisfied his lust in the most degraded ways. What was the sense, after all, in continuing to walk the high and perilous path in the mountain peaks when there was easy satisfaction to be had in the foothills ? Elsie didn’t help him in his strenuous effort. He wanted that demanding relationship of love, loyalty and eroticism which he took to be marriage’s promise, but at every turn she rebuffed and disdained him and the game was starting to wear him down. He turned away and walked to the next stall where he pressed his thumb against a firm, deep red apple. He paid the stallholder and took a juicy bite.
“You shouldn’t eat in public,” she said.
“Why not ?”
“I am vulgar. I’m Pongo the stinky kid from the slum whose grandparents were legless every night.”
She looked at him and he stared back at her with cold defiance. He saw a softening in her look. The corners of her mouth almost curled into a smile.
“Well, mind your manners, Pongo.”
She went past him and reached for a lonely white and purple turnip which had fallen among carrots.
“It’s out of place, like me,” said Bert.
“Don’t feel sorry for yourself. It doesn’t become you.”
“What does ?”
“Same as everyone.”
“What’s that ?”
“ Self-discipline and good manners cost nowt and they save a lot of trouble.”
“What trouble can I cause by eating an apple in public ?”
“Set yourself standards and stick to’em. That’s what keeps things from going bad ways.”
“And what if no-one else does ?”
“I’m not responsible for other folks’ behaviour.”
“No, but other folks’ behaviour can be responsible for what happens to you.”
He sensed a little tensing in her demeanour.
“I don’t worry over what I can’t alter,” she said, slipping four oranges into her bag.
“Nor do I. But I’m determined to make the best of things I can.”
“Good for you.”
“What about you ?”
“Will you do the same ?”
“I don’t complain.”
“I know you don’t, but will you make the best of what you can alter ?”
“In my own way.”
“We don’t go through life on our own.”
“I’m not on my own.”
“No, but you have to grow out of your family sooner or later.”
She turned to him with one of those shocked looks which always seized her features when the pillars of her certainty and identity were given a little knock.
“Life demands it. Maggie and Max are doing it.”
“I don’t see why.”
“It’s the birds and the bees, Elsie.”
“I have my mother to look after. That’s what comes first. The birds and the bees can do what they like.”
He threw his apple core into a dustbin standing by a concrete corner. There was no argument against her virtue. She was absolutely right to take care of her mother. It was one of the things that attracted him to her. Familiar with neglect he was repelled by it like a dog that cowers from a cruel master. Yet his admiration for her devotion fought with his need for physical and emotional comfort. Time and again there came back to him the memory of Mrs Bruzzese. Did life offer anything better ? It was amazing, the balm of intimacy. He wanted a future free of the dirt, violence, indulgence and dishonesty of his childhood. Like a man lost in a snowstorm in the hills who sees the lights of a village glimmering in the valley he wanted to make his way quickly. Elsie was his refuge. She offered the possibility of stability, security, a clean, calm and happy home; but first she had to yield. Wasn’t that characteristic of women ? Or wasn’t it how things had to work between men and women ? Didn’t there have to be a mutual yielding ? His mind felt weak when he tried to make it clear; but what he knew was the vulnerability of nakedness. It was odd. Sex was used in such brutal ways. He thought of the blokes in the RAF going off to brothels. What was that but just an inadequate rubbing off of tension ? No, it didn’t do the trick. It was like stuffing rotting vegetables in your mouth to satisfy a raging hunger rather than cooking a nourishing meal made up of delicate, contrasting flavours. Yes, you could eat like an animal in order to fill the emptiness in your belly, but it gave you indigestion and ruined your health. He’d made his decision. He wasn’t going to give up even though the fear that, in the end, Elsie might throw her Bible at him and expel him like the money-lenders were excluded from the temple made him shrink; he was going to try to fulfil this ambition as resolutely as he was going to try to gain qualifications and a good job.
“You must look after your mother,” he said hardly knowing where the words came from, “but I want to look after you.”
She gave him another shocked look.
“I don’t need looking after.”
“We all need looking after.”
“Not in the way you mean.”
“You need that too,” he said.
This time she turned to him as if she was about to strike him. Her eyes were fierce and her little frame seemed tensed to explosion, as if the energy it contained had found some way to escape its bounds and was about to unleash a storm that would split the earth down the middle.
“You don’t know what I need,” she thrust the cucumber she held in her hand back onto the stall and strode away towards the fish counters.
“I’m asking you to marry me,” he said, walking too briskly beside her.
“You’ve lost your mind.”
“Maybe I have. Isn’t that what love’s supposed to be about ?”
She stopped at Harrison’s. The fishmonger was a big, gaunt man with raw hands. He wore a thick jumper under his blue and white striped apron and wellingtons up to his knees. He nodded at her in his laconic way, as if anything more would cost him impossible effort.
“Elsie,” he said.
“I’d like some cod.”
“Aye, nice big piece or a couple ?”
“One nice big piece’ll do fine,” she found reassurance in repeating his words. He was part of the world she knew.
The fishmonger leant forward and his great, thick fingers wriggled beneath the cold wet flesh of the fillets.
“That one do you ?”
“Can you weigh it ?” she said.
Bert stood silently beside her.
“Two and threepence,” said Harrison, twisting his head to look at her, the limp fish dangling over the weighing scale.
“Fine,” she said and began to ferret in her purse.
Quicker and more resolute, Bert produced a crisp, pink ten shilling note and held it out to the big stall holder who was wrapping the cod in thick, off-white paper.
“Put that away,” said Elsie, “you’re showin’ me up.”
Harrison looked from one to the other.
“Take that,” said Bert authoritatively and the fishmonger took the dry money in his damp fingers.
“You’ve no business,” she said ignoring him and heading for the bus stop.
“It’s a couple of bob, what’s the fuss ?”
“We can pay our own way.”
“I’m not saying you can’t. It’s gift. From me to you. Two shilling’s worth of cod. To celebrate our engagement.”
“Leave me alone,” she said.
“I will. Ta-ta, Eslie,” and he walked off at a relaxed pace in the opposite direction feeling he’d struck the ball as well as he could and it would either rise hopelessly over the crossbar or fly safely into the net that would catch it in its bulge and let if fall gently to the ground.
He didn’t know where he was going, but he was free. He could do what he liked for an hour or two. It was up to her now. If she definitively turned him down, he’d have to start again; but the idea didn’t daunt him. It had to be done. Things had to move one way or the other. He went into Salisbury’s Record Emporium. It was a little place tucked in between a butcher’s and an electrical shop with barely room to fit a thin man on a diet between the wooden boxes of records. Bert liked to idle there, flicking through the classical or jazz collections. He had to play his records quietly or when aunt Alice wasn’t at home. She disapproved of anything but Methodist hymns having converted from Catholicism to the faith of her husband and dismissed even Beethoven as that noise. Bert liked almost all music. Having no musical talent himself, the genius of the simplest melody seemed a miracle. He could listen to Vera Lynn and feel the tears come to his eyes but Verdi, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, the real musicians who were not only technically expert but knew how to minutely colour and nuance their work, set his brain on fire. He’d read somewhere about the language of modern music and wondered how a piano or a trumpet could speak. He knew nothing of musical theory and had never picked up an instrument. School hadn’t taught him even the rudiments; he didn’t know how a major scale was constructed, what a time signature was, the value of a crotchet or a minim. His complete ignorance was the ground of his astonishment; like a man from a Stone Age tribe in the Amazon watching a jet plane pass above the canopy, Bert could watch a pub pianist sit down and play Bye Bye Blackbird or Roll Out The Barrel and be utterly mystified at how the fingers found the right keys and the sounds fit together so perfectly. He longed to be able to play but his ignorance made him afraid. It wasn’t that he feared making a fool of himself, but that he knew if he plucked the strings of a guitar or tried to blow a note on a clarinet, his joy in music would be sullied if he found himself instantly at a loss. So he listened and out of his listening he whistled and sang. He was one of those men who went around the house with his lips pursed chirruping Jesu Joy Of Man’s Desiring or Georgia On My Mind. He whistled on the street, in his car, in the shops and at work. Harry didn’t like it and told him to stop.
“Don’t you like music ?”
“Not when I’m working.”
“What kind of music do you like ?”
“Glenn Miller,” said Harry.
“Nothing wrong with that,” said Bert. “But you should try Bach as well.”
“I find classical stuff boring.”
“Bach is about as boring as Lauren Bacall with her clothes off,” said Bert.
“Well, I don’t like that kind of thing,” said Harry. “It’s too serious. I like a nice song.”
“Do you know Schubert ?”
“No. I mean Doris Day. She’s a good singer.”
“She is. But you should listen to Winterreisse,” said Bert. “No-one can write better songs than Schubert.”
“That’s your opinion. But don’t whistle while I’m trying to work.”
“Okay,” said Bert. “I’ll sing instead.”
He was thinking about Harry’s comment as he looked at a record by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. He liked the loose, nailed-together feel of their music. The precision of Bach was wonderful but so was the swaying-in-the-wind style of New Orleans. Was Harry right, that it was simply a matter of opinion, of taste? Something about the idea niggled at him like a tooth about to flare into sleep-wrecking pain. He could go along with the notion so far but he couldn’t believe The Andrews Sisters or Gene Autry were musicians worth taking seriously. The girls in their uniforms performing a silly little dance as they sang The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy couldn’t be thought of in the same way as Beethoven or Stravinsky; they were pap for the masses; yet if it was all a matter of opinion, lots of people preferred Gene Autry to Bartok. Bert couldn’t stand the singing cowboy. Hearing Back In The Saddle Again made him snort with derision. Was that merely opinion ? He was coming round to the view that it wasn’t. Bach really was a superior musician. But why ? He wished he understood enough about music to be able to explain it to himself. These ideas were going through his head when a voice said:
“Hello Bert, how you keepin’?”
and he looked up to see the friendly face of Slick Sticks Sam. He’d met him at Hopkirk’s where he played drums from time to time with the resident band and had visited his bed-sit in the run down streets in the centre of town. Like him, Sam was an outsider. The idea of a steady job appealed to him as much as having a bath in cat’s piss; the steady life of respectability was a premature coffin; marriage was a trap, parenthood an impossible burden: you give your life to a child for twenty years after which it spits in your face and starts counting the years till you die so it can rubber-finger the notes of the petty fortune you’ve carefully accumulated by reducing yourself to a boss’s lap-dog for forty years and skimping so diligently you don’t know what the inside of a cinema looks like and you think a tram-ride along the Blackpool prom exotic; women were to be enjoyed like good food and wine, and the more the better. Bert liked him for his runt’s perspective. He understood why, being a musician before anything, the life of an accountant seemed as dull as making jam with the Women’s Institute. For all he knew, Sam might be an excellent percussionist. In fact, he was nothing but an amateur with blood-pressure. All the same, he represented the glamour of the jazz life: playing till midnight or the early hours, heading off with any willing woman; staying in bed till midday; mooching in the streets, pubs and cafes till it was time to start keeping rhythm again. Bert was pulled towards such a life like swallows towards warm climes in winter. If he’d had a modicum of musical ability he might well have been sharing a bed-sit with Sam. But he knew a life has to be built from the opportunities available; rats don’t love sunlight and clean linen. Sam’s phone might ring with the offer a job in Manchester or Liverpool or Southport; he might play seven gigs one week and three the next; he might be offered work on a cruise ship where the food was lavish and the bored, rich, married women loose. Playing jazz provided those opportunities. Bert had nothing like that to take hold of. All the same, he and Sam got along like puppies. On the one hand, Bert liked to hear Sam’s tales of bohemian laxity, on the other Sam was glad to be accepted by someone whose life was essentially square.
“Fine, Sam. Good to see you.”
They shook hands. They were men together with an idle Saturday afternoon before them. Leaving the shop beneath a sky where the white clouds were parting to reveal a bit of happy blue, like a ready girl who shifts her legs to reveal the tops of her stockings, they were set to waste a few hours in chatter, listening to Sachmo or Artie Shaw, emptying a bottle of cheap red and even getting their arms round the waists of a couple of slim, giddy girls. They went to the Kardomah where the coffee was milky, the waitresses perfunctory, the carpet grubby, the lighting too bright and the clientele as buttoned-up as a priest’s fly.
“Playing tonight ?” said Bert.
Close, as its name implied, to the station, The Railway was run by Jack Cornelius whose taste for jazz and women led him to pay for bands which left him almost out of pocket. The Slick Sticks Quartet, however, was always sure to attract a good crowd because they brought in Arnold Chester, the reeds man, who could play tenor, alto and soprano sax, clarinet and flute, who had spent a few years after the war as a session musician in London, had played with and who might have had a career among those few lucky proponents of the genre who manage to make enough from playing not to have to join the uncool cats on the factory floor, in the office or the classroom, had his wife not fallen pregnant and insisted on something more secure than intermittent tooting behind some warbling populist.
“What’s the band ?”
“Arnold Chester playing ?”
“I’ll come along.”
“How are things with…..that young lass you told me about ?”
“Yeah, that’s the chick. Elsie.”
“Okay. I proposed to her.”
“Christ, man ! She accept ?”
“I’m waiting for an answer.”
“Like the guy in Dickens.”
“Barkis,” said Bert.
“Yeah. That cat. But marriage. That could be square.”
“You’ve got to make things your own way, Sam. You’re lucky. The women like musicians. Me, I need some security. I want a future.”
“Sure, man. You’ve got to do what’s right for you.”
“How’s your love life ?”
Bert knew what same meant: Sam was one of those men who take female sexuality personally, as if every pair of swaying hips, shapely calves, weighty breasts, blue or brown eyes, every set of slender fingers, every delicate wrist, trim ankle, every gentle or surprisingly husky voice, every head of thick, shining hair was a call to him; he couldn’t see a good-looking woman on the street without thinking she’d put on her nail varnish or lipstick for his benefit; the merest glance from even the least attractive woman in Lancashire was enough to convince him she’d left the house only to find him and entice him into bed. Bert found a rasher of amusement in this. It wasn’t unusual, after all. The sex-starved men in the RAF gloated over femininity like misers over gold. To a man in need of comfort and satisfaction the slightest shadow of anything female was enough to make him as excited as a child at the sight of its mother after a long absence. Bert wondered if the same mad shock ran through women: did a lonely woman experience the presence of a pot-bellied, bald-headed man with a fag in one hand and a pint in the other as potential salvation ? He couldn’t believe it. Somehow women could deflect their impulses, as if their brains contained some absorbent material which soaked up sexual desire and the longing for unity and transformed them into control, command and enticement. Men like Sam, and he was just the average man pushed to the extreme, were at the mercy of women because they were victims of their own desire. Maybe it was simply that women knew this; perhaps they learned that men have far less command and made use of it. But then he thought of what he’d read about hysteria and it seemed that women were just as much ruled by their desires as men. What surprised him was how willing women were to get into bed with Sam. It was true he was less fussy than a tramp in a dustbin, but all the same he was able to have sex with three or four women a week without exerting himself. Nor was he a handsome man. He wasn’t like Gino Bruzzese, tall, well-made, dark and imposing. Sam was a thin, nervy man, always reaching for the next cigarette or shot of whiskey and his body was replicated in his face; his nose was the shape of a yacht’s sail, his lips as insignificant as cigarette papers, his cheeks as fleshless as a gnawed spare rib. Bert found it hard to imagine any woman would be attracted to him if he didn’t impose himself; but he had a way. He would approach and talk to a woman as readily as he’d hand money to a bookie’s runner. Nor would he be deterred by shyness, a subtle rebuff or even a direct verbal slap. He kept going like a spawning salmon, leaping the rapids of potential rejection, finding a current he could glide into and drift along till her legs were round him. He wasn’t always successful. Some women told him bluntly to disappear. Others mocked him or blew cigarette smoke in his face. But he had many more winners in bed than on the racecourse; if he broke even at the bookmaker’s he was pleased, but with women he expected seventy-five percent victory.
“Seen Marj lately ?”
Marjorie Kent was a nineteen year-old blonde with a Diana Dors bosom, cross-eyes and a voice that on a good night could sound like Peggy Lee with tonsillitis. She sang at Hopkirk’s, in The Black Horse, The Wheatsheaf and some of the rougher pubs of Manchester and Liverpool, convinced that she would soon be taken up by a recording company to become the Judy Garland of the north-west. It was Sam who introduced her to singing. Contemplating the cleft between her breasts and imagining the delight of entering the cleft between her legs, he’d told her a girl like her if she had any voice at all could make a fortune in a matter of a few years with the right contacts and good management. Thrilled, flattered and palpitating at the idea of being able to leave her job as receptionist at The Iron Trades Insurance Co, Marj had her introduction to the bliss of intimacy in a grubby flat in the basement of a damp house on an unmade bed whose grey sheet bore the stains of a dozen previous seductions beneath a drunken man whose breath wafted the enticing odour of cheap, stale tobacco and who, in his febrile rush, didn’t even bother with a johnny. He fell asleep on top of her and though she prodded him and called his name, was as likely to rouse as a hibernating hedgehog; she pushed him off, got dressed and going out into the crime-inviting, early morning streets, was forced to walk the two miles home, not having enough in her purse for a taxi.
“Yeah. She’s still singin’.”
“Think she’ ll make it ?”
“Man, she wails like a cat with a sore arse.”
“How does she get gigs ?”
“Any girl’d get gigs if she shook her tits in men’s faces.”
Bert laughed. What else was there to do ? He felt sorry for Marj, sorry in fact for the whole ugly business of promise-the-earth seductions and ambitions as realistic as flat-earth theory. It made him want to listen to the Halle playing Bach or Haydn. It made him think of Elsie and the solid oak ideas of her family. On the one hand, he envied Sam. It would be nice to let go and live such a loose, unmade-road existence; on the other, the narrow path where every step threatened to take you over the edge into a precipice of regret, led in the end to a green, well-fenced and flourishing garden, or so it seemed.
“Sooner or later they’ll get bored and she’ll be back to typing.”
“Typing ? That’s too much for Marj. She can’t concentrate for more than ten seconds. Not even in bed.”
Bert laughed again. They left the café and wandered the streets among the shoppers. Bert, as usual, was glad to be amidst a reassuring throng of strangers. The town didn’t provide much opportunity for a pair of would be flaneurs; this wasn’t Baudelaire’s Paris or Pushkin’s St Petersburg; the centre was bounded on the south by the river; there were two main arteries, one running east to west, the other joining it from the north via two little streets of uninspiring shops at either side of the square dominated by the nineteenth century museum and library whose eternal stone bore the edifying inscription: The riches you may here acquire abide with you always. The town, however, was far les interested in mental riches than the grubby pursuit of lucre and like all these places in Lancashire, built on the engineering ingenuity and psychological nullity that drove the industrial revolution, was scarred by the greed and extermination of imagination which had raised the big houses in the suburbs and thrown up slums for the likes of Bert. The two young men could walk from one end of the town centre to the other in ten minutes; there was nothing to explore; no surprises round the next corner; no gratuitous beauty to make you catch your breath; everything was known, as if the place had been created to defeat delight. Sam wanted to place a bet so they nipped into The Boar’s Head where in the gents a little hive of buzzing men were handing over slips of torn paper, coins and notes to a fat, sweaty bloke in a stained, creased grey suit; a Woodbine burned in his crooked mouth and the smoke rising into his eyes made him squint. As they entered everyone turned, but Sam being well-known, their fear rose and fell as quickly as the price of silver and amongst the odour of urine and tobacco, by the yellow-stained urinal whose white stones were separated by curving fins whose inadequacy in protecting modesty suggested they might have been installed in conspiracy to do the opposite, the excited men handed over the money they’d earned in factories, on building sites, in offices or driving lorries in the petty expectation that luck, as predictable as the weather, would be tamed by their wishes and into their hands would fall that something for nothing of which all people dream out of weakness and neurosis and which virtually never arrives and when it does brings more misery than joy. Sam didn’t place simple bets. He explained to Bert he was doing a Yankee.
“What’s that ?”
“Four gee-gees. Eleven bets. If they all win…..”
But Bert’s attention had been diverted: Harry Clow had just come in, accompanied by a smaller, grey-skinned, one-wage-packet-to-another chap; they stood side by side at the unrinal, Harry looking down and talking to the younger, lesser man. Bert stood by the little chatter of punters wondering if Harry would notice him, but the boss turned from the tiles, pulled up his fly and held the door open for his mate without seeing him. There was something odd that set Bert’s mind wondering. Why shouldn’t Harry be in the pub on a Saturday afternoon, even with the kind of bloke he usually tried to avoid ? Bert tried to recall if Harry had ever spoken about The Boar’s Head or any town centre pub. Had he ever said he went out drinking on a Saturday ? Then it came to him that he’d complained about his wife who reserved Saturday’s for shopping with her mother. They’d get the train to Southport or Manchester and while they were away Harry was expected to get on with gardening or do a bit of fettling around the house. Perhaps that was it. Maybe he nipped out for a drink to strangle the boredom. Yet it didn’t seem right. Harry was a snob. He didn’t mix with people he called common and rough necks. The bloke he was with was most definitely in the first category. Sam handed his eleven shillings to the short-winded runner and they left. As they were passing through the bar, Bert noticed Harry’s companion sitting on his own in one of the little rooms that led from the semi-circular bar. He touched Sam’s arm.
“Sam, that bloke there, just inside the door. Don’t look now but do you know him ?”
Sam took a cigarette from his packet and slowly lit the end with the little blue and yellow flame from his lighter. He nodded. Bert went out into the street.
“Who is he then ?”
“Peroxide Pete. His hair’s not naturally that colour. Don’t turn your back on him.”
“One of them ?”
“Bent as a nine bob note. Ain’t my business what the cat does with dick. You know him ?”
“No, but he was with my boss.”
“Respectable sort, eh ?”
“Who knows what they get up to when the curtains are closed in Penwortham.”
Bert was at first a bit troubled then slightly amazed and amused and little by litte, thinking of Harry’s wife and children, shocked and saddened. Did his wife know? Was Harry one of those blokes who hang around in public lavatories ? Bert and Sam wandered the market, stopping at the record and book stalls which, as usual, had little of interest, and as they went Bert was running over in his mind what his discovery meant. Maybe he was jumping to conclusions: a man goes for a drink with a queer, does that mean he’s queer too ? Yet as he ran the scene over in his head he could read in Harry’s demeanour that there was something between them. Like Sam, he felt no animosity towards Harry or any inclination to moral condemnation; it was part of his mentality, though he was only just beginning to realize it, that what people do with their intimacy is their own business. Having no religious conviction and being on the receiving end of snobbery, of that deep British hatred and mistrust of the poor which blamed those without means for their fate and saw their misery as a moral failing, Bert could never bark with the dogs of prejudice. He knew society was against him because he came from the back streets, because he was illegitimate, because he was ill-educated; society was against queers too, but that was just as ugly. Society was a vicious beast when it was roused. It struck Bert as a terrible thing that men like Harry should have to move in the shadows like vermin; that if he were found out his wife might divorce and he could lose his job. Supposing he, with all the disadvantages of his origins had been queer into the bargain. He’d never experienced attraction to men, but he supposed it was no more outside the bounds of nature than his own strong arousal at the sight of a pretty woman. And then there was Sam, an outsider too because of his rabbit’s sexuality. It was true there was something disturbing about it, like a nightmare whose content you can’t recall though your fear haunts you through the day; it was like watching a man unable to refuse the next drink and falling from the pub into the gutter and from the gutter into the grave. Yet Bert couldn’t see that condemning him was any use. Something in Sam’s personality, something given or something learned, drove him to pursue women like a grizzly bear pursues salmon and just as the bears guzzle and grow fat in the time of plenty, so Sam saw every woman who came his way as a kind of irresistible sustenance. It was ridiculous, bit it was Sam. And the women tumbled onto his grubby bed and beneath his skinny frame like apples in an October storm. It had to be accepted, as Eddie said, we aren’t all made of the same timber.
“Hey,” said Sam, look it’s Joyce and Sandra.
He was pointing to a pair of giddy girls of about nineteen, arm in arm at Bessie’s Corset Stall. One was a brunette with the broad shoulders of a swimmer and a face as handsome as Sophia Loren; the other had hair dyed black and heavily made-up eyes and wasn’t nearly so naturally good-looking.
“Where do you know them from ?” asked Bert.
“Hopkirk’s. Pubs. They’re always around. Take a look at that Joyce, man. She could be a film star.”
“Yeah,” said Bert, “or she could sell lipstick in Woolworths.”
Sam approached and began to talk. He had that ability to yap about nothing and yet to convey friendliness and warmth which makes people such good company. Bert knew he couldn’t compete. He liked to talk about something. He knew, with these two, he would have to nestle in Sam’s shadow like a pillion rider who must put his trust in the driver. He smiled as he was introduced and shook the girls’ hands. Joyce tilted her head like a curious sparrow and smiled at him as if he were as handsome as Montgomery Clift. Though he knew this was no more than common flirtatiousness, he couldn’t help responding. Her behaviour was an axe which divided his mind as cleanly as butcher’s cleaver divides ribs; on the one hand he was wary and alert, on the other flattered and tempted and between these two was a chasm as deep as and inexplicable as outer space.
“Fancy a drink, girls ?” said Sam.
“Don’t mind if we do,” giggled Sandra.
“If you’re payin’” said Joyce.
And they snuggled against one another like a child and its mother, their arms tightly linked and roared with that silly laughter which is one of the greatest pleasures of young, carefree friendship. In the pub they asked for gin and sat close to one another on the bench seat. Sam bought the drinks and Bert tried to move things on.
“So what do you do, girls ?”
“Depends who’s askin’,” tittered Sandra.
“I work in accounts,” said Bert hoping to drag the tone a little nearer to seriousness.
“Ooo, fancy,” said Joyce and the girls looked at one another and collapsed into chuckles only they could understand.
“I bet you’re good with figures, then,” added Sandra.
“Not bad,” said Bert with a broad smile.
“I can’t add up for toffee,” she said, “except my vital statistics.”
They tittered like little girls being tickled by their dad. It gave Bert a feeling of exclusion. He realised he had no idea how to handle himself with girls like these. He looked to the bar for assistance but Sam’s back was still turned, so he feigned interest in the barmaid and the men she was serving. He tried to think of something to say, but every possibility seemed hopelessly sober as if he were a Puritan among Restoration Wits. The girls were locked in their private world of goofy cooing which was at once provocative and insulting. They were determined not to take anything seriously; he felt he should be able to enjoy that; it was right after all to be able to be light-hearted and headed sometimes; they were in the pub; there was no reason to talk ponderously of weighty matters. Yet he couldn’t bat their ball back to them. It made him feel small and awkward and he thought of the pall-bearer’s atmosphere of Elsie’s home and how much more congenial he found it. Compared to Elsie he was an inveterate wag; he could feel as insignificant as a grasshopper; but with these girls he felt like the Pope in a strip club; he was a dull, slow-witted Diogenes and the more they laughed the more his barrel shrank around him and he became conscious of his nakedness. If these girls saw him without his clothes, they would hoot like drunken owls. He thought of Mrs Bruzzese and how her desperation, serious as a shipwreck, made her embrace him with tender gratitude; and that enhanced his sense of his manhood. He imagined she’d admired him naked, that the sight of his erect cock had made her heart beat till its rhythm was almost indiscernible and her mind melt in a like cheese under a grill. But to strike up an erotic charge was these two would be like striking a match under water. They might be willing. They might jump into bed and get on with it, but it would be as inconsequential as buttering toast. He wondered if there was something to be said for that. Why shouldn’t sex be an appetite like any other ? Why shouldn’t it be satisfied as perfunctorily as thirst by swigging a glass of water ?
“Here we are girls,” said Sam, “gins big enough to wash your feet in.”
“Only my feet ?” said Joyce.
“Get you a bathful if you like, sweetheart,” said Sam “you could wallow like Cleopatra while I scrub your back.”
“She didn’t bath in gin,” said Sandra.
“Ass’s milk,” said Sam, “but where am I going to find a female ass on a Saturday afternoon in this town ?”
“Pasteurised will do,” said Joyce and the girls tee-heed as if the gin had already done its work.
“Is your bath big enough for both of us ?” said Sandra.
“What, me and you ?” asked Sam.
“No, me and Joycey. We like a bath together don’t we love ?”
“Lesbe friends,” said Sam.
“Ooo, not us,” said Joyce, “we like men, don’t we Sandy. They have the right equipment.”
“The bigger the better.”
“It’s not the size of the conductor’s baton,” said Sam, “it’s the way he waves it.”
“I don’t want you waving your baton in my face,” said Sandra.
“Put it where it belongs,” said Joyce.
“Slip it in its sheath,” said Sandra.
“Nice tight fit,” said Joyce.
“Long and thin, slips right in, short and thick, just the trick,” said Sandra and the two of them chortled long and loud while Sam nodded in appreciation as he lit a Woodbine and Bert sipped his half of bitter as if it were cod liver oil.
When the girls had swallowed four gins and Sam gulped three pints while Bert had managed one and a pickled egg, Sam suggested they go back to his flat to listen to a bit of music and open a bottle of wine. Bert tried to excuse himself saying he’d arranged to meet Elsie, but Sam squeezed his arm and whispered into his ear while the girls protested sardonically: our company not good enough for you eh ? Well, we know when we’re not wanted. Bert felt weak in going along with what he disliked but he didn’t want to offend Sam and behind his reluctance was a nervous curiosity as to how things would work out. He most definitely didn’t want to have sex with either of these two; he didn’t want any liaison with them, but a bawdy fascination made him want to witness what would happen between them and Sam. The flat, as always, was as chaotic as a classroom without a teacher. There was an old sofa with a floral pattern, the kind of thing that might once have looked at home in a cottage in one of the little villages of north Lancashire; it was threadbare and cluttered with an unwashed dinner plate on which egg and brown sauce had left an expressionistic pattern; three pint glasses each with the tilted dregs of drink still in the bottom; a pair of trousers which might have been cast off as they caught fire; an odd brown and yellow sock dangling morosely over the arm and a copy of The Sporting Life, open and crumpled as if its reader had left to avoid the police. On the bare and dusty floorboards was a square of brown carpet with ragged edges. In the corner was a dark-stained table on which sat a two-thirds empty bottle of milk, sliced white bread in its greaseproof wrapper, an empty wine bottle, two mugs and a pair of down-at-heel brogues. There was a rocking chair on which was piled Sam’s clothes. An old, yellow eiderdown served as a curtain at the dirty window.
“Oh, nice,” said Joyce.
“Expecting the Queen Mother ?” said Sandra.
Without taking off their coats the girls began to tidy. Bert was amazed at how quick and handy they were. They went at the little task as if they’d come for nothing else, giggling all the while, whispering to one another and once they were concealed in the little kitchen guffawing and whooping as if they’d won the pools. Sam, a Woodbine burning between his lips, winked at Bert as he made effete efforts at bringing order. He’d bought two bottles of cheap French red from the landlord of The Boar’s Head who drove to Liverpool once a week and handed over a few quid for a couple of cases to a man on the docks, no questions asked. He went into the kitchen. The girls hooted like ships coming into port and squealed like cornered mice. Bert imagined Sam squeezing their waists or pinching their behinds. The host reappeared with a wine glass, a teacup and two mugs. He grabbed the clothes from the rocking chair and threw them behind the sofa.
“Make yourself at home, Bert.”
Sam pulled a little folding table from the corner. It stood two feet high and had flimsy, hinged legs. Its surface was decorated with cack-handed maqueterie showing a marine scene: two rocky islands in a crashing sea and seagulls wheeling in the salty wind.
“Made it myself,” said Sam proudly. “What d’you think ?”
The table wobbled like a drunk on a bicycle as he put down the cups and glass.
“Smashing,” said Bert.
“I’ve always been good with my hands. My dad was a skilled man. Cabinet maker. That’s why drumming comes naturally to me.”
Bert smiled and nodded as Sam yanked the stubborn cork from the tight neck of the green bottle, half filled one of the mugs and handed it to him.
“Just get the bouquet of that, man. Class.”
Bert took a sip of the bitter wine. He’d hardly ever drunk any but he’d tasted smooth and delicate Mouton-Cadet and mature Bordeaux from which rose the fruity odour of the grape before the liquid touched your lips. This concoction burned and almost made him splutter. He supposed it had been bottled for cooking, the kind of thing a French housewife would pour liberally into the pot of coq au vin; but he would have rather drunk cold, stewed tea than finish what was in his mug.
“Those French cats know how to make wine, eh man ?”
“They do,” said Bert.
“You watch these chicks when they taste that nectar,” Sam whispered, “ ready and willing, man.”
Bert nodded. Joyce and Sandra, who had left their coats in the kitchen, came through and sat side by side on the sofa.
“Wine, ladies ?”
Sam filled the glass.
“Do we have to share ?” said Joyce.
“I’m not drinking from the same glass as you,” said Sandra in mock protest, “who knows whose germs I might pick up.”
“Cheeky bitch,” said Joyce, “I’m very particular about what I do with my mouth.”
Sam handed her the glass.
“We know you are darlin’” he said. “Taste that, the best thing that ever touched your lips.”
“I thought that was the bloke from Burnley with the Bentley,” said Sandra.
“Depends which lips you’re talking about,” said Joyce taking the glass, and the lunatic laughter of the two girls rose like an Atlantic breaker before a lashing gale and crashed into the little cove of their get together sweeping all inhibition and decorum under the crack of the unpainted door.
She brought the glass to her lips, took a mouthful and at once spat it over the little table.
“Oh my god, what’s that ?”
“That’s classy French wine,” said Sam.
Joyce dragged the back of her hand across her mouth.
“Clean your bath with it,” she said, “it’ll move those stains in seconds. Sandy, where’s the gin, for christ’s sake. That’s the worst thing I’ve ever had in my mouth.”
“And that’s sayin’ somethin’,” said Sandra reaching into her handbag for the bottle of Gordon’s.
She poured generously into the teacup and the empty mug and the girls nestled beside one another like little sisters after bath-time on a Sunday night.
“Oh, that’s better,” said Joyce, “that’s what I call a drink.”
“Put some music on,” said Sandra “it’s like a funeral parlour in here.”
Sam knelt to plug in the record player. He put on Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelly with the Quintet of the Hotclub of France. Honeysuckle Rose plaintively bowed by the violinist filled the little room.
“What’s this rubbish ?” said Joyce.
“This is Django,” said Sam “the greatest jazz guitar man in the world.”
“Well, Django can go-go,” said Joyce. “Give us something we can dance to. I’m in the mood.”
So Sam took off the music he loved and found a recording of Benny Goodman playing Gershwin. The first number was I’ve Got Rhythm and at the sound of the dancing clarinet the girls jumped up and began to step around the floor in imitation of what they thought was the Jitterbug.
“What are we dancing ?” called Sandra.
“Who cares. Lindy Hop.”
“That’s not the Lindy Hop,” said Sam.
“What do you know ?” called Joyce.
Sandra collided with the table and sent the cups tumbling. Bert righted them and ran to the kitchen to find something to mop up the mess.
“My favourite dance is the collegiate shag,” shouted Sam.
The girls howled, grabbed one another and swung around the little floor as if it were the Blackpool Tower ballroom.
“That’s a dance for the bedroom,” said Sandra.
Sam, a drink in his hand, was stepping along with the girls. Bert had found a dirty towel on the floor and was wiping up the spilt wine and gin. Sandra, panting, collapsed on the sofa and let her knees swing apart so that when he looked up, Bert saw her stocking tops, suspenders and knickers. He felt a little spurt of illicit and unpleasant excitement. Sam, taking his opportunity, grabbed Joyce and the two of them, pressed tight against one another like strangers on a crowded tram, staggered and clumped in a bout composed of an incompetent fox-trot, a inept waltz, a misconceived Charleston and a demented Jitterbug . Bert took the wet, stained towel into the kitchen, wrung it out and when he came back found Sam and Joyce with their mouths glued together as they swayed across the dirty carpet. He sat in the rocking chair. Sandra swung her legs up onto the sofa and tugged down her red skirt as though concerned for her modesty. She picked up her cup, sipped and held it close like a child its teddy bear. Bert watched the tottering pair, as if interested. Joyce’s arms were slung round Sam’s neck like a boys’ rope swung over an arching branch which bows and springs under the weight of its load. Her skirt was sliding up her legs, her blouse pulling free of the band of her skirt and her breasts popping out of the buttons Sam was fumbling assiduously to unfasten. She let out a little squeal half of amusement, half of affront, as his long hands grabbed the twin moons of her backside. Bert had a nauseous feeling that he was going to hitch up her clothes to reveal her underwear, suspender belt and stocking tops. He thought for a distressing moment that in their mutual drunkenness they were about to collapse on the acrid rug and rut like heedless dogs subjecting himself and Sandra to the always ridiculous and unedifying spectacle of people doing what comes most naturally and yet always seems most unnatural; but Sam guided his afternoon love towards the open bedroom door. She kicked off her stilettos to steady herself. Bert and Sandra heard the heavy, muffled thud as they fell across the bed, followed by Joyce’s laughter, squawks and shrieks and Sam’s breathless grunts and groans. Bert got up and pulled the door to. It wouldn’t close. He yanked on the brass handle but the frame titled one way and the door the other so the best he could do was fold The Sporting Life and jam it between the two edges. His hope that this would deaden the sound enough to allow him and Sandra to talk over the knocking shop cacophony was in vain.
“I think I’ll make myself a cup of tea,” he said. “Fancy one.”
“I’ll stick to the gin, thanks. My mother told me never to mix my drinks.”
Dawdling in the kitchen he thought the circus might be over before he had to go back and be polite to Sandra. He wondered why he didn’t just leave, but it seemed unmanly; to walk out would be interpreted as moral disagreement; he didn’t want to appear supercilious or as small-minded as a net-curtain twitcher. All the same, he found the business unpleasant and boring; the time was starting to drag horribly, like the minutes to the end of a long sermon or a boring lesson; this kind of low-level activity, drinking precious hours away, idling when something productive could be achieved, engaging in drunken copulation that could lead only to regret of one kind or another was a rusty saw-blade across the grain of his ambitions. It was true that Elsie could have benefited from a thimbleful of Joyce and Sandra’s open-legged nonchalance, but it equally true they could have been improved by a quantum of her self-discipline. It was odd. Why were girls like Joyce and Sandra so come-what-may ? They were pleasant enough. He liked them. They had plenty of qualities and he imagined sooner or later they’d settle down and be good wives and mothers. Maybe they were doing nothing more than opening the doors and letting a little mischievous air circulate through the musty house of respectability and responsibility; perhaps they were only too aware of how narrow and low-roofed were their possibilities and were finding out how it felt to behave like a rabbit in the cabbage patch before propriety insisted they be confined to their hutches. Yet while he could be tolerant, while he asked what difference it made, after all, that Joyce and Sam weren’t married or even committed in any way; while he could wonder what difference, in the end, marriage made to the act , he was as ill-at-ease as a teetotaller in a brewery. Yes, having sex with a woman you were intending to spend your life with was as different from what Sam and Joyce were doing as Mars from the Yorkshire Dales, yet the act, the simple act was the same. He couldn’t get upset about people satisfying their lust, if they chose to, any more than he could get upset about a man falling like a locust on a wrapper of fish and chips or a woman offering the gut-deity one chocolate after another. All the same, he felt it was a waste. It wasn’t getting anywhere. It was as weightless as those insignificant ways people have of filling heavy time: doing crosswords or playing whist. He couldn’t twist himself to those things. They seemed like ropes tying him to the empty moment as surely as the earth is held in its orbit by the sun.
He went back into the slovenly living-room. Sandra was stretched out like a corpse, her cup on her chest held by her unsure hand whose bright red nails contrasted violently with the white ceramic . He sat down with a sigh, trying to ignore the uproar from the bedroom but Joyce was one of those noisy women who rouse easily and let out great cries of immoderate pleasure at every effort of the cock perched on her trying to prove his prowess. Bert had only Mrs Bruzzese as a comparison and she was much more a delicately panting woman who sucked in air in little gasps of delight. He could hear the bed thumping and creaking. Joyce’s full-lunged hoots and whines were as impossible to ignore as a wasp after your ice-cream. At a particularly loud, three-fold whoop, Sandra giggled as if her ribs were being tickled.
“Sounds like they’re having a good time,” said Bert in the hope of diminishing the embarrassment.
“She is,” said Sandra and after a pause, “she always does.”
Bert wondered if this was a gambit to entice him into licentious territory but he had no desire to do more than chat about the weather or the continuing privations of rationing.
“Do you have a job, Sandra,” he said with a smile in his voice.
“What do you do ?”
“What do you pack ?”
“Do you get free samples ?”
“Enough to feed the Eighth Army.”
“Perk of the job.”
“I hate biscuits.”
“I must have packed ten million Morning Coffee. The very sight of one makes me want to commit murder.”
Bert laughed just they heard a clamorous wail from Joyce “Yes, yes, yes,” and the dry scrape of the bed increased its clunking pace. Sandra giggled again.
“Still, you’ve got a job.”
“There might be prospects.”
“The only prospect for me is Chocolate Digestives.”
“You never know. The world is changing, Sandra.”
A brassy caterwaul of “Oh, my god, oh, my god” almost drowned him out. Sandra giggled again and as the noise from the bedroom increased, the hoarse squawk of the bedsprings beating a galloping rhythm, she was unable to bring her simper to an end, as if an electrical impulse was applied to her nerves every two seconds making her rock and emit little throaty mewls.
“Opportunities are opening up for women,” Bert went on as a lusty ejaculation of inarticulate moans and screams filled the room. The door might have been open, the walls composed of nothing more substantial than brown paper. The din was as close to them as if they were sitting by the bed, as attentive to its occupants as parents to a sick child. Sandra’s giggles were getting more frequent, like the contractions of a woman in labour.
“I’m a great believer in female emancipation,” said Bert
Joyce’s braying was as regular as a piston. There was barely a second between one whinny and the next; as they edged nearer together they increased in volume. Bert sipped his tea in the hope the climax would arrive any instant and in the ensuing lull he would be able to talk to Sandra as if they were sitting on the church lawn for a Sunday afternoon picnic; but the ecstatic frenzy only quickened and the pumping of the screeching, unoiled bedframe became more and more reminiscent of a mill at full production.
“They’ll go through the ruddy ceiling,” exclaimed Sandra.
The hooting and honking grew louder, the drones between one peak and another longer, the exclamations more urgent; she soared to a shrill falsetto like a piccolo blown altissimo; she sank to husky, sepulchral bellows, like a calving cow.
“Education, that’s the key. An educated woman should be able to go as far as any man.”
There came the final roar like an engine gunned to master a steep climb; the shuddering gasp of intense pleasure pounded once, twice, three times, four times.
“Christ, the bed’ll be in pieces.”
She went on: five, six, seven.
“You’d think it was a bloody rhino in there,” said Sandra.
Bert drank his tea. Eight, nine, ten. Little by little the volume diminished. She gave a brief cackle. There was a pause followed by smokey, bouncing laughter, as if she’d just heard a joke that amused her to incapacity. Bert was relieved. He set his mug on the floor. Sandra was tapping her nails against her cup: one two three four, one two three four.
“Whereabouts do you live ?”said Bert.
“Thinking of walking me home ?”
“Just interested. I live with a relative of mine. That’s the war for you. But Attlee’ll sort it out.”
“Clem Attlee. The Prime Minister.”
“I can’t be doin’ with politics. It puts me to sleep.”
“All the same, things are changing. The war was a terrible thing but it’s brought some good. We’ll never go back to the poverty of the thirties now.”
Sandra wriggled herself half upright and propped her tousled head with a cushion.
“What did you do in the war?” she said.
“No. They wouldn’t train lads like me. I worked on the ground.”
“Doin’ what ?”
“Loading bombs. Paperwork. Whatever needed doing they told you to do it.”
“Not every exciting then ?”
“War isn’t exciting.”
“Bet it’s more exciting than packing biscuits.”
“Men say nothing’s more exciting than being shot at, but it’s a perverse excitement. It’s little boys playing games. When you think about what war does to people. There’s no excuse for it.”
“I don’t understand it, but I’m glad it’s over. The blackout drove me crazy.”
Sam came through in his shirt and trousers a firm Woodbine sticking out from his lips.
“Got a light, Sandra? Can’t find mine.”
“I’m surprised you’ve got the energy to smoke,” she said swinging her legs round and picking her red handbag from the floor.
“Plenty of petrol left in the tank,” said Sam. “Fancy a ride ?”
She tossed a box of Swan Vesta to him.
“I’d have to wait an hour for your tyres to be pumped up,” she said.
“Hard as rock in a minute.”
“I think you’ve got a puncture. Better get it repaired.”
“Want to check me inner tube ?”
“No thanks. I’m particular. Never pick things up off the street my mother said, you don’t know where they’ve been.”
He nodded and smiled, drew on the cigarette and went back into the bedroom. Bert felt ready to leave.
“Smoke ?” said Sandra.
She lit one for herself and puffed as she set her elbows on her knees, her chin in her palm, looking wistfully in front of her as if for inspiration.
“I love a cigarette,” she said. “I don’t know how you can live without them.”
“The way I look at it,” said Bert, “they cost a small fortune and do your health no good.”
“My granddad smokes and he’s fit as a ferret.”
“There’s always an exception.”
“Anyway, you have to have your pleasures in life, don’t you.”
“What are they ?” she said, leaning on the sofa’s arm and bringing her right leg up onto the cushions.
The question bothered him because it was true he didn’t organize his life around everyday pleasures. What people thought of as pleasures – smoking, drinking, gambling- seemed to him silly indulgences. They were a kind of weakness, a compensation for being unable to rise to life’s stern demands. Yet faced with someone like Sandra who could get as much pleasure from a cigarette as he might extract from making his plans for the future, he felt his life lacked something; his character lacked something. Perhaps he should be more like his grandparents ? But the idea was ludicrous. They’d wasted their lives. They were victims of their own debased appetites. And Sandra, what would she make of hers ? Forty years of packing biscuits; a conventional marriage more endured than enjoyed; a couple of kids; a decent little terrace or a council house; retirement on a paltry pension death from emphysema wondering what her life was all about? It seemed to Bert that things were set up somehow to ensure girls like her couldn’t make the best of themselves. Yet what did that mean ? He wasn’t sure but it was to do with wriggling free of what you were supposed to be, rubbing off the wool of what you were supposed to do, finding some small space in which you could discover some way of living which defied imposed definitions. What saddened him about a girl like Sandra was it looked as though the map of her life had been drawn by others and, utterly unaware of following a route laid down prior to the start of her journey, she would take a path she thought was her own and never know how she had been cheated. Yet it was true: she was more able to go directly to her pleasures than him. What were his pleasures ? Reading ?Listening to music ? Watching a football match ?
“My greatest pleasure,” he said, “is reading.”
“Crickey. Your greatest pleasure.”
“I’d say so.”
“Find yourself a good woman,” she said, throwing back her head and blowing a long, grey, feather of smoke into the unhealthy atmosphere.
He laughed but he wasn’t sure he hadn’t made a fool of himself. He thought of Mrs Bruzzese. It was true the pleasure was like no other, but so was the pleasure of reading. It wasn’t possible to compare them. It was like comparing an after dinner nap with a brisk ascent of Skiddaw. Every pleasure was its own. The pleasure of sex was curious. He was only too aware he was basing his conclusions on flimsy evidence, but to go on like Sam, to have one Mrs Bruzzese after another, might keep frustration at bay but it dragged with it an inadequacy as heavy as a trailerful of bricks. Just as you wouldn’t want to sit across from someone you didn’t like and eat a meal; as life would lack continuity, like a task begun and never accomplished, if you ate with a different person every day; so sex was nothing but a fleeting if intense sensation if it wasn’t embedded in the delight of sharing. It was hard for him to bring it clearly into focus, but the anticipated gentle pleasures of living long with Elsie, of having children, of living beyond himself in a set of relations which demanded discipline as well as delivering fulfilment, was far more appealing than the rat-in-a-box life Sam led. It was true he got to know lots of women. There was something to be said for seeing nineteen year-old girls naked in your bed; but in the end Sam was like the rat programmed to hit the lever to get its lump of cheese; round and round he went, one girl after another, but never anything that rose above mere rubbing off the tension. Maybe he was fond of Joyce. Maybe they could have a life together. But it was much more likely he couldn’t get beyond seeing her as tasty young flesh, that he would be bored of her five minutes after the tangle, that he would rather head off to the bookies or the pub or in search of another pair of young thighs than spend an hour in her company.
“I have,” he said.
“Who’s she ?” said Sandra and he was surprised by the hint of jealousy in her tone.
“When’s the wedding ? Do we get an invite ?”
“As a matter of fact,” he said, “I proposed this afternoon.”
“Did she accept ?”
“I don’t know.”
Sandra let out a rollicking, mocking, snigger of a laugh.
“Find yourself someone else,” she said.
“It’s a serious matter. I wouldn’t want her not to think about it.”
“While you’re thinking about what to do with your life, your life goes by,” she said, rocking her right knee.
There was something ugly in her provocation; something, he thought, almost evil. The afternoon had put her in a nasty mood. Maybe it was having to listen to Joyce’s pleasure; maybe she was jealous; maybe she just felt left out and in that flat, couldn’t-care-less mood which makes people do things they regret. She drew hard on her cigarette. She was young girl after all, what had made her so hard ? Her cynicism frightened Bert. As always the sense of people giving in to their whims brought his childhood to mind; the horrible fear of being left alone; the terrible shame of seeing his drunken grandfather swing his thick branch of an arm to catch his grandmother against the side of her head with his knuckles so she staggered and cursed. She was willing to have sex with him, but why ? Because she just felt the urge ? As a way of passing the time ? Or did she find him attractive and sympathetic ? He didn’t like it. It was like the poverty he was determined to escape and the grim duty of war: things that sprang from the vicious side of human nature and which should be fought off with as much energy as possible.
“If you don’t think about it, you waste it,” he said.
“I don’t see why.”
“Life is a challenge,” he said. “You have to rise to it to feel you’re living and to rise to it you have to know what it is.”
“Really ?” she said, as bored as a child in church.
“What do you want out of life ?”
“Right now I could do with some more gin and a good man,” she said and he heard a hint of violence in her voice which shocked him and made his heart race.
Joyce appeared combing her hair.
“I could’ve done with some ear-plugs,” said Sandra.
“You two been enjoying yourselves ?” said Joyce, standing before the little mirror that hung above the table.
“He’s been telling me about his pleasures,” said Sandra.
“You know what he likes best ?”
“A good book.”
“Fanny Hill you mean ?”
“I don’t think it’s fanny he favours.”
“You’re not one of them, are you Bert ?” said Joyce turning to him.
He laughed and was immediately aware of how nervous and defensive he sounded.
“He’s just asked someone to marry him,” said Sandra.
“Congratulations,” said Joyce smiling widely and looking at her she might have been any sweet young girl, as innocent as a daisy.
“She turned him down,” blurted Sandra.
“No she didn’t,” protested Bert.
“Never mind. There’ll be others,” said Joyce as if all the experience in the world lay behind her opinions.
“She wants time to think, that’s all,” said Bert.
Sandra and Joyce looked at one another. They raised their eyebrows as resignedly as women who have brought up children, suffered bereavement and known every disappointment life can bring. Sam came through rubbing Brylcreem into his black hair.
“Can I borrow your comb ?”
“No. I don’t want it full of all that grease.”
“It’s only a bit of Brylcreem.”
“A bit ? You could lubricate the Royal Scotsman with what’s on your head.”
“Got a comb ?” he said to Bert.
“Tyres pumped up yet ?” jabbed Sandra.
“Come on, Sandy,” said Joyce. “Time for us to go.”
“You’ve had yours, I want mine.”
“You been sitting here for an hour slurping gin,” replied Joyce. “You should’ve got stuck in.”
“I want shagging not a bedtime story,” protested Sandra tossing her head like a horse breaking free across an open field.
Joyce and Sam laughed in unison but Bert could only smile and drum his fingers on the arm of his chair.
“Got to get to the bookies,” said Sam.
“Come on, Sandra. We’ll be late for the pictures if we don’t get going.”
“What you going to see?” said Sam.
“The Captive Heart,” said Joyce.
“Sounds romantic,” said Sam.
“Well, you know me. I’m all romance at heart.”
“You’ll be too busy snoggin’ to see the film,” said Sandra.
“So will you,” retorted Joyce.
“But I’m ready for a snog. You’ve just had fish and chips and now you’re ready for egg and bacon.”
“I always did have a good appetite.”
Joyce and Sam chuckled. Bert got up and followed them to the door. Sandra came after him. In the street Joyce gave Sam a peck on the cheek, as if he were a faithful husband leaving for work. The girls clicked away on their stilettos.
“Comin’ to the bookies ?” said Sam
“No, I’ll get on.”
“Maybe see you in The Railway ?”
The two men shook hands and went in opposite directions.
Bert spent the evening at home. Aunty Alice had made him hot pot. She always prepared it in the same bowl, deep as a canyon and wide as the Mersey. When she drove the shovel of the serving spoon through the thick crust, it was as if the fire at the centre of the earth was forcing the hot contents to the surface; steam rose over the table till a grey mist stood between them, like clouds descending quickly on Coniston; the thin gravy bubbled and oozed as if it would keep coming like the lava from Vesuvius, bury them in its scalding progress and leave them charred and encased to be discovered by the future’s mystified archaeologists. She heaped the impossibly hot delicacy onto his plate and in that mound of potatoes, steak, carrots, onions and pastry was a love he’d never known; the petty circle of his plate embraced a shy intimacy which made him long for something better than he’d known. In her odd and quiet way, Aunty Alice loved him. She’d spent the afternoon making this meal for him out of devotion. No-one had ever looked after him like this. He was like a wild boy left in the woods by his parents, reared by animals, who comes to civilization and is baffled. He’d done nothing to deserve this. There was no demand for anything in return. It was gratuitous kindness. He glanced at Aunty Alice without letting her notice. She was, as always, reserved and quiet. Her she was, a poor widow in the back streets of an industrial northern town; a woman whose life was limited by the size of her meagre purse; and yet in this little house, in these unlikely circumstances was all that was needed for happiness. He lifted the food on his fork. It was tasty and filling. He knew she would be pleased to see him eat with relish. When his plate was clean she said:
“Would you like a bit more, Bert ?”
“I certainly would.”
He held the plate out to her and she piled it as high as before. He liked to mash the potatoes in the hot liquid, spread them on the crust and enjoy the mixed flavours and textures. As he chewed, happy in a curious way to be sitting opposite good Aunty Alice, he thought of the afternoon; what would she think of Sam and Joyce ? Was she right or was she just a deluded and conformist old lady, naïve about the realities of the world? Sex was a conundrum. Sam and Joyce weren’t intimate yet they’d committed the act of ultimate intimacy. It was odd how the act could be separated from the emotion. They were almost strangers. They knew one another no better than Bert knew people he said hello to at Hopkirk’s or on the street. Could it be as simple as that? Could people rub off the tension as strangers, part from one another and feel no regret ? It seemed wrong. Not in any moral sense; Bert was far too familiar with the difficulty of getting by in life to raise himself to the level of a moral judge and condemn others for what they needed to do to avoid despair; but it seemed to twist his feelings in a way he didn’t like. It was true, he’d done as much with Mrs Bruzzese; but that was different; the woman was dangling by her fingertips over a cliff-face of radical disappointment; her very destiny was in question; and anyway, he liked her and felt connected to her. No, it was the oddness that sex was an intimate act that could be stripped of its intimacy which troubled him. He wanted it not to be true. The raw physical act ought always to be wrapped in the warm blanket of intimacy, and love, as modest and undemonstrative as Aunty Alice’s, should always make lust veil her face. He wondered about Aunty Alice’s married life; had she had her nights of wild passion ? It was hard to imagine, yet women were like that; it was hard to imagine the slim and delicate frame of a young woman going through the pain and effort of childbirth; most burly men would faint at the prospect. So perhaps Aunty Alice had once moaned and wailed in her ecstasy like Joyce. And he thought of Elsie. Would she too let out those unrestrained animal howls ? He wanted to know, but not in the way of Sam and Joyce. He wondered if he should tell Aunty Alice he’d proposed. He looked up from his almost empty plate. She met his eyes.
“Delicious,” he said.
She smiled and in the creasing of her eyes he glimpsed the fresh young woman she’d been fifty-years ago; a young woman with all the charms to make a man lose his head. He thought it better not to tell her.