Harold Coke sat, undisturbed, in his fourth floor office and allowed his thoughts to circulate around the topic of hats. Hats and the people who wore them had become a preoccupation with him. Homburgs, trilbys, caps and bowlers. A hat seemed to be the necessary accompaniment to a man who sat in an office like himself. But which type? Well, not really an office, just a plywood partition at the end of the corridor behind the Men's Clothing Department of White's Stores. At least it did have a chair, an iron hook in the wall to serve a coat rack and a wooden box in which Coke kept his clipboard and electrician's tools.
An office sounded much better than a partition. "I'm just nipping down to the office, Emily," he'd tell his wife on a Saturday morning. You could hardly say "nipping down to the partition ". Or "If Threlfall comes round tell him they've called me in to the office." Yes, "called in" set the right tone, as if he didn't really have to go into work every Saturday morning. It suggested that the store management employed him in the position of a consultant. Consultant. Consultant Surgeon. Now that was even better. A good title, it went with being called Mr. in the hospital, very distinguished. "Mr Samuels will see you now". He was the one in Myrtle Street who'd examined little Eric. The poor boy had been terribly frightened, they'd had to take him to the News Theatre afterwards to let him watch the cartoons.
"Consultant Surgeon", "Mr Samuels". He probably wore a black homburg. The right sort of hat was essential. You'd be able to pick out a consultant surgeon in a bus queue all right. Not that Mr Samuels would ever be seen on a bus. He probably went everywhere by taxi, or better still in a hire car. After all, anyone could get into a taxi on a Saturday night, or after they'd had a win on the dogs. But a hire car and a homburg hat, that would be exactly the right touch.
He walked across the corridor and looked out of the window. It would be getting dark soon and the shop lights would be switched on. How different it had all been during the blackout. Things were almost cheerful now with lights to brighten the gloom of the city. He brought up his hand to examine his fingertips. Black. The whole city was filthy. It was like that everywhere now; the war seemed to have left a layer of dirt over everything, a layer that it could never be cleaned away. At home after Emily had been dusting last week he'd run his finger across the top of the door jamb. Filth. He'd quietly explained that she hadn't cleaned the house properly. But then she'd had one of her little turns, burst into tears and run off into the bedroom and locked the door. She'd probably written the whole thing down in that diary of hers. Then she'd set the boy off as well. But what did she expect? A house has to be kept clean and spotless like a hospital. Everyone knew how quickly germs bred, we had Dr. Fleming to thank for that. Penicillin, bacteria, germs floating about, germs waiting to light on a particle of dirt and start breeding like rabbits. They'd been very particular about that sort of thing in the American hospital.
It was only by the late afternoon that Marge managed to drag herself out of bed, crawl onto the dressing table and tug back the curtains. Well, not curtains really. The war had been over four or five years but somehow she could never get up enough energy to replace the old blackouts. It wasn't her business anyway. She only shared the room with Vera after all.
Outside the day was overcast. It was as if everything had been smeared with a thick layer of grime. Liverpool, she thought, it's all muck when you get down to it. And it'd be dark soon as well. The nights seemed to last much longer after the war. So if she was going to get out before the rain came she'd better be making a move soon.
"Come on Vera, let's go for a bevvy, love."
But Vera on the bed did not bother to look up. She was concentrating on her legs, dabbing at them with a scrap of cotton wool soaked in brown dye.
"Well? Are we going out or aren't we?" Marge stared at her, waiting for a reply then turned away in disgust and looked out of the window, rubbing the greasy glass with the heel of her right hand until the dark terraced houses opposite swam into focus. Once it must have been neat and tidy; before the war. Marge couldn't quite remember, she'd only been a little girl then. Anyhow everything was all dilapidated and neglected now. Paint was peeling off the front doors, windows broken and opposite she could see parts of a room where the wall had been blown out during the bombing.
Vera stopped dabbing and stretched out her fat leg.
"Well? What d'you think of that, kid? It's better than silk stockings with runs in them isn't it?"
Marge shrugged. "You're a dead lazy cow, Vera, it's all blotchy and you haven't even inked in the seam. No wonder you can't pick up anyone decent. If you don't shape up you're going to end up on the docks looking like that."
Vera laughed. "Like hell I will. You just wait and see. I picked up these two Chinese last night. God, you should have seen the money them two were flashing. It all comes from the gambling. Chinese love to gamble you know."
Marge turned away from the window. "You're a terrible liar. You never picked up no one last night, you're too lazy."
Vera grinned and put out her tongue.
"You know how you'll end up, Vee? On the Dock Road with all horrible matted hair and shouting out 'Here y'are love, only half a crown'. You mark my words if you don't."
Vera simply concentrated on putting the last touches to her legs. " They had these herbs, in little brown envelopes. They makes you do daft things."
Marge took a lank strand of hair in her hand and began to twist it round and round as she stared into the darkening street.
"I'll even lend you me best nylons. Come on love, let's get out somewhere."
"I don't need no nylons with legs like these." Vera finished dabbing and stretched herself on the grubby eiderdown. "If I didn't get so hungry I reckon I could spend me whole life in bed."
"We could go to a chippy."
Vera yawned. "I didn't say I was hungry right now. I've only just woke up. But I'll be hungry in a bit. Anyhow I'm sick of chips, can't you do no better than that?"
Marge began to tug at the neck of her cardigan. "Ah come on, love, it's getting late. I've got to get out of here. It's driving me mad."
Vera shrugged, "Well, where d'you want to go then?"
"Oh, I don't know. Anywhere'll do."
Vera watched her, screwing up her eyes against the fading light.
"The Crown's close. We could go to the Crown if you like, Vee."
"The Crown?" Vera pushed herself up on a plump arm, "Cullen you mean. You can't keep away from him can you? Well you'd better watch yourself girl, 'cos you're going to land up in dead trouble. He's a mean bugger that one."
Marge tried to look unconcerned.
"Cullen's all right. I've known him for ages. Anyway you're just scared of him on account of his big ideas. He'll go somewhere one day, you'll see."
"Mother of God but you're green, Marge. The only place Cullen's going is Walton gaol and that won't be on the top of no corporation bus neither."
Marge flushed with anger. Outside she could hear the cries of children as they threw bricks at each other on the bomb site by the corner. Further away she could make out the clip-clopping of horses hooves as the rag and bone man headed for home. In the end it was the sight of Vera's grinning face that stung her to reply.
"Well you'll see, you and your stupid Stutty. Me and Cullen's got big plans. You won't find us round Liverpool much longer, we're on your way, this city's finished. It's over, it's all bomb sites and dirt and stuff. We're going to America, you just wait and see. And think where you'll be then, just some dirty old scrubber walking down the Dock Road."
"Sticks and stones may break my bones but names'll never hurt me." Vera fell back on the bed laughing. "You and your Yanks. The only thing they ever gave you was a dose of the clap and a pair of old nylons with holes in."
In a fury Marge pushed her way past the bed and ran across the room, her hands to her face. Outside in the hallway the stench of dirt and rotting food made her retch and, as she ran up the stairs, the tears almost blinded her.
On the landing she squeezed past a rusty pram. The light bulb was missing and she cut her leg on something sharp. Then up the second set of stairs and into the toilet. As usual the man in the top flat had stolen the paper, even the few pages of the News of the World that Marge had hidden on top of the cistern. Thank God at least he'd flushed the bowl and there weren't terrible living things squirming around in the water.
Marge sat down and tried to hold herself tight enough to stop shivering. Every day was the same now. By early evening she was driven frantic just being shut up in that room. Yet, unless she could persuade Vera to go with her, she become frozen as soon as she reached the street door, unable to step outside. Her only hope lay in leaving Liverpool. She had to get away. She had to go with Cullen to America.
After a while the shivering began to pass and she leaned forward to pick at the brown paint from beside the door. It wasn't true what Vera said, that Cullen'd didn't bother about her, it was just that he was busy and he couldn't always let on to people. He had things to do, jobs and stuff. But Cullen knew that Liverpool was finished. One day they'd be in New York together, walking through Times Square or eating at some big posh restaurant. They'd have a whole pound steak each, and lots of chips and a milk shake and there'd be this big flashy car parked outside, all chrome and bright shiny red paint.
Marge felt a little better now as she groped her way downstairs. Inside the room she switched on the light, shuffled over to the wardrobe and struggled to lever it open with her fingertips.
"Shit, I've broke me nail doing that. I've got to find me emergency ciggies." Standing inside the wardrobe she was now able to reach up and run her hand along the top.
Vera looked up in amazement. "It'll fall on top of you if you go on like that. It'll be in the Echo tomorrow. TART DIES UNDER WARDROBE. CORPSE BURIED AT SEA. I knew you'd be famous one day."
Marge jumped down in triumph and wiped her hands on the eiderdown. "Five Woodies is better than nothing any day and look what else I found." Giving a cackle of triumph she produced a bottle from behind her back.
Vera nodded, "Them Chinese gave it to me. Give it here, it's real good stuff, British port wine, one bottle of that and you go numb all over--it's the gear, kid."
Vera took the bottle and balanced it on her lap reflectively. "You know your trouble, Marge? You're too eager, that's your trouble, you're too eager. Climbing into wardrobes. Men don't like that, they don't want a girl that's too eager."
"What d'you mean eager? I can do better than a couple of old Chinese. I've done well for meself. I had a weekend at the Adelphi Hotel once--real swish that was, with this Yank. It had a bath right there in the room and all the hot water you wanted, right out of the tap. No having to boil up a whole load of pans and then dragging them upstairs. You've never had nothing like that."
Vera thought for a moment, polishing her nails on the hem of her nightie. She tried again, "I know all about that love, but I'm not talking about that sort of thing. Not sailors or some Yank who's too drunk to see your face. I'm not talking about no one night stand, I'm talking about a real man. You can't keep a man. Well can you? It's all 'cos you're too eager and men don't like that. D'you follow?"
Marge reached out for the bottle but Vera held it at arm's length while she patted a place on the bed beside her. Marge shrugged then crawled over to her, snuggling down into the bed and pulling the covers right up to her chin. In the silence that followed she lit two cigarettes and handed one to Vera.
"You don't mind me telling you all this?" Vera asked.
Marge just lay there staring at the smoke from her cigarette as it drifted up to the ceiling. After the bombing the ceiling had been covered with cracks so that if you looked hard enough you could turn them into maps of different countries, or even faces. When she was really drunk Marge would watch the faces spinning round and round and melting into each other. It must have been a nice ceiling once, she thought, all molding and things like that, years and years and years ago. But now it was dark and cracked, and even the paper was peeling off the walls. She looked around the room, at the wardrobe, the dressing table and the red chair with its innards oozing out onto the floor.
"So I'm telling you, Marge. You're not built to hold a man. They like something to hold onto and you're all bones and elbows and bits of gristle and things. It's all 'cause you're too eager, the food doesn't have time to settle down inside you and turn into fat. And you're always running to the bog and jiggling round."
"Well I'm quiet now, aren't I?"
"Yeah, but you'll be jumping up in a minute and running out for a tram and then you'll go traipsing round Church Street or down to the Pier Head. You're never still, even when you're asleep at night you're still friggling around."
She studied Marge for a moment.
"You know, maybe you've got worms or caught something off one of them sailors. I used to go with this Indian doctor off the boats and he told me that you can get this big slug thing that lives inside you. It crawls round all the time and eats you from the inside out bones and all. Maybe that's what you've got."
Marge drew deeply on her cigarette and held the smoke in her lungs.
"I'm all right. It's just that I've got......well sometimes I've got these ideas in me head and I have to keep moving. Not doing nothing in particular, just moving till I'm so dead tired that the ideas stop chasing around."
Vera reached under the bed for her black leather handbag. It had belonged to her auntie before the war and was about the size of a small sack of coal. Grubbing around inside she found a tiny mirror, the silver peeling off the back, and propping it on her knees she searched her nose for blackheads.
"You're dead right Marge, the light's real shitty in here. But then you don't want to bring a fella back if it's too bright. Well, he'd see all over the place wouldn't he? This way you can jump right into bed and get on with the job with no one noticing...right?
From Marge there was only blank silence as her dark eyes stared at the cracks.
"You all right, kid?"
Vera arranged her heavy body and leaned over Marge. Gently she began to stroke her friend's hair.
"I do want him, Vee," Marge whispered, "he's dead important to me, he really is."
"I know you do, kid, I know. But he's no use to you. There's something a bit crazy about Cullen. I'm telling you he's not like the others, I mean spivs and things, lifting stuff off the docks and doing handbags. He'll do something real daft one of these days, you mark my words."
Marge snuggled closer to Vera's big, warm body.
"No, Cullen's different. He's big, dead big. The first time I saw him he was at he Pier Head talking to a Yank flyer. I could have stood there and listened to him for hours, the plans he was making, the things he was saying. He's really going to New York you know, one of these days."
Vera went on stroking. "Yeah love, he's important to you isn't he? But you're too eager. You throw yourself at him. He'll only use you and then drop you."
With a sudden jerk Marge sat upright and grabbed for the bottle.
"Come on, Vera, it's dark outside. Let's go somewhere."
Vera laughed, "Let's find me knickers first and we're off. Have you got any money for that chippie?"
Marge shook here head, "You'll get your chips later, let's just have a nose around."
Vera found her knickers and bra under the bed and shook the fluff out of them. "I know you...you can't wait to get off with Cullen can you? Here give us a hand with me bra and we'll be off."
Harold studied his watch. Only half an hour to go. He looked out again, trying to see beyond the lights of the city at that fainter glow above the river. The Welsh hills, could he really see them now? No. It was too dark. Too dark for the hills. There is a green hill far away, without a city wall. A vision of green fields and cows and Americans playing baseball. That would be Hereford, the U.S. Air Base where he'd been stationed during the war. "Stationed with the US Air Force." Sent there really, on war work, unfit for the army because of his flat feet, installing electrical cables. There is a green hill far away. Something from school? Something learned in Miss Tunnycliff's class? Who was it? Wordsworth? Tennyson? He strained to remember. A clear vision of green fields and hills. The sky. Branches. And then a dark centre of sadness.
Harold turned away from the window. He'd get some poetry out of the library tonight, some good stuff. He'd read them on the bus tomorrow morning, particularly if Threlfall got on. "Just nipping into the office," he'd say and he'd set the book open on his lap. He tried to picture what sort of hat a poet would wear. Sighing he reached for his raincoat. "I'll just do a walk around," he muttered to himself. Like the American pilots in the war, before they flew off to bomb Germany. He'd just walk around the store and check that everything was working, no lights burned out, nothing overheating, nothing out of place. He pulled on his dark leather gloves. Emily had bought them for his birthday last year. Harold Coke fastened the buttons at his wrist and prepared to meet the evening.
Contact F. David Peat