It had started to drizzle by the time the two girls reached Dale Street. Marge pulled her coat tightly around her body and hooked her arm through Vera's to speed her along. Vera for her part, tottering on high heels, refused to be hurried and so the two of them moved in fits and starts through the thinning crowds.
Impervious to the rain, Vera allowed her coat to flap open and reveal the pink cocktail dress which had been given to her by an American soldier just after the war. The bustline was low, exposing a pair of trembling blue-white globes. She suddenly burst out laughing. "Look at us kid...Laurel and Hardy." She paused to let that sink in, "See, you're the thin one and I'm the fat one."
A business man, his umbrella angled against the rain, approached. Marge nudged her friend and the pair backed against the wall and started to kick their legs high in the air.
We are the Ovalteenies,
Good girls are we,
We take a pride in our virginity....
At first the man pretended not to notice, then suddenly burst past them with a cry of "Get out of my way, damn you."
Vera dissolved into a fit of the giggles. "God our Marge, I'm going to wet meself. Did you see the face on that one?"
On their left stood the bombed shell of a church, its stone work blackened by flames. As they reached the end of the street there was a sudden tang of salt in the air and the yellow glow of the street lights bounced back from the puddles in the road. Marge pulled her coat even more tightly around her while Vera put on an unexpected burst of speed.
"God I'm dead famished now, Vee, let's go down to Yate's Wine Lodge, we can get something from the chippie next door."
But Vera was looking over the road at a flower stall outside White's department store.
"Isn't that Cullen's ma over there? The old biddy in the shawl taking to the posh bloke?"
Marge nodded. "Don't let on to her, the smelly old cow. The way she talks. Listen to her, you can hear her here stupid ramblings from over here."
"Sacred Heart, Mr Roberts, it's getting terrible late and our Kevin isn't back yet."
Mrs Cullen's customer, spruce in his dark overcoat and homburg slipped off a black leather glove and eased a gold watch from his waistcoat pocket.
"Six twenty seven, Mrs Cullen. I'm sure your son will be along soon."
Ma Cullen nodded and weaved in her chair like a boxer. Her back was formed into a permanent stoop and her hands were fixed into talons of arthritis. On her legs she wore two pairs of long men's socks over stockings that were rolled down to her knees.
"He's a terrible good boy to his Ma is our Kevin. Not like them young tearaways you get nowadays. He always has time for his old mother. His Da was like that too. He give me the pay packet regular of a Saturday and I'd pass him his beer money out of it. But he's long gone with the war and that, only me and Kevin left now."
Mr Roberts nodded and buttoned his overcoat.
"He must be a great consolation to you, I think I'll take a bunch of those daffs. Nice and fresh are they?"
"For Mrs Roberts is it love? And how's the poor woman then?"
"Bearing up, Mrs Cullen, bearing up. She's had ill health since the war........it was the bombing you see."
Ma Cullen nodded and handed over the flowers.
"The bombing was it? But then me legs has been terrible since the bombing. That's why I need our Kevin to help me shut the stall at night."
Mr Roberts swelled with the compassion of vicarious suffering. "Mrs Roberts is not a well woman by any means. It's very trying at times, she's house bound with her nerves, you see. She does have a sister who comes in from Southport once a week to do the cleaning."
"She can't manage the housework then?"
"Oh no, she spends all the day lying in a darkened room. I have to do all the little things around the house myself."
"Ah well, that's not right, Mr. Roberts, that's not right at all. A man's got to come home to his dinner hot on the table and no jobs neither. You should get yourself a scrubber, you must be talking home a good wage from Whites."
Mr Roberts examined his overcoat then gently picking a tiny white thread from its immaculate surface.
"Oh, but I'm not at the store any more. I was only visiting today, a word with the maintenance manager."
"So you're gone then?"
Mr Roberts nodded with considerable pride. "Two weeks ago. I am now the manager of the Palace Cinema."
Ma Cullen rose with some difficulty and took the flowers away from him. She rearranged them and added a few leaves.
"There, I've done them up real nice for you." She wrapped a fresh piece of white paper around the bunch and handed them back to Mr Roberts. "Now you put them in a nice vase for Mrs. Roberts and don't forget to bash the bottoms of the stems like I told you. It sucks up the water real good."
Mr. Roberts transferred the flowers to the crook of his arm and slid his glove off again. He searched in the pockets of his trousers for some silver and handed it over to Ma Cullen. From her chair beside the flower stall she squinted up in admiration at Mr Roberts as he carefully replaced his glove.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph and you the manager of the Palace, well just fancy that."
Holding the flowers firmly in his left hand Mr Roberts wafted the other in a vague gesture, something between a blessing and a solo handshake. "Why don't you get that son of yours to take you out some time? I dare say I could find you a couple of free passes, just ask at the cash desk."
Ma Cullen looked very sharp. "I don't know about that. That place used to be a mission hall or something before they made it into a fillum house. I'm not going into no mission hall, the priest'd kill me if he knew. Ah, but then you wouldn't know nothing about that would you Mr Roberts, you being Welsh and that."
Mr Roberts swayed from foot to foot then pulled out his watch again. "Well, I must be off. We've got a nice double feature tonight. Any time you like, Mrs Cullen, just ask for tickets at the cash desk."
Mrs Cullen nodded as Mr Roberts turned and strode across the road towards where Vera and Marge were still standing. Her eyes were not as good as they used to be and she could make out little across the road except the general shapes of passers-by and the lights in the shop windows.
It was much darker now and as she peered around her she began to mutter under her breath. "Good man that Mr Roberts, always has the time of day to let on, not like some of them young fellas you get nowadays."
From time to time she pressed her gloved fist against her chest and her thin lips whitened in pain. "Fancy them saying the Welsh is tight wads, always has the time to buy a bunch of flowers for his missus. We're all the same deep down, not like them tearaways, too much bashings today. Them bastards'd beat you over the head for a few coppers and leave you in the gutter."
From across the road she could hear the sounds of children playing by the corner. "Young devils, trying to cheek me and throwing things. Good clout over the lughole, that's what they want, no respect. Not like our Kevin, he was always a good boy and dead clever too. The drawings he done for the nuns, sheep and horses and mountains and things.....just like a real artist."
With great difficulty Ma Cullen got to her feet and began to gather the flowers together. "It was them others that led him astray. That Terry , in and out of Walton gaol, and that Marge nosing around him, a real scrubber that one."
A sudden noise made Ma Cullen swing round, her fist to her heart.
"Holy Mary, it's one of them tearaways. And the police no help neither, that Taylor all smarmy to your face one minute and throwing his weight around next. Never trust the police, that's what our Con said. And there's Kevin playing up to him and doing deals and that. But then he was always the smart one was Kevin, even when he was a kid in the war with the petrol. And that wasn't stealing neither, even our priest said that."
Ma Cullen shuffled over to the door of the department store. If she could see the night man he'd probably let her stand inside until Kevin came. Putting her face to the glass she tried to look inside the darkened store. Then taking some coppers out of her pocket, she tapped at the window.
"Stick em up."
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph", Ma Cullen felt a sudden pressure in her back. She spun round , her lips blue with fear, to see a man standing in the shadows. His figure was slight, yet the turn of his coat collar and the trilby pulled down to shade his face gave him a menacing appearance.
"One false move and I'll drill you lady. Now hand over the loot or you'll be sleeping six feet under."
"Saints above but you're a great stupid lout," Ma Cullen cried, "scaring the wits out of me like that. Me heart's still beating with it. God if your Da'd been alive he'd have swung for you."
With a laugh Cullen stepped out of the shadows.
"D'you think I'll do? Me and the boys are holding up the Cunard Buildings tonight. Fast job, two cars, four guns, lots of stiffs over the street. You'll hear about me on the wireless in the morning."
But Ma was angry. "Yer stupid loaf saying things like that, you'll go too far one of these days, you mark my words. Then where'll your poor Ma be then with you in gaol? In the work house, won't I, with me legs."
Cullen shrugged and tried to put his arm around his mother. "Ah, but you're a queen, Ma. One day I'll strike it rich and we'll have a big car and a nice house. You'll see, I'll drive you through New York one day."
But Ma was not to be appeased.
"It's not me you won't be driving in no car. You don't give a toss about your old Ma, it's all them tarts from the Crown, that Marge or whatever she calls herself. Muck, that's all you go for, muck just like your Da."
But Cullen was in an expansive mood and, leading his mother over to her chair, he began to close up the stall.
"Terry can push the barrow back later. We'll go home and have a nice cup of tea by the fire."
"Don't think you can get round me with none of your smooth talk neither. Coming so late I could have been murdered by them basher tearaways. You're always here while six o'clock and now look at it, it must be near seven."
Ma Cullen took a deep breath and pressed her chest again. "Where have you been all this time, our Kevin?"
Cullen busied himself tying down the tarpaulin. "Just business. I had to see a man on the other side of the river. But I'm here now, aren't I?"
"It's too late now. I'm too done in to put up your tea. You'll have to get something from the chippie down the street."
Cullen had a far better idea. He turned from the tarpaulin and helped his mother to her feet. "I told you you were a queen. How about a taxi?"
Ma Cullen screeched with delight. "A taxi. Sacred Heart Kevin, going home in a taxi"
"We'll do better than that. We'll take it to the chippy first and it can wait outside. I'm flush tonight."
Ma Cullen sank back in her chair as her son stepped out into the street with his arm outstretched.
"Sacred heart. Going to a chippy in a taxi. Your Da always said you was the crazy one."
The driver of the L2 was standing by his cab, talking to the inspector when Harold Coke reached the line of Ribble buses parked along Skelhorne Street. As usual it was a matter of carefully weighing advantages and disadvantages. The L2 was packed but almost ready to leave while the L8 was relatively empty. Still it would be a good five minutes before the latter bus left the terminus. He'd be home nice and early if he took the L2, a plate of beans on toast with a nice poached egg on the top. The boy would be playing in his room and Emily would poke up the fire while he looked over the Echo, all very cheerful. But on the other hand it was certainly true that the L2 had to take a slightly longer route to pass by the gas works and that added a few minutes to the journey. It was such a nice judgement that Coke felt a pang of anxiety. And then there was a much better class of persons on the L8, not quite as good as the L4 which ran past the detached houses on the Northern Road. There were sometimes assistant bank managers on the L4, and dentist's wives out for an afternoon's shopping. Still the L4 would not leave for at least 20 minutes.
Coke considered for a moment or two longer, buttoning and unbuttoning his gloves in distress. Finally he mounted the step of the L8 and climbed the stairs to the top deck. As he walked along the aisle he noticed his friend Threlfall seated alone at the front. He wondered for a moment if he had made the right decision. For some reason he did not feel strong enough for Threlfall this evening.
Threlfall looked up at him. "Hello, Harold, keeping up to scratch?" Threlfall smiled to himself, that crazy bugger Coke looked as if be were going around in a dream these days. "You'd better watch yourself, Harold, walking around like that with your eyes closed. You'll trip over yourself. No, you'll bump into yourself coming back one of these days."
Threlfall shuffled along the seat to make room for Harold.
"Nasty night. It'll be a real soaker soon you just mark my words. Get straight home in front of the fire , that's the ticket."
"I'd thought of stopping in at the library later," Harold ventured.
Threlfall studied him carefully for a moment. "You don't want to do that. Stay at home, that's my motto on a night like this. Try a bit of listening-in."
Harold shook his head but Threlfall continued. "And what about you and all those germs, then? A book's full of germs, isn't it? The little buggers sit there nice and cosy until you turn the pages, and then they leap out at you. Don't you remember when you were a boy, they'd burn library books if there was a disease in the house? Remember that? There used to be a warning in front of each book--infectious diseases."
Harold shook his head. "They don't do that now."
"Well, there you are then. That proves you'd better keep away." Threlfall smiled triumphantly as he turned to peer out of the window, rubbing it vigorously to smear away the film of condensation. Downstairs Harold could hear the driver climb into his cab and start the motor.
"Heat'll be on soon," he said and then realized that for some curious reason he was trying to placate his friend. But Threlfall only replied by stamping his feet on the metal floor and rubbing his hands together.
"Circulation's the key."
"Better not do that," Harold whispered, "you'll have the conductor up here next."
"Nonsense, circulation's the key. Don't want to get chilblains do you? Look at old Jim Grimes the verger, he swears by it. Takes garlic regular as clockwork and he's never had a cold in his life. Night and morning, that and the exercise."
"Bell ringing. Pulling the rope for all those services. That can really work up a sweat."
"Not much chance of that during the war."
Threlfall made a great show of turning in his seat to cross question Harold. "How come? What d'you mean?"
"Well, they didn't allow church bells in the war. Did they?"
Threlfall turned away in disgust. "Don't be so bloody literal for God's sake, Harold. The man's never had a cold, that's all."
Harold stared ahead in silence until the bus pulled away from the curb and started climbing the hill. Rain was beginning to spot the front window. Harold liked that, the glint of street lights on the wet pavement. As long as it wasn't too wet he'd walk to the library after supper. He'd even get something for Emily, a P.G.Wodehouse or one of those books by E.F. Benson. He imagined himself in the library walking upstairs from the fiction room and browsing around the non-fiction floor. All those books, Bertrand Russell, Professor Joad. He'd read philosophy one day, or even Sir James Jeans. What was it called? ....The Mysterious Universe , that was it. Mystery. All those stars. Did they ever end? Going on for ever and ever. He remembered one evening in Hereford, cold and very clear. He'd been walking from the camp back to his digs when he'd stopped and looked into the sky. Stars, going on forever, unending.
"Two of them they were, showing it all off."
Harold became aware that Threlfall had been talking to him.
"Scrubbers. You'd better watch it dropping off like that. You'll stay on after your stop one of these days and end up at the terminus. Then where'll you be?"
Harold looked confused.
"I'm trying to tell you about those two scrubbers I saw. Walking up the street as bold as brass the pair of them."
"Legs up in the air showing off all they'd got. But I told them where to get off, I told them what's what."
"Loosely dressed where they?"
Threlfall did not respond at first. He seemed to be working himself up into some kind of a fit.
"Dale Street. A police station right there. Think those buggers care a toss? Not these days. What if they'd assaulted me?"
"You can handle yourself, can't you. Home guard training wasn't it?"
"Don't come funny buggers with me, Coke. You know what I'm talking about. You bloody Socialists, kicked out Churchill fast enough after the war didn't you?"
Threlfall became louder until half rose in his seat and turned to stare defiantly at his fellow passengers who buried their eyes in the evenings papers or kept their eyes on the floor.
"What's the country coming to I'd like to know? What did we all fight for?" He dug Harold in the ribs. "You mark my words. The police won't do anything about it, showing all they've got. No one seems to care anymore."
Harold tried to block out Threlfall's voice by thinking of his walk to the library later this evening, of the smell of rotting leaves in the damp air and the smoke from the chimneys that would linger under the trees. The sound of his footsteps on the uneven paving stones would reflect back to him`, lamposts looming one after the other out of the dark, and the warm yellow light from the library windows. All that knowledge, the mysteries of the universe locked up in books.
Contact F. David Peat