Marge pushed her way through the chip shop door, clutching the greasy newspaper bag in one hand and trying to hold onto Vera with the other. As usual Vera had taken all the crispy ones and left Marge to grub around for the soggy remains. Suddenly Vera gave Marge a sharp nudge in the ribs and screamed out across the road.
"Here y'are, Stutty!"
Across the road, pushing against passers by in his usual confused and disconnected fashion, wandered Stutty, or Simon Clive Walther as his mother more properly called him. At Vera's second cry Stutty Walther stopped in his tracks and peered behind him, turning his whole body to look, then swinging back again to study the crowd in front of him.
God, he's a real wierdo, Marge thought, the sight of him. Of course Vera let on that he was her regular boyfriend, but Marge reckoned that the pair of them never got up to much. They'd met at the wine lodge about a year ago. Stutty'd got on a trilby hat and a copy of the Manchester Guardian or some other piece of rubbish under his arm. Of course, he wasn't the type to come into a wine lodge in the first place, living with his mother in Crosby and working in a library or something. So in one way or another he had to be a real nutter.
Marge remembered the first day Stutty'd looked across at them. A thin lanky bugger he was. He'd given her the creeps just sitting there staring and every so often pushing his specs back up on his nose. He'd come in a couple more times after that, not saying anything, and Vera'd pretended that he was a secret admirer, a bank manager from Formby or an estate agent from Blundelsands, and how he'd sweep her off to his semi-detached with rose bushes round the front and a compost heap in the back garden.
He'd come to the wine lodge night after night. Not saying anything, just sitting at the next table pushing at his glasses and giving the pair of them a sly look. One day, when Marge was over at the bar, Studdy'd picked up enough courage to come over to their table and then he'd said. "I say, excuse me, but are you two ladies p-p-p-prostitutes?"
Vera said she'd nearly wet herself laughing at him. But since she reckoned that his mother had pots of money she'd kept stringing him along.
"Hey, Stutty, over here."
Stutty Walther tried to cross the street. He made a dash for the centre but, like the stupid git he was, nearly got hit by a lorry. Now he was stranded, apologetic and forlorn with his raincoat flapping round his heels.
"Look out, Stutty, they're coming for you," Marge yelled. "There's a big van with the keepers in--it's on its way down Lime Street from the looney bin."
Stutty made a dash and reached the pavement out of breath.
"God, you're like a big soft kid, Stutty," Marge said, "with that stupid scarf your mam knitted for you."
Stutty raised his sat. "G-g-g-good evening, ladies."
Marge burst out laughing again but Vera nudged her into silence and, grabbing Stutty by the arm, steered him towards the wine lodge.
Threlfall prodded Harold Coke in the side. "Light bulbs. Light bulbs are the thing, they know what's what in America."
Harold looked down at the torn bus tickets and the soggy cigarette ends on the floor. The world's changing, he thought, things will never be the same.
"Properly advertised and marketed. Are you with me?"
Coke shook his head as Threlfall smoothed out the front page of the Echo and pointed to the date.
"Think ahead to 1955, 1960, how much will you be spending on light bulbs then? How much each year? How many packets of fags? How many trips to Southport with the good lady wife? And the boy of course. Think of that, Harold, think of that."
Harold Coke made a desperate attempt to recapture that feeling he'd had, that imagined memory of being in the library, of running his hand across the leather bindings of poetry books, of seeing the names of Blake and Wordsworth, Einstein and Joad, printed in gold. But the feeling of it eluded him now. "There's nothing in light bulbs," he snapped at Threlfall.
"But these will burn forever, they're eternal. Fit out your home just once and you'll never need to buy another bulb in your life."
Coke shook his head. "Impossible."
"Give someone a set as a wedding present and they'll still be burning then their grandchildren are on their knees."
Harold rubbed a peep hole through the condensation on the front window. Below he could see men in cloth caps standing in the rain outside The Butt's End. That meant the Odeon Cinema would be coming up soon and then Merchant Taylor's School. Harold thought of those boys, neat in their dark jackets and caps. Privilege started young for some; they had no doubts, no decisions as to what to do. Life would be easy for them. He shifted his haunches and turned to look at Threlfall. The man had a manic gleam in his eyes and his hand kept thrusting at the newspaper.
"Nothing lasts forever," Coke cautioned," it's in the nature of things."
Threlfall shook his head energetically, "You can't stop progress. I'm going to show an advertisement at the Palace Cinema. That friend of yours from Whites, a little slide will come on in the interval--the Eternal Light."
"It's atoms," Harold explained, "I once heard Professor Joad talking about it on the Brain's Trust. Uncertainty. The atoms don't know where they are you see, that's why nothing can last forever." He smiled at Threlfall sympathetically. "It's something to do with the theory of relativity."
"Light's different," Threlfall countered. "Don't you think I haven't gone into the whole thing. It's not like everlasting shoes, or long life matches, or anything like that. Light bulbs are different, think of the sun."
Harold stole a glance at his watch. Emily would have a nice fire blazing and a fresh pot of tea waiting for him on the table. A bit of a warm afterwards and a read of the paper, then off to the library. That's the ticket.
"And what about everlasting flowers? What about that?"
Harold Coke considered for a moment. "I suppose that would come under botany, or biology. Take the Rotunda Cinema," he gestured," nothing lasts forever. It's just a heap of rubble now. Sometimes I think Liverpool's finished."
"Rubbish," Threlfall growled,"don't do old England down. The lion will roar again; after all we won the war didn't we, we fought."
Harold would not be drawn, he buttoned up his gloves and nudged his friend. "My stop's coming up. Have to be going."
Threlfall refused to nod back, he did not even acknowledge him, but as Harold reached the back of the bus he heard his friend's cry.
"You'd know, Coke, wouldn't you? You'd know all about light bulbs. You with your council school education and your Universal Home Encyclopedia. You'd know about everything."
People on the back seat turned to stare at Harold. A woman sniggered. Harold Coke hurried down the stairs and into the night.
Inside the wine lodge Marge had to stand by the door for a moment until her eyes grew accustomed to the dimness and the sting of cigarette smoke. It was all noise and laughter, old biddies along one wall with their port and lemons, men winking at each other and making rapid gestures with their hands.
Behind her Stutty, clutching his trilby to his chest, swung his body from side to side looking for an empty table.
"There's one, over there in the corner," Marge pointed, "those two blokes are just getting up."
In a flash Stutty Walther bounded down the room and held out two chairs, like a waiter in a posh hotel. "What'll you have, l-l-l-ladies?" As the thick atmosphere enclosed him Stutty became more confident and his speech more decisive.
"Two large ports" Marge replied.
"And get us a couple of packets of crisps while you're at it", Verga shouted as he pushed his way towards the bar.
Marge leaned forward and whispered to Vera against the noise. "Let's only have a couple here, love. We should get on to the Crown before it gets packed out."
"Ah, hold your hour, Marge, we'll get there by and by." Vera let out another sigh and reached inside her dress to adjust her bra straps. After she'd finished puffing herself up she looked at Marge. "And take it easy like I told you, Stutty's buying. Aren't you, love?"
Stutty stood proudly beside their table, the drinks bunched in his hands and a couple of packets of crisps clasped in his teeth.
"Ah God, he's goobering all over me crisps, Marge. He's nothing better than a big stupid old dog, aren't you, Stutty?" Vera shifted her bottom and pulled him down beside her. She put her arms round his neck and, winking at Marge, pressed him closer to her flesh.
Stutty gave a shudder of pleasure. "It was on the bus just before. From Crosby. The L2. You know, the one that goes over the lift bridge and past the sausage factory."
"Go on, Stutty," Vera prompted, nudging Marge.
"Well there I was reading my book when the conductor stopped behind me. 'Immanuel Kant', just like that."
Stutty paused for a reaction but the girls just grinned back at him. "Well that's strange, isn't it? I mean he was working class. Fancy that, 'Imannuel Kant'. I looked up at him and said.'Have you read any Kant?'. And do you know what he said?"
Vera was funnelling the last scraps of chips down her throat. Marge began to stab at the ashtray with the match. Stutty paused a moment longer then went on.
"I said,'Have you read any K-kant?' and he said, he said,'Yes, but I prefer Schopenhaur.'"
Vera took the second pack and began searching around for the blue twist of salt.
"Imagine that, an ordinary bus conductor reading Schopenhaur. It's like something out of H. G. Wells."
Vera ganneted the second packet and throwing it away, put her arm round Stutty again. "D'you reckon they've got any pickled eggs after them crisps."
Marge was drawing faces on the table in slops of stale wine. She'd heard Stutty's stupid stories time and time again, and the way the two of them carried on, kissing and cuddling just made her sick.
The more Marge stared at the light reflected in the table top the more the room became misty and confused. It was as if everything had become shrouded in fog until there was only herself and the table top left in the whole world. The glasses on the table had begun to glow and that even the ashtray had a halo around it. She realized that she was no longer thinking about the present, about Vera and Stutty and the men she'd known. It was as if she'd become a little girl again, looking into the fire.
She was back on her Dad's knees and he was rocking her slowly back and forth. Her Mam was out and there were just the two of them, all alone and very quiet. Occasionally cinders would drop in the grate, or a sudden flame of gas would shoot out from the bubbling tar in the coal. Marge knew that, once the fire had burned down real low, her Dad would set her down gently on the chair behind him while he went out into the back yard for a shovel of slack to back up the fire for the night. Then, if her Mam wasn't back, he'd take her into his bed and she'd lie there feeling his warmth beside her and smelling his smell.
Marge realized she had been clutching on to her handbag, inside was the last letter her Dad had sent her from the desert with a photo of him and his mates sitting in front of a tank. She shook her self back to the present. "Come on, Vera, let's sup up and get going. We'll be late at the Crown." Marge swallowed the dregs of her port and stood up.
"Come off it, Marge, we're just getting comfortable." Vera disengaged her arm and elbowed Stutty. "Get yourself up and we'll have another round."
Stutty stood up, adjusting his coat in front of him and looking sheepishly across at Marge.
"Ah God, Stutty, I'm sick of the pair of you carrying on like that. If you won't come I'll go by meself."
Stutty glanced at Vera for instructions but she waved him towards the bar then put on her best smile for Marge.
"Look, love, let's hang on here a bit. I'm just getting comfortable, I told you not to be too eager." As Marge began to tug at a strand of hair Vera attempted to placate her. "You can even have the flat to yourself for a bit if you like. I'll get Stutty to take me out for a meal at one of them swank places after we've finished boozing. Let's not go on to the Crown."
Marge let go of her hair and began opening and closing the clasp of her handbag.
"God, your like something from the Salvation Army standing there, a right scarecrow. Sit down will you and have another bevvy. "
But just as Stutty was getting up to go for another round an old biddy shuffled over to him and started to speak. At first Stutty couldn't understand what she was saying and looked across to Vera for help.
The old woman put her face even closer to Stutty. "Der's dis fella outside wants a word with youse. He told me to tell yer."
Stutty shook his head and blushed crimson. "I'm sorry ..I..I..."
"It's some bloke wants to talk to you, Stutty," Vera interpreted. "It's Sir Oswald Mosley, wants you for Prime Minister."
"Who is he?" Stutty asked, but the old biddy simply waved her hand in a vague way.
"A drop of something'd do me heart a treat." She spoke louder as Stutty felt in his pocket for change.
Marge was up and grabbing at him. "Come on, Stutty, let's go and see what he wants."
Outside Stutty started buttoning and unbuttoning his coat. In the shop doorway nearby a tramp was whistling and dancing from one foot to the other.
Stutty swung his body round again and the tramp stepped forward and touched his cap. "I seed youse do in der...I seed youse go in."
He had on a army greatcoat tied with rope and Marge noticed that he was wearing pajamas pants and sandals with no socks. As he came closer, Stutty backed away until the man grabbed him by the shoulder.
"I seed you and I recognized you."
"N-n-no, I d-d-don't know you."
"You're a man of education like meself. I've got a warning for you, so heed it."
Stutty nodded and the man released his grip and began to feel inside his pocket. Beneath his unshaven chin the tramp wore a black tie and white collar. Confidentially he pulled out a dirty, folded piece of paper and handed it to Stutty.
"See that? Know that that means?"
Vera burst out into a giggle as Stutty unfolded the paper. Under the street light he made out a faded set of symbols written in pencil. He refolded the paper and handed it back to the old man who danced in triumph from one sandaled foot to the other.
"666. The number of the Beast." He came closer and whispered in Stutty's ear. "I was with Crowley at Cefalu."
Marge linked her arm through Vera's. "Come on, love, we've seen enough. Let's get on to the Crown, it's pissing down with rain."
At this the old man got started to threaten Stutty. "I warned youse. I warned youse. You've been putting it round that I'm soft. I warned youse."
Stutty was looking scared now. "N-no, I've never seen you before."
The tramp broke into a smile. "Give us half a crown and I'll tell you something."
"Oh for God's sake, Stutty, are you coming? I'm not standing here a minute longer."
Stutty had the half crown in his hand but now the old man refused to take it. He danced around Stutty looking furiously into his face.
"I've been to the university. D'you know what university I've been to? Do you?"
In a panic Stutty looked after the two girls retreating up the road.
But the tramp wasn't listening to Stutty's answers. Grasping the half crown he spat out the answer. "The University of Adversity...that's where...the University of Adversity."
Then, without another look, the tramp turned away and shuffled into the wine lodge leaving Stutty Walther alone in the rain, his coat flapping around the bottom of his legs.
Contact F. David Peat