Saturday afternoon had become a time of rest for Mr Roberts. It was his opportunity for taking stock; for recharging the batteries as he liked to put it, a space of quietness amidst the hustle and bustle of the week. Restful and restorative sleep had never been a problem for the manager of the Palace Cinema but he knew that there should also be a time for recreation, or "re-creation" as Mr Howells his Latin master had preferred to pronounce it.
His father had always insisted that the Sabbath should be the one true day of rest. At home Sunday had been a time for inward reflection, for reading the Old Testament, then a quiet stroll in the shadow of the Welsh mountains before high tea, and hymns around the piano after chapel at night. The very idea of "listening-in" to the radio on a Sunday evening would have been abhorrent to his father, even if that "listening-in" had only consisted of the Sunday Half Hour.
But father had been in his grave these ten years and the world had changed. A world war for one thing, and rationing, and women getting jobs, and even wearing trousers. Events had crowded to the point where Sunday had simply become too busy for him to find sufficient time in which to take it easy. Mr Roberts pondered the structure of these events as he surveyed the compost heap in the garden. Well, to begin with, there was Sunday breakfast with Morag. It had become something of a ritual, that nice boiled egg carried up on a tray. Brown if he could manage to find one, not too runny, and white bread cut up into dainty fingers with the crusts off. He'd sit in the bedroom while Morag carefully cracked the top of her egg, inspected its interior for freshness, then daintily spooned out its contents. As she sipped at her weak, milky tea Mr Roberts would recount snippets from the eight o'clock news, or details of the weather report.
He bent forward to scoop a handful of earth from the side of the compost heap. A warm, rich earthy smell. By the time he had taken the tray downstairs and washed and dried the breakfast things it would be necessary to get ready for chapel. Standing in front of the mirror on the dressing table he would carefully brush his hair, then scrutinize his suite for that odd speck of dandruff or particle of lint. As he turned Morag would say "Let me take a look at you, dear. Well, you'll do." And he would reply. "You wouldn't er...there's still enough time...you know."
But Mrs Roberts had not set foot inside the chapel since the war. It was not so much her physical heath as the feeling of constriction that she experienced in crowds.
"A lump comes into my throat, Morgan", she would say,"a hard solid lump."
He had talked to Dr. Spinks about her. "Nerves", the doctor had said. Not that there was anything mental about Mrs Roberts, far from it. No one could say a thing like that about Morag. It was not so much the mind as the nerves themselves; the doctor has explained to him how much they had learned about nerves during the war. Doctors realized that nerves were genuine, none of that nonsense talked by the German Freud, about sex and things better left unsaid.
"Your wife must have been frightened as a baby when she was in her pram." Dr Spinks had suggested."By some animal perhaps, or something may have stuck in her throat. This would have created a general weakness in the whole constitution. You wife is a sensitive woman, Mr Roberts. It would have been compounded the first time she went into an air raid shelter--all those people and the, erm, smell. A clear case of chronic nerves."
The doctor had suggested a seaside holiday but that sort of thing was out of the question just after the war. Mr Roberts had tried any number of nerve tonics, even Clarke's Chemical Blood Mixture, but all to no avail.
"That lump Morgan," she would say."It comes to me as they close the door. I'll never be able to go to chapel again. But you go, I'll be with you in spirit."
So off to chapel by himself and afterwards hurry home to prepare the lunch and then, in the afternoon, Mr Robert's brother Ivor would bring Aunty on the bus from Maghull, or on special occasions he would take them all out for a little drive in a hire car. Morag always managed to come with them on those occasions. But most Sundays they would sit together around the photograph album and chat for a while. Morag would try to sit with them for an hour or so.
After that it would be time for high tea. Aunty loved to help with the tea things and give the silver tea pot and the slop basin a little polish. There would be two sorts of bread, white and brown, a nice piece of salmon out of a tin or, failing that, a piece of tongue and then some nice rich fruit cake. Mr Roberts had always prided himself on his connections, on being able to provide those little extras for the table, despite the rationing. That came from his experience working in a large store, he would explain to his brother.
When the tea things had been cleared away Aunty would play the piano while Ivor sang, "I Dreamed I Dwelt in Marble Halls" , "Abide with me", "Bless this house" and the other old favorites. Ivor had once sung with the Welsh Choral Union in the Philharmonic Hall and had a beautiful baritone voice, trained. He understood about vibrato and voice protection so that sometimes Mr Roberts had to shut the tiny window in the front room so that the neighbours could not hear. After all it didn't do to let other people know your business, even if it was only hymn singing.
Aunty was getting older now. 82 next January and she was beginning to make a few mistakes on the piano. Still she was marvelous for her age. At around 8.30 Mr Roberts would take out his watch and nod to his brother who would rub his hands together and say. "Well it's time to be off, Aunty." If her head wasn't too bad Morag would come downstairs to say goodnight, then Mr Roberts would walk to the busstop and wave them off. After that it would be time to rush back and make Morag's cocoa.
It was certainly true, Mr Roberts mused as he walked in his garden, that Sunday was too busy to be called a day of rest. And what was more, those Labourites were trying to get the cinemas to open on a Sunday evening. Of course there was always Tommy Milligan, the assistant manager. And in a Christian country too, the war had certainly changed things.
Mr Roberts bent down to sniff at his compost heap. A noble rich smell greeted him, a sweet smell. What a miracle. To create earth itself, and out of kitchen scraps. No, Saturday was the only time he could find to relax nowadays, to walk around in his garden and forget about the cares of the world.
He had missed his compost heap during the war when everything had to go into the pig bin. In a way that had been a far worse deprivation that the nights lost from the bombing or even the rationing. But today it swelled and steamed with pride before him, rich with its grass clippings and leaves that had been so carefully raked from the lawn. Pea pods, carrot tops, cabbage stalks, tea leaves and crushed egg shells all worked their way towards that mystical transformation in which each lost its individual identity to be reborn as dark fertile earth.
Mr Roberts paced out the distance to the fence. One day he would build a greenhouse, right next to the compost heap. He'd have a nice vine of green grapes, early cucumbers, tomato plants, a place to force his cuttings in the spring. He'd be able to bring things out a week or two earlier that way.
Turning back to the compost heap he suddenly laughed to himself thinking of the hedgehog. Shortly after they had been married he had found a hedgehog on top of the compost heap. He did not have his glasses on at the time and it had mistaken it for an old scrubbing brush that had been inadvertently tipped onto his compost pile.
"Just look at this Morag", he had cried. Then, as he'd bent down to pick it up, the creature had suddenly moved. How they'd laughed and laughed about it at the time. They still used to laugh about it each time Morgan brought it up. Until the war that was.
Mr Roberts had tried to feed it some milk in a saucer but Morag had become very upset and had begun to cry. "You're not bringing that saucer back indoors covered with filth and disease."
He'd tried to explain to her how useful hedgehogs could be in the garden, eating grubs and insects. Afterwards, when she'd calmed down, he had carefully washed the saucer and sterilized it in a pan of boiling water for ten minutes. But even that had been no good. Morag had taken it outside and smashed it into pieces with the coal hammer, bringing the hammer down again and again on the fragments. After that she had gathered the pieces in newspaper and pushed them down to the bottom of the dustbin while Mr Roberts stood watching her. It had been one of Aunty's saucers that she had given them for a wedding present. Never mind, Mr Roberts, consoled himself, I'll have a greenhouse one day. I don't suppose Morag will ever want to see the inside of it.
Back indoors Mr Roberts carefully wiped his feet and called out. "Do you want a nice cup of tea, dear?" Mrs Roberts, sitting in the dining room with her knitting, did not reply for a moment then looked up at him.
"You were so long outside. In the end I was so terribly thirsty I had to get up and make some for myself."
Morgan Roberts stood there, glancing towards the door.
"Well then, Morag", he gestured, "if it's no, erm?"
She shook her head.
"No you go, Morgan. You enjoy yourself. Don't bother about me."
Mr Roberts nodded and walked into the front room. Closing the door carefully behind him he went over to the gramophone. What would it be this afternoon? Herbert Howells? Stainer's Crucifixion? Handel? Elgar? The Dream of Gerontius was a magnificent piece, very moving. But his brother said that it was too close to Rome, that there was the stink of incense in every note. Mr Roberts could remember the Philharmonic Hall before the war, listening to Malcolm Sargeant conducting, the tears streaming down the great musician's face. No one could deny that it was great music. On the other hand Elgar was a little too heavy for a Saturday afternoon. In the end he settled for Handel, choruses from Israel in Egypt. He put the 12 inch disc on the turn table and wound the motor carefully so as not to strain the spring. Selecting a fresh fibre needle he settled the arm down onto the edge of the record and allowed the music to wash over him.
Morgan Roberts was not the only person in a musical frame of mind that afternoon for, swaying in the stands and urging the Everton football team on to greater efforts, was Cullen's friend Terrance. A few feet in front of him, trying to keep his balance against the surging movements of the local supporters stood Tommy Milligan, assistant manager of the Palace Cinema. But neither man recognized the other. Indeed they would have no reason to do so for their first formal meeting was to be later that evening. Nevertheless, Milligan was somehow aware of a presence, somewhere behind him, of a large man who was leading a section of the crowd in chant after chant.
Terrance for his part was blindly happy, his left arm around a gunner he had known in the army, his right clutching a bottle of Irish whiskey. And, if there proved to be a spot of trouble with the Bolton supporters after the match, then that bottle would come in doubly handy. Terrance always seemed to have a hoard of friends and acquaintances around him when he attended a match, mates from his army days and a few old lags who had gravitated to him during his six months spell in Walton Goal. Not that Terrance had any intention of stirring up trouble, far from it, the Saturday afternoon match was the high point of his week. On the other hand a good punch up was a wonderful way to end the day.
As the ball approached the Everton goal the crowd surged forward and Tommy Milligan found himself pressed close to the giant Irishman. Terrance stretched out the bottle towards him shouting, "here mate, have a swig. Come on, cheer up, it may never happen." But a moment later Milligan was dragged away as the ball moved back into the Bolton half.
It was funny, Terrance through as the ball went out of play and the linesman began to gesture to the referee, how Cullen would never come to the match with him. Cullen was a deep bugger and no mistake, always on the go. Someone said how they'd seen him in Birkenhead late last night talking to one of the night watchmen at Camel Lairds. Another that he'd been at the wharf in the early morning standing by a blocker man and waiting for the Canadian freighter to dock, or that he had been spotted passing a cigarette packet and a bundle of notes to a man outside the dog track on Stanley Road. Wherever he was, Terrance thought, he'd be up to something. Cullen was always on the move. But then the ball came back into play and Terrance was lost to everything but the roaring, pulsing animation of the crowd and the abstract precision of the game itself.
Marching angrily down Dale Street Taylor could hear the distant voice of the crowd. But his mind was on other things, on tracking down Cullen. He'd stopped in at the Crown earlier and now he was on his way to Picton Road. Taylor wanted information, and Cullen was the man who was going to give it to him.
Far way from the cries of the football ground or the plodding feet of the police, Stutty, in his cold bedroom, was pouring over Kant's Transcendental Dialectic and Antinomy's of Pure Reason. Did the world really have a beginning in time? It seemed to have made sense to him once. But was it also limited in space? Kant didn't seem to settle down on one side or the other and, as Stutty puzzled over the cumbersome sentences, he began to find the whole thing deeply worrying. At the bottom of the page someone had written in pencil "The Principle of the Synthetical Unity of Apperception is the highest principle of all exercise of the Understanding." But what did it mean? Synthetical Unity? The words, with all their capitalizations swam like tadpoles in his mind. Why couldn't Kant come right out and say it, make up his mind one way or another. Surely the universe had to begin somewhere? The whole thing would not make any sense otherwise.
He wondered what Terrance would have said about it. They would have laughed at him of course, but sometimes the things that Terrance said seemed really deep. He would not go out tonight. He`d stay in and work at Kant. He could even jump to the next Antinomy which was about something called cosmical succession and sounded really exciting. After all, Marge would only make fun of him and say insulting things to Vera. But then he didn't want to hurt Vera's feelings. She'd been kind to him; in a way she was his girl friend. If he didn't go out tonight then he'd pop in during the week, say hello and explain to her that he'd been fairly busy during the last few days. Terrance was right, it was better to break the whole thing off. But kindly.
Stutty turned back to his book and tried to follow Kant in Cogitating the World, Imagining a Unity, then the filling of all space, the successive synthesis of parts. In his mind's eye the universe became something soft and enveloping, homogeneous and of infinite extent, a presence which moved slowly over him, warm and comforting. His cogitation became so vivid that he could almost reach out and touch it, philosophy had become palpable to him, his fingers seemed to press against the softness of the image, to caress, to feel it yielding against his touch. The universe was globular, bounded in space, having an origin in time, a thrilling whiteness, trembling, blue veined.
Vera, lying insensible on her back, was impervious to her role in this cosmogeny. She had not even been disturbed by Marge's twitchings and writhings during the night, her legs thrashing out and her sudden, inarticulate cries. Marge, for her part, had experienced her usual tormented darkness, she had not really gone off until around seven when the first light began to creep under the blackout. Now she dozed fitfully, her head tossing from side to side.
Vera, however, slept heavily. She did not even dream, or if she did it was a nebulous affair of half focussed images involving meals she had once eaten, or of lying beached in the sun by the sea at New Brighton. But Marge dipped in and out of her dreams like a bather at the edge of a cold sea. Successions of impressions scurried past and sank into the blackness, staircases crumbled as she climbed, passageways between high walls slowly closed in, running down an empty street of melting tar that sucked greedily at the sole of her feet she could no longer move, cold moonlight glinted off a carving knife on a wooden kitchen table, there was a sensation of falling into a deep pit, a brick wall seemed to collapse in on her, a laughing face approached very close in a mechanical, menacing way, the long drawn out scream of a dog that had been hit by a lorry.
Marge flung out her arms from side to side, clawing her way to the surface of sleep for a moment, but the racing images were too fast for her. They formed themselves into a dark spinning vortex which sucked her deeper down into their velvet, clinging blackness. And now the rhythmic pulsing, the throbbing of some great machine seemed to echo around her. She sensed a towering, moving organism behind her. It was growing, rolling, moving to pursue her, yet however fast her heart beat she could not get away. It was behind her, yet it seemed at the same time to be pressing in on her from all sides, to be enveloping, suffocating. Suddenly snapshots of faces that had been consumed by this nameless terror flashed before her, Cullen, Terrance and an unknown man with a curious look on his face, clutching at his chest. They were all crushed by this terrible device that was slowly, pulse by pulse, overtaking her. Vera by her side snored on undisturbed. It would be dark outside before Vera's heavy body slowly shuddered towards consciousness. For Marge, however, the dreams would remain forever clinging to her, transforming her wakefulness into delirium.
Humming softly to himself, Harold Coke was tying artificial flowers to the apple tree. Unlike the grand expanse of grass, flower beds and rose bushes that lay behind Mr Robert's semi detached home, Harold Coke`s garden seemed given over to a collection of huts and sheds. There was the brick walled, slate roofed wash house in which Coke kept a collection of bicycles, none of them quite in working order but after all it was only a matter of a lick of paint, new tyres and interchanging the wheels, gears, cogs and ball bearings from one bike to another; just a day's work which he would eventually get round to, at some time or another. Then there was the air raid shelter, left over from the war and covered by Coke with earth and stones in an effort to turn it into a rockery but which would support only tufts of grass and the occasional, assertive dandelion. Add to this the lean-to coal shed or bunker and there was very little room for an actual garden, particularly since last summer Coke had built, according to his own design, a tool shed which swayed and vibrated in the slightest wind and threatened to collapse each time he attempted to open the badly warped door.
Coke looked around him, at the pale and sickly grass, at the empty flower bed beside the wash house wall which bore a profusion of yellow daffodils in the spring and then refused to support anything else, not even weeds, at the apple tree and at the rambling rose of violent aspect which expanded its territory each summer yet fiercely refused to produce a single flower. It's a matter of light, Coke thought, what with all these buildings and the wall of the house opposite. This garden never gets any direct sunlight, well not for more than an hour or so every day. But now the solution had been discovered in the basement storeroom of White's Stores and purchased for five shillings.
Inside Emily watched as Harold Coke moved from branch to branch, her chair angled to the window so that she could continue with her rug making. She could see Harold's mouth opening and closing as he reached for the higher branches. "We plough the fields and scatter, the good seed on the land." Harold sang, perfectly contented. He had pointed out to Emily how much brighter and vivid were the reds, yellows, blues, pinks and purples of these artificial flowers than the ones he had tried to grow in the garden. "And we'll be able to have them all year round, in the middle of February, not just in the summer."
But Emily could not hear his singing. As she worked at her rug the words of a silly song came into her head, the one that little Eric liked on the wireless. "Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy." How he would laugh when she was putting him to bed and make her sing it over and over again until the words began to slide into each other. "Mersey doates and dozy doates...". She looked up and saw Harold in his old tweed jacket, his mouth opening and shutting like a gold fish, as he strained to reach for the highest branches. He had pruned the apple tree in such a curious way, she thought, hacking off everything he could reach until now, with the flowers tied to its remaining branches it looked like that new piece of sculpture they had put on show in the Walker Art Gallery. The sort of thing that made ordinary people feel angry inside and write letters to the Echo.
Outside Coke, standing on tiptoe on the kitchen chair, tied a pink flower to one of the upper branches and had a sudden, catastrophic vision of order. It was not that neat, intersecting order of squares, circles and triangles that he remembered from his geometry at school but something all together more frightening, an order that was organic, growing from its centre and gathering things into itself. For an instant everything around him seemed to balance, to be suspended within a living, pulsating harmony. As Harold Coke stood on his chair, his arms stretched out above him, this uninvited vision of the concord of the universe seemed to pull him, unresisting, to its centre. Then, just as rapidly, it left him, left him bewildered, holding onto the trunk of the apple tree for support. Emily smiled to see his antics, silent behind the pane of glass. Automatically Harold reached into his box for the next flower.
Upstairs little Eric was constructing his World Clock, a device which he had seen illustrated in the pages of The Marvels and Mysteries of Science, at his Aunt's house. It was a clock that would tell the time anywhere in the world, not only here in Liverpool but in New York, Berlin and Hong Kong, even as far away as Australia. Eric had discovered that his mother's silver butter knife was just the right size for unscrewing the back of the dining room clock--a present from Harold's grandmother on the occasion of their marriage. Eric had managed to work the mechanism out of the clock body and was now painting figures and names on its face. Unfortunately the water colours had begun to run and something seemed loose and rattelly inside. Still not every house had a World Clock, a clock that knew the time everywhere in the world and all at once. His father would be proud of him. Even little Eric, safe in his bedroom upstairs, had begun to sing.
A temporary warmth enveloped the whole city. A warmth unusual for that time of year. Not only within Harold Coke's garden was the sun smiling down but across the whole city, at Everton where the home team were surging around the Bolton goal. The sun even shone on Threlfall as he marched, stiff armed, down South Road to visit the electrical shop and enquired about the Eternal Light. Not that Threlfall noticed the sun, his eyes were focussed on the Welsh hills across the river and he could see dark rain clouds massing, clouds that would sweep over the city by evening. But, for the moment, Liverpool was bathed in sun and, from Harold Coke's garden could be heard a voice, singing in perfect happiness.
Contact F. David Peat