"It's the light, Coke"
Threlfall flopped down beside Harold Coke on the front seat of the number L8 bus.
"The long days do it. Park's not closed till after 10." He scrutinized his friend for several moments. "Haven't seen you lately thought."
Cook looked up from his book. "We managed to get away for a few days, to Lytham St Annes. The boy liked the sea - he really needed to recuperate. And I had some nice walks, too."
Threlfall nodded in approval. "Thought you may have gone all morose on us again."
"That? No, that's gone now. I haven't thought about that business for a long time." He leaned confidentially towards Threlfall. "It seems funny now, but I can't really understand how I ever have got drawn into it. It's not that I ever had bad nerves. Emily says that maybe it was...."
"Light." Threlfall cut him off. "That's what I was telling you. The light's got a lot to do with it. Food?"
"At this hotel, or guest house, or whatever you chose to call it."
"For paying guests. It was what you'd expect."
"Not my cup of tea. Never too sure about the sheets, and using someone else's towels. Doesn't do."
"They had a nice drawing room, tastefully done. With an upright piano. Emily played some Chaminade, and "Songs Without Words." She was rusty after all this time but she does have a lovely touch."
Threlfall lost interest and started searching around in his pocket.
"There was a Scotsman at our table, a very interesting man. He was a vegetarian who knew all about Bernard Shaw. He even said that he'd corresponded with him about wheat germs. We had some very good conversations in the evenings."
Threlfall took out his pipe. Coke hadn't heard so much about The Eternal Light lately, the whole thing seemed to have faded out. In its place Threlfall had given up cigarettes and taken to a pipe. Well, a whole series of pipes really. Harold marveled at the length of time Threlfall spent polishing the bowl with his handkerchief, fiddling with pipe cleaners, and then grubbing around inside with a pen knife. Despite all this activity he seemed unable to light the thing. Well, not for more than two or three puffs at most. Harold wondered if taking up the pipe had been a way of giving up smoking all together.
Coke went back to his previous conversation.
"It was only for a few days, but very restful. The curious thing was that he liked funerals. That's why he'd chosen Lytham."
Threlfall stopped reaming out his pipe and studied Coke's face for a moment. "Thought that would be more in your line, Coke."
Harold smiled. "No. It was a hobby with him. He looked up the death notices in the local paper and then turned up at the church. I think that it was connected with vegetarianism in a way. He said that he would never partake of any food that was not alive. In fact, he had a number of set-toos with Mrs Beckenstead about that."
Threlfall pointedly turned away and began to work on his pipe again. Harold Coke lapsed into silence. The driver started the bus and pulled out of Skelhorne street up the hill. Realizing that Threlfall was no longer listening Harold turned his attention back to his book. But soon his mind began to wander and he looked out of the windows at the newspapers and old chip papers blowing in the wind, and the bomb sites with weeds and shrubs growing in their corners. A little later the bus began to travel parallel to the river and occasionally, as they went past the end of a street, or through the gaps between houses, Harold could see the grey stretch of water and the misty purple of hills in the distance. The sky was very clear, pale blue this evening, and although the sun was still high in the sky Harold thought that he could pick out a single bright star.
He turned and nudged Threlfall, indicating the scene outside.
"Sometimes it doesn't add up, does it?"
Threlfall blew down is pipe, then vigorously thrashed at the tiny sparks and particles of ash that had landed on his trousers.
"Damm it. Blasted thing. What?"
"Outside. It doesn't quite add up. And then you sometimes wonder if there could be a pattern to it all the same."
Ponderously Threlfall turned his whole body to face his friend. "What are you going on about now. Funerals? Walks by the sea? Vegetarian food? Your wife pounding at the piano?"
He turned away again. "I'm sorry, Coke, but I can't keep up with up any more. Sometimes I think..."
Threlfall left the matter hanging in the air and turned his attention back to his pipe.
But Harold was not deterred. "No, try to see it my way. I mean, the river, the sky, it's all so clear. It reminds me of when I was away in the...well... earlier in my life, being in the country. And then you see something like that."
He pointed through the front window. Threlfall saw a huddled group of men smoking outside a pub door, a weed filled bomb site, and a group of snotty nosed children throwing half bricks at each other outside a newsagent's shop. He took it in but was not quite clear what specifically Coke happened to be indicating.
Threlfall attempted a generality. "No homes to go to. Never bother to clean their windows, live in the dark. What do you expect? Coal in the bathtub. Need some discipline. Churchill would have given the lead if you hadn't thought fit to get rid of him."
"Young people have nothing to do. That's why its like that. They're adrift with nothing to hold on to. And it's all such a contrast. How can people hope to put things together?"
Threlfall blew down his pipe. "Too much psychology never helped anyone. Good kick in the arse'd teach them."
Harold stared out of the window. "I've been thinking a lot lately. I suppose it all began when I started going on those walks."
Threlfall carefully assembled his pipe then began to wind up his watch. He did not turn his head to look at Harold Coke who continued. "I began to feel that there had to be a meaning somewhere. Oh, I know that it doesn't look like it from up here, but things do all fit together. It's as if...."
Harold paused for a long time, trying to search for the right words as he stared through the side window.
"Yes, that's it. It's as if everyone were a part of the puzzle, everyone ...their lives...it has to fit in somewhere. And the thing is... what you have to do in your life is to find the way of fitting, of bringing things together."
He looked across at Threlfall and then spoke more quietly, "Do you know what I think? I think that a person could spend their whole life just trying to find out the one thing they were supposed to do. Just that one thing. And that may only take a moment to do, and then that's it, that part of the pattern is completed yet somehow the whole thing would make a sort of sense. But none of us, not you nor me, could see what that sense was...I mean, from where we were standing..."
Harold looked at his friend expectantly. He was almost out of breath, for the ideas had begun to take form as they came to life.
He waited a moment longer.."Well? What do you think...,Threlfall?"
Threlfall turned to face him. "What do I think? Oh, well, I think that you should try some sport. I suppose you'd be no good in a cricket club but why don't you go to the bowling green of an evening, or try some putting - that'd probably be more your style. If you ask me, that's what I think. And stay out doing that until it gets dark...and don't fill your head with stupid ideas. That's what I think. Some people can get on quite will, thank you very much, thinking, but some should never try."
Threlfall took out his pipe again and warmed to the topics of individual psychology, hygiene and socialism, Harold began to wish that he had never spoken in the first place. While Threlfall droned on and on, Harold sensed that there was some centre to what he had said, that it did have some meaning and that somehow his life had indeed taken on a movement of its own and was being propelled towards some meeting, or action, or revelation.
The summer passed quickly for Marge, what with the job at Wollies and cleaning and tidying the flat. When Cullen was back in Liverpool they'd all go out for a drink together. Marge brought him home one evening and although he said the place looked dead nice he didn't stay. Marge knew he really loved her but that something was on his mind. One time, as they were sitting together she asked him if he'd like to move in with her. Cullen thought for a bit then said that maybe he would, one day.
"Ma's a bit of an old bag at times, always moaning and whining about how there's no one to help her on the stall. She thinks I'm still a kid the way she goes on at me."
Marge nodded, but only cautiously, because she didn't want to get on the wrong side of Ma Cullen and she knew everything that was said went right back to her. "Ah well, she's getting on though, isn't she?"
Cullen shrugged. "There's sometimes things I need to bring home, just for a day or two. The old bag talks too much, she's getting senile. I'm not saying I'll move in here. I just need somewhere to store one or two things, maybe as a bit of a base. "
Marge smiled at him. "Yeah, its real cosy here, and there's plenty of room in the wardrobe."
"She even told me I had me hair cut too short."
Marge used all her savings to buy some nice pillow-cases and sheets for the bed. She went to Bon Marche for those. She also wanted to get something nice for Cullen, like a surprise present. She would give it to him on the night he arrived to live with her. Or maybe even better, they'd have a tree at Christmas with fairy lights and she'd leave his present under the tree. She'd got wrapping paper from Wollies to do it up dead nice.
In the end she decided what to get him. She wouldn't buy it, she'd do it herself, knit him a sweater, all in white with thick wool so he'd look like the man on the front of the knitting pattern. It was funny, but she'd been buying "Woman's Own" lately instead of Yank magazines. There were recipes inside on how to cook, and advice and stuff; then in the middle there were knitting patterns. She'd stolen the wool and needles from Wollies, which was dead easy as usual-- after all she was entitled to stuff like that, being there. Worker's benefits her Dad had always said.
Marge started on the sweater but the pattern was difficult to follow -- even the easy bits came out all wrong. For a start, the rows never seemed to work out right. Although she counted the number of stitches very carefully, each time the rows seemed to be a different length, and sometimes there were holes inside so the whole thing ended up looking as if someone had stretched parts of it out and squashed in other bits. What's more, the sweater was getting filthy; the wool wasn't white anymore, and the front had greasy marks over it...it wasn't a sweater really, more like a stupid dish rag. In the end she threw it in the dustbin.
After the business with the sweater Marge thought he'd start on something easier; maybe something small like a baby's bonnet or some booties. Anyway it was nice to be knitting for a baby, wasn't it?
She pinched some blue wool and started to knit. It still wouldn't come out right but Marge had realized that just having the wool and knitting needles was comforting in itself. It was a bit like Uncle Alf's unlit pipe. She didn't really have to knit anything - well not finish anything - just take the things out in her tea break and knit a bit, or in the evening when she listened to Voice of America or Radio Luxembourg. Knitting gave her a good feeling, like she was already married to Cullen and expecting the baby. Funny really, just fiddling with the needles, and she never need really finished anything.
Marge took her knitting with her when she went on her Wednesday afternoons off. After looking around the shops she'd go to a restaurant and do a bit of knitting over a cup of tea. It was in the middle of August that Marge met the lady in the Bon Marche.
Marge had come in for a pot of tea. It was very crowded but she managed to get a table to herself in the corner. She had finished her first cup and was putting the hot water in the pot to let it brew when this lady came over. She hovered beside the table looking up and down the room then sat down opposite Marge.
"I hope you don't mind, my dear, but it's terribly crowded this time of the afternoon. I'll try not to disturb you."
Marge nodded, not wanting to put her foot in it, and took out her knitting. The lady must have been in her fifties and done up dead posh. She had a nice blue hat with a veil tucked up on the top and a blue coat to match, with gloves and all. The lady slipped her coat over the back of the chair but, being posh, kept her gloves and hat on. Of course the waitress came in a flash expecting a big tip.
"I'll have a pot cup of tea, miss. And do you think I could have some of those very good chocolate eclairs? Nice fresh ones, please."
The waitress nodded and the lady leaned over, all confidential, to Marge. "One can't be too careful these days, can one? In some restaurants they try to serve the same cakes on the following day."
Marge could see that the lady wanted to talk, she was all of a fidget playing with her hands. So Marge looked down at her knitting and waiting for the lady to begin. She looked nice and, in a funny sort of way, she would have liked the lady to have been her mum.
Isn't that daft, Marge thought, and she'd only just met the lady that minute.
When the eclairs came the lady offered one to Marge, "Do have one, my dear, they're really quite good. I'm such a silly, you know. I always get them for my little nephew and this time I quite forgot...silly me." The lady gave a high pitched laugh and Marge wondered for a moment if she could be crazed. "Poor little dear, he's in the children's hospital, you know. He looks so think and pale, just lying there, but they let me visit him on Wednesdays -- his mother lives too far away."
Marge nodded again.
"You know, my dear, the day before he went into hospital he said to me "Tanty", he said, he always calls me Tanty -- Fat Tanty actually. 'Tanty can we go to the Tatler and see the cartoons?' So as a special treat we went to the Tatler and then we came here and had chocolate eclairs. But I don't really like the Tatler, do you? Such dreadful, common people."
The lady talked on and on and Marge enjoyed listening. It was a bit like being inside one of those stories in "Woman's Own"- the posh way she talked. And she really did hold her little finger in the air when she drank her tea. She had good teeth, false but expensive, and the teacup chinked against them when she talked. They were very white but with bits of red from her lipstick. And she laughed all the time in a very high pitch as if she were singing. "Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha."
Marge found the laughing the strangest part of all because it wasn't like real laughter, more as if the lady was in a film and she'd got to the bit in the story where she was supposed to laugh. "Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha" -- like that.
But she was very kind. She opened her handbag and took out some snaps of her nephew... he was a weedy little kid, all big eyes and his head on one side, pathetic really; but she couldn't shut up about him, what he did, what he said, how clever he was, all the books he'd read. In the end Marge had to speak, "Don't yer have any of yer own, then?"
The lady looked embarrassed and took out her handkerchief and fussed around with it in her hands. Marge knew that she was going to cry in a minute so quick as a flash she came out with "I'm having one at Christmas".
The lady looked pleased. "Oh, my dear, how nice for you."
"Yes, it's going to be a boy."
"Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Well isn't that funny, a boy? I do hope you're right. And it will make your hubby proud, won't it?"
Just as they were starting to talk about Marge's baby the lady looked at her watch, a tiny one, real gold, on her wrist. "Oh dear, I really must fly. It's half past four already. Hasn't the time passed by with the two of us talking like this?"
Marge smiled as the lady stood up and buttoned her coat. Before she left she put a threepenny bit under her tea cup for a tip.
"Who knows, maybe we'll meet again? I do love the Bon Marche, a better class of person in the tea rooms don't you think?"
When the waitress came over she looked pretty pissed off about the tip so Marge got up and left too. She had really liked the old lady and went over bits of the conversation in her head, trying to remember it and put on a posh accent.
When next Wednesday came around Marge found herself back at the Bon Marche again. She hadn't exactly intended to go, it had just happened that way. She'd been walking round the stores when she found herself outside the front door and with a terrible thirst on her for a cup of tea. Marge happened to be a bit earlier that last week and she didn't really know if she would bother to wait in case the lady came. On the other hand, Cullen hadn't been around since last week so she'd been pretty much on her own, and it would be nice to have someone to talk to.
Marge began to think about the past, only six months ago she'd been living in filth with Vera and now she was having tea and cakes and waiting to talk to a really posh lady. She'd changed a lot really, reading stories in "Woman's Own" and listening to the wireless at night. She'd got different interests too. Of course, a booze-up was great, and she knew she'd legless once she started on the rum, but she didn't get tanked up every night now. Hardly at all really -- just when her and Cullen and Terrance went out to the Beehive or the Leigh Arms, or somewhere like that. And now she was knitting and living in a clean flat. In a way it had all started after that visit to Wales, and that was the direct result of the Palace business. So things had worked out really well.
When Cullen and Marge had been together in that little cottage it was just like being married. She wished now that she'd stayed on at school and listened to what the nuns had told her. She could have learned how to talk posh and have good manners. Marge knew deep down that she was smart and that she could pick things up really quickly. At school the other girls said she could skit the nuns, and it was the same now...she felt that if she really tried she could put on a posh accent that would fool anyone.
"Well, what a coincidence? Fancy meeting you again."
Marge looked up with a jerk. It was that old lady again. She was dressed in the same clothes, but she had different ornaments and a string of pearls around her neck.
"I've just been visiting my nephew, he's a little better today. You know, the nurse put his bed on the verandah. I was terribly worried. He was in this awful draft, the poor little boy, so I asked to speak to Sister. "Sister". I said "I do have some experience of nursing in the war and I don't think it's advisable for the child to be outside." But she was awfully rude. 'Matron's orders', she said, just like that, and turned away without so much as a by your leave."
"It's the same everywhere today isn't it? I blame the war. Then all those terrible Labourites getting in, after everything Mr. Churchill had done for them. Socialism will be the ruin of this country, you mark my words."
"My hubby says they're paid by the Russians, and such terribly common people too...like that awful Mr Bevan, the things he's said about Mr Churchill, terrible."
Marge just listened, looking very serious, and thinking of something to say. "I don't get the vote, my husband being an American."
The lady looked a little puzzled. "Really? I didn't know that, how strange. An American, you say?"
Marge could tell that she'd said the wrong thing so in a panic she tried to cover up. "Oh, not in the war or nothing, he come....he came over, after the war....like. Well, he's a business man really, from New York. He's come over to ...to open up a....a factory."
The lady smiled again. "There were some terrible people over here in the war, weren't they dear? We used to have Italian prisoners of war not far from us."
Marge fingered her wedding ring. "But Cullen's really nice. He comes from New York and we're going back there after the baby's born."
The lady leaned forward and placed her hand over Marge's. "But there's nothing like your own people, is there....Good old England."
Then she started taking about her "hubby" as she called him, and about the house they had, the lead lights in the front windows, and the garden, and how the government had taken away the iron gates and the railings at the start of the war.
Marge couldn't quite understand why the lady talked to her so much. After all, Marge had to admit that she wasn't dressed that well, and even though she was trying hard her accent must sound dead scruffy to such a posh lady. Possibly the lady was lonely, or maybe she could be a little mad. The more Marge thought about that musical laugh the more she was convinced that there was a screw missing somewhere. Crazy but nice.
So with the old lady chatting, and Marge making up things about Cullen, they got on really well until it was time to leave and the lady said she'd have to toddle home to make her hubby's tea. It turned out he'd once been abroad and liked curry and foreign stuff like that, so she was rushing back to put the rice on.
Marge sometimes wondered if she too was a tiny bit crazy in the same way as the lady. After all, they were both breathless and rushing and hunting through big handbags for change for the tip. But she noticed that the lady didn't laugh so much as last time, except at the end when she said. "Well, I must fly now. Ha. ha. Ha. ha. ha. Or my hubby will be thinking I've taken the wrong bus. Ha. ha. ha. ha."
Marge had to take someone else's shift the next week so it was two weeks before they met again. This time the lady said that her nephew was coming out of hospital that weekend. Then she gave Marge her address.
"You know, my dear, I have enjoyed our little chats together. It's helped to pass the time for me and it is so nice to meet a new face."
Marge looked at the paper and smiled. "Mrs Threlfall." It was only at that moment that she knew the lady's name. Marge put the paper into her handbag and said in a very posh voice. "Yes, it's been so very nice."
"Well, my dear, one so seldom meets a genuine person today...such awful people about, aren't there? You must promise to write to me and let me know the moment your baby arrives."
"Oh, yes, I will. Cullen'll have a photo taken and we'll send you one."
"Oh, that would be lovely. I'll put it in a frame on my dressing table right next to my nephew. And don't forget do drop me a little line when you're in America, if you can find time. I'm sure you'll be most terribly busy."
Marge stood up and the two of them walked out together, just as if they were old friends. But once on the pavement Marge felt awkward not knowing what to do, or where to walk. She just stood there while the lady waved good by and went off for her bus.
Contact F. David Peat