Little Eric crouched beside the fire with a poker in his hands. To all intents and purposes he was prodding its iron tip into the coals in order to prick the bubbles of hot tar as they formed on the coal's outer surface and thus release the gas trapped beneath. As he withdrew the poker a spurt of yellow gas erupted and, for a brief moment, burst into flame. The tar that remained adhered to the tip which he then placed into the whitest and hottest centre of the fire until it ignited.
Little Eric often played with the fire on a winter evening for he loved the yellow gas that was given out by the coal. He relished in its thickness, its sulphureous smell, and the way it would suddenly ignite, the tip of its plume transforming into a miniature, roaring jet. Once Little Eric had attempted to extract this gas from the fire using a glass tube from his chemistry set, but the tube first clogged then began to melt. On another occasion he had tried heating small pieces of coal in a test tube but these experiments never really seemed to work. It appeared that only within the transforming heat of the fire itself was the yellow gas and the bubbling tar that accompanied it, generated.
This particular evening, as he squinted along the line of the poker and probed into the fireplace, Little Eric was also keeping watch on his father. As he had done for the past three nights of this week, Harold Coke had cleared the dining room table and, spreading it with a brown cloth, carefully placed his fountain pen and a bottle of blue-back ink beside a folio sized notebook bound in blue fabric with a red spine.
Little Eric was puzzled by the way his father had been acting recently, and by the whispered conversations coming from his parent's room at night. In a curious way although his father had grown more detached he had also become kinder, giving Little Eric a special smile when he came in at night, asking him about school and even giving him sixpence to buy some sweeties. Yet each evening Harold Coke would clear off the dining room table and sit there pouring over his notebook.
This notebook had become a compelling mystery for Little Eric and now the boy watched his father out of the corner of his eyes as he turned the pages, underlined certain phrases, or added a note in the margin. What could be in that book that was so important to his father? Little Eric had tried looking for it in his parent's bedroom, sliding under the bed, lifting the mattress and even climbing on a chair to examine the dusty top of the wardrobe. One thing was certain, his father had not chosen his familiar hiding place at the bottom of his shirt drawer. Over the past months Little Eric had located several curious objects in that location, a newspaper bundle containing paint brushes, a book entitled "The Golden Ass", a new tube of smelly ointment, a picture post card with an American stamp and two small paper envelopes containing a balloon each. Little Eric also knew of the photograph of the lady in army uniform that his father kept hidden inside the brown paper cover of "The History of Mr Polly". But either his father was keeping the notebook well concealed or he carried it with him wherever he went.
Harold had purchased the book in town, from Phillip, Son and Nephew about a week before the trial had commenced and he was now using it to transcribe and study the evidence that had been presented. As the day on which he had been commanded to present himself approached, Harold had made several other preparations. He had carefully cleaned his fountain pen and purchased a new set of leads for his propelling pencil. Noticing a shop-soiled brief case in the basement of White's, he had immediately snapped it up and found that, with some careful polishing, the leather came up just as good as new. Harold had even taken the precaution of folding some sheets of lavatory paper and keeping them in his wallet - after all, you never knew when you could be called short, and the facilities inside public buildings sometimes left a great deal to be desired.
Indeed, in the days that immediately preceding the trial, the question of lavatories had begun to assume an importance in Harold's mind, a worry of such a magnitude that it exceed his earlier obsession with hats. The problem with lavatories was that Threlfall did not seem to know very much about them. His friend had been over to the house on several occasions and they had also held discussions on the bus going home. Despite his reluctance to give Threlfall the upper hand Harold had grown hungry for all and every scrap information about the proceedings that took place in a court of law and, in particular, of the duties of the jury. But there was one issue that he did not care to raise in an explicit or direct way and that was the proximity and availability of public conveniences.
Threlfall had spoken of the time taken in listening to evidence, in council's speeches, the examination-in-chief and the cross-examination of witnesses. Threlfall had said that the main problem with a trial was keeping awake, for in most cases the guilt of the accused had become apparent to him immediately the prisoner had entered the dock. Although it was in principle a good idea to keep a set of notes, Threlfall prided himself upon his ability to make up his mind quickly so that he had whiled away the rest of his time composing sample advertisements for an earlier prototype of "The Eternal Light".
"And you had to sit there for a very long time?" Harold had asked.
"Hours and hours".
"Without a break?"
"And after lunch as well?"
Threlfall winced in remembrance. "That was the worst time, after a heavy lunch. Trying to keep awake. Or at least, trying to fall asleep sitting up and without snoring. Judges seem to be very good at that."
The more he thought about Threlfall's stories the more he had worried about his own ability to sit in court for such a length of time, particularly after a meal and without needing to....well.. And what if he should...er...need to? What if the discomfort became intolerable? What if his stomach was upset or bloated that day?
Harold rehearsed the troublesome possibilities in his mind. Should he attempt to sneak out unobserved, or would he be forced to pass a note to the judge? Would the lavatories in question be close to the court? As a member of the jury did he have to be escorted by a policeman? And what if the policeman stood outside the door? Ever since his first days at school when he discovered that those terrible, dark and dirty cubicles did not possess doors let alone seats or paper, Harold had suffered from the embarrassing disability to well .. go properly, if anyone should be listening. At White's he generally waited in the corridor, appearing to work on a light switch, but in effect watching the door of the Gentlemen's until everyone had exited. But what would he do if an official was assigned to stand directly outside the door each time Harold was seated inside?
It was useless to ask Thelfall's advice on such a matter, indeed Harold would have been too embarrassed to do so. Instead, he set himself a training program, eating a lighter lunch, then timing himself to see how long he could remain seated in his office until the need overwhelmed him to go down the corridor. He talked to Mr. Oldman, the chemist, and asked if there was some sort of mixture that would help. But the conversation went at cross purposes and in the end Harold ended up purchasing a tube of ointment for piles which he was forced to conceal at the bottom of his shirt draw.
Two days before his appearance Harold visited St. George's Hall in what he thought to himself as being a practice run, the sort of exercise that commandos when through before engaging in the real thing. With his notebook, ink and pen secure in his new briefcase, Harold promenaded around the outside of the building, admiring the statue of the Prince Consort on horseback, the high columns, the architectural details, the great doors and, above all, the imposing, dwarfing nature of the building of a whole. He was not sure if it was supposed to be a Greek Temple, or some sort of Roman palace. But at all events, he knew that he was in the presence of Great Art.
Coke did not enter the Hall that day but was content to mount the stairs and stand under the great door looking back at the prospect of Lime Street, at the great glass roof of the railway station in front of him, to his left the Walker Art Gallery and, almost out of his sight, the Picton Library. Curiously enough, Harold Coke passed St. George's Hall each morning on his way to work. As the bus turned at Islington he would see the Wellington monument, St John's Gardens and, on his right, the hall itself. Yet while he had always acknowledged it as one of the landmarks of Liverpool in another sense he had never truly seen it before, never come to realize what it represented and what it contained.
As he descended the steps and prepared to walk back to the bus station that day Harold heard the cries of children. At the far end of the plaza he noticed that a Punch and Judy stall had been erected and he walked towards it. Harold did not join the small crown that were grouped around the stall but stood, someway off, so that he could observe without being drawn in. He watched as Mr Punch beat his wife with his truncheon, screaming incomprehensibly in his high pitched voice; he saw the crocodile appear, only to be beaten into submission by Mr Punch. He watched the other characters, the Policeman and the Judge and finally the appearance of the scaffold.
Harold turned away and began to retrace his steps with the sounds of children's laughter in his ears. He knew he must try and make sense of the whole thing, try to fit it together in his mind. Unfortunately when he mounted to the top deck of the bus he found Threlfall waving at him from the front seat.
On the bus Threlfall immediately launched himself into one of his orations. He took great pains to explain the majesty of the law and that its nature was similar to that of The Flying Scotsman speeding on its way north - magnificent, on rails, and unstoppable. Therefall went on at length about the richness of the court's interior and about famous trials that had been held at the Liverpool Assizes. He mentioned the great organ within George's Hall and even informed Harold Coke told beneath the wooden floor on which he would be walking was concealed a magnificent mosaic pavement.
"They can't build things like that these days, Coke. The spirit's gone out of the British craftsman. All they think about is unions and strikes. Where would we be today if Hitler had landed?"
Coke shrugged, not quite comprehending the significance of that particular non sequitor. Then, his mind returning to is area of discomfort, attempted to steer the conversation into a new area. "Well, with all that craftsmanship I imagine the Gents must be truly magnificent. A marble floor and gold plated tapes, eh, Threlfall?"
Threlfall, not being drawn, dismissed the remark as an attempt to be facetious. "I'm talking about workmanship, Coke, careful craftsmanship, attention to detail; not the half hour tea break, not mollycoddling the workers, not the plumber who forgets his tools, not the electrician who rips the plaster out of your walls, not the painter who doesn't wait for the under coat to dry. I'm talking about Britain's glory, I'm taking about screwheads."
"Every one exactly aligned. You wait and see. There are millions of screw heads in St George's Hall and each one is exactly aligned in the same direction. It's like a regiment marching. You don't get that sort of thing today."
Harold nodded. "And the facilities? The washbasins and..erm?"
"Aligned at a very peculiar angle". He looked around the bus then pulled Harold closer to him and whispered conspiratorially. "Know what I mean? Not one myself, never would want to be. You know, Coke. One trouser leg rolled up. How old's your grandmother? Are we tiled tonight, brother? That crew. Aprons. Handshakes. Screwheads."
Marge pushed her way along Deansgate towards the corner where she was supposed to meet Carol. Carol was not much but at least she was from Liverpool. And even if you couldn't call her a friend at least she was someone Marge could talk to. A few days after Marge had first arrived in Manchester she had met Carol in a bar near the station while she was still looking for somewhere to live.
"Are yer lost girl?" Carol had said and when Marge had muttered a reply Carol had got really excited.
"Yer a scouse too, from the Pool? Great. They're real daft her in Manchester, aren't they? I can't understand a word they say. And tight buggers too, not like the Pool, eh love?"
After that Marge and Carol had stuck together, more for companionship that anything else. Marge had told her she had had to leave Liverpool on account of boy friend trouble and pointed to the scar on her face. Of course Carol had said that the same thing had happened to her more than once and so she offered Marge the use of her bed in the afternoon.
"I need it at night see, but yer can kip in the afternoon if yer like....I won't charge yer for it neither."
Carol did some shop lifting in a half hearted sort of and was on the game. Or at least she said she was, always going on and on about how she could pick up rich fellas, but Marge never saw much evidence of success in that quarter. All in all, and despite her looks, Carol was a right drip. But then Manchester wasn't the same as Liverpool and Marge never felt at home on its streets, she missed the smell of the river and the familiar accents, she just needed someone to talk to.
Over the last few days the shops had started to get dressed up for Christmas and Marge felt that she had to get tanked up. She had almost a pound in her purse and tonight she was going to get legless. The thing was that she hated to look at all the decorations as they were going up in the shops. It reminded her of the Christmas she should be spending with Cullen.
Marge tried to push the idea of Christmas out of her mind as she jostled her way through the crowds looking for Carol. Of course, things could still work out all right. It was just a matter of saving up a little more money and then trying to find a good solicitor. He'd know what to do, he'd know the way to save Cullen.
At the end of Deansgate she saw Carol standing at the corner of the street trying to cross.
"Hey, love, it's me."
Marge didn't feel much like running so she shouted and waved until Carol caught sight of her.
"God, I've caught me death waiting for you," Carol said. "It's perishing here. Why can't yer be on time, Marge? And there's lots of fellas around, yet can make good money this time of the year."
Marge shrugged and began to walk away. "Come on, Carol, lets have a drink. I can't stand all them people going home to their wives and kids. Let's go and have a drink."
The two of them began to walk towards the town centre.
"Where shall we go, Carol?" Marge asked, more to make conversation than anything else.
"You leave it to me, I know a place where they serve draught Guinness. There's be lots of people from the Pool, and Irish too -- yer'll have a good time."
Marge shrugged, it didn't matter really, nothing much mattered these days. About a week ago she'd gone out late one night and walked and walked along Regent Road, down Trafford Road and on until she'd found herself at the docks. It was so strange, suddenly seeing big ships at the end of the street and seagulls perched on the walls outside. She could almost smell the sea again. Except there was no sea there and no real river in Manchester, only the ship canal.
It must have been about three in the morning when she slipped thought the gate onto the docks and tiptoed past the watchman. She stood looking at the boats and thinking how they'd come up the Mersey, how they'd passed the Pier Head and the Liver buildings then sailed along the river past Runcorn, under the transporter bridge and up though Warrington and into the Canal. She wanted to see the names of the ships and to look at the flags. She thought of the times she'd watched boats sailing down the Mersey and out into the Irish Sea, and of the evenings that she'd sat with Cullen as they'd planned that trip to New York.
That was finished now. Marge walked to the edge of the dock and stared down at the narrow channel of black water between the side of a ship and the dock wall. She could just make out the surface of the water by the lights reflected as it slowly heaved. Down there was blackness. It seemed to her as if she was looking at the inside of her mind. Marge leaned forward, very slowly, letting the motion of her body take her, without any desire or thought, without any effort she began to fall.
Someone high above her shouted.
"Girl. Girl" She looked up and saw a sailor leaning over the rail high above her. He could speak no English but was gesticulating, the fingers of one hand moving inside the other.
It really didn't matter either way, Marge nodded and went over to the dock wall and hitched up her skirt and stood there waiting for him.
She hadn't gone back after that. It took too much effort and she yearned for something passive, something that would creep over her without any action or decision of her own.
Now Carol was pulling at her arm. "Come on there, dozy, get a move on. Why're always standing there dreaming? Yer'll catch flies with yer gob open. Come on girl, we're almost there."
Marge found herself inside the pub, hot and humid after the street.
"What'll yer have Marge, pinta Guinness?"
Marge nodded, "Let us pay for them, Carol. I'm buying tonight."
Marge sat at a table. She could have been back in the Pool with the shouts of "Hey, Jack, gerrus a pint der." "Come on, wack, and give us me change." "D'yer watch de match?" "Yeah they're a daft load of cripples, aren't dey?" "Gerrus a chaser wid dat, Mike?" "Good on yer, skin"
Marge managed a grin as Carol came back to the table with the pints. "Hey, Carol, I'm going to get pissed tonight...real pissed."
Carol laughed, "That's right, love, you need a bit of a change. It's just like home here, isn't it? Makes yer want ter go back to the Pool."
Marge shrugged. "Ah, what the hell--yer can't go back. That's just daft talk."
The girls supped their pints and a little bit later two men sat down at their table and started buying rounds. One of said he them was Irish and boasted about how he worked for the IRA. He told them he was going to blow up the Pier Head with a mate of his called Brendan who was presently resting in the Mountjoy prison in Dublin.
Round about ten the Irishman, if he was really Irish, said he knew a club where they could go drinking after hours so the four of them moved on. Although Marge was pretty far gone by now she realized that she'd started to talk too much. She just couldn't help it, things kept slipping out, things she'd never meant to say. At one point she realized that the Irishman was looking at her in a funny way.
Contact F. David Peat