(From The New Age)


Best British Short Stories

I was just cooking a couple of two-eyed steaks when Black Mick walked in, and, noting the look in his eyes and being for some reason in an expansive mood, I offered him a sit down. After comparing notes on the various possibilities of the district with regard to job-getting, we turned on to a discussion of the relative moralities of begging and stealing. But in this, I found, Mick was not vitally interested—both were too deeply immoral for him to touch. For Mick was a worker. He liked work. Vagrancy to him made no appeal. To "settle down" was his one definite desire. But jobs refused to hold him, and the road gripped him in spite of himself. So the problem presented itself to him in an abstract way only; to me there was a real—but let that go.

Mick's respectability was uncanny. He could speculate on these things as if they were matters affecting none of us there. In that fourpenny doss-house he remained as aloof as a god, and in some vague way the calmness of the man in face of this infringing realism for a time repelled me.

We cleaned up my packet to the last shred and crumb, and I found a couple of fag ends in my pocket. We smoked silently. Mick's manner gradually affected me. We became somehow mentally detached from the place in which we sat. We were in a corner of the room, at the end of the longest table, and so incurious about the rest of the company that neither of us knew whether there were two or twenty men there. For a while Mick was absorbed in his smoke, and then I saw him slowly turn his head to the door. It was a languid movement. His dark eyes were half veiled as he watched for the entrance of someone who fumbled at the latch. Then, in an instant, as the face of the newcomer thrust forward, Black Mick's whole personality seemed to change. His eyelids lifted, showing great, glowing eyes staring from a cold set face. His back squared, and the table, clamped to the floor, creaked protestingly as his sprawled legs were drawn up and the knees pressed against the under part. A second only he stared, then slung himself full forward.

The newcomer was a live man, quicker than Mick. The recognition between the two was apparently mutual; for as Mick vaulted the table the other rushed forward, grabbed the poker from the grate, and got home on Mick's head with it. Before I could get near enough to grip, the door again banged and our visitor had disappeared.

"There was a girl in it," said Mick to me when we took the road together a fortnight later, and that was as far as he got in explanation. It was enough. I could read men a little. To Mick women—all women—were sacred creatures. In the scheme of nature woman was good and man was evil. Passion was a male attribute, an evil fire that scorched and burned and rendered impotent the protesting innocence of hapless femininity….

So we tramped. One public works after the other we made, always with the same result—no chance of a take-on. Often we got a lift in food, ale, or even cash from some gang where one of us was known, but that was all. Everywhere the reply to our request for a job was the same: Full Up. And then we made Liverpool.

My favourite kip in Liverpool was Bevington House in the Scotland Road district, but on this occasion I had news that Twinetoes, an old mate of mine, had taken in that night at a private doss-house, and the probability was that he would not only give us a lift but would be able to tell us pretty accurately what was the state of the labour market.

It was a rotten kip. Four men were squabbling over the frying pan when we entered, and over against the far wall sat an old crone, crooning an Irish song. The men were of the ordinary dock rat type, scraggily built, unshaven, with cunning, shifty eyes. The woman had an old browned-green kerchief round her head, and a ragged shawl drawn tightly round her breasts. One side of her face had evidently been burned some time, and the eye on that side ran continually.

"Got any money, dearie?" she said to Mick.

"No, mother," Mick replied, gently taking her hand. "Is there a fellow here called Twinetoes?"

"No blurry use t'me if no money," and she went on with her damnable singing, like a lost soul wailing for its natural hell.

The Boss came in from the kitchen. "Twinetoes? Damned funny moniker! Never 'eerd it," he said. "But there's a bloke asleep upstairs as calls 'isself Brum. Mebbe it's 'im."

It was. Twinetoes lay in his navvy clobber on a dirty bed, drunk, dead to the world. We could not rouse him.

"What a kennel!" said Mick. "There's a smell about it I don't like." There was a smell; not the common musty smell of cheap doss-houses, something much worse than that….

"You pay your fourpence and takes your choice," I said, with an intended grandiloquent sweep of my hand towards the dozen derelict beds. We selected two that lay in an alcove at the end of the room farthest from the door, and turned in. In a few minutes we were both asleep.

Suddenly I awoke. A clock outside struck one. There was no sound in the room but the now subdued snoring of Twinetoes. I was at once wide awake, but I lay quite still, breathing as naturally as possible, keeping my eyes more than half closed, for I felt some sinister presence in the room. A new pollution affected the atmosphere. Bending over me was the old crone. Downstairs she had seemed aimless, shapeless, almost helpless, an object of disgusting pitifulness. Now, dark as it was, and unexpected as was the visit, I could at once see that she was as active and alert as a monkey.

On going to bed I had put my boots under my pillow, and thrown my coat over me, keeping the cuff of one sleeve in my hand. A practised claw slipped under my head and deftly fingered the insides of my boots: Blank. The coat pockets were next examined: Blank. Still I dog-slept. The wrinkled lips were now working angrily, churning up two specks of foam that shone white in the corners of the mouth. The running eye rained tears of rage down her left cheek; and the other one glowed and dulled, a winking red spark in the gloom, as she looked quickly up and down the bed. Her left hand hung down by her side, the arm tense. Then, as she slipped her right hand under the clothes in an effort to go over the rest of me, I gave a half turn and a low sleep moan to warn her off. At once the left hand shot up over my head, the lean fingers clutching a foot of lead pipe. Again I tried to appear sound asleep. With eyes tight shut I lay still. I dared not move. One glimpse of that tortured face had shown me that I could hope for nothing; the utter folly of mercy or half measures was fully understood. Yet, effort was impossible. I was simply and completely afraid.

The lead pipe did not, however, meet my skull. Hearing a slight scuffle, I peeped out to find that there were now two figures in the gloom. The Boss had crept up, seized the hag's left arm, and was pointing to the door. She held back, and in silent pantomime showed that Mick had not been gone over yet. With her free hand she gathered her one skirt over her dirty, skinny knees and danced with rage by the side of my bed. She looked like the parody of some carrion creature seen in the nightmare of a starving man. The most terrible thing about her was her amazing silence; the mad dance of her stockinged feet on the bare boards made no sound.

The Boss loosened his hold on her wrist, but took away the lead pipe from her, and she slipped over to Mick. Again those skinny claws went through their evolutions with uncanny silence and effect, whilst I lay, every muscle taut, ready to spring up if occasion required. My nerve had returned, and now that the piece of lead pipe was in the hands of the less fiendish partner of this strange concern, I was ready to wade in. But she found nothing, and Mick slept on. We were too poor to rob; but this only enraged her the more. Her fingers twisted themselves into the shawl at her breast, and she silently but vehemently spat at Mick's head as she moved away.

For half an hour I tried in vain to sleep, and then the Boss again appeared. This time he bore a huge bulk of patched and soiled canvas, part of an old sail, which he hung from the ceiling across the middle of the room, thus shutting off Twinetoes, Mick and myself from that part where was the door on to the stairs. He was not noisy, but he made no attempt to keep the previous death stillness of the house.

As the Boss descended the stairs, a surprising thing happened—and Mick awoke. Girlish laughter rippled up the stairs! "God Almighty," said Mick, "what's that?"

Again it came, and with it the gurgling of the old woman. It was impossible and incredible, that mingling in the fetid air of those two sounds, as if the babble of clear spring water had suddenly broken into and merged with the turgid roll of a city sewer. Mick sat up. "But this is bloody!" he said.

"Wait," was all I replied.

We waited. Mick slipped out of bed, carefully opened his knife and made a few judicious slits in the veiling canvas. My senses had become abnormally acute. I seemed to hear every shade of sound within and without the house. I could sense, I imagined, the very positions in which sat the persons in the kitchen below. Even Twinetoes was affected by the tense atmosphere. He murmured in his sleep and seemed somewhat sobered, for his limbs took more natural positions on the bed. The darkness was no longer a bar to vision. By now I could see quite clearly; and so, I believe, could Mick.

The old woman was mumbling to the girl. "'S aw ri', mi dear. 'Av' a drink o' this. W'll fix y'up aw ri'."

She had again dropped into the low uncertain voice of aimless senility. The girl remained silent. Glasses clinked. The Boss, I could hear, walked up and down the kitchen, busy with some final work of the night. A confused murmur came from another corner; but I could not distinguish the words: The dock rats were apparently discussing something.

Again that ripple of sound ascended the stairs, but this time there was an added note of apprehension. It broke very faintly but pitifully, before dying away to the sound of light footsteps. Half a dozen stairs were pressed, then came a stumble and a girlish "A-ah." She recovered herself as the hateful voice from behind said, "Aw ri', m'dear," and older, surer feet felt the stairs and pushed on behind the girl. Through the veiling canvas and the old walls I seemed to see the pair ascending. A few seconds more, and a slight farm rounded the jamb of the door. The girl's eyes blinked in the walled twilight of the room. She hesitated on the threshold, but only for a second. The touch of a following frame impelled her forward. Her uncertain foot caught against a bed leg and a white hand gripped the steadying rail. Long-nailed claws laced themselves in the fingers of her other hand and the old woman half drew, half twisted her into sitting down on the edge of the bed. They began to talk quietly. I examined them more closely….

The old crone still played the part of ancient childhood, mumbling words of little import and obscenely fingering the girl's arms, head, and waist. Some instinct led her to veil her eyes from the girl, for from those differing orbs gleamed all the wickedness of her mangled and distorted soul. Fountains rained from her left eye, whilst the right again held that sinister glow. The girl was half drunk, and, I fancied, drugged. She swayed slightly where she sat.

She wore a small hat of a dark velvety material; a white, loose blouse, and what seemed a dark blue skirt. Round her neck hung an old-fashioned link of coral beads. Her brow was low but broad, and her hair, brushed back from the forehead, was bunched large behind, but not below, the head. Her roving eyes, gradually overcoming the clinging gloom of the place, were dark brown and unnaturally bright. Half open in an empty smile, her lips disclosed white but somewhat irregular teeth. Seen plainly in such surroundings, she was—to me—a pitiable and undesirable creature. I did not like the looks of her now. The mental image formed on the sound of her laughter was infinitely preferable to the sight of her. She was, I fancied, some servant girl of a romantic nature. I was right. "I don't care," she was saying, "I'll never go back. Trust me. Had enough. Slavey for four bob a week. 'Taint good enough. They said if I couldn't be in by arf past nine I'd find the door locked. And I did! They c'n keep it locked."

"'S aw 'ri'. You go t'sleep 'ere wi' me. W'll put yo' t' ri's. Y'll 'av' a luvly dress t'morro', an' a go' time. Wait t'l y'see the young man we'll find y' t'morro'. Now go t'bed." Those twining fingers ceased toying with the girl's hair and deftly slipped a protecting hook from an all-too-easy eye in the back of the girl's blouse.

"Three years I've been a slavey for those stuck-up pigs," said the girl in a subdued mutter, and then she went on to recount, quaintly and in a half incoherent jumble, the salient facts of her life. I glanced at Mick. He was leaning forward, peering through another slit. His face had its old set look; stern, condemnatory. Twice I had had to reach out and grip his wrist. He wanted to interfere; I was waiting—I knew not for what.

As the muttering proceeded, the busy fingers of the old woman loosened the clothes of the indifferent girl, who soon stood swaying by the side of the bed in her chemise. Deftly the dirty quilt was slipped back and the girlish form rolled into the creaking bed. The muttering went on for a few minutes whilst the old woman sat watching the flushed face and the tumbled hair on the pillow. The girl's right arm was thrown carelessly abroad over the quilt, the shoulder gleaming white in the deeper shadow thrown by the old woman who sat with her back to us, looking down intently at this waiting morsel of humanity. If we had not seen her before, we could have imagined her to be praying.

Mick, for the first time since their entry into the room, suddenly looked over at me. The same thoughts must have flashed through both our brains. What was wrong? Was anything wrong? Surely the affair was quite simple; and the canvas screen, violated by Mick's knife, had expressed the needed attempt at decency.

The muttering died down and the room was hushed to strained silence—to be broken soon by a furtive pad on the stairs. Mick and I were again alert, staring through the canvas slits. The Boss now appeared, followed by one of the dock rats. They glanced at the bed and then looked enquiringly at the old woman.

"Ol' Soloman sh'd fork out a termer for this," she said in low but clear tones. "But it's got to be a proper job." Then, to the Boss, and pointing to the screen, indicating the position of our beds: "You lamming idiot! Didn't I tell yo'? Yo' sh'd a took their bits an' outed 'm."

The dock rat was tip-toeing about the bed, like a starved rodent outside a wire-screened piece of food. His glance shifted from that gleaming shoulder hunched up over the slim neck to the heavy face of the Boss and then to the old woman, returning quickly to the form on the bed.

"Oo's goin' t'do it?" asked the old crone of the Boss. "You or Bill?" and she drew down the clothes, exposing the limp sprawled limbs of the sleeping girl. The Boss did not reply. He simply took a half-stride back, away from the bed. The dock rat's eyes gleamed: he had noted the movement. He ceased his tip-toeing about and looked at the Boss. "What's my share?"

"Blimy! Your share?" returned the Boss in a hoarse whisper. Then, pointing to the waiting, half-naked form: "That!"

In their contemplation of their victim they were so absorbed that they apparently forgot entirely the three of us bedded on the other side of the hanging sail. Mick and I were staggered. We looked at each other, realising at the self-same instant the whole purpose of this curious conference. By some subtle and secret processes of the mind again there seemed to be a change in the atmosphere of the room. Its sordid dinginess was no longer present to our consciousness. There was new life, heart, and vigour and, in some curious way, our mentalities seemed merged together. No longer puzzled, we were vibrant with a common purpose. I was angry and disgusted; Mick was moved to the inmost sanctuary of his Celtic being. He manifested the last degree of outrage and insult, of agonised anger. For the moment we were cleansed of all the pettiness and grossness common to manhood, inspired only with a new-born worship of the inviolable right of the individual to the disposal of its own tokens of affection and life.

And this new spirit of ours pervaded the room. The girl moaned in her drunken sleep. Twinetoes turned restlessly in bed, and the lines of his face sharpened and deepened. Something was killing the poison in both. Even the trio about the girl were momentarily moved by some new sensation.

Mick's accustomed recklessness of action was gone, he was cool and prepared to be calculating. We slipped on our boots and I moved over to Twinetoes' bed. I touched his arm. Mumbling curses he opened his eyes. "It's Mac," I whispered, leaning over and looking steadyingly into his face.

"Wot the 'ell…." he began, but I managed to silence him. Once accustomed to the gloom, his eyes took in the strangeness of the situation and, painfully swallowing the foul nausea of his drunk, he calmly and quietly pulled on his boots.

The old woman had again covered up the still sleeping girl and engaged the Boss in a wrangle about money. "You'll bloody well swing yet," said the Boss irrelevantly.

"Mebbe; but that don't alter it. I wants my full share 'n I means to 'av' it."

Dispassionately, the dock rat eyed them both and hoped for the best for himself. We had ceased to exist for them. "Goin'?" asked the dock rat as the others moved towards the stairs. They looked at him, but did not reply. So far as we were aware, though we had forgotten the entire world outside that room, there had been complete silence downstairs; but now we could hear movement. The other dock rats were evidently awake and waiting. As the foot of the Boss fell on the top stair, the spell seemed to fall from Mick. He glared fixedly at the dock rat who stood by the girl's bed. "I'll tear his guts out," said Mick with appalling certainty of tone.

The old woman heard it. The lead pipe again in her fist, like a cornered rat she whipped round. Mick did not wait; full at the canvas he sprang. His Irish impulsiveness overcame caution, and in a moment he was wrapped in the hanging sail, the old woman battering the bellying folds. The dock rat's head was knocking at the wall, Twinetoes cursing rhythmically and shutting off his breath with fingers of steel. My left eye was half closed and the Boss's knuckles were bleeding. The girl, awake and utterly confounded, blinked foolishly and silently, weakly trying to fix her eyes on some definite point in the tangled thread of palpitating life that surged about her.

"Look out! Drop him!" I shouted to Twinetoes as I swung in, furious but with some care, to the face of the Boss. Twinetoes did not heed; he staggered across the room under a blow from one of the new arrivals; but he did not loose his hold. He was a hefty man, entirely reliable, indeed almost happy in such an affair. As number two dock rat tried to follow up his blow, Twinetoes swung number one round in his way; then, changing his hold, taking both the man's shoulders in his hands, he drew back his head as a snake does and butted his man clean over one of the beds…. His face a pitiful pulp, number one was definitely out of it.

Ordinarily, the Boss would have been much too much for me; but now fate favoured me. He was considerably perturbed about the possible outcome of the row and its effect on his business; I was intent only on the fight. With a clean left-hand cut I drove him over, tore a quilt from a bed and flung it over his dazed head, then swung round to where the lead pipe was still flailing. I was concerned for Mick. Seizing the old woman's shoulders I flung her back from Mick and the sail. He would have cleared himself, but his legs were somehow mixed up with the foot of the bed, and she occupied his attention too much. The hag raised the lead and rushed, and for the only time in my life I hit a woman. Without hesitancy or compunction, only revolted at the thought of such contact with such matter, I smashed her down. The Boss and Mick freed themselves together and embraced each other willingly. Twinetoes was playing skittles with the remaining dock rats. There was surprisingly little noise. No one shouted. There was no howling hounding on of each other. All but the girl were absorbed in the immediate business of giving or warding off of blows.

"Dress, quick!" I said to the girl.

The fight had shifted to the centre, and her bed had remained unmoved, herself unmolested. In wondering silence she obeyed. "Quicker! Quicker!" I enjoined, with a new brutal note in my voice. The reaction had set in. I could cheerfully have shoved her down the stairs and flung her garments after her.

The kip was hidden away in a dark alley, the history and reputation of which were shudderingly doubtful, but there were police within dangerous hailing distance. The girl's lips began to quiver. Supposing she broke down and raised the court by hysterical howling! "Don't breathe a sound, or we'll leave you to it," I threatened. She shrank back, gave a low moan, and clutched my coat. I tore her hand loose and turned away in time to floor the Boss by an easy blow on his left ear. The fight was finished.

We wasted no time but descended the stairs and passed out through the court into the street. There were signs of life in the gloomy court, though no one spoke or molested us; the street was dead silent. Mick's arms and shoulders were a mass of bruises from the lead pipe, but his face was clear. Twinetoes was all right, he said, but craving for a wet. I alone showed evidence of the struggle; my eye was unsightly and painful, and my left wrist was slightly sprained. The girl sobbed quietly. "Oh! Oh!" she cried repeatedly, "whatever's to become of me!"

She irritated me. "Shut up!" I said at last, "You'll be all right." She snuffled unceasingly. I looked across at Mick—she walked between us, Twinetoes on my right—and at once I saw the outcome of it all. "Stop it, blast you!" I shook her shoulder. "My pal is the best, biggest fool that ever raised a fist. He's silly enough for anything decent," and then, with the voice of conviction born of absolute certainty of mind: "He'll never chuck you over. He'll marry you sometime, you fool!"

And he did.