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‘Are yer there, Mr Smith? Yer sausage and bacon’ll go all cold and greasy. I
can’t stand to see good food spoiled.’
That was Mrs Pollock. My landlady. Fiftyish, tall for a woman, thin and shrewish,
with steel-grey hair wrenched back into a bun that I had never seen undone.
A Gorgon. I’d done a bit of classics at the grammar school, so I’d seen a
drawing of the Gorgon. And if you left out the snakes, Mrs Pollock more than
fitted the bill. Faced with one of Mrs Pollock’s “looks”, many good men have
been turned to stone: the rent-collector, the coalman, the Number 8 tram-
conductor. Even the vicar had been known to take two steps backwards.
Whether he crossed himself, I don’t know. He might have: after all, it was a High Church parish.
When Mrs Pollock announced the imminent fate of my sausages, I had been occupied with my own thoughts of something tasty, for I was 23, full of vim and vigour and I was in the middle of a colourful fantasy that I really didn’t want to lose as it seemed to be going somewhere. Me and Greta Garbo were lying half-naked on a palm-fringed beach – Waikiki or some such place, since pictures of tropical paradises were uppermost in my mind at that time, as you will see – and Garbo was just about to …
‘And yer toast’s going cold.’ Mrs Pollock again.
Greta Garbo evaporated along with my palm-fringed beach and I swung my legs out of bed. I felt around for my slippers. The floor was bloody freezing. I didn’t have to draw the curtains to know what it was like outside. After all, it was November in a dreary part of industrial Yorkshire – ¬November 1937, to be exact – and there’s only one type of weather at that time of year in that part of England. My worn lino with the pattern of pears and apricots on it, turned a dull brown by the passage of years of lodgers’ feet, was a good indicator of temperature.
I dressed half-heartedly and went down the narrow stairs. There was not the slightest chance within the next few minutes that Mrs Pollock was going to be transformed into Greta Garbo: there was also not the slightest chance that her small, regimented, stuffy kitchen was going to sprout palm trees and turn into Hawaii. It was going to stay resolutely 17 Agincourt Terrace, in Guardsley, the grubby city where I’d been born and raised.
‘Morning, Mrs Pollock,’ I said, barely stifling a yawn as I sat down at the table. ‘What’s it like outside? Freezing? Blizzard raging?’
‘Bit on the parky side today, perhaps. You’ve got to be prepared to put up with a bit of cold this time of year, y’know. If you ask me, you young people today haven’t got the stamina that we used to have in my day …’ She tossed her head in that irritating ‘I-told-you-so’ manner of hers that made you want to wring her neck. Early on, I had formed my own theories as to why Mr Pollock had left her. Mrs Pollock, on the other hand, told all and sundry that she was a widow, that Mr Pollock had drowned trying to rescue a fellow mariner who had fallen off a barge on the Manchester Ship Canal, but my Aunty Rita knew the Pollocks from years ago when she had the off-licence in Agincourt Terrace and she reckoned that Mr Pollock had run off to Morecambe to run an ice-cream parlour with a girl who had worked at the Red Lion. ‘We can’t turn on tropical sunshine and palm trees,’ she went on, ‘just when we want them.’
I blinked and stared at her. How did she know what had been going on in my mind? Had she put two and two together? She knew I’d gone to the pictures at the Orient last Friday night with the Weasel, and so she must have known I had seen the Garbo flick. It was clearly time to get off a touchy subject.
‘Incidentally, can I have a bath this evening, Mrs Pollock, please?’
‘A bath?’ Mrs Pollock was clearly taken off-guard. ‘But it’s only Monday. You know your night’s Wednesday, Mr Smith. It’s Mr Stevens’s night tonight.’ And she drew her lips into a thin, bloodless line. Defiant almost. As if the discussion was closed.
‘Um,’ I persisted, ‘I’ve already asked Mr Stevens. He says he’s got no objection. I’ve got to go to a funeral tomorrow.’ That was an outright lie. I had an important meeting with my boss next morning but she didn’t need to know that. In any case, Mrs Pollock was always impressed by a good funeral and was more likely to let me have a bath out-of-turn if she thought I was going to accompany a Dear Departed to the graveside.
Mrs Pollock made a clicking noise with her teeth. She always did that when she was put out, like when there was something on the news about the miners being on strike again or if they mentioned Mr Hitler who she thought was an upstart or when the coalman dropped a bit of slack on the carpet on his way through the house to the coal-hole out the back. ‘I don’t like my lodgers making arrangements behind my back, Mr Smith. It upsets the routine of the house. Well, if you must, you must, I suppose. A man should look his best at a funeral, I always say. You can never tell who’s going to turn up unexpectedly. But it’ll cost you an extra threepence on this week’s rent for the gas.’
And she gave me one of her looks, albeit watered down by her sense of the occasion that had prompted the change to the bath roster. Mrs Pollock wasn’t a woman to be contradicted. She was making threepence profit on the whole deal, but it wasn’t the end of the world.
Truth was, I wanted to make a good impression on Mr Simmons and I still felt a bit mucky from the weekend – ‘in need of a good de-carbonise’, my mother used to say – because after football last Saturday I’d had a few beers with the lads, made a certain statement in front of a whole bar-full of witnesses and then I’d gone up to the water tower with Doreen Briggs, one of the cheap good-time girls who hung around us footballers – “Ever-ready”, the lads called her, the best good time to be had out of a fairly limited field, though I’d never been with her myself up till that point – and we had gone into it a bit, if you know what I mean, more to keep warm than out of any great feelings of passion, and I hadn’t really felt clean since. Not that I’m saying Doreen … well, you know … But I still felt I needed a good scrub and the small handbasin in my room wasn’t going to do it for me: not where I wanted to go, at any rate. And in that cold too.
To be honest, with a bit of extra frugality, I could have afforded a place of my own, but I had been saving. Up till last Saturday, I hadn’t known for what and with wages having been cut by twelve-and-a-half percent since the Depression, I wasn’t saving as fast as I could have done, but at least I had a job and that was something to be held onto like grim death. The never-ending queues at the labour exchange in Waverley Road and the Salvation Army doling out food-parcels in some of the slum areas were a constant reminder how a fellow’s livelihood could quickly disappear when times got bad. Mum and Dad said I was a fool to hang on at Mrs Pollock’s and put up with all her moods and the inconvenience, and in a way they were right, but there were too many of us at home in our little terrace house, three up and two down, with a cramped little scullery-cum-kitchen tacked on and a lavatory and washhouse out the back and I would have had to share with our Kenny and the smell of his feet, compared to which Mrs Pollock’s was a vast improvement. Not exactly Hawaii, but something in the general direction thereof.
I wiped up my plate with my last piece of toast – for all her faults and complaining, Mrs Pollock wasn’t a bad cook – finished dressing, put some brilliantine on my hair which made it look really black like Clark Gable’s and walked down to the end of the street to the tram-stop outside the Orient to catch the Number 8 that dropped me off outside Guardsley Municipal Gasworks where I worked from a quarter past seven in the morning till half past five at night on Mondays to Fridays and seven till half-past ten on Saturdays (which always meant a hell of a scramble to get to football on time), for two pound ten and eightpence after deductions – not a bad wage for an assistant chief clerk.
The top deck of the tram was quite snug. All the windows were misted over with condensation and clamped tight shut against the cold wind that blew down from the Pennines with a hint of heavy snowfalls to come. The atmosphere was a fug of pipe and cigarette smoke, which gave it an extra cosy feel. I handed over fourpence for my worker’s return ticket to the conductor and leaned back against the leather seat squab. On my way to the tram-stop in the sleet, I had resolved to talk to Mr Simmonds, the Chief Clerk, first thing on Tuesday, when I would be all spruced up and looking wholesome after Monday night’s bath, and ask his advice about going somewhere warm to work, somewhere out East, even. He had been overseas during the Great War – Africa was it? - and I think, from the wistful way he used to talk about it, he would have stayed there, given half the chance. I expect Mrs Simmonds put an end to that sort of frivolous thinking.
I had bought a packet of Kensitas to impress Mr Simmonds when we had our chat and lit one now so as to get used to them in advance as they were very strong and I didn’t want to make a blessed fool of myself by coughing. They also had cork tips which was a good thing as the tobacco wasn’t likely to fall out of the end like my usual fags if you treated them too roughly. A bit more confident after a couple of drags on the Kensitas, I daydreamed a little. Would I really go ahead with the rash promise I had made to the Weasel and my team-mates on Saturday night? In six months’ time, would I really be swapping the good old Number 8 tram for a rickshaw or one of those sedan-chair arrangements where they sling a canvas seat on poles across the shoulders of two sturdy bearers? I’d seen the pictures in the books and The Boys’ Own Paper without ever thinking that one day they might apply to me.
Not to put too fine a point on it, I had drunk ‘one over the eight’ on that bitter cold evening after the match – whether I had been building up a bit of Dutch courage to go behind the water tower with Doreen and her legendary sexual athleticism, I’m not sure – the fact is, I had made The Ultimate Pronouncement. We’d been playing a team from Rotherham – steelmakers, big hairy blokes, all of them, and built like the brick blast furnaces on Manchester Road. They were even bigger than I was, and I was pretty hefty. But we’d beaten them despite the foggy conditions in a sooty drizzle that had changed to gobs of wet snow by the time the final whistle went. Two – one to us. Not bad, but bloody cold all the same.
It took me ages to get warm again after that. I swigged a couple of double brandies on top of the strong Newcastle Ale, which no doubt emboldened me to make the fateful pronouncement that would change my life – and the Weasel’s, too, incidentally – for ever.
‘Come this time next year,’ I proclaimed thickly, ‘I swear on the Sacred Book of Rules of the Football Association (cheers from all) that I’ll be living in some exotic – (‘You mean erotic!!’ More cheers) – some exotic tropical paradise, being waited on hand and bloody foot by an army of servants, and you lot can keep this f-f-fucking climate and shove it up your bum, because I’ll be in the land of endless sunshine and beautiful women with very little on.’
‘Who’ll have very little on – you or the women?’ came a raucous voice from the back.
‘All of us, with a bit of luck,’ I replied, squinting through the smoke to see who had made the remark. It was that bugger Handley, of course. Typical.
The crude comments soon fizzled out but by then the harm had been done. Like the Band of Hope, I had made a solemn pledge to everyone – bloody hell, I’d even stood somewhat unsteadily on one of the bentwood chairs to announce it – and I didn’t really see how I was going to get out of it without considerable loss of face. Not that, deep down, I really wanted to get out of it. The idea of going abroad had been lurking at the back of my mind for months but I hadn’t had the time – or perhaps the courage – to think it through. My beery announcement had brought the matter to a head, that was all.
The mechanical performance I put on with Doreen behind the water tower and her obvious lack of enthusiasm for having intercourse in a snowstorm finally convinced me that I was wasting my life in Guardsley and could probably do better if I put my mind to it.