UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
They had Arthur working the awkward round through the winter months, but that was the way it was for people
Now it was the end of winter. Arthur, physically, noticed this hardly at all: the mornings were still as pirate-black and blue-bone cold as they had been on the shortest day of the year. Emotionally, on the other hand, he believed he felt the coming-on of spring more than any farmer, any holiday resort hotelier.
When his boss, Mr Bardey, told him with a smile, congratulations, he was to start on a more ‘civilised’ round from the first Monday in April, Arthur couldn’t shackle his features. They formed an anti-mask: his splintered heart was there in his craving eyes and flagging mouth. Mr Bardey, only an amused step up from complete inattention, asked if anything was the matter.
Arthur said, ‘No, nothing, sir,’ and left it a couple of days. Then he asked to see Mr Bardey again. ‘When I start my new round,’ he said, voice whipped by wind, ‘I don’t mind if I carry on with doing some of the old round that I’m doing now as well.’
Mr Bardey waited, peering, a countdown going on in the back of his mind.
‘I know what it’s like for the new fellow, sir, going out all the way to Kitson Street, so I don’t mind, I could probably keep going to that one, perhaps?’
‘Kitson Street?’ Mr Bardey pushed out his bottom lip and shook his head shortly. It was said he knew every name on every street his service was responsible for. ‘That won’t fit in at all with what I’ve got in mind for you.’
‘I’m sure I can still manage it, sir,’ Arthur nodded. ‘I like the exercise, I like every bit of it I can get.’
‘I can’t see that you’d ever be able to manage it on time.’
‘I’d like to try, sir, very much.’
‘That’s as may be, but I’m not running an experiment into the limits of human endurance here,’ Mr Bardey said. ‘No.’
Arthur nodded again. ‘In that case, sir, can I – I’d prefer it very much if I just stick to the route I’ve got now. Till the end of the year, even, and then we’ll see.’
Mr Bardey had started shaking his head halfway through that speech. ‘That would be bending the procedures, and that’s something I won’t do, for you or for anyone.’
Arthur nodded, in appeasement rather than agreement, which felt awful later.
Mr Bardey looked at him, with what was meant to be a wise tenderness; in the circumstances, and because it was unexpected, it just about sufficed. ‘These things pass,’ he said. ‘Particularly at your age. Believe me, there’ll be someone else along before you even start missing her.’
Arthur thought that was the most terrible thing he’d ever heard.
Usually Arthur fell in love at first sight, light-as-air chains that he had to drag with infinite pleasure through the day, until one morning they were fading, and then eventually gone; but this had crept up on him over a few weeks without him knowing. Obviously, he’d noticed her as someone good-looking, and probably a nice person with a gentle kind of sadness about her, but that was all, and she wasn’t the only one he thought of that way. Pauline, she was called, from Kitson Street.
He’d already been working in the butcher’s for a year when he started this job as well, early in October. Apart from Sundays, he didn’t have a morning off until Christmas Day. That was when it happened, he supposed, or when he realised it was happening: he woke up early that morning, far earlier than he’d wanted to, but he couldn’t be annoyed about it because he was thinking about her. He could even have been dreaming about her, as he was aware of no gap between waking and commencing to think of her. He tried to think of what she’d done the day before, to bring this about, but he couldn’t picture anything different when he went over his memories of her for the first of a thousand times.
He didn’t get much in the way of presents, of course, but it was still the most fantastic Christmas Day he could remember, and the holiest. He soared through it; every room in the house looked fresh, and moving out into the street for a breath of air was like entering a new kingdom. There was no denying that the world was a fine, fine place. Hard at times, and with its troubles, but overall it had to be said that the good things by far outweighed the bad – a minute of the good outweighed a year of the bad. His smile alone was the true saviour of the world, he thought; no one could see it and not be replenished. His sister Patricia, a year older than him, asked him what was going on, then took a closer look, rolled her eyes, and walked off.
Arthur was still sharing the bed with his two younger brothers, Robert and James, and they were both too excited to be asleep even by the time Arthur got there. That night, he didn’t mind and didn’t hit them. He wanted to tell them of the other kind of excitements life had to offer – in fact, he just wanted to talk about Pauline, saying the same things over and over again, until it was time to go to work and see her again – but in the end he kept quiet. They were too young to understand, and in that family, it was best to keep things like that to yourself.
In the morning, he did his round fast, denying people an extra few minutes of warmth and fantasy. This meant he could spend a few minutes waiting outside her home (or her parents’ home, more accurately), wondering what it would be like if he was asked inside, if he could sit across from her at the table with tea and toast, warmth growing from the just-lit fire.
When he tapped her window, he tried to do it tenderly. That was all in the spaces left between the taps, the musicality of them. Within half a minute, as always, she was at the window to acknowledge him. She lingered for a few seconds, again as always, looking up and down the empty street, untying her long blonde hair.
That was all he saw of her – and, just as painful in its own way, all she saw of him. He knew what it was like at that hour of the morning, when the eyes were still in the other world and the window was dirty with the night’s rain. Some mornings, when he was feeling tired and spotty, he was glad of that, but others he thought he looked all right, more than eye-catching if she would just take a closer look. No-one had ever told him he was handsome, true, but no-one had ever told him he was terrible, either. He started saving whatever he could after his mother had swept through his paypackets. He was in need of his first pair of long trousers.
Pauline, he estimated, was a few years older than him; she might even have been over 20. If that mattered, he couldn’t fathom why. He didn’t know anything about her parents, but thought that, at her age, they couldn’t be too crushing a weight. Her street was no better than the one he lived in, so she couldn’t be used to richer boys than him. He was a long time in realising she might already have a boyfriend, a thought came to him like a murderer in the night, but what was somehow worse, somehow a pearl of pain in his chest, was the thought that at any minute she could meet eyes with some new young man at the factory, and that would be the memorable moment of her life. Yet while this was all shudderingly dreadful to contemplate, it didn’t penetrate to the core of him. As far as he was aware, there was something preordained about them being happily together eventually.
She worked at the ceramics factory, which was more or less as good a job as his two combined. It was a three mile walk from her parents’ house. After his duties in the butcher’s, Arthur was able, if he sprinted till he felt faint, to get to a place where he could meet her walking her final mile home. Usually he followed behind her at a reasonable distance, and was heartened – if strangely heart-tugged – that she never met anyone on the walk. A few times, on giddily brave days, he overtook her with a ‘Hello.’ The first time, it took her a while to twig who he was, and she said ‘Hello’ back, favouring him with a short smile. She always looked sprung from her own thoughts on those occasions, and naturally tired, but still – she was as beautiful as he could imagine anyone being. It almost made him laugh to see it, and at the same time it hurt like a needle.
Soon Arthur felt the adult world was within reach after all: maybe he would be able to drink all evening in pubs with friends still to be made, come up with jokes that would bend the windows out with roars, have a woman – that woman – waiting warmly in bed and candlelight for him when he got back. There would be other jobs, serious ones; there could even be sea travel. He couldn’t see why not.
In her more affectionate moments since he’d started bringing in lots of wages, his mother called him John-A-Dreams. Where this came from he didn’t know, but she explained it meant his job was to wake people from their dreams, that for a few seconds the tapping at the window would be a part of their dreams - a demonic finger on the other side of the door, a giant devouring insect munching on toes, suits of armour come to life outside … Now, seeing him mooning about in the evenings, staring deep into unknown spaces, she said the name had two meanings. He just imagined himself explaining all that to Pauline.
By the time his long trousers could be bought, his days on the round were down to single figures. He was finding it impossible to think clearly about anything – luxuriating in images of Pauline was all his pinioned brain proved capable of – but it looked like a decision had to be made about those trousers. In a burst of head-down concentration one night, sitting in the back yard with his knees drawn up and his knuckles tapping his forehead, he made it. He wouldn’t wear the trousers until the last day of the round; and that was the day he would ask her out. She would be touched by the sight of them. She couldn’t fail to be touched.
He picked them up after another tumbling pelt from the butcher’s, and decided – a less torturous decision – not to mention them to anyone in the family, not even Patricia. His brothers’ thoughts would turn to sabotage, and his mother’s to the subterfuge he’d engaged in. In a quiet moment that evening, his mother at the peak of her cooking, Patricia talking to a neighbour between bouts of helping with the cooking, and Robert and James running around the streets like lunatics with other lunatics, he closed the bedroom door and tried them on. It was difficult to breathe. They were somewhat roomy - he must’ve unknowingly adhered to his mother’s perennial dictum about growing into things. Anyway, a knotted length of rope would solve that problem, plus it just meant they covered his spindly legs all the more successfully. And even if they’d been bright pink they still would’ve been an improvement on the shorts.
His last morning came round. He got up at 4 o’ clock, remembering no dreams, and had a more thorough wash than usual. He chose to forego his bowel movement, in case the smell clung to him, and he wondered how many other young men would’ve thought of that. The rest of the house was sleeping, despite his mother’s claims that she could manage no such thing. He slowly put his new trousers on.
In other circumstances, since he was a boy who’s heart was always bobbing like an unmanned dinghy on the surface of things, this could have been an occasion for sentiment. But he was thinking of no-one and nothing but Pauline, and those thoughts were freighted with terror. He had another impression of adult life: that even the most enticing things had their deep pits and shadowed enclaves you would wish to avoid if you could, but you couldn’t.
He hurried along to the depot, the morning damp and freezing, mocking them for acting as though winter was over, and collected his pole. He’d forgotten that his new trousers would make him the target of unbridled badinage, so ferocious it could’ve disrupted the confidence of a lesser character, but none of it really touched him. Even Mr Bardey’s comical eyebrows at the sight of them could be shuttled to the back of his mind. He was more concerned about the tightening drizzle out there. He perhaps shouldn’t have plumped for a light gray shade of cloth. But even rain could be silver and special when the mood was right, and despite the fear, his was. He got moving.
His trousers excited no less comment as he trotted through his rounds. He was glad of his improvised belt, but could do nothing for the weight that accrued to the bottoms of them, the heavy slap of them off his shoes and ankles. That would have to attest to his hard-working credentials.
Shopkeepers opening up bellowed laughter and asked who’s washing line they’d been filched from. The postman, as always, made as if to clout his rival morning-stalker, but then stopped mid-swing and pointed and laughed. The old drunk he often saw, still reeling from the previous night’s cannonade, didn’t laugh, but had garbled, incredibly serious-sounding advice that Arthur had no time to listen to, never mind decipher.
Some knew that this was his last day on the round; others didn’t, and still others didn’t care one way or the other. Those who knew assumed that his trousers were to do with his imminent promotion. Only one or two, both of them women, wondered who he was trying to impress. Even they, however, couldn’t have traced it to Pauline, he was sure. Old Mr Lewis, who must’ve been close to a crabbed retirement, acknowledged him through his window by mouthing an obscenity. This was done neither in jest nor out of aggression – it was a low feeling that had to go somewhere. Mrs Briggs had her blonde twins wave at him, their hair a grubby spiked halo and their eyes already half-closed again. He received his usual crisp salute from Mr Fallon, and again didn’t know how seriously to take it. Mrs Cole, with the ailing husband, knew it was his last day, pressed a few coppers into his hand, and wouldn’t take them back. The urge to talk to her about Pauline, have her wish him luck, almost wrenched his head off.
The rain became full-blooded as he took the longest run between houses, an almost ten-minute stretch. He was making good time, however, so could have sheltered for a few minutes, to see if it would slacken off. In the end, he thought it best to press on. He foresaw the need to summon his nerve outside Pauline’s door, and couldn’t imagine how long that would take.
The sun was up, though making little effort, when he was only a few calls away from Pauline’s. Old Mr Conway saw his trousers and was irritated almost to the point of disgust at the unnecessary things embraced by youth. Mrs Peters, heading fast into middle-age after a harder winter than most, looked through him in a way that chilled him enough to prey on his mind for a few seconds, before Pauline reasserted her primacy. A young man, whose name Arthur could never remember, and his golden Labrador, whose name Arthur had never known, stood together at the window. The dog had its paws up and its tongue out. It had barked at Arthur for the first week of the job, then changed its opinion when Arthur was given a chew to feed it with.
His jaw was clamping by now, and he whispered rehearsals to himself. He hadn’t settled on how to phrase it, there being a multitude of possible variations, from the plain to the ornate, but he was trusting he would know which to use when the moment arrived. When he wasn’t concentrating on that, he was seeing the future: the rooms they’d be in together, the other couples unknown as yet but who they’d be the envy of, silliness on slow night-time train journeys. He turned one of the last corners, and the horse screamed and reared up.
It wasn’t as if he’d never seen it before – he and the drayman were always within a few minutes of each other, and underneath the daydreams, he must’ve heard the hooves on the cobbles. But there it was – he almost walked into it, its cry sprayed rain, and he dropped his pole. What Arthur couldn’t get over, then or later, was the warmth of the muck that announced itself in his pants. He could believe it fizzed like a steak. The second most important impression was the volume of it. It felt like he’d evacuated a cricket bat.
The drayman, a reliably miserable presence even on dry mornings, cursed him with a strange combination of obscenities, but at least didn’t get down to clip him; he soothed his horse (named Cleo, Arthur remembered helplessly) and rode on. No-one else was in the street, and no-one was looking out to see what had caused the commotion. That was one blessing. Another was a nearby alley he could slip into, though he couldn’t devise a walk that would minimise the disaster. Moving fast was the only necessity; the turd was already prowling. He thought he’d be able to crouch, drop his pants and maybe flip it out, but all he could do was hold a leg ramrod straight, shimmer it, and try to pinch the fabric out of the way. Soon, though not soon enough, it slid over his shoe and was out in the air. It looked far smaller than he would’ve believed, though every bit as despicable.
It had left a pathway down his leg, but his brain was working reasonably fluently now. He wafted a hand through a puddle, drew his trouser leg up to the crotch, and patted and dabbed his thigh and calf until the thick of it was gone. The dirty rain matted the hairs there, but that was endurable. He checked his trousers over. None of it really showed up on the outside of the fabric, though he determined not to turn his back on her, just in case. Even after cleaning his hand again in the puddle, there was a smell, but he didn’t know how much of that was his imagination, or how far it was identifiable. He thought she would probably give him the benefit of the doubt. To add a distraction, and after making sure his hand was totally clean, he played with his wet hair, sticking it up a little, making it wild and, he thought, windblown.
Then he took up his pole and tapped on her window. A calm came over him, or more like a focussing with panic just about held on the outside of the funnel. She was there within a few seconds, gave him a nod that didn’t snag on either his trousers or his hair, and had her look up and down the road. When Arthur didn’t move away - that was when she noticed him. She stood still and looked down, her face expressionless. He gave her a pretty smile he’d been practising, and beckoned her down. She looked a touch confused, but disappeared from the window without any hesitation. There was a moment where he could feel his eyes darting like a Bedlamite’s, and there wasn’t enough air in the entire town for the deep breath he needed to take. She opened the door slowly and narrowly, and squinted out, her body hidden from view.
‘Would you be free this evening?’ he asked. ‘Free for a stroll, at all?’
She was quiet for a second. Then she burst into tears and shut the door.
Arthur didn’t last a fortnight on the new round before he handed back his pole. His mother had much to say about that at high volume, and Patricia looked at him like he would be a lifelong lost cause, but he was past caring about that. Mr Bardley’s advice proved to be untrue, also.Barrie Darke has recently had stories accepted by New Writing North, Byker Books, and in the US, Nossa Morte, Menda City Review and Demon Minds.
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