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Authors: Henry Williamson

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“Don't keep it, sir,” said a man with eyes almost concealed in a smile, a man in shirt-sleeves kept off his wrists by rubber bands, as he raised his boater, then set it on his head again at the original angle. “Porter, stout, bitter, mild in wood, Bass, Worthington, Guinness, Reid's, Raggett's, Truman's, Allsopp's, Courage's in bottle. This is a free house.”

Feeling the fellow's eyes unbearably upon him, Richard said the first name that came to him. “Raggett's, please.”

“Nice evening, sir. Been playing tennis?”

“Lawn tennis,” said Richard, not wanting to encourage conversation. The place smelled of stale beer and tobacco smoke.

The publican turned to say, as he drew a cork, “You'll pardon me mentioning it, I hope, but I notice by the shape of your racquet it is a tennis racquet, and not the new lawn tennis shape.”

“You are quite right,” exclaimed Richard. “It
a tennis racquet.”

“Originally for use with soft leather balls stuffed with feathers, and sometimes horsehair, so I understand.”

“Do you play, yourself?”

“No sir,” replied the landlord, with a giggle, “I've got some old copies of ‘The London Illustrated News,' and was reading about it only the other day.”

The publican wiped the counter before putting down the glass of stout.

“Threepence, if you please, sir. It's up a ha'penny since the Budget.”

Richard buttoned his jacket across his watch and chain as the door opened and two women in black bonnets and dresses came in. The landlord's eyes grew to narrow slits as he smiled again, the straw hat being lifted and replaced while his face assumed the faint suggestion of being Chinese.

“Two half quarterns of gin, Freddie,” said one of the women, in a voice familiar to Richard, who had turned his face to the mahogany partition. He had recognized Mrs. Cummings and Mrs. Birkett. What would the landlady of his bachelor days, and the midwife who had attended Hetty, think of him being there?

He soon found out, when feeling himself discourteous, he turned round, simulated surprise, and raised his boater, slightly embarrassed by the thought of the landlord having just done the same thing.

“Why Mr. Maddison, it is a pleasure to see you out and about, and in the Castle, of all places!” exclaimed Mrs. Cummings. “What a small world it is after all, I was only talking of you to Mrs. B. as we were walking past the Public Baths just now! ‘I never see Mr. or Mrs. Maddison nowadays,' I said, ‘they never asked me to the christening of their little son, but then Mr. Maddison
was always so reserved a gentleman, Mrs. B.,' I said. How are you keeping, and how do you like your new house? I suppose all those years you lodged with me, and I always tell people you were the nicest gentleman I could wish to have under my roof, all those years with me seem nothing now you are happy and secure with your wife and family.”

“You must come round and see us when you can manage it, Mrs. Cummings. We have another baby now, I expect you know, thanks to the skill and care of Mrs. Birkett.” He bowed slightly to Mrs. Birkett.

Mrs. Cummings looked significantly at the glass on the counter. “Do you see what I see, Mrs. B.? Father is keeping up his strength,”
and both women laughed. “Raggett's Stout! You must excuse us laughing, Mr. Maddison, but it is an old joke between Mrs. C. and me, how you brought your little wife home that evening, some months off her time, those bottles of Raggett's all ready for the happy occasion! We've often had a quiet laugh over it, I hope you will not be offended, Mr. Maddison?”

“Oh no, of course not. Well, how are you, Mrs. Birkett?”

“Very well, thank you, Mr. Maddison. How is the little one progressing?”

“Very well, thank you, Mrs. Birkett. The mother is able to feed the baby this time.”

“Well, here's a health to her, Father,” and Mrs. Birkett raised her glass of gin and hot water with a slice of lemon in it. Mrs. Cummings followed. They drank.

The landlord appeared to be interested. So he was; but chiefly in the hope that the meeting would lead to more custom. It did; for Richard considered it the thing to do to offer them another drink. They accepted at once. He decided to have beer this time. He ordered himself a pint of strong Burton ale. Why not, indeed?

It had an exhilarating effect on him. The evening became alive, in that he lived in the present. The tennis had been good fun; Mr. Mundy was doing his best to keep the true values of the country alive; Miss MacIntosh was a gay and natural lassie from the Highlands. He began to speak of his butterflies, while Mrs. Cummings exchanged a wink with Mrs. Birkett. They expected to be amused; they were enchanted. Freddie the landlord leaned nearer, the better to hear what the gentleman was saying, while marvelling at education. Richard told them how Painted Ladies
and sometimes Large Coppers flew miles across the seas, with the rare Camberwell Beauty; how the herb fields in North Surrey were, in summer, acres of pure colour; and thither came Fritillary and Admiral, Marbled White and Blue Adonis. How one collected not for the sake of acquiring rare specimens, but as talismans of future happiness. Mrs. Cummings wondered at the change in him from the reserved young man she had known before, and declared that the alteration was due to his marriage.

“Wonderful what the right partner will do to a man, or to a woman for that matter, eh Freddie? What do you say? Come on Freddie, try and be as interesting as Mr. Maddison!”

The landlord's eyes were smiling within the enclosing lids. He did not reply, but still smiling, lifted his glass and sipped. It was water; a customer in the saloon bar adjoining had just paid threepence for a half-quartern of gin for him.

“Come on Freddie, you've been married, haven't you?”

Freddie tittered. His eyes were mere slits. Then he spoke.

“It's the cup that cheers, don't they say?” and slightly lifting his boater once more, he moved away to attend to a customer in the saloon bar. The public bar, at the other end, was served by a big stout man in leather apron and thinning forelock plastered with oil flat on his brow. Noises of shouting and raucous laughter came from there. It was snug in the small enclosed Private Bar.

“Well,” said Richard, “it has been most pleasant meeting you two ladies. I called in on my way home from lawn tennis, for some cider, but they had none. Still, this ale is excellent. It is the first time I have entered a public house in this part of the world, but I must say, it is a pleasant experience.”

“Now let me stand you a short one for the road,” said Mrs. Cummings. “Come on, dear, one more. It isn't every day Mrs. B. and I have the pleasure of hearing anyone talk like you do, you know.”

“Well, I have left my wife all alone——”

“She'll manage all right, don't you fret. She'll know you've been in good hands, when you tell her. We know our Mrs. Maddison, don't we, Mrs. B.? Why, if you searched the wide world over, you'd never find a more naturally understanding or warm-hearted little woman like the one you've got. And such a delightful sense of humour! You'd never believe it, unless you heard it.”

Mrs. Cummings' words had a subduing effect on Richard. His social sense made keener through the drink, he felt an implied reproach in what his old landlady had said. Hetty was subdued when with him; she was happy and humorous when he was away. He had suspected it, of course; and when away from her he had often told himself that he must be more patient, and not allow the fact of their differing standards to affect him; but somehow, whenever he had been with her all the good resolutions had made no difference. She did not seem able to learn.

“Let me stand you a gin, or a whiskey, for old times' sake,” urged Mrs. Cummings. “Then you can go back to your little wife, and please to give her my best regards.”

“I will indeed. Now if you will excuse me——”

“Not until you have drunk the Queen's health, I won't hear of it! Why, it isn't many times in our lives we shall be together again in the sixtieth reigning year of the best Queen England ever had, God bless her.”

“God bless her!”

“The Queen, God bless her!” Freddie lifted his hat once more and then sipped water. He drank spirits only in the daytime when travellers calling for orders having first enquired after his health, always invited him to have a drink with them. In the evening he took the money from happy customers and drank only water, for the sake of his liver.

It was dark when Richard wheeled the Starley Rover into the High Street. Having no light, he walked home. The stars were now thick in the sky, the moon was rising. It seemed that the hamlet of Randiswell, even the laughter and shouts from the garish Railway, and the way up Charlotte Road, were part of the freshness and inherent decency of human life.

Hetty had cocoa keeping warm on the gas stove. She was surprised and delighted with his happy face. It was lovely to have the messages from Mrs. Cummings and Mrs. Birkett.

He lay back in the armchair and stretched out his legs, and then his arms, yawning with mouth wide until he remembered to cover it with his hand. And soon upstairs, to wash teeth and hands and face, and into relaxing cool nightshirt. Hetty was glad that he wanted to sleep in her bed; she lived only that he, and others about her, should be happy.

Had she known, while she was giving of her ultimate gentleness
to him, that he was imagining her to be red-haired, green-eyed, milk-white of brow and neck and cheek, she would not have resented it, having accepted within herself, as she had for some time now, the truth that she could not, of herself, make Dickie happy.

But what she did not understand was why, after she had given herself to him, he was almost always, the following morning, querulous, and critical of her in one way or another. The more she submitted to him, as was her wifely duty, the more irritable and fault-finding he became. Once, having inspected her larder, and complained of food allowed to become stale, he became so angry that, despite her efforts to conceal her hurt, she broke into tears. This caused him further upset, and à measure of contempt, that she had avoided, as he declared, the issue between them by taking an unfair advantage. Were there blowflies' eggs on the remains of the leg of mutton, or were there not? That was the issue! Did she wish him to die by eating tainted meat, and perhaps herself and her precious little coddled son as well? Then it behoved her to be more scrupulous in her regard for them all!

What Hetty did not understand was that Richard was chronically under-nourished, for he ate nothing between breakfast and his evening meal, except his tobacco-tin of marmalade sandwiches. He was economising for his son's education, among other responsibilities.

In distress Hetty left the room, and went upstairs; and like a child she sought relief in the company of another child. “Oh I cannot bear any more, Sonny, I cannot bear any more, I cannot—I cannot,” she sobbed.

The little boy stood up in his cot watching Mummy crying because Daddy was ur-ur-ur-ur-ur to Mummy—the child who learned by manual-visual imitation of everything his parents did: and as Mummy cried and clasped him he cried too; and when Mummy was gone he stood up in his cot, clutching silken Hanky in one hand, Thumb in mouth for desperate reassurance, Golly pressed to his nightshirt; and as he listened it was more and more as though a thorn had begun to pierce the large-seeing eyes filling half the face and serving the mind of the soft-bony creature, the mind that was being formed by visual-aural records in the back of the skull, an imaginative cave stored with the records of its living, which was also that of its family, and of its forebears.

morning a girl was sent up by Miss Thoroughgood’s Domestic Agency. She rang the bell worked by a current from the big glass salammoniac cells on the shelf in the coal cellar, and when Hetty went to the door she was standing there unsmiling and unspeaking. She had a sallow skin, with eyes as black as her hair. Her hands hung down limply by her side.

Sitting in the kitchen, uncomfortably on the chair, the girl was not communicative. Hetty gave her a cup of tea. She took it without a word. Her high button boots were old, too big for her, and cracked. So were her oversize jacket and skirt, which were obviously cast-offs. Hetty was disappointed. She had been imagining a smiling, enthusiastic girl, blithe and hard-working, one to be trusted in all matters. Perhaps with a name like Florabell, or Hyacinth, or Margaret, or Celandine—for often Hetty’s thoughts went back to Cross Aulton, and the herb fields which she saw with such radiant sadness in memory.

“What is your name?”

“Mona Monk, mum.”

“Oh.” After a pause Hetty added, “I see. Well, Mona, have you had any experience?”

“On’y runnin’ errands for Missis Bevy, and at ‘ome workin’ fur me mum, mum, and mindin’ me li’le bruwers an’ sisters.”

“Do you like children? I have a little boy, and a baby daughter.”

Mona stared at the floor.

“Do you like children, Mona?”

“I dunno, mum.”

Hetty’s heart sank. Mona Monk seemed well-named, poor girl. She did not think that Dickie would like her appearance, or her manner.

“You don’t dislike children, I suppose?”

“Only some,” said Mona.

“Do you think you would like my little boy, Mona?”

“I ain’t sin ’im yet, mum.”

Hetty laughed. At least Mona seemed to be truthful.

“How old are you, Mona?”

“Fourteen, mum.”

“Can you cook anything?”

“I ken fry spuds, an’ make a nice cupper char.”

“Oh.” Hetty wondered what that was. Then Phillip came into the room, carrying his gollywog. “This is Master Phil, Mona.”

The girl stared. The child stared at her. Mona smiled. He smiled, and went to her. She touched his head. “Ain’t ’ee pretty, mum?” she said, looking up at Hetty. The face, suddenly winsome, touched Hetty’s heart.

“Well Mona, if you will be a good girl, and try and learn, I will think about engaging you. You would want to live in, of course?”

“Would I hev me own bed, mum?”

“Of course, Mona.”

“Then I wouldn’t hev to sleep wiv no one else?”

“Oh no. Sonny will be in his cot, and the baby sleeps in a cradle in my bedroom. Would you like a rock bun?”

The girl grabbed one. She broke off a piece and offered it to the boy. He took it, saying solemnly, “Danke schön.”

Hetty explained what it meant. “You see, Mona, it is good manners to say ‘Thank you’ when people give you something.”

Mona’s face looked closed-up again.

“Would you like another cup of tea?”

“No, mum, it’s quite all right.”

“You should say: ‘Thank you’, Mona.”

Mona stared at the ground. A silence followed.

“Did you hear what I said, Mona?” asked Hetty gently.

Mona nodded. Her black hair hid nearly all her face.

“Then what do you say?”

Mona’s head went lower. The tattered black straw hat, with its faded ribbon, began to shake. A grimy hand covered her eyes. She was crying.

“Please don’t cry, dear. I did not mean to be unkind. You must not mind me telling you, you know; I am only trying to help you.” Poor little girl, Hetty thought, what thin legs she had. Her black thread stockings, loose on her broom-stick legs, were torn.

“Why are you crying, dear? See you have made Sonny cry, too.”

At last the girl said: “I didn’t mean no harm, mum.”

“Of course not. But you should say ‘Thank you’ when someone gives you something, that is all, Mona.”

“But you didn’t give me nothin’, mum.”

Hetty was mystified. Then she laughed. The boy laughed. “How silly of me, of course you were right! Only say ‘No, thank you’ if you don’t want anything, and ‘Yes, thank you’ if you do.”

“I’ll try, mum, if you give me another charnst, I swear to Gawd I will. Don’t turn me away, mum. Me Dad will belt me.”

Hetty was all compassion. “Very well, Mona. I will give you a chance. Did you talk about wages to Miss Thoroughgood?”

“Yes, mum, thank you.”

“What wages are you asking?”

Mona said quickly, “I must not ask for less’n five shilling a week, mum.”

This was far too much, thought Hetty. And yet it was the only girl Miss Thoroughgood had had come to her for weeks, according to Miss Thoroughgood. Far too much, five shillings a week for an untrained girl. Hetty said she would let her know, and Mona Monk departed.

Mrs. Turney was coming over from Cross Aulton to visit her daughter the next day, and Hetty told her mother about Mona. She had taken quite a fancy to the girl, she said.

“Well then, dear, suitability is half the battle. If you consider her to be suitable, do you engage her, and I will pay half her wages. Thirteen pounds a year is a great deal to pay a little maid, but if it helps to keep small brothers and sisters, I will not grudge the money, dear.”

So when Mona came up the next morning, Hetty said: “Very well, I will pay five shillings a week, Mona, and you will live in, and have half a day a week. Mr. Maddison will expect you to be in at nine o’clock. You will go home on your afternoons out, won’t you?”

“Yes, mum.”

“Very well. You can start next Monday, for a month’s trial. I will provide you with cap and apron, and a black frock. But
you will be expected, of course, to provide your own underclothes, boots, and stockings, out of your wages.”

“Yes, mum, thank you.”

“Now, take a rock cake, Mona, before going home to tell your mother, I am sure you are hungry.” Hetty held out the plate.

“No, thank you, mum.”

“But aren’t you hungry?”

“It ain’t my turn to eat today, mum.”

Of course: many poor families could not afford enough food to go round.

“Well, dear, it
your turn today now, so please don’t think you are taking anyone else’s share.”

Hetty had found out from Hern, the grocer in Randiswell, that the girl’s father had been a soldier, but now was a navvy, digging ditches in the yellow clay for water and drains of new houses. The Monks lived in Mercy Terrace, beside the line in Randiswell.

Hetty gave Mona some cold mutton and bread, which the girl ate ravenously, and then complained of a pain. She and her brothers and sisters seldom had meat to eat, it seemed.

“Of course, when you are here, Mona, you will have your meals every day.”

“Cor,” said Mona.

“Cor,” said Phillip, standing there, watching and listening.

Richard was told the news on his return that evening, when Hetty saw he was in happy mood. The last few days had been close and oppressive; but a thunderstorm had cleared the air during the afternoon.

“Now you will be able to come with me to the Tennis Club dance,” he said.

“Oh Dickie, I have not danced for ever so long a time, and have nothing to wear!”

“Your cream silk dress, what is wrong with that, pray? You look very nice in it.”

“But the half-bustle is out of fashion, Dickie. However, I could have it altered, and no one would know. There is a good sempstress in the High Road, near Mrs. Cummings. Or I have heard of a little woman in Randiswell.”

Hetty was surprised at the idea of Dickie even thinking of going
to a dance. What had happened to change him? Of course, it was the exercise, and the nice friends he had made.

“They are a pleasant lot of people in Twistleton Road. We had a hand or two of whist this evening, during the thunderstorm, in the Vicarage”, he told her, when he returned from the club that evening. “Mr. Mundy suggested it, he is the old type of sporting parson, and I must say more to my idea of what a clergyman should be. Mrs. Mundy gave us some peach brandy, and very good it was, too.”

Although he had taken the news of the servant girl coming without any fuss, Hetty was not easy. She had doubts about Mona Monk, and was apprehensive of Dickie’s effect on the child when he saw her. But there, she was sure she would improve with proper food and kindness; and it was a good augury the way she had taken to Sonny.

Hetty was relieved that Richard seemed happier. During the past week he had more than once found fault with her. The Christmas-pudding basin, which she had put behind the water-butt, well away from the scullery, meaning to give it a good soak before washing it in strong soda-water, had been found by him, and an explanation demanded. When she had told him about the mouse he had been angry, declaring that if she had not been so careless she would have seen its traces on the larder shelf before it could have time to eat its way to the bottom of the pudding.

Then—and oh, she felt such shame, she could hardly bear to think if it—he had discovered that she put her menstruation napkins, to keep them hidden until she could wash them later in the morning, tucked under the steel laths of the mattress. Sonny had found one when crawling under the bed while she was cooking Dickie’s breakfast, and he was dressing after his cold bath. Oh dear, he had made such a scene. He had gone on until she had broken down, though she had tried not to; and Sonny had clung to her skirts, also crying; then he had accused her of playing on the boy’s feelings in a manner to estrange him from his father. It was quite untrue; she would never dream of doing such a thing; but Dickie had not believed her.

He had left the house without his breakfast; and she had not had time to make him his usual sandwiches of bread and butter and marmalade, in the tobacco box. So he had been starved all day, and it was entirely her fault. And when he had come home
half an hour earlier than usual, the chops in the perforated zinc box standing on the copper of the scullery for coolness had gone off; and when she was about to put them in the pan he had smelt them; and there had been another disturbance. She should have anticipated them going off in the thundery weather, he cried. She should have cooked them; they were quite nice cold, provided they were eaten at once, and not left for days and days to get stale. And if she had done so, he was just as likely to have complained of the cold meat on his plate. How many times had he not said, “What, cold mutton again? Aren’t there any other varieties of cooking in your repertoire? How about savoury rissoles, or Lancashire hot-pot for a change? Surely you have benefitted a little from Minnie’s tuition?” It was best not to say anything, her replies only made him worse, he seemed to take them all as evasions. But often by the time she had washed the baby’s diapers, bathed Sonny and put him to bed, tripped up and down the stairs a dozen times to his plaintive, “Minnie mummie, Minnie mummie, Minnie mummie, p’e,” cleared the sitting-room of his toys and tidied the place up, tidied herself and washed and changed from her working clothes and put her hair in order, and perhaps soothed the baby crying with wind-pains—oh well, when Mona came perhaps she would have more time to do things in the way Dickie liked them done. It was all very difficult; he was away all day, and had no idea of what extra work the larger house involved.

Richard, on the other hand, regarded his day in the City as a grind; the street noises and constant movements wore upon ear and eye; pleasant anticipations of returning home, of seeing Hetty and the odd little boy, whom he dearly loved, and the baby, who had become Mavie, a personality to him since she had smiled at him, of a quiet and pleasant meal with Hetty in the cool sitting or garden room, of work in the garden afterwards, at carpenter’s bench in the spare room upstairs, or tennis at the Club—to Richard his homecoming at evening was always keenly anticipated, and being insufficiently fed during the day, he had not the resistance to disappointment. He received a salary of sixteen pounds five shillings every half-quarter, and the investment of his remaining capital, after house and furniture had been paid for, produced a further fifty-six pounds per annum. For years his mind had been set on the need to save every possible penny,
against illness or other contingency; and by now the habit had become a satisfaction in itself. He kept a record, in his meticulous handwriting, of every halfpenny spent, and balanced his books at the end of every month.

Mona was afraid of “The Master”. She cowered within herself in his presence, over-awed and often tongue-tied. Her attitude discomposed him, made him withdraw into himself, with the effect of mutual tension.

Phillip formed his feelings from those in the house: he responded, like any other young child, to the spirit of his human surroundings. During the day he was generally happy and interested; there was wonder in all things, keen delight or apprehension in the unexpected. Aunty Bigge often came in, first rattling the brass flap of the letter-box, to be greeted with a little dance of joy. Mrs. Feeney’s black bonnet wobbling up the path or seen approaching up the road from Mummy’s bedroom window as he helped her to make the beds by standing in the verandah out of the way, gave him equal joy.

Good-boy-don’t-annoy watched for Milk-oo man, too, and Basket-grocer man, and Butcher-man stripey-blue apron and wooden sheep on shoulder (the wooden trug, with two handles at each end, looked to the child like the half a split sheep hanging in the butcher’s shop in Randiswell) and Black Goal-man with black horse and waggon, and Ning-a-ning-man with ning-a-ning wormy up the road (organ-grinder hauling barrel organ up the steep road from kerb to kerb, in a series of zigzags).

In this manner, being good-boy-don’t-annoy, he helped his mother to make the beds on fine mornings, by keeping watch on the balcony beyond the open door. He watched the sparrows on the roof above, chattering and quarrelling, the cats in the gardens below, the people who came and went out of the houses up and down the road.

He stood there with his new friend in his hand one morning, inside its box. The new friend was a woodlouse. It was a sad moment when, having given his friend a bath, he pulled the plug and his friend went down the hole that gurgled like Minnie snoring.

BOOK: Donkey Boy
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