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Authors: Henry Williamson

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BOOK: Donkey Boy
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Carrying the bucket, which dribbled water from a split in its seam, upstairs, he flushed the pan, then returned for more. It took several douches to clear it, to his relief, for he had dreaded a choke in the pipe. At last the pan was white again, and presentable; and glancing into the other rooms, to enjoy a last glance at their freshness and clean ceilings and wallpaper, he went down the stairs, and let himself out of the front door, to pick his way down the little path with its border of rockery made of burnt lumps of yellow clay embedded with broken bottles, which had run into glass and fused with the brick in the kiln. Richard thought it a horrible rockery, but Mr. Antill the builder had, on pointing it out to him some weeks before, evidently been much pleased with the idea. “Makes a change, sir, don’t you think?” he had asked, with some self-satisfaction. “My own idea, sir, I got it from the Crystal Palace one Saturday afternoon, when some young imps were making a cock-shy out of bottles with half-bricks.”

Richard walked, in his rapid swinging lope, along Charlotte Road and was soon where it joined the High Road, and a little further on was Comfort Road, with the pawnbroker’s shop at the corner. He walked freely, without the usual feeling of near-gloom, as he went down Comfort Road to his house at the end. Spring would soon be here; there was the garden of the new house to be laid out, a lawn to be made. It was but a small garden, to
be sure, and the subsoil of yellow clay began immediately under the coarse and trodden grasses; but the top soil could be built up. He had already noted, over the fence at the bottom, a mass of leaf-mould, from the accumulation of elm-leaves fallen from the tall trees above.

Richard had arrived, a week or two previously, just in time to save a small elm that grew at the bottom of the garden. It was a sucker from one of the roots of the big trees beyond. One of the navvies, who had been digging the trench for the water pipe, was about to cut it down with a hook, when he had stopped him. The navvy had already helped himself to a faggot from the coppice in the field, and wanted the sapling to complete the bundle. The cheek of the fellow! He had been quite insolent, a man by the name of Monk, who lived in Randiswell. And coming to the end of Comfort Road, Richard put his hand in his pocket for the latchkey, reflecting that soon he would be free of the constrictions of walking up and down Comfort Road. He was still liable to hear the odious cry of “Jesus Christ on Tin Wheels”, when he cycled down it, going into the country.

He turned the key, pushed the door, and was astonished to hear the notes of a violin. An unfamiliar bowler and fawn overcoat, with velvet collar, lay on the chair at the bottom of the stairs. The door of the parlour was half open. His son stood just inside the room, his mouth open, staring at the player. Richard took a deep breath. He recognised Hugh Turney, his brother-in-law. He frowned. Why had he come, and at that hour? Had he not warned Hetty that Hugh was an unfit person to have in the house, particularly where there was a young child?

Hetty was in the kitchen, where three places for a meal were laid upon the table. So Hugh was expected to sit at table with them! Good God, what was she thinking about? But all the Turneys were like that, impervious to any idea of what was right and proper. He felt a desire to walk out of the house, to walk away for ever. His wife was entirely untrustworthy.

“How nice that you are back, dear,” said Hetty, with hurried cheerfulness. “You must be hungry, and all is ready. I’ve got some nice brawn, and some of your favourite mango chutney. Did you see Hughie? He has some splendid news.” Her cheeks had gone pink, and she avoided looking at him.

“Oh,” said Richard. He drew a deep breath. He was agitated.
He turned away, hesitated, then faced her. He turned away again to close the door.

“Why did you let him into the house?” he asked with lowered voice.

“Oh, it’s quite all right, dear, please don’t worry. He’s quite cured of his arthritis. And he is about to enter on his new career. Please, Dickie, do not worry about him being here.”

“But I do worry! And I do not believe in this arthritis story! Oh, very well, have it your own way! But don’t say I did not warn you, if your son develops an incurable disease!”

“Hush, Dickie, please, Hughie may hear you!”

The violin music had ceased. Richard’s face was pale. He breathed faster with agitation. “I’ve a very good mind to——”

With an effort he controlled the impulse to tell her that Hugh Turney did not suffer from arthritis, but from an unmentionable disease connected with the depths of immorality. Sidney Cakebread, Hugh Turney’s brother-in-law, had himself told him so; but in confidence; and one’s word was one’s bond. How would his wife feel if her son were contaminated? But he had given his word, and so she would have to learn the truth from someone else. In his distress, Richard cried, after closing the kitchen door, “Very well, I wash my hands of the entire business! I am no longer master in my own house, apparently! You give me your promise not to allow your brother in the house, and at the first opportunity you break it! Do not tell me to hush! I shall not be hushed!”

Hetty leaned against the polished steel plate-rack above the kitchen range. Kettle-steam strayed by her shoulder. She had been dreading the return of her husband; she had been unable to ask her brother to go. Hughie had been so happy, having at last found the kind of work that he really wanted to do, after all the years of unhappiness with Papa, who had insisted on putting him into the family Firm.

Richard had turned to leave the kitchen when there came an excited banging on the lower panels of the door. A child’s voice was crying out behind it. He opened the door, and a little boy ran wide-eyed into the room. He wore a sailor’s blouse of white, with a broad square collar lined with dark blue lines, a pleated white skirt, white socks, and black button boots. He seemed almost overcome with some tremendous news.

“Ning-a-ning man, Mummie! Ning-a-ning man!” he cried, with shining face. Then, aware of a difference in his mother’s attitude, and of his father standing there, he looked from one face to the other face; the eager attitude diminished, his thumb went into his mouth, and he began to suck it.

“Take your finger out of your mouth, Phillip,” said Richard. As the child did not move, he bent down and pulled the hand with a movement almost abrupt. The child stood still on the linoleum floor, his eyes now round, as he stared up at his father so high above him.

From outside in the road came the strains of a barrel-organ playing

“Oh dear!” said Hetty. “He’s late today. He usually comes on Saturdays before you get back.”

“Ning-a-ning man!” exclaimed the child. “Penny Mummy p’e! Penny Mummy p’e!”

There was a glazed earthenware pot on the kitchen shelf where Hetty kept her small change. The child took the coin, and hurried away, full of eager delight to give it to the ning-a-ning man.

“Don’t you teach your son to say ‘thank you’?”

“I do generally, dear. Only he gets so excited when he hears music.”

Richard also loved music; and he had not forgotten his own childish excitement when he had first heard a concertina played in the village street by a wandering sailor. The memory softened him, and he decided that he must be civil to his brother-in-law. Repressing a desire to say that Hughie’s knife and fork and plate, and particularly his glass, must be washed separately in carbolic afterwards, he left the kitchen to greet the unwelcome guest with a moderate show of civility.

The guest had already left, apparently. Extra music was audible through the open front door. The fellow was showing off of course—he should be a music-hall turn. And going to the door, Richard received a surprise.

For Hugh Turney was a music-hall turn. Richard’s reaction was one of disgust that any connexion of his could make such an exhibition of himself. Hugh Turney was bowing and scraping with the blatant gestures of a clown. He wore a yellow blouse with loose sleeves, a crimson cap with hanging tassel, silk knee
breeches of the same colour, and yellow stockings with black shoes of patent leather with large silver buckles. His face bore no grease-paint; its usual pallor was accentuated by his dark eyes and black moustache, a larger moustache than when Richard had seen him last, and waxed at the points in what Richard considered to be a vulgar fashion. The fellow was a bounder.

Others apparently did not think so. The Italian organ-grinder, wearing a broken bowler, almost green with age, acid rain, and sulphurous fog, was grinning with delight. Phillip was jumping up and down, holding on to the iron gate. Mrs. Feeney had come out of her house below, having forgotten to put on her black bonnet, and was smiling at the gay sight. Children down the street were yelling to others, to run quickly. Across the way a door opened, and a very old man, his rusty double-breasted jacket and stove-pipe trousers hanging on his bony frame, moved slowly towards his gate with the aid of two sticks, while a great-granddaughter held him by a piece of greasy cord tied round his middle.

This was Matthew Pooley, a local wonder, who had received three telegrams from the Queen congratulating him on his last three successive birthdays; for he had passed his centenary, and now existed in the hope of his immediate relations that he would live to see the century out.

The old labourer was alive in only a small part of his mind and bones and sinews. A leathery moleskin cap covered his bald head. His yellow face was rutted as though the cart-wheels leading off the autumn fields of his past labouring had impressed themselves out of decaying memory upon his face. He stared shakily at the sight before him; he took some time to formulate a word; and then from blue lips a single sound fell, heard by no one. It was “Frenchie”. The old man connected the sight of Hugh Turney with one of the great fears current during his boyhood—Napoleon Bonaparte.

As more people came to stare at the sight, Richard returned into the house, aloof and disgusted. It was only what might be expected of a Turney. Gone were his eager visions of leading wife and child into the new house that afternoon. He retired to his room upstairs, to continue with the packing of his intimate possessions, preparatory for the move during the following week. By then, Mr. Wilton had promised, the gas would be laid on.

In his particular room was visible another cause for exasperation. One of his boxes of butterflies, left piled by him in the corner, each secured with string lest it fall open during removal and the precious contents be destroyed, had obviously been opened. The string had been cut. There it lay on the floor. Beside it was the wing of a butterfly. Opening the box, while his long thin nostrils distended themselves slightly, Richard saw what he had feared, but not really expected to find: most of the fritilleries within were damaged, the pins askew, bodies broken, wings in fragments.

So Hetty had allowed the boy to play there, despite all that had been said! It was monstrously unfair! She favoured the child before himself! He knew, from bitter experience, that she would, as soon as he mentioned it, find some excuse for it, even at the cost of deliberate lies—her Turney blood showing itself. Why could she never be frank and honest with him? She seemed incapable of being straightforward. Richard sat on a cane-bottomed chair and held his head in his hands.

What was the good of hoping for any improvement? She would ruin the boy, who already was developing a whine in his voice, as he followed her about, clinging to her skirts, usually sucking his thumb, after he had thrown all his toys out of his cot. The boy was growing up to be a namby-pamby. His mother pandered to him. Had he not heard her talking to him, almost crooning, abasing herself before him as he lay in his cot after his evening tub in tepid water—Richard believed that hot water in a bath had a deteriorating influence on human character. Hetty had pleaded with him in his cot afterwards, bit of a boy that he was, for a goodnight kiss! “Don’t you want to kiss Mummie good night, Sonny? Don’t you want to kiss Mummie?” Then that little bit of a boy remaining silent, until his mother’s footfalls reached the bottom of the stairs, when, of course, there were howls of despair from up above. And what did his mother do but trip all the way upstairs again, being entirely at the child’s beck and call!

There was a knock on the door. “Oh, come in.” It was Hetty.

“Hughie is just going, dear,” she said. “I thought you would like to say how do you do to him before he departed.”

“Oh, did you really, now? I suppose you haven’t been telling him what I said to you?”

“No, dear, of course not. He has to get back to town, for a rehearsal, he says.”

“A rehearsal?”

“He is going to be Gonzalo, the Wandering Violinist, dear. He has a very important part at the Tivoli, and has to rehearse.”

“I should have thought he had done his rehearsal already. How long has he been here?”

“Only about an hour, Dickie.”

“Did he come in that extraordinary garb?”

“No, dear, of course not! He changed in the front room.”

This information caused Richard’s lips to tighten; but he made no remark. He followed Hetty downstairs.

“Hullo, Hugh,” he said, with a faint smile. “Hetty says you are just off. Won’t you stay and take pot luck?”

“No no, old man, thanks all the same, but I never take luncheon,” replied the other. Hugh Turney had changed back into tweed jacket and trousers swiftly; then the Wandering Violinist outfit had been stuffed into a gladstone bag, watched by Phillip, who peered at everything he did, from removing the large ear-rings clipped to his lobes to snapping the lock on the bag and drawing the straps through their brass buckles.

“Well, old girl, we must meet again when there is more time to have a chat,” said Hugh as he pulled on his dog-skin gloves.

“I’ll say goodbye, Hugh, and I wish you every success for the new venture.”

“Thank you, Dick, I shall need it. Now will you give me your opinion—I’ve asked your noble son here, but he is prejudiced—d’you mind telling me which strikes you as the better name—Gonzalo the Wandering Violinist, or, more simply, Normo the Ning-a-ning Man?”

BOOK: Donkey Boy
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