By H. E. BATES
HE wanted to put his feet up on his own fire-place, but he was painfully aware that twenty-eight weeks of idleness had lost him that privilege.
" And don't keep muttering at the girl! " his wife said. " You mutter all day at me. Then when she comes home at night you start muttering at her. Can't you think of anything else to do ? Go for a good walk."
" I don't hold wi' this gadding out o' nights," he said. " I don't hold wi' it."
" You never hold wi' anything," she said. " The girl wants some enjoyment, don't she ? "
" I should think so ! " the girl said. " Who do you think you are ? "
The words struck him into silence. He sat gazing heavily at the miserable little fire, banked up earlier in the day with a mass of wet potato-peelings, scraps of brussel- sprouts and a small quantity of wet slack. Damp clothes were drying about the overcrowded kitchen on lines and chair-backs. He was a heavy-boned man, with loose grey flesh and awkward hands rather like dead crabs. Twenty- eight weeks ago they had laid him off at the tannery. Now he looked indeterminately at the dead crust of fire and longed to poke it into flame. In the past his first act on coining home from work had been to seize the poker, exuberantly smash the fire into a blaze, and then put his feet on the hob. These acts had given him prestige. He could see even now where his feet had scarred the lid of the side- boiler. Yes: feet on the hob, then a kipper or a piece of haddock or eggs with his tea, then hot water from the boiler and a smoke and a look at the paper in his shirt sleeves before going out to the club. Now things had changed. It was the girl who had the kipper, with the paper independently propped up by the tea-pot. It was she who brought the money home. It was she who had the prestige and kept things together.
The odour of fish made savagely delicious stabs at his senses. The girl, alternately intent on fish-bones and the paper, did not look at him. She was just twenty. One day she had been at school ; the next day as it were he had looked up to see her fully grown, swinging her hips. She was pretty in a ripe, haughty sort of way. She earned good, easy money in a large machine laundry. She used lipstick and sometimes wore Woolworth ear-rings that made her look much older and, to him, almost a stranger. And now, for some time, he had been worried because she was having a gay time, staying out at all hours of the night.
As he sat there defeatedly contemplating the fire she got up from the table. He looked up, and a spark of the old authority sprang up in him.
" Jist you be in a good time," he said.
" Ah I start that again!" the woman said. " Start that again!" Well —,5 " Well, what? The girl earns good money, don't she? She's only young, ain't she? She's entitled to a few minutes' enjoyment, ain't she? The way you talk to her anybody'd think she couldn't look after herself."
" You harbour her in it. That's what," he said. " I tell you."
" Well, tell somebody else!" she said. " I'm sick of it. All you do all day is maunder over the fire and jaw at folks. Take and get out and walk it off!" "Yes!" the girl said again, " who do you think you are?"
When he left the house, five minutes later, it was as if these words drove him forward. After the bright gas-light of the crowded little room, with damp clothes drying on the ceiling-line and on the horse by the fire, the streets seemed very dark and empty. The sky was starless and quiet over the town. He heard the moan of trams rising and falling above the murmur of other traffic and saw above the darker horizon of buildings the great reflection of lights flowering in apricot and rose.
Well, who was he? The question, not answered, settled at the back of his mind, dully pricking his consciousness. He walked with his hands in his pockets, staring at the slightly wet pavements. At the bottom of the next street there was a corner pub, ' The Flying Horse.' He went past it. He would have like a glass of mild-and-bitter, an hour in the smoke of the bar, but he knew it was not possible. Nothing was the same now. He had lost the right to put his feet on his own fire-place, the right to have a drink, the right to expect a civil answer from his own daughter. Well, who was he? Who did he think he was?
He walked on into the centre of the town. Fragmentary moments out of the past flashed across his mind exactly as the sparks flashed along the elevated tram-wires. He did not consciously think of things as they had been. It was not possible to grasp the pictures of himself, independent, in regular work, able to demand a thing and pay for it or ask a question and get an answer, before despondence absorbed and extinguished them again.
Five minutes later he was down among the shops. It was Tuesday, and now he saw that there was a street-market. He walked slowly past stalls on which pyramids of fruit glowed orange and green and scarlet under white gas-flares. The odour of celery was clean and sweet in the damp, wintry air. The light broke up into diamond and multi-coloured sections the sloping counters of sweets and cakes iced with sugar and coconut.
He went slowly past them, as if not interested. He was not hungry. Hunger had nothing to do with it. Some part of himself had simply been taken away and in his wretched- ness he was not able to place what it was. It had something to do with his daughter.
He felt that she no longer belonged to him. Why was it? What did she do with herself at nights? How had he come to let her get like this? It seemed to him that she was growing into a common woman, a stranger, swinging her ear-rings and her hips along the street. How had it come about?
She was right. Who was he? How did she come to talk like that? His thoughts unconsciously beat him to a stand- still.
A moment later he was no longer thinking. He found himself looking at many flowers blooming with shadowy brilliance under the light canvas of a stall. Behind cool wax pagodas of pink and mauve hyacinth and blue stars of cineraria and bowls of little lemon tulips a woman was sitting silently knitting by the light of an incandescent lamp. He stood looking at the flowers with immobile eyes. The damp wintry air had now become suddenly fragrant and light. He heard for a moment nothing but the softest click of the bone needles as the woman knitted, and gradually his interest concentrated itself on a single flower, a small pink and white fuchsia in a pot, which he picked up in his hands. For two or three minutes he held the flower in his large crab-like hands and looked at it. The slender upper petals, of clear cherry-red, were turned backwards. The lower petals were gathered thickly together like a skirt which swung lightly under the vibration of his unsteady hands. At last he was aware of the woman looking up from her knitting, watching him. He made as if to hold the flower nearer the light, peering at it more closely. The woman remarked at last that it was a pretty pot, and he nodded. " Ballet Girl," she said.
" Eh?" He raised grey, unreceptive eyes.
" Ballet Girl," she said. " That's the name of it." " Ah," he said.
He stood holding the flower for almost a minute longer, without a change of expression or another word.
" Ninepence," the woman said. " If you look at it closely you can see it's just like a girl. Like somebody dancing."
He did not speak. He held the flower in his hands a little longer before moving again. When he did move, putting the pot down on the stall at last, the flowers swung briefly beneath the leaves in the quiet air.
And even then he still stood watching, his eyes lowered in the gas-light. It was only when he moved away from the stall and the flowers and the woman watching him over her poised needles that the expression in his eyes became quite clear.
He was looking straight before him into space, his eyes briefly alight with happiness, with a momentary illusion it was clear they could not sustain.