During the next few days, while Rose was occupied by her worry about whether she should go to bed with Dickie or not. I think she would have been pleased to have some of Flo’s crude advice, but the family downstairs was occupied plotting for the court case. She was aggrieved about it. ‘My life’s hanging on a thread,’ she’d say; ‘and no one cares except about their dirty money.’
‘Yes, but you’re different.’
‘I don’t see why.’
‘Yes? Well, if you haven’t learned by now my worries about life are different from yours then I haven’t taught you much.’
‘Then tell me what’s going on about the case.’
‘What’s the use? What I tell you will be different from what Flo and Dan tell you.’
‘That’s why I want to hear it from you.’
‘Yes, but they’ve made me promise. And, anyway, the whole thing makes me so sick … money, money, money; well, I didn’t have to tell you that, you know Flo and Dan.’
‘You know you’re going to tell me sometime.’
‘Then I’ll be careful what I say, just facts, and not what I think, and then I won’t be breaking my promise to Flo.’
The facts were these. Two very old people lived in two rooms on the ground floor. They had been there for years before the war. When the house was bombed, they stayed in it, although the basement was filled with water, and the floors over their heads filled with debris. There was no running water, electricity, no sanitation. They fetched in water from a house down the street; used the backyard as a lavatory at night; burned candles; went to the public bathhouse once a week. Flo and Dan had bought the half-ruined house without even knowing the old couple were in it. They paid eighteen shillings a week rent, and could not be got out.
‘You don’t know about the Rent Act,’ said Rose. ‘That keeps them safe. Flo and Dan didn’t understand it either, at first, and they tried to throw the old people out. Then they barricaded themselves in. That’s all I’m going to tell you. What’s eating Dan and Flo, I don’t have to tell you, is that eighteen shillings. They could get four or five pounds for that flat if it was done up. Don’t worry, I heard Flo and Dan talking. They’re coming up to tell you, all crocodile tears, about what they suffer, so you’ll know.’
‘Who’s right and who’s wrong?’
‘Who can say now? I’m sorry for the old people, they’re on the old age pension, and when they’re kicked out they’ll have to go to a Home. But if Dan and Flo go on like a pair of wild beasts, then so does the old lady. The old man’s neither here nor there, he’s too old for anything but being silly in the head. Now if you keep your eyes open along the streets you’ll catch sight of her, lurking and hiding behind her curtains. And that’s all I shall say.’
The street was full of old ladies. Sometimes it seemed as if the cliff of grey wall opposite, jutting with balconies and irregularly hung with greenery and flowers, was the haunt of some species of gaunt and spectral bird. As soon as pale sunlight came creeping along the street, each window, each balcony, was settled with its old lady, reading newspapers, knitting, or peering over the barriers of sill and railing down at the pavements where the children played among the screeching wheels and protesting horns of cars and lorries. No child was hurt while I lived there; but every time I looked out of the window I was terrified: the old ladies were considerably tougher than I. They sat immobile, the light glancing from their spectacles and their working needles; and between them and the children was a bond that appeared like pure hatred. From time to time, like a flock of birds propelled into space by some impulse, the old ladies would rise and screech warnings and imprecations into the street. Brakes screamed, horns wailed, and the children set up a chorus of angry Yahs and Boos. Slowly the grey crones settled into their nooks, slowly the traffic flowed on, and the children continued to play, ignoring their guardians above. Sometimes an old lady would descend from her perch and stalk cautiously down the street, laden with shopping bags, baskets, handbags, purses, umbrellas, ration books. She would stop at the edge of a group of children and hold out a bag of sweets. The children, cheeky and affectionate, approached as cautiously as small birds to an apparently harmless old hawk. They darted forward, grabbed the sweets, and ran off laughing; while the old lady grumbled and scolded and smiled: ‘You’ll get yourself run over, you’ll get yourselves killed, you’ll be the death of me yet.’ Immediately forgetting her, they resumed their play and she her progress to the shops or the market, smiling gently to herself because of the children.
From time to time, the anxiety boiled over into a shower of angry protesting notes carried across from the old ladies to the harassed mothers of the children, by the children themselves. The whole street fomented spite and resentment; fathers, back from work, were pressed into battle; and for a day or two the children, who had acquired a sense which enabled them to evade lorries and cars, had their attention continually distracted by their mothers who would appear in the windows and balconies beside the old ladies, in order to call out: ‘Do look out there!’ or ‘Goodness gracious me!’ Futilely wringing their hands, or waving dishcloths, they agitatedly peered into the street where their offspring flirted so lightly with danger, gave the old ladies a glare of frustrated irritation, and finally returned to their housework hoping to be allowed to forget an anxiety which was useless, since irremediable.
For a time I thought of our side of the street, as opposed to the cliff of elderly ladies, as one of ordinary family life; but one sunny day I came up the other pavement and saw that every house, almost every layer of windows, held its vigilant spectator, peering sharply down over the knitting needles. When I came to our house there, sure enough, half-obscured by a dirty lace curtain, was a very old, yellowing, papery lady.
I waited some days for Flo and Dan, but it was Rose again who approached me. She told me what had happened downstairs.
‘I really don’t know what she’ll say about the old people,’ Flo had said, with resignation, ‘it’s not nice for a nice girl, is it, but someone has to tell her.’
‘That’s right,’ said Rose.
‘I don’t like telling her,’ said Flo with a shrinking and fastidious air. ‘I don’t even like talking about it, it’s so horrible.’
‘It’s all right for you, but it’s me who’s unhappy, you are out all day. It’s me what has to put up with their noise and their smells and their banging on the floor and all.’
‘Sometimes I think I’ll never bear it out, and I’ll have to go and live with my grandmother in Italy.’
At this Rose had laughed, in spite of herself, and Dan, who was still black-tempered, said: ‘If you do I’ll know where to find myself another woman.’
‘There,’ Flo said. ‘You see? Now you just go upstairs and tell her.’
‘And so here I am telling you,’ said Rose. ‘And what do I care? Because last night I let Dickie in.’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘How? We was ever so quiet.’
‘Because you look so happy.’
‘Well, I am. Why didn’t you tell me how nice it was?’
‘But we did.’
‘Well, I suppose no one can properly tell in words about it, but if I’d known what I was missing I wouldn’t have held out so long. But don’t you tell Flo. I can’t stand all her winks and nods.’
‘She was up this morning to try and find out.’
‘No! How does she smell these things, I’d like to know?’
Flo had come toiling up that morning with Aurora and the puppies at her heels, the moment Rose left for work, to remark in an offhand voice: ‘Friends should tell their friends the nice things that happen, shouldn’t they?’
During the course of the visit, a prolonged one, she said that you could see Rose was learning sense at last, but that if she wanted to hook Dickie, there was only one way to do it, and if I was a friend of Rose I’d tell her to let an accident happen. ‘You don’t think I’d have got Dan except by being sensible, do you? And Rose doesn’t listen to me these days.’
With the puppies and Aurora cavorting around my room, I tried to preserve my belongings from destruction, and Rose’s privacy, while from time to time Flo shrieked for effect: ‘Drat those dogs. Drat that child!’ and kept her anxious eyes fixed on my face. She was suffering torments of curiosity. And I knew it was no use, because it was always useless to lie to Flo. Being a purely instinctual creature she knew what most of us have to learn by experience, if ever, that in order to judge whether people are telling the truth, one doesn’t listen to the words they use.
I kept repeating that I slept like a log and never woke at night. I said no. I hadn’t seen Rose’s face that morning. Flo kept nodding lugubriously; she had sensed the truth. Now she was wondering whether to ask me straight out if Rose had had Dickie in her room. But I said No, I would be committed to the lie, and she might later lose the advantage of my being in a better mood. With Flo, everything was a question of mood.
‘Well, dear,’ she had remarked, finally departing, ‘I like to believe you are a friend of mine, but how can I think it when you’re like this?’
‘My God,’ said Rose, when I told her all this. ‘We call Flo stupid and she is, we know she is. But for all that she knows what’s true through her skin from what I can see.’
‘And now tell me what they said downstairs.’
First she laughed, irrepressibly. ‘The trouble is, with Flo and Dan, you always have to laugh, even when they’re up to no good … Wait. I’ll get my face straight.’
She put on a prim and sorrowful face and said: ‘Life is hard, things is not easy. It’s hard for poor Flo. What she goes through is enough to make a queen cry. Those dirty old people, nothing but criminals.’
‘Yes?’ I said.
‘Don’t make me laugh, dear. Wait. No, it’s no use. I can’t take an interest. They’ll come up tomorrow themselves.’
Tomorrow I had Flo and Dan, separately, and together, all through the day. They had decided the time was now ripe for my initiation, and they never did anything by halves, whereas previously I could find out nothing at all, now I couldn’t get to speak of anything else.
It seemed that the feud had begun good-naturedly. When Flo first entered the house, she was confronted by an ancient, black-garbed, white-faced crone with burning angry eyes. ‘What are you bloody foreigners doing in my house?’ she demanded. Flo laughed, and said they had bought the house, and anyway, she had been born and bred not half a mile away. The door slammed in her face when she asked to see the flat. She had to call a policeman to make them open the door. Afterwards the policeman had said: ‘Crazy as they come. You’d better get them out before they do damage.’ This pronouncement from the Law itself, or so Dan and Flo saw it, had confused them; for a time they had believed all they would have to do was to call a policeman and get the couple turned into the street. Meanwhile, they could not go anywhere near the first floor without shouts and imprecations being hurled at them from behind the locked door. Dan went to a lawyer and was told he could not turn them out so easily. It had been decided between them to go to Court and complain the flat was kept in a disgusting condition. Rose, who had actually been inside it, said this was true. It contained a single bed, with stained bedding; a cupboard made of boxes, and a couple of gas rings. Rose said the filth and the smell was so she was nearly sick. But a week before the Court case, Dan lost his temper and threw a flat-iron at the door with all the strength of his enormous arms and shoulders. The door splintered inwards, the old lady brought a counter-claim, and both parties had been bound over to good behaviour in Court.
From that time, they behaved as if they regarded each other as a species of wild animal.
When I said to Flo that such and such an action might have killed the old lady, she replied: ‘Yes, but she threw a saucepan full of boiling potatoes at me the week before. That might have killed me, mightn’t it?’ Or: ‘Well, dear, if I had, she wouldn’t be much loss to the world, would she? She might just as welt be dead for all the good it does her.’
But there had been long spells of comparative peace. Flo would make a point of raising her voice in insulting remarks as she passed their door; the old lady inside would retaliate by shrieking like a parrot. And before Dan went to bed every night he had made a point of climbing up to the room I was now in where he stamped up and down for a good ten minutes. The old lady, if she got the chance, emptied her dustpan or shook her duster down Flo’s stairs. Or she would summon a policeman to say: ‘That bitch is trying to kill me.’ The policeman knew her; and would take down her tale in the book, and then drop down for a cup of tea with Flo. This stale of affairs might continue for weeks. And then everything flared up into open war.
A few months after the binding over, Dan applied to have the couple removed to a lunatic asylum. The old lady had screamed that her tap was broken and it was the landlord’s responsibility, Dan at once went to mend it; he was longing to get his capable hands on to the disorder inside that flat. But he was met with a locked door and silence. Soon there came a lawyer’s letter demanding that he should mend the tap at once, Dan attempted to enter the flat in the presence of the police and failed. He pointed out that no one but a crazy woman would behave like that. At once the old lady attempted to prove he was mad because he would not let them use the lavatory or bathroom, but complained because they emptied their slops into the wash-basin in their room.
The rent collecting was a weekly drama. Every Friday at about six. Dan looked meaningfully at the clock, set his teeth and climbed the stairs, followed by Flo, Aurora and jack, Dan banged on their door and shouted. Silence, He banged again, threatening lawyers, asylums, court cases. Unpredictably, perhaps after five minutes, perhaps after fifty, the door opened an inch, and a handful of silver scattered into the hall, followed by a scream of rage. The door slammed, and continued to shake and vibrate as the old lady hammered on it with both fists and shouted that he must take himself off her premises. Sometimes Dan grinned, shrugged and pointed an ominous forefinger to his head. Sometimes his face swelled purple with anger, and he pounded on the door till he was sobbing with exertion.
Worse than stews and flat-irons was to come, One day Dan was in the yard with Aurora. A heavy ladder rested against the wall near the old couple’s back window, where he had been mending a drainpipe. The old lady leaned out and pushed down the ladder, which missed Aurora by a couple of inches. Dan went mad with rage; he replaced the ladder, bounded up it, and in the space of a few seconds was in the flat, shaking the old lady like a pillow and threatening to kill her. He was checked by the realization that the old man, supposed to be a co-villain with his wife, was seated all this time on the bed reading the newspaper. He did not even raise his eyes at the scuffle. Dan was so astounded that he dropped the old lady on the floor, gazed in a hypnotized way at the old man, and withdrew, shrugging and scratching his head. In the basement he said to Flo: ‘He’s madder than she is. He doesn’t even fight. He just sits there.’
The case went to Court, both sides claiming damages for assault, both being bound over for the second time.
Next, the old lady climbed down the ladder in full view of Flo and shook red pepper over a bed of Flo’s tulips.
Flo said: ‘I told the Judge she put pepper on my tulips once before and he bound us over. It isn’t fair. Dan shouted: Is this British Justice? and the Judge got mad. And the old lady said: We’ll get our rights in a British Court against the dirty foreigners. She meant me, because of my Italian grandmother. You should have seen her face when the Judge told her she was an old nuisance.’
‘He said you were a nuisance, too,’ commented Rose.
‘That was because he didn’t know about the potatoes on the stairs. Do you know — she rolls potatoes down the stairs hoping I’ll slip on them and break my neck. Well, I just pick them up and use them. But it’s not right, dear, is it? You’ll come and be witness for us, won’t you, sweetheart?’
‘But how can I be? I never see or hear them.’
Ah, my Lord, it’s not fair. Dan and me, we’ve been waiting to quarrel until you’re out of the house, and keeping ever so quiet so’s you’re not disturbed, and now you say you haven’t heard them.’
Rose said, speaking loudly as to one deaf: ‘Flo, I’m going to explain something to you. And you must listen careful.’
‘What, dear, what, darling? Why are you shouting at me, sweetheart?’
‘Because I want you to understand. Now there’s this oath, this thing they have in the Courts.’
‘Ah, my Lord, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, I know about
‘Yes? But you’re supposed to tell the truth in Court. That’s what the oath is, just telling the truth.’
‘But, Rose, you’re my friend.’
‘Flo, I’ve told you. I’m going to answer the questions just what I know. And that’s all.’
‘Me, too,’ I said.
‘But there’s no use your coming at all, because you didn’t see the pepper and the potatoes and the stew that missed me by half an inch.’
‘Or that great iron, neither, that Dan threw.’
Flo considered. She said with a sly look: ‘And there’s that policeman, that Froggy, you know about the police, dear, don’t you? And when did they tell the truth in Court?’
‘What’s that got to do with it?’ But Rose was beginning to blush.
Flo was delighted, and pressed on: ‘You know as well as everyone else, he was getting fifty, sixty pounds a month along your street, for shutting his mouth about the black market stuff for the restaurants — all that butter? All that eggs and stuff? And I didn’t see Rose running to tell anyone, oh no, you was thinking of marrying him.’
Rose was really distressed. She said to me: ‘Well, now you’ll think bad of me. But you have all those ideas about our police — I’ve heard you, and I didn’t say nothing, because all you foreigners are the same, like my Canadian boy. But the police take this and that on the side, my Froggy wasn’t nothing special.’
‘That’s what I’m saying,’ said Flo, ‘So why should you be so high and mighty about a little fib for a friend in the Courts?’
‘Because I am.’
‘Well, I don’t hold it against you. But when I think of what the lies were that the police said about your little brother so that he got to go to prison.’
‘Flo,’ said Rose, desperate.
‘What’s all this?’ I said.
Flo glanced at me, saw Rose in tears, exclaimed ‘Ah, my Lord, Dan’ll give it to me now,’ and rushed out of the room.
‘I didn’t want you to know, Flo promised not to tell you.’
‘Because you’d think bad of me. Because my little brother’s turned out bad, but he’s the only one of the kids that did.’
‘I don’t see why you should think that.’
‘If you don’t you’ve got funny ideas, but you can’t help it. But now Flo’s told you, I’ll tell you proper. My little brother, he got into trouble — he was fourteen, and he was in with a bad lot of kids. He got into trouble over and over, and they put him on probation, and we had those nosey-parkers at us all the time. But the cops had it in for him. And I’m not saying they weren’t right, because he was a proper little devil, cheeky all the time. So one night he was with the gang, but he got home early while they did a job. I know he did, because it was me who gave him his supper and saw him to bed. We was sleeping in the same room then, so I know he was asleep when the job was being done. But the coppers said he was with the rest, and so he was sent to Borstal.’
‘But how could they when you knew he was with you?’
‘It’s no good arguing with them, you’d know that if you wasn’t a foreigner. They go into Court and tell any lie they fancy, and the magistrate always believes them. Well, the way I looked at it was this: if I spoke up for my little brother, they wouldn’t believe me anyway. But if he went to the Reform for a bit, it might settle him down. And, besides, my mother was ill anyway about then, and he was right out of her control. But I’ve felt bad about it ever since. Because it didn’t do him any good. He ran away once, and was took back again. And he’s coming out next month and my mother’s marrying this man I told you about, and my brother doesn’t like him, and there’ll be trouble, mark my words, So I want him to come here and live, and Flo’s against it because it means the cops’ll have their eye on this house. But she thinks, if she lets him come here, then I’ll tell lies in Court, and I don’t know which way to turn.’
At this point Dan came in. He was scowling at Flo, who was near tears.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘And has she told you why we need witnesses? Has she told you that?’
‘But I didn’t mean it,’ said Flo, wailing.
‘You never mean it. They put her into the witness box. That was the time of the ladder. And they said, did you hear your husband saying he would kill Mrs Black, and Flo here pipes up and says: Oh, yes, and he nearly killed her right then, shaking her so hard.’ At the memory, Dan’s veins swelled up dark in his forehead; and he clenched his teeth at Flo.
‘But it was true,’ said Flo, through tears. ‘I saw you. I thought her time had come, the old bitch.’
Dan grinned sarcastically. ‘You see?’ he said to me and Rose. ‘You see?’ He gave Flo a light slap across the cheek. ‘Everybody in the Court laughed. And because my wife can’t keep her tongue still I was bound over.’
‘She can’t help being stupid,’ said Rose tolerantly.
‘No, I can’t,’ said Flo eagerly, clutching at Dan’s arm. ‘I don’t understand them Courts. I thought I was to tell the truth, because of what the laywer said, I got mixed up, that’s all, next time it’ll be different.’
‘It’d better be different.’ Dan looked at Rose and said: ‘You’re coming into Court or not?’
Rose hesitated. Dan said: ‘If you want that kid brother here for a time you can.’
Rose struggled with herself, and finally said, with a sigh: ‘But I’m not telling no lies, Dan.’
‘Flo’s stupid. Who said lies? The lawyer told me, you just say the things you know, that’s all.’
‘Yes?’ said Rose. ‘All of them?’
He ground his teeth again. ‘No. The lawyer knows. Will you see the lawyer? The case is the day after tomorrow.’
‘My Lord, so soon?’ wailed Flo.
‘Yes, so soon. And Mrs Skeffington’s flat on her back and she’ll be there a week yet. Will you see the lawyer?’ he said to me.
‘Don’t listen to Flo. She’s …’ And he tapped his forehead angrily, glaring at her.
‘No, sweetheart, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say what was wrong.’
‘And now you’ll come downstairs and get my supper and keep your mouth shut.’
Dan and Flo went out.
‘Those lawyers,’ said Rose. ‘You wait till you see their lawyer. Enough to make God laugh. Well, it looks as if I’ll get my Len here for a bit. I’m a good influence on him if no one else is. You won’t think bad of me? You’ll see him and be a friend?’
‘Of course. Why not?’
‘Of course, and why not. Well, it’s easy for some people. Make me a cup of tea. Thinking about going into that Court scares me, but I suppose I’ve got to.’
Flo crept back.
‘Don’t say it,’ said Rose. ‘Don’t.’
‘But we’ve made it up.’
‘Let’s be thankful for small mercies.’
Flo said to me, ‘I know Dan would be pleased at the idea if he’d thought of it, because he did it himself. Just stamp up and down this floor before you go to bed at night so as to get into their dreams a little.’
Rose groaned. ‘Flo, it would count against you in Court, don’t you ever think of anything?’
‘But Dan used to do it every night regular. He’d come up and me too, and he’d stamp around the floor, he looked ever so funny, going stamp stamp In his shirt, with everything on view going flop-flop.’
‘Oh, my God,’ said Rose.
‘You don’t know nothing yet,’ said Flo. ‘Getting dressed up to go courting is one thing. Men in their underpants is another. One is ro-mance. The other is what we get for cleaning the floors and washing up to keep us quiet. And don’t you forget it.’
‘Do us a favour and leave us in peace one evening.’
‘Yes, well you make the most of Dickie in his courting mood because it won’t be like that afterwards.’
‘I wasn’t born yesterday.’
‘You’re not cross with your Flo?’
‘We’re sick and tired. Both of us. Just sick and tired.’
‘We could subpoena you, dear, you know that?’
‘All right, dear, I’ll go, I’ll go.’
The day of the case it was hot, a sunny June day. Flo wore a black astrakhan coat and a muff. Around her black felt hat she had pinned another strip of astrakhan. Both Jack and Dan wore thick striped suits. For the first time, the three seemed commonplace and ugly. As for Aurora, she had on a white rabbitskin coat and hat, and was crying from the heat, but Flo slapped her into silence. As the family walked quietly towards a bus-stop it was the essence of respectability; and I tried to put myself into the position of a Judge, looking down into these lives from his height, and wondered how he would see them. The only sign that this was not in every respect that unit which is the foundation of a sound society was their complete indifference to the sufferings of Aurora. But even this was soon put right by Rose, who was showing her respect for the occasion by wearing her best grey suit, and her independence of it by fixing a look of weary scepticism on her face. She exclaimed: ‘Have you all gone nuts today?’ and grabbed the child, stripped off the thick fur and set her free. Flo saw Aurora’s paper-white face, with the sweat streaming off it, and was suddenly overcome by pity and tenderness. Mother and child sat entwined on the bus seat, presenting a charming picture. As for Rose, she said to me: ‘Well, let’s get it over with, and then we can start acting sensible again. It all makes me sick and that’s a fact.’
We got off the bus and Dan said to Flo: ‘Now if you speak out of turn this time I’ll wring your blasted neck for you.’ Flo was subdued by this until the lawyer came to meet us. Her thoughts at once flowed into their usual channel and she whispered to Rose: ‘Now there’s a catch for you, sweetheart. A lawyer’s something like a husband.’
‘Oh, shut up,’ said Rose. The lawyer, who had heard this exchange, gave Rose a sympathetic wink and then took Flo’s arm. He was a brisk little man with the bloodless London look, a sharp raw face, and shrewd eyes. He handled Flo in an easy authoritative way she did not resent at all. But Dan resented it. He hated the way people responded to Flo, who talked and laughed in her frank, matronly manner with everyone. But they overlooked him, always, because when he was dressed in the ugly suit he was reduced to nothing, He was scowling savagely as we entered the building. It was gloomy, with its surfaces painted shiny brown or tea-coloured or mustard, as if the authorities had been determined to make the processes of justice as grim as possible. Our footsteps had a loud hollow ring.
The old couple were standing with their lawyer near the top of some stairs, and they turned their backs on us with an emphatic scornful movement; and our faces all wore the suspicious wary look people instinctively assume in Law Courts, We looked at each new group as if they might turn out to be enemies. Flo actually drew herself up and shot an angry glance at an astonished old woman before breaking into a ringing laugh — which she at once smothered by clapping a hand over her mouth — and whispered through the cracks in her fingers that ‘she thought that was a witness for the prosecution’.
‘Not prosecution,’ said the lawyer. ‘It’s not that kind of case.’
‘How was I to know? This law is too difficult.’
‘You’d better remember that,’ said Dan. Flo, protected by the lawyer, defied him with her eyes for the pleasure of seeing him grow more angry.
Rose whispered: ‘Storm warning! Trouble tonight! I’ll come and we’ll have tea in your room and leave them to kill each other.’
The lawyer was nursing Flo because he remembered how at the last case she had ruined everything by allowing herself to be carried away by the spirit of truth at the wrong moment, Flo, he thought, was the weak point. But Dan did not understand this: he could not understand why Flo, who was so stupid, should get all this attention. He kept his heavy yellow gaze fixed on the lawyer’s face, and was looking for an opportunity to impress himself.
We went into the side room to confer with Counsel. It was a dull, yellowish, high-ceilinged room, like a station waiting-room, all the doors standing open, people drifting in and out with the bored yet expectant look of travellers waiting for a train. We had a glimpse, through a momentarily-opened door, into the court-room itself: an old man, the Judge, rested his head on his hand while he listened to black-draped lawyers arguing about some legacy.
As our Counsel entered. Rose dropped her eyes, put on a prim face, and whispered to me: ‘Look what’s come. Isn’t it a sweet little thing?’
Counsel was a willowy stripling, with smooth little-boy cheeks, spaniel eyes, and an assured upper-class manner that caused Flo to gaze at him with incredulous admiration and Rose to whisper again: ‘Don’t laugh now, but we’ll have a good laugh afterwards.’
Counsel’s voice was as smooth as milk; he was deferential and beautifully polite as he cross-examined Dan, who began staring suspiciously at him. As for Flo, she looked as if she might cry, and exclaimed: ‘I thought you were on our side, sir?’
‘But, madam, I am,’ purred the youth, who must have been so much older than he looked. He received the potatoes on the stairs, the filth in the basins, and the pepper on the tulips without a smile. Soon tears stood in Flo’s eyes, and in order to provoke him into some semblance of sympathy she began repeating herself, raising her voice in the querulous appeal: ‘I do my best for the dirty old bastards, sir, and see what they do?’ And, as he patiently continued: ‘What happened next?’ she could only mutter: ‘Ask the neighbours, ask my witnesses,’ and lifted her handkerchief to her eyes, tears of real disappointment flowing down her cheeks. With a calculated loss of temper Counsel shouted: ‘Answer my questions,’ and this finished Flo altogether. She had to have a warm response from the people she thought of as friends, and now she sat, clutching at Aurora, both of them gazing with wounded eyes at Counsel.
Counsel, his exasperation checked only by the thought of the fees he was earning out of this ridiculous feud, made a helpless gesture and retired to the window to try and regain his temper. The lawyer tried to explain to Flo, for at least the tenth time, the processes of justice. She kept repeating, ‘But he’s not on our side, sir,’ while the lawyer patted her arm and said: ‘There, now, it’s all right.’
Then Counsel and lawyer attacked Dan, in an attempt to make him lie consistently. But Dan imagined they objected to the lies themselves, and at every point where his conscience troubled him, he began shouting justification, so that for the second time Counsel retired to the window to smoke and fume.
So far the witnesses had not been questioned; what was the use of satisfactory witnesses if the two main complainants could not be made to sound convincing? At last the lawyer, hot, anxious and amused, came to Rose, and said: ‘Perhaps you could explain to them?’
Rose faced Flo and Dan and said: ‘Now see here. You’re just being plain silly. You don’t have to get upset. It’s like this — they don’t mind your telling lies, see …’
‘Who’s telling lies?’ shouted Dan belligerently, while the two legal gentlemen exchanged ambiguous glances.
‘Oh, shut up,’ said Rose. ‘Can’t you listen? These two gentlemen here are trying to help you.’
‘Are they, dear?’ said Flo doubtfully.
‘Now listen. What you’ve got to do is to tell the same lies at the same time, see?’ She looked for encouragement to the men, who had turned their backs in order to leave the thing in her far more capable hands.
Meanwhile the old couple, who had finished conferring with their Counsel, sat in the next room through a half-opened door and could hear every word that was being said.
Rose continued: ‘What’s the use of Flo saying she lets the old people use the bathroom if Dan says he locked the door to keep them out?’
‘We didn’t do no such thing,’ said Flo virtuously, and Rose lost her temper and shook her by the shoulders.
‘You said so in your statement.’
‘Did I. dear?’ said Flo, ready to cry again.
‘Now listen. What you’ve got to do is to say that the dirty old things make such a mess in the bathroom and, anyway, she’s got filthy sores all over her legs.’
‘But she has,’ said Flo sullenly.
There was a parrot-like screech from the next room; Flo and Dan glared; the old people glared back; Counsel and the lawyer still had their backs turned.
‘That’s what I said, isn’t it?’ said Rose. ‘You was protecting your tenants from disease, see? And every time they went into the bathroom, they made a mess, and you had to clean up after them, they made a mess on purpose, and you thought the old lady’s sores might be dangerous to other people.’
The legal gentlemen, standing side by side and gazing out of the window, permitted themselves to nod encouragingly. Point by point. Rose framed their case for them, shaking Dan and Flo into silence whenever they opened their mouths.
‘Understand now?’ she concluded. By now she felt quite sure of herself, ‘What you’ve got to get into your heads is this,’ was her summing up, ‘All this law business isn’t anything to do with right or wrong, see? You’ll just get everybody confused if you start thinking so silly. Nobody cares what really happened. All they want you to do is to tell a good tie and stick to it afterwards.’
The lawyer coughed, in a resigned way. Counsel’s left shoulder was observed to twitch. Flo and Dan, released by Rose, sat themselves down, in a heavy worried silence. The lawyer came over, offered Rose a cigarette, and gave her a grateful smile. ‘You’re a smart girl,’ he said. ‘You’d do well in law.’
Rose was overcome, and blushed, saying: ‘Thanks, dear. But you need an education for the law. It’s true I know about it a little, because I had a policeman for a friend once.’
The lawyer and Counsel now tackled Flo and Dan together. At the end of half an hour, they had succeeded in getting Yes and No in reply to certain basic questions. Then they began work on us, the witnesses. After a few minutes, they gave Jack up, for every time they enquired: ‘And what happened next?’ Jack’s admiration for the physical strength of his stepfather, so much deeper than his resentment of him, caused him to break into descriptions of assault and violence which made Dan nod proudly, Flo sigh approvingly, and Rose to groan: ‘Lord help us.’ They told Jack he could go back to work, but as he had a day off he remained seated in a corner with a bunch of physical culture magazines, oblivious of the furious looks Dan was giving him.
Rose proved admirable but limited. When Flo said: ‘But. Rose, you said it was all right to lie,’ she replied, with an open contempt for everybody present: ‘I was just saying what everybody else thinks. I know what’s right and I’m sticking to it.’
As for me, it was decided that since I knew nothing of the old people but what I’d heard, it was no use putting me in the box.
Everything depended on the impression Flo and Dan would make when the time came.
Our case was low on the list. We could hear the Court official calling out names; and as the cases worked themselves through, legal men kept dropping into the room for a cigarette, or to remove their wigs and scratch their hair, or to hold hasty conferences with witnesses. The old couple still sat through an open door, quite silent, staring in front of them.
Dan was restless with suppressed belligerence. He needed to regain his position. He kept shooting glances of resentment at the pink-cheeked boy who had humiliated him, and al Rose, who had treated him like a child. But the discovery that these guardians of morality not merely overlooked but encouraged a good lie had made him feel their equal. We were all relaxed by now out of boredom. Flo had unbuttoned her coat. Aurora was asleep. Dan was leaning his weight on the table in the easy way he would have used in his basement.
‘You wouldn’t remember the war, sir, would you?’ said Dan to Counsel, who flushed angrily. ‘I served right through the war. Perhaps you could tell the Judge that. It’s more than some can say.’
‘My good man, it has nothing to do with the case.’
‘I saved a man’s life. And now I can’t say who’s to live in my own house.’
‘Mr Bolt, I’ve already told you, it’s irrelevant.’
‘He was a Lascar. And what gratitude do I get, nothing!’
Rose hissed resignedly: ‘Oh, my God, that tears it, if he’s going to start. I hope he doesn’t forget to tell how he did six months’ hard for nearly killing a man in a bar.’ She took out her knitting, which she had brought with her in case of just such an emergency.
Counsel, the lawyer, and various knots of people in doorways or seated on the benches had their eyes fixed on Dan. Every one of them looked slightly irritated. It was the facinated irritation caused by a phenomenon we don’t understand. The fact was, Dan was holding their attention simply by sitting there, and they didn’t know why. The angry power of his body was not evident, muffled as it was in the commonplace suit. And his face expressed nothing but the desire to express — it was long, flattish, yellowish, and almost contorted with his frustration at not being able to communicate.
‘Yes, he was a Lascar,’ said Dan, aggrieved, ‘a black man if you like, but he was human, and I could have died.’
‘Yes, yes, yes,’ said Counsel, Dan turned the hot beam of his eyes at him, and the boy became silent.
‘There I stood on deck,’ said Dan. ‘We had docked that day.’ He was remembering it so powerfully that although he did not move a muscle, we stood on deck with him. ‘It was a black night and dead quiet. I heard a splash.’ He closed his eyes a moment. There was a silence. He still had not moved. His great hands lay in loose fists on the table before him, not moving. Yet we heard ripples flow out and break softly against enclosing dock walls. ‘I looked over.’ Dan stared ahead of him, not blinking. We saw him bent over a rail at a black cold sea. ‘There was nothing,’ he said. ‘But I had my duty. I climbed and jumped.’ Even Rose let her knitting lie in her lap, and became part of the story. ‘I went down and down, my arms above my head.’ Dan clenched his fist and the cloth of his sleeves bulged out. For a terrifying moment we watched him sink through the lightless harbour water under the black hulls of ships, ‘I saw him. I grabbed.’ Dan’s body stiffened slightly. His hand opened and the fingers flexed rigid on the palm. We saw the hand clutch at something slippery. ‘I pulled him to the surface by the hair. He was fighting, I hit him.’ Dan clenched his fists tight, his head went back, his chin came forward, he half-shut his eyes. ‘I shouted. No one heard. No one on deck. Everyone on shore. First night in harbour for six weeks. I held him and I shouted. I held him and I shouted again. Then I dragged him up the side of the ship.’ Dan gripped his teeth together and the veins swelled in his neck. We saw him heave the Lascar up the ship’s dark side. ‘I put him on deck and worked on him till he came round, ft was a Lascar. Drunk. Can you blame him, sir? The officers’ mess sent for me. Dan, have a drink, they said. Sir, thank you, I said. But I’ve had enough for one night. Ask me for a drink another night.’ Dan half-shut his eyes, and looked woodenly dignified. ‘The Captain came to me.’ Now Dan’s deliberate stupidity was an insult to all authority. ‘I won’t forget this my man.’ ‘Sir,’ said Dan, and he suddenly saluted, with a smart quiver. The shock of that movement was like being slapped: it was only when his hand quivered at his temple that we realized he had told the story without gesture, with no more than an occasional tightening of a muscle. It was with a sting of astonishment that we saw the man was still sitting on the bench by the table. He had come to himself, sitting loosely, looking around dazedly, mouth open over prominent white teeth, taking in the bare dusty room filled with the fancy-dress gentlemen in their curly wigs and black robes. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes.’ Then he violently crashed his fist on to the table and shouted: ‘But that doesn’t help me, does it?’ I’ll never forget this, my man, the Captain said to me, and that’s the last I heard. Justice, they call it. Justice!’
‘Dan,’ said Flo, warningly, giving ingratiating smiles to everyone.
‘I don’t care who hears,’ shouted Dan, over the drone from the Court, through a door left slightly open because of the heat. Someone from inside the Court tiptoed over and shut the door. Every eye followed the squat figure in folds and tags and pleats of grimy black, who frowned at us so portentously that the young Counsel blushed: he, like the rest of us, had forgotten his surroundings. ‘Not so loud, please,’ he said.
‘Yes, sir,’ said Dan automatically.
There was a high titter from the other doorway. The old lady, white-faced and trembling with hatred, glared in at us from among other faces, which were curious or amused or indignant. Our lawyer gave her a puzzled glance and might have asked who she was, but Dan was speaking again. ‘When I left the Navy I had four hundred pounds. Do you know how I got that?’
‘There are certain traditions of the British Navy,’ said Counsel, conveying that he found the word Navy, on Dan’s lips, repulsive.
‘Oh. I know that,’ said Dan, as if delighted to be reminded, sharing them, so to speak, with Counsel, ‘For people with the money there’s nothing like it. I was personal servant once to the Surgeon Commander. His wife was in England. Ah, he knew how to enjoy himself. There was a girl. She fell for my boss. Five months of it, every night, war or no war, being stuck in harbour on account of a torpedo. I used to let her out, three, four in the morning, five shillings a time. Plenty of money there. Dan, she used to say. I know you are my friend. Yes, miss, I used to say. She was a lovely girl. Black hair. Black eyes. Lovely figure.’ Dan let his fingers curve together on the table, with such appreciation that various eminent legal gentlemen winced and looked away. ‘I used to sit down below and envy him. Then his wife came. She went sniffing about in his pyjamas and all over.’ Dan imitated a cold shrewish drawl: ‘“Really, darling, I cannot
‘Tell them about the nylons,’ shouted Flo. ‘go on, tell them.’ Dan froze. ‘What nylons?’
‘You know, the nylons …’ Flo saw she had made a mistake, and sat smiling pathetically, while Dan glared at her.
Rose whispered to me: ‘Dan brought in nylons all through the war, he wound them round and round his body under the uniform. A smuggler, that’s what he was.’
Dan said hastily, ‘And so that’s how I bought ray house, fair and square, with four hundred pounds I had after the war.’
‘My house. My house!’ came a shrill voice from the door.
‘Who is that?’ asked Counsel sharply.
‘That’s those dirty old beasts, dear,’ said Flo. ‘Them what we’re here for.’
‘Good God,’ said the lawyer. He dropped his voice: ‘How long have they been listening?’ He rose and slammed the door.
‘But I didn’t know you’d mind,’ said Flo. ‘They always listen, dear. That’s what they’re like.’
‘Well. I really don’t know!’ said the Counsel. He looked at his watch. It was nearly lunchtime.
‘So if the Judge could take my war service and the Lascar into account,’ said Dan, remembering why he had begun his confidences.
‘I’m going to lunch,’ said Counsel, and went, deeply offended. The lawyer went with us to lunch, to make sure nothing worse could happen. It was a difficult meal. Dan’s bad temper had focused itself on Jack. ‘Yes,’ he kept saying, belligerently. ‘Yes. And if we lose the case I’ll know who to thank.’
‘Now, now,’ the lawyer said. ‘Now, now. It’s not everyone who can make a good witness.’
‘That’s right, sweetheart,’ said Flo, trying to shield her son, ‘And he took a day off from work and all to help you.’
‘Work,’ said Dan. ‘Work. It’s not everyone who can work, either.’
‘Jack, why don’t you run along off to the pictures,’ said Rose.
‘But I want to see what happens in Court,’ said Jack.
Rose signalled to him with her eyes that Dan should be avoided: but Jack said: ‘The Court’s for nothing, and I’d have to pay for the pictures.’
‘That’s right,’ said Flo, trying to smile her man into good temper. ‘And so it won’t cost nothing if he stays.’
‘You can say cost,’ said Dan. ‘You can say it, you’re always saying you’re short of money, and I know where it goes.’
‘Now, now,’ said the lawyer. ‘There’s our case to consider. Let’s all keep calm and cool.’
Our case was on first after lunch. We went into the Court with Counsel’s anxious voice in our ears: ‘Do be careful what you say, please, please.’
They put Dan into the witness-box first. As soon as he was asked a question he replied: ‘I served my King and my Country, sir.’ ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ said our Counsel, in a coldly disapproving voice. ‘But! did. All through the war.’ ‘What’s that?’ said the ludge. Counsel, very irritated, said that this man had served in the Navy. ‘So I see from his papers,’ said the Judge, indifferently. Dan’s face darkened. His mouth had already opened in a shout of ‘Justice!’ when Counsel hastily dismissed him, and before they had time to establish even one of the rehearsed points.
Counsel now made a long and efficient statement, from which it appeared the old people were a variety of maniacal criminal. Everyone listened in a matter-of-fact way, like actors at a play. ‘How well he does it,’ the Court officials seemed to be thinking, as they listened to the earnest and accomplished young man practising a sober rhetoric which would one day take him to far more impressive surroundings than these, to argue big cases, important cases, involving large sums of money and large reputations. They were watching him as if he were a promising schoolboy in his last year, overripe to show what he could do in the great world; and when he concluded, elaborately grave, his voice sinking to a well-sustained note of quiet confidence, the Judge nodded, as if to say. ‘Yes, yes, you’ll go far.’ Then he returned to his notes.
In a few moments the opposing Counsel called Dan back again. This was a poor sort of man, who had long ago lost all hope of taking flight away from this dreary and unimportant Court. He was thin, worried-looking, and his voice was edged with a persistent sarcasm. He kept saying: ‘I put it to you …’ at Dan; and with every repetition of the phrase, Dan’s face clenched with uncertainty, tasting each separate word for a hidden trap. He was quite confused, and waiting for a familiar landmark. He did not understand that this Counsel was trying to establish the fact that he was a liar. He had been counting on Dan to deny he locked the bathroom against his clients. After a long preamble, designed to trip Dan up, which luckily he understood not one word of. Counsel arrived at the bathroom and was confounded by the way Dan, finding himself on prepared ground, drew himself up and entered into the part of a landlord concerned only to protect his tenants from the dirt and disease of the old couple. ‘And there are children in the house, too!’ Dan ended on a note of real sincerity. Thrown off balance, the opposing Counsel dismissed Dan, in order to find a fresh approach.
All this time the old people were sitting by themselves in a corner. The old man was slumped defeatedly against the back of a bench, suffering the continual jogs and jerks of his wife’s indignant elbow so slackly that each time she pushed that sharp bone into his side, his whole body slid a little way along the seat, till he righted himself with a straining pull of his shoulder muscles, pulling at the back of the high polished bench with a trembling hand. They were even older than I had thought, incredibly old, with the trembling fragility which comes to people so near their end that they have to conserve every movement in order that their strength may last through what they have to do. The old woman was trembling. A tiny parchment bag of bones, with a small white violent face on top; that was all she was, this terrible old woman of whom I’d heard so much and not really seen before. As the shameful disclosures about her way of living were made aloud for everyone to bear, she twisted her head about in a grimacing parody of scornful laughter, and cried in small gasps: ‘No, no, a lie,’ until the Judge looked gravely at her over his throne’s edge, and told her to be quiet. She put a handkerchief to her stretched and agonized mouth and remained still, but her trembling made the flowers on her soiled white hat rattle together, with a tiny dry sound; and the persistent dry rattling went on till people turned around to look, but the evidence of such misery in the midst of this official scene made them uncomfortable, and they turned away again.
By the time Dan had been dismissed for the second time, the Judge was in a bad temper. Details of emptied slop bowls, dirty lavatories, filth thrown downstairs, it was an offence to have to listen to them.
At first sight, Flo was a welcome change in the witness-box; a starched black Britannia, the embodiment of wrathful virtue. But as soon as she began to answer questions, it was a different matter, for the blood of her Italian grandmother responded at once to the drama of the situation; and our Counsel, with the expression of a man hurrying over the last few yards to safety, kept cutting her short, for fear of what might emerge.
Then the other Counsel took over. As he stood there in his dull black, the knobbly wig kept slipping backwards, exposing a large sweating expanse of red scalp, and he glanced continually at the notes in his hand, like a dull pupil in class. It was not that he had a bad case, in fact I think both our Counsel and lawyer expected him to win it; but he looked as if he hadn’t had a good one for years, and had forgotten the habit of confidence. And his manner was even more ponderously sarcastic than with Dan. With each supercilious phrase, Flo got more upset; she was already off balance because our own Counsel had shown no friendly emotion; and this man’s display of thin and peevish hostility caused her voice to rise and her gestures to enlarge.
‘Surely,’ grated Counsel, ‘no reasonable person would put
Flo shrugged. ‘That’s what I keep saying all the time, dear.’
‘You say …’ and Counsel consulted his notes, for the effectiveness of the gesture, ‘that she had a dish of pepper. Now what do you mean by that?’ Flo stared at him. ‘A
‘Well, if you don’t know what I mean I can’t help you.’ Flo held an imaginary pepper-pot over the edge of the witness-box, and shook it hard.
‘You mean a pepper-pot perhaps?’ smiled the Counsel.
‘I don’t mind what you call it, dear, it’s all the same to me.’
‘Mrs Bolt,’ said the Judge severely, ‘you really must not call Learned Counsel dear.’
After a pause Counsel said: ‘You will admit that pepper is very expensive.’
Flo raised her hands. ‘God knows,’ she exclaimed, ‘the way prices are going up it’s a wonder we are alive to tell the tale.’
‘I asked you if pepper was not very expensive.’
Flo stared again. ‘That’s what I said.’
‘Just exactly how much does pepper cost?’
‘I don’t rightly know, because I’m still using the pepper my friend from Edgware gave me when she had the blitz on her shop.’
‘Mrs Bolt,’ drawled the Judge, peering over the edge of his table like an irritated tortoise, ‘do please answer the questions put to you.’
Flo blushed at the injustice of it. ‘But I did answer. He said, how much does pepper cost, and I said I don’t know because…’
The Judge said reprovingly to Counsel: ‘I really do think the price of pepper is irrelevant to the point at issue.’
‘I was trying to establish a point, my lord.’
‘I think I can see the point you were trying to establish.’
At this evidence of the Judge’s short temper, our Counsel visibly brightened; but Flo was still miserable. ‘I was only trying to tell him because he …’
‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,’ said the Judge.
After a long pause. Counsel pulled himself together for another onslaught. ‘What time of the year was this?’ he demanded cunningly.
‘Time of year? Tulip time.’
‘You don’t know the exact month?’
‘The time tulips bloom,’ said Flo, with irritation. ‘Spring. Don’t you know the time tulips flower?’
‘And when you saw pepper on the tulips, what did you do?’
‘Well, dear. I went out to have a look at it.’
‘Mrs Bolt, will you kindly not refer to Counsel as dear, I’ve told you already.’
‘Ah, my lord, it slipped out, and I’m sorry, sir.’
‘How do you know it was pepper?’
‘How did I know? It was red, like pepper.’
‘Paprika,’ said Flo, patient but exasperated.
‘Oh!’ He consulted his notes, ‘I took you to mean white pepper.’
The Judge said: ‘I really do feel that the colour of the pepper was immaterial.’
‘My lord, is it likely that two old people on the old age pension should use red pepper. A rather exotic commodity, I should say.’
‘Y e e e e s,’ mumured the Judge.
‘Mrs Bolt, is it likely that your tenants should use expensive red pepper?’
‘Why not? The old witch crawled downstairs and stole it from me, you don’t catch her buying anything she can nip out of my cupboard if I forget to lock it.’
‘Mrs Bolt,’ said the Judge. ‘I see nothing about theft in your statement.’
‘Did I forget to put it in, dear? Well, it slipped my mind what with all the other things.’
‘Mrs Bolt, if you don’t show some respect for this Court, then I really am afraid I must fine you for Contempt.’
‘Contempt?’ cried Flo, on the verge of tears. ‘What’s that? But, sir, it gets me all flustered, with this talk about the price of this and the price of that.’
The Judge said to Counsel: ‘Do you intend to take this matter of theft up?’
Counsel gave a dubious look at the old lady, shook his head hurriedly, and went straight on at Flo: ‘How did you know it was pepper? It might have been dust.’
‘Know? I saw the old witch sprinkle it on.’
‘Mrs Bolt, you really must not use this language in Court.’
Flo burst into tears, saw Dan grinding his teeth at her, and dried her eyes, dolefully.
‘Did you smell the pepper to make sure?’ asked Counsel.
‘Because if you smell pepper you sneeze.’
‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,’ said the Judge. He looked at the clock and sighed.
Defence Counsel in order to gain time, asked: ‘Let me put it to you that you sprinkled the pepper on the tulips yourself.’
The Judge sighed again.
Flo shouted: ‘Now is it likely I’d put pepper on the tulips I’d planted and watered with my own hands?’
‘Don’t shout,’ said the Judge.
‘But he doesn’t believe me,’ said Flo, in genuine distress, pointing at the Counsel.
‘My good woman, it’s his job not to believe you.’
‘Well, it seems silly to me.’
‘It’s not for you to say what’s silly and what isn’t.’
‘Well, who’s paying for it? It’s cost us over a hundred pounds already, and more to come for today’s foolery,’ said Flo bitterly. ‘Why can’t we decide who we want to have in our own house, that we bought and paid for?’
‘Mrs Bolt, for the last time, will you restrain your language?’
Flo shrugged, as if to say: ‘Well, let’s have done with it, and I want my tea.’ It was clear she had lost all hope of gaining anything by the case. But she had worn out the Counsel, who dismissed her.
They now called Rose, who had been sitting next to me. I had felt her trembling at the idea of standing up, thus exposed in public. She was very white, and her voice was faint.
Our Counsel got his witnesses mixed, and asked Rose about the noise the old people made; which was what he was to have asked Jack, had he been called. Rose had refused to give evidence on this point, since she had not heard any noise.
‘What did you say, do speak up,’ said the Judge rudely. Rose’s lips moved, without sound. She was on the point of fainting. ‘I don’t hear it,’ she brought out at last.
‘I don’t know about the noise. What I know about is the mess in the bathroom.’
‘That was not what you were asked,’ said the Judge.
Rose looked at him in appeal, her tongue moving over her lips. Our Counsel hastily dismissed her, and Defence took her over.
‘You say you never hear any noise?’ he said.
Rose said: ‘Either I’m in or I’m out, so I don’t hear it.’
‘I fail to see the logic of that,’ said the Judge.
‘Kindly answer my question,’ said Counsel, with extreme sarcasm, delighted to find someone he could bully.
‘I’m out at the times they make their noise,’ she said.
‘Then how do you know they make it?’
‘Because Mrs Bolt tells me so.’
‘Then why did you claim to have heard it yourself?’
‘I never did,’ said Rose, She had got her colour back. Now she grasped the edge of the witness-box with both hands, took a breath and said with dignity: ‘You’re trying to make what I say sound how you want. But I said, I said all along, I’d only say what I know is the truth.’
‘It is correct,’ said the Judge, ‘that the witness did not claim to have heard the noise herself.’
Counsel fussed a little, and dismissed Rose, who slid into the bench beside me, clutched at my hand, and sat breathing deeply, trembling all over, her eyes shut.
There was a feeling of inconclusiveness in the air as the old lady went to the witness-box. The Judge leafed through his papers, and it seemed as if he might say, ‘People living together should use tolerance,’ as the last Judge had; and bind everyone over for a further period.
The old lady entered the witness-box as if the act of doing so was a protest of innocence. She took the oath with trembling fervour. She said she had never insulted Flo because she was a foreigner; and in the next breath that she would not have foreigners turning her out of her house. She said that as a decent British woman she never swore; and then delivered a fluent imitation of Dan at his best.
‘That will do,’ said the Judge frowning, so that the people in the Court who were smiling composed their faces.
He went on leafing over his notes, in a worried way, looking for some final conclusive point on which to deliver judgment. Besides, what could be done with the old people? But then, if they were undesirable, so, clearly, were Dan and Flo. The silence continued. Then the Judge made a gesture and the two Counsels both gave short summing-up speeches, for form’s sake, for it was clear that the Judge was not listening. He was peering at the old people and at Flo and Dan as if to say: ‘
Suddenly the old lady shot to her feet and announced loudly: ‘They are all in conspiracy against me.’
The old man painfully stretched up to pull her to her seat, but she shook him off, so violently he slid along the bench in a heap, and pointed to our lawyer and our Counsel, shouting: ‘They were telling the landlord to tell lies. I heard them.’
‘Please sit down,’ said the Judge.
‘In that room,’ shrieked the old lady, pointing a trembling finger across the Court. ‘They were there, I heard them, they were saying they must tell lies, the truth doesn’t matter, that’s what they said.’
Now the Judge looked really angry. ‘You can’t say things like that,’ he said.
The old lady burst into shrieks and oaths, dancing up and down between the wooden benches, and pointing at various legal gentlemen around her. ‘He — that one — look! Lies! Lies! Lies! Justice, British justice, it’s all Jews and foreigners, it’s a plot, it’s a conspiracy …’
An official pushed the old lady down in her seat. In a minute, the whole thing was over. The Judge, at express speed, gave the old people a month to find somewhere to live. Then, feeling perhaps that his manner was not in the highest traditions of legal solemnity, he pulled himself together and made a short but admirable summing-up, which was understood by neither of the parties, because the words he used were out of their experience.
In fact. Dan and Flo believed that the case had gone against them, because of the gravity of the Judge’s manner. And it was certainly impressive to think that if the old lady had not suddenly gone crazy, the Judge would, at that moment, and with equal ease, be summing up in the opposite way.
When he said: ‘We recommend both sides, for the limited amount of time left, to use their best efforts in the interests of mutual harmony.’ Flo said crossly, ‘Harmony yourself,’ in a voice which reached him. He looked puzzled, since he had just put their point of view: ‘ — people who have behaved, perhaps not quite as they normally would have done, if not under severe provocation by a couple who clearly need asylum in a place run by sympathetic people.’ Dan nodded emphatically at the word asylum, and tapped his forehead, muttering: He says they’re nuts, so why is he against us?
Outside Rose pointed out that the case was theirs.
‘Oh, no,’ said Flo sorrowfully, ‘he was awfully cross.’
We had to call over the lawyer, in order to assure Flo and Dan that they had won the case.
Back in the basement Dan unloaded bottles of beer all over the table. Flo shed bits of thick black off her in all directions until she arrived at the comfort of an apron. Dan ripped off jacket and shirt, loosened his trousers, and let his singlet hang loose.
‘I can’t really believe it,’ said Flo. ‘Getting our own house to ourselves at last.’
Dan gave his bared-teeth smile; the heavy forearms resting on the table before him were taut with muscle; Rose nodded towards him and whispered to me. ‘Look, Dan’s already imagining how he’ll get his hands on to that flat and do it up.’ Dan heard her; looked up, and nodded at us. At that moment he was not even thinking of the money. ‘It’s like this,’ he said, frowning because of his deep disbelief in his power to communicate: ‘I go into a dirty room, it’s all dirty …’ His eyes moved from side to side, disliking what they saw. ‘And then …’ his hands clenched and opened out again, waiting: ‘I can make it all like new. See?’
Flo laughed, and said to us, full of pride: ‘It’s nice to watch him, I like that, you’d never believe a place could be nice when he starts, and then it is.’ She drank gulps of beer and said: ‘I feel so happy, I don’t know what to do.’ She nodded towards Jack and said: ‘Look at Jack, he’s happy, too.’ Jack, already back in his singlet and running shorts, was trip-stepping about the kitchen, humming, with a puppy in his arms.
Dan turned his head sharply to look, his fists clenched up again, this time in irritation, but he said nothing for the time.
‘Yes,’ went on Flo, not noticing Rose’s steadily critical look at her: ‘And just think, two years ago, we had six hundred pounds between us horn the war, and this old house, just ruins it was, and now the old people are going we could sell it any time, for three thousand, four thousand, it makes you think.’
Jack let out a little yelp of delight, did some fancy kicks, and began to sing ‘The best things in life are free.’
‘Yes,’ said Dan. ‘And no thanks to some people who are going to benefit.’
Jack gave him a dubious, scared glance, smiled in appeal at him, and danced the faster.
‘Ah, the poor old things,’ said Flo. ‘I wonder where they’ll go now.’
‘For crying out aloud,’ said Rose in disgust.
‘Funny, isn’t it?’ said Flo. ‘I never really saw them before, not like that, to look at steady. When I saw them in that Court I felt sorry for them, I did really.’
Rose grimaced at me, and raised her eyes.
‘They’ve got four kids,’ said Dan. ‘She let it out once. Three grown-up sons and a daughter.’
‘Well, it’s all right, then,’ said Flo, ‘they’ll have a home.’
‘Except that they haven’t seen their kids since before the war,’ commented Rose.
‘No sense depending on your kids,’ said Dan, looking at Jack.
Jack was scared now, and he stopped dancing, and sat quietly by himself on a chair by the sink.
The bell rang, and Flo went up to answer it. While she was away. Dan stared steadily at his stepson, trying to force him to raise his eyes and face him. But Jack pretended to be unaware; he played with a puppy at his feet, keeping his head down.
Flo came back, and stood in the door, wiping her hands unconsciously, over and over, on her apron, and her mouth
‘What’s up?’ said Rose.
‘It’s the Welfare. From the Court. There’s a lady and a man and they’ve got a sort of ambulance. They’re taking away the old people to a Home. They say they’re not fit to look after themselves. Well, why couldn’t they have said it before, that’s what I want to know, instead of making us miserable and costing us ail that money.’
‘What sort of a Home?’ asked Rose.
‘How should I know, dear?’ She was looking up at the ceiling, to avoid Rose’s challenge. ‘Well, it won’t take them long to pack — nothing but a fistful of rags between the two of them.’ Over our heads were heavy and purposeful footsteps, and the sound of a high steady whimpering.
‘It wouldn’t be a lunatic asylum,’ enquired Rose steadily. ‘We know what them places are like, don’t we?’
‘But better off there,’ said Flo hastily, smiling in terrified appeal at her, ‘much better off there than here.’
‘Better there than being killed by you and Dan one dark night,’ said Rose.
Dan was now moving about in his chair with heavy restless movements. He was grinding his teeth — at Rose, at me, at Jack.
Rose stood up. She was still buttoned up in her suit, and she had drunk no more than a mouthful of beer.
‘Where’s you going, sweetheart?’ said Flo. ‘Out with Dickie? That’s nice, and I hope you’ll have a nice time.’
Rose did not answer. She gave me a meaning glance — Come with me, and avoid trouble. I got up, too.
Jack suddenly cried out: ‘Why are you cross with me? Just because I didn’t know how to talk right in the box? You’re not cross with Rose, and she didn’t say nothing in the box.’
‘Oh, but Rose was clever,’ said Flo hastily, sacrificing her son to her husband. ‘She told us better than the lawyers did, they said so themselves.’
‘But she didn’t say nothing in the box,’ said Jack, helplessly, in terror of his stepfather.
‘You didn’t even try,’ said Dan.
‘Well, don’t take it out on Jack, just because your consciences are hurting you,’ said Rose crisply.
‘I don’t know what you mean, darling,’ cried Flo, Upstairs the noise had ceased and we heard a car drive off.
‘Well, they’ve gone,’ said Flo. ‘And now let’s sit down and have a nice little drink and be happy.’
Dan said, looking steadily at Jack: ‘And now I’m going right upstairs, to start work. It’ll take a month or more. And you’re going to do something for your keep for once.’
‘Oh, not tonight,’ cried Flo, ‘not tonight, sweetheart. It’ll do tomorrow.’
He shouted at her: ‘You get me my supper. And then I’m to start.’ And at Jack: ‘Well, are you coming?’
Jack shrilled up; ‘Why should I? When I work for you it’s for nothing. I can work every night till one or two in the morning, and I don’t get a penny for it.’
Flo said: ‘Jack, don’t talk back to Dan.’
Dan said: ‘So you don’t? And who feeds you? Do you think you’d get the food you get from your mother on thirty bob a week?’
Flo said: ‘Oh. Dan, oh. Jack — but the food’s nothing, I just make it up as I go along …’
Dan said: ‘You know the restaurant business. Tell me what it’d cost for Jack to get fed as he gets fed here.’
‘Oh, sweetheart…’ began Flo, and burst into tears.
Rose took my elbow, and we went quietly to the door, ‘Quick,’ she whispered, ‘or the Lord knows what we’ll have to be witness to.’
Jack backed against the wall. Dan was on his feet. Jack shouted out to his mother, who had her hands over her face: ‘And you’re not my mother since you married him, you’ve not treated me right since …’ Dan slapped him across the face. Jack fell over and picked himself up, crouching under the powerful figure of the man towering over him. He was cut off from help in the corner. He shrieked: ‘Mum, mum, don’t let him hit me.’
‘Are you going to help me get that place straight or not?’ ‘No, no. I won’t. Why should I? You don’t pay me for my work.’
Rose and I had reached the bottom of the stairs. She was clinging on to me. I could feel her trembling again, as she had earlier in Court. ‘Wait,’ she said. ‘I feel sick. People shouting, people fighting, it makes me feel all sick.’
There was a silence in the room we had left. ‘Thank the Lord,’ whispered Rose. ‘They’ve stopped.’
There was a yell of pain from Dan. ‘He’s bitten me,’ he shouted. ‘Your precious son has bitten my thumb right through.’ Flo sobbed out: ‘Dan, Jack. Dan, Jack …’
Jack had rushed out and was in the dark passage with us. In a second Dan was after him. He picked up the boy in his arms and with one hand opened the outer door and flung him outside on to the cement of the passage. Jack got to his hands and knees, Dan was over him, and kicked him. Jack crawled up the steps out of sight, groaning, as Dan kicked at him, in a heavily-breathing silence.
There was a screech of brakes as a lorry swerved. Dan shouted: ‘And you needn’t come back, this isn’t your home any longer.’
‘For God’s sake,’ said Rose, ‘help me, dear. Help me out of here.’ I got her up into the hallway, where she leaned against a wall, eyes shut, her hand at her stomach.
In a moment she opened her eyes, smiled and said grimly: ‘Well, Dan’s done it at last. He’s been trying to pick a fight long enough.’ Beside Rose a door stood open that I had always seen shut. ‘Go in and have a look,’ she said. ‘You’ll never see nothing like that again in your life.’
There were two rather large rooms, and a small glassed-in space that had once been a conservatory in a middle-class house. The rooms were high-ceilinged, well-proportioned. But it was not possible to see this at first glance, because the walls were not surfaced, but had a shaggy protuberant look, and the ceilings appeared as if they were growing fungus, or mosses. The window into the street was open, and all the surfaces were in movement. Damp paper hung in strips and shreds from above, stirring and writhing. All around the walls it looked as if soiled stuffing burst from cushions, and wriggled and coiled as it forced its way out through a dingy, yellowing-grey substance. The floors were so thick in dirt that pieces of string and paper and plaster were embedded in a hard gluelike lumpy surface. Shreds of dirty lace hung at the lower half of the windows. Everywhere were bits of newspaper, bits of rag, smelly scraps of food. The smell was a sour thick reek. There was a small iron bed, with a thin stained mattress, and some cardboard cartons, balanced on top of each other. A wash-basin was yellow with grease.
And that was all. I came out, shutting the door on the smell. Rose had recovered. Flo had come up the stairs. She said: ‘Why does everything have to happen together, can you tell me that?’
‘Because people make them happen together, that’s why,’ said Rose.