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Authors: Stan Barstow

The Likes of Us

BOOK: The Likes of Us
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The Likes of Us

 

Stories of Five Decades

 

 

 

Stan Barstow

 

THE DESPERADOES

 

For C.M.B.

 

The Human Element

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry West's the name, fitter by trade. I'm working for Dawson Whittaker & Sons, one of the biggest engineering firms around Cressle
y
,
and lodging with Mrs Baynes, one of the firm's recommended landladies, up on Mafeking Terrace, not far from the Works. It's an interesting job – I like doing things with my hands – and not a bad screw either, what with bonus and a bit of overtime now and again, and taken all round I'm pretty satisfied. The only thing I could grumble about is some of my mates; but they're not a bad lot really. It must be because I'm a big fair bloke and the sort that likes to think a bit before he opens his mouth that gives them the idea I'm good for a laugh now and then. Some of them seem to think it's proper hilarious that I'm happy with my own company and don't need to go boozing and skirt-chasing every night in the week to enjoy life. And on Monday mornings, sometimes, when they're feeling a bit flat after a weekend on the beer, they'll try to pull my leg about Ma Baynes and that daughter of hers, Thelma. But they get no change out of me. I just let them talk. Keep yourself to yourself and stay happy – that's my motto. I'm not interested in women anyway; I've got better ways of spending my time, not to mention my money.

I've got something better than any girl: nearly human she is. Only she wears chromium plate and black enamel instead of lipstick and nylons. And she's dependable. Look after her properly and she'll never let you down, which I reckon is more than you can say for most women. Every Saturday afternoon I tune her and polish her for the week. There's no better way of spending a Saturday afternoon: just me and the bike, and no complications. All I ask is to be left alone to enjoy it.

Well, it's summer, and a blazing hot Saturday afternoon, and I'm down on my knees in Ma Baynes's backyard with the motor bike on its stand by the wall, when a shadow falls across me and I look up and see Thelma standing there.

‘Hello, Arry,' she says, and stands there looking at me with them dull, sort of khaki-coloured eyes of hers that never seem to have any expression in them, so you can't tell what she's thinking, or even if she's not thinking at all, which I reckon is usually the case.

‘Oh, hello.' And I turn back to the job and give one of the spindle nuts on the front wheel a twist with the spanner.

‘Are you busy?' she says then.

I'm trying my best to look that way, hoping she'll take the hint and leave me alone. ‘You're allus busy with a motor bike if you look after it properly,' I say. But even me giving it to her short and off-hand like that doesn't make her shove off. Instead she flops down behind me, coming right up close so's she can get her knees on my bit of mat and pressing up against me till I can feel her big bust like a big soft cushion against my shoulder.

‘What're you doing now, then?' she says.

‘Well,' I say, getting ready to answer a lot of daft questions, ‘I'm just checkin' 'at me front wheel's on properly. I don't want that to come loose when I'm on the move, y'know.'

‘You must be clever to know all about motor bikes,' she says, and I wonder for a second if she's sucking up to me. But I reckon she's too simple for that.

‘Oh, I don't know. You get the hang of 'em when you've had one a bit.'

She gives a bit of a wriggle against my shoulder, sort of massaging me with her bust. She doesn't know what she's doing. She's like a big soft lad the way she chucks herself about. It'd be enough to give ideas to some blokes I could mention. But not me. It does nothing to me, except make me feel uncomfortable. I'm breaking a new pair of shoes in and I've cramp like needles in my left foot. But I can't move an inch with Thelma there behind me, else we'll both fall over.

She gives another wriggle and then gets up, nearly knocking me into the bike headfirst. And when I've got my balance again I stretch my leg out and move my toes about inside the shoe.

‘We was wonderin',' Thelma says, ‘if you'd like to lend us your portable radio set. Me mam wants to go on a picnic, but me dad wants to listen to the Test Match.'

Now here's a thing. I've got to go canny here. ‘Well, er, I dunno…' I get up, steady, wiping my neck with my handkerchief, giving myself time to think of an excuse for saying no. I'm always careful with my belongings.

‘Oh, we'd look after it,' Thelma says. ‘On'y me dad's that stubborn about cricket, an' me mam won't go without him.'

I know Old Man Baynes and his sport. It's the one thing Ma Baynes can't override him on.

Thelma can see I'm not happy about the radio and she says, ‘Why don't you come with us, then you can look after it yourself? We're goin' to Craddle Woods. It'll be lovely up there today.'

I know it will, and I've already thought of having a ride out that way when I've finished cleaning the bike. But this doesn't suit me at all. I haven't been with the Bayneses long and I've been careful not to get too thick with them. Getting mixed up with people always leads to trouble sooner or later. I always reckon the world would be a sight better place if more folk kept themselves to themselves and minded their own business.

But I see that Thelma has a look on her face like a kid that wants to go to the zoo.

‘Well, I'd summat else in mind really,' I say, still trying my best to fob her off. ‘I was goin' to clean me bike.'

‘Clean it!' she says. ‘But it's clean. Look how it shines!'

‘It on'y looks clean,' I say. ‘There's dozens o' mucky places 'at you can't see.'

‘Well, it can wait, can't it? You don't want to waste this lovely weather, do you?'

I haven't thought of wasting it, not with that nice little ride all planned. But I'm concerned. That's how it is with people. They pin you down till you can't get out any way. I can see Ma Baynes taking offence if I don't lend them the radio now, and that's the last thing I want. No trouble. I'm all for a quiet life. So I give in.

‘Okay, then, I'll come. When're you settin' off?'

Thelma's face lights up like a Christmas tree at this. ‘About three, I sh'd think,' she says. ‘I'll tell 'em to be…' And then she gets her eyes fixed on something behind me and forgets what she's saying.

‘Look, there's Lottie Sharpe.'

I turn round and look over into the next yard, where a girl's walking by: a slim little bit, all dressed up in nylons and high heels and even a fancy little hat.

‘I wish I looked like that,' Thelma says, sort of quiet and wistful like, and I can tell she's talking to herself, not to me. I take a good look at her, standing nearly as big as me, with that sort of suet-pudding face of hers, and I see what she means, but I say nothing.

‘Lottie's gettin' married next month.'

There it is: they're all alike. Getting married and spending some poor feller's brass is all they think about. I say nothing.

Thelma watches right till Lottie turns the corner into the entry, then she gives a big sigh, right down inside herself.

‘I'll tell 'em to be gettin' ready, then.'

She goes back across the yard. Her overall's tight and stretched across her fat behind and I can see the red backs of her knees.

I reckon I've had it for today and I begin to pick my gear up.

We go along the street to the bus stop. Ma Baynes is walking in front, wearing white holiday shoes and carrying the sandwiches in a tartan shopping bag. Old Man Baynes, in a new cap and cricket shirt, strolls along beside her sucking at his pipe and saying nothing.

I'm walking behind with Thelma, carrying the portable radio. Thelma's changed into a thin cotton frock that's as short and tight as the overall she had on earlier. I wonder if she has any clothes she doesn't look as though she's grown out of. Now and then I take a look down at my new shoes. They're a light tan, with long toes. I've had my eye on them for weeks, along with a pair with inch-thick crepe soles, and I've had a lot of trouble making up my mind between them. But these are definitely dressier: a smashing pair of shoes. They'll be fine when a bit of the newness has worn off. Just now they've developed a bit of a squeak and once Thelma looks down and giggles. I give her a look and move away from her and try to look as if I'm not with them at all, and hoping like mad we won't run into any of the bods from the Works.

We sit downstairs on the bus. Just out of manners I have a bit of a difference with Old Man Baynes about who's going to get the fares. But I soon give in when I see one or two of the other passengers looking round. It's the Bayneses' treat anyway and I don't want to attract attention and have everybody taking me for Thelma's young man. She's sitting next to me, by the window. She's chattering ill the time to her mother in front and bouncing backwards and forwards like a kid on a trip. Her skirt's getting well up past her knees and I can feel her leg hot when it rubs mine, so I move over to the edge of the seat and look at the barber's rash on the back of Old Man Baynes's neck.

In about twenty minutes we're well out in the country and we get off the bus and cross the road and take a path through a field of corn that's ready for getting in, it's so heavy and ripe, and as still as if we were seeing it on a photo. It's a real scorcher of a day. We go round the edge of the farmyard and down into the woods. The trees come over and shut the sun out and the path's narrow and steep. We walk in single file with Ma Baynes in front and every now and then one of us trips over the roots that stick out of the ground all hard and shiny like the veins on the backs of old people's hands. After a bit of this we come out into a clearing. Down the hill we can see the beck with the sun shining on it and on the far side there's a golf course with one or two nobs having a game. Past that there's fields stretching miles off and electricity pylons marching along like something out of a science-fiction picture.

‘This'll do,' Ma Baynes says and drops her bag and flops down on the grass like half a ton of sand. Old Man Baynes shoots me a look and I pass the radio over. He takes it out of the case and switches on, stretching out on the grass with his ear stuck right up to the speaker as though he thinks the set's too little to make much noise.

Ma Baynes levers her shoes off and pushes the hair off her forehead. Then she clasps her hands in her lap and gives a satisfied look all round.

‘We sh'd come here more often,' she says, 'stead o' stickin' in that mucky old town.' She gives Thelma and me a funny look. ‘Me an' your father used to come courtin' here,' she says. ‘Didn't we, George?'

Old Man Baynes just says ‘Mmmm?' and Ma Baynes twists her head and pins him with a real sharp look.

‘I hope you're not goin' to have your head stuck inside that thing all afternoon,' she says. ‘If that's all you can find to do you might as well ha' stopped at home.'

‘That's what I wanted to do,' he says, and gives the radio a tap with his fingers. ‘I can't get no reception.' He picks the set up and gives it a shake.

‘Here,' I say, ‘let me.'

Ma Baynes gives a sigh. ‘Here we are, next to nature, an' all they can find to do is fiddle wi' a wireless set!'

After a bit she sends Thelma up to the farm for a jug of tea. By this time me and Old Man Baynes between us have taken so many parts out of the radio it'd take a chopper to strip it down any more. All the guts of it are spread out in one of my hankies on the grass and I'm looking at them in a bit of a daze, wondering if we haven't gone a bit too far.

Old Man Baynes has lost all interest. He's sitting by himself, looking out over the valley, chewing grass stalks and muttering to himself something like, ‘I wonder how they're gettin' on.' He's worried sick about that cricket match.

Soon Thelma comes back with the tea and Ma Baynes sets the mugs out. ‘Come on, you men, and get your teas.'

We get going on the fishplate sandwiches. Nobody has much to say now. It's all right going out into the country, but what do you do when you get there? It begins to get me down after a bit and I get to thinking about the bike and all I could be doing with her if I wasn't wasting my time sitting here.

When we've finished Thelma picks up the jug.

‘I'll take that back, if you like,' I say. I think a walk might help to pass the time.

Ma Baynes looks up at us. ‘Why don't you both go?'

I'd rather go on my own, but I give a shrug. ‘If you like.'

We set off up the path under the trees. It's a bit cooler here but I'm still sweating a lot and my shirt's stuck to me. Thelma's the same. Her frock was tight to start with and now it looks as it it's been pasted on her. We get the full force of the sun as we leave the shade on the edge of the farmyard, and it's dazzling the way it bounces back off the whitewashed walls. Everything's dead quiet and there's no sign of life except for a few hens pecking around and a great red rooster strutting about among them as though he owns the place. I put my hand down on the flagstones as Thelma comes back from the house.

‘Could fry your breakfast on here,' I say, just to help the conversation on a bit.

‘It is hot, in't it?' she says, and flaps her arms about like an angry old hen. ‘I wish we was at the seaside; I'd love to be in the sea just now.'

We go back into the wood and follow the path till we come to another one, narrower and steeper, leading off down through the bracken to the beck.

‘Let's go down here,' Thelma says, and starts off before I can say yea or nay. She runs on in front and I follow, and when I come out on the grassy bank where the stream bends she's sitting down taking her sandals off.

BOOK: The Likes of Us
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