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Wednesday, 4 August 2010

A Short Story, ELLA. As a change from the pattern.

My mother, May, who inspired this tale.
This short story was first published in Issue 40 of Scribble, a small press fiction Magazine. I offer it here simply as an alternative to the usual posts on this blog.

They must re-house her: now. November rain failed to dampen Ella’s determination, though it soaked her hair and shoulders and oozed through gaps in her shoes, as she slogged up the hill to the Housing Office. One more night under the same roof as her father and she’d murder him, sending her to prison and her children to the orphanage.
Carswell, promoted only because the war had disabled or killed his superiors and peers, was not a cruel man: inefficient, bureaucratic, insensitive and self-serving, perhaps. Every time she saw him, she yearned to snip the pathetic comb-over from his shiny pate and leave his crown as bald as nature intended. And his simpering secretary, with her squeaky voice, who’d never been inside a munitions factory or worked the land, enraged Ella with her subservience to a man who would act only according to outdated rules.
‘You don’t know the meaning of compassion!’
Carswell winced and raised round-rimmed spectacles to look down at the form on his desk. ‘You’re not alone in your needs, dear lady.’
Ella fought the urge to hit him, using her clenched fist to strike the desk instead with such force that he jumped back in his seat, almost falling over. ‘Don’t patronise me! If you don’t know what desperation is, it’s staring you in your complacent face.’
He made a condescending grimace, intended as a smile. It was a mistake.
‘I’d hoped to reason with you, Carswell. I’d hoped you might…’
‘It’s Mr Carswell to the likes of you.’ Miss Penny’s squeaked indignation did nothing to calm Ella.
She turned on the obsequious secretary, who backed away at her expression. ‘He has a reason for his idiocy, Miss Penny; he’s a man. What’s your excuse? As a woman, even unmarried, you ought to understand my plight. If you can’t say anything constructive, just shut up.’
The baby boy in her arms whimpered and she finally sat in the chair provided. ‘Excuse me.’ Ignoring Carswell’s look of outrage, his splutterings of protest, she prepared herself and put the baby to her breast.
‘You can’t…’ His protest faltered and failed at the challenge in her eyes.
‘Really, the cheek of some people!’ Miss Penny moved behind her boss so she could glare disgust at Ella.
At her mother’s side, a little girl approaching three, stood silent and still, dripping rain onto the carpet and waiting with unnatural patience. Ella sighed frustration and despair. ‘My children: they’re why I’m here. They’re all the war’s left me. They’ve been through too much already. I won’t put them through any more unnecessary pain. I’m not going to let them suffer any more, just because some hidebound, condescending clerk hasn’t the guts or gumption to put a roof over their heads now their father’s dead.’
‘As I understand it, Mrs Atkinson, regrettably your husband died just months ago. The war’s been over almost three years and I hardly….’
‘Whilst you sat on your idle backside in this office, Carswell, counting forms and filing them in alpha-bloody-betical order, my husband struggled against weather, waves and the foul conditions of an E-boat engine room, to protect you and her from invading forces. Just because torpedoes didn’t get him, just because he wasn’t shot, it doesn’t mean the war didn’t kill him. Eating foul food on the move, whilst he worked his heart out to keep those engines going, damaged his insides and gave him an ulcer.
‘I discovered him: lying face down in a pool of his own blood, after his ulcer burst. Have you the faintest idea what that’s like? Have you?
‘He died from peritonitis and blood poisoning just three weeks before his son was born. The war killed him as surely as if he’d been shot or bombed. Of course, it suits those mindless bureaucrats at the War Office to think along the same lines as you, so I won’t get a war widow’s pension.’
‘We’ve been through your unfortunate circumstances, Mrs Atkinson. I really am sorry for you but there’s nothing I can do. You’ve a roof over your head with your parents. Some people don’t have even that. So much bombing. They’re building new homes as fast as they can, you know. I’m sorry, you must wait your turn.’
‘My parents live in a two-bedroomed council house. My teenage brother and sister still live at home. Where do you suppose we all sleep? I’m in one bedroom, with my children. My poor mother suffers from rheumatism so badly she can hardly walk. My father’s a bigoted fool who, for reasons no one can fathom, accuses me of being an unmarried mother. Every time one of my children makes a sound at night, he curses me and threatens to chuck us out for waking him.
‘Look at these children. See how silent they are? Is that natural? Do you know many such quiet toddlers or babies?’
‘Whether I know… really it’s all rather irrelevant anyway. You don’t score sufficient points. I’m sorry.’
‘Then I’m forced to resort to blackmail. Oh, don’t look so worried, Miss Penny. Your secret’s safe, though God knows what you see in him. I wouldn’t dream of threatening the happiness of any man and woman who’ve found comfort with each other. I’m pleased for you.
‘But, understand me, Carswell, I will do this: if you don’t have a place for me to live, by lunchtime tomorrow, I’ll take these two to the top of the town hall and jump off with them. Wait! I haven’t finished. I’ll write a letter, giving my reasons in full, and hand it to the local paper first.
‘Think about it, Carswell: What price your precious rules, then? And I’ll tell the paper exactly who forced me into such a desperate act, and why.’ Ella detached the baby, covered herself and rose from the seat. ‘Until tomorrow, Mr Carswell, Miss Penny.’
A thoughtful look passed between them as she left but they said nothing.
Now she’d made the threat she wouldn’t carry out, she felt deflated as anger and bitterness were replaced by despair and hopelessness. Carswell might report her to the authorities but they were so stretched and disorganised, dealing with all those orphaned by the war, they wouldn’t take away her children.
The rain still poured, causing muddy streams to wash across the cracked and broken paving slabs out of the piled rubble: all that remained of the factory where she’d placed fuses in bombs for five years. Destruction still lay all around.
She walked, dejected and weary beyond words, along the road out of the town centre, past a row of new, prefabricated homes. Skirting a huge, water-filled crater, she reached the long, blasted road that led to her father’s council house. The little girl walked silently at her side, stepping gravely over fallen masonry, striding over or around puddles she should be jumping in fun. The baby boy slept in her tired arms.
Her father worked on the docks, his hands calloused and torn by labour. Her brother and sister went to school in classrooms with no heating. Her mother toiled over housework on limbs that could barely support her, shivering through each day until it was time to light the fire in preparation for her husband’s return.
Was this what her own dear man had died for? To leave her a life of misery and uncertainty with no hope of a comfortable future?
If their house hadn’t been tied to his job. If her husband’s boss had been more understanding. But, a week after Kenny’s death, the garage owner had evicted her, pregnant and grieving, so he could install a new mechanic in the two-up, two-down terraced house that had been their home since the end of the war.
The next-door neighbours had taken her in and given her shelter, or she’d have wandered the streets, homeless and given birth to her darling son in the gutter. Joan and Arthur had eased her grief and helped her through those first dark days. Arthur had even persuaded her father to give them a temporary home after the baby was born. Joan had only just recovered from the birth of her own second son and they really had no room in their house to let Ella stay, once she’d had the baby.
The birth had been difficult: her grief and shock at Kenny’s death causing complications. The midwife had arrived hours after the waters had broken. ‘It’ll most likely be born dead anyroad, after what you’ve been through.’
She’d suggested Ella would need some sort of stimulus to get the birth going. ‘See if you can’t make the poor love laugh or summat.’ She’d said, as she went off to deal with an emergency further down the road, where she might preside over the birth of a live infant.
Make her laugh? Three weeks after the death of the man she loved so much it had been like losing half of herself? Two weeks after being thrown onto the streets with a toddler in tow and a baby on the way? And they should make her laugh?
But they did. And how! Joan came in, as Ella lay on the bed, hours of exhausting, fruitless pushing already done. Undignified, naked, legs apart, after the midwife’s examination and caring only that the end of the birth should come soon, she lay sweating and frightened on the bed. A bra supported Joan’s milk-swollen breasts but her knickers crowned her head as she entered the room. A look of supreme concentration rendered her pretty face comical, as she shuffled into the room. Behind her, wearing only underpants, on his head, his unlit pipe upside down and dangling from his mouth, Arthur shuffled in step.
Together, they performed the sand dance, à la Wilson, Kepple and Betty’s music hall act, on the bare boards at the foot of the bed. With deadpan faces, and making scraping sounds with their voices to hide the lack of sand, they began this arcane rite as if it were a solemn ceremony. But the sight of them jerking in time to remembered music, as they paraded back and forth, body parts wobbling and arms and legs tangling as they turned, soon had Ella giggling.
Before they’d finished, all three were hysterical with laughter and the baby was well on his way. The midwife returned, unphased, to find them still naked: Arthur holding Ella’s hand, as Joan eased the baby’s head into the world.
That had been in May.
November rain was turning to unseasonal snow, as Ella strode to the Housing Office the following morning. The queue of hopeful, desperate petitioners sat, lounged and stood, a dispirited mass, steaming in the heat of the smoke filled room. Ella grasped her toddler by the hand and forced, insinuated and persuaded her way through to the closed door bearing Carswell’s name and title in gold leaf.
He was alone with Miss Penny and they sprang apart with guilt, as Ella entered without knocking. She waved away their protests, their justifications, their explanations for a situation she didn’t care about, let alone condemn. Holding up a white envelope, clearly addressed to the editor of the local paper, she took her place before the desk.
‘I want you to know that this has nothing to do with what you believe you just witnessed, Mrs Atkinson.’
‘I saw two people who seem to care for each other. Good luck to you.’
Carswell and Miss Penny shot glances of relief at each other.
‘It’s nothing to do with your irresponsible threat to kill yourself and your children and report it to the papers. I’ve done what I’ve done because I’ve reviewed your case personally and found that you earn more points than I’d previously been advised by my staff. Naturally, such allocation of points has taken you up the list. To the very top, in fact. I’m therefore pleased to be able to hand you this key. The address of the property is on the label and we… that is, I’ve taken the liberty of inspecting the property in person and ensuring the power and water are connected. Now, if you’ll please sign these documents, you may move into your new home as soon as you wish.’
Wordless, in a haze of mingled disbelief and hope, Ella signed the papers he pushed at her, picked up the rent book and grasped the key. She was out on the street before she realised his reasons for his change of mind were a pack of lies.
She didn’t care. ‘It worked.’
She looked at the address and discovered the house was less than fifteen minutes walk away.
Stunned, almost frozen with mixed emotions, she took her children to the redbrick, terraced house on a street untouched by bombs. In front, between pavement and house, a small patch of unkempt weeds behind a low brick wall promised a future of flowers.
She controlled her trembling hand to insert the brass key into the lock of a flaking, green door and pushed into a narrow hall, musty and cool. Her steps, loud on bare boards, took her past the empty front room and into the kitchen.
A pint of milk stood on the stone draining board, beside a plain white cup and saucer, a teaspoon, a brown teapot and a pack of tea. Three sugar cubes formed a small tower. The kettle, blackened with use and already filled, waited on top of a new gas stove. A half used box of matches rested on a sheet of plain white paper bearing the hand-written words, ‘May you be happy in your new home’.
‘Oh, you lovely, lovely man!’
Ella let go her daughter’s hand and, cradling her son in one arm, made herself a pot of tea in her own kitchen. The little girl sauntered to the window and looked out on a garden overgrown with forlorn weeds: a view of the cooling tower dominating the houses that backed on to her own. The snow was falling in earnest, covering ground and roofs with white and casting brightness up into the gloom of the unfurnished room.
Ella sat on bare floorboards, the hope that had sustained her, building slowly into a joy she had almost forgotten. Hot tea in one hand, her son cradled on her arm, she allowed her emotions and senses to take over from the struggle for life that had all but overwhelmed her.
In the silence of that empty house, she became aware of a sound she didn’t recognise at first. Her little girl, standing on tiptoe at the window and watching snowflakes cover the weeds in the back garden, was laughing. Ella gazed at the back of that small joyful head and, at the sound of gurgling, turned to discover the baby awake in her arms, his face alight with wonder.
She looked up into the grey sky full of falling miracles and voiced her relief and gratitude. ‘Thank you, thank you. Oh, thank you.’
And, silently, at last she wept with relief.

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