A New Year story for you, from another of my as-yet-unpublished novels, Salt Pie Alley. It’s set in Wakefield in the winter of 1971-2.In this scene, Margaret Gillray sits alone at home on New Year’s Eve, doing her best not to think about her late husband, Tobias.
Here we are another year, Margaret Gillray said to herself. Here we are 1972. Here we go again. She’d told Danny she’d stroll up to the Dragon to join him for a drink at midnight but by hell it was cold outside and here in Stanley House she had the telly and a blanket and a plate of bacon sandwiches all to herself – Danny could manage without her, she’d decided.
She’d also a mug of tea and a glass of Bushmill’s with water. She didn’t want to get maudlin; she’d said to herself out loud as she’d poured the glass: “Now Margaret you’re not to get tipsy and upset. You’re not. Promise now. Promise.”
And so she’d promised herself and poured the whiskey.
Now she shifted her legs under her and took a munch on a sandwich. Some fat Scots feller on the telly playing his pipes. Ach, that’s all we need, she thought – the pipes, the pipes. Be on to the Danny Boy next and then, Margaret, you’ll end up nothing but a puddle of tears on the carpet, won’t you? She levered herself out of her chair and switched the channel.
Some chat-show on the BBC. Some actor with sideburns and a cigarette. This’ll do – they’ve interesting lives, actors, although don’t we all in our way? But he’s not an Irishman, is he? –
She paused lowered halfway back into her chair to listen: no, no – he’s an Englishman. This’ll do.
It’s just, she thought, folding her legs under her again, that a lot of them do seem to be Irishmen, these actors – and isn’t it about bloody typical of them to be so? No, an Englishman, this one, in any case, or a Welsh. Lovely voice he had. She took another mouthful of bacon sandwich and tried to pay attention.
“ – a very normal family life, Peter.”
“Of course: and would you say your mother was a – ”
Blah blah blah. She couldn’t keep her mind on the smoking actor and his host with the plush hair.
No, she was away. She oughtn’t’ve poured the whiskey. But hadn’t she made the promise? Aye – but who said after all that a woman couldn’t be tipsy and happy at the same time? Where’s the law that says a girl can’t get good and drunk, Margaret thought indignantly, without having to spoil her mascara thinking of some feller?
Because Declan Kilberd was a tall chap and his hair was dark, at least when it was Brylcreemed flat to his head, it was him they’d send packing out into the cold, at midnight, to take a walk round the block and come back to the doorstep with – what was it? A lump of coal, for one thing – for luck.
This one night – when? Doesn’t matter, Margaret decided quickly – this one new year’s night, she and Tobias pushed Declan out the back door of Stanley House just as the snow was starting to drift down.
“Ach, have a heart, won’t you! Look at this! And me not even with a hat – !”
“Get along with you!” Tobias cried, steering Declan firmly by his elbow to the back gate. “What, would you bring misfortune on our home? Away and bring us some bloody coal, you bugger!”
“You’d best get a dose of linctus ready for me, Toby, I’m sure I feel the grippe coming on – ”
“God almighty and to think they let you in the airforce!”
A few neighbours peering through the curtains in disapproval, she was sure. But hell it was new year’s. For herself, she was on the doorstep creased in half from laughing: those two – by God they did make her laugh.
Toby ushered her back inside and shut the door and they went through to the drawing-room to watch for Declan coming to the doorstep.
It was a while before he turned up. The snowflakes were fat and light and fluttery against the window. Toby just held her hand as they sat on the seat beneath the sill and they both just drank their whiskies and watched the snow.
She thought, now: would you rather he’d been drinking only apple-juice that night, and other such nights, and be still with you today? But you can’t answer such a thing without sentimentality. And there’s no time for sentimentality.
It was gone one.
“Where the devil’s the swine got to?” Toby said.
“Oh – I hope he’s all right, out without a hat – ”
“Of course he’s all right – the bugger, winding us up like this – ”
The knock came at around quarter-past.
“Here he is.”
Tobias stood up and shook his trousers straight and fastened his collar-button and went to answer the door.
Declan was there. Red in the face and a sack on his back. Two lads stood behind him also red-faced and panting foggily in the snow.
What it was was that Declan, madman that he was, had gone out the back gate all right and round the front – but then, in sight of the front door of Stanley House, had had a brainwave, he called it, and instead of knocking had proceeded up the road to the end of Charlotte Street – and then, he said, decided to test the hospitality of the neighbours.
“Mr Winson, is it, at number two? There’s a grand feller: grandchildren and such like about his ankles – shared a drop with me,” Declan reported later. “A drop or perhaps more. Next door to him though there’s a bugger and a half, didn’t appreciate my calling at such an hour, but then the next one was nice, and treated me to a sherry from a coffee-mug, and then the girl at number eight, Tobias, I see why you’ve never mentioned her – ”
And so on. In this way he’d worked his way down the road back towards Stanley House – and if along the way he picked up a couple of lads who’d caught the scent of a free drink then didn’t that just add to the festivity?
“And then,” he told them afterwards, “I had my second brainwave of the evening, God be praised.”
Declan – or one of the two lads, or all of them together – had hatched this jape where they’d sneak over to Earnshaw And Son and pinch –
– “Borrow,” Declan’d insist reprovingly –
– take, anyway, a – but that gets ahead of the tale. Margaret now sipped her drink and smiled to herself and hadn’t even half an eye on the chattering telly.
Tobias stood there in his smart trousers looking at Declan with his hand on the door-handle.
“What the bloody hell’s this Declan?” he said with a smile.
“All the luck in the world!” shouted Declan, and God if he didn’t up-end this bag of coal all over the Stanley House doorstep and the doctor’s shoes and the doctor’s good trousers –
“Good bloody luck to you, Tobias!” Declan cried as he shook out the sack. “How’s that? How’s that for you? All the luck in the bloody world!” And coal rolling all over the carpet, the doormat, the pavement –
Margaret watching from the door of the drawing-room had half a mind on what a job that was going to be with the Ewbank, but mostly she was laughing. Declan’s face – and then, with Tobias reeling back from the doorway, Declan charging into the house and the two lads behind him, cheering, shouting, you’d think it was the F.A. Cup final, and Tobias then looked up at Margaret –
That sad face he had, and all the coal-dust on his good clothes: he stood there looking at her like Stan Laurel and she laughed so much she could barely breathe and barely keep her feet.
That’s the way. In the living-room of Stanley House now Margaret finished off her Bushmill’s triumphantly and said, part to herself and part to the house and part to long-dead Toby, ‘Happy ruddy bloody new year’, and laughed, and only wished Daniel was with her, but only wished that a very little, and then set down the glass and took up a clap-cold sandwich and with her good white teeth took a great fat bite.
More to follow in 2011.