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“Our Betty should never’ve wed ‘im in fust place,” announced Betty Touchette’s mother. “Any normal gal wi’ nowt fer brains but old tripe woulda knew it were doomed fore they bloody met. ‘E worra a Yank, and you know what them fookers are like.” And just in case Mrs Prendergast didn’t. “Randy as bloody rabbits. Randy as bloody rabbits.” Usually she’d have left it at that. But today, she felt moved to enlarge on the subject. “Not tharrit made mooch difference,” she said, paying no mind to the inherent contradiction.
Mrs Prendergast resisted the sudden temptation to take another sip of tea before it got cold, just in case the simple movement distracted Betty’s mam from the fascinating diatribe that made her daughter feel so visibly uncomfortable. After all, it would be a pity to spoil it when it was having such a warming effect on herself. You could’ve cut the atmosphere with a blunt razor blade. It was pure soap.
“Wha’ worrit, then?” said Mrs Prendergast, stoking embers that were far from need.
Betty was tired of hearing the same old story being trotted out yet again.
“Give it a rest, willya, Mam? I’m fed oop wi’ ‘earin’ it,” she said. Her mother could’ve had the goodness to wait till she was out of the room before starting. Thinking about it, that was the best place to be. Rising to her feet to refresh the depleted teapot, Betty disappeared into the kitchen. At which, her mother gave Mrs Prendergast a ‘see what I mean?’ sort of nod.
“‘E wor joost a bit nervy, wan’t ‘e, me dook?” Mrs Prendergast called out after Betty. She felt a little disappointed the familiar story might get cut short, and would do anything to rekindle the warmth Betty’s discomfort had provided.
Having heard her mother tell her version of events so many times, Betty was no longer quite sure which bits were true and which weren’t. Granted the nub of the story had a basic kernel of truth, in as much as she had once been married to an American. And if he were alive, she still was. But her mother had embellished the tale so much with fresh details over the years, Betty was finding it increasingly difficult to remember exactly what really had happened. Added to this, she’d been responsible for inventing a couple of details herself, purely in Jack’s interest, of course.
She even found it difficult remembering what he looked like, having destroyed all photographs of him when he went to… Well, when he went, that’s all.
Betty tried to conjure up a vision of him somewhere in the empty space between the kitchen window, where she stood, and the shed at the bottom of the garden. All she could manage was the part of him that really wasn’t a part of him at all. His glass eye. It stared sadly back at her. Feeling tears pricking her own eyes she turned her gaze swiftly down to the plughole in the sink. He had been nervy all right, of that she was sure. It went a long way to explaining things.
But he hadn’t been nervy when they first met. Far from it. There again, if she was honest with herself, she’d been too sloshed to tell. Then neither had he appeared to suffer from any nervous disorder the following days. Not any that she noticed, at any rate.
They met in a bar in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Her mother didn’t know that. It was one of the bits Betty left out. She had been picked up in a French bar; the shame of it. The fact the bar had been a French spelt everything out. In capital letters to boot. That her mother had met Betty’s late father in a bar wouldn’t have counted a fig. That had been an English pub. In Leicester. Big difference.
Jack Touchette sat on a high stool at the bar sipping a beer. She could tell he was American immediately. The distinctive cut of his clothes was a giveaway. The trousers a bit too short and narrow for a Frenchman of comparative age. To all the world he was a man of the world. Betty stood next to him on purpose. She was about to order, when, just as she hoped, he took up chatting to her, inviting her for a drink. No nerves there. She noticed he had a glass eye. Though it stood out a mile, she pretended not to have seen. It certainly wouldn’t have been polite to mention such a thing in Leicester. In the event, there was no need, he was the first to bring it up. Betty affected a look of surprise, saying it suited him. For the life of her she couldn’t think why; it was so bloody spooky. He told her if she like it so much she could have it, before making as though he was about to take it out. What a shock that was. Placing one restraining hand on his arm, she place the other over her mouth. When he explained he’d only been joking, she couldn’t stop laughing. So much, she almost choked on her drink. How funny he’d been. Never had she laughed so much as she did in France.
Betty made up her mind to go to Paris as soon as she finished her secretarial course at the tech. To her immense surprise, Dad and Mam agreed. It would do her the world of good to get away for a month or two before settling into a job. She would have to write, and phone her aunt from time to time, of course. Just so they knew she hadn’t got into trouble.There was no phone at Betty’s house.
Films and magazines had risen her hopes Paris would be different; far more exciting than Leicester could ever be. It was certainly very different, but not in the way she expected. The sidestreets were a rundown and tawdry. Parisians seemed far poorer than and shabby she could ever have imagined. She expected ‘things’ to happen, like they did on the big screen. Things did happen, but not the things she’d expected. They weren’t so different from the things that happened in Leicester. In Paris people went to work, lived in flats and houses, and went out to bars in the evening. If they didn’t stay home listening to the radio or watching telly, that is.
Nevertheless, she followed the tourist trail. She visited the Louvre, Nôtre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and then went for a boat trip down the Seine. By the time she walked into the bar where Jack was sitting she’d already decided she’d had enough. She was going home a month early. That all changed.
With Jack ‘things’ did indeed begin to happen. He took her to clubs and bars she wouldn’t have dared to go by herself. This was the Paris she’d heard about, this was the Paris she’d seen in films. There was nothing like it in Leicester.
Betty had never been in love before, she learned that the first day of their meeting. All the other boys in her life had been just that, boys. Jack was a man. He spoke French like a native. Frenchmen loved him. They slapped his broad shoulders, and bought ‘le grand Americain’ and anyone with him, glasses of wine. One day after quite a few more glasses of wine than usual they decided to get married. It was just the thing to do in Paris.
What a wedding it had been, both of them still drunk from the night before; desperately trying to stop themselves from bursting into giggles as they stood before a po-faced British Consul.
What was supposed to have been a quiet reception in a tiny restaurant, with half a dozen of Jack’s friends, turned into a wild party. Twenty or more strangers, neither had seen in their lives before, were dragged in off the streets to join them. It took five arrests to bring proceedings to a close, with Jack narrowly escaping spending the first night of his married life in a police cell. That was another thing her mother didn’t know about.
After Jack had a lucky night at poker they spent a few days honeymooning in Nice. In reality, the honeymoon had been before the marriage. Now would have to come the courting, when each would really get to know the other. Yet Jack would have none of it, as far as he was concerned, life had become one long honeymoon. They drank all day, and they drank all night, scarcely pausing for sleep. Jack got them some pills to help keep them awake. They drank until the money finally ran out.
That, more than anything, made up their minds to leave Paris for Leicester. Somehow, Jack managed to get hold of enough francs for their tickets, and they set out the next day. It was then she first began to notice his nerves. He kept on looking over his shoulder all the time, as though he expected someone to jump out at them at any moment. She put it down to the drink, and made a mental note to steer him away from it in the future. Saying it was going to be a lot easier than doing it. Jack liked drinking more than anything else. Even more than her, perhaps.
Mam and Dad didn’t take to him at all. Betty got the gnawing suspicion they’d decided not to like him before he even arrived. To them, he was a ne’er do well, a sponger, who would eat and drink them out of house and home, and then be on his way. They made no show of hiding their feelings. Dad even seem to begrudge him the teaching job he got so quickly. A French teacher at a posh private school in town. He dismissed the little success with: “A teachin’ job in’t oop to mooch nahdays. Specially teachin’ them load o’ snotty boogers.” Jack seemed to agree with him, either that, else he was nervy. Whatever it was, he didn’t bother to go in the first day. Betty had to go down to the corner telephone kiosk to phone Mr Rhys, the headmaster, and make something up about Jack’s war wounds. Rather than annoyed, Mr Rhys seemed impressed, saying he knew what it was like. He’d done his turn of duty aboard the North Atlantic convoys. He even suggested it might be best for Jack to stay away on full pay till he felt properly well enough to take up his post. Jack agreed with that all right. She didn’t let on about the extra war wounds she felt she had to make up, just in case it made him even more nervy.
The kettle boiled, and Betty poured fresh hot water onto the old leaves before carrying the teapot back into the sitting room.
“‘E worr older ‘n you, wan’t ‘e loov?” enquired Mrs Prendergast, determined to get her fourpence worth.
“I should say ‘e worr,” Betty’s Mam answered for her, “‘E were fifty, if ‘e worra day.”
“’E’d joost turned forty, Mam. Gi’ it a rest willya?”
“Toad you ‘e were forty, more like. Boot then ‘e would, woun’t ‘e? Do you know the idle booger woun’t even go to the job she got ‘im?
“Ooh, I say!” exclaimed Mrs Prendergast, as if it were all news to her, despite having heard it so many times before.
Betty’s strength of reserve began to crumble before the path of her mother’s onslaught. To try to stop her now would be next to impossible. She poured second cups of tea for Mrs Prendergast, her mother, and herself.
“Betty ‘ad to goo all the way down to the phone box on the corner in the pouring rain and tell lies for ‘im.” her Mam was saying.
“It woun’t a lie! ‘E lost ‘is eye in the war!”
“Ah, but it wunt stopping ‘im gooin’ wuk, worr it, me dook?”
She was right, Jack hadn’t gone to the school because he preferred staying at home drinking. He didn’t bother to go in at all until her Dad threatened to throw him out the house. Once they got him there Jack became irritable and nervy. Nothing she could do seemed to be right.
After four weeks went by, Betty’s mam spotted him by the Clock Tower, when he should’ve been at school. He ducked into ‘The Bell’, thinking she hadn’t seen him. It was a good job she had. Betty was down to the phone box on the corner in next to no time at all. In the heat of the moment, she got quite carried away explaining to Mr Rhys how his war wounds were getting even worse.
That night she had it out with Jack. She told him it just wouldn’t do. He sat there fidgeting, and when she’d finished, suggested they both went down to the pub to ‘cool off some’. It didn’t seem like a bad idea. He looked so hurt, like one of the small boys he was supposed to be teaching might. He made her feel so mean. She felt sorry for him.
It was down at the pub he told her he’d made up his mind to go to London for a few days. He’d heard from an old buddy of his there might be a job going at the American Embassy for a man with a good service record. Betty wasn’t at all sure, she couldn’t remember him getting any letters, and besides, what was wrong with Leicester? London, well, it was far away, for a start. There’d be a flat of their own in it, Jack said to try to convince her. In the end, Betty relented. If he were so set on going it would be daft to try and stop him. The only thing to hope for, she thought wickedly, was he wouldn’t get the job.
He’d been gone for almost a week without so much as a postcard, when she got her best friend, Joan, to write a letter. Joan wrote she was worried about Betty because Betty was fretting. She didn’t mention Betty had got her to write it. When he didn’t even bother to reply, Betty paid for Joan to go down to London on the bus. She should go to his hotel and talk to him, making out she had come on her own accord, and that Betty knew nothing at all about the trip.
Whatever Joan told him, it worked. Jack was back in Leicester in time for Christmas. Betty made every effort to make it the best Christmas he’d ever had. The frosty reception his reappearance generated in her parents didn’t help towards that end, but Betty chose to ignore them. Jack didn’t seem to notice. If he did, he didn’t say anything.
Betty even had a bit of good news for him. She’d kept in touch with Mr Rhys while Jack had been away, and he’d promised to keep his job open for another month. It meant he’d be able to go back on the first day of the new Spring Term. Jack actually looked pleased at the news, and so Betty began to look to the future with a new twinkle in her eye. A twinkle she hoped to turn into something more substantial at the earliest opportunity.
Getting Jack to turn twinkles into anything more substantial proved a lot harder than it’d been in Paris. He said children made him feel nervy. Betty argued it was the daftest thing she’d ever heard coming from a teacher. Besides, the ones he taught at school were other people’s children. Jack said he didn’t want to take the chance. Why, he would never forgive himself if he fathered a child who made him feel nervous all the time. It was from that point Betty started to see it as being at the root of all their troubles, and she determined to have her own way.
Then something happened at school that threatened to put the stopper on the idea for good. One of the boys attacked Jack in the classroom. A boy called Henderson fired at him with a catapult while his back was turned. A fair sized pebble caught him on the back of the head almost knocking him out, Jack said. Though he was damned sure he knew the culprit was Henderson, he couldn’t prove anything. Betty urged him to go to Mr Rhys. Jack was adamant. He told her Henderson was the son of one of the richest men in Leicestershire. One of the Henderson ancestors had founded the school in the 16th century. Without definite proof, it was impossible to go to the headmaster. Even a headmaster couldn’t be expected to punish a boy on mere suspicion. Betty became enraged. Jack had a hard time dissuading her from going down to the school and giving Mr Rhys what for. He explained to do so might put his job at risk. And besides, apparently the boy had a rare heart condition. He was having a difficult time with Squire Henderson, who was well known among the county set for his drunken bullying and cruelty to his son. Betty soon saw the folly of her proposal, but came away feeling somehow she’d been given the thin end of the wedge.
“I thought you worr bringing soom biscuits,” said Betty’s mother, in between tightening the thumbscrews. It was plain she’d come to what she thought was the juicy bit of the story she’d rather Betty didn’t hear. Betty got up anyway, and slippered back off into the kitchen with her mother’s unintelligible sibilations trailing in her wake.
She was probably wittering on about Jack’s drinking. And then couldn’t care less what she was going on about. It was all too tiresome, all so long ago. It was almost as if it’d happened to somebody else; like a half-remembered play she’d watched on telly. She wondered if things might’ve turned out different had Jack not been hit by the stone. Maybe that had been responsible for the worsening state of his nerves. It certainly increased his drinking. He took to going to the pub every night, always coming home drunk. Except for one night. She didn’t smell any beer on his breath that night. He was all worked up, his nerves as tight as a drum. She remembered it clear enough, as if it were last night. They didn’t sleep a wink. It was the night he took the twinkle from her eye and turned it into a sparkle.
Next day, Jack was arrested at London Airport while trying to board a plane for Toronto. His bag was stuff with twelve thousand pounds in used notes. He and another man from Leicester had held up St Martin’s Bank in the centre of Nottingham. Heaven knows how the local papers didn’t make any connection. At least the family was saved from the shame.
It made it all the easier to tell Mr Rhys of the operation to remove Jack’s other eye at the military hospital in America. Showing the greatest sympathy and compassion, Mr Rhys said he understood perfectly it would make it impossible for him to continue at the school. As he handed over the salary Jack was due, he held her hand in his. Staring into her eyes, he confided she was still young, and she would soon find another man. Then, stroking her hand, he leered at her.
“’E’s only blind, you filthy, old sod!” Betty spat as she snatched her hand away.
“Mam!” A little voice called from the hallway and she was back in an instant; staring out of the kitchen window at the shed at the bottom of their garden. Wincing even before she heard the door slam she shook her head in smiling resignation when it did. “Where’s me footie stooff? I need it for tomorrah,” asked a small boy standing in the kitchen doorway.
“Jack!” she called, feigning crossness. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, not to slam the door. You know it only oopsets your gran. Now goo ‘n say you’re sorreh.” A pair of piercing blue eyes staring their hurt into hers overwhelmed her into compassion. Kneeling down she enfolded her arms about the small boy and squeezed him close to her bosom.
“Jack,” she whispered, clinging to him between kissing his face. “I’m so, so sorry. My little Jack, how much I love you.” Tears streamed down her cheeks.
“Give over, Mam!” Jack struggled to free himself. “I can ’ardly breathe. Yuh cheeks are all wet.”
With one final burst of melodramatic kisses, she released him. Once free, he ran off to say hallo to his grandmother amd Mrs Prendergast.
As she watches his little bum bounce away, she is reminded his trousers are wearing thin. She wipes her tears on her pinafore and she tips a few biscuits from a tin onto a plate. Better get him a new pair from Woollies.
Une fois. Encore.
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