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A short story from Argosy, Mar 1951

Brian Darwent, in his biography of JTS, Romantic Egotist, identifies this story as part of a book called My Mother's Second Husband. "It was never actually published as a book, though it was serialised in Magpie, and short stories culled from it appeared in Argosy - as also, strangely enough, in a French magazine, " says Darwent.

Nick and Ann-Marie Osmond, who sell on eBay under the name Hoonaloon, found me a copy of this issue of Argosy in March 2006. Many thanks to them. Their eBay shop is here:  http://stores.ebay.co.uk/Hoonaloon-Books


"We'll have to move," she said



NOT until we got old enough to stop running and say " The hell! " did we have any real rest from my mother's second husband. He pursued our family like a dark ghoul—although I understand he tended towards ginger—throughout my childhood, and yet I was never entirely convinced of his existence as a person. For my mother, I'm certain, he was a kind of personified calamity— something shocking that happened round about nineteen twenty and recurred at odd intervals for a long time afterwards. Since this definition might apply equally well to a war, a depression, a cyclone or your Uncle Arthur, there is little wonder that we children came to regard him simply as a symbol of hard times. My sister, who is older than I am, remembers him very vaguely as a shadow, a mumble, a laugh, a slammed door, a maid's giggle. But you can't make a stepfather out of that.

Whatever he was, he kept us running. He turned up here, he turned up there, he turned up mostly everywhere. But still I only saw the effect without the cause.

I remember coming into the little cottage at Burwell where we were in hiding at the time, and hearing a commotion in my mother's room.   My sister was in the kitchen, frowning.

 " What's the matter ? " I asked.

 " They're fighting," my sister said. " Mother's got the scissors."

 Apparently our stepfather had turned up while we were at school and upset mother. Nobody could do it better. But when we came home from the club that evening mother was polishing the floor and humming Beulah Land, which had been my grand­father's favourite hymn before he died of anthrax.

 That night, sitting round the fire, my mother told us that our stepfather had once killed a black man on a fair ground : tied him up with rope and thrown him in a canal.

 " We shall have to move," she said.

 Such appearances, manifestations, or even just a vivid recollec­tion of her second husband were usually sufficient to change the immediate course of our lives. The progress of our family was like that of an enthusiastic driver, veering frantically one way and then the other to miss something he's just passed. So we took a sweet shop in the High Street.

 The shop was a small thatched cottage with a display window at the front. How my mother had the courage to open a business at this time I don't know, for her only asset in this direction was her handwriting which, she prided herself, was extremely business­like. This sloping, spontaneous, bold hand brought us sufficient credit from Cambridge wholesalers to stock the shop with aniseed balls.

 Although this commodity is not one of life's necessities and was not in frantic demand, it did satisfy absolutely the craving of those people who crave aniseed balls. These addicts soon learned that, at any time, in any weather and no matter what important things were happening elsewhere, we could always be relied upon to supply aniseed balls.   Our shop never closed.

 Unfortunately, it soon transpired that only eight people in Burwell and the surrounding district had a sustained interest in aniseed balls, including Charlie Bridgeman, a carter from Tithe Farm; Billie Doe, the Crier; and old Sarah, a lady from the alms-houses who could only afford two ounces every other pension day.

 When it became obvious that we could not keep a business solvent on that kind of trade, my mother wrote another letter. This brought us whipped cream walnuts, chocolate and coconut snowballs, cachews in glass tubes, and ice cream. Luckily my sister was at an age to attract stable boys, apprentice jockeys, farm hands and elderly gentlemen, and the business began to expand in the traditional manner. After all, many of the large chain stores started with nothing bigger than aniseed balls. Soon we were stocking snuff, birthday cards, and a whole range of cigarettes which my mother insisted on reciting whenever anybody came into the shop with nicotined fingers and a cough.

 Although the shop was soon earning sufficient to keep us and pay the rent, we could not at the same time afford to pay the whole­salers for the stock. Just before they started to prosecute, however— it was about the time of the fifth "last" letter—a fat man came into the shop and offered to install three slot machines. This was the beginning of our golden era.

 These machines were owned by a Newmarket company, and the amazing thing about them was that everybody benefited from them.    For a period of time, we all won money—the shop, the company and even the customers. We should have realized that eventually they would have to be made illegal.

 The machines themselves were the kind you now find only in arcades on piers or promenades—except that now the philan­thropic characteristics seem to have been modernized out of them. In our machines the customer inserted a penny which released a ball. He triggered this ball round a vertical, spiral track and, nine times out of ten, delivered it into a winning cup. Then he pressed a button and got his ball back together with a metal disc valued at threepence, sixpence, ninepence or a shilling, for negotiation over our counter.

 This obviously satisfied the customer, for he could get twenty cigarettes or a half pound box of chocolates for a penny, and as the company gave us equal money for the discs we were holding, besides the extra amount of business we did, we were on the winning side, too. And it seemed that the company were delighted, too, for when they called to empty the machines every few weeks they gave us half of the takings as an additional profit.

Our little shop became the centre of attraction on Sunday afternoons in these halcyon, pre-brick days. I was nine years old and the year was about 1926. A four piece jazz band was playing Bye Bye Blackbird, Nebraska, When the Red Red Robin, Black Bottom, Shepherd of the Hills, I'm Alone Because I Love You, I Don't Mind being All Alone, and Ukelele Lady at the Memorial Hall; steam organs on the fairground behind the White Hart measured out Valencia and On the Shores of Minetonka; Steve Donaghue, Freddie Foxe and Walter Elliot were to be seen locally, and on Thursdays and Saturdays a mobile film unit came round—so that altogether everybody had a pretty good time.

 Aniseed balls and gob-stoppers being a distinct social advantage among the younger set at that time, I had a lot of friends in the village. We bathed naked in the fen rivers, cut bows from ash trees and arrows from reed beds, which we tipped wickedly with elder stick from which the pith had been removed, or tin points from cocoa tins. And then when Al Capone came into vogue we switched to air guns and blank cartridge pistols with the end sawn off, augmented by hideous home-made bombs.

 Under the idyllic pretence of gleaning, we stole corn and sold it for chicken food, robbed orchards and got birched—luckily, the last thief hanging that took place in Newmarket was, I believe, round the turn of the eighteenth century. We backed horses with the village barber, but we all knew too much about racing ever to lose, and eventually the barber affected religious convictions and refused to take bets from anybody under twelve.

Those tuneful twenties were the glorious roughage of my life.

 No discipline—although we children insisted on my mother being in by ten—no honesty, no fine thoughts with a little wickedness here and there. It was a happy and essential phase of my life—of anybody's life. And it was brought to an end by a brick hurled through our bedroom window at one o'clock in the morning. A brick which sent broken glass over the bed and my mother running for the police.

 We were sleeping in the front bedroom over the shop when we were awakened by the crash and clatter and thump of bricks, stones and bits of old iron. My mother, who rushed into the room, took in the situation at a glance. It was almost as though she had expected something like this to happen. Things had been going smoothly and well for too long, and she had been brooding over it, alert, keyed up, expectant—even, I suspect, impatient.

" Keep down! " my mother cried. " For pity's sake, keep down! "

 We kept down, all of us. We crouched in the dark room— " Don't light the lamp or you'll give him a target! "—close up against the front wall, while heavy missiles crashed through the window and across the room, breaking up a marble topped wash-stand which my mother had bought secondhand at Highgate in 1910, and desecrating a portrait of my great grandfather's mother. The whole window—an attractive, leaded affair, set attic-wise in the thatched roof—was shattered to fragments, and the lead hung like grey macaroni.

" It's him ! " my mother kept muttering.   " It's him ! "

 When it appeared to be all over, we rose stealthily and peered down into the High Street. It was grey and deserted. Across the road on a piece of waste land stood an advertising hoarding.

" That's where he hid," my mother explained.

 We went for the police, of course, and we went together, for although the constable's house was only four or five hundred yards away at the top of The Causeway, they were dark yards, and there was a man skulking out there who had already killed a black man and thrown him into a canal.

The constable had two large sons, and he brought them back with him. He regarded the chaos of our room and the terrorized condition of its occupants for several minutes. Then he asked my mother if she had any enemies.

 My mother told him, with conviction, that her second husband had done it, as though the attack had been duly signed and witnessed.

 " I wish I'd never married him," she said, " although that's a wicked thing to say, I know." To my mother, marriage of any kind was sacred.

 But the constable was obviously doubtful whether a second husband would do a thing like that.

 " It's likely them machines of yours," he told my mother.

 This accusation against three inanimate slot machines did not sound so fantastic to my mother as it might have done, since she, being townbred and of a business turn of mind, had always suspected that most of our village neighbours, although kind, were steeped in stupid pagan beliefs and superstitions.

" How could the machines get out ? " she argued, reasonably. "The shop door is kept locked."

 But the constable was more rational than she gave him credit for. What he meant was that certain of the villagers did not like the slot machines in our shop, regarding them as gambling machines, demoralizing and wicked. I daresay that this opposition was started by some incredibly unlucky person who had lost a penny.

 That this resentment against our slot machines was very real was proven not long afterwards when somebody sent a letter to the company at Newmarket saying that they had seen my brother forcing a machine open late at night to extract money while my mother held a candle.

 Most people of character ignore anonymous letters, and so do newspapers, but not the slot machine company at Newmarket. They came one Wednesday evening and collected the three machines, saying that Parliament had just made them illegal. If this was really so, then a shop down the village started breaking the law with those same machines three days later. My mother, going into this shop on the pretext of buying darning wool, identified the machines by the marks my brother had made with his penknife.

 Very soon we lost our customers, and my sister lost all her admirers except those who liked aniseed balls, to which we were once again reduced. My mother, an enterprizing woman, tried several other lines as a last resort, but without much success in the end.

 She had a business adviser called Bert who drove the ice lorry, and he told her that she could buy and sell fish at three or even four hundred per cent profit. So mother wrote another letter, and soon we were having fish from Grimsby, packed in ice and saltpetre and costing only seven and sixpence a barrel.

 It was amazing how much fish we got for seven and sixpence and how much they could stack in one barrel. On delivery day we used to push the aniseed balls to one side and stack the stuff on the counter, the shelves and even on the floor, which was red-ochred. Lying there, all cold and wet, it looked worth a fortune to somebody. Well, it might have been—to somebody.

 We  children  went  round  from  door  to  door  with  tomato boxes strung decoratively in front of us by cords taken from the broken window. In these trays we carried cod, mackerel, haddock, kippers, bloaters, herrings, rock salmon and lots of white fleshy things that might have been anything. For these latter objects I found a ready customer in Mr. Macbeth, the chemist, and although he invariably asked me how long they had been dead, I did not put any morbid significance on the transaction until some time afterwards when I went to work for him.

 For a while we made a good profit on the fish, and then the hot weather beat us. We switched quickly to ice cream, spending many early morning hours in the cellar churning the metal container round and round in the cask packed with ice. We did fairly well with this, too, until the cold weather beat us and we were back to fish. 1927 was one of those fish, ice cream, fish, ice cream kind of years; and finally my mother, flustered, got vanilla flavouring mixed up with a whole load of kippers and we lost all our customers, including the hard core of aniseed eaters.

 Now we were approaching the end of our brief prosperity and returning to normal. The Hill jazz band still played Bye Bye Blackbird, Red Red Robin, Black Bottom and Nebraska ; the steam organs still measured out Valencia and On the Shores of Minetonka, and all the other gay things were happening, but the shadow of the bailiff danced the Charleston over our house.

 The landlord, Mr. Crack, a thin blacksuited fellow, began criticizing the way we had treated his property, taking exception to the broken window in our bedroom and the fact that we had been forced to chop up two apple trees and a large outhouse to eke out the peat during the general strike. Also, he wanted two months' rent.

 My mother, naturally enough, blamed her second husband entirely. First the brick, then the letter to the slot machine company at Newmarket.

 " We'll have to move," she said.

*   *   *   *


Jack Trevor Story's texts copyright ©  the estate of Jack Trevor Story 2006. Not for reproduction. Copyright in all work by Jack Trevor Story is the property of the author's heirs. Permission for use of this material can be obtained through Jackie Edwards (Story), Peter Story, Lee Story or Michael Moorcock. Reproduction of copyright material whether in text, visual or audio form by unauthorised sources strictly forbidden.

If you have any details about JTS's short stories, or can supply copies of ones I don't have,  please let me know at Guy.Lawley@dsl.pipex.com  Thanks!

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