THE NIGHT THE BRICK CAME THROUGH
have to move," she said
by J.T. STORY
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
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 ? "
" They're fighting," my
sister said. " Mother's got the scissors."
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
" 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
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
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
" 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
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
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,"
* * *