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First-born

Harry had remained on the steady, until the night he bumped into Poulton after six years spent widely apart, and broke the pledge. Poulton dragged him part of the way home and assisted Mrs. Marsden to lift her singing son into bed. He awoke the next day, and remembering Poulton's invitation, sent his mother to buy a new shirt, collar and tie. He tidied himself before the mirror, looked at his watch and decided to wait a while. It would be more advisable to go about eight o'clock because calling too near opening time might create a bad impression. Perhaps Bob's people were very sedate.
     A church clock was striking the hour as Harry halted at the bottom of Leasowe Street. Considering he was strange to the neighbourhood, the walk could not have been judged better. He read the numbers, gazed twice at twelve, skipped nimbly up the steps, withdrew his hand from the knocker without making a sound, then rapped a tattoo on the panel of the open door. 'Hello,' sang a girl's voice. He hesitated, then rapped again. Along the lobby came a young woman holding a curling-iron to her hair.
     'Who do you want?' she asked in a tone that demanded a speedy reply. His wits fled. She removed the iron, cupped one hand over her ear and indicated she was listening. He was not sure whether his sensation of blushing was caused by vexation or shame.
     'Does Mr. Poulton live here, please? Bob Poulton,' he mumbled as if seeking a favour.
     'Oh,' she said solemnly, 'I thought you were an undertaker at the wrong house. Yes. He lives here.    I am his sister. Bob's on the Desillo. Working late. He won't be in till nine o'clock.'
     He felt she was looking at him rather penetratingly. Suppose she was scrutinising him in the same direct fashion as her brother? As if mesmerised, he was already in her power and unable to fly.
     Her voice lost none of its challenge. 'Are you a shipmate of his?’
     ‘We sailed together, years ago,' he answered.
     'Come inside, then,' she ordered. 'You're wasting the fire.'
     'No, thanks,' he managed to say, I’ll…I'll walk around the block.'
     He was backing down the steps as she stared at him accusingly.
     'I know that kind of a walk! You'll sneak into the 'Butts', and stay there until the barman throws you out. Bob will be here soon. You'd better come in,' she said.
     Helplessly, he obeyed. His creaking boots greeted the oilcloth. Dumbly he accepted correction for heeling his hat under a chair in his embarrassment. The neck of his shirt was saturated. He wished he could disappear through the window.
      She pinned a shawl over her head. 'Shan't be a few minutes away. I'm going for Bob's supper. He likes pigs' feet. Do you? 'Course you do! And will you, please, get nearer the fire.'
Meekly he shifted the chair, then moved it back when she had gone. Each resounding footstep set him on edge. He hoped nobody would find him there. He hoped Bob would not be late. He glanced at the mantel-clock. Turned half-past eight! Jeese! Another half-hour! If she caught him walking out she would probably make an exhibition of him in the street! His own stupidity had landed him in that kitchen! What would her people think? What would anybody think?
     Footsteps pattered along the lobby. Clumsily he worked the chair to the fire. 'Ah! You're the boy. Not the least bit shy,' she said as her shawl was tossed aside. 'Put the kettle on like a good fellow.' He bit his lip. 'Where's the tap?' he blurted.
     She wagged her head roguishly. 'Aha! I knew you had a tongue. Through that door on the right. Mind the step.' His trembling hand dropped the lid. 'Oh, my God,' she mocked, snatching the kettle from him, 'I wouldn't choose you for a husband.' He stood awkwardly, and began to doubt Bob's fitness to guard a secret. 'Sit down, man!' she said. He sat.
     At last he recognised a welcome humming.  'Hello,' greeted Bob, 'been here all afternoon?'
     Harry tried to speak normally. 'About an hour. Your sister pressed me to stay.'
     'She would,' Bob remarked.
     'I'm thankful you're in,' said Marie, without blinking, 'this chap has me talked to death.'
     There was a vacancy in the Desillo and Harry joined her. When at sea a week, though shaky of the result, he asked permission to write to Marie. No objection was raised.
     'Take a tip from me,' warned Bob; 'be careful. She'll put the mooring chains on you.’
     'I know,' was the other's startling reply. Bob eyed him curiously. 'If you know, that's settled.'    
     Correspondence piled up from a few short lines to crowded pages. Between voyages Harry called frequently at the house in Leasowe Street. He adapted himself to the extent of going for pigs' feet, an amazing act for a man unaccustomed to entering shops of any description. He was guilty of blunders too. She reproved him for paying too much for an engagement ring, and later declined a crepe-de-chine blouse because she thought the price extravagant. But she took the money and added a hearthrug to her accumulating household effects. When alone she wondered  how  such  a  strong  fellow  could  be  so  bashfully  tender, unaware that in him the new was wrestling with the old.
     The date of their marriage was announced. Because of the housing shortage, she furnished a large-sized backroom for his home-coming. There he suffered disappointment. She pushed him away. 'No! Do you want our baby born among those things?' She pointed to the unemptied ash bins.
     You know best,' he muttered tamely, and curled himself on the sofa. He went to sleep. She didn't.
     He was glad to rejoin his ship again. All sorts of notions bothered his head. The ash-midden excuse was concealing something else! Perhaps she thought he was unclean. Maybe Bob had opened his mouth too wide. But surely he ought to know, could not help but know that his presence was sufficient to keep any man straight.
     Bob noted Harry's miserable appearance. 'What's the matter with you? Had a quarrel?' he asked sympathetically. 'Only a few words,' lied Harry, incapable of introducing his delicate grievance.
     In Santos, he rapturously pocketed a letter which was thickly underlined. 'I've been lucky to get a small house. A door of our own. Our happiness will be complete here.'
     Weeks later, on his return, he found the small house. It was small, but it was a house. Her face aglow, she showed him around.
     'Fine! Fine!' he ejaculated as each additional 'this' was displayed. Over a hot tea she instructed him to seek a job ashore. This he did. Her continued resistance provoked him. His resulting bad temper had to be restrained on account of the neighbours.
     ‘You're not even fair,' he complained. "You're deliberately throwing me open to temptation.'
She burst into tears. 'Why do you think only of yourself? Haven't I desires too?'
     On a friend's recommendation he got a job in the Corporation depot. 'I've clicked,' he told Marie gruffly. 'I'm a muck-driver.' 'What kind of a thing's that?' she asked. 'A sewer cleaner,' he snapped.
     'Is it constant?'
     'Don't know! Why should I care?'
     She tried to appease him. 'At any rate it will be better than going to sea. You'll have a comfortable bed to lie in at night.'
     'Bed!' he roared. 'Bed! What use is a bed to me?' He slammed the front door behind him in case their row might revive past escapades which he preferred to leave buried.
     His workmates often heard him mumbling to himself, ‘You're not playing fair. You're not playing fair.' He came to be known as 'Playfair.' Then one night Marie relented and he fell asleep in her arms.
     When he booked on at the depot next morning the ganger noted the change. ‘You seem merry enough, Playfair. Did you have your rations last night?'
     'Sure thing,' answered Harry, as if the world was entitled to hear he was a real husband at last.   
     Towards the end of the month he whispered an inquisitive 'Well?' to Marie and she smilingly nodded.
     On their evening strolls he shortened his stride to tune with hers and as she clung to his arm there grew in him a unique sense of ownership. She gazed longingly at an attractive baby-robe in a shop window. 'I'd like that — very much,' she said, 'but the price is beyond us. Thirty shillings, almost. That's half a week's wages.'
     She requested him one pay-day to fetch a small bag of jumbo toffee.
     'Have a pound of chocolates,' he generally suggested.
     'Jumbo toffee,' she insisted, knowing its low price would not deprive him of cigarettes. The bag of toffee was a regular weekly delivery. He wondered how she ate the sticky mess. Then he nibbled bits from his pocket and was obliged to increase the order.
     Arriving home earlier than usual on a Saturday afternoon he saw the kitchen empty. He tip-toed upstairs, peeped through the key hole and studied her squatting on the floor religiously folding her baby clothes. When her face turned slightly, there was an extra-ordinary pleasure in it. If cheap odds and ends can do that, he thought, what would the silk robe do. He was determined to get the robe somehow. It was no simple task to approach the ginger-haired shop assistant.
     'No sir,' she answered. 'Our terms are strictly cash. We do not take instalments. There is a firm in Borough Road. They do business that way.'
     Though disheartened, he persevered. 'My wife wants that particular robe. Nothing else will do,' he was finally driven to explain.
     The girl took pity and agreed on a private arrangement by which he was to pay regular instalments to her only. The robe was packed away. As the weeks wore on he performed various household duties, cleaning windows, chopping sticks, and emptying slops. On one occasion Marie discovered him scrubbing the floor, and was wild.
     'Get up!' she demanded. 'None of that in here.'
     He stammered confusedly. 'There's no harm. I thought -
     She carried the bucket away. 'I won't let you be a Mary Ann.'
     He could not understand why it should be a manly action to go down a sewer and an unmanly action to go down on his knees for a woman hardly able to bend. He never argued.
     The morning came when he had to pant through the streets for aid. He suffered three panicky hours until the woman invited him into the bedroom for a few moments to see the cause of all the upset. While he looked at the forced smile on his wife's chalky features, his mumbling enthusiasm concealed a violent desire to strangle the bald-headed creature by her side for the agony it had caused them both.
      His lateness for work meant a deduction of two shillings and threepence, a loss he could ill afford, particularly at this time when every penny was needed. One more instalment and the robe would be his. Beautiful soft white silk, and well worth twenty-nine shillings and elevenpence. He chuckled over the surprise in store for Marie. Imagination partly repaid him. He had pictured her face when the time arrived to let her cut the string. First he would rush upstairs, pass her the scissors, make her shut her eyes, sneak the parcel on to the counterpane, and intone, 'One, two, three! Go ahead. Open it.'
     In the next couple of days he was very diligent in his grubbing for scrap metal. In one grid he found four pennies and three half-pennies. 'If they were only silver!' He jingled them hopefully in his vest pocket. Then a puffing foreman hurried him on to the old culvert. 'There's an obstruction in the pipe-line. Six houses have been flooded. There'll be hell to play if it isn't cleared.' He pencilled the directions. Top off! I'll send another man from the yard with a pair of rubber boots.'
     The helper appeared in twenty minutes, having cycled from the depot. Harry shoved his legs into the rubber boots, then prised the manhole cover. Slowly he descended the familiar wall ladder into the damp putrid blackness. He waited until he became dark-sighted, and lit a candle. According to the scribbled outline the blocked pipe was thirty feet to the left. He waded shin-deep towards the spot.   
     The pipe was on a level with his shoulders.  He held the candle closer, gaped at the obstruction, saw it was a dead body and almost fainted, for the first time in his life. As fast as he was able he retraced his steps and went up the ladder for a breath of fresh air.
     ‘You weren't long,' commented the helper, inwardly envying the five shillings extra which Harry received in addition to the basic weekly wage-rate.
     'Phew,' gasped Harry.
     'What's up chum? You look like a dose of yaller jaunders. Blimey! It must be a meller down there.'
     'Phew-w! Wicked!'
     'Somebody has to do it,' observed the helper, with no intention that it should be himself. 'It's not my job,' he reflected. 'I wouldn't get a cent ‘compo.’'
     Wretched and silent, Harry was sitting on the kerbstone. The matter was so vital. If he did not remove the obstruction he would be sacked, and maybe lose his home, everything. To report it would mean a coroner's inquest, and the paltry court expenses were poor recompense for the loss of a full day's wages. He needed every penny so badly. And the robe…the robe. He could not let that go!
     As he descended the ladder again his underwear became wet and sticky. Very determined, he strode quickly to the pipe. He closed his eyes in an attempt to dismiss the rat-eaten cheek of the dumped baby. It was difficult to get a proper grip, and his sight was necessary. The sweat poured from him. The body was jammed tight, the head pressing hard on the doubled-up knees. A decayed throat tape frayed in Harry's fingers. One arm was hanging loose. In his hazy condition he had noticed this before. With an effort he grabbed the arm just hard enough to dislodge the body. The arm tore adrift from its socket. Staggering blindly, Harry tossed it down the culvert.
     He tried again. By painful manoeuvring he succeeded in wedging his hands behind the buttocks. Despite a strong pull he only jerked the body slightly towards him. The face was fully exposed now. In a frenzy he began to drag forcibly. He could feel the thing moving. As it came easier he did intend to lay it down reverently on the culvert floor, but the volume of released water and refuse knocked him flat on his back. He dropped the body. The candle was swept away, and the matches were soaked in his pocket. He wanted to scream. He groped towards the ladder. The rush of water swept the body after him. He reeled shiveringly when it touched his boot. He groped on, felt an iron rung, and clambered wearily into light.
     He flopped to the kerb and sat for a while as if doped. He was too exhausted to brush himself. The helper dangled his watch as a hint. He pulled Harry's rubbers off, mounted the bicycle and rode away. To lock the ghastly thing underground for ever, Harry kicked the manhole cover into position. He looked at his clothes. No tramguard could be expected to let him aboard a car in such an objectionable condition. Drearily he trudged into the yard.
     At home, that evening, he told Marie that the chill he had was a mild recurring attack of ague. Although poorly herself she oiled his chest.
     Pay-night arrived. He took his turn impatiently in the queue. With the sludge of the day on his boots and pants he dashed from the cash-window to the draper's. When he reached the shop half a dozen women were being served. He instantly withdrew and loitered outside until only a woman and her little girl remained. The dark-haired assistant was attending to them. The ginger girl was free. She beckoned him. The flat cardboard box was on the counter when he re-entered. The girl smiled. Having shared his aspiration she felt at liberty to speak. She gave him the receipt.
     'I'm sure you're glad. Your wife will be pleased!' He did not answer. His mind was rambling.
     The girl draped the robe from her chin. 'Lovely, isn't it?' she said.
     'Mm,' he abstractedly murmured, for to him the robe was smelly, the sheen was green-mouldy and the folds were horribly teeth-marked. For the moment he forgot all but the sewer ordeal, forgot the shop, the assistants and the woman customer.
     Unobserved, the little girl gradually edged her way along the counter. Suddenly she thrust an adventurous hand into Harry's. 'Hello, Mister,' she said.
Startled, he gave the terrified child a rough push. 'Get away! For God's sake! Don't touch me!' he roared.
     The irate mother ran to the doorstep. 'You big brute! If I see a policeman I'll give you in charge.'
     His contrition was pathetic. 'Really, I'm sorry, missus. Really! My nerves are gone,' he stammered, as he fumbled for a coin. Obeying its parent, the weeping child flung the sixpence into the street, where it rolled steadily towards a grid.

First published in The Adelphi Magazine in June 1934 under the pseudonym Matt Low, a play on @matelot’, the French word for sailor.