Under the Clock
It was one of those swift and violent marriages which occur when the
interested parties are so severely wounded by the arrow of love that
only immediate and constant mutual nursing will save them from a fatal
issue. (So they think.) Hence when Annie came from Sneyd to inhabit the
house in Birches Street, Hanbridge, which William Henry Brachett had
furnished for her, she really knew very little of William Henry save
that he was intensely lovable, and that she was intensely in love with
him. Their acquaintance extended over three months; And she knew
equally little of the manners and customs of the Five Towns. For
although Sneyd lies but a few miles from the immense seat of pottery
manufacture, it is not as the Five Towns are. It is not feverish,
grimy, rude, strenuous, Bacchic, and wicked. It is a model village,
presided over by the Countess of Chell. The people of the Five Towns go
there on Thursday afternoons (eightpence, third class return), as if
they were going to Paradise. Thus, indeed, it was that William Henry
had met Annie, daughter of a house over whose door were writ the
inviting words, “Tea and Hot Water Provided.”
There were a hundred and forty-two residences in Birches Street,
Hanbridge, all alike, differing only in the degree of cleanliness of
their window-curtains. Two front doors together, and then two
bow-windows, and then two front doors again, and so on all up the
street and all down the street. Life was monotonous, but on the whole
respectable. Annie came of an economical family, and, previous to the
wedding, she had been afraid that William Henry's ideal of economy
might fall short of her own. In this she was mistaken. In fact, she was
startlingly mistaken. It was some slight shock to her to be informed by
William Henry that owing to slackness of work the honeymoon ought to be
reduced to two days. Still, she agreed to the proposal with joy. (For
her life was going to be one long honeymoon.) When they returned from
the brief honeymoon, William Henry took eight shillings from her, out
of the money he had given her, and hurried off to pay it into the Going
Away Club, and there was scarcity for a few days. This happened in
March. She had then only a vague idea of what the Going Away Club was.
But from William Henry's air, and his fear lest he might be late, she
gathered that the Going Away Club must be a very important institution.
Brachett, for a living, painted blue Japanese roses on vases at Gimson
& Nephews' works. He was nearly thirty years of age, and he had never
done anything else but paint blue Japanese roses on vases. When the
demand for blue Japanese roses on vases was keen, he could earn what is
called “good money”—that is to say, quite fifty shillings a week. But
the demand for blue Japanese roses on vases was subject to the caprices
of markets—especially Colonial markets—and then William Henry had
undesired days of leisure, and brought home less than fifty shillings,
sometimes considerably less. Still, the household over which Annie
presided was a superiorly respectable household and William Henry's
income was, week in, week out, one of the princeliest in the street;
and certainly Annie's window-curtains, and her gilt-edged Bible and
artificial flowers displayed on a small table between the
window-curtains was not to be surpassed. Further, William was “steady,”
and not quite raving mad about football matches; nor did he bet on
horses, dogs or pigeons.
Nevertheless Annie—although, mind you, extraordinarily happy—found
that her new existence, besides being monotonous, was somewhat hard,
narrow and lacking in spectacular delights. Whenever there was any
suggestion of spending more money than usual, William Henry's fierce
chin would stick out in a formidable way, and his voice would become
harsh, and in the result more money than usual was not spent. His
notion of an excursion, of a wild and costly escapade, was a walk in
Hanbridge Municipal Park and two shandy-gaffs at the Corporation
Refreshment House therein. Now, although the Hanbridge Park is a
wonderful triumph of grass-seed and terra-cotta over cinder-heaps and
shard-rucks, although it is a famous exemplar to other boroughs, it is
not precisely the Vale of Llangollen, nor the Lake District. It is the
least bit in the world tedious, and by the sarcastic has been likened
to a cemetery. And it seemed to symbolize Annie's life for her, in its
cramped and pruned and smoky regularity. She began to look upon the
Five Towns as a sort of prison from which she could never, never
I say she was extraordinarily happy; and yet she was unhappy too. In
a word, she resembled all the rest of us—she had “somehow expected
something different” from what life actually gave her. She was
astonished that her William Henry seemed to be so content with things
as they were. Far, now, from any apprehension of his extravagance, she
wished secretly that he would be a little more dashing. He did not seem
to feel the truth that, though prudence is all very well, you can only
live your life once, and that when you are dead you are dead. He did
not seem to understand the value of pleasure. Few people in the Five
Towns did seem to understand the value of pleasure. He had no
distractions except his pipe. Existence was a harsh and industrious
struggle, a series of undisturbed daily habits. No change, no gaiety,
no freak! Grim, changeless monotony!
And once, in July, William Henry abandoned even his pipe for ten
days. Work, and therefore pay, had been irregular, but that was not in
itself a reason sufficient for cutting off a luxury that cost only a
shilling a week. It was the Going Away Club that swallowed up the
tobacco money. Nothing would induce William Henry to get into arrears
with his payments to that mysterious Club. He would have sacrificed not
merely his pipe, but his dinner—nay, he would have sacrificed his
wife's dinner—to the greedy maw of that Club. Annie hated the Club
nearly as passionately as she loved William Henry.
Then on the first of August (a Tuesday) William Henry came into the
house and put down twenty sovereigns in a row on the kitchen table. He
did not say much, being (to Annie's mild regret) of a secretive
Annie had never seen so much money in a row before.
“What's that?” she said weakly.
“That?” said William Henry. “That's th' going away money.”
A flat barrow at the door, a tin trunk and two bags on the barrow,
and a somewhat ragged boy between the handles of the barrow! The
curtains removed from the windows, and the blinds drawn! A double turn
of the key in the portal! And away they went, the ragged boy having
previously spit on his hands in order to get a grip of the barrow. Thus
they arrived at Hanbridge Railway Station, which was a tempest of
traffic that Saturday before Bank Holiday. The whole of the Five Towns
appeared to be going away. The first thing that startled Annie was that
William Henry gave the ragged boy a shilling, quite as much as the
youth could have earned in a couple of days in a regular occupation.
William Henry was also lavish with a porter. When they arrived, after a
journey of ten minutes, at Knype, where they had to change for
Liverpool, he was again lavish with a porter. And the same thing
happened at Crewe, where they had to change once more for Liverpool.
They had time at Crewe for an expensive coloured drink. On the long
seething platform William Henry gave Annie all his money to keep.
“Here, lass!” he said. “This'll be safer with you than with me.”
She was flattered.
When it came in, the Liverpool train was crammed to the doors. And
two hundred people pumped themselves into it, as air is forced into a
pneumatic tyre. The entire world seemed to be going to Liverpool. It
was uncomfortable, but it was magnificent. It was joy, it was life. The
chimneys and kilns of the Five Towns were far away. And Annie, though
in a cold perspiration lest she might never see her tin trunk again,
was feverishly happy. At Liverpool William Henry demanded silver coins
from her. She had a glimpse of her trunk. Then they rattled and jolted
and whizzed in an omnibus to Prince's Landing Stage. And William Henry
demanded more coins from her. A great ship awaited them. Need it be
said that Douglas was their destination? The deck of the great ship was
like a market-place. Annie had never seen such a thing. They climbed up
into the market-place among the shouting, gesticulating crowd. There
was a real shop, at which William Henry commanded her to buy a
hat-guard. The hat-guard cost sixpence. At home sixpence was sixpence,
and would buy seven pounds of fine mealy potatoes; but here sixpence
was nothing—certainly it was not more than a halfpenny. They wandered
and found other shops. Annie could not believe that all those solid
shops and the whole market-place could move. And she was not surprised,
a little later, to see Prince's Landing Stage sliding away from the
ship, instead of the ship sliding away from Prince's Landing Stage.
Then they went underground, beneath the market-place, and Annie found
marble halls, colossal staircases, bookshops, trinket shops,
highly-decorated restaurants, glittering bars, and cushioned
drawing-rooms. They had the most exciting meal in the restaurant that
Annie had ever had; also the most expensive; the price of it indeed
staggered her; still, William Henry did not appear to mind that one
meal should exceed the cost of two days living in Birches Street. Then
they went up into the market-place again, and lo! the market-place had
somehow of itself got into the middle of the sea!
Before the end of the voyage they had tea at threepence a cup. Annie
reflected that the best “Home and Colonial” tea cost eighteenpence a
pound, and that a pound would make two hundred and twenty cups.
Similarly with the bread and butter which they ate, and the jam! But it
was glorious. Not the jam (which Annie could have bettered), but life!
Particularly as the sea was smooth! Presently she descried a piece of
chalk sticking up against the horizon, and it was Douglas lighthouse.
There followed six days of delirium, six days of the largest
conceivable existence. The holiday-makers stopped in a superb
boarding-house on the promenade, one of about a thousand superb
boarding-houses. The day's proceedings began at nine o'clock with a
regal breakfast, partaken of at a very long table which ran into a bow
window. At nine o'clock, in all the thousand boarding-houses, a crowd
of hungry and excited men and women sat down thus to a very long table,
and consumed the same dishes, that is to say, Manx herrings, and bacon
and eggs, and jams. Everybody ate as much as he could. William Henry
was never content with less than two herrings, two eggs, about four
ounces of bacon, and as much jam as would render a whole Board school
sticky. And in four hours after that he was ready for an enormous
dinner, and so was she; and in five hours after that they neither of
them had the slightest disinclination for a truly high and complex tea.
Of course, the cost was fabulous. Thirty-five shillings per week each.
Annie would calculate that, with thirty boarders and extras, the
boarding-house was taking in money at the rate of over forty pounds a
week. She would also calculate that about a hundred thousand herrings
and ten million little bones were swallowed in Douglas each day.
But the cost of the boarding-house was as naught. It was the flowing
out of coins between meals that deprived Annie of breath. They were
always doing something. Sailing in a boat! Rowing in a boat! Bathing!
The Pier! Sand minstrels! Excursions by brake, tram and train to Laxey,
Ramsey, Sulby Glen, Port Erin, Snaefell! Morning shows! Afternoon
shows! Evening shows! Circuses, music-halls, theatres, concerts! And
then the public balls, with those delicious tables in corners, lighted
by Chinese lanterns, where you sat down and drew strange liquids up
straws. And it all meant money. There were even places in Douglas where
you couldn't occupy a common chair for half a minute without paying for
it. Each night Annie went to bed exhausted with joy. On the second
night she counted the money in her bag, and said to William Henry:
“How much money do you think we've spent already? Just—”
“Don't tell me, lass!” he interrupted her curtly. “When I want to
know, I'll ask ye.”
And on the fifth evening of this heaven he asked her:
“What'n ye got left?”
She informed him that she had five pounds and twopence left, of
which the boarding-house and tips would absorb four pounds.
“H'm!” he replied. “It's going to be a bit close.”
On the seventh day they set sail. The dream was not quite over, but
it was nearly over. On the ship, when the porter had been discharged,
she had two and twopence, and William Henry had the return tickets.
Still, this poverty did not prevent William Henry from sitting down and
ordering a fine lunch for two (the sea being again smooth). Having
ordered it, he calmly told his wife that he had a sovereign in his
waistcoat pocket. A sovereign was endless riches. But it came to an end
during a long wait for the Five Towns train at Crewe. William Henry had
apparently decided to finish the holiday as he had begun it. And the
two and twopence also came to an end, as William Henry, suddenly
remembering the children of his brother, was determined to buy gifts
for them on Crewe platform. At Hanbridge man and wife had sixpence
between them. And the boy with the barrow, who had been summoned by a
postcard, was not visible. However, a cab was visible. William Henry
took that cab.
“Shut up, lass!” he stopped her.
They plunged into the smoke and squalor of the Five Towns, and
reached Birches Street with pomp, while Annie wondered how William
Henry would contrive to get credit from a cabman. The entire street
would certainly gather round if there should be a scene.
“Just help us in with this trunk, wilt?” said William Henry to the
cabman. This, with sixpence in his pocket!
Then turning to his wife, he whispered:
“Lass, look under th' clock on th' mantelpiece in th' parlour. Ye'll
find six bob.”
He explained to her later that prudent members of Going Away Clubs
always left money concealed behind them, as this was the sole way of
providing against a calamitous return. The pair existed on the
remainder of the six shillings and on credit for a week. William Henry
became his hard self again. The prison life was resumed. But Annie did
not mind, for she had lived for a week at the rate of a thousand a
year. And in a fortnight William Henry began grimly to pay his
subscriptions to the next year's Going Away Club.