THINGS OUR FATHER TAUGHT US
It was a cold February morning, one of those dreadful limbo days between worlds, between the sleeping of the old year and the waking of the new year as the bolt of history slowly slid back and people everywhere were slowly waking up in their beds with no particular rush to leave them for it was a Sunday morning, that gift of mankind where if you were fortunate enough not to have to rise early you were allowed to enter all manner of risks and temptations of both mind and body! And with one’s attention focused we must enter upon a household beset by the usual affairs of the heart; the parade of life and that which masquerades as such.The house, one of those rather dignified yet nothing out of the ordinary late Victorian terrace affairs, stood on a quiet road which approached the park with its church, old manor house and bowling greens, remnants of a forgotten past still lingering into the present. The house, under the ownership of Mrs Devina Derwish, a widow in her mid-forties with the figure of a woman half her age who had turned her rooms over to tenants was alive with the beating of hearts. Imagine yourself walking through the front door into the hallway and one is immediately confronted on the right hand side by the front parlour room which although simply furnished had some echo of its elegant splendour in the form of its fireplace and picture rails still in situ. The room, now a bed-sitting room, is occupied by Mr Leonard Witherspoon, a thirty-nine year old bachelor who works for some drab and dreary Insurance Company. Returning back into the hallway the next door on the right is the sitting-room or drawing-room as some like to call it with its grand bookcases either side of the ornate fireplace filled with modern authors and guide books and reference books etc. The room looks out onto the back garden and Mrs Derwish the landlady has this room for her entertaining purposes and general living quarters; a room which is patrolled by her two cats Leopold and Loeb. The sitting-room leads into the kitchen which likewise leads into the back garden with its outside lavatory and its apple tree in the corner and a few rose bushes near to the brick wall; lining the path to the back gate are three terracotta pots containing the withered stems and faded leaves of strawberries awaiting the resurrecting light of the sun. The cellar is accessed from the kitchen, descending the stone steps into a space where the daylight forces its way through a small fanlight window which in the past would have taken delivery of the coal for the fires; there is the usual array of assorted old tools and a few paint pots dotted here and there amongst the cobwebs. Back in the hallway one ascends the stairs and on the top landing straight ahead is a small bedroom which at one time was a fairly large bedroom until some bright spark had the notion of setting out an upstairs bathroom and reducing its size; this room is occupied by Major Rupert Fairweather, a forty-five year old man living on his own means. The bathroom is immediately next to the small bedroom and beside the bathroom is another bedroom which is quite large with a fine old fireplace and an old built-in wardrobe where during the war Mr Simpson used to hide when the Military Police came looking for him, a fact which no-one recollects anymore; a room which Mrs Derwish has made her own bedroom and leaving this room and turning left to the end of the landing is the main bedroom at the front of the house. This grand old room which had once witnessed a birth and a death in 1903 and 1928 respectively is occupied by a young couple, Jonathon Seabrook, twenty-eight, who works in a local printing establishment and his wife, Emily, twenty-two, who works part time in the library. And so the living has been accounted for as they glide through their short space of life with their simple gestures and emotional trifles.
How the sunlight entering these once elegant rooms washes away all the substance of the past, how it heals the hatred and anger the peeling wallpaper attempts to hide. If only the occupants knew some of the incidents of the past and what occurred at the house surely they would not sleep so soundly in their beds! For instance, no-one is probably aware that in the front parlour room Mr Melrose said his final goodbye to his family before setting off for the Front during the First World War, never to return again, or that a decade previous to that on the stairs young Harold Tomkinson, a boy of jus eight years old tripped and fell, falling dead at the bottom, his neck twisted and snapped! I’m certain no-one is aware of what happened in the front bedroom just thirty years ago when an abusive father flew at his wife and half choked her, not to mention the other abominable acts of unkindness and the times his fists left dirty great black marks upon her soft and gentle face… if only the present could reach out into the past and deliver its retribution upon these awful monsters! Yes, the house held many secrets, secrets of birth and death, as indeed do all houses that acquire a certain mystery with age and as to what occurred in the cellar during the Second World War only God can forgive! But time moves on and so do those who occupy the rooms of a house, unaware of the great passions that have played out there and the crimes of domestic abuse calling from the silence of a forgotten history, its faint persistent voice heard by no-one.
It was relatively early on this particular Sunday morning that hung between life and death when Devina’s niece Amanda Hughes, a pretty young woman of twenty sweet summers hanging over her called at the house. Devina came to the door drawing heavy upon a cigarette with her cat Loeb in her arms.‘Hello Aunty!’ Amanda said, smiling as she stroked the cat.
‘Come in dear, how’s your mother, still a martyr to her bunions?’ Before Amanda could answer and without drawing breath Mrs Derwish continued speaking:
‘Now before we go any further I have to say that I won’t stand for any funny business, I think you know what I mean! There was a young woman here a few years back named Hardcastle, at least I think that was her name and she was out every night degrading herself; I put up with it long enough but when the police came to my door that was it and I had to turn her out! I won’t have that sort of thing under my roof you know! Oh and I’ll just put you in the picture, Mr Fairweather has vacated his room upstairs for you and he’s come in with me, I know what you’re thinking but it’s all above board as he pays me for it!’ Mrs Derwish was about to turn and show Amanda through to the sitting-room when Amanda touched Devina’s arm lightly,
‘Who’s in this room?’ Amanda enquired, pointing to the front parlour.
‘Chap by the name of Witherspoon, queer sort of fellow, Cripen I calls him, bit simple if you ask me and has his feet firmly planted in both camps if you get my meaning?’ Amanda didn’t get the meaning but Mrs Derwish continued, ‘not that I’m a prude, the late Mr Derwish God rest his soul had a fancy for vegetables thrown at him as he lay naked on the bed but he drew the line at leeks as he wasn’t overly fond of the Welsh and they gave him bad dreams!’ Just then the door to Mr Witherspoon’s room quickly opened and closed with the merest glimpse of a nose narrowly escaping being shut in the door.
‘Just you say if you’d prefer his room dear and I’ll have him out and in that little room upstairs!’ Mrs Derwish seemed excited by the thought of this.
‘I get the impression you’re not overly fond of the man?’ asked Amanda.
‘I wouldn’t trust him to open a tin of cat food!’ Mrs Derwish showed Amanda into the sitting-room after she had hung her coat on the hook in the hall and prepared some tea.
‘You wouldn’t believe the sort of things people get up to when they think you’re not looking! – I’ve had some rubbish in this house over the years I can tell you!’
Mrs Derwish brought in the tea as Amanda became the sole object of attention to the two cats Leopold and Loeb. ‘Don’t mind them’ Mrs Derwish said, nodding to the cats, ‘they’re just curious about strangers. So how are you my dear?’‘Fine Aunty and it’s really good of you to let me stay for a few days.’ Amanda was a rather attractive young woman with long red hair and a slender figure and although she was a little short and her bust was a little on the small side of perfection in her eyes she had a well-proportioned body.
Over the tea Amanda told Mrs Derwish about her work at the clothing store and about her applying for a new position in the toy department. ‘
‘The young couple upstairs are quite nice’, Mrs Derwish said, ‘just moved in, he’s a bit strange but she’s lovely! They’re trying to start a family so I make allowances for the noise and besides Mr Witherspoon is directly underneath them and he being a Catholic he gets the lion’s share of the passion so to speak which will do him no harm! I’m sure he won’t be satisfied until we get one of those “glass ceilings” everyone keeps mentioning!’
At Emily Seabrook crept quietly down the stairs on her way out when Mrs Derwish poked her head around her door and intercepted her, saying ‘hello dear, got time for tea and a chat?’ Emily wasn’t in a terrible rush to get out but she had hoped to avoid Mrs Derwish.‘Always time for tea Mrs Derwish!’ answered the young lady, rather awkwardly.
‘Make yourself at home there’s no standing on ceremony here! There’s a brew on.’ Emily sat down on Mrs Derwish’s comfortable sofa. ‘Off out were you love?’ said the nosey landlady.
‘Oh just to the shops for a few things Mrs Derwish, you know.’
‘Call me Devina, we’re all friends here. Settling in nicely are we? While I have you here I just wanted to clear up something’ said Mrs Derwish, looking Emily up and down as if she were about to purchase her as soiled goods! ‘I’ve noticed the letters addressed to you still have “miss” on them, you should make amends there or someone will get the wrong end of the stick!’ and the older woman laughed, first removing her cigarette to do so.
‘Oh I just never got round to it!’ the young woman replied a little flustered by the remark. Emily was a somewhat plain yet attractive young woman with thin yet quite full lips and long auburn hair that coiled beautifully about her shoulders with startlingly vibrant brown eyes which her elegant long lashes slowly swept across at intervals like a siren of the silver screen of old. ‘You’ll meet my niece Amanda at some point, she travelled up from London and arrived this morning, a lovely girl, expecting a baby, single parent, unfortunate but sign of the times, she’s only staying a few days and she’s in the little bedroom at the end!’
‘I shall look forward to it! I’m sure that she’s going to be a wonderful mother!’
‘By the way have you met Mr Witherspoon yet, him in the parlour room? Cripen as I call him? A funny how d’ ye do if ever there was one! You know he’s not been the same since he bought that book by the nice Mr Maugham “Of Human Bondage” and realised it wasn’t a mucky book! By the way if ever you’d prefer his room to yours just you say and I’ll have him out in a flash and installed into the small room upstairs, out of harms way! But don’t you mind me dearie, I has my little fun, you know!’ Emily looked around the room and noticed a photograph of a young man and asked Mrs Derwish if it was her husband.
And the older woman stopped puffing on her cigarette not so much out of respect but in order to answer and said that it was and that he was a good man. Emily asked how he died:
‘Oh the poor dear stepped out in front of a bus, probably day-dreaming, he did that a lot you know. Testicals like melons he had! The Doctor gave him pills to reduce the swelling but they just made him constipated and depressed and he never slept much after that I’m afraid!’ Emily made the appropriate sounds and gave the necessary looks of sympathy before asking if his death may have been intentional:
‘There wasn’t much about George that was intentional I’m afraid love, except maybe his allotment which was like a second home to him! Loved it there he did, like going to church for him it was! Well, that was until his testicals got in the way and his plot went to ruin! Like pumpkins they were in the end! Then of course he started drinking heavily which did neither of us any good!’
‘He looks very handsome in the photograph’ said Emily in an attempt to take Mrs Derwish’s mind off her late husband’s testicals.
‘Yes dear, till the fat took hold of him early, he really was a good looking fella! All the girls liked George! A simple man of simple education but like most men of his generation he had the usual well-mannered nature when it came to matters of S-E-X! I have testimonials to that effect!’ Just then Major Fairweather entered and Mrs Derwish rose to prepare his breakfast, ‘a lovely woman that Mrs Derwish’ said the Major to Emily, ‘make a fine wife, forty-eight but admits to thirty-one, woman’s prerogative!’ he continued. The Major was a tall, slim jovial fellow with a moustache which seemed just as active under his nose as he was under the eye of Mrs Derwish; obviously public school educated by appearance and always elegantly dressed with a fondness for the brown suede shoe! ‘Devina dear’ shouted the Major into the kitchen, ‘do we have to have your knitting strewn all over the house?’ and the Major gave a knowing wink to Emily – ‘Frankenstein!’ shouted Mrs Derwish. ‘She means philistine’ whispered the Major, ‘but I hate to correct her you know!’ Exactly quite what he was a “Major” of nobody really knew but it was assumed that he had been in the Army and that he never spoke about it and if anyone ever did inquire as to his military background he had a few ready answers to supply.
He sat down in an armchair and began to read the Sunday newspaper as Mrs Derwish called from the kitchen to Emily who was about to leave, ‘if there’s anything I can do for you, you know dear, just ask, I’m a light sleeper since mother was taken from us under the surgical knife!’
In the hallway the fragrance of cooking sausages and bacon battled with the divine and overpowering smell of incense emanating from the front parlour room where Mr Witherspoon was busy with his ‘Hail Mary’s’ and ‘Our Father’s’.
Later that afternoon Emily returned and was met by the landlady’s cat Leopold in the hallway, (Leopold was more black than white and Loeb was quite the reverse) as she crept past Mrs Derwish’s door which was open enough to allow a gnat to escape should it feel inclined to, she overheard the Major saying ‘Devina old girl, the garden’s looking a bit barren, I’m thinking of growing some marrows and collies!’
‘Oh please don’t Rupert, not marrows and cauliflowers, poor dear George! Why not grow some sprouts instead?’
‘Damn it woman’ shouted the Major, ‘must I always live in the shadow of your late husband’s blasted testicals!’
Emily ascended the stairs, smiling to herself. When she entered the room she found Jonathon seated at the small table with his cup of coffee and his dog-eared copy of ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ a book he could never quite seem to finish but picked it up at odd moments. ‘I spoke with Mrs Derwish earlier; she’s noticed that the letters addressed to me are to “Miss Seabrook” and not “Mrs Seabrook”!’
‘Interfering old badger!’ Jonathon said smirking.
‘I spoke with the Major too; he seems nice enough but I think he has designs on Mrs Derwish you know!’
‘Maybe he’s planning to murder her! I don’t like him! He’s a real bastard!’ It was unlike Jonathon to say unkind things and Emily knew it was just his odd attempt at humour which at times could be a little dark.
‘Is that in the biblical sense or the modern sense of the word?’ asked Emily.
‘Both, he’s a fully paid-up member of each club! He’s taking advantage of her.’
‘I think it’s the other way round, after all he’s the one with the money and the car!’
‘They’re both as bad as each other and welcome to what they can get! On the same subject have you met Mrs Derwish’s niece, in the room at the end, nice girl, not staying long, expecting a child?’
‘Not yet, news does travel fast!’ answered Emily.
‘Yes, you should have seen old Witherspoon downstairs when he found out, crossing himself and spouting something about “suffer the little children” and all that!’
‘How did he find out, he hardly ever comes out of his room and Mrs Derwish wouldn’t tell him?’ Emily enquired.
‘I knocked on his door and told him! Jonathon laughed.
‘Do you think that was wise? He is rather holier than thou and takes great pains to look down his nose at others!’ said Emily.
‘I just like to leave little bombs about the place, how and where they explode are not my concern!’ He said.
‘Serves him right I suppose!’ said Emily.
Jonathon put his book aside and gazed at Emily quite lovingly and said – ‘Mrs Seabrook: I love you!’ and before long they were rushing headlong at each other and tearing off their clothes and falling naked into each others arms as their lips surrendered to the overwhelming passion of their trembling bodies!
Below in the front parlour room Mr Witherspoon clenched his white fists together to the sweet strains of ecstasy as he knelt and repeated the Lord’s Prayer!
‘Devina old girl’ said the Major, ‘I’ve been thinking, if we were to put a bed down here it would free up the middle bedroom to be let!’
‘But what would we do with the sofa Rupert?’ said Mrs Derwish, quite against the idea.
‘I’ve been thinking about that too!’ added the Major; ‘we could shove it in with old Cripen, now I know there’s hardly room to swing a cat in there as it is but you know we could charge him extra for it!’ Devina’s face lit up as she suddenly sprung into life – ‘what an excellent idea Rupert!’ she said rubbing her hands; ‘we could also let him have that large unsightly wardrobe too, I know he only has the one threadbare black suit which makes him look like an undertaker that he wears constantly and for all I know sleeps in it too but he must take it off sometime and have somewhere to hang it!’
‘Now you’re thinking old girl!’ smiled the Major, ‘we can charge him for that too! We’ll put his rent up an extra ten pounds a week; it’s only fare for supplying quality furniture like that you know!’ And they did!
A few days later Amanda left and new tenants were sought for the small bed-sitting room and for the larger middle bedroom. Devina found it very difficult to let the small room and there was little interest in it but the middle bedroom was soon taken by a young man named Robert Heseltine who although a little quiet in his manner had a definite air of mystery and experience about him. Robert was twenty-four years old, tall with black hair and large dreamy eyes which seemed to conceal some sort of sadness which was considerably palpable to those of a certain disposition. He worked in a coffee house called ‘Coffee Junction’ and had ambitions of being a writer and like all writers had the embryo of his first novel within him. Emily passed Robert in the hallway and on the landing many times and they were pleasant to each other and he was very well-mannered and polite which made Emily curious about him, but as he kept a little to himself and was only encountered in passing it was a little difficult to engage him in conversation and Emily seemed to feel a little shy around him. Jonathon didn’t seem to get on with him and made some remarks which were hurtful to Emily and she thought Jonathon terribly unkind; a space between Emily and Jonathon was becoming visible to all who cared to look and the initial passion which rang throughout the household died away much to the pleasure of Mr Witherspoon whose sleep was less disturbed!
A few weeks later Emily was walking through the park idly watching the ducks and the small children running after a dog; the sun shone at every opportunity the clouds afforded it and there was a definite sense that spring was in the air. Life seemed to be about to burst out everywhere like the moment before a symphony is about to start. Looking up as she walked past one of the benches she saw Mr Heseltine sitting by himself reading a book. She could not be so rude as to walk past without saying something! ‘Oh God don’t look up! Don’t look up!’ she repeated to herself but Robert did look up and his dark eyes alighted upon her young face. She said hello and they exchanged a few pleasantries; Emily seemed a little nervous but was soon put at her ease when Robert smiled at her. It was the simple smile of a child which seemed to radiate towards her.‘What are you reading?’ Emily said glancing at his book as she sat down next to him.
‘To the Lighthouse; have you read it?’ Robert asked as if searching Emily’s soul.
‘Yes, I’m very fond of Woolf, I find there’s a loneliness that permeates every sentence in the novel but I guess you wouldn’t agree!’ Emily smiled and Robert looked deep into her eyes and said ‘as a matter of fact I feel that loneliness only too intensely and can only assume that Woolf’s mental perception at the time of writing it and her own experiences amalgamated somehow, magically, in what can only be described as an “occult transference” which took place and so the words and substance of the book can be subconsciously un-bolted by the reader! I believe many books are created with this magical essence subconsciously by the author!’ Emily looked down shyly.
‘You work in the library don’t you?’ asked Robert.
‘Yes, where else would a book-lover work?’
‘A book shop!’ Robert smiled and Emily looked into Robert’s eyes and she felt her face flush; then they both laughed. He was terribly handsome and seemed considerate of her feelings. She felt herself drawing closer to him and already a connection was developing. They talked about books and authors and other fascinating aspects of literature and Robert mentioned that he was writing his first novel ‘A Hole in the Hebrides’ which was a modern romance and they laughed some more and after a while they felt very comfortable in each others company; there was a genuine mutual attraction between them. Following this first delightful encounter hey began to meet in the park quite regularly and sometimes Emily would drop into Coffee Junction and there would be furtive glances between them as they discussed the subtle characterisation of the likes of Waugh and Austen, travelling from Byron to Huxley and back again. They would visit the art gallery together and the museum and soon Emily felt the delightful and overwhelming sensation of romantic love blossoming between them. ‘How can this be?’ thought Emily as she lay awake at night beside Jonathon for whom she still felt love but not the great passion that stirred between them once. Days folded upon days like the leaves in the park blown together, tumbling towards some unknown destiny. Mrs Derwish noticed, Rupert Fairweather noticed and even Mr Witherspoon could see that something was wrong in the relationship, and that some turmoil had entered the loving partnership and they tried to be sympathetic and understanding about it; no-one had yet guessed that Emily was having an affair with the new tenant, Robert Heseltine!
‘I’ve got some experience in these sorts of things old boy and if you want my opinion you’ll just leave things well alone and she’ll come back to you alright!’ the Major said to Jonathon as he stroked his moustache to release the biscuit crumbs seeking salvation within it. But Jonathon was in no mood to listen to the Major and almost told him what he thought of him, but resisted!
‘It’s just a rough patch, dearie, that’s all, most marriages go through them!’ said Mrs Derwish to Emily, adding ‘he’s not seeing another woman is he?’ Emily didn’t need any advice from Mrs Derwish and she blushed and felt awkward at the intrusion into her private life but said nothing.
‘The Good Lord has blessed the holy union between you and the Good Lord shall direct the humble lives of those who serve him wisely! No one is insignificant in the eyes of the Almighty!’ said Mr Witherspoon from the narrow opening of his door as Emily passed along the hall before he closed it and began to recite ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil…’‘I’m falling apart here!’ whispered Emily into the emptiness of the hall, ‘I don’t know what to do!’
It was a few days later when Emily decided she would not see Robert again romantically and she was determined to make things better between Jonathon and herself! That night the couple talked and Emily was truthful, saying she had a moment of weakness and that she had fallen for Robert and that it was just a passing passion that overwhelmed them as they came close (not long after Emily’s confession Robert Heseltine moved out of the household and nothing more was heard of him). Jonathon was deeply hurt by the revelation and understandably so and like a wounded animal he lashed out saying many hurtful things as tears streamed down his face; it was absurd, hadn’t he always said that it was perfectly natural, reasonable and healthy to take a lover, but it was not so much the fact that Emily got herself entangled with Heseltine, it was the deception; even so, Jonathon did not expect to be consumed by such rage and jealousy, he saw no sense in it! He sat on the bed shaking, his white fists clenched in anger yet his conduct was restrained for he would never behave so abominably as to hit a woman, he would sooner hurt himself than do that, no matter how tormented he was! The long night seemed endless and Emily said that she would leave if that was what he wanted but Jonathon didn’t want that because deep down he still loved Emily and in the whole world there was no fragment greater, no thought or emotion, no physical, living, breathing ‘thing’ anywhere that he wanted more than Emily and his heart bled and he thought he would die with the pain that revolved in his head when he said that he forgave her and that they will put the pieces back together again! They fell into each others arms and became overwhelmed by desire, for the physical substance of each other to be consumed as one, and so locked in their naked embrace they yielded to the passion they had awoken once more and made love!‘We are the food of each other that we feast upon!’ exclaimed Jonathon.
‘Our souls are cemented as one!’
‘We have the blood of our father running through our veins!’
‘We are bound together by this sacred bond of brother and sister!’
‘We yearn towards the unending moonlight that we are destined to walk within from our darkness, where no earthly shadow may show! Emily, my dear Emily, my sister love, whom I adore, I love you! I love you! I love you!’
Downstairs, in the front parlour room, Mr Witherspoon sat up in bed and frantically repeated the Lord’s Prayer!