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A Respectable Life

by Bald Man 

Posted: 24 May 2013
Word Count: 2033
Summary: I've written this as a short story to be read aloud. It's to enter for a competition at a story telling festival later this year (The 'Settle Stories Festival').

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‘Bless This House’ had just been playing on the wireless. Leonard could see his mother crying. She bent down and gripped his arms, her eyes still shining.
‘You won’t let us down, Leonard. You understand that, don’t you?’
The boy nodded.
His dad patted his shoulder. ‘That’s the stuff, Len.’
‘You can start with yourself.’ His mother turned on her husband. ‘His name’s Leonard, not ‘Len’. How many more times, Michael? I’m sorry we gave him that name now.’
‘All right, old girl. All right.’
‘And stop calling me ‘old girl’, I’ve told you that before, too. We need to show the new neighbours that we’re not common like the rest of them around here. I can't wait to move.’

Leonard and his dad kept quiet. They both recognised the danger signs. His mother’s voice rose when she got ‘worked up’. It was best to leave her alone when she started.
‘It’s her nerves, Len’, his dad had told him, ‘highly strung she is. Always has been. It hasn't helped living on this estate. Your mum’s always hated it. But she’s put every spare penny away for the deposit on the house.’ Leonard heard the pride in his dad’s voice.

Their new house was semi-detached, with two bedrooms; Leonard’s room overlooked the quiet road at the front. Downstairs, there was a kitchen, scullery and front room. The kitchen opened out onto a yard, with a washing line and mangle, left by the last owner. Best of all for Leonard was the back garden - a long narrow strip with flower beds each side of the lawn and a vegetable and fruit patch at the top.
‘Look, gooseberry bushes.’ His mother had excitedly pointed out in the garden the first day.
‘We’ll have to get some ‘who-flung’ from the rag and bone man to put on them,’ said his dad.
‘What’s ‘who-flung’?’ Leonard asked.
‘Dung. Horse turd and wee mixed. Lovely stuff - if you’re a gooseberry, that is.’
Leonard laughed. He liked the way his dad said things.
‘Ssh! The neighbour’s will hear you. We’ve left that common talk behind us now.’

Across their privet hedge, they saw their neighbour advancing toward them along her garden path. She was a lot older than his mum. Leonard didn’t think she looked very friendly.
‘I’m Mrs Green’, the woman said, eyeing them up and down. ‘Just moved in, have you? Where were you living before?’
‘Not far from here. Belvedere Road. I’m Cynthia Evans, and this is my husband, Michael, and Leonard, our son – he’s eight. It’s nice to meet you.’
His mother sounded different, like someone reading the news on the wireless.
‘Belvedere Road. Isn’t that on the Burrows Estate?’
Leonard noticed his mother’s face had gone red. ‘We’re glad to be out of there, aren’t we Michael?’
His dad nodded, but seemed reluctant to speak.
‘We’ve saved hard to get our own place,’ his mother said.
‘Hmm. Well I dare say you’ll find it different round here. It’s a quiet neighbourhood - respectable. I hope you don’t play loud music on your gramophone or wireless to all hours.’
‘No, of course not,’ his mother said.
Mrs Green looked at his dad. ‘What do you do for a living, Mr Evans?’
His dad seemed to be building his courage to speak. ‘London docks,’ he said at last. Leonard noticed his dad’s cockney accent wasn’t as strong as it usually was.
‘In the offices?’
He hesitated. ‘No. I’m a docker.’
Mrs Green sniffed. ‘Mr Green is in insurance.’ She went back inside her house.

Mr Green came out and spoke to his dad over the hedge. Lawrence saw the two men chatting; they seemed to be getting on well.
‘He seems all right. Better than his wife, anyways - poor sod, married to her. He was interested that I worked at the docks.’ His dad laughed, but didn’t say more.

Leonard’s dad made a list of things that needed doing in the house. ‘The lav is making a din when you pull the chain. Needs a new ball-cock’, I reckon.’
‘Toilet,’ his mother said, ‘not lav.’
‘What wrong with ‘lav’? Grandma said it all the time,’ Leonard asked.
‘It’s common to say ‘lav’. And you need to pull the chain every time here, Leonard. Not leave all your doings for others to see. It’s not nice.’ His mother looked at his dad as she spoke.

At dinner he asked his parents, ‘how do you know if something is common. Who says it is?’
Mr Evans shrugged and looked at his wife.
‘It’s the way you are brought up,’ his mother said. ‘The people on Burrows they don’t know any better. Shouting, hollering, filthy language. That’s normal to them.’
‘My dad weren’t like that, God rest his soul. My mum ain’t like that either.’
‘I’m not saying she is, Michael. But she’s been happy enough to stay there all her life though, hasn’t she? Wanting to get on, having a bit of spark and ambition, that’s important too, Leonard. But above all, it’s about having a bit of consideration for other people that stops you from being common.’
‘Live and let live, that’s what I say’, said his dad.
‘No, Michael. That’s just an excuse for bad behaviour.’ Cynthia sat straight back in her chair. She banged her knife flat onto the table; the water in her glass rocked and nearly spilt.
Leonard and his dad exchanged glances. She was getting ‘worked up’ again. It was time to be quiet. They finished their meal in silence.

After the meal Leonard’s dad switched on the wireless. He fiddled around with the dial as it warmed up until ‘Family Favourites’ came on. The ‘Tennessee Waltz’ was playing.
‘Come on have a dance, my love.’ He grabbed his wife.
‘No. Turn it down. She’ll hear next door.’
‘Bugger her.’
‘No Michael. We can’t have her complaining about noise.’

Leonard didn’t have to change schools, although it was further for him to walk each day.
He saw Spud from the estate hanging around near the park on his way home.
'Parsloes Avenue, you moved to, ain’t it, Len?’ said Spud. ‘Half a crown to talk to you now, is it?’
‘Shut your gob.’
‘What’s it like there?’
Leonard shrugged. ‘All right.’

But it wasn’t really. It didn’t feel right. There was stuff always happening on Burrows; always people hanging about that you could have a laugh with. He liked having a bedroom to himself in the new house, but the road was too posh. The other kids in the road didn’t play outside in the evening. And they didn’t seem his sort anyway - a bit too la de da. He was worried about his mum, too. She seemed on edge all the time now.
‘Come round on Sunday’, he said to Spud.

At teatime his mother was upset, nearly in tears.
‘I tried to have a conversation. There was Mrs Green and two other women on the corner and I stopped to say hello. But they looked at me as if I was something the cat had brought in. It’s not the first time it’s happened either. It’s that Mrs Green. She’ll be spreading poison about us. She ignores me every time I put the washing out, too. Why are people like that? We just want to get on in life, same as them.’
‘Don’t take any notice of them, they’ll get used to you in time.’ Mr Evans said
‘It’s all very well you saying that. You don’t have to face them every day.’

Spud came round on Sunday. Leonard’s mum looked at him dubiously.
‘I don’t want you two making any noise. Why don’t you go over the park to play? I’ll give you sixpence each for ice-cream.’
‘I’ll just show Spud the garden first.’
‘Remember what I said about noise.’
They didn’t. Spud pick up a garden cane and brandished it. ‘I’m Errol Flynn.’
Soon the boys were sword fighting and yelling. They both leapt on the coal bunker. Spud slashed at a tree overhanging from Mrs Green’s garden; a branch went flying up the garden.
Mrs Green came out. ‘Stop that. How dare you destroy my tree. But I expect this is what you did all the time on that estate.’
‘Calm down, Gladys. They’re only playing.’ Mr Green had come into the garden.
‘Only playing! Hooliganism, I call it.’ He retreated back into the house.
Lawrence’s mother came into the garden. Mrs Green turned on her.
‘Mrs Evans. You need to keep your child under control. He needs to show some respect for other people’s property.’
‘How could you humiliate me like that, Leonard’, his mother had said when Spud had gone.

Leonard heard his parents quarrelling later that evening in their bedroom. He crouched next to the banisters outside their room and pressed his face into the wood. He heard his mother’s angry, tearful voice, and his dad’s growl-like responses.
‘Make them stop,’ he said aloud. They had argued before, but never like this. There was something desperate in his mother’s voice. It frightened him.

The doctor came the next day. His dad stayed off work.
‘Len, your mum needs some sleep, she’s not well. The doctor has given her some pills. You need to play quietly downstairs and not make any noise while I’ll go and get the shopping we need. No noise, mind, while I’m away.’
The boy nodded.

Leonard played with his soldiers. But he needed to wee. He tried to ignore it, but the feeling got worse. He crept quietly up the stairs; one creaked loudly, and he waited, hardly breathing, not wanting to wake his mother. At the door of the toilet he remembered the row it still made; his dad hadn’t mended it yet. He couldn’t leave his wee for his mum to see; that would upset her, make her worse. But he was getting desperate.
He went downstairs into the back garden and weed into the gooseberry bushes.
He heard the side gate open; his dad arrived back with the shopping.
‘Why were you weeing in the garden, Len?’
The boy explained.
The man nodded. ‘That’s all right, son.’
Mrs Green came into her garden, her face red.
‘I’ve just seen your son urinating in the garden. What sort of behaviour is this, Mr Evans?’
‘He didn’t have any choice. My wife’s not well. She’s asleep, and the boy didn’t want to disturb her. Our lav … toilet is making a din. Anyway, where’s the harm?’
Leonard heard the anger rising in his dad’s voice.
‘We don’t behave like that around here, Mr Evans, that’s why. I’m sure the other neighbours will agree with me.’
‘You’re not going to tell them.’
‘O no! And why’s that?’
‘Because if you do I’ll tell the police about you receiving stolen goods.’
She stared at him. ‘What are you talking about? Stolen goods, what stolen goods?’
‘Ask your husband. He’ll tell you - about the bottles of rum I’ve sold him cheap. He knew I'd got them from the docks.’
She quickly recovered. ‘You daren’t tell the police’, she said, ‘you’ll be arrested for stealing them.’
‘True. But that’s what the likes of you expect from the likes of me. But your old man, how’s that gonna look in the local paper. “Thomas Green, Insurance Agent, of Parsloes Avenue, was convicted today for receiving stolen goods.” What will the other neighbours say about that, eh?’
‘You wouldn’t dare do it.’
‘I would do it. And I’ll tell you why. Because my missus is worth ten of you, and I’d do it to see your name in the paper.’
Mrs Green was silent.
‘Now this is what you’re gonna do, Mrs Green. First, you’re gonna change your attitude to my missus. You’re gonna invite her and a few other neighbours round for tea. And you’re gonna be nice and friendly to her when she’s there. And you’re gonna do it tomorrow. Get it?’

Next day, Leonard and his dad sat at the table for their tea.
‘You’ll never guess what happened today, Michael?’ Her eyes were shining with excitement.
Leonard and his dad exchanged glances. ‘What’s that, my love?’

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Comments by other Members

Account Closed at 09:47 on 25 May 2013  Report this post
What a lovely story!

The only place I stopped and had to read again was here:

‘Calm down, Gladys. They’re only playing.’ Mr Green had come into the garden.
‘Only playing! Hooliganism, I call it.’ He retreated back into the house.

and this is easily resolved by putting Mr Green's action in a separate line to Gladys' dialogue.

Also, I did chuckle when Mrs Green said lav was posh. As a young girl I did not speak as well as I do now (which is so-so). A v. posh boss told me that "Toilet was something you do, not somewhere you go." Apparently, I should have used the word lavatory or loo and not toilet.

There you go!

Anyhow, I really enjoyed this.

Bald Man at 12:04 on 25 May 2013  Report this post
Thanks Sharley, for reading this, your supportive comments, and useful advice. I see you have some work loaded. I look forward to reading this over the next few days. Thanks again.


Artificer at 22:14 on 25 May 2013  Report this post
Hi Colin, I thik this story is charming and quietly amusing too but when I tried reading it aloud to myself I found myself skipping a few words here and there and changing a few sentences round a bit. For instance:

‘Bless This House’ had just been playing on the wireless. Leonard could see his mother crying. She bent down and gripped his arms...

became "Bless This House’ was playing on the wireless. Leonard could see his mother crying. When it finished she bent down and gripped his arms..." only because I found it a lot easier to say.

His mother had excitedly pointed out in the garden the first day.

became "His excited mother pointed out in the garden the first day."

There were a few other sentences I found a bit clunky but I'm sure you're a lot more fluent than I am and have already rehearsed it thoroughly, so please ignore the above if it isn't helpful.


Bald Man at 23:04 on 25 May 2013  Report this post
Thanks for reading this, Eleanor. I've only read it aloud 'in my head', so to speak, so I'll follow your example and see how I get on. Reading aloud is certainly a very good way of picking out dodgy phrasing and heavy-footed prose.
The competition gives contestants an opportunity to use accents and generally ham it up, so I can release both my posh and cor blimey inner child in this piece.


salli13 at 08:03 on 26 May 2013  Report this post
Hi Colin,
Well, I was so beguiled by this story that I failed to find anything wrong with it. Lovely story. Good luck with the competition. My mum had a mangle when I was young, have'nt heard that word for years. Brought back memories of my mum so thank you.

Bald Man at 12:04 on 26 May 2013  Report this post
Thanks Salli, I'm glad you liked it.

I was amazed recently to find a 1950s mangle on sale for over £100 in a reclamation centre. Apparently, they make, as the rich-looking owner said, "rather niche garden ornaments". There you go.


Manusha at 12:28 on 26 May 2013  Report this post
Apparently, they make, as the rich-looking owner said, "rather niche garden ornaments".

Cool. I want one!

Bald Man at 14:45 on 26 May 2013  Report this post
I have a rather nice 1950s po you can have instead, Andy. Only a few wee cracks; a snip at £50.


Manusha at 21:19 on 27 May 2013  Report this post
Hmmm. Tempting. Can I get back to you once I've figured out what a 1950s po is? ;

Manusha at 16:58 on 28 May 2013  Report this post
Thanks for the enlightening link, Colin. I'd imagine they could make a rather nifty garden ornament as well. Lovely with a few begonias!

Teuchter at 10:11 on 22 November 2013  Report this post
I really enjoyed this. It's the sort of 'kitchen sink' - 'working class' drama that really floats my boat. Totally British in atmosphere, with the long suffering, diplomatic,husband, working hard to keep things afloat. He probably hands over his unopened wage packet to the wife each week. Robert Newton jumped into my mind, as I reading.
A real nourishing read on a cold morning, bacon and eggs for the soul. Thank you.

If it did not win a place -it should of!
Apologies for this being a bit rushed, it's Friday!

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