SHE HAD TO HAVE GAS
by Rupert penny
On Thursday October 20th, at 6.45 p.m., Mrs. Agatha Topley was standing on the corner of Marine Drive, Craybourne, waiting for her bus. It was a wet evening, and she perceived without surprise that her umbrella had yet another hole in it: she could half feel and half hear the filtered raindrops intermittently landing on her black straw hat.
“I really must get it mended’ she thought. ‘Really must. Three and sixpence at Baldwins’, round by the buck of the hippodrome.’
Yet she knew perfectly well that without the least difficulty she could find half a dozen ways of spending the three and sixpence. The soles of her second-best pair of winter shoes badly needed attention, the insurance man would be round again on the twenty-fifth of the month, she was behind with her contributions to the Christmas Club, and she wanted if possible to get in a quarter of a ton of coal before the price went up. She already had nearly ten shillings saved towards that; but how long would it remain intact, she wondered? How long before she was compelled to use it for something else?
“Money’s tight, that’s what,’ she muttered inwardly. ‘And all along of that dratted girl. I could just do with the three pound she owes me, that I could. I wish I knew what to do. I daren’t hardly ask Alf to have a word with her—she’d be out of the house at the very sight of a policeman on the doorstep, I’ll be bound, and me not a penny the better off. I wish I knew what to do.’
At that moment her bus came in sight, and for a spell she gave up worrying at the problem which had been tormenting her the last few weeks; but all the way home it remained just below the surface of her mind, ready to inflict itself upon her at the slightest opportunity.
Mrs. Topley’s trouble was concerned with her lodger, Alice Carter: at least, that was the name she gave, though doubts were possible about its correctness. Alice was a well-built girl of about twenty-four, fair-haired, blue-eyed, and pretty in a rather dissipated careless sort of way. Mrs. Topley had summed her up almost instantly as no lady, and had never seen cause to take back her judgement.
The girl had rung the bell of 14 Weatherall Road about midday on Wednesday August 31st, and after due bargaining had secured the use of Mrs. Topley’s first-floor front for twenty-seven shillings and sixpence a week, breakfast and one bath included as well as electric light.
“And cheap at the price, Miss,” Alice had been told more than once since then. “Why, I could have asked thirty-five, it being in the season. Craybourne’s a growing town, you know. In ten years it’ll be one of the selectest watering-places on the south coast.”
But Alice Carter had not been impressed.
“Then why didn’t you ask thirty-five?” she had queried in her high and somewhat common voice; and Mrs. Topley had preferred to say no more. The full answer would have taken too long. It would have needed to include the odd fact that, somehow, Craybourne in her lifetime had always been just about ten years short of popularity; that Weatherall Road was a good three-quarters of a mile from the sea by any conceivable route; and that the only service it could offer was the making of beds and the not very skilful cooking of bacon and beef sausages.
In short, as she well knew, Mrs. Topley was never cut out for a seaside landlady, in Craybourne or anywhere else. She had too much softness in her nature; her bark was mostly an apologetic cough, and her bite almost nonexistent. In her husband’s day she had overlooked her own deficiencies: he possessed enough force of character for half a dozen, and she had been content to sit back and allow him to run her life for her in his spare time. But the wing of a lorry caught him just below the left hip one wet evening two years ago, and sent him slithering helplessly under a corporation tram: one minute he had been crossing the road within reach of her hand, and the next he was a huddle of blood and rags, unfamiliar, obscene, not to be approached without loathing.
From various sources she received close on four hundred pounds in compensation, and of this she still had almost a third left, but it had taken her eighteen months to understand that when it was gone she would be in line for the workhouse unless she could shift for herself. In a panic she set about preparing for the only occupation which seemed at all suitable—that of running a small boarding-house in the holiday season. Unfortunately, visitors to Craybourne had been fewer this year, which explained her price of twenty-seven shillings and sixpence to Alice Carter, her first lodger.
She believed to begin with that her venture would be a success. The girl gave no trouble, paid her rent promptly the following Wednesday, was economical with the electric light, and rarely stayed out after half past ten at night. In that initial week her behaviour was exemplary, even if she remained something of a mystery. It occurred to Mrs. Topley, cleaning the steps one morning, that she knew scarcely anything about her lodger except what she had managed to pick up casually.
The girl was no holiday-maker—that was certain. She neither looked nor acted the part. Young women on holiday with any pretentions to beauty do not spend a great part of the morning pottering about their bedrooms their dressing-gowns and slippers, brewing innumerable pots of tea on the ring attached to the gas-fire and reading twopenny magazines. Yet it was equally clear to Mrs. Topley that Alice Carter did not belong to Craybourne. She had admitted one day that she knew nobody in the neighbourhood, and considered the town a dreary hole; but she said nothing about going, for which the older woman—then—had been grateful.
As a general rule Alice talked very little, especially about her own affairs, so Mrs. Topley got no help there. In the end, to satisfy her curiosity, she invented the theory that the girl was a pro, probably in the chorus; and that for some reason at present unknown she was ‘resting’. It was too unsatisfactory to be at all credible for more than twenty-four hours, however. Chorus girls out of a job spend at least part of their time in looking for a new one; unless they are in poor health, which Alice certainly was not. Again, no right-minded person would choose Craybourne for such a purpose: particularly one who showed openly that she thought little or nothing of the place. It beat Mrs. Topley altogether; but after all, she consoled herself, it was really none of her business, and money is money.
It was in the second week of her lodger’s stay that things began to go wrong. Alice Carter’s cousin turned up, and a more suspicious-looking man she had never seen. Not that he was anything but polite to her, in a gruff off-handed way; but she always felt that he was ready to snarl if she gave him the excuse. Perhaps it was that which made her from the beginning acquiesce in his behaviour: bottling himself up with the girl in her room for hours on end, doing heaven only knew what, and never so much as a word to ask if she minded. Or perhaps it was the fear that by opening her mouth she might lose twenty-seven and six a week.
He was a short stocky man, habitually dressed in a long blue trench coat tightly buttoned at the neck, a check cap, and dark-green horn-rimmed spectacles; he rode a motor-cycle, which he left outside the house, and his movements were somehow stealthy. He never stood under the light in the hall, where a respectable person could get a look at him, and if he were asked a question—“A nice day, isn’t it?” or “Can you oblige me with the time before you go?”—he was apt to answer with his head half turned away.
He had a temper, too: several times Mrs. Topley heard his voice raised as she passed near the first-floor front on her way to the bathroom, and occasionally she detected Alice’s shriller retort. She never managed to catch any distinguishable words, though: the house was too well built for that. At other times there would be silence, which provoked her curiosity even more. She was convinced that the man in the blue coat was no more Alice Carter’s cousin than he was a prince in disguise. She was similarly convinced that her lodger’s room was the scene of goings-on which, if known locally, would soon lower the reputation of 14 Weatherall Road. Yet what could she do, she had asked herself? Complain, and risk losing her only source of income? Turn a blind eye, and let herself be patently put upon? Or climb a chair, and look through the glass partition between the first-floor front and the passage to the bathroom?
That this could be done she had felt sure. In the course of years the frosted paper on the glass had peeled away in places, and although the bed was out of sight directly underneath, there might still be sufficient evidence in the way of discarded clothes or bare legs. The girl was untidy enough with her things, heaven knew. But both times that she allowed inquisitiveness to triumph over principle she was unlucky. On each occasion the man had his back to her; his cap and spectacles were off, but not his coat. Once the two of them were playing cards, and once chatting by the fire, and it was a real mercy she hadn’t been seen, so quickly did the girl glance up. In fact, she half believed in her heart that Alice had noticed, only nothing was ever said. She would have tried the keyhole too, but that she had heard somewhere of a woman permanently blinded as the result of such an activity. The suspicious inmate of the room in question had loaded a fountain-pen filler with pepper, and discharged it neatly at an opportune moment.
She finally resolved to do nothing unless her hand were forced, whether by outside gossip or by a too blatant infringement of her rights as the lady of the house. This was an easy decision as far as the first part went, for, strictly speaking, Mrs. Topley had no immediate neighbours. No. 14 stood between a small tin chapel which had been gutted by fire in 1931 and left derelict, and a builders’ yard, beyond which was the street corner; and opposite was only the brick wall which hid the gas-works. In fact, the house was oddly out of place: it belonged at the other end of the road, a good fifty yards away. She had vaguely considered the idea of selling it, but had been reluctant to approach the agents. It had belonged to her husband’s father, and she felt that nowhere else could be a real home to her, after thirty-one years. She knew every corner intimately, every creak on the stairs, every cracked window-pane. The mottled linoleum on the hall floor she had bought the year the war ended, and she had a great affection for its worn and shiny homeliness. It would never fit in another house, nor the blue flowered carpet in the parlour; no other gas-stove would ever provide the same intensely individual service as the one in the scullery; and what bath, even if free from pits in the enamel, would ever feel the same at ten o’clock on a Saturday night? If she had to take in lodgers in order to exist, she would exact her own price from life, and insist on doing it in the home she knew and loved. The name of Alice Carter’s visitor was Ellis, and he first came to Mrs. Topley’s on the afternoon of Saturday September 10th. The following Wednesday the girl was half a crown short with her rent, but promised to make up the deficiency the week after. When the day came she did in fact do so, but at the same time complained that she was tired of straining her eyes with a 40-watt bulb, and it was bad for her cousin’s eyes too, which were naturally weak, as Mrs. Topley might very well have guessed for herself, and would she please obtain one of a higher power without delay? On September 28th Alice Carter made no attempt to pay anything, but after a tactful reminder produced fifteen shillings the next morning. From then onwards her landlady began to feel uncomfortable as the middle of the week drew near. One Wednesday it would be “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to let me owe you ten bob this week. My sister’s just had another baby, and I had to help her.” The next week the excuse differed but the result was the same, and subsequently worse, and at midday on October 19th Alice Carter’s debt to her landlady stood at three pounds four shillings.
This state of affairs, whether reasonably or not, Mrs. Topley attributed at least in part to the man Ellis. Until his appearance there had been no trouble over the rent: after he came, there seemed to her to have been little else. And, when she began to reckon things up, she realized that she knew even less about him than about the girl: not as much as his Christian name. Where he lived, or where he worked, or what was in truth the precise nature of his relation to her lodger, she had no notion.
His visits were irregular, and might last any time between twenty minutes and two or three hours, though he hardly ever stayed after six o’clock in the evening. Sometimes the girl went off with him, perched on the end of his motor-cycle and seeming not to care how much of her well-turned legs she showed the world: sometimes he departed alone. His manner of arrival and his appearance were always the same, though. He rode up in the long blue coat and the check cap, below which he peered through the tinted glasses which masked his face, he accelerated the engine of his machine before switching it off, he invariably came when Alice Carter was indoors, and he always rang the bell smartly three times, ting-ting-ting. At this signal the girl would issue from her bedroom so speedily that she might have been waiting up there poised, and she would come clattering down the stairs to let the man in. As if, Mrs. Topley had often thought bitterly, she herself had no say about who might and who might not traverse her threadbare doormat.
The day before yesterday, Tuesday, he had called in the middle of the afternoon to take the girl out, and he had called again today, just after 2.00. Alice Carter had spent the morning in bed with a headache: yet the common little thing hadn’t scrupled to open the front door to him in her dressing-gown and slippers. Mrs. Topley, watching from a chink in the dining-room hinge, had somehow resented deeply the sight of her lodger so assuredly crossing her own hall like that. A decent girl, she thought, would have blushed scarlet to be seen by anyone, man, woman or child, cousin or no cousin, with a hole in the seam of her shiny stocking-calf twice the size of an egg, and little underneath her gaping gown but a slip which barely hid her gaudy garters. Admittedly she had pulled the wrap round her tight before actually opening the door, and kept it so while re-crossing the hall, but small enough credit that was to her. Who could tell what happened to it in the privacy of the room upstairs? Or to the green petticoat?
‘No breeding,’ she had informed herself. ‘No wonder she don’t pay her rent.’
Mrs. Topley had felt indecisively uncomfortable about leaving them together like that. In a way it seemed to her that by going put she would be condoning not only their probable misbehaviour, but also their shabby financial treatment of herself. Yet every Thursday afternoon without fail she went to visit the widow of her husband’s step-brother, an old woman of seventy-nine who lived alone at the other end of the town and was pitiably glad of someone to talk to for a couple of hours a week. She had been going since long before Arthur died, and it was hard for her to break established habits.
She chose, after consideration, to go; but—with unusual initiative—to make some sort of gesture first. Accordingly she got out her pad and wrote a short letter.
Dear Mr. Ellis she said, I am not the one to make trouble, far from it, but as a friend of Miss Carter my lodger perhaps you will be good enough to have a word with her about the back rent she owes me, three pounds four shillings it is, and has been acumulating almost since your first visit to her here. Yrs faithfully, Agatha Topley.
“And if that does no good,’ she told herself, feeling extraordinarily courageous as she licked the flap of the envelope, ‘then I really will fetch Alf round to see if he can’t frighten her or something.’
For she had always that card up her sleeve, if she dared play it. Alf Turner was station-sergeant in the local police-force, and he had been her husband’s best friend. Secretly she had never thought much of him in the way of brains, but there was no denying that he had the majestic presence and ponderous tread of the old-style policeman, and also the thick drooping moustache. She felt sure that to oblige her he would come round in uniform one evening instead of in plain clothes; and if that didn’t scare Alice Carter into settling her just debts, then Mrs. Topley would have to sacrifice the money and bundle the girl out. Casually she had mentioned Alf’s existence several times already, though apparently without rousing her lodger’s interest: there were none so slow to take a hint as them that didn’t want to. But things might not come to that; in fact, it hardly seemed possible that they could. Her note to Ellis would settle matters, and no hard words on either side.
So, at any rate, she had viewed things for the next few hours; but now, getting out of the bus and manipulating her sodden umbrella for the short walk home, she began to be the prey of doubts. Suppose she entered the house, to be met by defiance? Or suppose she found the place deserted? She could scarcely tell which she would prefer, but in her present mood either seemed more likely than what she would choose for herself if she had the power: a contrite Alice Carter, properly dressed, waiting at the head of the stairs with an envelope containing not only the three pounds four, but a month’s rent in advance as well.‘Pah!’ said Mrs. Topley, not quite under her breath. ‘Day-dreaming again! Must be Aunt Ada’s port-wine—I shouldn’t have taken the third glass. Yet real nice port-wine it is—you can tell she was a lady when she was young. Oh dear, I do hope things will be all right, but I’ve a funny feeling they won’t be—a funny sort of a feeling . . .’
Return to Ramble House Page