Saturday afternoonCategory: Leisure
One o’clock on Saturday afternoon.
‘-’Suddenly the sirens began. Their sounds swooped into the basement kitchen at 46 Marling Street, Camden Town, and put Mrs Spenk in mind of an air-raid, as they did every Saturday. She was scuttling round the kitchen laying the stained cloth with three places when the noise began, and when she heard the first uncouth howl from Sheer’s Tobacco Works just round the corner she glanced despairingly at the clock and darted across to the-stove, and thrust a knife down into the potatoes.
They were not done. Nor was the cabbage. Nor was the stew. And in ten minutes Spenk would be home from Sheer’s wanting his dinner, and young Cissie too. Oh, what was the matter with Saturday, that everything went wrong and made you want to scream the place down? It was the same every Saturday (slap! went the vinegar down on the table beside the crusted egg-cup that held the mustard) — try as she might, nothing would go right of a Saturday.
“All be’ind, like the cow’s tail, I am this morning,” muttered Mrs Spenk, rummaging in the bread crock under the mangle. She looked like a cross goblin in the dim kitchen, with her hair lifted off her worried little face and her hollow temples, and coiled on the top of her head in the style of thirty years ago.
“Eat — eat — eat — like a lot of ’orses. Cloth never, gets off the table, Saturdays.”
She shoved a vase of marigolds, withering in stale water, into the middle of the table. Even the flowers looked dull in the kitchen, where the only vivid thing was the beautiful red and gold fire, roaring proudly behind its bars like a lusty lion. The shiny brown walls, brown oilcloth, and grey ceiling were nets for darkness, and outside there was no sunlight.
To and fro scurried Mrs Spenk, pitching wet potato peelings into the dustbin, opening a tin of peaches. In the midst of her dartings (and the cabbage stems still hard as wood!) slow steps began descending the area steps, and glancing angrily out between the - lace curtains she saw the large silhouette that was more completely familiar to her than any other in her narrow world.
He came into the kitchen, and his experienced eye took in the bare table, the agitated saucepans, and his wife’s angry face. His own, tired and dirty and already sullen, became lowering.
“Ain’t it ready yet, then?”
“No, it isn’t. I’m all be’ind this morning. You know I ’ad to take Georgie down to the Ear ’ospital and they kep’ me there the best part of an hour. You’re early, aren’t you? ‘Tisn’t more than ten pars’.”
“I’m orlright. You ’urry up them saucepans.”
He pushed past her across the room, and went into the little scullery, where she heard him having £r bit of a wash while she slopped some stew onto a half-warm plate.
The sound of his leisurely preparations made her furious.
She called sharply:
“Where are you off to, s’afternoon?”
“Down to the Bridge with Charlie Ford.” His sullen voice beat back her shrill irritation with a flat wall of secrecy. She muttered something about a waste of money, but he pretended not to hear.
He came back into the room with his face washed clean and looking startlingly different. He was fifty, and flabbily stout, but his unfulfilled youth seemed petrified in the immature curves of the lips behind his moustache and in the uncertain expression of his eyes.
He glanced furtively across at his wife as he sat down to his plate of stew, but said no more. He kept looking up at the alarm clock on the mantelpiece between his half-masticated mouthfuls, for the match began at 3.15, and it took a good hour to get down to Stamford Bridge. At twenty to two he got up, putting on his bowler. Mrs Spenk, who had started on her own stew, neither looked up nor spoke. The air of the kitchen was charged with waves of resentment that rolled from the taut, raging little woman to the big sullen man.
The monotonous hours of the week, spent by him in a vast air- cooled impersonal room shaken by machines, and by her in a little underground room smelling of stale food, had fused once again into the mutual nervous hatred of Saturday afternoon. Every week it was the same. Neither knew what was the matter. They only felt angry and tired out. By Saturday afternoon Mr and Mrs Spenk were no longer a man and a woman. They were the results of a fact called the social system.
Another piece of the system came slowly down the steps as Mr Spenk was going up; his daughter Cissie, aged sixteen, who earned thirty shillings a week as a junior-typist-cum-switch-board-operator in a paperpattern shop in the Strand. Usually Cissie was cheerful,
but now Saturday afternoon had got her too. She was coiled in on herself in a satisfying fit of temper about nothing.
“Ullo. You been sacked yet?” he asked, disagreeably.
This was a sore point, for Cissie was impertinent, and seldom kept a job longer than three months. But she was too depressed to flare back at him. She turned her face away, muttering, “Oh, shut up, do/ and slouched past him down the steps and in at the dark door.
Outside the light was so lowering that dusk seemed only just round the corner. The pavements were greasy. The sticks of celery in the baskets at street corners shone white as bones. Mr Spenk bought a paper, and settled down to half an hour’s strap-hanging in a carriage full of men in spotty suits and cloth caps. Charlie Ford had failed to turn up; and he was alone. He felt no better. His pipe tasted sour, and there was nothing much in the paper. A fool trod on his corn in the scramble at Charing Cross. He hated everybody.
His face was set in sullen lines as he climbed the grass-grown steps to the shilling tiers. He felt that if he didn’t get a good position against the barriers he would kick up a shine, demand his money back, raise blasted hell. But he got a good place all right, plumb opposite the grandstand. A huge, massed semicircle of pink dots curved away from him on either side, topped by thousands of cloth caps of pinkish-grey, greenybrown, speckled grey. The air was warm and heavy, and did not carry the flat roar of thirty-five thousand voices.
After an unseeing stare round, Mr Spenk settled ‘down to his paper, and to wait.
Cissie went straight over to the glass by the window and began squeezing earnestly at an invisible spot on her white chin, staring into her face with passionate interest as though she had not seen it for six months.
She was staring, and pawing the spot discontentedly with one finger, when her mother came in, dressed to go out. Cissie did not turn round.
“Well, my lady! What ’a the matter with you? Got out of bed the wrong side this morning, like your father? Don’t you want no dinner?”
“Don’t fancy stew. ’S always stew, Saturdays. I’m not ’ungry.’
“Go without, then. Only don’t go pickin’ about in the safe after I’m gone out. I want this ’ere for supper.”
Cold stew and vegetables’ were being slammed into the safe.
“Where’s Georgie?” asked Cissie, who wanted to be sure the house would be empty that afternoon.
Upstairs with Mrs P. ’E don’t want no dinner, neither. ’Is ear’s too bad, ’e says.”
Coals were shot noisily into the range and damped down with the colander of tea-leaves from the sink, while Cissie stood in maddening idleness with all this energy whirling round her, trying how her hair looked with a centre parting.
Not until she heard the door slam, and her mother running angrily up the area steps, did she turn round. Then she turned suddenly, staring at the kitchen already settling into winter twilight, with the red eye of the fire now burning sulkily. Cissie gave a loud and animal yawn, stretched, stared again, and suddenly tore across the kitchen and upstairs into the bathroom which the Spenks shared with the rest of the house.
She began to let hot water furiously into the bath, twizzling the taps round and round, using up the Saturday night bath water. Her round face was youthful and tired as a cross fairy’s under, its paint. Every few minutes she yawned extravagantly, and the steam, which was already warming the tiny, dank cell deliciously, was drawn down into her lungs.
She locked the door. She lit the gas. She crumbled a twopenny packet of bath salts into the discoloured bath, and began to undress.
Mrs Spenk, fussing up the steps of the house next door, found young Mrs Judd waiting; dark, severe, and like a gipsy.
“There you are,” she exclaimed, “I was just wondering if I wouldn’t come along and fetch you. But there, I said to myself, I expect she’s been kept. I know what Saturday is.”
They ran down the steps rapidly together, as though no precious second must be wasted.
“There’s a 47,” said Mrs Spenk, as they crossed the road. “We’d better take it. The big picture starts at a quarter to three, and if there’s anything I do hate it’s coming in in the middle of the big picture.”
The Majestic Cinema was already lit up when they arrived; and the lights were on inside the hall, diffusing that languid, warmly coloured glow which prepares the mind of the audience to receive dreams. Outside, the greasy streets were lost in cold shadows. Inside, the tall gold curtains streamed to meet the benign glow and the walls were stippled with a gold on whose bland expanse shone ruby and amber lights.
Mrs Spenk and Mrs Judd were shown into two good seats in the middle of the hall, and they sat down. Mrs Spenk, with lips pressed bitterly together, sat upright in her,ruby-covered seat. Nevertheless, its curves caressed her taut spine. Neither woman spoke as they sat waiting for ‘the lights to fade; and the eyes of both were turned upwards to the rich mysterious folds of the curtain hiding the screen.
Mr Spenk, waiting under a lead-coloured sky with fifty thousand other spectators (for the ground had filled rapidly) still felt no better. He huddled himself up with his pipe and stared sourly in front of him. The idle roar from the crowd poured up to the dim clouds; it was waiting, no more; relaxed as an enormous animal.
Suddenly, at ten past three, there was a satisfied stirring and a murmuring. The teams were running down the sloping alley-way underneath the grand-stand, pretty as a ballet in their blue and red white shirts, and white shorts. They scattered across the grass, livid green in the lowering light, and began to punt the ball about. The satisfying dull “ponk!” as they kicked it whetted the crowd’s appetite; it was in the very mood that once presaged gladiatorial combats.
The visiting team won the toss. Mr Spenk stolidly watched the preliminary punting, saw even the kick-off without settling down comfortably to a critical absorption in the game, as he usually did at once. Play began badly. It was not good football. Lowther, the squat, dark Scotsman in whom the crowd was most interested, scurried down the field like a crab, hugging the ball when he should have passed and passing when he should have shot.
Backwards and forwards swayed the crowd, following the ball. Now the bright figures clotted in front of one goal, now in front of the other; now they spread out along the grass; but still the play did not improve. The crowd began to feel famished, like an animal with forbidden food dangled before its eyes. It wanted the food of swift, accurate, triumphant action expressed through the bodies of the players. It could feed on such action and release through it the energy imprisoned in its own myriad devitalized bodies. Still such action did not come.
But suddenly the game improved. The crowd began to rock faster. Loud, short roars broke its watching silence. The crowd- animal was at last eating its food of swift, fierce action. Excitement began to pump into the dead air above the stadium.
“Oh, angel boy! Oh, pretty!” cried a lyric voice above the long roar as Charlton, the visiting goalkeeper, leapt four feet in the air, striking the ball yards out of the net.
Mr Spenk was really watching now. He was eating his food with the rest of the crowd. Presently he, like the rest of the crowds would begin to feel better.
The lights were fading. A long beam shot across the darkness and ghostly words shone suddenly behind the curtains which parted with a rippling noise. Dreams were about to be made.
Neither Mrs Spenk nor Mrs Judd saw the notice of the censor’s approval, the names of the author, director, and photographers, or the names of the cast. For them the big picture did not begin until a lovely giantess appeared on the screen, petulantly asleep in a billowing bed. Gerda Harbor in Gay Lady.
Mrs Judd, better informed, nudged Mrs Spenk when the hero appeared.
“That’s Orme Roland. ’E always acts with Gerda Harbor. Isn’t ’e a lovely feller?”
“Nice-looking but a bit thin on top, ain’t ’e?” objected Mrs Spenk. In spite of the dream-weaving silver beam and the shadows that were created to absorb into themselves all the tiredness and vague discontent in the audience, the taint of Saturday morning still soured Mrs Spenk’s tongue. But her pose was less rigid in her seat. No one else was sitting upright. The audience was chiefly young men and women; and each girl rested her head on the thin shoulder of her boy. Darkness, lies and dreams fed these children,of the machine age like the pictures in the crystal of a Persian magician. The machines wove dreams; their children watched; and forgot their slavery to the weavers.
“E’s been married three times,” observed Mrs Judd.
“’As ’e now? Fancy! It’s a wonder any one in ’Ollywood would ’ave ’im, after that. Still, I suppose it don’t mean the same to Americans as it does to us. ’E is a nice-lookin’ feller, and no mistake. She’s lovely, too. I like that way of doin’ ’er hair.”
Mrs Spenk, also, was beginning to feel better.
…The moonlight rippled on the lake in the millionaire’s garden. There was a party, and the house was lit up, and distant music in the ballroom floated from the windows. But outside on the terrace they were alone — those two — the mocking, beauty in black velvet and the tall man in faultless evening-dress. His hand slipped over hers — he bent towards her… but she slipped from him lightly as her own scarf that waved in the moonlit air.
“Shall we dance?”
“I never cared for dancing — until now.”
At last! Over his head and slam into the net!
The visiting goalkeeper sprawled on his face; and then, across the dusky field, skirred the whistle for “time”. The crowd rocked and roared for nearly a minute while the teams were going off the field, but already people were working their way towards the exits.
Mr Spenk, having re-lit his cold pipe (it tasted good again) ambled up the tiers and joined the slowly swaying herds of people on their way to the gate. He stopped for a moment or two at the stone barrier along the top tier and stood looking down on the crowd; a large, amiable chap at whom no one would look twice. He had seen some good football. That was worth seeing, that was.
He sleepily adjusted his bowler and pipe, and stumped down the steps. The satisfied crowd-animal, swaying home under the darkening sky into the lit streets, ate him up.
They’ began the kiss.
Slowly, very slowly, so that the audience might savour in its full strength this moment for which it had been unconsciously longing, his hands fell upon her shoulders. She stared up into his suffering face, with a tender smile at the corners of her lips. Tears brightened her great eyes, and her hair was adorably disordered. She had been crying. He had been mad with rage. Now he was angry no longer. The strain between them had relaxed, deliciously, and the audience relaxed as well. He drew her close to him. Her head went tilting back, with its fleece of fairest angel hair. His arms drew her closer, closer. Slowly, in deliberate ecstasy, their lips touched at last. The curtains swung together to a burst of music as the two figures faded out.
“Lovely!” sighed Mrs Spenk, groping for her hat. “Г did enjoy that. ’Aven’t enjoyed anything so much for months.”
Back through the streets where the mud now shone in the lamplight like a paste churned from jewels came Mr and Mrs Spenk by their separate ways, both soothed, rather sleepy, and amiable.
But as Mrs Spenk and Mrs Judd turned out of the jolly rattle of Camden Town High Street into Marling Street, where it was darker and quieter, Mrs Spenk’s spirits fell. She remembered that Cissie was sulky, and Tom had the rats, and there was the tea to get. There was no end to it. Whenever you had a bit of fun you had to pay for it. Oh, well, it was all in the day’s work.
She said good night to Mrs Judd at the top of the area steps and ran down. A light shone in the kitchen, and the blind had been pulled down over the lace curtains.
Cissie was standing exactly where she had stood thee hours ago, in the same position; in front of the glass, with her face screwed sideways the better to pick at the invisible spot on her chin.
“’Ave you been there all the afternoon?” asked her mother, good- naturedly, hanging up her coat and hat behind the door. “You won’t ’ave no face left if you pull it about much longer; you’ll wear it away.” Cissie did not turn round. But her thin back, whose shoulder- blades showed under a clean pink blouse, looked friendly. She said, mildly:
“The kettle’s boiling. I got tea for you.”
“That’s good girl. Dad ’ome? Where’s Georgie?”
“Still upstairs with Mrs P. He says his ear’s better. ‘Dad won’t be home for another half an hour, I shouldn’t think. The paper says there was nearly fifty thousand down at the Bridge this afternoon.”
Mrs Spenk was putting four heaped spoonfuls of tea into the brown pot, and glancing critically over the table to see if Cissie had forgotten anything. The table looked nice. Cissie had put on a clean cloth and fresh water in the marigolds. There was a new pot of jam and half a pound of yellow cake. The gaslight softened the rusty colours in the kitchen into warmth, and the kettle was singing. The fire was gold.
Mrs Spenk poured the water on the tea, murmuring: “We won’t wait for Dad,” and sat down opposite Cissie, kicking off her shoes. She stared across at her daughter.
“Well — you are all dressed up like a dog’s dinner. Where are you off to, tonight?”
“Nowhere, reely”, putting up a small red hand, with pointed shiny nails, to her hair. “I may be goin’ out with Millie Thomson a bit later.”
“Your eyebrows, Cissie Spenk! ’Oo are you supposed to look like — Anna May Wong” or what?”
“Oh, I wish they’d grow quicker, so’s I could pluck ’em more often,” said „Cissie, earnestly. “I love pluckin’ ’em. I like to make ’em so thin you can’t hardly see I’ve got any at all.”
Mrs Spenk’s caustic rattle of laughter was interrupted by Mr Spenk.
“Ready for tea, Dad?”
“I could do with a cup. You never saw such a sight as there was down at the Bridge; must have been over sixty thousand down there. Took me the bes’ part of an hour, getting away.”
Mrs Spenk and Cissie looked interested, but each woman wondered how men could so waste their time and money.
Tea was then eaten, in a warm, comfortable silence. It was half: past six. The nervous misery of Saturday morning had gone over into the repose of Saturday night. In front of the Spenk family lay a fair prospect twenty-four hours long, called “termorrer’s-Sunday”; a day on which no one need get up early, and huge meals were eaten all day.
After tea Cissie went off mysteriously to meet Millie Thomson. Mrs Spenk piled the dishes up in the scullery with’one eye on the clock, for her shopping was not yet done. The second kettle had boiled while they finished tea, and she now splashed the water over the dirty dishes.
Mr Spenk had drawn his chair to the fire, with a paper and his pipe. But there was an uneasy thought at the back of his mind which interrupted his comfort. He tried to ignore it, but it came back. It was the memory of Saturday morning, blent with another emotion too vague to name.
At last he got up heavily, and went out into the scullery. He held out his hand to his wife for the drying-cloth. She, flushed and busy in the candle-light and the steam, stared at him blankly.
“Give you a ‘and’ said Mr Spenk.
“Well, I never! Miracles will never cease!” cried Mrs Spenk ironically.
But she smiled at him as she flipped across the drying-cloth.
(From Saturday Afternoon by S. Gibbons)