Short Story: ‘Ten Forty-Five’
He stood in the queue, huddled close to the wall, staring broodingly in front of him.
His thin, sallow face was lowered into the upturned collar of his overcoat as protection against the cold drizzle. His hat, badly out of shape, with its brim thrust down, made his nose almost the only feature visible. His hands were stuck deep in his pockets. While most of the crowd were chattering animatedly, he stood silently, ignoring even the jostling that took place from time to time.
A raucous voice, that of a policeman, startled him out of his reverie:
“Show your cards, please; ten-thirties only!”
Those at the head of the queue began to push through the narrow door marked “Men,” holding out their “Signing-on” cards for inspection. Shoving, pushing, jostling, the rest of the queue moved forward in shuffling gait.
When Sallowface had almost reached the door he stopped, and then edged to the side, holding up several men who were behind him.
“Whatcher trying to do,” asked one of them, a burly, red-faced fellow, “get froo a winder?”
“That’s all right,” he replied, “you get in; I’m ‘ten-forty-five.'”
Red-face muttered something whilst disappearing through the entrance.
Sallowface looked after him with a sneer.
“Bloody fool,” he hissed almost soundlessly through clenched teeth. His thoughts continued the sneering curse.
“Typical of the lot. No ideas, no mentality, no imagination. He hated them. Hated them as much as he hated the rich, the capitalists. Perhaps more. If it wasn’t for them, would he have to suffer all this misery, this poverty?
“They could change things, change the system, if they only had the brains and the guts. Ah, it made him sick! What was the good of it all? They’d never learn. Listen to them now.”
“An’ I think he played a better game last time out. That save he made in the second ‘arf—”
“Not ‘arf he didn’t!”
“He’s a grand player, he is—”
Sallowface cursed silently.
“Give them football,” he thought, “it’s all they’re interested in. No idea of life, as it could be lived, as it was lived by their rulers, their masters. Leisure without worry, luxury all round, travel—”
“Ah, travel! How wonderful to be able to travel. To travel to lands where there was sunshine and warmth even in the winter! To escape this weather, this climate, this fog that made breathing a pain, this rain that soaked through worn-out soles and gave you perpetual colds.”
“He’d have to get his shoes mended. No matter if it left them broke. He daren’t risk any more colds. They were wearing him out. But where was the money coming from? His wife hadn’t paid the milkman for three weeks. She’d have to give him something when he called next. But suppose this rain lasted? How could he look for work with the inside of his shoes full of water?”
His lips compressed into a thin line. Couldn’t he try a “screwing-job”? He played with the idea for a while.
To get hold of a few pounds, what couldn’t he do with the money! But how was he going to set about it? And where an opportunity? He dismissed the thought in disgust. He wasn’t cut out for that sort of thing, anyway. He didn’t have the nerve. His wife had often railed him about it.
“You, with your Socialism. That won’t get you anywhere! You’re supposed to have brains! Always reading those books about economics! Why don’t you find out how to get some money? Do a smash-and-grab raid, like some of them! But you ain’t got the pluck!”
“Bah,” he thought, “what did she know about it. That sort of thing doesn’t help you. You’re sure to get caught. And then they mark you for life after you leave prison—.”
“Prison,” he shuddered inwardly, “terrible. Freedom, that’s what he wanted. Freedom to live, to enjoy the good things of life. Like those parasites he’d read about in this morning’s Daily E—.”
“Lord and Lady —have left for Majorca. They expect to be away until next April.”
What price patriotism? Buy British, eh? We’ll take Britain’s wealth and leave you the weather! What humbug! But how he envied them. No worry. They had security—. Security! That was it! They were secure from economic worries. The world was theirs. It belonged to them. That wonderful world, that beautiful sky, the flaming sun, the mountain air, that azure sea, all theirs, theirs to play about with. They weren’t free, that sun that browned your body as you lazed about the beach for weeks and months, that air that made your lungs feel as if they’d had a spring-cleaning and gave a sparkle to your eyes and cheeks. They were as inaccessible to people like him as the wealth and leisure needed to go after them.
An uncontrollable impulse seized him. He’d put an end to himself. He couldn’t go on like this, his whole existence was a hell, a hell made a thousand times worse by those maddeningly tantalising glimpses of heaven. Why didn’t the others feel like that, he wondered. Were they blind to the display of wealth around them, was there not a twinge of jealousy, of envy, amongst them when luxury was flaunted before them? His own wife, even, could not conceive of life other than one limited by working-class means. Sluggish brains and blood! Only yesterday he’d shown her a picture from the Daily M—: “Lady C— saying good-bye to her little son before leaving for the West Indies on a long holiday.”
Holiday from what? From the strenuous work of giving parties and dining at hotels? Wish his wife could leave the kids so easily. They were a constant source of worry, nagged her skinny in fact.
He remembered his wife when he’d first met her. Pretty she’d been. Neatly dressed, too, and full of life. Look at her now. An old coat, her cheap stockings darned. She was ageing quickly. Furrows had appeared recently on a hitherto smooth forehead. He thought of her fondly. Memories crowded in on him, memories of her, of delightful moments. But lately she had always been in a bad temper. So difficult to approach. And nagging: he couldn’t bear her nagging. It was terrible, the way she carried on. “Bloody out-of-work, that’s what you are! Works two weeks in the year—.”
That always made him furious. “Damn you,” he would shout, “can I help it? There’s no work about, you know it’s slack.”
“Some slack,” she would reply, “getting longer every year! Can’t you try something else? But you’re too lazy for that. You see the children going without boots and it does not worry you a bit! What have I got from my life!”
Then she would cry, and he’d storm out of the house and tramp the streets, cursing.
“Lazy out-of-work,” he would mutter, “I’ll give her.”
But then his temper would subside and he’d feel sorry for her. Perhaps he was getting lazy. Long stretches of unemployment made you feel like that. He didn’t look forward to finding work again. He knew he should, but he didn’t. He dreaded work in a way. Bound to a depressing, often insanitary workshop for ten or eleven hours a day, he hated it. Going in when the day was just beginning and finishing when the day had vanished. Slavery, that’s what it was. And when he started paying everybody and buying all those necessities they’d gone without for so long, there was precious little left for an occasional luxury. And how he had to work. Piece-work, his trade was. Getting paid per output. And you had to seat and hurry your guts out to keep pace with those you were working. And then the slack season came again, before he had a chance to get clear of debt. The same old round time and again. No escape—.
But he must not let it get him. He must not let it pull him down. He’d got to keep his head up. he had a part to play, if not in the immediate future, but sooner or later the time was sure to come. Things couldn’t go on like this for ever. The masses must “tumble,” in the end. Poverty wasn’t a necessary evil any more. No one need be poor to-day. Things could be produced in such abundance, none need go short. Why, even now, when the actual productive work was done by less than half of the population, there was what was called “Over-production.”
What a farce, what a tragedy! Over-production! Millions of people had never known what it was to have even their most elementary needs satisfied—.
He pulled himself up. There he was again, thinking about Social problems, when he could not solve his own. But his own were inseparable from the lot. He knew that.
It wasn’t quite satisfactory though. His wife was right. He ought to see to himself first, himself and his dependents. They came first. They were his own, individual responsibility. Why should he be concerned with the others, those dull-witted, stodgy, lethargic fools. They weren’t concerned with anyone but themselves.
And when you tried to explain to them, enlighten them, they weren’t even interested, thought you cranky. Why should he care then? He’d turn his back on them, blast them. They were not worth it—.
But he knew he would not do that. Once you knew, once you understood, there was no turning back. Something inside you, something stronger than your immediate material interests, drew you back into the struggle. There was a fascination about that battle for Workers’ Freedom, fatal though it might be for him. No escape, it was Destiny.
His head sunk still lower, with dull eyes he stared down, his lips moving soundlessly: “It’s no use—. I can’t get away from it.”
“Why did I ever get to know about Socialism”? he thought; “I’d have been better off without it—.”
A feeling of despair settled on him. He was through, he had no more strength left to carry on—.
But he knew that when it came his turn to speak to-night at their usual street-corner meeting he would be there and mount the platform again. And then he would talk, haltingly at first, and later, when he had warmed up, he would shout to overcome the noise of the traffic.
And there he forget everything, his troubles, his wife and his children, all was forgotten, as he poured out words—, biting, flaming words; all his bitterness welled up in him. It was a glorious forgetfulness, it made him feel a different person, important—he mattered after all. He was a fighter for The Cause, the greatest cause the world had ever known. And what did he care about his poverty! Greater men than he had sacrificed themselves in the Struggle.
And who knew, perhaps The Day was not so far off, the day of Victory, of Freedom.
“Come along there, you’re holding up the line,” someone shouted. Mechanically he moved forward.
“Ten forty-five only; show your cards,” bawled the policeman.
Sallowface disappeared slowly through the door.