Short Story: The Cause of it All

The tiny triangular bedsitter at the top of the house was occupied by Mr. Winston Tobias. He was 45 years old, a mild, sad, yearning little man, as black as boot polish. No one knew very much about him. He was seen coming and going, but never there. At exactly the same time every morning he walked down the stairs to go to the office where he worked, and at exactly the same time every evening he returned with the evening paper and a small parcel of groceries for his tea. Neither the Carters nor the Fentons, who lived in the other two flats below, could ever remember him having a visitor, and he seldom went out. Most evenings he spent in his uncomfortable little room with its small window, divan bed, single arm chair, and gas stove neatly hidden from view by a plastic curtain. Here he read a little, dreamt a little, and wrote long letters to his family, full of loving, lying promises of their future together in England. Mr. Tobias possessed that virtue, so often extolled by the neighbours of “keeping himself to himself” and, of course, was a constant source of frustration to the avid curiosity of Mrs. Carter, immediately below him, and Mrs. Fenton, on the ground floor.

Mr. Tobias was a little afraid of his neighbours and avoided them, if possible. Mr. Carter he identified by the sound of heavy boots clumping up the stairs, occasional choruses of: “A white Christmas,” and shouted admonitions both to his wife and seven year old son. The Carters did not keep themselves to themselves, their trials and tribulations were the common property of the neighbourhood. Their son Jonathan was the fruit of one of their infrequent harmonies. He was affectionately known as Jonty, when he was affectionately known at all. Mr. Tobias felt sorry for the little boy, and would have liked to befriend him, but he was far too timid to attempt to climb the barriers of prejudice erected by the child’s parents.

Mr. and Mrs. Carter found it hard enough to be amiable to one another, but their friendship with the Fentons was a precarious thing indeed. The two families had antagonized each other from the beginning. They quarrelled mostly over the children (the Fentons had a daughter born one month before July, and nine months after her father’s works outing). The two children found themselves periodically separated while their parents furiously re-enacted a quarrel they themselves had completely forgotten. The regular screams of abuse between the two wives were so commonplace that they were accepted by the neighbours as part of the urban scene.

On the very rare occasions when they were friendly, then Mr. Tobias was really frightened, for he knew that the basis of their agreement was condemnation of him. He was well aware that they spoke about him, if not to him. Fearful of meeting their anger face to face he stayed in his room and felt cold, tight apprehension at every footstep mounting the stairs. He breathed a sigh of relief when the atmosphere in the house settled back into its simmering dislike. At least it was not of him.

Then one night came the final explosion. Mr. Tobias had gone to bed early and was almost asleep, when he heard a woman’s voice raised in hysterical anger. He sat up in bed and listened. From below came unmistakable sounds of battle. Heavy boots could be heard scuffling on the stairs, grunts and groans interspersed with shouted insults as the two men fought. Mrs. Fenton was screaming encouragement to her husband and Mrs. Carter whose spouse was apparently getting the worst of it could be heard shrieking for the police. A shower of milk bottles cascaded down the stairs, the dustbin on the landing was kicked over and the two protagonists began hurling the contents at each other. The din was appalling. Mr. Tobias felt vaguely that he ought to do something, but was too frightened to do so. Then came a knock at the door, be opened it fearfully and saw outside little Jonathan Carter in his pyjamas. “Mr. Fenton’s fighting my dad, and he’s made his nose bleed and I’m scared,” whispered the little boy. Mr. Tobias took the child on his knee to comfort him, and Jonty clung to him in tearful longing.

New voices entered into the play beneath them. The second act had begun with the arrival of the police. Their calm, matter-of-fact voices could be heard vainly attempting to sort out the confusion. Finally, they had to admit defeat and departed, taking with them the two men still arguing, and leaving their wives to remove the debris. Now that things were once again peaceful, little Jonathan left the security of Mr. Tobias’s embrace and went downstairs. As he emerged from the dark vacuum of the stairway, his mother, busily sweeping empty tins and broken glass into the comer, looked up and saw him. “Where have you been,” she shouted. “I got scared,” replied the boy. “So I went upstairs to Mr. Tobias and he gave me a drink and some biscuits.” His mother gave an offended gasp. “Why, you little devil,” she screamed, cuffing him on the ear, “I’ll murder you if you go up there again. Didn’t I tell you not to have anything to do with them blacks. You know they’se always causing trouble.”

J. H.