1990s >> 1995 >> no-1095-november-1995

Short Story: A Real Gentleman

Albert had fought in the war. On a Saturday evening, when he had sunk a few pints, he always fought his way again across North Africa. His friends were, mostly, familiar with the towns and oases that were the prizes of the Eighth Army and the Africa Corps as, back and forth, they slaughtered one another with great gallantry and aplomb across the length and breadth of Libya.

Cold sober, he still talked about the war; nothing else of consequence had happened to him in the street of back- to-back houses and its immediate hinterland that had represented the totality of his emotional and environmental experience before the war. Nor, still, in the council estate that was a hero’s reward for escaping death was there anything to eclipse the fantastic experience of killing and dodging death in battle.

Of course, despite the enjoyment of the war, he hated the Germans for starting it. They’d all been responsible for the war; they’d all been bloody Nazi! What about the concentration camps where millions of yids had been put to death? You can’t hide things like that! They knew all right, every bloody housefrau of them! Thought they were the the bloody master race but we showed them different!

Albert, back in the land fit for heroes, met Annie and they got married. For a time they lived in a miserable two-roomed flat in the north of the city but after their first son was born, their luck changed for the better. Annie contracted tuberculosis — it was a scourge in those days — and got a medical certificate that, eventually, earned them a new house in an estate not far from where Albert had spent his childhood. Two more children had followed, one a girl, and Albert got himself a steady job in the brickworks.

So life was pleasant: experience brought no expectations beyond frugal living and there was a little left to buy the few Saturday pints and to allow Albert his regular trips into military introspection.

A Labour Government, bent on solving the housing problem, ensured that there was plenty of work at the brickworks — indeed, so many houses were going up that some of the hands began to worry in case the housing problem would be solved and they’d all find themselves on the dole. It didn’t come to that, however: there were still thousands of homeless and millions living in slums when something called Public Spending Cuts latched onto the life of Albert and his workmates at the brickworks. The Shop Steward, himself a supporter of the reforming government, explained that it was all the fault of some group of foreigners known as the International Monetary Fund. It all sounded very plausible at the time and the Shop Steward sounded very reasonable when he claimed that the reforming government could not do anything in a situation like that. The slum dwellers and the homeless and the unemployed — over a million of them — could hardly blame the government. It was this International mob that had caused all the bother.

Albert’s frugal affluence collapsed along with millions of others who had never been had so good. For a time he blamed his idleness, the denial of his Saturday pints and his military memories, on the International Monetary Fund. At the general election he was convinced that the reforming government were a load of sops who were allowing foreigners to put one over on the British people. Strong government was the answer! He voted for the other lot but the situation got even worse and several more millions joined the dole queues.

It was then that Albert saw the real root of the problem. It was clear to be seen all around him and he readily agreed with the fellow from the National Front. Look at them! They were everywhere! They were taking all the good jobs because they were prepared to work twice as hard for half the bloody wages! And the houses . . . no wonder people couldn’t get houses — they were a lazy, shiftless bunch who didn’t want to work and only came here to live on the dole. They were everywhere; they’d live in any sort of cheap dump — aye, two or three families of them! They were even in the pubs where their jungle music had taken over from our cultural heritage!

It was the blacks; the bloody niggers, brown and black, who were responsible. They were the cause of the problem — well . . . apart from the bloody Jews. They were up to their usual tricks. He was not surprised to learn, from the National Front fellow, that they were the International Monetary Fund!

Of course knowledge brings its own relief and now Albert’s anger and frustration was crystallized into a feeling of utter loathing for people with dark skin. Nor was the feeling hard to fuel: the tenement slums abounded with them; uniformly poor but, slyly, hiding their poverty behind a screaming rainment that Albert, in the boiler suit that he continued to wear to save his good suit, found quite disgusting.

By telling Annie that his weekly social security cheque was actually less than it was — no, Annie daren’t have opened the envelope for Albert, despite the fact that he was quite fond of her, always made it clear that he was the boss in the house — Albert managed to reinstitute the practice of enjoying the Saturday pints again. Now, however, he seldom talked about the war; the younger element in the bar were no longer tolerant of the feats that had kept their country great. But they listened to him when he talked about them; they gave him space and substantiated his obvious erudition with anecdotal experiences of their own.

It was just after such a session in the bar that Albert had his accident. He had been engaged in a lengthy conversation with a navvy who had fallen on lean times because, as he put it, his boss had got a ‘black bastard’ to work for exactly half of what he had been paying him, or, as the navvy succinctly put it, ‘half bloody nothin’!’ Albert had listened sympathetically and had even implied that the brickworks was full of them. When he left the bar he was feeling a little depressed; he had not eaten since morning and the few pints had made him tired and less perceptive than usual.

He was crossing the main road when the Porche hit him. Fortunately, it was a glancing blow that sent him reeling back towards the pavement where he fell in a frightened bundle. The Porche braked to a standstill, the driver’s door opened and a young man got out. He was tall and slim and elegantly dressed in dark trousers topped with a black tuxedo; his shirt was a brilliant white, enhancing the neatness of the black bow tic, and his fresh-smelling face glistened in the moonlight.

A few bounding steps brought him to Albert where, unmindful of his grand clothes, he knelt down on the pavement and sought expertly for evidence of injury’. ‘There now, everything seems all right . . . ’ It was the slight accent that made Albert look up into the shining black face.

Mr Uboto insisted that Albert get into the plush passenger seat of the Porche. ‘Just routine, you understand, but I’ll run you over to St Michaels and make sure everything’s okay’.

At St Michaels, where Mr Uboto was a senior consultant, the staff fussed over Albert while Mr Uboto satisfied himself that X-rays were unnecessary.

Of course the story was good for an audience in the bar the following Saturday. Albert was wearing the fine tweed suit that Mr Uboto had given him. ‘I was only wearing my boiler suit at the time but he insisted that my suit would have to be cleaned and brought me home to his flat and gave me this’. The suit was long for Albert but, long or not, he knew he had never really worn a suit like it before and was never likely to get a replacement for it. He showed it off with obvious pride and the others fingered it approvingly.

‘Jesus! You should have seen his flat! It was at least three times as big as my house. You’d have sunk in the carpet and the furniture and the pictures were like what you’d see on T.V. An’ he got his wife, a bloody luvely thing! to make up a meal. Great big lumps of roast meat surrounded with fruit an’ things I’ve never seen before. Absolutely bloody marvellous! Fantastic! Brought me right back to m’own door in the car, too. An’ he worked me a tenner into the bargain!’

One of the regulars, friendly in Albert’s hospitality, said, ‘Bloody great! And this Uboto fella was a nig, Albert?’

‘He was a doctor, you twit! A specialist. Oh aye, he was a real gentleman alright. He knew how to behave; class, no shit! No, a real gentleman and, you know, he just treated me like an equal’.

Richard Montague