James hilton collected n.., p.17
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.17

           James Hilton

  Then during afternoons, if the weather were fine, she would put the youngest of us (me, in fact) into a pram and wheel it round a few streets, sometimes as far as the canal bank or the Shawgate shops. Towards four she would be home again, in good time to prepare an evening meal. Then came the second pleasantest interval—the hour in the rocking chair with a cup of tea at her elbow before the children came home from school. While winter dusk crept across the sky, and until the passing of the lamplighter sent a green-yellow glow through the fanlight over the front door, my mother would “save the gas” by poking the fire to a blaze while she rocked and sang. She had a nice voice, small in volume but always true on the pitch, and though most of the tunes she knew were chapel hymns with rather grim words to them, she sang them somehow gaily and with a lilt, breaking off occasionally into a popular song of the moment, something half-remembered from the previous year’s Blackpool holiday, or from summer performances of the Silver Prize Band in Browdley market place.

  My earliest recollections, Martin, were of my mother rocking and singing like that. There was a brass rail that ran along the whole length of the mantelshelf, and as I first remember it this rail would shine in the firelight with the shadows darkening all around and my mother’s face growing fainter and fainter as she swung backwards and forwards; till there was only the sound of her singing, the creak of the rocking chair, and the simmer of the kettle on the fire bar…Then, all at once, I would wake up to see the room already gaslit, with my father standing, huge and unsmiling, in the doorway.

  I feared my father and loved my mother and that’s about the plain truth of it. On Sundays he locked up all story books, picture books, and even bricks that spelt out words; but while he was at chapel my mother used to unlock them with a key of her own and let me play till just before his return was expected; then she would whisk away the forbidden things with a knowing glance that finally became a sort of joke between us.

  That is the home I was born in, Martin—not as happy as it might have been, but not as unhappy either. So I don’t complain of it, but I do want to make yours happier. Which is why I intend soon to begin putting books in your way, because the more freely and vividly you see things while you are young, even if you can’t fully understand them, the more actively they will possess you when you grow up—especially if, in adult life, you have hard battles to fight and bitter disappointments to face. New worlds, Martin, are for the young to explore; later one is glad of a new room, or even of a view from a new window…

  He put aside the fragment then, thinking he would add to it on many succeeding nights, but he never did; perhaps the rare mood never recurred.

  As the postwar slump deepened and unemployment filled the street corners with lounging, workless men, George encountered new opposition to his Mill Street housing scheme. Many of the cotton mills were closing down completely; some of them went bankrupt as catastrophically as had Channing’s a generation before, but without the criminal taint, though the short-lived boom had been pushed by speculators to limits that were almost criminal.

  Among the mills that closed was the one still called Channing’s, though long operated by another firm; now, when George walked down Mill Street, the mill loomed up, symbolically as well as actually, at the dead end of the street. Derelict, like Stoneclough five miles away, it stood for the dead end of what the Channings themselves had stood for. Still physically intact, with machines inside that could spin and weave, nobody would buy it or use it, because nobody wanted what it could do. Yet the illusion that it still had some real value was preserved; it was regularly taxed and insured; the Browdley police kept an eye on it, the fire department was ready to quench the blaze should any lightning or arsonist strike. But neither did, though lightning had once, when George was a boy, struck the Methodist chapel at the other end of the street.

  The chapel also stood, a little less forlorn than the mill—derelict, one might say, only six days out of the seven. For Methodism in Browdley, like the cotton trade, was not what it had been. People could not afford to give so much to their chapels, nor were there so many Methodists. George, walking along the street where he was born and which he planned to rebuild for others to be born in, remembered those early days when both mill and chapel had flourished, and when his own father, sharing the week between them in that mystic proportion of six to one, and with his house halfway between, had served a life sentence longer though less stigmatized than that of his boss.

  The reason George visited the Mill Street area so often was not a sentimental one. Indeed, it was concerned with drains rather than dreams; for the more graphically he could report to the Council how bad the houses were and what disease traps they had become, the sooner he hoped to get his scheme actually started.

  He found a powerful ally in Dr. Swift, Browdley’s medical officer, who had himself issued many warnings. After a long struggle and against the bitter opposition of a few of the town’s old-established doctors, a system of free immunization against diphtheria had been set up, enabling parents to have their children inoculated at a municipal clinic. It was, however, impossible to make this compulsory, and the whole question became impregnated with political and even religious prejudices that George deplored and perhaps at the same time aggravated by his own constant argument that it was not enough to immunize; the causes of epidemics should be tackled, and the chief was bad housing. To which the opposition retorted that George was using the health issue for his own political ends, that Browdley was in no greater danger than other manufacturing towns, and that though the Mill Street area was somewhat less salubrious than the rest, what could be done about it when local tax rates were almost the highest in the country? And since the opposition, fighting on this tax issue, had won seats at recent Council by-elections, George found his slum-clearance project losing rather than gaining ground for the time being.

  He often walked with Dr. Swift through the worst of the streets, the medical officer supplying scientific ammunition for George’s continuing struggle on the Council. For George would not give in; there was a point, even though at times it was hard to find, beyond which he would not even waver or compromise. Indeed, his mere mention of Mill Street had begun to send a smile or a sigh across the Council Chamber, so well was the subject now recognized as the bee in George’s bonnet. But he did not mind. “Sooner or later I’ll wear ’em down,” he assured Swift, to which the latter replied grimly: “Better be sooner.”

  For it had been a hot summer. Towards the end of September over twenty diphtheria cases appeared in and around Mill Street, mostly among young children, of whom five quickly died.

  In such an emergency Dr. Swift was given command almost without restrictions; everything remedial was promptly organized—the quarantining of families, wholesale inoculations, closing of schools, and so on. The Council had adjourned for its four weeks’ annual recess; many Councillors were still on holiday. But George, who had the Guardian to look after and could not afford a holiday, was right on the spot to say “I told you so” to any former opponents he might meet. They were not so much his opponents now. They all agreed, in principle, that something would have to be done about the Mill Street area. And most agreed, in principle, with the Guardian editorial in which George wrote:—

  We must learn our lesson from this tragic visitation. Though the epidemic has now (according to the latest assurance of our eminent and indefatigable Medical Officer, Dr. Swift) been checked, we can never again feel secure until preventable disease has been ABOLISHED AT ITS SOURCE. Let those citizens who live in the more fortunate parts of Browdley and whose children have remained unscathed, bear in mind the joint responsibility of us all for what we allow to happen anywhere in our town, and let them do their share, and pay their share, in making Browdley safe for our children’s future.

  The only adverse comment George got about this was from a new Catholic priest, Father Harry Wendover, of St. Patrick’s ,who questioned the phrase “what we allow to happen in our town.” Having bee
n introduced to George at a meeting, he immediately buttonholed him with the query: “Isn’t that a bit arrogant, Mr. Boswell? After all, even if you don’t believe in the hand of God, you might at least recognize that there are limits to what the hand of Man can do.”

  George noted the newcomer’s tall gaunt frame and deep-socketed eyes, the strong chin and the cultured accent, and decided that here was a man to be both respected and tackled. Rumor had already informed him that Wendover was something of the proud cleric, so George answered, giving as well as taking measure: “Aye, there are limits, I daresay, but in Browdley we’re still a few thousand miles away from ’em. And as for the hand of God, what makes you think I don’t believe in it?”

  Wendover smiled—a rather pleasant smile. “To be frank—just gossip. That’s all a priest has to go by when he comes to a new place and wants to find out who’s who.”

  “So they gossip about me, do they?” And immediately George was thinking about Livia and what sort of gossip might still be circulated about her.

  “Oh, nothing malicious. In fact, you seem to be extremely popular. But they also say that you’re not a God-fearing man like your father, that you don’t often go to church or chapel, and that you’re on good terms with atheists and agnostics.”

  It was all spoken with a twinkle that made it inoffensive and not quite serious, but George would not have been offended in any case. He was already too interested in what promised to be an argument.

  “Aye,” he answered, “I’m on good terms with anyone who’ll help me make Browdley better. Romans, Church of England, Methodists, atheists, agnostics—they’re all one to me if they’ll do that.”

  “So religion has no place in your better Browdley?”

  George appreciated a nicely laid trap, especially when he was in no danger of falling into it. He smiled as he had so often smiled across the Council Chamber or a meeting hall. “Nay—I’d rather ask you if my better Browdley has a place in your religion? Because if it hasn’t you’ll not do so well at St. Patrick’s. I’ve got a lot of supporters there.”

  “Is that a threat, Mr. Boswell?”

  “No—just a tip. I’ve no hell-fire in my armory. All I can tell folks is that diphtheria comes from bad drains. But of course if they’re more interested in pearly gates that’s their lookout.”

  Wendover’s smile broadened. “If I were old-fashioned I’d probably say that God would punish you for blasphemy. But my conception of God isn’t like that. I doubt that He’ll find it necessary to strike down you or one of your family just to prove a point.”

  George grunted. He had an idea that Wendover was enjoying the encounter as much as he was, and already he recognized an agile mind. Agile minds were useful, and it might be that Wendover would take the progressive side in many of the town’s controversial issues. George also realized that priests and parsons had to stand on some ground of their own, not merely on what they could share with every liberal-minded thinker, politician, or social worker. All this weighed against his impulse to continue the argument combatively, so he replied: “I assure you I didn’t intend to be blasphemous, and I hope you’re right about God. I don’t think I know enough to agree or disagree with you. So I’m sticking to what I do know something about, and that’s Man. Seems to me Man could give himself a pretty good time on earth if only he went about it the right way, but he just won’t. You’d almost think he didn’t want a good time, the way he carries on.” But that looked like the beginning of another argument, so he shook hands with a final smile and left the priest wondering.

  A few days later Wendover wondered afresh when news spread over the town that Councillor Boswell’s baby had been stricken. But being honest he did not exploit the situation. Nor did he actually believe that the hand of God was in it. He just thought it an extraordinary coincidence, which it was, and wrote George a note that merely expressed sympathy and hoped the child would be well again soon. For he liked George.

  During those dark days Livia and George hardly spoke, except when she asked him to do this or that; and he obeyed her then, blindly as a child himself.

  They hardly spoke because there was simply nothing to say after the one sharp, inevitable, and rather dreadful argument.

  When George came home late after a meeting and found Livia sitting up with Martin, who was ill and had a temperature, he was concerned, but not unduly so; and when he guessed that the thought of diphtheria was in her mind, he told her confidently not to worry, since the boy had been immunized. She just looked at him then and shook her head.

  Over the small tossing body and whilst waiting for the doctor, they thrashed the matter out.

  The fact was that when the free immunization scheme had gone into operation and he had told her to take Martin to the municipal clinic, she simply had not done so. And she had lied to him about it afterwards.

  He kept pacing up and down the bedroom, trying to grasp the situation. “So you didn’t do it? Oh, Livia, why didn’t you? How could you not do what I asked about a thing like that? Did you forget and then tell me a lie to cover it?…Oh Livia…Livia…”

  She answered: “I didn’t forget George. I went to the clinic once and saw the crowd lined up outside. I didn’t want to take Martin to a place like that.”

  His anger mounted. “Why not? For God’s sake what was wrong about it?”

  “I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the people there—I mean the other people with their children.”

  “Snob!” He shouted the word. “Weren’t they well-dressed enough for you?”

  “Most of them were as well-dressed as I could afford to be.”

  Yes, he knew that; he had let his anger tempt him into an absurdity as well as a side issue. “Then why—why?” he reiterated. “Why didn’t you have it done?”

  “I told you—I didn’t like the place. Some of the children looked dirty, and they had bad colds—”

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