APennySpitfire-frontcover[The blog post this week is a short story…. Time is a sequel to the novella A Penny Spitfire, picking up several of the characters and projecting them forward a decade or so. It was a ‘runner-up’ in the Earlyworks Press 2012 Short Story competition, and slated to go in the anthology, but, editor Kay Green decided not to publish it without speech marks….. and BHD doesn’t do speech marks any more! You have to suffer for your Art! I hope you like it as it is.]

Time

The late summer sun was nearly down over the Staffordshire hills. An orange light flooded into the concrete skeleton of the new tower block. A train whistle blew. There were still steam engines in the brewery yards, but not for much longer. Maurice Cropper felt a twinge of sadness at their passing.

The bunting had all gone. So had the trestle tables, the plates of dainties, the wide shallow champagne glasses, and the bottles of pale ale for the workers, who had all decamped to the Odd Dog public house round the corner, from which the sound of Lonnie Donnegan on the juke box drifted up into the wall-less structure of the new building. Maureen had stayed late to help with the clean-up operation. She was a good girl.

The mayor had attended, along with several councillors, the Chairman of the Chamber of Trade and some local businessmen. Charles Bury’s older brother had taken charge and led the toasts. They had drunk French champagne, over priced and over rated, Maurice thought, and tasting like vinegar. He’d managed a few glasses though and he was a little light headed. That was why he was keeping well back from the edge. Maurice Cropper Falls to His Death. He imagined the headline. And from his own building. What a silly fool he’d look.

Charles Bury’s older brother had escorted the mayoral party back down the scaffolding ladders after the topping out ceremony, saying that he would be back later.

Now the building looked as it had in the morning, like a house of grey cards propped on stubs of pencil. That’s what it looked like to Maurice, viewed from The Mount. He’d gone up there with one of the press photographers to get some pictures. King of All He Surveys, the photographer had suggested, only half joking.

Maurice looked at his watch. Just after half-past seven. How much longer would Charles Bury’s brother be? The site was deserted now, apart from himself, and Maureen, hanging on below in the site office. A row of dumper trucks, like battered toys, stood on what would be the square, or plaza, as they liked to call it. Three cranes saluted. Wheelbarrows had been upended in a long line. For some reason that he could not fathom they reminded him of the Tiller girls.

For a moment the sun setting above the false horizon of the hills outside the town, blinded him. Shadows like bars were flung down from the concrete pillars, falling to either side of him. He stepped back and it was as if he had turned off a light.

Mr Cropper? Maureen’s voice. She must have climbed back up the scaffolding ladder, and in that skirt. Your wife’s on the phone. He felt a momentary irritation, as if he had been interrupted in the middle of something important. He turned and saw Maureen, caught in the sun-glare, her eyes screwed up, a hand out in front of her, palm outward, a look of enquiry on her face. When she sat down at the office stool, in that skirt, you could see her knickers. He imagined pushing her against one of the pillars, taking her there and then. She was asking for it, dressed like that. They all were, these days. She would let him too, he was pretty sure, but the thought repelled rather than excited him.

Tell her I’m still up here. I’ll phone her when I come down.

I told her that, Mr Cropper.

The irritation flared again.

All right Maureen. I’ll come down and ring her in a minute.

Yes, Mr Cropper. She turned away, out of the light, and began to pick her way carefully down the lashed ladder. Those dirty buggers, he thought, picturing the workmen, would all be standing at the bottom, if they had not already left.

The light faded. The sun was darkening against the skyline. The raft of concrete was grey and cold, the concrete pillars gritty with shadow. He looked out over the town. The red brick was smoke black. The slates were gun-metal blue. Doubt took him, and behind that came certainty. You could not change the town, rebuild it how you might. The white towers of the re-development would not give it the bright future that Charles Bury had dreamed of. They would change nothing, except that he and Charles’ brother would become rich. He remembered his words to Derek Fitton. Ah’m talkin’ abaht mekkin’ big munny. They would have it too, big money.

A breeze skipped across the bare concrete floor whipping up puffs of white dust. There was rebuilding everywhere, demolition, re-construction. The steam locomotives were going, the railways shrivelling like desiccated roots, replaced by lorries, his own not least among them. There were more cars. Everything was changing, what people wore, the music they listened to. Yet something about the town remained unchanged. There was something in the people that stubbornly resisted and could only be disguised, not truly repaired, like cracks in brickwork given a coat of plaster, papered over.

He felt like a stranger here now, even in his own building. He felt like a stranger in the town, though he had never left it. He felt like a stranger in England, in the world. It was as if it were all leaving him behind. He pictured one of his trucks, the handbrake inadvertently left off, slowly rolling away from him, no-one in the cab, and he too tired to chase it. The world was like that. It too was rolling away from him, year by year, picking up speed.

It was the young people who were to blame. They did not want what he had striven for. Yet, maybe that was not so foolish. He was not sure that he wanted it now, not even sure what he had wanted, now that at last it was almost within his grasp. There was something though, that still eluded him, something that he could not begin to reach out for, that he could not even name, yet something that he knew he lacked.

What the hell did Betty want anyway, ringing him at this time? She had known he would be late. He would not go down now. Charles Bury’s brother would be arriving at any moment. They would thrash out for one last time the issue of the naming of the site. Then he would find out what it was that his wife wanted.

Charles Bury’s brother was unhappy with the idea of naming the new building after Charles. He wanted it to be called simply, The Bury Building.

That would include my father, he had said, when the time comes.

When the time comes, Maurice Cropper had answered. It had near as dammit come already for George Bury, stuck in his bloody wheelchair for what was it now? Fifteen years? Yes, that was it. The same year as poor Charles.

He shifted uneasily, looked over the edge. Whenever he thought of Charles, at least when he did so while he was on the site, the question forced itself into his consciousness of where it had happened. It had still been a bombsite in those days. He recalled the two long ridges of rubble. It had been between them that Charles had been found, shot through the heart. What a bloody waste. He’d never been close to Charles of course. The boy was a nancy. He was sure of that, but he had borne him no ill will. He remembered looking around the site with Charles and Derek Fitton only a few days before it happened, passing Albert off as a Pole.

Now he was a character, was Albert. He’d gone back to Germany in fifty-five. No warning, he’d just upped sticks and left. Now is the time, Mr Cropper. He’d been a good foreman. The men would work for him. He’d had some funny ideas though, had gone on about the Henry Street site not being safe to build on. Hollow, Mr Cropper, he used to say, banging his heel down upon the bulldozed ground. It hadn’t sounded hollow. Not good to build on, Albert had insisted. What had that been all about, Maurice Cropper wondered.

He looked down. Trenches, for the footings of the shops, for the drainage pipes, and the power cables, criss-crossed the ground below him. He tried to remember the orientation of the mounds of rubble.

George Bury’s stroke had happened only a little while before. Derek Fitton still visited him, once a week.

I should visit, Cropper told himself, though he wouldn’t recognise me. What is it Fitton expects to get out of it, he asked? Charles’ brother has the reins now.

He nodded. He and the brother had already started working together by then of course. That was lucky.

Keep an eye on the boy, George had said, meaning the older one. We’ll let Charles have his head until the re-construction starts.

That was supposed to have been shortly, and straight after the shooting it looked as if it might be. There had been an almighty outcry. ‘Nest of Rats’ the papers had said. They’d bulldozed the site flat, carried everything away: rubble, timber, old ironwork. Then it had stalled.

That had been the brother’s doing. Ten years, more, he’d held the job up. The time’s not right, Maurice. How often had he heard that?

He’s waiting me out, Maurice had thought, waiting for me to die. That was silly of course. There weren’t that many years between them.

And now, at last, they had the roof on the main complex, not the cladding, but the structure was complete. He could see the money at the end of the rainbow. Yet somehow it didn’t matter anymore. What was it for, after all? Back then he’d toyed with the idea of emigrating: Malta. Valetta. A villa overlooking the harbour, but Betty hadn’t been keen. He wondered, if push had come to shove, if he would have gone alone.

He would now, but now he didn’t want to go at all. It was too late for adventures like that. In fact, he wasn’t sure what he would do at all, with the money, the real, cash-in-your-hand money, when it started to roll in. There was nothing he really wanted.

He looked down at his watch. Nearly eight o’clock. Maureen would be wanting to get away. She would have the site office locked up and be ready to go. The sun was down, but the light would linger on for an hour or so. Where was Bury? He should have been here by now. Cropper turned to the east, and crossed to the other side of the building. Night waited on the far side of town. Derek Fitton’s gate was still open, on the far side of Edward Street. He realised he was standing where Henry Street would have stood, higher on this fourth floor than any of its rooftops had been, higher than the mounds of rubble that had replaced it.

He looked down, onto the back of the Odd Dog pub. A song he didn’t recognise was being played, repetitive, jangling. The Oddie had hardly changed over the years. It needed a lick of paint, and there were several slates missing from the roof. The Ferrymans still had it, but he no longer went in. The workmen off the building site used it now. When they went, it would go too, he had no doubt.

Cropper! The voice of Charles Bury’s older brother, deepened by the funnel through which it reached him, echoed up the breeze-block lift shaft. He turned to look, as if the man might have scaled the bare blockwork.

Cropper!

Maurice wondered what Betty had wanted. It was unheard of for her to call him at work. They barely talked when they were together. It had not always been like that. She had been a lively one once. Get Betty Cropper and Vi Ferryman together and you were sure of a laugh; a dangerous sort of laugh he recalled, feeling his testicles contract. You could never be sure how far they would go, with what they were saying, with what they made you think they might do. He remembered her speaking of Derek Fitton, when that Eytie girl was still around. Who does he get it out for then? Out with it, just like that. He hadn’t known where to look. Even Tom Ferryman had looked shocked.

Cropper!

The voice was coming from the scaffolding ladder now. Charles Bury’s brother would be with him in a moment. They would talk about the naming of the building again. Victory Plaza, for the square, had been agreed. Charles Bury Place, or Towers, or Building, for the main complex, had not. He would be lucky to get a bloody bench in the memorial gardens if the older brother got his way.

There you are.

He was only a few years younger than Maurice, but they were of different generations, or was it class, outlook? Maurice was heavily built, round shouldered. He stood as if poised to stoop to some manual task. His skin was dark and blotchy, the pores enlarged on his cheeks.

Charles Bury’s brother was slim, blond hair cropped short. So like his brother. So unalike. He still wore the black leather gloves, although the scars must have faded by now. His mouth seemed to hold in a scornful smile, eager to be released. Maurice Cropper resolved to hold out for Charles Bury. It could be Building, Towers, Place, or what you liked, but it must be Charles.

Striding towards him Charles Bury’s older brother saw the other man’s face harden.

So, he thought, the bitch has phoned, as she had threatened to do.

He felt again the tingle on his cheek, where she had slapped him, and saw his un-gloved hands upon the back of her head, pulling it on to him.

Charles Bury’s brother decided to brazen it out. Maurice Cropper was a fool. He was a boor. There was no need to worry too much about his feelings, besides which there was no love lost any longer between Betty and him. She had said so herself, if not in so many words.

You’ve spoken to Betty, then, he said, bracing himself for the response. If Cropper cut up rough he would give him the thrashing of his life. There was nobody up here to see.

Not you as well, Cropper said, seeming more irritated than angry. Look, I’ve said I’ll phone her when I’ve finished up here.

You mean you’ve not spoken to her, Bury said, feeling a sudden light-headedness.

I don’t know what’s so bloody important.

Ah, well. That’s women for you.

Maurice swept out his arms as if gathering up the building.

We need to deal with this, he said. The naming of it. He looked Bury in the face. You know I’m in favour of…

Charles Bury Building.

Something like it.

Well, fine.

Pardon?

That’s fine by me.

It is?

Of course.

But I thought…

The Charles Bury Building. It’s not what he would have wanted for himself.

I suppose not.

But it’s a matter of what we want for him.

Yes, of course.

That’s settled then.

Maurice Cropper felt a sense of disappointment, as if he had been adroitly argued out of something, rather than given in to, as if the name had been Bury’s idea all along.

I think we should go down to the Odd Dog, Charles Bury’s brother said, and stand the men a round.

Well. That was a surprise. The idea of Charles Bury’s older brother in the Oddie seemed unnatural. Charles had gone in of course, with Fitton, back then. They’d gone in the public, an odd choice. Betty and he had always used the Parlour. All right, then, he said.

Yellow light and the sound of Lonnie Donnegan again spilled out of the open side door of the Odd Dog and into the alleyway.

Not that way, Maurice said, old habits reasserting themselves. We’ll go in the front. The Parlour was cold and dark, and empty. Of course, there was no fire on at this time of year. He rang the little bell on the counter, and Tom Ferryman came through, looking older.

Bloody hell, he said. Maurice Cropper. I haven’t seen you in a month of Sundays. He looked across at Bury, glancing down at the black gloves, but still waiting to be introduced.

This is Charles Bury’s older brother, Tom, Maurice said.

Pleased to meet you.

Mr Ferryman.

So, Tom Ferryman wiped his hands on his towel. What can I get you? The usual, Maurice?

Yes, the usual, why not? And a gin with tonic water for Mr Bury.

Right you are.

Bury stepped forward, drawing large white banknotes from his wallet.

I’ll get these, and a round for Cropper’s boys. They’re in the public bar?

Yes.

This enough, he asked, handing over the notes.

Plenty, sir. I’ll…

Keep the change, Charles Bury’s brother told him.

I’ll give Vi a shout when I’ve got these in, Tom Ferryman said.

She would look the same, Maurice Cropper thought. She would always look the same, like Betty. Women like them did not fade. Which of them had led the other on, he wondered? Neither if truth be told. They had encouraged each other. Like sisters they’d been, Betty the older, and Vi egging her on. He felt the glow of that old excitement rise to his cheeks. Not like the girls these days, with it all hanging out on show, like Maureen in that short skirt. Betty and Vi had made you work for it, and you did. What he would give for a glimpse of stocking top right now. The glow turned to crimson and there, behind the bar, looking at him, stood Violet Ferryman.

Maurice Cropper, you old rogue. Where have you been?

He was ashamed to answer.

I’ve been around.

Not around here. I hear tell you’ve been drinking in The Redfern, all inglenooks and bay windows. That was true. And eating at the Woodley Arms.

He made a diffident shrug. He had moved up in the world. That was what they called it.

How’s Betty?

She’s all right.

I miss our evenings together.

He’d thought he might have both of them one night. They’d done a lock-in after closing time, just the four of them. It had been in here, in the Parlour. In this very room. Not like it was now. It had been warm then, from the fire, and redly dark with lamplight and candles. Betty and Vi had started dancing, to some smoochy number on the gramophone, side by side, bumping their hips together, lifting the hems of their skirts. He had not dared to look at Tom. It had been an invitation, but he and Tom had stayed rooted to their chairs. They had been afraid. He had been afraid. He could see that now.

A sudden longing to fall to his knees and press his head into the folds of her skirts overcame him; to press his face into the folds of Betty’s skirts.

Put one by for Mr Cropper, will you, Charles Bury’s brother was saying.

Certainly sir.

I’ve got to go old man, he said. No need to hurry. There’s a drink behind the bar for you. Take it through to the lads if you like. That would keep him here until they closed. Maurice looked up and nodded to Charles Bury’s brother’s back as he left.

Poor Charles, Vi Ferryman said, half to herself.

Ah! Tom. Seeing Maurice again tonight has made me think. She stared at the opposite wall of the bedroom and settled the bed-jacket around her shoulders. We should sell the Oddie. We should get out while we can. It’s busy now. You said it would be when the building got going. It’s taken long enough, God knows. But it looks like a good business now. That won’t last. Once they’ve finished it all, things’ll change. The people who’ll go shopping in the new centre, they won’t want to come in here. There’ll be no entrance to Edward Street anyway. And there’ll be new cafes, milk bars, maybe even a restaurant. There’ll be a new pub. We’ll be forgotten, Tom, just a backwater.

But if we could sell now, while it’s busy all week long, that would be someone else’s problem. We could get part time jobs if we needed to, to make ends meet. We don’t need that much, Tom. We don’t need to live like Charles Bury’s brother, nor like Maurice come to that. It’s time we need, Tom. It struck me when I saw him, Tom, how he’d aged. There’s no love lost between Betty and him these days. You can see that in his eyes. Not like us, Tom. We’ve got what we need, Tom, except for time. It’s always time that slips past you while you’re not looking. What do you think, Tom?

She looked down, to where he lay beside her.

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