from Mild and Bitter
INTRODUCTION: This is an excerpt from an unpublished novel written in the sixties. The title alludes to a British alcoholic drink brewed by Banks’s Park brewery in Wolverhampton, England. The drink consists of equal parts of mild ale and bitter beer, also known as M – and – B or half-and-half.
Suddenly I knew that I couldn’t go home. At least, not yet. Mechanically I took the right fork leading to the outskirts of Beckworth.
The Crown loomed up ahead. I hesitated for a moment then pulled in. Drinking on the way home was not usually a habit of mine. Not that I held any special views about it. I just didn’t have the sort of money to waste on too much drink.
Self-consciously I joined the small group at the bar.
“You’ll have to ring the bell, old boy,” boomed the executive type with the double whisky. I looked at him for a moment: his well-cut, dark grey suit identified him with the shiny new Jaguar I had seen outside. You either have it or you haven’t, I thought disconsolately, as I took my half of mixed over to the far corner.
It was three cigarettes later before I finally got down to thinking it all over. I should have known what to expect, I suppose, when I went in and the boss said, “Sit down, Jack. I want to talk to you.” Mr. Chambers rarely used first names except on special occasions. It was always Ramsden this and Ramsden that. The fact that he was decent about the news probably made it worse for me. After all, I had set my heart on the new job. It was mine for the asking, I had thought. Bob Smithers had talked quite openly about handing over to me when he retired. I would have filled his position well.
“Let me see, how long have you been in this job? Six years, isn’t it, Jack? Mr. Chambers had murmured. “Well, I don’t like passing you over, but the fact is, I’ve decided to bring in a new man as Purchasing Manager. I think it’s right for the company…not that I’m dissatisfied with your work,” he added. A shade too hastily, I thought.
I was too stunned to say anything. Old Joe, as we called him, fiddled with the paper knife on his desk. The strident ring of the telephone cut through the uncomfortable silence and he answered it with relief. When he put the phone down it was obvious that he had regained his poise. As he turned to face me once more he spoke with the usual note of authority.
“Things are not what they were,” he explained, “but you know that as well as I do. Margins are getting smaller all the time. We must keep on our toes. In all departments. Me, too, for that matter. And, well, I made up my mind that what the company needed was new blood. A new approach to things.” He was well into his stride now. My opportunity to protest at being overlooked had gone, if it had existed in the first place. I just sat there and let the words run over me. The new man’s name was Jukes and he would be my new boss. He had vast experience of our type of work, with an engineering background to boot. A pleasant fellow. Easy to get on with. About my age. Early forties or perhaps a bit older. Should have lots in common. My time would come. There would be other opportunities. Never forget a good man. And so he mumbled on. The name Jukes registered vaguely for one second, then was forgotten under the avalanche of words.
Then I was shaking hands with him. I was always surprised when old Joe stood up. He looked a big man behind that desk. It’s doubtful if he would get within three inches of my own five foot eleven in height.
“You won’t let me down, Jack. I know that. You’ll go on doing your best.”
What the hell could I say? Was he telling me or placating me? I nodded, managed a smile and got out.
Hearing an engine start up, I came back to the present. I looked through the pub window and saw the Jaguar glide off the car park. I hadn’t even noticed that I was alone, my thoughts had been so deep.
Putting down the money for another beer, I tried to come to terms with myself. Self-pity is something I rarely indulge in but I don’t like to admit to failure. I needed that job to keep me going. I needed the money too. I was thinking of Freda at the office, to whom I was attracted, even while I wondered what my wife Betty would say. They were both so unlike. Freda was so content and helpful even though her past year had been tragic; Betty so loving at one moment and so disparaging at the next. How the devil could I make her see that I wasn’t a failure? Even if she didn’t say it, her sister Elsie would make her think it.
That said, I had done a good job with my work, covering up for Smithers himself more than once. “Waiting for dead men’s shoes,” Betty used to say, when I told her confidently I would get his job when he retired. Again I thought of Freda. I wasn’t yet in love with her, but I could be. She was everything Betty was not. And yet I thought I still loved my wife deeply. Must be physical attraction, I thought wryly – for one or the other…
Time to go home, I decided as I lit another cigarette.
Immediately I saw Betty’s face I made up my mind that the news could wait. She looked so pretty, younger than her early forties, and flushed with excitement.
“What are you all dressed up like that for?’ I started to say, and then stopped, remembering we had promised to join Elsie and her husband.
She pouted in the same way she always did, a young girl again. “Oh, Jack! You’d forgotten! I wondered where you were. You promised to be early. It’s too bad, it really is. You know how Elsie hates holding up the food. It was embarrassing enough last time, without doing it twice running.” Her tone was reproachful enough to make me feel guilty.
Somehow I managed a smile. The prospect of an evening with Bill and Elsie was about the last straw as far as I was concerned. But I wasn’t going to let on.
“Well, you look worth waiting for,” I said. She did too. The green two-piece suited her. Looking at her it would be difficult to believe we had two teenage kids. I gave her a quick kiss to cover up my confused thoughts and hurried upstairs to change.
It was a short drive to the outskirts of Carchester so that we were no more than ten minutes late when we reached the Walk, where my sister-in-law and her bookmaker husband lived. Oakden Walk was a status symbol. Few could really afford to live there. All most of us could hope to achieve was a nodding acquaintance with the exalted who inhabited the area. All the houses were individually designed with large frontages and sweeping driveways. Some were modern while others were Georgian or Tudor and somehow they all managed to blend into a dignified whole. The rates on some of these houses would be nearly half my salary. What the upkeep was, I shuddered to think.
Bill and Elsie’s house was large, pleasant and comfortable. It was also a little overdone and larger than life. ‘Bookmaker’s Tudor” I called it and Elsie herself just managed to spoil the effect by tarting the place up with bric-a-brac. Often, after we had been round there Betty would say to me: “Did you see that shelf? I couldn’t live with all those ornaments. I should want to sweep them all off.” She may sometimes have envied her sister, but she had better taste.
Later, I looked across the table at Betty. She was laughing at something Bill had said. I thought again how different she was from her sister. Perhaps it was Bill who liked to see all that jewellery on display. Too much money had spoiled her. She had never had Betty’s looks. She had the same beautiful brown eyes and jet black hair, but there the likeness stopped. Betty had breeding.
I made polite noises as we rose from the table. Elsie smiled indulgently. It was obvious she didn’t give a damn whether we had enjoyed the food or not. Her main pleasure was that she could do things on a scale that we couldn’t possible emulate.
I didn’t mind. I didn’t envy her a bit—nor Bill. I wouldn’t have changed places with him for all his money, much as I liked his company. But I was always haunted by a secret fear that Betty was disappointed that I couldn’t give her the things that her sister had. After all, she liked beautiful things as much as any woman.
I could get along with Bill. Come to think of it, I suppose anyone could. He was big in every sense of the word. He must have been all of sixteen stone. His bald head and short, thick neck gave an exaggerated impression to his honest, open face. Often I had told him that his face was his fortune. “It helped a bit in the early days,” he would say with an amiable grin. If I needed help he was someone who would always give it. But I was too proud, too independent. Besides, I wouldn’t have given Elsie the satisfaction.
Passing my empty coffee cup to Elsie for a refill, I wondered how long it would be before she worked her way round to the subject of holidays. At the moment, they were talking about Brian, my young son. His latest job was at a ladies’ hairdressers’ salon.
“They call him Robert at the shop,” Betty said proudly. “It’s funny, I know it’s his other name, but I can’t get used to it. He’ll always be Brian to me.”
“How’s he getting on?” Bill asked, as I settled myself back beside him on the sofa.
“Brian? He’s taken to it like a duck to water.” I wasn’t too sure if I was pleased, knowing Brian’s restless nature.
“I’m glad he’s happy then,” Bill said stolidly. ‘If you’re not happy in your work, it’s hopeless.”
I nodded and Betty took up the conversation in a jovial fashion. Evenings here always seemed to excite her.
“He’s happy alright,” she proclaimed. ‘The women are all mad about him…at least, to hear him talk! You should hear some of the tales he tells about the customers, especially the middle-aged ones!” She giggled.
“I don’t suppose their husbands would think it so funny if they knew,” Bill chuckled.
Although I joined in the general laughter, it wasn’t funny to me either. It didn’t seem to worry Betty. Maybe she never thought about it like I did. Brian was mature for his age and, although he could look after himself, I often wondered how he’d make out if an older woman made an approach. I tried talking to him sometimes. But how can you talk to a precocious lad of nineteen?
Betty constantly reminded me that he should be thankful he’d settled down at last. She was right, I suppose. He couldn’t wait to leave school. There followed five jobs in two years. He was different from Kathy. She was a pretty kid, determined to get on in life. She would stay on at school for her A-levels…and get them too, if I was any judge.
As for Brian, for all his charm, he was good-looking, he was a man’s man. That’s why I had never imagined him in his present job.
“Has he still got the same girl?” Elsie asked.
Betty laughed with pride. “I shall have to stop and think when I last saw you! It’s Vicky at the moment. She’s a blonde. Nice girl. I know Jack can’t keep his eyes off her. It’s amazing what a mini-skirt can do.
Elsie joined in the merriment at my expense. Then she began to talk about the weather. She was turning the subject the way she wanted. It’s coming, I thought…
“It’s ghastly in England at this time of year, don’t you think?” she suggested.
I groaned inwardly.
“Why don’t you and Betty come with us this year?” she said brightly. She knew well enough we couldn’t afford her sort of holiday. “The children are old enough to look after themselves.”
I saw the angry light in Betty’s eyes, and restrained my own feelings with difficulty. I’d had enough for one day. Looking at Betty, I muttered something about time we went but she ignored me, continued to hit back.
“It suits us. We don’t like flamboyant things,” she said quietly. There was an uncomfortable silence for a moment. Even Elsie felt it. Then Bill said “Jack wouldn’t be able to manage the time anyway.” I even forgave him his garish tie and large diamond pin for the face-saving remark. “You don’t have to rush off yet,” he added, and reached out for the liqueur. He recharged the glasses, ignoring Betty’s mild protest that she didn’t want any drink.
“No, thanks. I prefer a cigarette,” I said pointedly.
“Here, then have one of these,” he insisted.
“How’s business?” I asked him, rather ungraciously taking an expensive cigarette from the box he offered.
“Oh, about the same. It doesn’t change much in our game. When things are good, they spend it. And when they’re bad, they try to make it up at our expense. So they spend it just the same. Still, they can’t all win, thank God. Fortunately for us, they never give up trying, though.”
Sitting there in Bill’s lavishly appointed house, it was not difficult to understand what he meant. Bookmaking had given him enough money.
By now Elsie and Betty had apparently reached common ground again and were deep in conversation. Give them their due, they always got over their tiffs quickly enough.
Suddenly, as if he had been mulling the problem over and had finally made up his mind, Bill leant over and said in a low voice, little above a whisper, “You know Bob Smithers, don’t you? He’s the boss of your department, isn’t he?”
I nodded, frowning.
“Do you know anything about his financial situation?”
“His financial situation?” I echoed, surprised. “I didn’t know you knew him.”
Bill merely inclined his head. “You’d be surprised the people I get to know in my line of business. I didn’t like asking you. Leaving isn’t he? You’ll have his job, I suppose.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. Luckily I didn’t have to answer.
“You know the blighter owes me a lot of money,” he said confidentially. “Keeps on adding it to his account until he’s up to it in debt to me.”
“But how?” I asked wonderingly. I knew he was fond of the horses…. always had been…but an inveterate gambler, Bob Smithers? I simply couldn’t believe it.
“He’s been betting heavily lately. Had a run of bad luck. These things have a habit escalating. It comes to them all in time.”
“How much does he owe you?”
“Over five hundred.”
“I shouldn’t have let him get so high. But I thought he was good for it. Now I’ve been pushing him a bit. He’s promised to clear it by the end of the month. But I wondered if he was stringing me along. Playing for time.” Bill looked at me steadily. “Tell me. Does he have anything coming? Golden handshake or anything?”
I shook my head. “No! Only his pension. It’s usually about half pay. Might be more in his case. He’s been with the firm a long time.” I frowned. All this was so unlike the Smithers I thought I knew. Just shows how appearances deceive.
Bill said nothing but the look on his face spoke volumes. I found myself thinking that I wouldn’t like to be in Smithers’ shoes. Bill was a good chap but different when he was crossed. And then I remembered the note of contempt in Bill’s voice when he asked about the golden handshake. I wondered if he knew more than he was prepared to say. More than I did, anyway.
I lit another cigarette and pondered upon the situation. Then I realized Elsie was speaking to me.
“Betty tells me that you’re getting a promotion,” she smiled. “I’m so pleased. You will be able to move from that ghastly neighbourhood at last.”
I could have smacked her silly face. Did she do it deliberately? How Betty ever came to have such a sister was a constant source of surprise to me.
“There’s been nothing settled yet,” I prevaricated, wishing that I’d told Betty the truth before we came. I turned to her hastily. “Come on, Bett, it’s time we were off,” I said pointedly.
Out in the car I pressed the starter switch for the third time without success and then, swearing under my breath, jumped out and gave it a couple of turns with the handle.
Betty was exasperated. I knew what was in her mind as she gave furtive glances up at her sister, standing there on the doorstep.
“It would have to happen right outside their house,” she groaned.
“She’s not the bloody sun, moon and stars, you know!” I snapped angrily.
Betty looked at me in amazement. “What’s got into you tonight? What has she ever done wrong to you?”
I got back in the car. Savagely I slammed the gear into reverse. The silence seemed to fill the car. Unable to bear it any longer I took one hand off the steering wheel and gave Betty’s arm a squeeze, my mood changing.
“Sorry, Bett,” I said. I hated to upset her but I also loathed being made to feel small by her sister.
Seconds later I felt the pressure of her hand on my leg.
“It’s alright,” she said. And I guessed it was.
We were nearly home when I thought of Bob Smithers again. Tossing it about in my mind, the whole business seemed ludicrous. Why should he get himself so involved? He would never be able to bet on that scale anyway. I knew what he earned. Three-fifty more than me. Admittedly useful, but hardly in the luxury stakes. Turning into the end of our street, I gave up thinking about it. I had my own problems.
John Leadbeater (1917–2005) was born in West Bromwich in the industrial heartlands of the English West Midlands. After serving in the Royal Navy during the Second World War he settled down to married life in Wolverhampton. He spent the greater part of his working life as Joint Managing Director of a firm in neighbouring Willenhall that was a manufacturer of metal pressings. Deeply affected by his wartime experience, he became a Quaker and joined the local Society of Friends. Passionate about sport, he was a lifelong member of West Bromwich Football Club and Worcestershire Cricket Club. For a period of several years he took up writing in his spare time, completing two novels and a series of short plays. After the death of his first wife, he married an American whom he met in Cambridge, England. He and his second wife moved to Somerset in his retirement where he took up painting as an alternative to writing.
The extract from this novel, which is published in his memory, was submitted by his son, Neil Leadbeater (who is also featured in this issue).
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