Tommy's Black Friday

By Ron Waywell

"Now look!" said Tommy Dutton's Mam. "Here's fourpence. A penny for your comic, and while you're there, get two ounces of boiled ham, off the bone, cut thin, for your gran's tea."

A good week this week. Very often, in those dark days of 1928, Gran would have to be content with chicken and ham roll at tuppence, and there would be no Theatre Royal outing for Tommy's Mam and dad. But this week Dad’s money had come in well from his window cleaning, so tonight they'd be off to the Rep. and would bring back veal and ham whist pies for supper to complete seven-year old Tommy’s blissful evening spent with Gran.

After Grandad died, Gran had moved in with Mam and Dad and had been given the front room of the little terraced house. Tommy loved his gran's room. It smelled of warm humanity and was full of the most intriguing treasures. The aspidistra in the shiny green pot never seemed to need water, and the green bobbles on the velvet mantelshelf gave an air of shabby opulence to the cosy, old-fashioned room.

There was a battered gramophone with a large tin horn, and lots of records in stained cardboard sleeves with strange titles like "Toreador Song," "Boiled Beef and Carrots," "Liberty Bell," and "Never Let Your Braces Dangle." It was a deep source of regret to Tommy that the gramophone wouldn't play.

The books on the bookshelf were mouldy with damp and age, but Tommy loved to look at the engraved pictures and spell out the titles. Roderick Random, Peregrine Fickle, Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Vanity Fair. Tommy was determined that one day he would read them all.

"Well! Are you going or not?"

Tommy came out of his daydream and, clutching the coppers, ran through the cobbled back streets to his Aladdin's cave.

Pushing open the door of the corner shop, Tommy entered a wonderland of scents and sights. He was entranced with Daddy Blackshaw's, and his one ambition was to reach eleven years old and join the elite who were allowed to take round the shop's newspapers for two shillings a week. Then perhaps he could save to have Gran's old gramophone repaired.

As usual, the store’s massive gray cat wound its way between Tommy's legs and mimed a miaow as he stooped to stroke it, enjoying the dusty texture of its coarse fur. After its token welcome, the cat returned to its usual place in the corner of the shop window and settled under the cardboard cut-out advertising "Pink Pills for Pale People."

Enjoying the smells of overripe cheese, smoked bacon, and paraffin oil, Tommy carefully negotiated the penny bundles of firewood in the corner. Whenever he got the chance he loved to pick the orange jewels of solidified resin from the pieces of firewood and then inhale the fumes from his sticky fingers.

Now he was on his way to the paper-racks. The Hotspur, Rover, Magnet, and Gem were there for his future delight, and one day he would thrill to the adventures of The Wolf of Kabul and Chang, his native servant. But Friday night to Tommy meant Butterfly night and he lovingly selected the green comic. What would Alfie the Air Tramp be up to this week, he wondered?

Old Daddy Blackshaw was in his usual place behind the post office grill, a well-worn tweed trilby lending an air of seedy respectability to his activities. Tommy was invariably reminded of a benevolent gorilla as the shambling old man carried out his various tasks behind the grill. He was left-handed and held the steel-nibbed pen in a curious position, approaching his writing from the top of the page. Tommy loved nothing more than to see Daddy moisten a nicotine-stained finger and riffle through a pile of ten-shilling notes or to see him punish postal orders with his wooden-handled stamper.

By tradition, Iris Blackshaw presided over the "cooked meats": corned beef, chicken-and-ham roll, and boiled ham. The beef and chicken came from tins, but the boiled ham was special: home cooked in the kitchen behind the shop.

Iris Blackshaw was frail, with sparse hair scraped back and held in a bun. She had only one tooth in her head, and that was positioned just left of centre in her lower jaw. She wore a very small pair of steel-rimmed spectacles over which she peered while carving her meats.

"What is it this week, Tommy?" she wheezed, applying a sodden handkerchief to her nose.

Tommy passed on his Mam’s requirements and leaned, chin on counter, to watch Mrs. Blackshaw carve the ham. This procedure had always fascinated Tommy. The ham, complete in a thick envelope of snow-white fat, liberally dusted with golden breadcrumbs, lay in a sea of translucent yellow jelly on a huge chipped Willow Pattern plate.

With a horn-handled fork and carving knife, Mrs. Blackshaw sliced the ham lovingly, and Tommy watched as the joint slithered in its jelly. As usual, the saliva started in Mrs. Blackshaw's toothless jaws, and she sucked at it noisily as she carved the ham in wafer-thin slices. In some strange way, Mrs. Blackshaw's noisy appreciation made the ham seem even more delicious, and Tommy relished the sticky-sweet aroma of the still-warm meat. He waited impatiently as it was wrapped in greaseproof paper and was soon on his way home through the mist-shrouded streets to spend his evening with Gran.

On these special Friday theatre nights, as well as the boiled ham for tea, Dad would treat Gran to a large bottle of' milk stout from the off-licence, and it was Tommy's joy to take it in to her.

Gran was leaning back in the old armchair before a glowing coal fire, her grey hair tucked into a man's flat cap, which was perched on her head. Every autumn Gran resorted to the warm cap and only discarded it when spring came. Her black serge skirt was drawn up and stretched tightly across her parted legs, and with her side-buttoned boots planted firmly on the homemade peg rug, she was able to take full comfort from the gleaming coals.

Tommy sat on the green velvet footstool at the other side of the hearth and watched his gran go through the well-loved ritual. She thrust the poker into the fire, and when it was red hot, she took it out and plunged it into the mug of stout. "Plenty of iron there," she murmured as she sipped the steaming brew.

Then they settled down, at peace with the world: Tommy with his comic and Gran with her warm milk stout.

And so it was, every special Friday—until that terrible day.

Gran had been poorly for a fortnight, and Mam had had to nurse her in the back bedroom. Tommy's Mam seemed obsessed with cleaning, and each evening when he came in from school she was tired and preoccupied. There was an air of despondency about the house, and Mam refused to answer any questions about Gran's illness. Tommy sensed that there was something very wrong.

And then, that Friday night…..

"Tommy, love," his Mam said. "You'll have to go to Deakin's on the Green for your comic from now on. And call in at Pennington's for four savoury ducks on the way. Ask him for plenty of gravy, and don't drop the basin. Here's a sixpence, and you can keep the change if you're a good boy. Now don't ask questions—just do as you're told."

Tommy ran down the lane, unhappy at the change of routine but resigned in the knowledge that with the extra spending money he could also buy a copy of Sunny Stories featuring Billy and Bunny.

That evening, with Gran in the back bedroom recovering from her mysterious illness, there would be no theatre visit. Tommy tried to concentrate on his comic, but the questions kept going through his mind. His Mam and dad were playing cards at the kitchen table. But at last....

"Mam," he asked, "why can't I go to Blackshaw's any more? And why won't you say what's wrong with gran?"

Mam pursed her lips with a look of speculation on her face. There was a pause, and then she said at last. "Well, I suppose you'd better know. Your gran’s not the only one who's been poorly. There are other people as well. Your Aunty Freda for instance. It's food poisoning. Bad meat. They've closed Daddy Blackshaw's shop and taken his licence away. From what they say, the back kitchen was filthy with grease and crawling with cockroaches. I'd never have thought it with the Blackshaws. They're such a nice old couple. What will happen to them I don't know."

And then the bombshell.

Mam turned to Tommy's dad and said, "One good thing about me Mam, though. I've been able to get into that room of hers. I tell you—the junk she's been hoarding! Useless rubbish! Anyway, I know she won't thank me for it, but a totter took it away this afternoon. Mouldy old books, tatty clothing, scratched records, and that eyesore of a gramophone cluttering up the place. I wouldn't mind if it worked. Anyway, the whole lot's gone. God knows what she'll say, but we'll face that when she's better."

And then Mam saw Tommy's face. "Why, love, what's the matter?" she murmured. "Come here to Mam."

Copyright 2002, Ron Waywell

About the Author

Ron is 80 years old and served with the British Army in India (and Ceylon) during World War II. He retired from the teaching profession in 1985 and, following his wife's death shortly afterwards, took up creative writing as a hobby. Since then he has had short stories and poetry published and broadcast. The North West Network of the B.B.C has broadcast seventeen of his stories.

Ron Waywell passed away at the age of 86 in 2008.

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