There was one night and it was wet and cold and nobody seemed to be wanting to have anything to with anyone else in our household.
So far as I can recollect everyone was getting on each other’s G strings. That is, the G strings of two boys and one adult woman. Mind you in those days there were no shocking/psychological overtones when the G string were played. You could hammer them all you wanted, and if the discord fifths and sevenths and the halfs and ninths beat forth, it didn’t much matter. It was all out the window screaming to insignificance in the narrow ways of dear old Hoddle St.
But this night our pulses were crook, the temperature was down and the radiator was round the bend. I don’t know what occasioned this melancholia unless it was the chops.
Mother, after dutifully fitting us out with grilled mutton chops and mashed swedes heaved her customary sigh. God knows why she sighed because we always had grilled chops. That is, at least to my recollection, although to be strictly honest I do remember haricot mutton a couple of times during my life in Paddington.
Of course, up at Grandpa’s place on Fridays they always had fish. What’s more it always seemed to be bloody garfish. Mum and Jack and I used to invariably eat at the old man’s on Fridays and it was always me who had to go up to the flaming fish shop to get the flaming stuff. I couldn’t stand it! It was not fair to small boys to have to hang around all the old trouts who were hopping in for their chop of Lenten (and Pentecostal and every other Holy Day) fish. I was always last in the queue, even if I had started in the front, and it vexed me no end. But; In my knickerbockers (or poop-catchers as they were called) I was, even if stood back distinguished as the snottynosed grandson of the ex-mayor of Paddington, and there was always plenty of garfish for John White, who was my grandfather.
GARFISH! My mother made it look as she enjoyed it. Grandpa obviously did, despite the way I imagine it had been cooked. Jack and I used to have the horrors. Nothing but wretched hair-like bones without the semblance of flesh to bless the name. Little needles which stuck in our gums and between our wonderful new teeth. And the chips – well, somehow we could stand the chips – a bit cold and greasy by the time we picked the odds and ends of the classified advertisements off them – perhaps I should never have complained about the chips.
However, things weren’t as bad as all that on Fridays, especially when I could see my love on the way home with her hot greasy parcel smuggled neatly in the crook of her lovely skinny arm.
But this day I began about. It wasn’t a Friday, and I don’t know why I keep on talking about Friday. Why Fridays have suddenly become so important I don’t know – it could have been a Friday, or then it couldn’t because obviously we were at Grandpa’s, and it couldn’t have been a Saturday because we weren’t allowed out, and it couldn’t have been a Sunday, because the pictures weren’t on. What’s all this about pictures – who mentioned pictures? Oh yes, such a poor blizzardly night and much meagre chops. It must have so dispirited our mother that in response to our half-hearted request to go to the pictures she agreed. Of course I was too young to realise how happy she must have been to allow us to go after we were not supposed to have asked.
God knows who did the washing-up in those days – I don’t remember, must have been someone. It must have been your grandmother because we had willow-pattern plates and we had them for a long time, much longer than if you or I had been attending to the chores.
In those days such labours as I am speaking of were performed in a kitchen, not on the patio or sundeck. In our kitchen there was mostly stove. It jutted from its murky corner like an altar. Gas pipes convolved round its massive sweaty chest. It sported an asthmatic griller on which our mutton chops were eternally sizzling and spitting at the leaded walls.
All across the mantlepiece over the defunct fuel stove which was full of books and ancient newspapers and dog soap and boot polish, was the most Pidgeon-like embroidery in American cloth you could ever wish to see.
Most kids these days have the misfortune to live in functional houses. Harry Seidler and his butterflied mob of glassy-eyed ascetics ever worry about us kids? How in the hell can you ride a scooter behind the stove, or find somewhere to drape a newspaper cut in jaunty symmetry? There are those pallid marble mantlepieces which crumbled in boy made pieces into the inevitable and unmerited rubble?
We had a sink too. It was in a far corner. Our kitchen was huge and this corner was always dark and one could never really tell whether the tap was on or off unless by listening. The tap was close to two feet above the sink, and if one had the mind to, would have served most adequately as a shower. I can’t recall what the sink was made off but it always had washing-up about to be done, or halfway done, or about time it was done. It was just that somebody always seemed to be dirtying something. Either the fish and chip ware or the Shelley or the Royal Doulton – because, mark you, we sometimes had our little graces.
All this is a far cry from getting up to the brand new Five Ways picture show, a temple of beauty and joy for well-nigh ever. Brother Jack who could cope with anything had no preferences as to what he would like to see. Just to be around and eye the girls was his modest happiness. I, being less earthy, prayed shut-eyed grimly for a shipwreck and the Robinson Crusoe act. My call was heard and the Admirable Crighton was duly wrecked to my great thanksgiving but what that fellow got up to later on in the picture was not in the good man Friday tradition. Still, I got my wreckage and didn’t grumble. What with the hail doing a Cozy Cole on the tin roof and the frantic screechings of the shutters being hauled to, my cup was full of joy.
Pearl White lay her limpid neck on the railway track and Miss Withers dithered. Miss Withers, at the piano, gave with a Chopin Polonaise and breaked into “Hearts and Flowers”. Miss Withers, very alone, down in the front, at the mercy of the filmy hooves, lonely played all the heartbeats of silver love.
Ben Turpin rolled his crossed-eyed orb. Marches, mazurkahs, scherzos, cadenzas, scales, glissandos, a whole Hammond organ full of tricks jounced from the isolated knuckles.
I suppose there must have been only about a hundred people in the picture palace for times were hard and if you didn’t have a few pounds weight of old newspapers or a half dozen empty bottles to sell to the greengrocer you were a gone goose for dough. Today it is different because everybody is well off and sits at home watching the TV for thirty bob a week.
Anyway, there are these hundred people, a hundred and one counting Miss Withers banging away at the goanna, and all of a sudden, in the middle of the Ben Turpin picture this character starts to laugh. He (the character) is as poor as a St George’s Church mouse, but he laughs. Why?
Don’t ask me, except it is Ben Turpin. But anyhow, he laughs and you think he hadn’t a care in the world. He was in the last row of the cheapest seats which had set him back ninepence.
He trumpeted on the tonic chord of Eb major, got into all the arpeggios and fluted into A sharp enharmonic and then did a swift roll on the drums. Miss Withers had stopped. Mr Cheapseat kookaburraed to thirty-six points of the compass. He had the audience wet. They streamed stitchfully past the paralysed Miss Withers into the roaring exitful night.
I would like to draw that laugh for you. None of your swivel-nosed giggles for him. From the soles up, laughed he.
Not a soul was saved.
Wep’s sketch of that laugh has not been found, if indeed it was drafted. However, the following cartoon gives suggestion as to what he would have intended.
Update: Cartoon rough identified