Herbert Mangle, the neo-Wordsworthian poet, used to claim that Councillor Mrs Thelma Dutt vied with the pit heap as Wallsend's noblest landmark. He was violently in love with her for three weeks, and one night was reading to her his Lines Written to a Vast Widow, when she perched on his knee and displaced a cartilage, rendering him unfit to keep goal for Wallsend Amnesia football team.
My Uncle Hal, Marxist team manager, upbraided this familiar Mangle surrender to the flesh and called on the Sunday School superintendent instead for the 'derby' match against Percy Main Static. The superintendent pointed out that he had a sprained thumb, sustained in striking the lectern during a sermon entitled 'Guard Thine Honour'. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that he smelt the battle far off and was willing to say among the trumpets, Ha ha.
'That's all right, then,' said Uncle Hal.
He would have preferred to hand the goalkeeper's jersey to Seppy Elphinstook, the celibate barber, who, because of his knock knees, seldom let a ball between his legs, but Elphinstook had lapsed into one of his misogynist spells, sitting in front of his fire, with his big toe sticking out of his sock, hating women.
'Mind you,' Uncle Hal told my old Aunt Emma, 'the serious horrors are those which seem respectable to respectable men.'
'Eat your apple dumpling,' said my old Aunt Emma.
When Seppy Elphinstook had been an eager young man in Hebburn, his father had planned for him a vaulting career as a tram inspector, but he hankered after the glamour of hairdressing and ran away to Wallsend, swearing that his immortal soul was not to be compromised.
Now, with the onset of middle age, he was sunk in disillusionment. Hairdressing had turned out to be less than fulfilling, and while the shop was full of shaggy customers, he would languish in his kitchen, dashing off wild water paintings of nude historical characters, in the time he could spare from hating women.
To Herbert Mangle, hating women was an alien philosophy. As it happened, even as he suffered his dislocated cartilage, he was about to break with Mrs Dutt anyway, because he had just got engaged to the two ginger barmaids at the Dun Cow. When the rupture came, however, Mrs Dutt blamed it on Uncle Hal, her ancient adversary, and next day she cut him dead when she came on him standing on his hands down by the Gut.
There had been animosity between them since the council elections, when Uncle Hal had opposed her, standing as a Theoretical Nudist, his contention being that there was a pressing need for nakedness in politics. 'No politician,' he told my old Aunt Emma, 'could indulge in pompous dissimulation while the absurdities of his physique were plain to see.'
'The blood'll rush to your head,' said my old Aunt Emma.
Thelma Dutt was a highly moral woman, president of the League of Decent Ladies, and she frequently censured the public exposure of footballer's knees. After a bitter election campaign, she had been returned with a majority of 897; Uncle Hal's eleven votes were cast by Wallsend Amnesia first team plus one reserve, Herbert Mangle spoiling his paper by writing on the back a sonnet to the Returning Officer's wife's buttocks.
Uncle Hal, while regretting his increasing shagginess, felt a distinct sympathy for Seppy Elphinstook, not least because he was himself a theoretical bachelor with theoretical nudist undertones. Shaw, he told my old Aunt Emma, had pointed out that marriage was a monstrous impediment, although we should all remember that when the Life Force beckoned, we had to follow.
'Have you seen my pudding cloth?' asked my old Aunt Emma.
Just at that time, the Life Force had lured Uncle Hal into the Nonconformists' Philosophy and Ping Pong Group and he inaugurated his year of chairmanship by promoting an Art Exhibition, in the time he could spare from standing on his hands.
The reason why he performed daily handstands in his football pants, bringing the blood to his head, was partly that he was in training for the 'derby' match and partly that the upside-down view across the pit heap called out his austere love of the primitive. It was this same craving for the natural life that had prompted him to take the job of temporary Turkish Baths attendant, pending the advent of the Marxist society.
Seppy Elphinstook's submission to the Art Exhibition was a wild water painting depicting Sir Walter Raleigh introducing potatoes to England in the nude. Uncle Hal applauded this. Could Asquith, he asked Mrs Dutt, have denied the vote to women if he had stood naked at the Despatch Box?
Mrs Dutt said he was incorrigible, but she might at least redeem a misguided celibate, and she sped to the barber's shop, where she found Seppy Elphinstook sobbing softly over a nude of Nelson falling at Trafalgar. It was in that moment that the Life Force beckoned to a vast widow.
Meanwhile, Herbert Mangle's engagement to the two barmaids was broken off when he absent-mindedly read to them his lines dedicated to Mrs Dutt:
If Helen's face could launch a thousand ships,
Ten thousand might be sunk by Thelma's hips.
My old Aunt Emma never found her pudding cloth, and yet she steamed an apple dumpling on the eve of the football match, which may have been why Uncle Hal's shrunken football pants on that sorry occasion revealed some of the absurdities of his physique. The Sunday School superintendent was ordered off after calling the referee a latter-day Nebuchadnezzar, and Wallsend Amnesia lost 23-0.
The following Monday, Uncle Hal, demoralised by this and by Herbert Mangle's elopement with the nurse who had set his cartilage, entered the Turkish Baths and wandered in error into the ladies' department. The only occupant was Mrs Dutt and in the horrified three-and-a-half minutes before he fled, he verified the accuracy of Herbert Mangle's lines.
Next morning, he was hand-standing by the Gut in shrunken pants when Mrs Dutt came along. He gazed fixedly at the upside-down pit heap and waited to be cut down. As it transpired, however, it was the first time in Wallsend's history that a theoretical nudist had to guard his honour from a Decent Lady.
Not that the Life Force was to be denied. Mrs Dutt sped again to the barber's shop, and so it came that Seppy Elphinstook, joining the ranks of respectable men, painted a ruff around Raleigh's neck and succumbed, with mended sock, to matrimony. All it cost him was his immortal soul.