A Hanging Matter
As a vegetarian republican, Uncle Hal ought not to have been present when King George the Fifth opened the new Tyne Bridge, but he was there to settle an argument with Miss Walker, the Freudian school-teacher, as to whether the king's beard was a dark shade of black. At the same time, his own burgeoning moustache, described by Miss Walker as belated virility symbol, was under some scrutiny.
The debate began at a meeting of the Water Colour Society in the ping pong hut. Miss Walker submitted an experimental cubist vignette of the Prince Regent, on a state visit to Wallsend, circa 1811, emerging from the Dun Cow, leaning heavily on Spencer Perceval. Perceval was depicted as a parallelogram and the Prince Regent's whiskers were hexagonal. Uncle Hal claimed that not only were very few of the Hanoverians six-sided; they were also notably clean-shaven. Miss Walker retorted that the Prince Regent had a hexagonal soul, or if not, that was how she, the artist, was permitted to see him.
Jas Hunkers, family butcher and royalist, rose to aver that it was well known that the royal family was carnivorous and in consequence covered in hair. His special offer for that week, he added, was a halfpenny off tripe.
'What about Queen Mary?' Uncle Hal demanded.
'Pardon?' said Jas Hunkers.
'You see!' said Uncle Hal.
Unveiling his own water colour of a hirsute Prince Albert, Jas Hunkers said that it was undeniable that from Queen Victoria's consort had sprung a vast number of hairy descendants. He stabbed a cruel finger at Uncle Hal's bare face, shouting, 'He who can, does!'
This purloining of a Shavianism wounded Uncle Hal abominably and next day he went for a long walk along the Gut in the drizzle, agitatedly nibbling radishes, and came back with the first stirrings of a ginger moustache.
'Life levels all men,' he told my old Aunt Emma, and went into the backyard in his combinations to run on the spot in practice for the Free Thinkers' Cross-Country, for which the tripe-trained favourite was Jas Hunkers, hailed by the Wallsend Weekly Buffoon's racing correspondent as the Golden Miller of the meat emporium. In Miss Walker's view, they were both over-compensating for their departed youth and would have to come to painful terms with their Ids, or even their Egos.
By the end of the week, Uncle Hal's moustache had flourished so splendidly that it was eulogised in the Buffoon by Herbert Mangle, the Wallsend poet:
Oh, Ginger tash! - set firm betwixt the nose and mouth,
Which seems the most appropriate of places;
Earth hath not anything to show in north or south
That's more endowed with finest hairs and graces.
It was still drizzling on the day of the cross-country, so Uncle Hal ran in a sou'wester and with his combinations back to front. Whether because of this or because life was levelling men, he was facing the wrong way at the start and stood heavily on the butcher's foot.
'I suppose you know you've broken my big toe!' Jas Hunkers shouted.
'I can't see why you're complaining,' said Uncle Hal reasonably. 'If you'd been Golden Miller, you'd have had to be shot.' And he went on to win by two-and-a-half miles from old Billy Duckwood, who at 95 was too far advanced for over-compensation.
The drizzle eased off a week later for the opening of the new Tyne Bridge, but Uncle Hal learned nothing about King George the Fifth's beard. Just as the royal party came in sight, he took cramp in his calf through running on the spot and lurched into a mounted policeman's horse.
There might have been an unpleasant scene but my old Aunt Emma calmed the policeman down with a lump of sugar. She always carried a lump of sugar in case Uncle Hal lurched into a horse.
Queen Mary was rubbing a smut off King George's nose at the time, so they both missed the incident, but an equerry detailed the Lord Mayor to send a lieutenant-colonel to see what was going on. Uncle Hal straightened himself up and said worse things happened at sea if you didn't think about it, and would the colonel thank the King for his kind interest in a lowly subject? The colonel said not at all, His Majesty was devoted to horses, and rejoined the procession, out of step, and the new Tyne Bridge was opened six minutes late.
Next day, Uncle Hal called on Miss Walker. While he had been lying under the horse with cramp, he explained, his whole life had flashed by and he had realised it was Bernard Shaw who had black whiskers and not King George, unless they were ginger.
'By way of atonement,' he told my old Aunt Emma that night, 'I'll paint Miss Walker's portrait in the nude, from imagination.'
'I see the drizzle's stopped,' said my old Aunt Emma.
But Uncle Hal's concentration was still impaired by cramp and he entered the portrait in the Water Colour Society's landscape section with Miss Walker super-imposed on the new Tyne Bridge, leaning heavily on a lieutenant-colonel. The hanging committee disqualified him for artistic deviation compounded by embrocation.
In some dudgeon, he then sent the painting to Queen Mary, suggesting it might hang in the back bedroom at Windsor Castle, and asking after the King's nose. It was returned by a lady-in-waiting, who said that the only one who liked it was the garter king of arms, but not that much.
It hung in our back bedroom until Uncle Hal took up darts. Like the Royal Family, Miss Walker never cared for it, even though Uncle Hal assured her that that was how he the artist, was permitted to see her. To be fair, nobody else saw her as a nude octahedron whose modesty was not protected by her ginger beard.
And he was sublimating his guilt over the cross-country, she asserted, when he offered to serve in the butcher's shop while Jas Hunkers was laid up with his broken big toe.
It was there that he lost his virility symbol. Not that he came to terms with his Id, although the circumstances were certainly painful, as any man who has had his moustache caught in a mincing machine will know.