Love In A Windy Place
Ben Tapken was a blunderer. He got his head jammed behind the sideboard. He couldn't remember the formula for the area of a circle. He mislaid the hearthrug. By the age of thirty-nine, racked by fear of walking into people, he had accustomed himself to staying in behind closed curtains, venturing out only to air his prize-winning spaniel. He spent much of his time in the pantry of his sequestered home, polishing the spaniel's trophies and composing a despairing rondeau to Mrs Jane Starling, the women's bowls champion of Wallsend.
He had loved Mrs Starling with an unspoken love ever since he had first seen her in the park with the sunlight glinting on her apricot slacks. Indeed, that same night, he had emerged from the pantry and declaimed a stanza to the spaniel:
'Let me potter by the bandstand,
Like the mooniest of fools,
At the sylvan scene on the velvet green
Where Jane is pitching bowls.'
The spaniel had stared back at him with wonder in her sad gaze. Her gaze was sad because she had always wanted to be a police dog, but the police rejected spaniels on the grounds that their ears got in their eyes.
Months went by and Tapken lay on the hearthrug, when he could find it, forcing himself to acknowledge that he must overcome his blighting ineptitude. 'Otherwise, how shall I ever declare my love?' he asked the spaniel. The spaniel didn't answer. Apart from her own sense of rejection, she was still wondering at his effrontery in rhyming 'bowls' with 'fools'.
Douglas Naylor did not love Mrs Jane Starling, or any other lady, which might have been because he was secretary of the Bowls Club, and human proximity diminishes a divinity, as Erasmus said, in Dutch. More probably it was because he was a misogynist. The trouble with women, he claimed, was that they kept flicking dust off you, or straightening your pullover, or wanting to push your ears forwards and sideways.
He had once been in love, with a pert-nosed girl, and had had every intention of marrying her as soon as Blyth Spartans won the European Cup. One night, however, as they sat under the soft lights of a cafeteria, and he was telling her of his hopes and aspirations, he realised that she was staring at him, not in rapt interest in his words, but because there was a bit of sausage on his tie. He broke off the engagement, moved house and joined the Bowls Club by way of anti-compensation, because he hated bowls, and settled down thereafter to a bachelor's existence, hugging his grudge, going home nighty from the bowling green to sit at his antiquated television set, and boiling his own potatoes and washing his own socks. He now loved only Blyth Spartans, but gave them up to fuel his asperity, and took up pipe-smoking, which he loathed.
There came a day when a cat walked into his life with a sprained ankle sustained in a quarrel with a sparrow. Something told Douglas Naylor that human proximity would not diminish a cat, so he nursed him back to strength and named him Tommy after his late aunt. As he slumped of a night with his back to his television set, for he was a compulsive non-viewer, he would tell the cat of his hopes and aspirations. The cat would only say, 'Miaow.'
Meanwhile, Ben Tapken for his part was seeking to fight his way out of bachelordom. Having taken a correspondence course in bowls, he steeled himself to visit the park and join the club, leaving the spaniel with his neighbour, Miriam Burns, a lady with a nostalgic air, who had moved to the area after sundry mortifications, which she had tried to tell him about over the fence, but he had pleaded fear of walking into her.
'I've know love,' she told him.
'I'm growing this beard,' he said. His deflective conversation had rebuffed several previous neighbours.
He went to the Bowls Club, disguised, and wearing his newly-grown beard to mask his bashfulness, but the plan misfired because he was greeted by Douglas Naylor, who mistook him for King George the Fifth and invited him to become president.
'What?' said Tapken, who was adjusting his false nose and failing to hear.
'Will twenty guineas be all right, sire?' Naylor suggested.
'Have you a Mrs Starling?' asked Tapken.
'Pardon, sire?' said Naylor.
'I've got this rondeau, you see,' said Tapken, shifting his wig and knocking out Naylor's pipe with his elbow.
'I knew he wasn't King George the Fifth,' Naylor told the club captain afterwards, 'when his nose fell off.'
The captain, a resigned man, given to saying, 'Oh, well,' intimated that a certain singularity was acceptable in a president. But something bothered him about Naylor's story. 'This is 1984, you know,' he said.
'There is that,' Naylor admitted. 'By the way, he has a rondeau,' he warned.
'It's a windy place,' said the club captain, who was thinking of a 'bandeau'.
Naylor went home to mend the leg of his television set. It was then that he decided to teach the cat to sing, arguing that if he was a happy cat he might learn to go out and fetch in the provisions of potatoes and socks. 'This will leave me more time,' Naylor reasoned, 'to hug my grudge.' For three months, the cat pretended to try very hard to sing, but his encounter with the sparrow had left him neurotic, and he had developed a self-induced deafness.
'Speaking of my late aunt,' Naylor said one night,' as we were three months ago, you might think, puss, that Tommy was a funny name for her.'
The cat said, 'Miaow.'
'I can explain,' said Naylor.
'Miaow,' said the cat.
'Never mind,' said Naylor.
An hour later, as they sat by the television set, not watching BBC2, the cat suddenly began to sing the Introduction to the Third Act of Lohengrin. Naylor had lapsed deeply into misogyny and heard nothing, but the sound of Wagner caused the leg to come off the television set again, and the whole thing crashed on to his foot, occasioning painful, albeit minor, injuries. 'For three months he teaches me music,' the cat sighed, 'and the first time I sing something, he dislocates his toe.'
Naylor had seized the telephone and was dialling 999.
'Have you an ambulance for my foot?' he moaned.
'You'll have to speak up,' a female voice replied. 'There's some Wagner on the line.'
'I think it's the metatarsal,' said Naylor.
'I can't hear you,' shouted the voice.
'I can't hear you,' shouted Naylor.
'I think it's the Meistersinger,' said the voice.
'I'll have to ring off,' shouted Naylor. 'The socks are boiling.'
He went to bed with only his grudge for comfort.
The cat sang a bit of Parsifal outside the bedroom door, but was beginning to wonder if he should move on. He had considered the comforts of the Fire Station before plumping for life with Naylor; his mother had once been rescued from a tree by a fireman. The fact that she had been quite happy up the tree didn't vitiate the altruism. All firemen mean well; that's their tragedy.
'Oh we get some peculiar calls,' Miriam Burns said to Tapken the next evening.
'I was hoping you would look after the spaniel,' Tapken said. 'You do like butterscotch, don't you?'
'I'm a telephone operator, you see,' Miriam Burns divulged. 'It's one of the mortifications I was wanting to tell you about.'
'I'm off to the Bowls Club, then,' Tapken said, avoiding the sideboard. 'They've made me president. Have you seen my nose?'
Miriam Burns and the spaniel settled down with the butterscotch, both thinking there must be greater things in life.
As it happened, Tapken had made only one sortie on to the bowling green that summer, cracking the club captain's ribs when a bowl slipped out of his hand. He had spent the rest of the season sitting miserably among the overshoes in the changing closet, listening to Mrs Starling's tinkling voice in the ladies' room next door and composing a sonnet to her apricot slacks. Was this worth twenty guineas, he asked himself? He finished the sonnet one September evening and slipped wearily out into the chrysanthemum-laden dusk for a breath of air and to shift his wig. Had he but known, his singularity had not gone unnoticed by the statuesque widow. 'Who is that droll person breathing on the chrysanthemums?' she asked Naylor.
'Well, he's not the king,' said Naylor sourly. 'He knocked my pipe out.'
'It doesn't follow,' said Mrs Starling.
'I shouldn't be here,' Naylor said, rubbing his foot.
'Why does he sit among the overshoes?' Mrs Starling enquired.
'As a matter of fact, he's the president,' Naylor vouchsafed.
'I suppose it's the next best thing,' said Mrs Starling.
Summer gave way to autumn, as it does in Wallsend, and there had loomed up the Bowls Club Annual Dance and Prizegiving, an auspicious event, although depleted in advance by virtue of Naylor's toe and the club captain's ribs. Tapken ironed his trousers that night and sponged 'Stuffo' tinned dog-food from his dinner jacket, the while concocting a last amorous plan. He had resolved that when the time came for him to present Mrs Starling with the President's Cup for the Ladies' Championship, the moment would be equally opportune to press his rondeau, or his sonnet on her.
He set out for the dance, bearing cup, sonnet and rondeau, dizzy with hope. 'After all,' he told the spaniel, 'I've remembered πr2. Anything is possible.' The spaniel declined to reply, this time because she had a lonely night in prospect. 'I have to visit a sick misogynist,' Miriam Burns had explained. 'Did I mention that I'm a member of a voluntary organisation for visiting sick misogynists?'
'Have you had any mortifications lately?' Tapken asked politely, but only because he had forgotten the butterscotch.
Miriam Burns went off to visit the anonymous misogynist. She found him nursing his toe in front of a three-legged television set, wearing a twisted pullover and coved in dust. They had a tearful reunion, he knocked out his pipe and they recalled her pert nose and the sausage on his tie and they laughed a little over it all. She left at midnight, telling him she didn't love him. There was a cat singing in the background.
Tapken's spaniel was not singing. Forsaken in the sequestered home, she at first sublimated by chewing some old sonnets. Then, leaping on to the kitchen bench to demolish the closed curtains, she discovered that the window was open. She jumped out into the night. She was going for greater things.
Tapken had sat quaking in the cloakroom until the hour for the presentations arrived. Then they fetched him out and pointed him at the platform. A propitious moment for conveying to Mrs Starling his rondeau or sonnet never materialised, for he had to present her first with the cup, and he had brought the wrong one from his pantry, so that the trophy she found thrust into her arms was inscribed: 'For the Bitch of the Year'.
'Mind you, captain,' he said next day, 'there was no need for her to punch my false nose.'
'Your elbow,' the captain said.
'Still,' said Tapken, 'I daresay I can write a palinode about it.'
'It's in my eye,' said the club captain.
In any case, Mrs Starling had decided that she love Douglas Naylor, the dusty misogynist. 'He has such human proximity,' she reasoned. Six weeks later, she married him. He wore a newly-straightened pullover, adjusted his ears and abandoned his hopes and aspirations, which, as the cat mused, is the best thing for a man to do when he gets married or supports Blyth Spartans.
That was the cat's last word. He resumed his neurotic limp and went off, hoping to join the Fire Brigade or climb a tree and be happy, but he met a dog with her ears in her eyes who was running away from boredom and 'Stuffo' tinned dog-food, and together they founded the Northumbrian Cat and Dog Misanthropic Society. As Erasmus said, in Dutch, God is frequently mocked.
The reason why Ben Tapken's neighbour, Miriam Burns, was unable to love Naylor was that, unrebuffed, she had come to love Ben Tapken. So it was a double wedding in Wallsend. Both brides were given away willingly by the Bowls Club captain, who wished them all every happiness in their future life in Australia.
'We're not going to Australia,' said Tapken.
'Oh, well,' said the club captain.