Nothing Like Flute Practice.
'Well, if you ask me…' is a preface used by people like Albert Fairhurst who are seldom asked anything, because they are going to tell you anyway.
Albert Fairhurst was a jobbing printer who was always right. His wife Norma, who longed for a life beyond the front door, where she had heard there was unbridled hedonism, had never wholly loved him, or jobbing printing, but she was one of eight sisters and had married him with a headache. For quite some time, she took his assertions for honest forthrightness, and was rather fond of his ginger hair, but after ten years she realised that she was finishing fewer sentences than she had even at home. It was twelve-and-a-half years, be it said, before forbearance expired.
Their budgie was at first a joy to her and she taught it to recite the works of William Blake, backwards. Before long, however, Fairhurst was interrupting it when it was halfway through 'Wild southern the in me bore mother my,' with shouts of, 'Well, if you ask me…' and it developed a psychological blockage and retreated into the corner of it's cage, hiding under its wing.
To do him justice, and we should always do justice to an opinionated jobbing printer, Fairhurst was a victim of the consumer society. For all his truculence, he was suggestible. He felt persecuted. He vacillated. He was a fair representative of the human race.
As a symbolic consumer, he was obsessively convinced that greengrocers and glass bevellers and scaffolding hirers were linked in a conspiracy to defraud him. 'I wouldn't except even water treatment chemists,' he had remarked those many years earlier to young Norma Mooney, as she then was.
I've always found water treatment chemists an honourable band of men,' young Norma had responded, and having thus taken him aback, she said, 'Please sit down again,' and asked him to elope with her.
'What was that?' he said, because her seven sisters were in the room at the time.
She repeated the question and he vacillated for three days, but his suggestibility won in the end and he married her in order to feel persecuted.
He settled down with his bride, suspiciously, in a little home built by O.J. Woodburn and Sons, contractors. He was far from happy about its construction, having heard that O.J. Woodburn laid his foundations on decayed vegetable matter, and he feared that the whole house might blow away one day while he was in the Red Lion. 'Mark my words, that decayed vegetable matter will come home to roost,' he told Norma. By that time, he was not merely persecuted; he was also mixing metaphors.
'And I'll tell you something,' he pronounced one day, stating into the cage. 'We should never have got a green budgie.'
'So you've said,' Norma sighed, shifting some beveled glass, 'but it's a blue budgie.' It was on their honeymoon that she had tried to tell him that he was colour-blind, but he was vacillating uncontrollably at the time and the chance was missed.
'Is soul my O!' the budgie said, staring back, 'but black am I…'
'The thing is,' shouted Fairhurst, 'we're stuck with a green budgie, let's face it, I mean to say!' Eventually, the budgie stopped talking except to itself.
It was after twelve years that Norma took to writing letters, in the hope of attracting life to her front door. Her seven sisters are by then scattered to various corners of the earth and were married with nineteen children, so it wasn't long before she was getting sacksful of replies from them, offering exotic remedies for her headache, now returned with increased virulence.
'Well, well, Mrs Norma Fairhurst,' the postman said one morning. 'A parcel today from Hong Kong, plus the usual six letters.'
'It's my head,' Norma volunteered. 'Would you like a cup of cocoa?'
'I've got relations in Southport,' said the postman, 'but with me it's my back.' He told Norma that he often thought about the purpose of life and would have thought about it more if he hadn't had backache. 'Is there a Supreme Being concurrent with the universe?' he asked.
'Only a jobbing printer, as far as I know,' said Norma.
'And has He given me intelligence,' the postman said, 'so that I can ponder the purpose of life?'
'Have a Jaffa cake,' Norma offered.
'And if so, couldn't I ponder it better,' the postman pursued, 'if He hadn't burdened me with lumbago?'
He sometimes put it to people, he said, that humanity was consistently aberrant, but they tended not to answer him.
'We don't go on making the same mistakes,' Norma suggested, 'only similar ones,' and indication that if ti hadn't been for her seven sisters, her headache and her husband, she might have carved out a career as a calendar motto writer, an enterprise in which her father had tried to encourage her before he had forgotten which one she was.
'Keep up the flute practice, Ethel,' he had said.
'I'm Norma, father,' she had responded.
'Nothing like flute practice in moderation,' he had counselled. 'Or table tennis'.
'it's calendar motto writing, father,' she had murmured.
'All right, Alice!' he had said.
There came a night when Albert Fairhurst burst in with the news that water treatment chemists had penetrated the Black Lion. 'The thing is,' he accused, 'they're contaminating the lager. Where's the string?'
'What string?' said Norma. 'It's the Red Lion.'
But he was searching for brown wrapping paper. The Black Lion, he said, was no longer a fit place for a civilised jobbing printer. Thereafter, he took to spending his evenings at home, exercising his suggestibility and parcelling up sets of faulty belt dressings to take back to Messrs McPhillips and Theaker's department store.
McPhillips and Theaker had been persecuting him for a long time and he had had occasion to take back to them such items as a corroded hessian stenciller, an imperfect sausage skin and a leaky grass drier.
'This belt dressing's faulty,' he would say to Norma, throwing string about.
'Have you a message for Alice or Christine or Ethel?' she would ask, 'before I seal the…'
'It you ask me,' he would say, 'there's no grey wrapping paper.'
'Rage a in heaven all puts,' the budgie would mutter to itself, 'cage a in redbreast robin…'
'Another thing,' Fairhurst would shout, 'I'm taking this hessian stenciller back tomorrow.'
Like all bigots, he believed himself a model of tolerance, but so far from offering him any satisfaction, McPhillips and Theaker had hardened their attitude into one of blatant animosity, which had culminated in a nasty incident in Gents' Outfitting, when McPhillips had struck him fiercely with a frayed cummerbund. Presently they took to getting under the counter when they saw him coming.
It was some time before he became aware of Norma's preoccupation with correspondence, because he hurried out of the house every morning before the post arrived, so that he could spend as much time as possible a the jobbing printers', contradicting the devils.
'Mind you,' the postman said to Norma one day, 'I can't see all these exotic remedies doing much for the budgie's head.'
'Wisdom of place the to leads excess of road the,' the budgie said.
'I never looked at it like that,' the postman said, sitting down to his cocoa.
The budgie had by now retreated into glum self-sufficiency. It had reasoned that Fairhurst, William Blake, Norma and the postman were equally to blame for its psychological blockage. In a happier story than this, it would be flying freely in its native Australia, but we need it for the denouement.
'It's talking to itself,' Norma explained, 'because it's not the wrong colour.'
She was hoping the postman would speak of the world beyond her front door, but he was enquiring again if humanity was uniformly erratic.
'I speak for the rotting hulk that is me,' he said. 'Am I inadequate, frightened, argumentative?'
'It is I who have the head,' Norma reminded him. 'But better sympathy misplaced than well-aimed malice,' she added, evoking her mislaid vocation.
The postman hadn't looked at it like that either. 'I was reading in the Amateur Dermatologist,' he said, 'that three-fifths of the rubbish that goes into our vacuum cleaners has flaked off the human body.'
Norma accepted thirteen letters and opened a packet of chocolate fingers. Global correspondence, it seemed, would have to serve as an unsatisfactory substitute for calendar motto writing. Of course, Ethel's flute practice had hardly prospered even before her marriage, but at least their father had not called her Alice.
'I see the point,' she said, 'about your rubbishy hulk.' Was she taking the postman's introspections for acute discernment? 'My father,' she went on, 'used to advise a moderate amount of table tennis, admittedly to the wrong daughter, and I feel…'
'What's more,' said the postman, 'am I inept and guilt-ridden?'
Norma passed him the chocolate fingers, not noticing that she had failed to finish a sentence.
One night, when Norma was watching Coronation Street and Fairhurst was telling her with supreme certainty what would happen in the next eleven episodes, he paused, flung aside his frayed cummerbund and said, 'I'll tell you something.'
Twelve-and-a-half years had gone; forbearance was ebbing fast. 'As a matter of fact,' Norma said, 'I was going to say…'
'If you ask me,' Fairhurst interrupted, 'it's time you stopped this tomfoolery of forever writing letters, let's face it.'
Norma gazed with residual fondness at his ginger hair. 'Oddly enough,' she murmured, 'you may be…'
'Right?' said Fairhurst. 'Of course I'm right, I mean to say!' And he told her it would snow next morning, whatever her new barometer said.
Next morning, however, he awoke to the realisation that if he did not shake off his sense of persecution he was doomed to a life of mixed metaphors of worse. It was Norma's birthday and he hurried downstairs to unveil the barometer he had bought for her. She hadn't wanted a barometer, because she already had a centrifugal pump and a theodolite, which she didn't want either. Halcyon day though it was, the barometer registered 'Hurricane'. Angrily, Fairhurst snatched it up and hurried out of the house.
'Today's my day for ineptitude,' the postman told Norma. He couldn't even get his vacuum cleaner to work, he said; the bits that had flaked off him would just have to lie.
'Butter is mad twice a year,' said Norma, falling back, as we all do, on plagiarism. 'How do you feel about unbridled hedonism?'
'Pardon?' said the postman.
'For your bad back,' Norma suggested. It was recommended by experts and the tabloid press, she said, as the universal panacea.
The postman said he hadn't seen it advertised on television, but on reflection decided that he seldom saw anything else advertised on television. 'Are these the same experts,' he asked uneasily, 'who in my youth were saying it would lead to knee rot and the collapse of Western civilisation?' He rose from his seat.
'I keep dreaming,' said Norma, 'of a life beyond my front door.'
'I don't think I'll bother with a Jaffa Cake,' said the postman, vacillating palpably.
'Please sit down again,' said Norma.
When Fairhurst rushed into the store, McPhillips and Theaker came out from under the counter. It was a lovely day, they agreed, and they would certainly replace the barometer. Would he also accept a free sludge activator, with their compliments to his wife?
At these words, Fairhurst felt the persecution lifting from him, and into its place swept a euphoria mixed with a not unpleasant sense of suggestibility that urged him to call at the Red Lion. The manager there greeted him with the assurance that his strictures had been heeded; he would find the lager free from any taint of water treatment chemistry.
So Albert Fairhurst went home, a happy consumer at last. As he turned into the street, he was calling out, 'Are you there, Norma?' He was going to tell her that he loved her, even though she thought his brown hair was ginger.
Norma was not there. It was the budgie's voice that he heard. Norma had gone, to make not necessarily the same mistake, but a similar one. 'I was in a printing house in hell,' said the budgie, the right way round.
It was talking to itself in an empty space where the little house had been, for O.J. Woodburn's decayed vegetable matter had come home to roost.