While the Billy Boils, by Henry Lawson

Jones’s Alley

She lived in Jones’s Alley. She cleaned offices, washed, and nursed from daylight until any time after dark, and filled in her spare time cleaning her own place (which she always found dirty — in a “beastly filthy state,” she called it — on account of the children being left in possession all day), cooking, and nursing her own sick — for her family, though small, was so in the two senses of the word, and sickly; one or another of the children was always sick, but not through her fault. She did her own, or rather the family washing, at home too, when she couldn’t do it by kind permission, or surreptitiously in connection with that of her employers. She was a haggard woman. Her second husband was supposed to be dead, and she, lived in dread of his daily resurrection. Her eldest son was at large, but, not being yet sufficiently hardened in misery, she dreaded his getting into trouble even more than his frequent and interested appearances at home. She could buy off the son for a shilling or two and a clean shirt and collar, but she couldn’t purchase the absence of the father at any price —he claimed what he called his “conzugal rights” as well as his board, lodging, washing and beer. She slaved for her children, and nag-nag-nagged them everlastingly, whether they were in the right or in the wrong, but they were hardened to it and took small notice. She had the spirit of a bullock. Her whole nature was soured. She had those “worse troubles” which she couldn’t tell to anybody, but bad to suffer in silence.

She also, in what she called her “spare time,” put new cuffs and collar-bands on gentlemen’s shirts. The gentlemen didn’t live in Jones’s Alley — they boarded with a patroness of the haggard woman; they didn’t know their shirts were done there — had they known it, and known Jones’s Alley, one or two of them, who were medical students, might probably have objected. The landlady charged them just twice as much for repairing their shirts as she paid the haggard woman, who, therefore, being unable to buy the cuffs and collar-bands ready-made for sewing on, had no lack of employment with which to fill in her spare time.

Therefore, she was a “respectable woman,” and was known in Jones’s Alley as “Misses” Aspinall, and called so generally, and even by Mother Brock, who kept “that place” opposite. There is implied a world of difference between the “Mother” and the “Misses,” as applied to matrons in Jones’s Alley; and this distinction was about the only thing — always excepting the everlasting “children”— that the haggard woman had left to care about, to take a selfish, narrow-minded sort of pleasure in — if, indeed, she could yet take pleasure, grim or otherwise, in anything except, perhaps, a good cup of tea and time to drink it in.

Times were hard with Mrs Aspinall. Two coppers and two half-pence in her purse were threepence to her now, and the absence of one of the half-pence made a difference to her, especially in Paddy’s market — that eloquent advertisement of a young city’s sin and poverty and rotten wealth — on Saturday night. She counted the coppers as anxiously and nervously as a thirsty dead-beat does. And her house was “falling down on her” and her troubles, and she couldn’t get the landlord to do a “han’stern” to it.

At last, after persistent agitation on her part (but not before a portion of the plastered ceiling had fallen and severely injured one of her children) the landlord caused two men to be sent to “effect necessary repairs” to the three square, dingy, plastered holes — called “three rooms and a kitchen”— for the privilege of living in which, and calling it “my place,” she paid ten shillings a week.

Previously the agent, as soon as he had received the rent and signed the receipt, would cut short her reiterated complaints — which he privately called her “clack”— by saying that he’d see to it, he’d speak to the landlord; and, later on, that he had spoken to him, or could do nothing more in the matter — that it wasn’t his business. Neither it was, to do the agent justice. It was his business to collect the rent, and thereby earn the means of paying his own. He had to keep a family on his own account, by assisting the Fat Man to keep his at the expense of people — especially widows with large families, or women, in the case of Jones’s Alley — who couldn’t afford it without being half-starved, or running greater and unspeakable risks which “society” is not supposed to know anything about.

So the agent was right, according to his lights. The landlord had recently turned out a family who had occupied one of his houses for fifteen years, because they were six weeks in arrears. He let them take their furniture, and explained: “I wouldn’t have been so lenient with them only they were such old tenants of mine.” So the landlord was always in the right according to his lights.

But the agent naturally wished to earn his living as peacefully and as comfortably as possible, so, when the accident occurred, he put the matter so persistently and strongly before the landlord that he said at last: “Well, tell her to go to White, the contractor, and he’ll send a man to do what’s to be done; and don’t bother me any more.”

White had a look at the place, and sent a plasterer, a carpenter, and a plumber. The plasterer knocked a bigger hole in the ceiling and filled it with mud; the carpenter nailed a board over the hole in the floor; the plumber stopped the leak in the kitchen, and made three new ones in worse places; and their boss sent the bill to Mrs Aspinall.

She went to the contractor’s yard, and explained that the landlord was responsible for the debt, not she. The contractor explained that he had seen the landlord, who referred him to her. She called at the landlord’s private house, and was referred through a servant to the agent. The agent was sympathetic, but could do nothing in the matter — it wasn’t his business; he also asked her to put herself in his place, which she couldn’t, not being any more reasonable than such women are in such cases. She let things drift, being powerless to prevent them from doing so; and the contractor sent another bill, then a debt collector and then another bill, then the collector again, and threatened to take proceedings, and finally took them. To make matters worse, she was two weeks in arrears with the rent, and the wood-and-coalman’s man (she had dealt with them for ten years) was pushing her, as also were her grocers, with whom she had dealt for fifteen years and never owed a penny before.

She waylaid the landlord, and he told her shortly that he couldn’t build houses and give them away, and keep them in repair afterwards.

She sought for sympathy and found it, but mostly in the wrong places. It was comforting, but unprofitable. Mrs Next-door sympathized warmly, and offered to go up as a witness — she had another landlord. The agent sympathized wearily, but not in the presence of witnesses — he wanted her to put herself in his place. Mother Brock, indeed, offered practical assistance, which offer was received in breathlessly indignant silence. It was Mother Brock who first came to the assistance of Mrs Aspinall’s child when the plaster accident took place (the mother being absent at the time), and when Mrs Aspinall heard of it, her indignation cured her of her fright, and she declared to Mrs Next-door that she would give “that woman”— meaning Mother Brock —“in char-rge the instant she ever dared to put her foot inside her (Mrs A.‘s) respectable door-step again. She was a respectable, honest, hard-working woman, and ——” etc.

Whereat Mother Brock laughed good-naturedly. She was a broad-minded bad woman, and was right according to her lights. Poor Mrs A. was a respectable, haggard woman, and was right according to her lights, and to Mrs Next-door’s, perfectly so — they being friends — and vice versa. None of them knew, or would have taken into consideration, the fact that the landlord had lost all his money in a burst financial institution, and half his houses in the general depression, and depended for food for his family on the somewhat doubtful rents of the remainder. So they were all right according to their different lights.

Mrs Aspinall even sought sympathy of “John,” the Chinaman (with whom she had dealt for four months only), and got it. He also, in all simplicity, took a hint that wasn’t intended. He said: “Al li’. Pay bimeby. Nexy time Flyday. Me tlust.” Then he departed with his immortalized smile. It would almost appear that he was wrong — according to our idea of Chinese lights.

Mrs Aspinall went to the court — it was a small local court. Mrs Next-door was awfully sorry, but she couldn’t possibly get out that morning. The contractor had the landlord up as a witness. The landlord and the P.M. nodded pleasantly to each other, and wished each other good morning. . . . Verdict for plaintiff with costs . . . Next case! . . . “You mustn’t take up the time of the court, my good woman.”.. “Now, constable!”..“Arder in the court!” . . . “Now, my good woman,” said the policeman in an undertone, “you must go out; there’s another case on-come now.” And he steered her — but not unkindly — through the door.

“My good woman” stood in the crowd outside, and looked wildly round for a sympathetic face that advertised sympathetic ears. But others had their own troubles, and avoided her. She wanted someone to relieve her bursting heart to; she couldn’t wait till she got home.

Even “John’s” attentive ear and mildly idiotic expression would have been welcome, but he was gone. He had been in court that morning, and had won a small debt case, and had departed cheerfully, under the impression that he lost it.

“Y’aw Mrs Aspinall, ain’t you?”

She started, and looked round. He was one of those sharp, blue or grey-eyed, sandy or freckled complexioned boys-of-the-world whom we meet everywhere and at all times, who are always going on towards twenty, yet never seem to get clear out of their teens, who know more than most of us have forgotten, who understand human nature instinctively — perhaps unconsciously — and are instinctively sympathetic and diplomatic; whose satire is quick, keen, and dangerous, and whose tact is often superior to that of many educated men-of-the-world. Trained from childhood in the great school of poverty, they are full of the pathos and humour of it.

“Don’t you remember me?”

“No; can’t say I do. I fancy I’ve seen your face before somewhere.”

“I was at your place when little Arvie died. I used to work with him at Grinder Brothers’, you know.”

“Oh, of course I remember you! What was I thinking about? I’ve had such a lot of worry lately that I don’t know whether I’m on my head or my heels. Besides, you’ve grown since then, and changed a lot. You’re Billy — Billy ——”

“Billy Anderson’s my name.”

“Of course! To be sure! I remember you quite well.”

“How’ve you been gettin’ on, Mrs Aspinall?”

“Ah! Don’t mention it — nothing but worry and trouble — nothing but worry and trouble. This grinding poverty! I’ll never have anything else but worry and trouble and misery so long as I live.”

“Do you live in Jones’s Alley yet?”

“Yes.”

“Not bin there ever since, have you?”

“No; I shifted away once, but I went back again. I was away nearly two years.”

“I thought so, because I called to see you there once. Well, I’m goin’ that way now. You goin’ home, Mrs Aspinall?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I’ll go along with you, if you don’t mind.”

“Thanks. I’d be only too glad of company.”

“Goin’ to walk, Mrs Aspinall?” asked Bill, as the tram stopped in their way.

“Yes. I can’t afford trams now — times are too hard.”

“Sorry I don’t happen to have no tickets on me!”

“Oh, don’t mention it. I’m well used to walking. I’d rather walk than ride.”

They waited till the tram passed.

“Some people”— said Bill, reflectively, but with a tinge of indignation in his tone, as they crossed the street —“some people can afford to ride in trams.

“What’s your trouble, Mrs Aspinall — if it’s a fair thing to ask?” said Bill, as they turned the corner.

This was all she wanted, and more; and when, about a mile later, she paused for breath, he drew a long one, gave a short whistle, and said:

“Well, it’s red-hot!”

Thus encouraged, she told her story again, and some parts of it for the third and fourth and even fifth time — and it grew longer, as our stories have a painful tendency to do when we re-write them with a view to condensation.

But Bill heroically repeated that it was “red-hot.”

“And I dealt off the grocer for fifteen years, and the wood-and-coal man for ten, and I lived in that house nine years last Easter Monday and never owed a penny before,” she repeated for the tenth time.

“Well, that’s a mistake,” reflected Bill. “I never dealt off nobody more’n twice in my life. . . . I heerd you was married again, Mrs Aspinall — if it’s a right thing to ask?”

“Wherever did you hear that? I did get married again — to my sorrow.”

“Then you ain’t Mrs Aspinall — if it’s a fair thing to ask?”

“Oh, yes! I’m known as Mrs Aspinall. They all call me Mrs Aspinall.”

“I understand. He cleared, didn’t he? Run away?”

“Well, yes — no —— he ——”

“I understand. He’s s’posed to be dead?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that’s red-hot! So’s my old man, and I hope he don’t resurrect again.”

“You see, I married my second for the sake of my children.”

“That’s a great mistake,” reflected Bill. “My mother married my step-father for the sake of me, and she’s never been done telling me about it.”

“Indeed! Did your mother get married again?”

“Yes. And he left me with a batch of step-sisters and step-brothers to look after, as well as mother; as if things wasn’t bad enough before. We didn’t want no help to be pinched, and poor, and half-starved. I don’t see where my sake comes in at all.”

“And how’s your mother now?”

“Oh, she’s all right, thank you. She’s got a hard time of it, but she’s pretty well used to it.”

“And are you still working at Grinder Brothers’?”

“No. I got tired of slavin’ there for next to nothing. I got sick of my step-father waitin’ outside for me on pay-day, with a dirty, drunken, spieler pal of his waitin’ round the corner for him. There wasn’t nothin’ in it. It got to be too rough altogether. . . . Blast Grinders!”

“And what are you doing now?”

“Sellin’ papers. I’m always tryin’ to get a start in somethin’ else, but I ain’t got no luck. I always come back to, sellin’ papers.”

Then, after a thought, he added reflectively: “Blast papers!”

His present ambition was to drive a cart.

“I drove a cart twice, and once I rode a butcher’s horse. A bloke worked me out of one billet, and I worked myself out of the other. I didn’t know when I was well off. Then the banks went bust, and my last boss went insolvent, and one of his partners went into Darlinghurst for suicide, and the other went into Gladesville for being mad; and one day the bailiff seized the cart and horse with me in it and a load of timber. So I went home and helped mother and the kids to live on one meal a day for six months, and keep the bum-bailiff out. Another cove had my news-stand.”

Then, after a thought “Blast reconstriction!”

“But you surely can’t make a living selling newspapers?”

“No, there’s nothin’ in it. There’s too many at it. The blessed women spoil it. There’s one got a good stand down in George Street, and she’s got a dozen kids sellin’— they can’t be all hers-and then she’s got the hide to come up to my stand and sell in front of me. . . . What are you thinkin’ about doin’, Mrs Aspinall?”

“I don’t know,” she wailed. “I really don’t know what to do.”

And there still being some distance to go, she plunged into her tale of misery once more, not forgetting the length of time she had dealt with her creditors.

Bill pushed his hat forward and walked along on the edge of the kerb.

“Can’t you shift? Ain’t you got no people or friends that you can go to for a while?”

“Oh, yes; there’s my sister-in-law; she’s asked me times without number to come and stay with her till things got better, and she’s got a hard enough struggle herself, Lord knows. She asked me again only yesterday.”

“Well, that ain’t too bad,” reflected Bill. “Why don’t you go?”

“Well, you see, if I did they wouldn’t let me take my furniture, and she’s got next to none.”

“Won’t the landlord let you take your furniture?”

“No, not him! He’s one of the hardest landlords in Sydney — the worst I ever had.”

“That’s red-hot! . . . I’d take it in spite of him. He can’t do nothin’.”

“But I daren’t; and even if I did I haven’t got a penny to pay for a van.”

They neared the alley. Bill counted the flagstones, stepping from one to another over the joints. “Eighteen-nineteen-twenty-twenty-one!” he counted mentally, and came to the corner kerbing. Then he turned suddenly and faced her.

“I’ll tell you what to do,” he said decidedly. “Can you get your things ready by to-night? I know a cove that’s got a cart.”

“But I daren’t. I’m afraid of the landlord.”

“The more fool you,” said Bill. “Well, I’m not afraid of him. He can’t do nothin’. I’m not afraid of a landlady, and that’s worse. I know the law. He can’t do nothin’. You just do as I tell you.”

“I’d want to think over it first, and see my sister-in-law.”

“Where does your sister-‘n-law live?”

“Not far.”

“Well, see her, and think over it — you’ve got plenty of time to do it in — and get your things ready by dark. Don’t be frightened. I’ve shifted mother and an aunt and two married sisters out of worse fixes than yours. I’ll be round after dark, and bring a push to lend a hand. They’re decent coves.”

“But I can’t expect your friend to shift me for nothing. I told you I haven’t got a ——”

“Mrs Aspinall, I ain’t that sort of a bloke, neither is my chum, and neither is the other fellows —‘relse they wouldn’t be friends of mine. Will you promise, Mrs Aspinall?”

“I’m afraid — I— I’d like to keep my few things now. I’ve kept them so long. It’s hard to lose my few bits of things — I wouldn’t care so much if I could keep the ironin’ table.”

“So you could, by law — it’s necessary to your living, but it would cost more’n the table. Now, don’t be soft, Mrs Aspinall. You’ll have the bailiff in any day, and be turned out in the end without a rag. The law knows no ‘necessary.’ You want your furniture more’n the landlord does. He can’t do nothin’. You can trust it all to me. . . . I knowed Arvie. . . . Will you do it?”

“Yes, I will.”

At about eight o’clock that evening there came a mysterious knock at Mrs Aspinall’s door. She opened, and there stood Bill. His attitude was business-like, and his manner very impressive. Three other boys stood along by the window, with their backs to the wall, deeply interested in the emptying of burnt cigarette-ends into a piece of newspaper laid in the crown of one of their hats, and a fourth stood a little way along the kerb casually rolling a cigarette, and keeping a quiet eye out for suspicious appearances. They were of different makes and sizes, but there seemed an undefined similarity between them.

“This is my push, Mrs Aspinall,” said Bill; “at least,” he added apologetically, “it’s part of ’em. Here, you chaps, this is Mrs Aspinall, what I told you about.”

They elbowed the wall back, rubbed their heads with their hats, shuffled round, and seemed to take a vacant sort of interest in abstract objects, such as the pavement, the gas-lamp, and neighbouring doors and windows.

“Got the things ready?” asked Bill.

“Oh, yes.”

“Got ’em downstairs?”

“There’s no upstairs. The rooms above belong to the next house.”

“And a nice house it is,” said Bill, “for rooms to belong to. I wonder,” he reflected, cocking his eye at the windows above; “I wonder how the police manage to keep an eye on the next house without keepin’ an eye on yours — but they know.”

He turned towards the street end of the alley and gave a low whistle. Out under the lamp from behind the corner came a long, thin, shambling, hump-backed youth, with his hat down over his head like an extinguisher, dragging a small bony horse, which, in its turn, dragged a rickety cart of the tray variety, such as is used in the dead marine trade. Behind the cart was tied a mangy retriever. This affair was drawn up opposite the door.

“The cove with a cart” was introduced as ‘Chinny’. He had no chin whatever, not even a receding chin. It seemed as though his chin had been cut clean off horizontally. When he took off his hat he showed to the mild surprise of strangers a pair of shrewd grey eyes and a broad high forehead. Chinny was in the empty bottle line.

“Now, then, hold up that horse of yours for a minute, Chinny,” said Bill briskly, “‘relse he’ll fall down and break the shaft again.” (It had already been broken in several places and spliced with strips of deal, clothes-line, and wire.) “Now, you chaps, fling yourselves about and get the furniture out.”

This was a great relief to the push. They ran against each other and the door-post in their eagerness to be at work. The furniture — what Mrs A. called her “few bits of things”— was carried out with elaborate care. The ironing table was the main item. It was placed top down in the cart, and the rest of the things went between the legs without bulging sufficiently to cause Chinny any anxiety.

Just then the picket gave a low, earnest whistle, and they were aware of a policeman standing statue-like under the lamp on the opposite corner, and apparently unaware of their existence. He was looking, sphinx-like, past them towards the city.

“It can’t be helped; we must put on front an’ go on with it now,” said Bill.

“He’s all right, I think,” said Chinny. “He knows me.”

“He can’t do nothin’,” said Bill; “don’t mind him, Mrs Aspinall. Now, then (to the push), tie up. Don’t be frightened of the dorg-what are you frightened of? Why! he’d only apologize if you trod on his tail.”

The dog went under the cart, and kept his tail carefully behind him.

The policeman — he was an elderly man — stood still, looking towards the city, and over it, perhaps, and over the sea, to long years agone in Ireland when he and the boys ducked bailiffs, and resisted evictions with “shticks,” and “riz” sometimes, and gathered together at the rising of the moon, and did many things contrary to the peace of Gracious Majesty, its laws and constitutions, crown and dignity; as a reward for which he had helped to preserve the said peace for the best years of his life, without promotion; for he had a great aversion to running in “the boys”— which included nearly all mankind — and preferred to keep, and was most successful in keeping, the peace with no other assistance than that of his own rich fatherly brogue.

Bill took charge of two of the children; Mrs Aspinall carried the youngest.

“Go ahead, Chinny,” said Bill.

Chinny shambled forward, sideways, dragging the horse, with one long, bony, short-sleeved arm stretched out behind holding the rope reins; the horse stumbled out of the gutter, and the cart seemed to pause a moment, as if undecided whether to follow or not, and then, with many rickety complaints, moved slowly and painfully up on to the level out of the gutter. The dog rose with a long, weary, mangy sigh, but with a lazy sort of calculation, before his rope (which was short) grew taut — which was good judgment on his part, for his neck was sore; and his feet being tender, he felt his way carefully and painfully over the metal, as if he feared that at any step he might spring some treacherous, air-trigger trap-door which would drop and hang him.

“Nit, you chaps,” said Bill, “and wait for me.” The push rubbed its head with its hat, said “Good night, Mrs Ashpennel,” and was absent, spook-like.

When the funeral reached the street, the lonely “trap” was, somehow, two blocks away in the opposite direction, moving very slowly, and very upright, and very straight, like an automaton.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38