Tales of Mean Streets, by Arthur Morrison

To Bow Bridge

The eleven-five tram-car from Stratford started for Bow a trifle before its time. The conductor knew what he might escape by stealing a march on the closing public-houses; as also what was in store for all the conductors in his wake till there were no more revelers left to swarm the cars. For it was Saturday night, and many a week’s wages were a-knocking down; and the publicans this side of Bow Bridge shut their doors at eleven under Act of Parliament, whereas beyond the bridge, which is the county of London, the law gives them another hour, and a man may drink many pots therein. And for this, at eleven every Saturday, there is a great rush westward, a vast migration over Lea, from all the length of High Street. From the nearer parts they walk, or do their best to walk; but from further Stratford, by the town hall, the church, and the Martyrs’ Memorial, they crowd the cars. For one thing, it is a long half mile, and the week’s work is over. Also, the car being swamped, it is odds that a man shall save his fare, since no conductor may fight his way a quarter through his passengers before Bow Bridge, where the vehicle is emptied at a rush. And that means yet another half-pint.

So the eleven-five car started sooner than it might have done. As it was spattering with rain, I boarded it, sharing the conductor’s forlorn hope, but taking care to sit at the extreme fore-end inside. In the broad street the market clamored and flared, its lights and shadows flickering and fading about the long church-yard and the steeple in the midst thereof; and toward the distant lights, the shining road sparkled in long reaches, like a blackguard river.

A gap fell here and there among the lights where a publican put his gas out; and at these points the crowds thickened. A quiet mechanic came in, and sat near a decent woman with children, a bundle, a basket, and a cabbage. Thirty yards on the car rumbled, and suddenly its hinder end was taken in a mass of people, howling, struggling and blaspheming, who stormed and wrangled in at the door and up the stairs. There were lads and men whooping and flushed, there were girls and women screaming choruses; and in a moment the seats were packed, knees were taken, and there was not an inch of standing room. The conductor cried “All full!” and tugged at his bell-strap, whereunto many were hanging by the hand; but he was swept from his feet, and made to push hard for his own place. And there was no more foothold on the back platform nor the front, nor any vacant step upon the stairway; and the roof was thronged; and the rest of the crowd was fain to waylay the next car.

This one moved off slowly, with shrieks and howls that were racking to the wits. From divers quarters of the roof came a bumping thunder as of cellar-flapping clogs. Profanity was sluiced down, as it were, by pailfuls from above, and was swilled back, as it were, in pailfuls from below. Blowsers in feathered bonnets bawled hilarious obscenity at the jiggers. A little maid with a market-basket hustled and jostled and elbowed at the far end, listened eagerly, and laughed when she could understand; and the quiet mechanic, whose knees had been invaded by an unsteady young woman in a crushed hat, tried to look pleased. My own knees were saved from capture by the near neighborhood of an enormous female, seated partly on the seat and partly on myself, snorting and gulping with sleep, her head upon the next man’s shoulder. (To offer your seat to a standing woman would, as beseems a foreign antic, have been visited by the ribaldry of the whole crowd.) In the midst of the riot the decent woman sat silent and indifferent, her children on and about her knees. Further along, two women eat fish with their fingers and discoursed personalities in voices which ran strident through the uproar, as the odor of their snack asserted itself in the general fetor. And opposite the decent woman there sat a bonnetless drab, who said nothing but looked at the decent woman’s children as a shoeless brat looks at the dolls in a toyshop window.

“So I ses to ‘er, I ses”— this from the snacksters —“I’m a respectable married woman, I ses. More’n you can say you barefaced hussy, I ses.” Then a shower of curses, a shout, and a roar of laughter; and the conductor, making slow and laborious progress with the fares nearest him, turned his head. A man had jumped upon the footboard and a passenger’s toes. A scuffle and a fight, and both had rolled off into the mire, and got left behind. “Ain’t they fond o’ each other?” cried a girl. “They’re a-goin’ for a walk together.” And there was a guffaw. “The silly bleeders ‘ll be too late for the pubs,” said a male voice; and there was another, for the general understanding was touched.

Then — an effect of sympathy, perhaps — a scuffle broke out on the roof. But this disturbed not the insides. The conductor went on his plaguey task. To save time, he passed over the one or two that, asked now or not, seemed likely to pay at the journey’s end. The snacking women resumed their talk; the choristers their singing; the rumble of the wheels lost in a babel of vacant ribaldry; the enormous woman choked and gasped and snuggled lower down upon her neighbor’s shoulder; and the shabby strumpet looked at the children.

A man by the door vomited his liquor; whereat was more hilarity, and his neighbors, with many yaups, shoved further up the middle. But one of the little ones, standing before her mother, was pushed almost to falling; and the harlot, seeing her chance, snatched the child upon her knee. The child looked up, something in wonder, and smiled; and the woman leered as honestly as she might, saying a hoarse word or two.

Presently the conflict overhead, waxing and waning to an accompaniment of angry shouts, afforded another brief diversion to those within, and something persuaded the standing passengers to shove toward the door. The child had fallen asleep in the streetwalker’s arms. “Jinny!” cried the mother, reaching forth and shaking her. “Jinny! wake up now — you mustn’t go to sleep.” And she pulled the little thing from her perch to where she had been standing.

The bonnetless creature bent forward, and, in her curious voice (like that of one sick with shouting): “She can set on my knee, m’m if she likes,” she said; “she’s tired.”

The mother busied herself with a jerky adjustment of the child’s hat and shawl. “She mustn’t go to sleep,” was all she said, sharply, and without looking up.

The hoarse woman bent further forward, with a propitiatory grin. “‘Ow old is she? . . . I’d like to — give ‘er a penny.”

The mother answered nothing, but drew the child close by the side of her knee, where a younger one was sitting, and looked steadily through the fore windows.

The hoarse woman sat back, unquestioning and unresentful, and turned her eyes upon them that were crowding over the conductor; for the car was rising over Bow Bridge. Front and back they surged down from the roof, and the insides made for the door as one man. The big woman’s neighbor rose, and let her fall over on the seat, whence, awaking with a loud grunt and an incoherent curse, she rolled after the rest. The conductor, clamant and bedeviled, was caught between the two pellmells, and, demanding fares and gripping his satchel, was carried over the footboard in the rush. The stramash overhead came tangled and swearing down the stairs, gaining volume and force in random punches as it came; and the crowd on the pavement streamed vocally toward a brightness at the bridge foot — the lights of the Bombay Grab.

The woman with the children waited till the footboard was clear, and then, carrying one child and leading another (her marketings attached about her by indeterminate means), she set the two youngsters on the pavement, leaving the third on the step of the car. The harlot, lingering, lifted the child again, lifted her rather high, and set her on the path with the others. Then she walked away toward the Bombay Grab. A man in a blue serge suit was footing it down the turning between the public-house and the bridge with drunken swiftness and an intermittent stagger; and, tightening her shawl, she went in chase.

The quiet mechanic stood and stretched himself, and took a corner seat near the door; and the tram-car, quiet and vacant, bumped on westward.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58