Gloria Sinat’s dad was a deeply silent man, a little more so when he died. Derek could not tell his fiancée how scared he was of dead people because he had never seen one and didn’t want her to think him unmanly. That was why he smoked, because that’s what men did and it gave him something to do with his hands and his mouth and his twirling little manly moustache that a fag drew attention to. That was also why he drank because he liked the feeling of fuzzy camaraderie with everyone that ever drank, even when he was drinking alone, in the cold room of the workmen’s hostel, a kind of understanding that drinking people have and non drinking people didn’t get and could only pray for.
Derek liked Gloria’s dad Archie, because in a straight choice between drinking and praying he’d chosen the dignity of the former. There was no going down on bended knee with Archie. It was difficult enough to get him out of his chair without that kind of carry on. He was a devout Marxist and believed that all men were born with a bowdlerised bourgeoisie image that would destroy them unless they confronted it. Religion. That’s where the blame lay.
The young Archie Sinat had written a penny pamphlet that was published by the Voice of Reason, with world wide sales that went as far as the Calton. Archie’s wife, Mrs Archie Sinat, had kept a copy newly ironed in a leather folder that she would let those that she considered gentry, peruse, but only if they promised to be careful with it.
It was difficult to be anything else but careful with Mrs Archie Sinat. She was all of six foot tall and made any circus strongman look like an anaemic dwarf. She was sweet smelling and squeaky-clean and dressed respectfully with a bagatelle of any cast-off middle class clothing that would fit her superior frame. She was not rich enough to admit she was poor. But that’s what her clothing said. To compensate she stood extra straight and extra large and padded about like a brown bear on its hind legs. She had a whole list of things that she didn’t allow. It included drinking, smoking and eating in public restaurants.
Derek had been keen to tell her that he never ate in restaurants. He didn’t pee outside either. He liked to use a toilet, even a public one, but he wasn’t sure if that was on her list, or she’d allow that, so he said nothing at their first meeting. He just sat on what seemed like a very high and hard wooden chair next to Mr Archie Sinat who was spread comfortably out in his own armchair. His fiancée was perched opposite him in an equally uncomfortable chair. Mrs Archie towered above them all, like King Kong, and busied herself with the rules and regulations of life and also remarked on the scenery, of which there was very little and it wasn’t the same as it used to be. Derek looked to Mr Archie for guidance about how to respond to the droning noise of Mrs Archie’s voice with a Buddha like indifference. The answer came to him like two no 47 buses, one following the other: smoke a pipe, because she allows it and the smell seemed to calm her down.
Everybody in that household coped differently, even the eight foster children. No that wasn’t quite true. Five were already adopted and three were on trial, as they hadn’t quite been adopted yet. Mrs Archie brought out the youngest to say good night to Derek. He was all cute and fluffed up, like a baby chick, after just coming out the sink in which he’d been bathed by one of the older children. It was a job that Derek’s fiancée usually did, but with her meeting in the front room, and being newly engaged, she’d fostered it out to Jacqueline, who was now effectively the second in command. Derek had smiled when he’d seen him toddling in to the adult room. Mrs Archie, as a rule, didn’t usually allow children in the sitting room. Derek had moved to pull the little boy onto his knee, or perhaps pat his head, but his fiancée had signalled with a discrete shake of her head not to do so. He bent down to kiss the little boy, but the child stuck his hand out for Derek to shake as if he was an old man.
Mrs Archie looked on to see that the proprieties were kept and the appropriate distance maintained.
‘Good night sir,’ said the little boy and walked out of the room like a cut down man.
‘Would you like another refreshment?’ Mrs Archie asked Derek.
Mrs Archie meant water. She was very keen on tap water, especially with it all its many and varied medicinal qualities.
‘No thank you,’ said Derek, taking a sip and showing he still had almost a full mug.
‘Get Derek a fresh mug full,’ Mrs Archie commanded her daughter.
‘Yes Mother,’ said Dorothy, springing up and into the kitchen, almost glad to be away.
Mrs Archie took a key from a chain that was hung around her neck. Her husband and Derek watched as she inserted it into the brown bureau that she kept in the corner. The shutters snapped open showing a black Olivetti typewriter sitting dead centre in the desk, its red ribbon lying ready to bounce and snap out another masterpiece for the masses.
His fiancée returned with the mug of water.
‘Don’t put it there!’ said Mrs Archie, ‘it’ll stain the antimacassar. Use a place mat.’
‘Yes, mother,’ said his fiancée. She already had one in her hand and was about to place it down, but could see that her mother held the leather book in which the original penny publication had been placed for posterity and that made them both nervous.
Mrs Archie postioned the leather volume carefully on Derek’s shut knees. He felt as if he’d been handed a wild animal to tame and didn’t know how to. He moved slightly to pick up the mug and take a sip of water, but the slight movement of his legs moved the book on his lap, almost sending it crashing to the floor. He looked up and around him, from face to face, to find one that was friendly, but they all seemed to loom in and scrutinize him even more. He panicked and picked the book up like a snake. The front page of the penny dreadful fluttered open.
‘Dead. Dead. Dead.’
That was the last thing he saw before Mrs Archie swooped down and took the book from his shaking hands and clutched it to her non maternal bosoms.
‘You don’t need to be tearing through it, like that,’ snapped Mrs Archie.
The proximity of the volume to her heart seemed to inspire her and make her unusually verbose.
‘For your edification, it’s about being dead, dead, dead. When you die,’ she explained, ‘you don’t meet god or angels. You’re just dead, dead, dead.’
She nodded to herself, and finally to Mr Archie, as if she, and not he, had penned this masterpiece. She treaded carefully, as if the floorboards were going to jump up and make her drop it. Only when it was safely under lock and the key was safely ensconced in her manless vault did she turn to her guest and almost smile.
‘Have you any questions?’ she asked.
‘No!’ said Derek hurriedly taking a sip of water. ‘I mean yes. You know that I’m engaged to be married to your daughter?’
He looked into her blank stare. ‘Dorothy,’ he blustered on. ‘I’m engaged to your daughter Dorothy and we want to get married.’
The words had bloomed on his tongue and he was already leaping ahead to a little house with a little yard and his son sitting on his knee smelling of talcum powder and baby sick looking up and trying to clutch his mum’s yellow cotton pastel dress.
‘I don’t go in for that fashion of quick-fire engagements,’ said Mrs Archie.
‘But it’s been five years,’ said Derek.
And he’d only been able to kiss Dorothy on the lips in the two weeks since he’d bought, or made a down payment on the gold band, that was a down payment on their new life. He almost spilled his water when he imagined kissing Dorothy anywhere other than her lips.
‘The most important thing is friendship,’ said Mrs Archie, looking to Mr Archie to see if he disagreed. ‘Me and Mr Archibald have had a comradely friendship for so long it almost feels natural. But you’ll get no complaining from me. I don’t allow complaining,’ she complained. ‘I just hope there is no hanky-panky.’ She looked at Dorothy’s face to check that she hadn’t caught such a disease, before continuing on, ‘me and Mr Archie have got on, over the years, without any hanky-panky. There are so many children in the world looking for a good home, there just seems so little need.’
‘There’s no such thing as a worthless child,’ she said looking at Dorothy. ‘We all have value, as long as we make ourselves useful. Isn’t that right Dorothy?’
‘Yes mother,’ said Dorothy.
‘I suppose we’ve got to be grateful somebody wants to marry her. She’s barely five foot tall and mostly skin and bone. People might mistake her for a boy if it weren’t for her breasts. She has that at least,’ Mrs Archie conceded.
‘She has a good enquiring mind,’ Mr Archie waved his pipe about as if that would help locate it.
Derek’s eyes fastened on his fiancée’s face and slid downward. He was stuck on the admission that she has breasts. He didn’t think that anyone else had noticed. But he was quite sure she had breasts, quite large ones at that, but wasn’t quite sure whether they were now properly engaged so that he could admit himself to the admiring of them.
Mr Archie was no help. He taken to looking at the unlit fire again and Mrs Archie with the snap of her voice had careered out of the living room door like a whipping top having seen or heard some wrongdoing from one of her family.
‘Would you like another glass of tap water Dennis?’ Dorothy leaned across and tapped him on his wrist. He got a whiff of Evening in Paris, or some other woman’s perfume, but since that was the only one he knew the name of because he’d bought some for his mum when he was younger, even though he should have known better, he knew that’s what it was. That or Jergen’s Lotion.
Even though Mr Archie could hear every word Denis had leaned over and whispered: ‘Are we engaged or not?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Dorothy in a halting voice. ‘Are we engaged Father?’
‘No,’ said Mr Archie trying to sit up straight in a chair worn down by years of slouching and sleeping into something resembling his body. ‘That man’s a knucklehead, with the look of a Tory about him. Of course you’re not engaged. You can do a lot better than that.’ He fell back into the comfort of his chair and silence.
‘But I’m almost 21, an old maid,’ cried Dorothy.
‘They’ll be time enough lass. There’ll be time,’ said Mr Archie rousing himself for one last coughing fit. There was time for her, but not for him.
Mrs Archie took his death like a man, and hugged her children until they hurt. If Mr Archie’s dying request was that her daughter married Dennis she would not stand in his way.
Mr Archie’s funeral came before Dorothy’s wedding. Mrs Archie felt that a church rather than secular funeral would be appropriate, because even though he was ‘dead, dead, dead,’ she didn’t want to take any chances with God. And she was sure that Mr Archie would have understood. Market forces meant that the demand for secular funerals was limited, the supply of non-secular almost unlimited. It was cheaper burning him as a Christian than a Communist and if there was no God it didn’t really matter.