by Len Sephton
“Adjourned. Get well wrapped up. It’s dam cowled out there. See yer tomorrer then, then. An extra day this week for them that’s wants to”.
Riggerthorne’s strangely attractive flat vowels of his Hull accent echoed through the dimly lit hall, the vapor from his breath hanging in the cold, yellow-tinted air. The semicircular group broke, and their chairs scraped the stone floor as each prepared to leave. The East Yorkshire chill of that 1950’s December had prompted them not to remove their winter hats and coats in an attempt to make the two-hour meeting more comfortable. Without a word the six hurried out of the old church hall of Fishermen’s Bethel and down the stone steps into the bitter night.
“An’ a good night to you an’ all”. Riggerthorne was the only person to hear his muttered words of sarcasm as he shook his head in exaggerated disbelief. He turned the collar of his disheveled, brown, herringbone overcoat, shuffled the paperwork with his usual disgruntled attitude, and ventured into the biting night, fumbling for the key to his frozen bike lock.
Riggerthorne cut a sallow figure as he pedaled with a total lack of enthusiasm following the route he had taken for these last five years. His dark silhouette slowly emerged from the icy, grey curtain of fog as he rounded the corner of Harrow Street. His brakes squealed, bringing his old Raleigh to a stop at the passageway of number 26.
Within a few minutes Riggerthorne was sat in his favorite chair next to the aspidistra. His trilby and overcoat were slung on the brown sofa and the orange and yellow flames of the coal fire were roaring abuse up the chimney, forcing the shadows to dance on the ceiling.
Looking forward to his supper, Riggerthorne was not a courteous man. “Where’s the flamin’ sugar, then, then?” Riggerthorne had a sweet tooth but even after thirty years of marriage Mrs Riggerthorne still did not put sugar in his tea.
“I said, where’s the flamin’ sugar, woman?” His shout made the window rattle.
Mrs Riggerthorne’s voice carried through from the kitchen, “It’s in the flamin’ cup”.
“Tisn’t in cup”. With an aggressive tone, Riggerthorne insisted.
“Tis”, his wife replied, secretly enjoying his frustration.
Riggerthorne was becoming very disgruntled. “Look woman, if I says there’s no flamin’ sugar, then, then there’s no flamin’ sugar. Right? Right.”
Mrs Riggerthorne, stirring her tea as she came through to the living room, responded in a fashion not in keeping with her usual high standards. “You should have stayed at The Meeting. Needn’t bother coming home here with a face like the rear end of a cat.”
Riggerthorne did not have to think long before he bellowed back. “Look who’s talkin’. Rear end of a cat eh? Well in that case then, then you meck a cat’s rear end look like model of the flamin’ year, right? Right”. His accent becoming more pronounced as he grew more annoyed. “Alice at Bethel always puts sugar in me tea, an’ we get ginger cake an’ all. Made by her own young fair ’ands they are. An’ we get tea in a big mug, not a flamin’ finger-sticky-up thimble-flamin-full like this. An’ another thing, where’s the flamin’ Spam then, then, in this sandwich? Cut it with a flamin’ Blue Gillette have we then, then? Oh yis, I think you’re right, right, I should’ve stayed at Meeting”.
Riggerthorne was getting into his stride. “Nice big thick slices o’ corned beef we get in Alicesisis sandwiches, oh yis. And pickle. Loads of it. Where’s the flamin’ pickle ’ere then, then? Not a sniffle. I don’t suppose you’ve bin on road shopping have yer? No, yakking all day that’s your trouble, wi’ that Geoffrey Humpty-flamin-Dumpty bloke next door, I’ll bet.”
Showing an obvious affection for her neighbour Mrs Riggerthorne calmly responded. “Ah! Jealous are we? Very helpful he is. Lifted my big jam pan down for me he did. And it’s Godfrey not Geoffrey. Anyway, he can’t help the way he is.”
“He’s like a big jam tart ’imself, he is. If he fell off a wall he’d meck a bigger mess than Humpty Dumpty. There’d be an ’ole big enough to teck all the king’s men and their ‘osses wi’ ’em.”
Riggerthorne felt his temperature rising.
All went quiet for a time. The odd clink of teacup on the china saucers interrupted the tick of the clock on the sideboard, and Riggethorne swallowed his sandwich, with its thinly sliced Spam, in one unceremonious gulp.
Mrs R broke the silence. “Well, you can get that tart Alice to make your tea next time. And she can do your washing. And your ironing. See what her young fair hands are like then.”
Riggerthorne stood up ready to leave the room. “’Ere we go, ’ere we go. At least she can iron properly. Shirts all crisp and neatly folded. Not like you, ’alf done wi’ creases all ovver place. I’ll bet if you ironed Humpty’s marquees they’d be flamin’ perfect.”
“Sooo . . . when did that tart iron your shirts then, ay, ay? When? Suppose you’ve got an excuse for that then. Have you then? Have you?”
Riggerthorne drank the remains of his tea, finding it difficult to hide his guilty face. “I er . . . I’m off to bed”, he stuttered, leaving his wife who was ignoring him as the radio whistled whilst she tuned to the Light Programme and a late night repeat of ‘The Goon Show’.
Riggerthorne had a sleepless night. He lay on his side looking at the curtains and watched the darkness submit to the dull light of the grey morning. He could not stop thinking that his wife of thirty years had suspected his infidelities with the gorgeous Alice. He pretended to be asleep as Mrs R put on her dressing gown and went to the bathroom for her usual morning teeth ritual. A few moments later he heard her reach the bottom of the creaking stairs. He heard her fill the kettle and the clang as she placed it on the gas stove. “Now what the ’ell shall I do?” His silent thoughts shouted loud in his head. “Right. Right then, I’d berrer gerr up and try to console ’er. She might of gorr ovver it by now. I’ll not admit to nowt”.
Mrs R was stood at the kitchen sink washing the dishes from last night’s supper. Riggerthorne had silently crept into the kitchen and nervously fumbled as he tried to put his arms around his wife. “You can get those hands off me right now. You can save that for fancy-pants”.
“Wha‘d’ya mean?” he asked in a slightly trembling voice.
Mrs R was ready for him. She felt sick with jealousy as she stirred out over the sink and through the misted glass into the silver frost-covered yard of the early morning. She carried on from where she had left off the previous evening. “No wonder you go to The Meetings early. Supposed to start at 4 o’clock aren’t they? So why go at two? Oh I can just see you now. Just the two of you. That tart’s making corned beef sandwiches while you’re making a nuisance of yourself. She’s giggling and you’re dribbling down your shirt with your neck going all red like it does. Look, it’s doing it now. Horrible.”
Riggerthorne stepped back. “O.K. then, then. Gerr on wi’ meckin’ your flamin’ jam tarts. I’m off to The Meeting”.
“Another meeting?” Mrs R sounded surprised. “Oh! I thought you only had three a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday? Why another today? Just an excuse to see ‘her’ I’ll bet. Well, go. See if I care. Leave me to my jam tarts. Just see if I care.”
The house was quiet, just a shuffling about upstairs as Riggerthorne shaved and dressed.
Mrs R sat at the kitchen table holding her cup of coffee with both hands. She had already washed the raspberries. The rest of the ingredients were together next to the large jam pan. She startled as the back door slammed. Riggerthorne’s shadow passed the window as he wheeled his bike into the passageway, eventually riding off along Harrow Street.
As the day passed and the jam boiled, Mrs R chatted over an afternoon cup of tea with Godfrey, her neighbour. She did not hide her affections as they flirted and enjoyed a couple of jam tarts that she had set aside, although the thought of her husband with that Alice never seemed to be far away.
Mrs R was a voluptuous woman. An obvious mismatch with her husband of thirty years, she carried her age well and was never to be seen without her tasteful, understated makeup.
After an enjoyable afternoon Mrs R’s next move took Godfrey by surprise. “I’m off!” she exclaimed. “I’m off to The Meeting, if there is one, that is. I thought a few jam tarts might do the trick, and with a bit of luck fancy pants Alice might come to her senses”.
Mrs Riggerthorne boarded the bus, the tin of tarts held firmly with both hands.
The air was still cold and grey, and the Fisherman’s Bethel hall was its usual unwelcoming self. To Mrs R’s surprise there really was a meeting that day, and even more surprising, the jam tarts cheered everyone, including Riggerthorne who welcomed the opportunity to make up. After a mug of tea and a corned beef sandwich Mrs R was pleased the attendees, along with Alice and Riggerthorne, had all enjoyed the jam tarts. She left to catch the bus and Riggerthorne, giving his wife an affectionate kiss on the cheek, said that he would see her later.
Mrs Riggerthorne sat at home chatting and flirting again with Godfrey. The evening clock ticked its way past nine. “I can’t for the life of me think what has happened to that husband of mine”, she said, in what seemed to Godfrey a worried tone. “He was so jovial when I left The Meeting earlier.”
“Somebody ’elp me.” Riggerthorne’s shallow and weak voice echoed through the dimly lit hall, the vapor from his breath hanging in the cold, yellow-tinted air. A minute later he was dead.
A half dozen over-coated and motionless bodies lay around in a semicircle. A trickle of jam was evident on their blue lips and a few half-eaten tarts were scattered on the cold, stone floor. A mug of tea had been spilt and a couple of the chairs were on their backs. Two members of the group, one of them Alice, had managed to crawl to the steps outside, their lifeless bodies already covered with frost.
Above the steps, pinned to the large oak door was a sign. It read :–
Mr Riggerthorne’s Marriage Guidance Counseling Service
Group Therapy Sessions Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Tea and Tasty Refreshments Provided.
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