Friday, November 20, 2020

Pieces of paper (short story)

 A Short Story from the Winter 1984 issue of the World Socialist

George did odd jobs for us every Saturday. He was a tall man . . .  sixty odd . . . ascetically lean of frame and face and his clothes showed, at least, secondary ownership in their shortness and looseness.

He always washed and valeted my car and, in the season, helped Mary in the garden. His manner always seemed slightly obsequious but there was something in the way he called me "sir", or "Mister" Stevens, that I always found slightly disconcerting.

He had been with us—on Saturdays only, of course—since the time when his reward was a £1 note. Now it was a fiver. Mary said she was ashamed to give him a fiver for five or six hours work but there was no way we could afford more. Indeed, when I finally succumbed to Mary's persistent pressure and bought our second car—a five-year old Renault 4 that looked its age—we agreed that she would use it sparingly and George's fiver would pay for the petrol.

When he arrived the following Saturday morning, Mary was upstairs. The previous evening I had argued that, since it was her car that had created the need for us to dispose of George, she should tell him. There'd been a good deal of banter at first but, as always happens when we talk about things related to our domestic budget, Mary becomes defensive and angry. We both knew she would not carry out her threat to get rid of the car but the scene did become unpleasant and Mary slept with our baby daughter, Carol, that night.

As I said, next morning when George arrived Mary stayed upstairs. All morning I'd been thinking about George. He rarely mentioned anything about his personal life to me but, over the years, Mary had learnt a lot. She always made him a cup of tea and they would talk during the short period he would spend with her in the kitchen.

The accumulated tit-bits of George's revelations added up to a fairly full biography of poverty and misery. His father had died in the First World War, six months before George was born, and his early years had be'en a grim apprenticeship in privation before "the real luxury" (his actual words, often quoted by Mary when she talked about him) of army life during the Second World War. He had not been wounded—not hit with a bullet or shrapnel or anything like that—but he had spent six days in a farm outhouse in France, pinned down by crossfire between a stubborn rearguard of panzers and a section of the advancing allied forces. The experience had been pretty grim— one could almost say, harrowing—and had undoubtedly left a mark on George.

One of his two comrades was killed the first day when the outhouse was swept with machine gun fire from one side or the other. His body had lain "laughing"—again, a direct quote—in the corner, frightening George and his companion more than the hellish cacophony outside. After two days, without food and with the water gone, George and his comrade decided to make their escape during a lull in the fighting.

His companion was in front as, bending low, they prepared to move through the door of the outhouse. When he was shot he fell back onto George. He lived for three more days, across in the corner opposite the laughing corpse, and, all the time, he maintained a delirious soliloquy in a sad, low voice.

The man was obviously one of those characters who had read a great deal; a sort of autodidact, full of unconnected knowledge. Unquestionably deranged, he punctuated his monologue every now and then with a question and then proceeded to answer his own question. These questions and answers were, apparently, quite fierce assaults on the values and standards that underpin our whole way-of-life. Not the sort of talk that a reasonable, civilised human being would normally indulge in but, in the thick of it, so to speak, dying and all that . . . I suppose, really, some men die less bravely than others. George was not too sure about the answers the dying man had given himself but he did, unfortunately, remember the questions and he did remember the other saying, a short time before he fell silent forever, "How can patriotism be a good thing? It's a fucking killing disease!"

The experience had left a grim shadow on George's mind. He was obviously a wee bit . . .  well, not quite . . . right. Not crazy, you understand; just a bit . . . peculiar.

He always talked about the less seemly things. I'm in insurance and one day I was foolish enough to comment on some aspect of my work. George said, "Humanity should be its own insurance". I was slightly non-plussed. "What do you mean, George?" I asked, indulgently. He looked at me, his mind probably back in that hellhole in France, then he seemed to draw back, "Just seems to me, Mr Stevens, that people can make enough of the things they need to ensure them against every contingency. It's the paper, sir, the pieces of paper, that cause all the problems." I didn't say anything in reply; George was . . .  innocent, so naive, and, as I have said, a little . . .  peculiar.

It was his peculiarities I was thinking about as I asked him to sit down at the table in the kitchen that Saturday morning. I had decided to give him the fiver first, and, then, the bad news—and I wouldn't ask him to clean the car or attend the garden. Christ! Mary had left me in a bloody spot and now she was huffing in the bedroom. All because of a miserable, second-hand banger. What the hell—I couldn't afford a fiver! Irrelevantly, I thought about being forty next birthday.

When George had sat down I gave him the tin of beer I normally held over for myself—for Sunday. He listened to my explanation; I was completely frank— though I maybe did overstate Mary's need for the Renault. When I was finished, he was silent and I felt the need to go on. The proffered fiver lay on the table between us—stark, embarrassing. "Of course, George, you realise, with the mortgage, the rates, the payments on the car . . . well, really, everything, and the recession . . . Less demand for insurance now. Ironically, more need, but less demand. Business is in a hell of a way. Well, you know it yourself, there's acres of unsold cars down there at the car plant—I'm told they are going to lay off another eight hundred next week—probably another load of lapsed policies! But what can they do? No point making more cars to rust in the fields beside the others. Jesus, George, if Mary could have done without the car—say car easy; it's really an old banger—probably another headache! But, with Carol starting school and all . . . "

I looked at him; his eyes were half-closed and his face was set in such a curious way that the thought occurred to me that his . . . his mental state might not be quite as congenial as I had imagined. Desperately I searched for words that might assuage his anger and I found them in the most disarming honesty of self-analysis I had ever subjected myself to. It was my moment before death; a brutal revelation of my hidden anger. Anger at my life, my job, anger, even, at Mary—my God! even at the child! How easy it would be if it was only me—if I were alone! George's voice stopped me and, fleetingly, I reflected that he was alone.

"Mister Stevens". It was as though he had shouted "stop!". Then, quietly, "Mr Stevens, it's all mad, isn't it, sir? All the pretence. Disguising ourselves even from ourselves. You know, Mr Stevens, there's the world out there . . . a veritable fairyland of everything. Everything. And there's more besides; oh, aye, far more for everybody that needs or wants more, if we were allowed to grow it or make it. And, y'know, few would really want more if everybody had enough. But it's the pieces of paper, Mr Stevens . . . The pieces of paper. The bloody title deeds, the certificates, the banknotes—the whole, bloody, wasteful documentation of human servitude. It's the pieces of paper that restricts and demeans us. If we could only use the technology, the machines, the computers and all the rest, use them in the same way as our primitive forefathers used their clubs and spears, we'd maybe be civilised. Jesus, sir, even the language of it all is . . . obscene . . . humiliating!"

I had never heard George swear before and I was, frankly, a little afraid. Hoping to terminate the interview, I stood up, lifted the five pound note from the table and forced it into George's hands, clasped on the table. "It is a funny old world, George", I said, with more lightness than I felt. Then, really feeling the moment, "I really do wish I could help you, George—you know . . . help in an ongoing way. Something sort of . . .  permanent. But what can I . . ."

He stood up, uncrumbling the note in his hands, then he bent across and, almost ceremoniously, left the fiver in the middle of the table. I was startled when he put a hand on my shoulder, but his eyes were soft and, strangely sad and, when he spoke, his voice was laden with . . .  with pity!

"No, Mr Stevens. I don't want to hurt you, sir, nor would I want to. But you really need the money, Mr Stevens. Oh, you do, sir! Funny how a miserable little piece of printed paper can come between people . . .  cause hurt. And it can cause hurt, sir, hurt and hunger—even death. I wish I could help you, Mr Stevens; you and the millions of others. But it's hard to see beyond the bits of paper."

I bought two new car mats for Mary's Renault with the fiver and it was the difference between love and war in our house that weekend! She didn't sleep in Carol's room on Saturday night and, for a long time, we both lay in bed talking about George. Mary listened while I told her all about the morning's conversation. She was quite distressed; she really liked old George. Afterwards, when we had changed the subject, she said, quietly and irrelevantly, "Isn't it funny the way the war affected some people".

Richard Montague

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