Katy's Men (8 page)

 

Chapter
Seven

 

SUNDERLAND. SUMMER 1909.

Howard
Ross was tall and strong, blond, blue-eyed and handsome and he came as Katy’s saviour on a fine morning.


What have we got today, Katy?’ demanded Arthur Spargo as he entered the office. Outside in the yard the men were harnessing the horses and starting up the other vehicles. There was a throbbing of engines, clatter of horses’ hooves and the rumble of ironshod wheels of the carts on the cobbles of the yard. Katy could sniff the mingled smells of the petrol driven lorries, the hot metal odour of the coal burning steam tractors with their little ashpans slung beneath the engines, and behind all the ammoniac reek of the stables.

Katy
turned to Arthur from her desk under the window, ‘Here are the job chits. It’s a full turnout today, everything out on the road.’ She handed him the slips of paper, each one detailing the job to be carried out by either a cart, a steam wagon or a petrol-engined lorry. Spargos now had two of the latter, bought at Vera Spargo’s urging.

Arthur
barely glanced at the papers because during the past two years he had grown to rely on Katy, though she was still only eighteen. She kept the books and correspondence neat and tidy and could always find whatever figure or document Arthur wanted. She read the trade magazine,
Motor
Traction
, which the Spargo men barely glanced at but Katy learned thereby. She was brisk and efficient on the telephone and had even learned how to price a job so as to get the business but still make a profit. Now Arthur asked, ‘What about bills?’

Katy
pointed her pen at one of two neat piles of invoices. ‘I’ve done those — and I’ll have finished the others before long and then I’ll take them to the post.’

Arthur
grunted acknowledgment and waddled out of the office — he had put on a lot of weight in the past two years. Katy got on with her work, glancing up occasionally to peer out of the window when the carts, steam wagons and lorries rolled out through the gates, on their way to their work for the day. All the drivers waved to her as they went by. Katy was popular with them, and not only because she worked out their pay and overtime correctly, but because she always had a smile for them at the start and end of the day.

Because
of her involvement in working out their pay, she had made a claim for better pay for herself and had it granted, in part at least. Katy had pointed out that young male clerks were being paid fifteen shillings a week. Vera Spargo had reluctantly agreed to pay Katy ten shillings a week because she was being fed. That was twice what she had earned as a maid. She knew she was still underpaid and so did the Spargos, but for the moment she was content. While her father still got his ten shillings a month, Katy was able to live frugally but also to save a little. That was important because she planned to escape from the Spargos. To do that she needed enough money to pay for lodgings until she found work elsewhere and there was no knowing how long that might take. She was still fearful of the charge of vagrancy — and the workhouse.

At
mid-morning Vera Spargo came to the office, as she did each day, to ask, ‘What’s going on?’

And
Katy told her what work was being done and where: ‘Vic is shifting some furniture for a couple in Hendon moving to Bishopwearmouth, Jim’s lorry is taking a load to Durham . .

Vera
listened intently to the list of jobs and their prices and at the end nodded grudging satisfaction: ‘That sounds all right. Now, I’ve got a carpenter coming to do some work on the house, a feller called Howard Ross. He’s not been here before, so when he comes you direct him round to the kitchen door.’


Yes, Mrs Spargo.’

So
Vera went off with a curt nod and Katy returned to her work. She still had respect for, and fear of, Vera and acknowledged that she ran the business, rather than Arthur. But Katy also knew, from her reading of
Motor
Traction
, how a yard like that of the Spargos should be run. Vera was better at it than Arthur but was still far from perfect. The general untidiness was just an example of the sloppiness. Poor and infrequent servicing of the vehicles was another . . .

An
hour later Katy heard the
clip
-
clop
! of trotting hooves and a pony pulling a smartly varnished trap passed between the entrance gates and was reined to a halt outside the office. Its driver jumped down and came to stand tall at the open window. With his blond hair that crinkled and his blue eyes smiling he reminded Katy, with a pang, of Charles Ashleigh. But it was a very slight pang; time had healed. And this was not Charles but a young man called Howard Ross. He wore overalls and carried his tools in a brown canvas bag. ‘I’ve come to do a job for Mrs Spargo.’

Katy
returned the smile and leaned over her desk to point a slim finger: ‘You’ll find her up at the house. She’s expecting you, but go round to the back and use the kitchen door.’

He
asked, ‘Are you Mrs Spargo’s daughter?’

Katy
kept the smile in place while thinking, No, thank God! She said, ‘I’m just the clerk. There is a son but no daughter.’


Ah!’ There was an involuntary hint of disappointment in that exclamation, but he stood there another second or two, appraising, then said, ‘I’ll see you again.’ He waved and vaulted easily into the trap and the pony walked on up to the house.

Katy
watched him go. She was used to young men eyeing her appreciatively, and cautious. Ivor was still a lurking presence but he was now involved with the latest maid, Betsy, a buxom, giggling girl — as he had been with the succession of maids who preceded her. There was no young man in Katy’s life, nor had there been since Charles Ashleigh. There had been offers but she had declined them all. Quite apart from Vera’s ruling against ‘followers’, none had attracted her. But now she thought this tall, blond stranger was good-looking . . . And he had said he would see her again . . . She was smiling as she turned back to her work.

Howard
Ross, as he skirted the house, thought dispassionately that it was a pity there was no young girl of Spargo’s with money to add to her attractions. He combined his work with profitable philandering, seeking work in houses where the plain but wealthy daughters — or wives — could be persuaded to buy him handsome presents. But business wasn’t everything, and one day when he was in the mood he would come back here for the girl in the office. Besides, in the past year he had built up a sideline which paid much better than an occasional silver watch or cigarette case.

*

Matthew Ballard, now a sergeant, stood in his colonel’s office in the barracks at Aldershot and refused to be persuaded or tempted. ‘No, thank you, sir.’

The
colonel urged, ‘You have an excellent record and have done sterling work in this unit evaluating vehicles for the Army’s use. I can assure you that you would soon be promoted to warrant officer if you signed on for a further engagement. You would have an excellent future in the Corps.’


I understand that, sir, and I’m grateful. But I have already committed myself.’

His
commanding officer sighed, ‘Very well. I respect your loyalty to an old friend and wish the pair of you all good fortune.’


Thank you, sir.’ And Matt saluted and marched out.

Joe
Docherty had written, ‘I know your time finishes about now. My offer of a job is still open but now I need you. Betty passed away a month ago and I’m left with little Beatrice. On top of that I haven’t been too well lately and can’t cope with the work on my own. So if you want to do yourself and me a good turn, now’s your chance.’ Matt had seen a lot of service with Joe Docherty and could not resist this appeal.

He
got down from the train in Sunderland on a wet evening and found Joe renting a comfortable house in Monkwearmouth. It was one of a terrace but each had its own front garden and all were well cared for, with clean lace curtains at the windows and smart paintwork. Matt rapped with the shining brass knocker and the door was opened by Joe. He had a wide grin for Matt, shook his hand and pulled him inside then took his suitcase from him. ‘Matt! It’s great to see you! Come on in.’ He led the way into a sitting-room filled with furniture and edged through it to the armchairs set either side of the fireplace. ‘Make yourself comfortable. I’ll just tell Alice that you’re here —’

He
broke off there because a young woman in a worn, dark brown dress and white apron appeared in the doorway. Her hair was drawn back tightly into a bun and she snapped impatiently, ‘I heard the knock and came as quick as I could! I haven’t got two pairs of hands and I was in the kitchen getting the supper.’

Matt
saw a flicker of exasperation cross Joe’s face but then it was gone. He said, ‘I was in the hall when he knocked. This is Mr Ballard. Matt, this is Alice. She’s mainly here to look after Bea but she cooks as well and she’s got a meal ready for you.’ He smiled stiffly at Alice, ‘That’s right?’

Her
lips twitched in reply, ‘I’ll be ready to serve in ten minutes.’ Her thin smile moved to Matt, assessing, taking in the tall strength of him, the dark good looks. Her eyes widened.

Joe
laughed, ‘So we’ll have a quick one while we’re waiting. How about a scotch and ginger ale, Matt?’


Fine.’ Matt thought that he and Joe had always drunk beer before because it was all they could afford. As Alice left the room he also thought that Joe had done very well for himself: a nice house, business of his own that was flourishing and a cook/nursemaid. But Joe himself was not doing so well. To Matt’s eyes he looked to have a yellowish tinge and to have lost weight.

They
sat down by the fire and Joe leaned forward to say eagerly, ‘I’m really glad to see you, Matt. I’ve been doing the best I can but I can’t work like I used to. There’s lots of jobs I could pick up but I’ve had to let them go.

Now
you’re here — but I’ll take you down to the yard in the morning and you can see the business.’

They
chatted about old friends and places while they waited for their meal and it was all of twenty minutes before Alice entered, simpering, and announced, ‘I’m ready to serve now.’ The drab brown dress had been replaced by a newer, smarter affair in pale blue with a noticeable décolletage and her hair was now piled on the top of her head. Her smile never faltered all the way through dinner.

The
next morning Matt went with Joe to see the yard. It lay down by the river and was reached after walking through long streets of terraced houses built for the shipyard workers. The shipyards were close by with their towering cranes and the battering noise of the riveting hammers. The children running in the streets were ragged or wore patched clothes and some were barefoot in the summer weather. Joe muttered, ‘We were brought up like this but I want something better for my daughter.’

They
came to padlocked gates set in a high wall and painted with the words: J. Docherty. Haulier. Joe used a key to unlock the gates and then swung them open. The yard inside was square, cobbled and half the size of a football pitch. Matt saw, on the left-hand side of the yard, a stable and a shed or garage. A cart and a lorry stood before these buildings on a square of concreted hard-standing. Joe pointed to the lorry: ‘Dennis three-ton flatbed —’ He broke off and laughed, ‘But you can see that! I can’t tell you anything about lorries!’ Matt shrugged modestly and Joe went on, ‘I’ve got a canvas housing I can rig on it if I’m carrying furniture. I just use the horse and cart for local, small stuff.’ The horse hung its head over the stable door, watching them. Joe explained, ‘The garage is big enough for both the Dennis and the cart and I put them inside during the winter. I don’t bother this time o’ year, though.’

Matt
stroked the horse’s nose but his eyes were on the Dennis. It could have been cleaner. He asked, ‘What about maintenance?’

Joe
flapped a hand, ‘She’s due for a service but I haven’t been too good these last few days.’

Matt
thought this was not like the old Joe Docherty. His gaze shifted to the building on the right side of the yard, opposite the garage and back from the gate. It had two floors, with windows and a door facing him. While curtains sagged at the upstairs windows, those on the ground floor were uncurtained and Matt could see a desk inside. He nodded at it: ‘Is that the office?’

Joe
agreed, ‘Right. Come and have a look.’ They crossed the yard and Joe slid his hand into a crack between doorstep and door sill and took out a key. He grinned, ‘Always keep it there.’ He turned the key in the lock and pushed open the door, then apologised, embarrassed, ‘Sorry, it’s a bit scruffy in here. I haven’t had time to clear it up lately.’

The
desk was littered with papers, the old swivel chair was dirty and the bare floorboards needed sweeping. There was a thin layer of dust over everything and a cobweb hung in one corner. The office ran back for some twenty feet but a counter bestrode it halfway. There was a flap that could be lifted up to let people pass behind it. The walls past the counter held shelves, empty and dusty. Joe explained, ‘I think the place was used as a store of some sort at one time.’ He nodded at the stairs which ran up one wall to the floor above: ‘There’s a couple of rooms up there. Not a stick of furniture, but they
could
be a bedroom and kitchen — there’s water and gas laid on and a kitchen range. Not that I’m suggesting you live up there. You’ll bed and board with us — if you’re taking the job?’ He stopped then, racked by a fit of coughing. When he got his breath back he muttered, ‘I’ll have to have a drink.’

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