Eight happy years passed.
I cannot precisely recall when Grimstone and O’Neil took over the town. Their coming was insidious, like the cholera a few years past, a slow pestilence that eventually became a plague. It was an open secret that they had had a good war, and I later discovered that their oft repeated philosophy that good business was where you found it was manifest in their company variously supplying the British Army, the Prussians, the Spanish, and the French. But nobody seemed to care. To hell with morality, loyalty, and honesty, does it make any money? That was and is the whole of the law. I swear to God that if the Great Tribulation began in the present age, all that would concern the City would be how the opening of the seven seals would affect the next quarter’s profits.
Why these men of business should choose our little provincial backwater was originally a mystery, but looking back later I realised that they were not particularly big fish, at least initially, and were most likely out of their depth among the brokers of London. It was also rumoured that Grimstone had family in the area, and might even have been a native of our little town, a prodigal son with some sort of chip on his shoulder, back to throw his weight around and show his people how important he had become. One thing was certain, big fish in small ponds tended to stink.
They contrived to buy up much of the property in the high street. Grimstone was rarely seen outside his office, which was headquartered in the house where my mother had been born, and I only ever glimpsed him by pure accident, usually getting in or out of a coach. He was quite a small man, with sharp features, honed all the more by a small beard, which, in combination with the most penetrating gaze, gave him a vaguely satanic appearance.
O’Neil, on the other hand, was often out and about. He was quite the physical opposite of his business partner, being a big, bluff northerner. My father’s first impression of him was positive. O’Neil had visited the shop, to personally explain that he was now the landlord, but that my father need have no concerns over the new arrangement, which O’Neil insisted would remain unchanged from the old. He also promised restoration, and complimented the quality of my father’s work. Father bought the news to my mother that evening with a cautious optimism. She knew the type better, and was inwardly sceptical, despite her essentially sunny disposition. I was too young to follow their discussion, and was more concerned with the adventures of Captain Singleton that evening, having discovered the novel nestling at the top of the tall bookcase in the parlour earlier in the day.
Shortly after this first meeting, O’Neil called upon my father again, only this time with a proposition. I was helping in the shop that day, so I overheard the conversation.
‘As the town is growing,’ he said, ‘Mr. Grimstone and I are considering diversification.’
‘Oh aye?’ said my father.
‘Yes,’ said O’Neil, mopping his greasy brow with a handkerchief almost as red as his hair, ‘in point of fact, we’re after establishing a haberdashery right here on the high street, perhaps also offering clothes off the peg, manufactured offsite through subcontracts to local weavers.’ (Many of these folk were on the parish, and would work for next to nothing.) ‘Would you consider selling, at all?’ he continued. ‘Would you take thirty pounds, Joseph?’
The offer was absurdly low. My father was a sitting tenant, and in no hurry to relinquish either lease or business. ‘That’s very kind, sir,’ he said diplomatically, ‘but I’m happy where I am just now.’
‘You could stay on if you liked,’ said O’Neil, ignoring what my father had said, ‘perhaps making simple alterations, cleaning, and managing the till.’
My father parried again. ‘I thank you for your interest, sir,’ he said, ‘but this business was my old dad’s, and it’s my intention to apprentice the boy here, should he wish it, and then pass the shop over.’
‘I quite understand,’ said O’Neil, going as far as to ruffle my hair like a favourite uncle. ‘Don’t you worry, Joseph,’ said he, ‘they’ll always be a place for your business here, whatever progressive changes we might make. I’m confident it’ll grow with the town.’
‘I’m glad to hear it, sir,’ said my father, ‘thank you again.’
‘They’ll be prosperity for all, Joseph,’ said O’Neil, as he took his leave, ‘now the railway’s coming.’
What in fact happened was that the rent was raised, shortly after my mother realised that she was once more with child. The annexation of the high street continued, with more and more business falling under the control of the two men. Those of which they did not approve, could not acquire, or had no interest in one way or the other, were forced out by a process of attrition. McGuire soon found himself under siege, his rents raised and his business undermined by vicious rumours. He was not clean. There were rats in the kitchen, cats in the pies. Apparently Grimstone and O’Neil had no time for left footers. Grimstone, meanwhile, took to affecting the title of ‘Captain,’ although he had served in no regiment we had ever heard of, the arrogant, unbloodied bastard. He courted the local gentry through the provincial social circuit, and was soon a regular guest at the manor. It was clear he had political ambitions.
It would seem that neither were the men of business too keen on Methodists, for when my parents worked harder and economised at home in order to meet the rent on the first of each month, now double what it had been a year before, O’Neil next let out the room above the shop. The new tenant was a vile and uncouth man name of Slaughter, who was in the employ of O’Neil, although what he actually did for his living was unclear. He came with an ugly dog, some sort of bull terrier, which barked day and night and whose filth Slaughter took to flinging out of the front upstairs window so that prospective customers had to gingerly step around it in order to enter the shop. My poor father spent as much time removing that dog’s shit from the front of his shop as he did tailoring. I was pretty certain the cur killed our cat as well, for it was never seen again. Slaughter was a drunk and a blackguard, and revelled in intimidating and insulting my father’s clients whenever their paths crossed. Trade began to drop off.
‘You must talk to him,’ my mother would say. But my father loathed confrontation. He simply had no idea how to cope with someone of such an unwholesome disposition. My father was no coward, mind, but neither was he a fool. By the look of Slaughter, who was built like a brick privy, he could quite easily break my poor father in two.
‘Some people cannot be reasoned with,’ my father would answer, looking miserably at the floor. He did this more and more. His gaze always seemed to be cast downward, and he would sit by the mostly unlit fireplace late into the night staring into space, inwardly computating his options with increasing despair. Like physical pain without the hope of recovery, my father knew that there was no way out of the current situation. There was nothing illegal occurring, and even if there were my father had no way of affording representation. Grimstone had become the local magistrate by then anyway. What was required was capital, but less was coming in while more was going out and now there was another child on the way. My mother was always hopeful that somehow our fortunes would improve, that the business would pick up or some grand commission would fall into their laps, but my father shared no such illusions. He kept working, more and more giving the outward appearance of a somnambulist as he mechanically went about his professional and domestic business. We stopped fishing, for he now worked on Sunday, although this decision went much against my mother’s wishes.
‘Was not the Lord a carpenter,’ he would say by way of explanation and apology, ‘he will understand.’ The land now belonged to Grimstone in any event, and he was already prosecuting any poor fool caught with rod and line for a poacher. As the bespoke side of the business was in decline, my father had compromised his standards and was producing shirts and waistcoats of generic size that my mother would then attempt to sell on market day in the neighbouring town, twelve miles to the west, along with dolls and doilies of her own design and manufacture.
O’Neil controlled our market, and one day my Mother, with me in tow, sought him out there in order to apply for a local pitch.
‘I’m terribly sorry, my dear lady’ he intoned, making a great show of his apology by bowing in the manner of a bad tragedian, ‘but we have no spaces available at this time.’
Even I could see that this was a nonsense. ‘What about those?’ said my mother, gesturing towards several empty vending stations between nearby stalls, like gaps in a row of teeth.
O’Neil breathed in sharply. ‘I’m afraid those pitches are all spoken for,’ said he, adding, ‘by traders from out of town.’
‘In that case,’ replied my mother, ‘perhaps you could have a polite word with your tenant Mr. Slaughter. His uncouth behaviour is alienating custom in my husband’s primary place of business.’
‘I’m shocked that anyone could possibly think ill of such a fine, upstanding man as Mr. Slaughter,’ said O’Neil, ‘but for you, Mrs. Vincent, I will look into the matter.’
‘You are very kind,’ said my mother, and in reply he took her hand and kissed it wetly, the way a lizard might commence to eat a piece of fruit.
I never knew precisely what happened to my mother at the shop. She had gone there in my father’s stead one Saturday as he was abed with a fever. Saturday was still the best day of the week for sales and they could ill-afford not to open. I wanted to go to, but my mother bade me remain at home to tend to my father. She was beginning to show at that point, but was still able to get around and work. I gathered soon enough that Slaughter had been about, and was delighted at this unexpected opportunity to have it out with my mother regarding the ‘dreadful slanders’ she had recently made against his good character.
She staggered home some ninety minutes after she had left. Her hair and clothes were in some disarray, and she had obviously been crying. She evaded my childish concerns and asked after my father, who was then asleep. She told me not to wake him, and to tell him nothing of the morning. She was going to wash, she said, and have a little rest. She had decided not to open the shop that day, and did not want me to go there. She told me not to worry, that she and my little brother or sister were fine, and that I should go and read or play. This suited me, as I had by then discovered Swift and was eager to return to the Country of the Houyhnhnms.
Later in the day I heard raised voices, and then my father stormed out of the house, my mother screaming in his wake, ‘It doesn’t matter, Joseph.’
‘What doesn’t matter, Mum?’ I asked, but she spoke not and simply sunk to the floor in tears. I was frightened and helpless, unsure whether I should stay with her or run after my dad.
My inclination was to fetch my father, who I assumed had gone to the shop. I could never match his stride though, and by the time I arrived there he had already been arrested. I quickly learned that he had attacked Slaughter, for no reason said the neighbours, and had struck a glancing blow to the big man’s ear. Slaughter had broken my father’s nose, dislocated his shoulder, and set the dog upon him before calling for the watch. My father would give no account of his reasons for swinging for Slaughter, and was prosecuted for common assault and disturbing the King’s peace at the next assizes. Grimstone was the beak. My father was fined five pounds, and was forced to put up the business to raise the money and avoid gaol. O’Neil bought him out for a pittance, and he made up the rest by selling the majority of his books. He promised me that this did not matter much, for he had his favourites by heart, but I knew that this loss was almost as soul destroying as that of the shop. His face was one terrible bruise for weeks afterwards, while his nose, which had been imperfectly set, gave him the look of a well-milled loser from the Prize Ring. This was probably not so far from the reality; that Slaughter had the look of the Fancy about him.
Slaughter’s name, I soon realised, was never to be spoken. I was too young by far to comprehend exactly what the mention of the brute, even the merest thought of him, could trigger in the minds of my poor parents. Yet I knew in my heart that something terrible had now been planted in theirs, a dungeon spiral of frustration, rage and regret within each of their gentle souls that, once entered, was utterly self-annihilating. It was not just my father’s body that had been broken, or the business, it was the spirit of the family itself.
My parents became withdrawn. The constant, easy conversation that had always existed between them ceased. Their carefree shows of affection, the way they had always so casually touched, likewise stopped. They seemed awkward around one another now, cautious, as if the oak boards upon which they walked had suddenly transmuted into the thinnest sheets of mica, a glass floor atop some terrible abyss that might, at any moment, crack. Ordinary and innocuous conversations could at any point ignite into the most violent of arguments, inevitably concluding with my father storming from the cottage and my mother retiring to bed, whatever the hour. To their credit, neither turned on me, but I bore witness to some dreadful rows. There was now, it would seem, but a step between the quotidian and the horrible, a situation in life of which my childish self had not been previously aware.
I began to feel unsettled at night; not yet afeared of the dark, but aware of it, and increasingly wary. Alone at night, the curtains by my bed when animated by a sullen draft now appeared to me as wights and visitants poised to fall upon me the moment I succumbed to exhaustion and slumbered. A shadow was falling across my young life, and in this new dark world my parents were as strangers. To one such as myself, an imaginative, bookish child who already saw all life as structured like a fantastic narrative, it felt as if my parents had been kidnapped by some malevolent being, replicated, and then replaced by these sinister automatons. The manufacture of these beings was expert, I gave the makers their due, but not exact. The creature that was supposed to be my mother looked a good ten years older, and thinner than the original, while my replacement father’s eyes were not right at all. The playful, mercurial shine that I had associated with my father’s countenance since I was a babe in arms was completely absent in this new model. All I could see behind these eyes was a terrible darkness. I could not even detect the clockwork gears that I assumed provided animation. My new father appeared quite empty. All the stories were gone.
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