The Song of the Butcher Bird | 14 White Horse Stables
A Woman’s curse
Tommy Potter’s mother was waiting for Charlie when he turned into the White Horse Stables at the end of his third route of the day. She was standing foursquare in the middle of the cobbled yard, with her best hat on her head and her umbrella gripped in her hand like a green canvas cudgel.
Mrs Potter was built broadly on the same lines as her half-brother but she was nearly fifteen years younger than Ted Gilroy, and a lot quicker on her feet. By the time Charlie drew up alongside the bus shed, she had crossed the yard and was stationed on the spot where he would normally step down from the driver’s seat. As the grooms took charge of his horses and began unharnessing them, Charlie looked down at Mrs Potter’s set face and decided to stay where he was. It was not very dignified, but he guessed that climbing down to ground level to a violent reception was likely to be even less so.
After a silent stand-off for a few seconds, the movement of the horses being led away broke the deadlock.
“Come down here, you… you… bloody BULLY!” Mrs Potter’s jowls quivered with the force of her feelings. “How dare you! How dare you set on my boy. Come down here and I’ll teach you a lesson you’ll not forget, you…you…” Short of the right word to describe him, Mrs Potter lashed out with her umbrella at the front wheel of the bus, a clear demonstration of the kind of education she was planning to offer Charlie.
Charlie stayed put and glanced towards the stables in the hope that one of the staff might intervene. Davey, the senior groom, was standing in the stables doorway with the first of the two horses due to pull the No.24 on its fourth and final route of the day. Charlie jerked his head in Mrs Potter’s direction. Davey grinned at him and touched his cap.
“Come down here this minute, you coward.” Twenty years of flaying her late husband had given Mrs Potter a voice with the cutting power of a bandsaw, and a good deal of confidence in her capabilities when it came to conflicts with men, vocal or physical. She whacked the wheel again with her umbrella, and raised her right foot to the step the drivers used to mount up to their high seat.
Fortunately for Charlie, the step was only just within reach for a middle-aged matron wearing her best dress and all the undergarments needed to support her form and some twenty yards of pleated silk. The dress was as old as Tommy Potter, too, and had grown tighter over the years. Mrs Potter glared up at Charlie, and took her foot off the step again.
“Don’t you think you can sit up there like a… like a cock sparra,” she screeched, “you… Fletcher, you. I’ll have you off there. I’ll teach you. And Mr Gilroy will have you out of here on the street when he hears what you’ve done to his little nevvy.” Mrs Potter actually used the old word with deadly seriousness, and saw no irony in calling her son ‘little’. Tommy Potter took after his mother’s side of the family, and not his smaller and scrawnier father’s. Charlie could see him standing next to the door into the driver’s snug, enjoying every second of this spectacle of his mother fighting his battles for him.
The sight of Potter’s smirking face galvanised Charlie. He was damned if would sit still and allow Mrs Potter to make a fool of him. He swung his legs round to the offside of the bus, and was down on the ground and clear of the bus before Mrs Potter was more than halfway round the back of the vehicle. Charlie chose his ground in the middle of the yard and braced himself for the attack.
Dorothy Potter came straight at him like Lord Nelson, and it was as much as Charlie could do to stop himself beating a tactical retreat. He put a brave face on it, and received a shower of spittle as Mrs Potter let fly with a verbal broadside at close quarters. “You pervert,” she spat, so close to him that Charlie could clearly see a wire of dark hair sprouting at one corner of her mouth. “You dare handle my Tommy’s privates and see what you get. You trumped up…. pervert, you.” This was delivered at the top of her voice, and greeted with a gale of laughter from the watching grooms and stable staff.
Tommy squirmed with embarrassment, but his mother rounded on the men furiously without a second’s hesitation. “You’ll be sorry, too, you jackasses, you… Standing by like a pack of cur dogs. You’ll be sorry, you will, all of you, you wait and see, You’ll be out on the street like this one.” She waved her umbrella at Charlie. “You’ll be laughing on the other side of your stupid faces soon enough, you see if you don’t. You’re finished at Gilroy’s, all of you.”
The men stopped laughing, and Mrs Potter took a step towards them, nodding her head so hard her hat shifted on its anchorage of long pins. “Oh yes, you won’t be laughing soon. You wait and see. You don’t know nothing, you don’t, but I do.”
She whirled back round at Charlie, who had folded his arms in an effort to look more stoical, and the sight seemed to goad her into another furious outburst. “Don’t you cross me, you pipsqueak!” The umbrella whistled through the air and landed with a loud crack on Charlie’s shoulder as he ducked away from a direct hit to the side of his head.
For a second or two the blow seemed to take some of the wind out of Mrs Potter’s sails. It may have vented some of her lust for revenge, but then the ring that held the umbrella’s wooden spokes slipped off. The umbrella fell partially open, and it was clear that some of the spokes were broken. Mrs Potter stared at her umbrella, and then at Charlie.
“Look what you’ve made me do! You’ve broken my umbrella!” She was shaking with fury, the colour draining from her face, staring from the broken umbrella to Charlie and back again with horrified disbelief as though he had snapped a piece of the true cross. Her eyes narrowed and she raised her arm to point straight at the young driver. “You’ll go to hell, Charlie Fletcher,” she hissed at him, “like your worthless, drunkard father before you, you little.. you…little… pisspot.”
There was a dead silence in the yard for a few moments as the half circle of men absorbed the weight of the woman’s curse, and then the No. 16 bus came clattering and creaking round the corner of White Horse Lane and rumbled deafeningly under the archway.
Arthur Lockinge was the only man working for Ted Gilroy with a louder voice and worse temper than the boss’s half-sister, and he made good use of them both to galvanise the staff. “Mind your bloody backs, there, clear the way will you,” he bellowed, and the tableau broke up instantly, the grooms and stablemen scattering back to their work and even Dorothy Potter hurrying to the safe side of the yard next to her son as the No.16 team clattered to a halt behind Charlie’s No.24 bus.
Lockinge was not especially big and in his forties he was old for a driver. The rheumatics made him limp when he walked and wince when he released the reins for the last time at the end of the day. He was a good driver and a horseman to his marrow, but the pain made him short-tempered with people, and the staff kept a wary eye on the lash of his long whip when he rolled into the yard. Without leaving his seat, Lockinge could flick you on the arse with the tip of the lash and leave a red welt that lasted for a week.
Today he needed a leak, so he climbed stiffly down from his seat and limped, cursing, towards the muckheap, unbuttoning his flies and calling over his shoulder. “You shouldn’t be in this yard, woman, causing bloody trouble. Get out. And you get on with your bloody jobs, you idle windsuckers.” He relieved himself with a long groan, and farted loudly.
His appearance in the nick of time was a huge relief to all the staff, and several of the men cheered his performance ironically, grinning across the yard at Mrs Potter, who glared at the old driver but declined to take issue. She had done what she had come for, and now she gathered up her bag and broken umbrella, patted Tommy on the cheek, and marched out of the yard with her head up. She stopped, though, in the middle of the arch, for a parting shot. “You’re finished, the lot of you. You mark my words.”
She turned on her heel and sailed off up White Horse Lane towards the Mile End Road and home.
Lockinge was limping back across the yard to his bus as Charlie stepped up to his seat and prepared to drive his new team out on the final route.
“What the fucking ‘ell was all that about? What did that ugly bitch want here?” asked the older driver, generally.
Charlie left the grooms to tell him. He slapped the reins on his horse’s backsides, turned them in the tight circle around the yard and rumbled out under the flaking archway.