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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

by Thomas Baines

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Horace was a most remarkable man. To start with, he was a survivor, having survived four years in the trenches during the Great War - being one of the few from his original Company who came out of it alive. However, he didn't escape unscathed, having been gassed. The resultant weak chest made him prone to respiratory infections, though fortunately he was always able to fight them off.

He was a man of small stature, with a fresh, perhaps pink, complexion. He was in his mid-fifties when I first knew him. His hair was white, possibly prematurely due to his wartime sufferings. He had had a normal education, in keeping with the working classes at the time, and was clever at most things to which he applied himself. He was good at bowls, dominoes, card games, and most important of all, detaching himself from anything that interfered with his most satisfactory way of life. Yes, satisfactory, for he was the most contented man I have ever known. This wasn't all due to good fortune, but mainly because he made it that way. He did however start his married life with one distinct advantage - he married Ida.

Let me be clear about it - one certain fact of life is that a truly contented man has to make personal sacrifices in order to achieve and retain that ideal state, and Horace was no exception. The golden rule was that one should never do any jobs in or about the house - never! Not that he ever blatantly refused - he wasn't that type of man. No, he just decided at the outset of his marriage to become useless in such matters, being incapable of carrying out even the simplest of household chores without making a mess of them. Dishwashing had to be dispensed with - he was clumsy and tended to drop the blasted things. He was hopeless at painting and decorating - his earliest attempts had readily confirmed this defect. He couldn't stand heights, and all things electrical or mechanical were beyond his understanding. Fortunately for everyone concerned, there was no garden to be attended to.

Horace and Ida had two sons - Jack is a year older than me, and Kenneth a year younger. Jack is still my best friend. It was of course through them that I first met their mother and father.

Until Jack was old enough to help, Ida carried out most of the jobs that were beyond Horace's capabilities. Hired workmen did any she could not tackle herself. Not that the family was well off - far from it, Horace being a lowly paid Post Office sorting clerk.

Horace never appeared to be in the least embarrassed whenever any of the irksome jobs that should have been his were carried out in his presence. Not in the least - he just sat in his chair reading his newspaper and quietly whistling to himself. Though on occasions he could be observed muttering, most likely about the disturbance caused by the intrusion into his peaceful existence.

I never saw Kenneth involved in any of the onerous chores - he obviously had the same inclinations as his father. He tended to be that way when he eventually married, but unfortunately for him Connie was not nearly so accommodating as Ida in such matters.

Horace didn't just sit around the house when he wasn't at work, for he had many outside interests. He liked a pint or two of beer, especially at the Oddfellows Club, where he also played dominoes and cards. He loved to play on Mandley Park's crown bowling green. His days there were only spoiled when some idiot brought a woman to play bowls - then the whistling stopped and his muttered objections were very audible to all those around him.

He liked to go to Gigg Lane on Saturday afternoons to watch 'Bury' play football - he even went there on the back of my motor bike on a couple of occasions, even though by then he was an old aged pensioner.

Unfortunately, life is not perfect, even for Horace - there was a penalty to be paid for his comfortable way of life. This was a kind of retribution carried out by Ida. Not that it was done in anything like a malicious way - she was incapable of that. It took the form of a rebuke, as she quite often told visitors to the house how useless he was, usually relating to a specific incident. He did not appear to be angered or even embarrassed by such disclosures in his presence. He just picked up his newspaper and started to whistle to himself - he always seemed to have a newspaper handy.

Ida's disclosures were not delivered in anger or anything like that. They weren't even intended to give vent to any frustrations. They were merely revealed in order that the listener would have a sympathetic appreciation of her martyrdom. She was a born martyr, being one of those people who possess a kind of nervous energy that seems to make them incapable of sitting down and relaxing. Her uncontrollable energy was often used in the cause of good works - not only on Horace's behalf, but in order to help any neighbour or friend who was in need. She would run errands or do housework for them - sometimes when she was unwell, for she tended to suffer from frequent heavy colds. Typical of her disclosures were, "Do you know, Tommy, yesterday when the lads were at work, I was doing the ironing when a fuse blew. I had to go and get an electrician to replace it - and he just sat there and watched!" ... "I was having a bath, when he shouted upstairs that somebody was at the front door - I had to go and see who it was, wearing my dressing gown!" Naturally, Horace just picked up his paper and started whistling as she told me.

Please don't think that Ida had an unhappy life with him. I never heard them exchange a harsh word. He was always kind to her, as he was with everyone else. He was not an ignorant man in any way, being an intelligent person who could converse on a variety of general subjects - his newspaper reading being a great help there. In addition, he had a great virtue that only the favoured few of us possess - he was a good listener. This, perhaps more than anything else made up for his lack of activity about the house - Ida's temperament was such that it was essential that she had to have somebody to tell all her troubles to.

The great advantage in being a good listener is that you don't have to do anything else but listen and offer sympathy or understanding at the appropriate moments at times like being a father confessor without any of the related responsibilities.

Horace's life was not only one of inner contentment, but also one of complete domestic comfort. Whenever he got home from work his chair was ready by the fireplace, with his slippers and newspaper waiting there. His meal was cooking, and would be ready for when he had finished his initial look at the newspaper. If more coal was wanted on the fire, he knew that all he had to do was to shout to Ida, who would immediately leave her duties in the kitchen in order to shovel more on to the dying flames, from the scuttle close to his feet. If he had run out of cigarettes for his after-meal smoke, she would dash out and buy some for him - she never went anywhere without dashing.

You would have thought that with all that was going for him, Horace would have been a conceited man who liked to take advantage of others. He was nothing of the kind. A truly contented man has a warmth about his personality that has no place for any such undesirable traits.

Life changed for Horace when he eventually retired from the Post Office. Not the contentment nor the domestic bliss - they never left him. No, he had much more time on his hands. Most men faced with this would either take up a useful hobby or just sit around being miserable. Not so, Horace. In addition to still going to the Oddfellows Club, he joined the Old Men's Bowling and Social Club at Mandley Park, where, when they couldn't play bowls they played cards and dominoes, and read or talked, and had organised trips to bowling tournaments and other old men's bowling clubs. He spent a considerable time there. During those retirement years Ida saw less of him than when he was at the Post Office. It was like working office hours with overtime every night and weekends.

Horace lived until his late seventies, Ida well into her eighties. Each led contented lives - we know the main sources of Horace's. Perhaps you, the reader, have guessed where most of Ida's contentment came from - it was in looking after Horace. Not as a slave or a servant, but as a loving and caring wife, whose good works mainly consisted of helping those who she considered helpless.

It is obvious that I had a deep respect and affection for Horace. An admiration for him? That goes without saying. But more than anything else, I envied him. Not only for his way of life, but the way he achieved it. Many of us men would dearly love to match all his achievements, but unfortunately we lack the moral fibre required. Some go part way in obtaining the ideal, but most, myself included, count even such comparative modest successes as being beyond our grasp.

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