There is in the Midlands a single-line tramway system which boldly leaves the county town and plunges off into the black, industrial countryside, up hill and down dale, through the long ugly villages of workmen's houses, over canals and railways, past churches perched high and nobly over the smoke and shadows, through stark, grimy cold little market-places, tilting away in a rush past cinemas and shops down to the hollow where the collieries are, then up again, past a little rural church, under the ash trees, on in a rush to the terminus, the last little ugly place of industry, the cold little town that shivers on the edge of the wild, gloomy country beyond. There the green and creamy coloured tram-car seems to pause and purr with curious satisfaction. But in a few minutes - the clock on the turret of the Co-operative Wholesale Society's Shops gives the time - away it starts once more on the adventure. Again there are the reckless swoops downhill, bouncing the loops: again the chilly wait in the hill-top market-place: again the breathless slithering round the precipitous drop under the church: again the patient halts at the loops, waiting for the outcoming car: so on and on, for two long hours, till at last the city looms beyond the fat gas-works, the narrow factories draw near, we are in the sordid streets of the great town, once more we sidle to a standstill at our terminus, abashed by the great crimson and cream-coloured city cars, but still perky, jaunty, somewhat dare-devil, green as a jaunty sprig of parsley out of a black colliery garden.
To ride on these cars is always an adventure. Since we are in war-time, the drivers are men unfit for active service: cripples and hunchbacks. So they have the spirit of the devil in them. The ride becomes a steeple-chase. Hurray! we have leapt in a clear jump over the canal bridges - now for the four-lane corner. With a shriek and a trail of sparks we are clear again. To be sure, a tram often leaps the rails - but what matter! It sits in a ditch till other trams come to haul it out. It is quite common for a car, packed with one solid mass of living people, to come to a dead halt in the midst of unbroken blackness, the heart of nowhere on a dark night, and for the driver and the girl conductor to call, 'All get off - car's on fire!' Instead, however, of rushing out in a panic, the passengers stolidly reply: 'Get on - get on! We're not coming out. We're stopping where we are. Push on, George.' So till flames actually appear.
The reason for this reluctance to dismount is that the nights are howlingly cold, black, and windswept, and a car is a haven of refuge. From village to village the miners travel, for a change of cinema, of girl, of pub. The trams are desperately packed. Who is going to risk himself in the black gulf outside, to wait perhaps an hour for another tram, then to see the forlorn notice 'Depot Only', because there is something wrong! Or to greet a unit of three bright cars all so tight with people that they sail past with a howl of derision. Trams that pass in the night.
This, the most dangerous tram-service in England, as the authorities themselves declare, with pride, is entirely conducted by girls, and driven by rash young men, a little crippled, or by delicate young men, who creep forward in terror. The girls are fearless young hussies. In their ugly blue uniform, skirts up to their knees, shapeless old peaked caps on their heads, they have all the sang-froid of an old non-commissioned officer. With a tram packed with howling colliers, roaring hymns downstairs and a sort of antiphony of obscenities upstairs, the lasses are perfectly at their ease. They pounce on the youths who try to evade their ticket-machine. They push off the men at the end of their distance. They are not going to be done in the eye - not they. They fear nobody - and everybody fears them.
'Oh, mind my corn, Miss Stone. It's my belief you've got a heart of stone, for you've trod on it again.'
'You should keep it in your pocket,' replies Miss Stone, and she goes sturdily upstairs in her high boots.
She is peremptory, suspicious, and ready to hit first. She can hold her own against ten thousand. The step of that tram-car is her Thermopylae.
Therefore, there is a certain wild romance aboard these cars - and in the sturdy bosom of Annie herself. The time for soft romance is in the morning, between ten o'clock and one, when things are rather slack: that is, except market-day and Saturday. Thus Annie has time to look about her. Then she often hops off her car and into a shop where she has spied something, while the driver chats in the main road. There is very good feeling between the girls and the drivers. Are they not companions in peril, shipments aboard this careering vessel of a tram-car, for ever rocking on the waves of a stormy land?
Then, also, during the easy hours, the inspectors are most in evidence. For some reason, everybody employed in this tram-service is young: there are no grey heads. It would not do. Therefore the inspectors are of the right age, and one, the chief, is also good-looking. See him stand on a wet, gloomy morning, in his long oil-skin, his peaked cap well down over his eyes, waiting to board a car. His face is ruddy, his small brown moustache is weathered, he has a faint impudent smile. Fairly tall and agile, even in his waterproof, he springs aboard a car and greets Annie.
'Hello, Annie! Keeping the wet out?'
There are only two people in the car. Inspecting is soon over. Then for a long and impudent chat on the foot-board, a good, easy, twelve-mile chat.
The inspector's name is John Thomas Raynor - always called John Thomas, except sometimes, in malice, Coddy. His face sets in fury when he is addressed, from a distance, with this abbreviation. There is considerable scandal about John Thomas in half a dozen villages. He flirts with the girl conductors in the morning, and walks out with them in the dark night, when they leave their tram-car at the depot. Of course, the girls quit the service frequently. Then he flirts and walks out with the newcomer: always providing she is sufficiently attractive, and that she will consent to walk. It is remarkable, however, that most of the girls are quite comely, they are all young, and this roving life aboard the car gives them a sailor's dash and recklessness. What matter how they behave when the ship is in port. Tomorrow they will be aboard again.
Annie, however, was something of a Tartar, and her sharp tongue had kept John Thomas at arm's length for many months. Perhaps, therefore, she liked him all the more: for he always came up smiling, with impudence. She watched him vanquish one girl, then another. She could tell by the movement of his mouth and eyes, when he flirted with her in the morning, that he had been walking out with this lass, or the other, the night before. A fine cock-of-the-walk he was. She could sum him up pretty well.
In this subtle antagonism they knew each other like old friends, they were as shrewd with one another almost as man and wife. But Annie had always kept him sufficiently at arm's length. Besides, she had a boy of her own.
The Statutes fair, however, came in November, at Bestwood. It happened that Annie had the Monday night off. It was a drizzling ugly night, yet she dressed herself up and went to the fair ground. She was alone, but she expected soon to find a pal of some sort.
The roundabouts were veering round and grinding out their music, the side shows were making as much commotion as possible. In the coco-nut shies there were no coco-nuts, but artificial war-time substitutes, which the lads declared were fastened into the irons. There was a sad decline in brilliance and luxury. None the less, the ground was muddy as ever, there was the same crush, the press of faces lighted up by the flares and the electric lights, the same smell of naphtha and a few fried potatoes, and of electricity.
Who should be the first to greet Miss Annie on the showground but John Thomas? He had a black overcoat buttoned up to his chin, and a tweed cap pulled down over his brows, his face between was ruddy and smiling and handy as ever. She knew so well the way his mouth moved.
She was very glad to have a 'boy'. To be at the Statutes without a fellow was no fun. Instantly, like the gallant he was, he took her on the dragons, grim-toothed, round-about switchbacks. It was not nearly so exciting as a tram-car actually. But, then, to be seated in a shaking, green dragon, uplifted above the sea of bubble faces, careering in a rickety fashion in the lower heavens, whilst John Thomas leaned over her, his cigarette in his mouth, was after all the right style. She was a plump, quick, alive little creature. So she was quite excited and happy.
John Thomas made her stay on for the next round. And therefore she could hardly for shame repulse him when he put his arm round her and drew her a little nearer to him, in a very warm and cuddly manner. Besides, he was fairly discreet, he kept his movement as hidden as possible. She looked down, and saw that his red, clean hand was out of sight of the crowd. And they knew each other so well. So they warmed up to the fair.
After the dragons they went on the horses. John Thomas paid each time, so she could but be complaisant. He, of course, sat astride on the outer horse - named 'Black Bess' - and she sat sideways, towards him, on the inner horse - named 'Wildfire'. But of course John Thomas was not going to sit discreetly on 'Black Bess', holding the brass bar. Round they spun and heaved, in the light. And round he swung on his wooden steed, flinging one leg across her mount, and perilously tipping up and down, across the space, half lying back, laughing at her. He was perfectly happy; she was afraid her hat was on one side, but she was excited.
He threw quoits on a table, and won for her two large, pale-blue hat-pins. And then, hearing the noise of the cinemas, announcing another performance, they climbed the boards and went in.
Of course, during these performances pitch darkness falls from time to time, when the machine goes wrong. Then there is a wild whooping, and a loud smacking of simulated kisses. In these moments John Thomas drew Annie towards him. After all, he had a wonderfully warm, cosy way of holding a girl with his arm, he seemed to make such a nice fit. And, after all, it was pleasant to be so held: so very comforting and cosy and nice. He leaned over her and she felt his breath on her hair; she knew he wanted to kiss her on the lips. And, after all, he was so warm and she fitted in to him so softly. After all, she wanted him to touch her lips.
But the light sprang up; she also started electrically, and put her hat straight. He left his arm lying nonchalantly behind her. Well, it was fun, it was exciting to be at the Statutes with John Thomas.
When the cinema was over they went for a walk across the dark, damp fields. He had all the arts of love-making. He was especially good at holding a girl, when he sat with her on a stile in the black, drizzling darkness. He seemed to be holding her in space, against his own warmth and gratification. And his kisses were soft and slow and searching.
So Annie walked out with John Thomas, though she kept her own boy dangling in the distance. Some of the tram-girls chose to be huffy. But there, you must take things as you find them, in this life.
There was no mistake about it, Annie liked John Thomas a good deal. She felt so rich and warm in herself whenever he was near. And John Thomas really liked Annie, more than usual. The soft, melting way in which she could flow into a fellow, as if she melted into his very bones, was something rare and good. He fully appreciated this.
But with a developing acquaintance there began a developing intimacy. Annie wanted to consider him a person, a man; she wanted to take an intelligent interest in him, and to have an intelligent response. She did not want a mere nocturnal presence, which was what he was so far. And she prided herself that he could not leave her.
Here she made a mistake. John Thomas intended to remain a nocturnal presence; he had no idea of becoming an all-round individual to her. When she started to take an intelligent interest in him and his life and his character, he sheered off. He hated intelligent interest. And he knew that the only way to stop it was to avoid it. The possessive female was aroused in Annie. So he left her.
It is no use saying she was not surprised. She was at first startled, thrown out of her count. For she had been so very sure of holding him. For a while she was staggered, and everything became uncertain to her. Then she wept with fury, indignation, desolation, and misery. Then she had a spasm of despair. And then, when he came, still impudently, on to her car, still familiar, but letting her see by the movement of his head that he had gone away to somebody else for the time being, and was enjoying pastures new, then she determined to have her own back.
She had a very shrewd idea what girls John Thomas had taken out. She went to Nora Purdy. Nora was a tall, rather pale, but well-built girl, with beautiful yellow hair. She was rather secretive.
'Hey!' said Annie, accosting her; then softly, 'Who's John Thomas on with now?'
'I don't know,' said Nora.
'Why tha does,' said Annie, ironically lapsing into dialect. 'Tha knows as well as I do.'
'Well, I do, then,' said Nora. 'It isn't me, so don't bother.'
'It's Cissy Meakin, isn't it?'
'It is, for all I know.'
'Hasn't he got a face on him!' said Annie. 'I don't half like his cheek. I could knock him off the foot-board when he comes round at me.'
'He'll get dropped-on one of these days,' said Nora.
'Ay, he will, when somebody makes up their mind to drop it on him. I should like to see him taken down a peg or two, shouldn't you?'
'I shouldn't mind,' said Nora.
'You've got quite as much cause to as I have,' said Annie. 'But we'll drop on him one of these days, my girl. What? Don't you want to?'
'I don't mind,' said Nora.
But as a matter of fact, Nora was much more vindictive than Annie.
One by one Annie went the round of the old flames. It so happened that Cissy Meakin left the tramway service in quite a short time. Her mother made her leave. Then John Thomas was on the qui-vive. He cast his eyes over his old flock. And his eyes lighted on Annie. He thought she would be safe now. Besides, he liked her.
She arranged to walk home with him on Sunday night. It so happened that her car would be in the depot at half past nine: the last car would come in at 10.15. So John Thomas was to wait for her there.
At the depot the girls had a little waiting-room of their own. It was quite rough, but cosy, with a fire and an oven and a mirror, and table and wooden chairs. The half dozen girls who knew John Thomas only too well had arranged to take service this Sunday afternoon. So, as the cars began to come in, early, the girls dropped into the waiting-room. And instead of hurrying off home, they sat around the fire and had a cup of tea. Outside was the darkness and lawlessness of wartime.
John Thomas came on the car after Annie, at about a quarter to ten. He poked his head easily into the girls' waiting-room.
'Prayer-meeting?' he asked.
'Ay,' said Laura Sharp. 'Ladies only.'
'That's me!' said John Thomas. It was one of his favourite exclamations.
'Shut the door, boy,' said Muriel Baggaley.
'On which side of me?' said John Thomas.
'Which tha likes,' said Polly Birkin.
He had come in and closed the door behind him. The girls moved in their circle, to make a place for him near the fire. He took off his great-coat and pushed back his hat.
'Who handles the teapot?' he said.
Nora Purdy silently poured him out a cup of tea.
'Want a bit o' my bread and drippin'?' said Muriel Baggaley to him.
'Ay, give us a bit.'
And he began to eat his piece of bread.
'There's no place like home, girls,' he said.
They all looked at him as he uttered this piece of impudence. He seemed to be sunning himself in the presence of so many damsels.
'Especially if you're not afraid to go home in the dark,' said Laura Sharp.
'Me! By myself I am.'
They sat till they heard the last tram come in. In a few minutes Emma Houselay entered.
'Come on, my old duck!' cried Polly Birkin.
'It is perishing,' said Emma, holding her fingers to the fire.
'But - I'm afraid to, go home in, the dark,' sang Laura Sharp, the tune having got into her mind.
'Who're you going with tonight, John Thomas?' asked Muriel Baggaley, coolly.
'Tonight?' said John Thomas. 'Oh, I'm going home by myself tonight - all on my lonely-O.'
'That's me!' said Nora Purdy, using his own ejaculation.
The girls laughed shrilly.
'Me as well, Nora,' said John Thomas.
'Don't know what you mean,' said Laura.
'Yes, I'm toddling,' said he, rising and reaching for his overcoat.
'Nay,' said Polly. 'We're all here waiting for you.'
'We've got to be up in good time in the morning,' he said, in the benevolent official manner.
They all laughed.
'Nay,' said Muriel. 'Don't leave us all lonely, John Thomas. Take one!'
'I'll take the lot, if you like,' he responded gallantly.
'That you won't either,' said Muriel, 'Two's company; seven's too much of a good thing.'
'Nay - take one,' said Laura. 'Fair and square, all above board, and say which.'
'Ay,' cried Annie, speaking for the first time. 'Pick, John Thomas; let's hear thee.'
'Nay,' he said. 'I'm going home quiet tonight. Feeling good, for once.'
'Whereabouts?' said Annie. 'Take a good 'un, then. But tha's got to take one of us!'
'Nay, how can I take one,' he said, laughing uneasily. 'I don't want to make enemies.'
'You'd only make one' said Annie.
'The chosen one,' added Laura.
'Oh, my! Who said girls!' exclaimed John Thomas, again turning, as if to escape. 'Well - good-night.'
'Nay, you've got to make your pick,' said Muriel. 'Turn your face to the wall, and say which one touches you. Go on - we shall only just touch your back - one of us. Go on - turn your face to the wall, and don't look, and say which one touches you.'
He was uneasy, mistrusting them. Yet he had not the courage to break away. They pushed him to a wall and stood him there with his face to it. Behind his back they all grimaced, tittering. He looked so comical. He looked around uneasily.
'Go on!' he cried.
'You're looking - you're looking!' they shouted.
He turned his head away. And suddenly, with a movement like a swift cat, Annie went forward and fetched him a box on the side of the head that sent his cap flying and himself staggering. He started round.
But at Annie's signal they all flew at him, slapping him, pinching him, pulling his hair, though more in fun than in spite or anger. He, however, saw red. His blue eyes flamed with strange fear as well as fury, and he butted through the girls to the door. It was locked. He wrenched at it. Roused, alert, the girls stood round and looked at him. He faced them, at bay. At that moment they were rather horrifying to him, as they stood in their short uniforms. He was distinctly afraid.
'Come on, John Thomas! Come on! Choose!' said Annie.
'What are you after? Open the door,' he said.
'We shan't - not till you've chosen!' said Muriel.
'Chosen what?' he said.
'Chosen the one you're going to marry,' she replied.
He hesitated a moment.
'Open the blasted door,' he said, 'and get back to your senses.' He spoke with official authority.
'You've got to choose!' cried the girls.
'Come on!' cried Annie, looking him in the eye.' Come on! Come on!'
He went forward, rather vaguely. She had taken off her belt, and swinging it, she fetched him a sharp blow over the head with the buckle end. He sprang and seized her. But immediately the other girls rushed upon him, pulling and tearing and beating him. Their blood was now thoroughly up. He was their sport now. They were going to have their own back, out of him. Strange, wild creatures, they hung on him and rushed at him to bear him down. His tunic was torn right up the back, Nora had hold at the back of his collar, and was actually strangling him. Luckily the button burst. He struggled in a wild frenzy of fury and terror, almost mad terror. His tunic was simply torn off his back, his shirt-sleeves were torn away, his arms were naked. The girls rushed at him, clenched their hands on him and pulled at him: or they rushed at him and pushed him, butted him with all their might: or they struck him wild blows. He ducked and cringed and struck sideways. They became more intense.
At last he was down. They rushed on him, kneeling on him. He had neither breath nor strength to move. His face was bleeding with a long scratch, his brow was bruised.
Annie knelt on him, the other girls knelt and hung on to him. Their faces were flushed, their hair wild, their eyes were all glittering strangely. He lay at last quite still, with face averted, as an animal lies when it is defeated and at the mercy of the captor. Sometimes his eye glanced back at the wild faces of the girls. His breast rose heavily, his wrists were torn.
'Now, then, my fellow!' gasped Annie at length. 'Now then - now - '
At the sound of her terrifying, cold triumph, he suddenly started to struggle as an animal might, but the girls threw themselves upon him with unnatural strength and power, forcing him down.
'Yes - now, then!' gasped Annie at length.
And there was a dead silence, in which the thud of heart-beating was to be heard. It was a suspense of pure silence in every soul.
'Now you know where you are,' said Annie.
The sight of his white, bare arm maddened the girls. He lay in a kind of trance of fear and antagonism. They felt themselves filled with supernatural strength.
Suddenly Polly started to laugh - to giggle wildly - helplessly - and Emma and Muriel joined in. But Annie and Nora and Laura remained the same, tense, watchful, with gleaming eyes. He winced away from these eyes.
'Yes,' said Annie, in a curious low tone, secret and deadly. 'Yes! You've got it now! You know what you've done, don't you? You know what you've done.'
He made no sound nor sign, but lay with bright, averted eyes, and averted, bleeding face.
'You ought to be killed, that's what you ought,' said Annie, tensely. 'You ought to be killed.' And there was a terrifying lust in her voice.
Polly was ceasing to laugh, and giving long-drawn Oh-h-hs and sighs as she came to herself.
'He's got to choose,' she said vaguely.
'Oh, yes, he has,' said Laura, with vindictive decision.
'Do you hear - do you hear?' said Annie. And with a sharp movement, that made him wince, she turned his face to her.
'Do you hear?' she repeated, shaking him.
But he was quite dumb. She fetched him a sharp slap on the face. He started, and his eyes widened. Then his face darkened with defiance, after all.
'Do you hear?' she repeated.
He only looked at her with hostile eyes.
'Speak!' she said, putting her face devilishly near his.
'What?' he said, almost overcome.
'You've got to choose!' she cried, as if it were some terrible menace, and as if it hurt her that she could not exact more.
'What?' he said, in fear.
'Choose your girl, Coddy. You've got to choose her now. And you'll get your neck broken if you play any more of your tricks, my boy. You're settled now.'
There was a pause. Again he averted his face. He was cunning in his overthrow. He did not give in to them really - no, not if they tore him to bits.
'All right, then,' he said, 'I choose Annie.' His voice was strange and full of malice. Annie let go of him as if he had been a hot coal.
'He's chosen Annie!' said the girls in chorus.
'Me!' cried Annie. She was still kneeling, but away from him. He was still lying prostrate, with averted face. The girls grouped uneasily around.
'Me!' repeated Annie, with a terrible bitter accent.
Then she got up, drawing away from him with strange disgust and bitterness.
'I wouldn't touch him,' she said.
But her face quivered with a kind of agony, she seemed as if she would fall. The other girls turned aside. He remained lying on the floor, with his torn clothes and bleeding, averted face.
'Oh, if he's chosen - ' said Polly.
'I don't want him - he can choose again,' said Annie, with the same rather bitter hopelessness.
'Get up,' said Polly, lifting his shoulder. 'Get up.'
He rose slowly, a strange, ragged, dazed creature. The girls eyed him from a distance, curiously, furtively, dangerously.
'Who wants him?' cried Laura, roughly.
'Nobody,' they answered, with contempt. Yet each one of them waited for him to look at her, hoped he would look at her. All except Annie, and something was broken in her.
He, however, kept his face closed and averted from them all. There was a silence of the end. He picked up the torn pieces of his tunic, without knowing what to do with them. The girls stood about uneasily, flushed, panting, tidying their hair and their dress unconsciously, and watching him. He looked at none of them. He espied his cap in a corner, and went and picked it up. He put it on his head, and one of the girls burst into a shrill, hysteric laugh at the sight he presented. He, however, took no heed, but went straight to where his overcoat hung on a peg. The girls moved away from contact with him as if he had been an electric wire. He put on his coat and buttoned it down. Then he rolled his tunic-rags into a bundle, and stood before the locked door, dumbly.
'Open the door, somebody,' said Laura.
'Annie's got the key,' said one.
Annie silently offered the key to the girls. Nora unlocked the door.
'Tit for tat, old man,' she said. 'Show yourself a man, and don't bear a grudge.'
But without a word or sign he had opened the door and gone, his face closed, his head dropped.
'That'll learn him,' said Laura.
'Coddy!' said Nora.
'Shut up, for God's sake!' cried Annie fiercely, as if in torture.
'Well, I'm about ready to go, Polly. Look sharp!' said Muriel.
The girls were all anxious to be off. They were tidying themselves hurriedly, with mute, stupefied faces.