They are hard men, living in terraced houses, with tools in the bathroom and half a motorcycle in the spare room. They work down the pit, in the lace factory, at Metal Box; nine, ten hours straight most days, barely speaking to their fellows except at lunch when they might talk, redundantly, about sport. But, despite this toughness, they take their shoes off before opening the front door to their house. The terraces belong to them, paid for with a monthly regularity that their sisters envy; yet, key in the door leading directly into the lounge, they remove their shoes. Not because they are particularly clean and careful of the carpet, but because they remember their mothers’ shouts and ready slaps; the action of prising off trainers on the doorstep is atavistic, unconscious. It is as familiar to them as the way they take their tea - white, two sugars. Should they be asked how they drank their PG Tips, they would not remember – so they are not asked, and drink what is placed into their calloused hands.

One of these hard men is called Philip Turpin. He hates his name, has hated it throughout school. Not even his mates could avoid calling him “Dick”. He has thought about changing his surname to something safer, but knows it would hurt his father. Of course Dad wouldn’t say. He would just drink deeply from his pint at the Miner’s Welfare and watch the snooker with studious indifference.

So Phil “Dick” Turpin didn’t bother with a trip to County Hall, and tramped on with his surname, swinging round his neck like a clown’s nose. He never got close enough to getting married to be concerned about what his wife might think, or his kids for that matter. The nearest he got to settling down and sharing his narrow terrace on Cycle Row was touching the freckles that dusted Beverley Outhwaite’s breasts after the Christmas social.

Until, one day, a stranger came to town. She didn’t know the rules, obviously, for she walked right up to the factory reception and handed in an application form. This wasn’t the way it was done. Dads took their childrens’ forms to the office lasses during the Easter break, so they could start as soon as exams were over in the summer. Nobody expected them to work just for the holidays – University was the destination of the posh lot who went to the grammar school. But this woman seemed to either not know or not care about the way things were done around here. Philip sat in the lunch room, watching through the window as she marched up to the main entrance. It was summer and the windows were open; she had an accent.

“Polish. Family in Cracow,” she said, two weeks later in his bed. Magda could drink a pint like a man and had ferocious strength in her thin arms. She wasn’t afraid of the noisy, chumping machinery. “Back home this is nothing,” and Philip succumbed to the easy shrug of her shoulders. She came to the Welfare club on a Wednesday night, alone, wanting to drink and play pool. The other women, who only joined the men on Friday nights, hated her.

Philip found himself saying the strangest things. He made himself wince. “You have too much beauty for one body,” and he pressed his lips against the white flesh of Magda’s back. Beverley Outhwaite might have called him soft and told her mother, but Magda liked that kind of talk. “Tell me again,” she commanded, and rolled him in her hands like putty.

She dug up his rooty potatoes in the small garden and planted beets, cucumbers. When Philip’s parents came round for tea, to meet this odd woman, Magda served cold beetroot soup and cucumber in yogurt. Mavis Turpin drew her lips into a tight dogs-bottom and nibbled the accompanying brown bread. Andrew Turpin ate the lot, winking proudly at his son; he hummed all the way home. Mavis strode alongside him and, opening a tin of oxtail broth in her own narrow kitchen, resolved to allow Andrew to thrust his hand up her nightdress that night.

“They hate me,” Magda said comfortably as she stared at the ceiling, Philip’s heavy fingers on her breast. “Maybe it was the soup. Get me rabbit next week.”

At Christmas, Magda’s parents sent Philip a wooden backgammon set. Magda was embarrassed but Philip adored it. He stroked the walnut casing and bounced the red and black pieces in his palms. No one had ever given him something so exquisite. He imagined Magda’s father, sitting in his cold apartment shaping the soft wood into decorative form, and could see Magda’s mother in the background, stirring something warm and scented. Magda sniffed and wrapped up boxes of noisy, plastic toys for her sisters, running to catch the last post.  

In spring they went to Cleethorpes, by the sea. They sat beside pensioners on the coach, eating the cheese and horseradish sandwiches Magda carved in the kitchen that morning. She screamed on the waltzers and held him tightly, and Philip felt his heart soar as she clawed for him, clung to him. They ate welks and cockles doused in vinegar, and strolled hand in hand along the pier. Philip, hard man, owner of half a motorbike spilling its guts in his spare room, wondered when he had last felt so whole.

Two months later Magda’s grandmother died. “I go for three weeks and then back,” Magda said. There was no question of Philip going with her. He took her to the airport and bought her a magazine. She waved goodbye at the gates and, ashamed, Philip had to pull over on the motorway on the way back.

After six weeks, he realized she was not coming back. She called after the funeral; there was a man’s throaty voice in the background and wariness to her tone that he could not place. “Another week,” she said. “Family are all together.” But she did not phone again. On the forty-eighth midnight spent alone, Philip sat outside in Magda’s overgrown beetroots, letting his skin cool in the summer air and the moonlight whiten his skin. He plucked at the hairs on the backs of his hands, feeling the pain gather at the surface. When he returned from the factory the following day he kicked off his trainers at the door and warmed oxtail soup in the kitchen.

Rebecca Burns' work has been published in Menda City Review, Foundling Review, Milk Money, and Halfway Down the Stairs, among others. She lives in Leicestershire, England, and is a mum-of-two. Before her life became dominated by nappies, night-feeds and  nipple cream, she achieved a Ph.D. in New Zealand Literature: now her text books make useful bricks with which her son builds towers and roads.

This is a story about a deep but unarticulated love between two very different people, and how they came to offer each other a brief respite from the difficulties of a restrictive and fixed way of life. However, as the story bears out, Phil and Magda prove to be creatures of habit and, drawn back into old ways, cannot sustain their relationship. Their histories are powerful but silent, hovering in the background like unnamed, malignant characters.



Copyright 2009