The Test – by Kevin Murphy


 

A roar of ‘Ah, ha, ah!’ draws a gaggle of girls to stop and peer in the door and window of Jim Pooler’s cobbler’s hut, open to let in a summer breeze. ‘What you laughing at, Snob?’
He holds up his thumb, then sucks it.
‘Good … or bad, eh? Which is it?’
‘I’ve hit it wit’ ’ammer,’ he wheezes, then laughs.
‘Daft ’apporth, thought you were a professional,’ says one. ‘Don’t go dripping blood on those lovely brogues.’
Jim holds up his other hand, gloved by a very smart tan and white shoe. He inspects it and shakes his head.
‘Didn’t know if you were laughing or crying,’ says another girl.
Jim thinks for a second before saying, ‘bit of both I suppose.’ He smiles a sad smile then cheers, ‘I’ll be reet!’
Jim steps out to take in the sun. Sitting on the step to his hut, he inspects the damage to his thumb, laughs again and shakes his head. I’ve had worse.
Taking a drag on his cigarette, it makes his chest fill just that bit more. He thinks about that. Funny how, though – you would think that smoke would only add to the damage the smoke on the Somme did.
‘Knowing you were at home praying for me is what got me through, you know,’ he told Edie. It is true. What else could it have been?
She’s holding that photo they had done for Christmas, the one of their three children, Cecilia, Bernard and Edith She seems to be rubbing a thumb over baby Edith. ‘She’s survived the Scarlet Fever, Jim.’
He thinks of all that they have survived. Those damned trenches – truly damned. He coughs.
She looks at him and pulls her lips tight across her teeth. ‘How many more tests can we stand?’

test pic 3 He remembers how he ended up in France guarding those Prisoners of War. How Klaus, a Catholic like him, carves him the crucifix – Trouville 1919 on the base – at the centre of the mantelpiece now. ‘Face got us through Jim.’
He knows what Klaus means. He smiles – of course he does – yes of course it’s faith that got them through.
When he is eventually demobbed at the end of 1919, he does not let Edie marry him straight away, as she wanted. ‘Let me see if I can keep you,’ he says. He means if he is strong enough, to work, to earn enough. His old mat factory doesn’t want him, but he’s got his contacts and an idea. They used to make tatty mats from leather waste – off cuts from shoe making. His grandpa Cass had been a cobbler, and his dad before him. It’s in my blood.
Spanish Flu comes and kills thousands more. They get through it and he mends first the family’s shoes, then friends’, then neighbours’, who fetched those of workmates. He covers his mother’s backyard with a canvas and works day and night under the light of two carbide lamps. Edie and he save every penny. Cousin Maurice says he would do well in town. ‘In town! You must be joking!’
Maurice takes him for a pint and points to a small space between houses on Bolton Street, just off Bury Market. ‘you could get a hut on there, Snob my lad.’
‘Snob! Me?’ says Jim.
Maurice laughs at him and hand on shoulder says, ‘Aye tha’s a reet cobbler tha knows!’
‘Oh aye, a snob’s a cobbler! Hut, though, me?’
‘Aye Snob, you only need a shed … and I’ll give you mine.’
That’s an end to it, Jim thinks, or a beginning of a career as a self employed man?
The true friend taps him on the chest. ‘Lot of trouble with those lungs, eh, Jim? You suffered that for us. Y’ little nipper, four foot six with your shoes on.’
‘Eyup, four foot ten if you please!’
‘But you didn’t need to go. You volunteered when they formed the Bantam Regiment, didn’t you? Didn’t have to did you?’
Jim’s looking at the floor, shaking his head. He had been so proud to follow his much taller brother, and into the same regiment. He feels a smile creep up from the ground, up his back and fling his head up.
‘By gum, I’ll do it!’ he shouts, turning a few heads, which promptly laugh at the two friends clapping each other on the back.
test pic 4
Edie marries him in ’22 and they have not one, nor two, but three bonny babies. So proud are they, they know they must afford the lovely studio photograph of them.
And Edie’s rubbing over the one child they were left with. Looking at the picture her other hand reaches and rubs her bump. ‘It was hard that, Jim. What’s God thinking? Is it fair?’
‘Job,’ he says.
‘Job!’ she says. ‘Who’s Job?’
‘In the bible. It’s a test, maybe. Like Job.’
Edie bites her lip. ‘Mm. Him – lost his wife, his kids, his farm – so he went on strike sitting on the dung heap.’ She flicks her brows at Jim, light is returning to her eyes.
Jim sees and takes the frame. ‘Little Edith,’ he says, ‘miracle she didn’t get it?’
‘Miracle, yes Jim, but…’
‘… no buts, Edie! There’s two angels belonging this family now and little Edith and…’ he looks at Edie and her bump, ‘Maurice?’ he chuckles, bringing a smile to his wife’s lips at last…
‘… or Maureen!’ she laughs. ‘An even stronger family with Cecilia and Bernard as guardian angels we know for Edith and … Maurice.’ She stands to the mantelpiece and rests a finger on the crucifix.
‘Job stripped off didn’t he Jim? Naked came I from the womb, naked go I hence’
‘Blessed be the name of the Lord!’ Jim finishes. ‘Faith, Edie,’ he says, ‘your love and my faith got me through.’
She turns and looks down on her big little man. ‘Our love and our faith got us through, Jim.’
They are quiet with their thoughts, before Edie breaks in with laughter, ‘Eyup, but didn’t old Job get rewarded with seven times what he had? Don’t you be thinking I’ll be having fourteen more kids!’

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