Beginning the New Year
by Arnold Bennett
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We are slow, silent people, we of the Five Towns. Perhaps it is because we make pottery, which is slow, silent work. There are many stories about us and how slow and silent we are. These stories often surprise the rest of the world very much, but we just laugh at them. Here is an example.
Toby Hall was born in Turnhill, the smallest of the Five Towns. Last New Year’s Eve he was travelling by train from Crewe to Derby, which was now his home town. He got out of the train at Knype, in the centre of the Five Towns, for a quick drink. The station was busy and he had to wait for his drink. When he returned to the train, it was already moving. Toby was not a young man; he couldn’t jump on the train, so he missed it.
He went to speak to the man in the station office. ‘Young man,’ he asked. ‘When’s the next train to Derby?’
‘There isn’t one before tomorrow.’
Toby went and had another drink.
‘I’ll go to Turnhill,’ he said to himself slowly, and he paid for his drink.
This was his first visit to the Five Towns for twenty-three years, but Knype station was still the same, and so were the times of the trains to Turnhill. The train was the same, too.
In twenty minutes he was leaving Turnhill station and walking into the town. He walked past a number of fine new buildings. In the town centre almost everything was different.
He walked on, into smaller streets, and at last came to Child Row. The old houses here were the same as always, and he looked at one small house very carefully. The light was on, so there was somebody at home.
He crossed the street to the house. It was a special house for him (Number 11 it was — and is) because twenty-four years ago it was his home.
Twenty-four years ago, Toby Hall married Miss Priscilla Bratt, a quiet woman of twenty-three. The house belonged to her. The two young people were perhaps not really in love, but they liked one another. Their only problem was the house. Priscilla often said that the house belonged to her. Toby knew that. Everybody in Turnhill knew that. She didn’t have to say it so often. Toby asked her not to, but she didn’t stop. He was happy to live in his wife’s house, but he didn’t want to hear about it every day. And after a year it was too much. One day he put some things in a bag, put on his hat, and went to the door.
‘Where are you going?’ asked Priscilla.
He stopped for a minute, then answered, ‘America.’
And he went. It was not difficult for Priscilla. She did not think that Toby was a very good husband. She could live without him; she had her house and some money.
Toby went to the bank and got all his money, and sailed off to New York on the Adriatic. From New York he went to Trenton, New Jersey, which was the Five Towns of America. Toby was a good potter, and he found work easily. After a year, he asked a friend to write to Priscilla, and tell her that he was dead. He wanted to be a free man, and it was only fair for her to be a free woman.
After a few years he returned to England. He changed his name from Hall, and started work as a potter in Derby. He did well — the money was good, and he didn’t have much to spend it on. He lived quietly, working all week and going fishing at the weekends.
And now, because of a visit to Crewe, a train, and a drink, he was in Child Row, and crossing the street to Number 11. He knocked on the door.
Many doors in the Five Towns open slowly and carefully — and so did this one. It opened a few centimetres, and a woman looked out at Toby.
‘Is this Mrs Hall’s?’ he asked.
‘No. It’s not Mrs Hall’s. It’s Mrs Tansley’s.’
‘I thought …’
The door opened a little more.
‘Is that you, Toby?’
‘It is,’ answered Toby, smiling a little.
‘Well, well!’ said the woman. ‘Well, well!’ The door opened a little more. ‘Are you coming in, Toby?’
‘Yes,’ said Toby.
And he went in.
‘Sit down,’ said his wife. ‘I thought you were dead. Someone wrote to me.’
‘Yes!’ said Toby. ‘But I’m not dead.’ He sat down in a comfortable chair by the fire. He knew the chair, and he knew the fire. He put his hat on the table. Priscilla locked the door again and sat down herself. Her dress was black and, like Toby, she was getting a little fat.
‘Well, well,’ she said. ‘So you’ve come back.’
They were both silent for a minute. ‘The weather’s cold, isn’t it?’ he said.
‘Yes. It’s been a cold winter.’
Another silence. What were they thinking and feeling? Perhaps they weren’t thinking anything very much.
‘And what’s the news?’ he asked.
‘News? Oh, nothing special.’
There was a picture above the fire. It was a picture of Priscilla when she was young. It surprised Toby.
‘I don’t remember that picture,’ he said.
‘That!’ He looked up at the picture.
‘Oh! That! That’s my daughter.’
‘Oh!’ Now Toby was surprised.
‘I married Job Tansley,’ said Priscilla. ‘He died four years ago. She’s married,’ she said, looking up at her daughter’s photograph. ‘She married young Gibson last September.’
They were silent again.
‘That’s a good fire,’ said Toby, looking at it.
‘Yes, it is.’
‘Seventy pence a tonne.’
Again they were silent.
‘Is Ned Walklate still at the pub?’ Toby asked.
‘I think so,’ said Priscilla.
‘I think I’ll go round and have a drink,’ said Toby, standing up.
He was unlocking the door when Priscilla said:
‘You’ve forgotten your hat, Toby.’
‘No,’ he answered. ‘I haven’t forgotten it. I’m coming back.’ They looked at one another, speaking without words.
‘That’ll be all right,’ she said. ‘Well, well!’
And he walked round to the pub.
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