Perce’s Girl

Tom Conoboy



Perce said he was stepping out with Mary who worked in munitions. Well, that narrowed it down. We’d just gone to war. Most of the women in town worked in munitions and there were Marys galore. Perce wasn’t mostly a vague man; it set me wondering.

“When do I meet her then, Perce?”

“Well, maybe soon, she’s shy like.”

Aye, but soon never seemed to arrive.

Now why, I wondered, would Percy Shackleton be inventing a woman to step out with? I kept my thoughts to myself, didn’t let on I’d rumbled him. He was a good lad, Perce.

Me and Perce went back twenty years to Pride Street School, Miss Hinchcliffe’s class. We were stupid, the pair of us. “Beyond salvation,” Miss Hinchcliffe said. “Make sure you’re strong and good with your hands, you two, because you’ll not get anywhere with those brains.” They teach ’em different today, I suppose, least I hope they do, anyways. Not much chance for Perce and me, was there, being told not to bother thinking too much?

I was good with my hands. I worked for Eddie Munton, down the builders’ yard, picked up a bit of brickie work, chippying, even plumbing, like. Perce though, he had feet for hands and hands for feet. He wasn’t strong, neither. Never really found his role in life, our Perce. The only thing he could do well was remember things. Perce could remember anything, he just didn’t know what to do with it. Not that he thought it meant much. “That ain’t clever,” he’d say, “it’s just rememberin’ stuff.” He was allus putting himself down, Perce.

He was a damned good friend to me, though. When my mam died he bought us a bottle of whisky and took us down the railway line and we sat in a field and talked and drank all day, and I cried my heart out and he let me and never mentioned it again. I did the same for him when his Elsie died in ’34, and them only married two year by then and not a sniff of a wee one.

Perce never looked at another woman, I’m hand on heart certain of that. That’s what made it so surprising, this Mary thing.

“Time’s getting on,” he said. “Need to do something with my life.”

In all the time I’d known Perce, I’d never heard him speak like that. He wasn’t a one for tomorrow, was Perce. He had his job in the park and his allotment by the river, and remembering the names of flowers and vegetables and knowing when to plant them and when to reap them was all the thinking he did.

Everything was changing round then, though. The war was a few months old, nothing much was happening, but it felt like there was something round the corner. Lads were being called up, they’d raised the conscription age, there were uniforms everywhere. It made you think, I suppose. I looked at my wee ones, two lasses, and wondered what was waiting for them. Makes you protective, that does, determined like.

A couple of months went by, and still there was no sign of Perce’s Mary. I was starting to tease him about it by this time, gentle like. One Friday night down at the Social Club, Perce was quiet. He was losing at doms, game after game, which he never did. Like I said, he had a memory like billy-o and he was good at the doms, but I could tell his mind wasn’t on it. Normally he’d be watching every move, memorising it all, but Friday he was puffing at his cigarette and sipping his pint, staring at the bar like he’d no notion he was doing either.

“How’s that lass of yours?” I said to him.

“I finished with her,” he said.

Well, I didn’t want to interfere too much. There never was a woman in the first place, so why he should start pretending that it was over, I didn’t rightly know.

“Sorry,” I said.

“She was coming tonight. You’d have met her.”


“We were going to the Wizard of Oz.”

“You’ve seen it.”

“So has she. Nowt else to do, is there?”

He kept talking about her, which surprised me. His shoulders were hunched, he was kind of whispering, he didn’t look up when he spoke, not that he ever did much, mind.

“She were right cut up when I told her.”

“I’ll bet.” It seemed like Perce really believed his story. I felt sorry for him, poor man, all lonely like that. I wished he’d find himself another woman, but his Elsie was like a saint in his memory by this time, I couldn’t see anyone else matching up to her.

“I’ve got a picture,” he said. “Me and Mary. Want to see?”

He fumbled in his wallet and drew out a small photograph. It was Perce and a woman, pretty like, outside a Woolworths somewhere.

“Leeds,” he said. “Went on a day trip Saturday last. Got a soldier lad to take the picture for us.”

I didn’t know what to say. Mary was real. Lovely, too. I felt guilty for doubting him. I wished I’d shared his excitement a bit more when he was first stepping out with her. Aye, and now he’d finished with her. It didn’t make much sense. “She’s bonnie,” I said.

“Bonnie, aye, takes a good photograph.”

“So why?” I said. “Why finish with the lass?”

He shook his head, a cigarette hanging from his mouth. It had gone out. He pulled out a letter from his jacket pocket and opened it and passed it to me. I stared at it, not really taking it in. It was from the Ministry of War.

“I’ve been called up,” he said.

“You can’t. You’re too old.”

“They raised the age to forty-one.”

“You can’t.” I couldn’t explain, not without offending him, but he couldn’t go to war because he’d get himself killed. Discipline and common sense, they didn’t work with Perce, and he never saw the bad in anyone, not even Jerries.

“They’ll know what they’re doing, I suppose, the authorities. I report next Friday.”

I’d reckoned I wouldn’t get called up, being a tradesman and all. Never thought about Perce, but it was right enough, he was only a gardener, they were bound to get him sooner or later. I shook my head. “I’m sorry,” I said. It felt daft, but what else could I say?

“I can’t step out with Mary when I’m off to war now, can I? Wouldn’t be fair on the lass, worrying every day in case the telegram comes.”

He looked that sad I didn’t know what to do. He looked older than forty-one, he looked like he’d half given up already. It was typical of Perce. He didn’t do much thinking in his life, but when he did it was allus about someone else.

“It won’t come to that, Perce. You’ll be fine.”

“Aye, like enough.”

We drank a toast to Mr Churchill who’d just been made Prime Minister by the King and gave a grand speech on the radio. “I have nothing to offer,” said Perce, “but my blood, toil, tears and sweat, that and my two left feet.” The whole Social Club laughed and cheered and shouted that Jerry had it coming to them now that our Perce was on his way to get ’em. Perce sat in his chair and smiled. Every now and again he took out his picture of him and Mary outside Woolworths in Leeds. He’d look up at me and wink. I’ll never forget that night.

Percy Shackleton, born Goole 1904, best friend I ever had, could ever want. Poor bugger didn’t have a hope. If he’d stayed with his Mary she wouldn’t have had to wait more than a year before she got her telegram. France, 1941. They said he went back to help a colleague who was injured, must have forgotten about the Jerry gun emplacement to the east, ran back without covering himself properly.

I put ’em right on that score. Perce never forgot nothing.

It cuts me sore, thinking about it.

©2006 Tom Conoboy

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