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Note of Triumph
In threadbare clothing with many patches, some barefoot, some short, some tall, here they all came.
Issue 2: Sunday, 2 January 2022
A Flash in the Pan will be featuring both newer and older pieces of my writing. This is a story of mine which I’m quite fond of, originally written about 9 years ago.
Note of Triumph
In threadbare clothing with many patches, some barefoot, some short, some tall, all of them skinny; girls with plaited hair and shy smiles, boys with grubby faces and wide grins. Here they all came.
The children always came running when the Salvation Army band arrived in the street.
Mary Bennett smiled to see the children, but it was their parents who they were really trying to reach. Here some of them came: mothers wiping their hands on their aprons, or carrying babies, or holding hands with toddlers who were towing them along toward the band. And some of the men, too, glowering from the doorways of the terraced houses, or lounging outside, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, their faces shaded by the flat wide-brimmed caps that they wore. She knew that those men were only there because now they had no jobs to go to.
The band drew up in the middle of the long cobbled street and prepared to play.
All the old favourite hymns, of course. That’s what people wanted to hear. Well, the adults did. The children just loved the spectacle of the band: the Salvation Army uniforms, the brass instruments, the cymbals. There wasn’t much entertainment in their lives outside of this. They were too poor even to pay for tickets to the Christmas pantomimes in the town hall at a halfpenny a head. Mary smiled at the face of one little red-haired boy staring up at her, eyes wide with anticipation.
Mary lifted her beloved cornet and joined in as the music began. A little flame of joy began in her, and she wondered, just for an instant, if it wasn’t sinful to enjoy playing so much. She was still quite young, in her late twenties. There had to be some joy in life, didn’t there? And it was all for the glory of God. Surely it was no more wrong than admiring the beauty of a stained glass window?
In the intervals between the music, their leader Robert gave a short homily and the band handed out leaflets and extracts from the Bible.
It was after one such interval that Mary realised with a terrible shock that her cornet was gone. She had put it down on the cobbles, standing on its flared mouth, just between her feet. But when she reached down for it, it had vanished. She looked wildly around. Down a little alley, she glimpsed the back of a running child. A child with red hair.
“It was little Billy Keenan, I saw him!”, piped up a little girl. “He nicked your trumpet, miss.”
“No it weren’t,” called out a grubby little boy. “It were that Jackie from down t’ canal.”
“Yer both wrong,” said a tall boy with crooked teeth. “Freddy Rowland done it, him what lives near t’mill.”
Mary looked despairingly at the children who had spoken, at their grins and their sly looks at each other and knew that they were all three of them lying to her. Her heart sank, not only for her own loss, but also for the recognition of how quickly sin descended onto these poor children.
Robert was already playing the next hymn, and looked across in puzzlement when Mary failed to join in. She indicated her empty hands, with tears in her eyes. The children who had spoken to her before had now vanished into the crowd.
The band leader was sympathetic. Tall, his hair nearly all white now, his face was grave as she explained what had happened during the next interval.
“Don’t worry, Mary. I’m sure we can find you another cornet from our store. Or we can requisition you another from headquarters.”
“But that’s not the point,” she said sorrowfully. “It was my father’s instrument, don’t you remember? He taught me how to play when I was quite young, and gave me his cornet when he was too ill to play himself.”
“Ah, yes.” He looked thoughtfully around. “Perhaps, then, you might spend some time looking in the pawn shops around here. Surely that’s where the young miscreant will take it in the hope of a sixpence or two.”
She nodded and tried to smile, but without much real hope.
On the way back to her rented room that night she did pass by several of the pawn shops that littered the main street of the town. But although some of them did have musical instruments – three battered old accordions, several mouth-organs, and even one trombone with a twisted slide – none of them had her stolen cornet among their goods. Perhaps it was too soon to expect that? The thief might just be waiting for an opportunity to visit the pawnbrokers.
Mary sat alone in her room that night, shivering a little. Winter was coming on and she would have to pay her landlady for some coal soon. She looked sadly at the place on the dresser where she had always kept the cornet. She never practiced here, of course, she would have been evicted for creating a disturbance. But still, she missed it, and allowed herself another few tears. How silly, how sinful, to grieve for a mere piece of metal, she thought, and managed to bring her tears under control.
Her prayers that night were not for herself, but for the young thief, that he might be guided away from the paths of sin.
Some weeks passed. Mary visited the pawn shops again, but to no avail. She was given a battered old cornet from the local Army store and a requisition was made for a replacement. But this, she knew, could take months. There was always a backlog of orders at the factory.
The national economy went from bad to worse. More and more men were out of work. Families were being evicted, and many more were having trouble feeding their children. The Salvation Army began operating mobile soup kitchens, small vans moved from place to place by horses. Mary agreed to help out with these. Her life was otherwise empty.
It was on one of these missions that she saw the red-headed boy again, waiting in the queue for soup with other children. He reached the head of the line and lifted up his broken-handled cup. Mary reached out, grasped his wrist firmly and said in a voice like that of an avenging angel: “You are a thief!”
She hadn’t meant to be so loud, so harsh, it had happened on an impulse. She was normally so kind and quiet, now she had shocked herself.
The boy squirmed in her grip, trying to pull away. “No miss, no! I didn’t nick your trumpet!”
“Then how do you know that was what was stolen?” she asked, her face still grim.
He squirmed again, and the little van rocked a little with his struggle to get away. Robert, who had been doling out soup on the other side of the van, came over and stared at the confrontation.
“Young man,” he said, “we passed a policeman just around the last corner. Shall I go and fetch him?”
The boy looked around wildly, his eyes rolling. “No, no!”
“Then tell this lady what you did with her cornet. Did you sell it? Where?”
The boy stopped pulling back and almost sank to his knees. Mary now found that she was holding him up. “No,” he whispered. “I din’ sell it. I still got it. Please…”
Robert looked at Mary. “I can manage here by myself for a while. Why don’t you go with this boy so he can return it to you? Mind now,” he said sternly to the boy, “if you give this lady back what you stole then we will say no more about it. But if you give her any trouble, then I shall fetch the policeman. Do you understand?”
The red-haired boy nodded glumly, and stood up straight again. Mary released his arm and climbed down from the back of the van.
She half-expected him to have run off again, but he stood waiting for her. “This way,” he mumbled, and started off down the street.
“What’s your name?” Mary asked, as kindly as she could.
“Tommy. Tommy Sanders,” he said. “It’s just down here. My Mam… she won’t half belt me when she finds out.”
“Have you stolen other things, Tommy?”
He shook his head vigorously. “No, nothin’. Your trumpet was t’first thing I ever stole, honest to God.”
“You mustn’t take the Lord’s name in vain, Tommy. And what you stole isn’t really a trumpet. It’s called a cornet. Why did you take it?”
He looked up at her in wonder. “It… it was so beautiful. And you played it real nice, Miss.”
Mary managed a smile at that, even though it wasn’t much of an answer.
In front of one of the houses in the terrace, a weary-looking woman, her hair tied back in a blue scarf, was on her knees, whitening the front step of her house with a block of white stone. A silly custom, Mary thought, but one which she knew no proud housewife in this area of the country would even consider omitting.
The woman looked up. “Tommy Sanders, are you in trouble again? Am I going to fetch the strap?”
“No Mam, no!”
“It’s all right, Mrs Sanders,” Mary said. For some reason she didn’t want to see young Tommy punished. “Tommy found something that I lost, that’s all, and he is going to give it back to me.”
Tommy’s mother looked at him sharply, her eyes narrowed. “Tommy…” she began warningly.
“Can I get in, Mam? I’ll jump over t’step, honest.”
She nodded, and he leapt over the step and ran into the house. Mary wondered what she could say to his mother; she wasn’t good at small talk with strangers. But Mrs Sanders turned back to scrubbing the step, and Tommy returned in a few minutes, carrying a bundle wrapped up in an old towel. He leapt over the step again, and looked up at Mary.
By an unspoken mutual agreement, they walked a little way down the street, out of the sight and hearshot of Tommy’s Mam.
Tommy unwrapped the bundle and rather reluctantly handed the cornet to Mary. She gave a little gasp. The old instrument had never looked so good. Its steel shone like silver. Every inch of it had been polished. She looked at Tommy.
“You’ve taken great care of it,” she said. “Tell me, Tommy, have you tried playing it?”
Tommy looked down and shuffled his feet. “Sometimes, when me Mam and Dad are out.”
“And what happened? Show me.” She found herself handing back the gleaming cornet.
He looked up at her with a little frown. “I can’t play a tune on it, like,” he said. “But I practiced as much as I could, and now I can make a good sound.” He lifted it to his lips and blew a perfect note. That was half the battle, with a brass instrument.
Mary stood looking at him, considering. “Would you like to learn to play?” she said at last.
There was a sudden flash of eagerness in his young face, but it swiftly vanished into gloom. “Me Mam can’t pay for lessons. And now I don’t have t’trumpet any more.”
“I told you, it’s called a cornet. What if I taught you, Tommy?”
The eagerness was back, but he was almost speechless. “I… I…”
“I’ll tell you what, Tommy,” she said, barely believing what she was saying. “If you learn to play, learn to play really well, and come along to play with the band, I’ll let you keep the cornet.”
He looked down in wonderment at the cornet, then lifted it to his lips and sounded one long, loud, clear note of triumph.
© Copyright David R. Grigg. All rights reserved.
About this story
I think (but now can’t quite recall!) that this story was written in response to a writing prompt along the lines of “write about someone losing something very valuable to them”.
I tried to think of something a bit unusual to lose, something precious in memories but not necessarily in actual value, and so I came up with the idea of the Salvation Army lady losing her trumpet. However, I did a bit of research and found out that they didn’t use trumpets as such, but cornets, a shorter more compact type of brass instrument.
The setting is based on where I grew up (in Bradford, Yorkshire, England). The detail of the housewives all whitening their front steps was a custom of the area during my childhood. Bizarre and pretty pointless, but no woman who wanted to retain the respect of her neighbours would omit doing so each week.
Feel free to comment, or even link to your own piece of fiction on a similar theme. And please help me spread the word by sharing this post.