third prizeJoint third place in the short story competion, 2016

Wybert Bendall

The Bag Lady

She parked her broomstick, discarded her conical hat on a coat peg, tethered her black cat in the cloakroom and swept into the classroom; a gaunt figure, as thin as a lath, like a Macbeth hag; a skeletal figure dressed in black from neck to toe. Her face was so wrinkled the skin had the appearance of a pickled walnut. The hair that framed the face was as dry as straw and domed her head like thatch.

That afternoon maths and English lessons were cancelled, reading and writing were postponed, even playtime was to be abandoned. It was the day of the annual visit from a lady of the temperance movement. This was the time, between the wars, in the middle of the great depression. The authority was so concerned about the amount of drunkenness in the mining valley that they allowed a representative of the association who had taken the pledge to lecture the top classes of all the junior schools in the borough on the evils of drink. The idea being to catch them young and encourage their future sobriety. Perhaps the local authority is to be complimented for their forward thinking in introducing this subject to the curriculum. But for the senior pupils of Pantglas Junior school it was a very different story.

She trundled an enormous moth eaten carpet bag that banged against her legs in its transportation. Dropped on the floor, with a dull thud, a cloud of dust rose like the vapour of a poisonous spell.

When the cloud had cleared she grinned at her captive audience. But it was only her thin dry lips that smiled; a ghoulish grimace. Her eyes remained dark and penetrating; a piercing stare, searing out from their sunken sockets, catching the souls of all seated and clutching them in her talons.

With a flourish she conjured out of its soft case a thick wad of charts which she draped over the blackboard. She reached down again into the dark depths of the interior of the bag and withdrew a black cane which she waved like a wand over the pupils. Everyone in class expected sparks to fountain out of the end and those on the front row to be transformed into frogs and toads and start leaping and croaking about the classroom. With each turn of the sheets she revealed lurid pictures. Laid bare, as if on a mortuary slab, were the internal organs; the heart, liver, kidneys and brain colourfully illustrated and larger than life.

She harangued and harassed, lashed and lamented at the children, striking the charts with a thwack, that made everyone jump. This she did to emphasise the damaging effect on every organ in the body by continually over indulging in alcohol. Page after gaudy page she unfurled in rapid succession. She pointed to a confused brain, a diseased enlarged kidney, a beating heart that falters and finally stops. Her comments and summaries were flung at the pupils like venomous darts that had been dipped in a toxic mixture from a bubbling cauldron.

‘Beer, Cider, brandy, whisky. Vodka, gin.’

She snarled and grimaced as if, in speaking that list of intoxicants, it left a bitter and foul taste on her tongue. She reached down in the depths of the bag and withdrew a kerchief printed with magic symbols. She waved it with a flourish and the signs on the material danced a jig. She wiped her mouth to remove the contamination of those words from her lips. She continued her onslaught.

‘These are the devil’s very own liquids, consumed; they are a mortal sin. Drinking affects the muscles and nerves. Imbibing in this habit leads to poverty, starvation, thieving, other crimes and destitution.’

She continued to list an unending string of horrors; a pyramid pile of tragedies.

The last picture showed a jolly, round faced, red nosed man stood at a bar. His stomach bulging and straining at the buttons of his shirt. He is laughing heartily with his drinking comrades while he downs a pint of golden ale. Sat on the steps outside the pub is his wife; an emaciated mother, coloured grey, clutching a baby to her dry breasts.

The performance of this woman was professional and well-rehearsed. It was like an operatic solo. Her voice would rise in volume and pitch, reach dizzy heights and then fall down the scale like a cascading waterfall. The emotional outbursts when her arms, “Old Mother Riley” gyrated, like windmills, was punctuated by soft snake hissing whispered phrases, pauses and dramatic silences. Her animation and timing in this was faultless. It all added to the electric tension in the air that she conjured up. Were this spectacle to be performed in The New Theatre Cardiff or on the West End stage she would probably have received a standing ovation from the auditorium at the end of her monologue and nominated for a national theatrical award.

But in the claustrophobic confines of the classroom, the audience remained seated. There was no rapturous applause. They were too frightened to move.

The atmosphere could be identified with that of a visiting preacher at the local Baptist church; who thumped the pulpit with clenched fist, and breathed fire and brimstone in his sermon, causing the congregation to cringe and cower for fear of God’s wrath.

So were the children, frozen to their desks by the icy chill created; reduced to a hushed solemn silence as the lady gathered up her visual aids, folded them away in the bag and swept out of the classroom shrouded in a puff of dust and fly off to her hermit of a home.

The home time bell rang and the children were relieved and happy to be released, freed to run home to the secure and sober arms of their families.

Mothers would ask; ‘What did you do at school today?’

They would not say this time; ‘I was bored.’ Or ‘Nothing happened.’ or ‘It was just another ordinary day.’ Instead they would wonder, ‘Where on earth do I start?’

Were this lady to have made this lecture to a much older audience of young men, seeking some sort of relief from the trauma of enduring such an experience, they would all, certainly, be driven to drink.