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The Seekers

by Kathleen Purcell

    There they sat, the two of them, squashed up together inside the old Morris Minor, eyeing the crowd that passed by, their eyes looking, seeking … seeking the women. Their glances rested briefly on faces, and then moved lingeringly on to legs, hips and buttocks.
Bartholomew’s long face had hardly changed since he was a young lad, except to become more creased and wrinkled and brown. He’d been a solemn boy and his father always said he would have made a good chief mourner at a funeral. In a way Barty agreed with that; he was in mourning, for his lost life he thought bitterly. He hated his brother Saul who had been lucky enough to die young leaving him to bear the brunt of the farm work, and now the parents were both dead and he was old and on his own. He’d fancied the sea when he was young, perhaps he had even smiled then, but there had never been any chance of him getting away when the parents were alive. Why if he was missing for more than half a day at the market they wondered what had kept him!
    Now he was sitting here, sitting beside Francis, a crafty, cranky old neighbour, who had ‘sticky out’ ears, with the left one bent over, as though it was winking at you. Francis Toomey wasn’t exactly ugly, what’s ugly? But he had no teeth which made him look as though he had a ‘hole’ for a mouth, and pale blue watery eyes, which took in everything, especially the women. Funny how these two old men had struck up a friendship, Bartholomew with his long face and solemn expression, and little Francis Toomey who was mad keen on women. He’d never had any of course, but that didn’t stop him from talking and bragging about his exploits with the fair sex. He got excited when he talked too, and little froths of spit gathered around his mouth. They were in town now, Francis Toomey had driven them in his old Morris Minor, which was practically a museum piece, and there they sat, looking out of the windows of the car, with Francis salivating and swallowing every so often.
“What’ll we do then?” asked Bart.
“We’ll get digs of course, but we’ll have to shop around a bit, you know, ask prices and that.”
Barty nodded. Last time it was a fiasco, because Francis was so mean they had tramped around the town for half a day and when they had found somewhere good, Francis told the woman to hold the room for an hour and he’d be back and he’d let her know, but when they had come back she said she had let it already, and he was so mad, but the woman seemed very pleased to be able to tell Francis this piece of information.
“Let’s pick somewhere quick this time,” ventured Bart.
“Hm,” said Francis, not convinced and that gleam in his watery eye said they were in for another traipsing around the town. An hour and a half later found them fixed up in a mothy sort of room with the toilet two floors down, but it was cheap and with honour satisfied Francis brushed the dust off his Sunday suit which smelt of camphor balls and mildew from the old press in his bedroom, and he decided that they should get some tea and then look around the town.
The landlady provided a pot of tea and some bread and jam, after much persuasion from Francis, she grumbling all the while saying she didn’t provide meals; people were too much trouble.
At last they were out walking the streets, putting their heads into bar doorways, inspecting the contents, and then moving on. Francis was in the lead, Bartholomew followed quietly. He didn’t hold out much hope of finding a woman to talk to. Women didn’t take to him much. They didn’t like his baleful, melancholy air, which smacked of misery, either in the past or yet to come. Francis on the other hand was completely obnoxious but managed to get talking to everybody and usually managed to get into the company of women.
At last they came to a small dark bar at the end of the town, and inside there was a crowd of locals talking and playing cards, and three women were sitting together, drinking.
Francis’ pale eyes weighed up the situation and went in and sat near them. Barty followed, hesitated for a few minutes, and then walked up to the counter ordering two glasses of beer, one for each of them. Bart was used to buying the drink, it was the same wherever they went, this was the price he paid for a bit of company. If his father could see him now spending good money on ale, he’d come back and haunt him!
The women were talking animatedly and Francis was listening, his mouth which was a complete round ‘O’ shape was open, his eyes running over the three women. He made several little movements, bobbing and bending up and down in little jerks; he was trying to see the rest of their bodies, the bits that were hidden by the table that was in front of them. He bent down and looked at the legs. One wore high heels, his face registered disinterest. Then he saw a pair of sturdy legs in flat shoes and thick lyle stockings, “Hm, that’s better,” his eyes travelled upwards from the lyle covered legs to see where they belonged. He saw bright brown hair and a plain doughy face, with a prim mouth and beetled eyebrows. His bent ear seemed to twitch and his mouth altered its shape momentarily when he gave what he thought was a smile. ‘Dough Face’ looked at him as though he was some kind of unsavoury insect, and then looked away. Undeterred, he looked over the other two. Piles of make-up on one, too much paint, he thought. Yes, she was the one with the high heels, he thought so. The other lady wore a ring on her left hand. She was smoking and drinking out of a glass which looked like whisky. Her hair was slightly greying too. Bit old he thought. No good getting one that was too old. She wouldn’t be able to work much. That only left ‘Dough Face’, so he gave a second once over, when suddenly the painted one said, “What’s up with you? What are you doing, bobbing up and down like that?”
“Oh nothing,” said Francis vaguely and Bart came back with the drinks. He had been watching the pantomime with Francis with amusement.
“Are ye out for the night?” asked Francis, attempting another smile.
“Yeah, we’re on the town tonight,” she laughed and winked at her friends, then sipped her drink.
    Bartholomew eyed the ladies secretly but said nothing. His solemn face showing neither interest nor pleasure. Francis edged a bit closer to the older one.
“Married then?” He nodded towards her hand with the ring on.   
“Was, I’m a widow now.”
“Oh, I see,” he renewed his interest. A widow eh.
‘Dough Face’ looked at the two men and disgust registered on her pudgy cheeks. The painted one laughed out loud at something that Francis had said, showing a gleaming gold tooth, shining brightly against her red round lips.
The two men sat there expectantly.
“Well girls, let’s go, no use wasting time here,” said the painted one, and with that the three women got up and left.
Bartholomew’s face looked wistful, and Francis’ mouth went back to its usual ‘O’ shape. Then he said, “We nearly got off there boy, -- mind you there was three of ’em, so one of us would have had to have managed two,” and saliva dribbled down his chin at the thought.


Taken from ‘Nothing is Ever What it Seems’ (1994), pages 66-70.

Kathleen Purcell

Jean Reinhardt