I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had time to write many blog posts recently – something which I’d like to rectify. Now normally I like to stand at my easel and listen to my favourite psychologist and philosopher Jordan Peterson while I’m painting as I find it quite easy to multi-task when all is going well and I don’t need to concentrate too hard; and if I miss too much over a difficult area I may listen to the lecture again. However, there is no way I could write a blog post whilst painting… unless, of course, I could dictate my post.
“What a good idea!” I thought very loudly yesterday. I was waiting for paint to dry at the time. Actually I was yearning to write a post I had been considering during my morning shower (and which has been superseded by this) but I suddenly became so enamoured with the notion of “Speech to Text” that I resolved to become au fait with the technology.
Cortana, my little used laptop guide, proved to be constant in her ability to be of little use to me and, as usual, I went to Google to find out how to install the programme. Somehow, I managed it (don’t ask me how) after installing a months free trial of Word 2016 (my old one’s no good apparently) but our printer wouldn’t print out the fourteen pages of Windows Speech Recognition commands…until this morning. Chris has just brought them out to me – not much use now.
So I’m in my free trial Word 2016 with a virtual blank sheet of paper and the Speech to Text doo dah at the top of the screen, and I can’t think of a word to say; the post formulated in my head just a little earlier would not leap into my mind or my mouth.
“I know,” I said to myself, “I’ll dictate one of Dad’s short stories”. For years my sister Mary and I have been talking about typing out Dad’s many writings and turning them into books; Dad would have loved that when he was alive but over twelve years ago I couldn’t type to save my life or use a computer (although I have a diploma from an office course I took back in 1986!).
I run downstairs, find Dad’s black briefcase and grab the first short story that comes to hand – “The Hunchback and Harold Smith, A short story by Charles Porch”. Great! I’m back at the screen and looking at the virtual paper and “Sleeping” microphone.
“Start listening,” I say, a bit louder than normal because I suspect that the microphone is hard of hearing.
“The Hunchback and Harold Smith,” I say.
“What’s that?” the text part of the microphone device asks. It is deaf, or stupid.
“The Hunchback and Harold Smith!” I enunciate perfectly but with a bit of irritation.
“That hunt back a barrel with”, appears on the page. I delete.
“The,” I say clearly.
“Tar,” it appears. I delete.
“Theee,” I say loudly.
“Eee,” it writes. It’s scared. I’m getting fed up.
“Tha,” I correct and add a “Bloody hell!” under my breath.
“The body well,” it writes.
“You swine,” I snarl.
“Do we mine,” it responds sarcastically.
And so it went on… Slowly and frustratingly… while the paint dried. It wasn’t all misery though. I laughed a bit, both at the original story and some of the hilarious Speech to Text mistakes; e.g. “Warning was 41 years of age nine; a dwarf; and a hunt back.”; or “The circular tin had once contained toffees he hasn’t been a pretty one”; or “Indeed if one ignored the dull rusting interior, it was downhill 2010”.
Tired of “spelling it” again and again I corrected most mistakes manually. I didn’t have the full commands so sometimes the whole text was lost… then found. The Speech to Text gizmo did learn eventually to produce the word ‘hunchback’, and even ‘Harold Smith’ but I fancy I shall make little use of those words when I write my blog posts in future. Besides, these days my typing is about thirty times faster than a lunatic gizmo with a vocabulary of fifty words and learning slowly (that office course must have been lying dormant all the these years!).
For those of you who’d like to read “The Hunchback and Harold Smith” by Charles
All Porch I shall paste it below. In case you wonder, my father worked as a male nurse in Devizes Mental Institution in Wiltshire after the War. It is based on real characters and incidents, and this is its first public airing.
THE HUNCHBACK AND HAROLD SMITH
A short story by Charles Porch
Wally was forty-one years of age; a dwarf; and a hunchback. One side of his face was paralyzed and when he laughed the loose skin on the afflicted side sank lower still, and drew his shaggy fair moustache down with it.
He couldn’t remember a life outside of the Institution although sometimes he received vague flashes of memory of how his life had been before his committal.
One is these brief mental pictures that recurred periodically was to do with newspapers. Large piles of newspapers fresh from the presses. The hunchback could see them stacked in an orderly row upon a wheeled, wooden table. Above the table and running the length of it was a wide shelf quite bare except for a lidless tin box that was half-full of coppers.
The circular tin had once contained toffees and had been a pretty one. Indeed if one ignored the dull rusting interior, it was still a pretty tin. Around the outside of it fat, pink fairies chased each other through a woodland glade; and the scene was lit by pixies that peeped shyly around the boles of warted trees. Wally liked the pixies because they wore funny red hats and made him laugh. He liked to laugh and was oblivious of the sound he made; the low pitched “Aw, Awa-Awa-Aw” that pulled his moustache down and made him dribble. He didn’t laugh very often, only when the pictures came. There were the odd occasions when something immediate brought a spontaneous “Aw, Awa-Awa-Aw”. Like the time when Mr Ted the Staff Nurse lost his temper and hit Harold Smith on the head with a dessert spoon.
Wally didn’t like Harold Smith! He hadn’t much reason to like him. Harold Smith’s main activity was following Wally around Ward 3 and waiting for him to laugh. When Wally laughed Smith would thump him upon his hunched back. When that occurred the funny pictures left Wally’s mind and wouldn’t come back again.
Harold Smith was a lunatic. “Old Moses” said so. Wally liked “Old Moses” because he had a big white beard and was boss of the dinner squad of which Wally was a member.
At twelve o’clock midday on each day of the week except Sunday Wally got a thump on the back from Harold Smith.
At that hour “Old Moses” would stand near the door of Ward 3 and shout at the top of his booming voice “We shall break bread Christ holy!” and Wally’s face would contort and he would articulate perhaps an “Aw”; and if he was lucky an “Awa” too before being cut off short.
The dinner squad, preceded by one of the staff, would leave Ward 3 and go down the long corridor, through a doorway into another corridor; through a doorway into a vast wall; through yet another doorway and emerge finally into a quadrangle.
Wally liked the jingle of the Staff Nurse’s shiny keys as they were thrown deftly into the various locks, but he liked best of all the big kitchen with its huge, shiny cookers and pans, and he was careful to make sure that its lid was snapped down “nice and tight” as directed by the pretty girl who smiled at him and called him “Wally”. Wednesday was the big day of the week for Wally. It was the only day on which he was heard to speak. He received more thumps on his hump on Wednesday than the other days quotas put together because it was his happiest day.
On Wednesdays hot, thick nourishing soup was served midday for dinner and Wally had a great passion for it. As soon as he had groped his way out of bed on Wednesday morning he would shout at the top of his voice “Zoup today!” and the young male nurses shouted back “Zoup today Wally!”; and Harold Smith was out of bed like a flash of lightning; with his fist raised and looking like a crazy, night-shirted Joe Stalin, he would position himself behind the hunchback. When the doctor made his round on Wednesdays Wally always took up station near the door of Ward 3 and waited for him. Hovering in the vicinity would be the relentless Harold Smith. The doctor would be greeted with “Zoup today! Aw, Awa-Awa, Aw. Zoup today!”. The hunchback could laugh with impunity only because Harold Smith had beside him Mr Ted who was significantly smacking the palm of his left hand with a dessert spoon.
The doctor would reply and nod smilingly to the trio, “Zoup today gentlemen!”
Nursing staff passing in the course of their duties would greet each other on Wednesdays with “Zoup today” instead of the conventional “Good morning”. There was “Zoup today” in the laundry, in the kitchen and in the Medical Superintendent’s quarters. Calendars were found with “Zoup today” instead of Wednesday printed upon them. Wednesday was a great day for wits and half-wits alike.
The hunchback was always cold. His hands were like those of a corpse. When he felt exceptionally miserable he would climb up on a hard settle at the end of Ward 3 and sit dejectedly with his little legs swinging rhythmically. Beside him, ever watchful, would be his Demon escort.
Harold Smith knew that on these occasions it would only be a matter of time before Wally sat on his hands.
The movement was an involuntary one on the part of the hunchback, and with it there was an involuntary association that gave him one of his happy pictures. This scene was set on the pavement of a corner of a busy city intersection. Crowds of people wrapped in warm overcoats passed laughing and talking in front of the news-stand. Some would stop and buy an evening paper and say “Hello there” and give Wally some coppers. The happy dwarf liked the pennies that were fished from the big men’s trouser pockets. They had body warmth and he would nurse them lightly in his little fists for a minute. Occasionally he’d be given a copper bearing the bearded head of King George. Wally liked those especially, and he would laugh before putting them carefully into the pretty tin box.
Opposite his table-cum-barrier there was a sweet shop, brightly lit and full of Easter eggs. Such lovely eggs! Some of them had big bows of red, blue and yellow ribbon around their fat waists. Others were chorus lines of portly ladies in sequinned dresses; and there were happy snowmen eggs that the dwarf liked best of all.
The snowmen wore gay bow ties, and black lips on their cotton wool faces, and red-ribboned bands were around their black top hats.
Pockets of warm air eddied around the news-stand as crowds of people waited on the pavement for the lights to change, and the newsboy could smell the men’s tobacco and the perfume of the women. That was very nice. When the people moved off they took the warmth with them and replaced it with bitter cold wind gusts and loneliness.
When Wally’s fingers were unbearably cold he would return to his little stall and thrust them deep into an oven of late edition newspapers and revel in the transferred heat. By the end of each evening the dwarf’s hands would be black and polished with printers ink and look like the hands of the funny snowmen in the sweet shop window across the pavement.
That made the hunchback feel happy and when Wally was happy he laughed; and when Wally laughed he got punched for it. The punches didn’t hurt him but they drove the happy pictures from his mind. He hated Harold Smith! Harold Smith was a lunatic! Old Moses said so. Mr Ted the Charge Nurse of No3 Ward had been responsible for Wally for twelve years. He knew the hunchback well. He knew all of the patients in his charge and made certain concessions for their wellbeing.
For instance, there was Wally’s old brown jacket. It was very old, very worn and four sizes too big for him but Wally became upset if it was taken from him. Therefore Mr Ted saw that Wally was not deprived of it. When the garment became too evil smelling Mr Ted would confine the hunchback to bed for 24 hours and get the coat washed.
First of all he would empty it. There were great holes in the sleeve and pocket linings. From the former he would remove half a bucketful of various treasures – a strip of brown linoleum; two childrens painting books; long twigs and dead leaves; and a piece of waxy rag. From the pockets would come bird seed; pieces of coloured stone, toffee wrappers, a spoon; Gillette razor blade wrappers with pictures of a bearded man engraved on them; and cut-out pictures of the bearded sailor whose countenance used to grace the front of the old Players cigarette packets. There was often a handful or two of old boiled potato.
When next Wally wore the coat it would have the piece of lino’ and a fresh painting book in the sleeves. The pockets would contain a new Players cigarette packet, some fresh Gillette wrappers and the case of an old golf ball.
Harold Smith and no coat. He was clad in a strong canvas overall from neck to toe with brass locks instead of buttons. He wore boots with brass locks instead of laces. He was very fond of his canvas suit and spent a lot of his time trying to tear it to pieces with his strong hands. There was a broad patch across the upper half of the garment where the frayed fibres showed white against the brown material that had succumbed to the frenetic clawings of Harold Smith’s thick nails.
The seat of the overall was a padded cushion of a motley of materials woven into the canvas. The cushion was a birds nest of paper, rag, straws and twigs. The reluctant weaver of the conglomeration was Wally the hunchback who, under threat, made holes in the seat of the canvas suit and threaded into it whatever materials Harold Smith had to hand. Surreptitiously and painstakingly, Wally had unravelled about two feet of wire from the old bird cage at the end of Ward 3, and this was used as a bodkin to poke holes through the strong canvas. After a weaving session, that usually took place in the lavatories, the wire itself was threaded finally into the padding and hung in a loop like a bucket handle.
The proud owner of this fantastic overall, wholly pleased with himself following a new weaving, would parade around Ward 3 and demand admiration from his fellow inmates. He sometimes got a kick in the cushion instead!
The inner staircase to the dormitory of Ward 3 led up from a lobby adjacent to Mr Ted’s office and pantry. The door into the dormitory from the landing on the top of stairs was kept locked by day.
On Wednesdays Wally used to sit nearly bent double on the third stair from the bottom. He used to take up position at least five minutes before midday, eagerly awaiting Old Moses’ call of “We shall break bread Christ Holy!”, so that he would be first in line when the dinner gang formed up in the lobby.
One Wednesday in July 1950 at a few minutes before noon Wally had one of his dreams. He was sitting on his hands at the foot of the stairs as per usual.
In the dream he found himself in a small shabby room. Daylight struggled valiantly to penetrate the string of washing in the back yard. Undaunted, it assailed the dirty windows and the grubby lace curtains that screened them. The hunchback was sat on a very worn, loose-hair sofa that was angled before a large iron stove. There were hot coals to gaze into. The door of the oven was open and several socks were draped over it drying. Wally could smell the familiar odour, not unpleasant, that rose with the wisps of vapour from the drying articles. Around the hearth was a black iron fender enclosing a black iron poker and a pair of long brass tongs. From the mantel-piece hung a fringe of tasselled cloth. On the mantel shelf were several gay coloured cards that gave a homely touch to the sombre room.
A big red-coated gentleman wearing a funny red hat smiled at Wally from one of the cards. The gentleman had a big white beard and looked like Old Moses.
The dwarf smiled to himself and returned his gaze to the hot coals, at the same time becoming aware of a vague figure; of a hand that began taking the pretty cards from the mantel shelf and throwing them, one by one, into the fire. “Oh no!” The paper flamed for a second or two and then subsided. “Not the funny man in the red coat with a beard!” He could hear himself shouting and then he was crying, as the flames consumed the folded card, and the red coat and hat became a grey etching on the black coals. The hunchback was standing now upon the bumpy old sofa, sobbing and beating with his little fists against the back of the obscure figure.
Wally’s dream was rudely shattered and he was brought quickly back to reality by the blows that were being delivered to his own humped back. He heard rather than felt them. He turned toward his assailant. Harold Smith leaned over the balustrade in the lobby of Ward 3 and gave the dwarf another thump for good luck.
“Sew up my bum!” he commanded, handing him six inches of bright green wool.
The dwarf took the piece of wool and Harold Smith bent down and rammed his cushion against the bannisters. The little man, ever obedient, put his hands through the iron rails and removed the threaded wire. Then he stood up, leaned over and punched his tormentor.
The man in the canvas suit was only half-straightened when the wire caught him around the throat. The little hunchback hauled backwards with all his strength and held on for half a minute before taking the wire ends a couple of turns around the handrail. It served Harold Smith right! He shouldn’t have burned Wally’s funny pictures, especially the one of the man in a red coat, with a beard like Old Moses.
It was Old Moses who saved Harold Smith’s life.
Wally was waiting as usual when Old Moses led the dinner squad into the lobby. And there was Harold Smith with his feet drumming weakly against the bare floorboards…
The hunchback didn’t bring the tea back from the kitchen that Wednesday. He has been removed to another ward since then and has his meals taken to him now. Sometimes even he has a room to himself.
Mr Ted wanders down to see him occasionally and takes him a picture book, passed on from his children; and Wally and he have an “Aw, Awa-Awa, Aw” together.
Harold Smith misses the hunchback more than anyone in Ward 3. His cushion has lost its former splendour because it’s mostly a “Do it yourself” job these days.
I am happy to report however that Wally the hunchback is safe and well. He enjoys his food as much as ever he did. He especially enjoys his dinner on Wednesdays when the hospital reverberates with the cry of “Zoup today!”