The Ousterbout

E.E. Rhodes

The day is spike-sprackled and winter-glorious, the neighbours are primed, and Gran is squawking fit to burst her way out of the prison of the bailiff’s arms. He is new. Worried by the gutterings of the charm-sparse audience. 

Every quarter the landlord lickspittles his rent book and sends an ousterbout bailiff after the cash or put by. 

The bailiff is a big man. Slabbed. With a face like two sides of meat. The sort of chump chops you dream of not sharing for your dinner. Tasty, with a side of spuds and peas. 

He’ll take what he can. A pair of shoes. A coat. A coal scuttle. Brass for preference. Anything he can hawk or scrap or get a bit of pawn for.

Today there are six vans who’ve not turned their shillings in for the last three months. The landlord wants them gone. 

The first van houses a lass, three barefoot children at her side and a baby buried in her arms. They are silent, already coffined. As the audience hisses, the bailiff veers away from them, fast.

The second van is up on blocks and shuttered. Even he has the sense to see there is no point in a hammered ask at the padlocked door.

At the third van he reckons Gran will be easy pickings. Now, she’s kicking through his shins and screeching like the factory whistle half the camp tout for.

Someone calls a copper and, though they’d not usually come into the camp, this one has an uneasy ‘now then’ with the family. He snaps a look at the bailiff holding Gran off the ground, then shakes his head dolly-lagging ragged. She ends up in a crumpled, hollering heap of foul-feckle fury. 

The bailiff and the copper have nose to nose words while the audience rumbles and rises, a barometer threatening an imminent storm. There is a quick fumble of coins, the metal glinting in the watery sunshine. A wee flash of un-summer lightning ready to ignite the eked out fumes of the hour. 

The copper hands Gran her compensation for the mishandling. Meek as a doorstep cadge, Gran gathers herself and hands the bailiff his own coins. He gawps at the money in his outstretched palm, then up and back at her. She scrawls her way to full height, all five foot two in her patched button boots and scratched up bun. And then brittle-sticks out her other hand, ready for the sixpence in change he now owes her.

The audience laughs. Big poverty-bowl bellies and red chap-rashed faces. The bailiff glances around. He’s been got good and he knows it. He hands over the money and she snaffles it away. He doesn’t bother with the rest of the collectings. He knows he is done and dust for the evening. 

He does what he can for his leaking pride, sticking his chin in the air and bully beefing his shoulders through the crowd. Gran tooth gaps a grin, handing the copper half a ready sixpence from her pocket. Weren’t only the neighbours who were trimmed and primed ready for this day.

E.E. Rhodes is an archaeologist who lives in the corner of a small castle in Worcestershire in England. Her Gran would be amazed. She’s pretty surprised too. She writes short prose in a variety of forms and her work can be found in a range of anthologies, journals, and competition placings.