By Vera Leff

Marie ran up the steps of the Town Hall with a case full of books and pamphlets. She had left Mum and Bob hastily finishing their supper. “Don’t be late!” she called. “We won’t!” They were nearly as excited as Marie, and felt that, in a way, they too had had a small share in the meeting, helping Marie with the preparations for the night, and persuading all their friends to be there.

The Town Hall was already buzzing with the preliminary sounds that always emanate from behind the scenes at such events. It gave Marie the sort of thrill she got when the orchestra tuned up before the curtains parted and the concert began, “Funny!” she thought, as she put aside her coat and opened up the case of literature. “I’m looking forward to this meeting more than to any concert!”

Mrs. Smithson and Donald were at the entrance door. The Hall was fairly empty yet, except for the committee people, who clambered in and out the rows of seats on their various jobs. Jock Knight stood on the platform, a lonesome figure beside the six empty chairs and the table with the jug of water and a glass placed there considerately by Linda.

“Donald! Have you put up all the posters at the entrance?” he called, and his voice sounded hollow and terribly loud. Marie wondered how he could dare stand up on a platform and speak, even to his friends. Donald came over beside her, and helped her to arrange the books and pamphlets on the stall.

“Make the colours stand out!” he said. Then they both went round the entrance hall fixing the large, vivid posters so that they formed an interesting exhibition. “Look at this one!” said Donald. “It speaks for itself!” It was a map of England, with an uneven pattern of red circles and shaded areas. Marie smiled at him.
“You tell me what it says!”
He pointed to the south coast in the region of Bournemouth.
“Now there’s a place to be ill!” he said. Look at the number of doctors ready to look after you!” His finger travelled up the map to the thickly populated Midlands. “Factory workers here!” said Donald. “Hundreds of thousands, and their families. And you know all the ills the flesh is heir to!” Marie nodded.
“But only a quarter of the doctors! Doesn’t it speak for itself!” They examined the other posters and pictures, and on a table in the centre of the entrance-hall was a beautifully designed model of one of the proposed health clinics. Marie and Donald stared at the glistening white miniature, with the wide windows, the broad white steps, the inviting doorway.
“Think of Dad’s surgery!” said Donald. Marie remembered with a shiver the dark barrack-like room, the three steps leading downwards; it was a semi-basement really.
“Better get back to your bookstall! Here’s the crowd beginning to arrive!
He pulled her by the hand. Marie glanced at him.
“Donald. . .” she hesitated.
“What is it, sweet?” he asked cheerfully.
“Donald. . . I think it’s a grand thing you and the others are doing, organising this, but. . .,” Marie thought of the Granada, and the crowds that flocked there so regularly; of the dance-halls, full especially on Saturday nights. “Don’t be disappointed if not many people come!”
“Don’t worry! It’s going to be a success tonight, I know!” As usual, his confidence steadied her; “and in any case, we believe our efforts are worthwhile!”
“Oh so do I!” she said earnestly. “That’s how I’ve got the pluck to sit behind the stall and sell books !”
“And mind you do!” he smiled at her. “I must go and see if the Mayor has arrived yet. I’m supposed to be looking after the speakers. I mustn’t lose Ward-Chapman, after all the persuasion it took to get him here! Cheerio!”
He went off down the imposing hallway.

Marie took up her seat behind the stall, and as the clock hand moved majestically past the half-hour and towards the all important time of eight p.m., the people really began to arrive in large numbers. To Marie’s delight there were little groups round the poster-gallery, and always a few people staring in admiration at the model of the clinic. Linda and Mrs. Smithson stood like faithful sentinels at the door, guiding people to their seats and answering enquiries pleasantly and tactfully.

While she waited for customers, Marie had a look at the literature of which she was in charge. There were some severe-looking copies of the Tory Government’s White Paper on Health; a few bright booklets on the same subject; there were other books of a general nature, and all somehow speaking in their own individual way of the future, of progress, of happiness for ordinary folk. Marie felt that they seemed to be alive in a way that the lurid thrillers on the station bookstall never were. There was a special joy in selling them. A shining half-crown winked up at her from the stall. The customer was already off with the book and crowding past rows of people to get near the front. Marie carefully placed the money in the large tin she had brought with her. Every few minutes she glanced in to make sure her takings were still there.

“We’ll be starting soon!” Linda came over. “Did you ever see such a crowd!” Her eyes were bright. “How are you doing?”
Marie counted over the money in the tin, although she knew the total by heart. “I’ve taken two pounds three and ninepence!” she announced.
“Well done comrade!” Linda was delighted, as much for Marie’s sake as for the funds. “It must be your charming smile!” she teased.
“Go on!” Marie laughed. “Hurry! Ma Smithson wants you!” Linda hastened back to help sort out the congestion of people in the doorway, looking for available seats.
Marie picked up one of the books that had been selling well. It was a finely illustrated copy of a magazine describing the health services
in the Soviet Union. She studied a delightful picture of a fairy-like palace set high above glittering sea. Young men and women walked arm in arm in the palace grounds. Their clothes were light and simple; they were working people, and yet they seemed quite at home in their gorgeous surroundings. Beneath she read that this was a holiday-home for workers who were in need of a rest. The service, of course, was all free. Marie looked closer at the picture. There was a slim girl that she fancied looked like herself. She pictured having a rest without any financial worries at such a place, or even at Brighton, she thought wistfully Then she laughed at herself, what a dream!

The clock hands pointed to eight. “We’re starting now!” Linda beckoned to her. Need it be only a dream? thought Marie, picking up the precious money-tin and going over to the meeting hall beside her friends. Marie was tense, her eyes on the group of people on the platform. Jock Knight stood poised, hands resting on the small table in front of him, ready to start the meeting when the coughing, the shuffling and the last-minute fidgetting had subsided. On either side was the Mayor, and his wife, Mrs. Evering, sitting a little uneasily on her chair. If only it had been a benevolent concert, she wished; she preferred a central position on the platform to a seat on the side; everything was so familiar to her, and yet, this time, so strange. She didn’t feel at all happy. Ward-Chapman sat at Jock Knight’s right hand. He was astonished to see so many of his constituents here, and as the meeting progressed and he sensed the interest and enthusiasm of the audience, he forgot his early reluctance to give his support to the proceedings. In fact, he was secretly thankful that he had not after all missed this opportunity of falling in what was evidently a popular demand. He could see himself, telling the tale to his associates at the Unionist Club. “Finger on the pulse of the public! Foresight! That’s what you need, my lads. Foresight!” The pulse of the public was certainly beating powerfully and with a slightly rising tempo of excitement over this question of new health – new life! All the speakers on the platform felt it, and quickened in response.

The Chairman rapped on the table. Marie gripped Linda’s hand. The tuning-up was over now, the orchestra was about to sound; how she hoped it would meet with a really stupendous reception from the audience!

Mayor Evering spoke first. He was a little man, but with a dignity of his own, and a good sense of organisation. “This is the period of reconstruction!” he said. “It’s only common-sense that we should reconstruct our health services. The work of the area could be done more efficiently, with the doctors in the neighbourhood pooling their resources; the hospitals and clinics working to a schedule. The finances of the service no longer dependent on charity!” Mrs. Evering felt that his tone of voice was positively insulting at this point. She made a note to bring it up when they got home.
The Mayor was on to the financial side now, and enjoying himself. He had a tidy mind, and for that reason alone, the new scheme appealed to him. Then he remembered that after all, it wasn’t only a paper proposition, but something to do with human beings, suffering humanity. The Mayor wasn’t very good at fancy turns of speech, so he fell back on the well-known analogy. “When a house is on fire!” he said, and Ward-Chapman cursed inwardly, he had been saving that up for himself! “When a house is on fire, the alarm is sounded, and the fire-service is away on the spot, ready and able to save suffering and disaster. So it should be . . .” his eye roved round the audience and landed on the man in the centre front row. That was the Mayor’s technique for winding up his speeches. “So it MUST be for the health services of England. And let us be one of the first to set that example!” None of his orations had ever brought so much applause and cheering, and he sat down feeling unusually proud. Even Mrs. Evering was mollified, and decided to overlook the slight about her charitable activities in the past.

The other people on the platform spoke in turn, explaining how the scheme would work from their own angle. To Marie it was like pieces of a jig-saw puzzle falling into place miraculously, and producing the same inspiring picture that Donald had already presented to her, in his own enthusiastic way. The health workers approved of it from their inside knowledge of the present difficulties of hospitals and their services; the Mayor approved because he could see a more sensible working arrangement for his area, and a healthier and happier population arising; the trade union delegate approved most heartily on behalf of his fellow-workers, to whom it meant the lifting of worry about provision for their wives and families.

While he was speaking, Marie looked around the audience, picking out the few people she recognised. Yes, there was Mrs. Robinson, with three of her brood of eight. No motherhood medal for her, in spite of an endless struggle against children’s complaints, measles, bad teeth, adenoids, accidents, what not? Marie knew because Mrs. Robinson lived only three doors away.
“Clinics for children attached to the centre! Free, and enough for all . . . . perhaps rest-days arranged for tired mothers.” The speaker was consulting a written paper. Marie fancied she saw a gleam in Mrs. Robinson’s eye. Over there was Alice Stanton, with two more girls from Marie’s factory. She was glad they had come. Marie remembered that Alice was on the waiting-list for a sanatorium. Poor Alice! Could there be any comfort for her in this meeting, or would it seem a cruel irony that only now were doctors and people getting down to winning the war against ill-health.

With a shock, she saw Donald rise to speak; she was so nervous for him that she hardly absorbed what he was saying. In a back row, Marie glimpsed old Doctor Anderson, nodding his head and occasionally applauding. Marie glanced at him sympathetically, half-sensing his thought that it was not given to every man to make right the mistakes of his own youth in the person of his son. Between Marie and Donald and the Doctor there was a bond at that moment that grew to be unbreakable. Ward-Chapman felt that enough had been said about medical details. Besides, he knew he would have to go home and re-read the White Paper before he could make a speech about it deserving of these people, his voters, who undoubtedly had taken the matter to their hearts.

“It is a war that we are waging!” he said in his best Parliamentary manner. “And like the war against the Nazis, it is a people’s war! It must be waged by the people!” If I’ve got to stand up to all the opposition that’s going to come from certain sources, he was thinking, I’ve got to make sure that my voters are right behind me.
“We’ll back you up, old cock!” came ringing from the back of the audience, as though he had spoken his thought aloud, and there was laughing agreement from all around.
Ward-Chapman thought he recognised the voice, but for the first time the tone was friendly, so he smiled and made the best of it, but how he hated interruptions, even pleasant ones! He picked up the thread of his speech, but soon terminated. He sat down feeling that his presence alone should be inspiring, apart from mere words.

Marie looked round but Linda had gone from beside her. She went over and took a seat beside her mother and Bob. “He’s good isn’t he?” Mrs. Roberts whispered. “Who? the M.P.?” said Marie innocently.
“No! Your Donald Anderson!” and Mrs. Roberts sat back in her chair with folded arms, taking in the whole meeting with the greatest of pride and satisfaction. “And I bet Pop will be for him too! You know he’s always voted Labour and thinks a lot of people who get things done!”
“Oh Mum! Do be quiet!” said Marie, but inwardly felt very pleased.
A woman’s voice from the platform recalled her from her inward happiness. Linda was speaking! “Linda Farrell, shop steward at Chappell and Co., and member of the local branch of the Communist Party.” Jock Knight had introduced her.
Linda spoke plainly and simply, as though it was to Marie and her friends she was talking, and not a packed audience of many hundreds in the Town Hall. Marie admired her with all her heart.
‘The feeling of the people has got to result in something definite,” said Linda. “There must be leadership and that leadership has got to be supported a hundred-per-cent by you! As our member of Parliament has told us!”

Ward-Chapman nodded, and found himself feeling very pleased, unexpectedly. But who could not feel satisfied at a meeting like this, which roared and clapped and stamped its unity with the platform at almost every statement? He felt a little envious of the ability of this Health Committee. Leadership? It was there alright, he decided, right in front of the public’s eye, right there on the platform. He felt more happy than ever that he was not sitting at the Club, nodding agreement to the scathing remarks of De Vere Price, who was always buttonholing him about this subject. “We’re going to fight it to the bitter end!” De Vere Price had said. “The Insurance Companies, and those of us who matter on the British Medical Association, and of course the Drug Companies. And men like you, of course!” he always eyed Ward-Chapman compellingly at this point. “You’ll speak for us in Parliament.” Ward-Chapman had been impressed, but still uneasy. De Vere Price had power, but so had his voters. It was a question if they would use it. Tonight, listening to the final tumultuous applause, he felt the question was being answered: was that power that sounded here tonight going to surge throughout England? It wasn’t a matter of politics to these people, it was a matter of life and death. Ward-Chapman wiped his forehead and shook hands with all in turn, from the Mayor to Linda. He felt quite moved. The stars were out as the people streamed homewards. Marie walked along arm in arm with Donald and Linda. The Meeting was over but there were other meetings to plan, more and more work to be done.

“I’m glad you’re going our way!” whispered Donald. “I always will,” said Marie.

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