After Ben Jonson’s bad behaviour I thought I’d publish a short from my collection Nuggets
Stan and Irene Watkins hated each other. For the first ten years of their marriage they had loved each other, more or less. For the next ten years they had rubbed along together okay.
For the last ten years, however, they had hated each other.
It was not a heated hatred of fighting and rows. It was a cold hatred of nursed grievance and coiled up spite.
How had this happened, you might ask? What events had marked their journey from gentle bliss to gratuitous loathing?
The answer lies in their occupation. For Stan and Irene Watkins run a Punch and Judy booth.
Looking back, the decision to start the business, taken so lightly thirty years before, had been the placing of a match upon a winding trail of gunpowder.
At first the fights between Punch and his wife had been great fun. The more vigorous ones, with Punch and Judy egged on by unusually excitable audiences, had led to laughter and mayhem, a rush of adrenalin which, more often than not, plunged the puppeteers into delights of nuptial passion.
But then, one July day, inexplicably, Stan and Irene were both overcome by an unnerving identification with the puppets they thought they controlled.
Neither confessed this strange occurrence to the other, for who would? Yet it began to gnaw away at their relationship with a poison as deadly as a well-concealed affair.
As their hatred grew deeper and more cold so their shows grew more manic and enraged. New jokes, new manoeuvres, new attacks exploded across the booth to the delight of their audiences. Stan and Irene garnered puppetry plaudits and riches.
And all the time their mutual loathing swelled.
One humid August day the inevitable happened. As Stan and Irene piloted their puppets into yet another murderous attack, Stan chanced to stand upon Irene’s toe.
With a howl of rage she jabbed her fingers into his throat. Fearful for his very life he slapped her round her face. She reeled but leapt back to the attack.
Both instinctively closed their strong and skilful hands around their spouse’s throat and began to squeeze.
The two parallel battles, one on stage, the other concealed, raged in furious silence for two minutes more. Then, to the astonishment of the watching children and parents, the booth toppled over to reveal a middle-aged couple kicking and strangling and biting at each other.
For a moment the stunned audience watched in silence.
Then one man cried, ‘Come on Punch.’
His wife retorted with, ‘Get him Judy.’
The cheering rose suddenly to the sky, bets were taken, advice on tactics freely offered.
At last, exhausted, Stan and Irene collapsed upon each other.
They stared at the baying, screaming, frenzied crowd.
‘I think we’ve discovered a new angle,’ gasped Stan.
‘Yes,’ said Irene. ‘But let’s be more gentle tomorrow, my love.’