Plus Fours

When I saw the old man in Woolworth’s, Carmarthen, yesterday, I thought he had walked in from my personal history. It wasn’t that I knew him, but thirty years ago I knew hundreds exactly like him, only they were young then. I recognized his flat cap with the discreet check, his neat toothbrush mustache, the open raincoat which he, I know, would call his Burberry. But most of all I recognized the shape of his trousers.

Made of thick tweed, they were of medium gray cloth with a thin blue line forming large squares in it, but I’ve seen them green or blue, or in various heather mixtures. In our town it was thought very dashing to wear a suit of hairy ginger. These trousers were made very amply, held up at the waist with as natty a belt as one could purchase, and the wide legs fastened just below the knee with a little strap and a buckle. They were called plus fours, and it was the ambition of every young man with any social pretensions to own a suit with just such a pair of trousers. The fashion threatened the economic equanimity of our town. Clerks at the town hall in Merthyr Tydfil were forbidden to wear them to the offices, except on Saturday mornings, when no work was done anyway. Young solicitors were to be seen, sauntering down High Street at ten thirty in the morning, their work neglected and botched because of these sinful trousers.

Part of the attraction, of course, was that you had to wear long stockings. These were of thick wool, with wonderful geometric patterns in various colors, or sometimes knitted in plain colors but so cunningly made in the work that they seemed ribbed and embossed. The old man in Woolworth’s, Carmarthen, wore a pair of stockings which were basically fawn, but carried great diamond panels of maroon and green. They were genuine enough. I can’t think where he got them from.

The shoes, too, were important. Brown brogues were the style, the upper leather cut with holes and crescents of different sizes into complex patterns, and polished to a glittering brilliance. I once had a pair of brogues with very long tongues, fringed at the ends, which folded back over the shoelaces and flapped a little as I walked. These were greatly admired.

I came in at the end of the plus fours era. It was only the great heroes of my youth, giants of the football field who were eighteen or nineteen years old when I was thirteen. who wore those glorious pants as it bv right. I remember Glyn Lewis, an uncouth pretender, walking into Carpanini’s one evening.

He wore his plus fours—borrowed no doubt—with a sniveling air. We laughed him outside into the dark. He didn’t have the moral stature for such epic garb.

A couple of years later a parcel arrived at out house. I took it from the postman and called to my mother, who was upstairs. To get a parcel at our house was an event to be compared with a day at Barry Island.

“it can’t be for us,“ said my mother, holding the parcel at arms length dubiously.

She squeezed it, and nothing happened.

Now she examined it more closely, reading the label with some difficulty because she wasn’t wearing her glasses.

She looked up, astounded. “It’s for you,” she said.

I ran through the names of my friends who might have sent me a trick parcel as a joke, but none of them had any money.

“Go on, open it up,” said my mother.

Folded neatly inside the brown paper was a suit. I put on the jacket. One of the pockets held an envelope with seven shillings and sixpence and a letter from my Uncle Edwin in it. My Uncle Edwin lived in England, whereas we lived in Wales. This was enough to make him rich in our eyes, but he was, in fact, an engineer with a very good job.

“It fits very nicely,” said my mother.

I believed her with all my heart, although 1 knew it was too big. I picked up the trousers, shaking the folds out. They were plus fours, and my heart sank. I took off the jacket, hung trousers and jacket in my wardrobe, and went to school.

“What are you going to do with the money?” called my mother.

“I don’t know,” I said.

She said she’d buy me something with it. I didn’t care what she did. I just knew that I’d never wear that suit.

It was the stockings that made me change my mind. That Saturday I’d been playing cricket for the school and I’d had a good match. After lunch my mother gave me a pair of long stockings to wear with my uncle’s plus fours. They were quite lovely, light gray with little flecks of brown and white. I stroked them with the back of my hand and knew that I’d never felt anything as soft.

That evening I wore my plus fours to walk down the High Street. It was a soft summer evening, and the great hills hung their purple bulk behind the houses as benignly as if they, too, enjoyed life. It was great to saunter downtown. It was too early for my friends to appear, and I practiced in my mind the cool phrases of welcome I would use to them, in keeping with my new elegance. I stood poised on the curb outside the post office, jingling in my pocket the six pennies that were all I had. I was smiling at the serene world when Jackie Mollison came up. I had known him at school before I went to the grammar school. He had a bundle of newspapers under his arm, and he was dirty and young.

“Echo,” he called, “South Wales Echo!”

He scuffed up the gutter and stopped. “Echo, mister?” he said, before he recognized me.

Then he stood before me, his wide admiration traveling down to the perfect plus fours, the speckled beauty of my stockings.

“Cripes!” he said. “You have come on!”

Gently and casually, as if I had done this very thing every Saturday evening of my life, I chose one of the pennies from my pocket.

“Give me an Echo, Jackie,” I said.