James hilton collected n.., p.52
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.52
 

           James Hilton

  “Wouldn’t you two like a bite o’ somethin’?”

  The girl looked to her companion, saw him frame a word and then begin to struggle with it; she intervened quickly: “Sounds a good idea. What have you got?”

  “Eggs, tha’s about all. ’Ow d’yer like ’em—soft or ’ard?”

  Again she looked across the table before answering. “Oh, middling’ll do.”

  “That’s the ticket. That’s ’ow I like ’em meself. And two more coffees?”

  “Righto.”

  “Keep yer warmed-up a day like this. War’s over, they say, but anybody can the of pewmonia.”

  “That’s a fact, so bring those coffees quick.”

  He went away chuckling; then the girl leaned across the table and said: “Don’t look so scared. He won’t bite.”

  “I know. But I’m always like that with strangers—at first. And besides—I don’t think I’ve enough money.”

  “Well, who cares about that? I have.”

  “But—”

  “Now don’t start being the gentleman. You were telling me about yourself when that fellow came up. Go on with the story.” He stared at her rather blankly till she added: “Unless you’d rather not. Your mind’s on something else, I can see.”

  “I’d just noticed that sign outside.” He pointed through the window to a board overhanging the pavement above the café doorway—the words “Good Pull-Up for Carmen” were dimly readable through the fog. “Carmen,” he muttered. “That gives me something—why, yes … Melba.”

  “Melba? Oh, you mean the opera?” She began to laugh. “And Melba gives me peaches. What is this—a game?”

  “Sort of. I have to keep on doing it, one of the doctors say—part of his treatment. You see, I’ve lost my memory about certain things. It’s like being blind and having to feel around for shapes and sizes.”

  “I’m terribly sorry. I didn’t realize, or I wouldn’t have laughed.”

  “Oh, that’s all right—I’d rather you laugh. I wish everybody would laugh. … Now what was it you were asking me before?”

  “Well, I was wondering why you had to be in a hospital at all, but now of course I understand.”

  “Yes—till I get thoroughly better. I daresay I will—eventually.”

  “And then your memory’ll come back?”

  “That’s what they think.”

  “But in the meantime what are you going to do?”

  “Just wait around till it happens, I suppose.”

  “Isn’t there some way of tracing any of your relatives and friends? Advertising for them, or something like that?”

  “They’ve tried. Some people did come to see me at the hospital once, but—I wasn’t their son.”

  “I’ll bet they were disappointed. You’d make a nice son for somebody.”

  “Well, I was disappointed too. I’d like to have belonged to them—to have had a home somewhere.”

  He then gave her some of the facts he had written out for the doctors—that he had been blown up by a shell during 1917, and that when he recovered consciousness he was in a German hospital somewhere, unidentified and unidentifiable. Later there had been an exchange of wounded and shell-shocked prisoners through Switzerland, and by this means the problem had been passed on to the English—but with no more success. He had been a pretty bad case at first, with loss of speech and muscular co-ordination, but those things had gradually returned—perhaps the memory would follow later. Altogether he had spent over a year in various hospitals, of which he liked the one at Melbury least of all. “Mind you,” he added, seizing the chance to say what he thought of saying before, “I’m miles better than some of the others. You’d think so too if you saw them.”

  “And that’s why you shouldn’t see them at all. Doesn’t exactly help you, does it?”

  “No, but I suppose all the hospitals are so crowded—there’s no chance to separate us properly.”

  The proprietor, coming up with the coffee and eggs, saw them break off their conversation suddenly. “Gettin’ a bit dark in ’ere—I’ll give yer a light,” he murmured, to satisfy a dawning curiosity. Standing on a bench he pulled the chain under a single incandescent burner in the middle of the ceiling; it sent a pale greenish glow over their faces. He stared at them both. “You don’t look so chirpy, mite. Feelin’ bad?”

  “He’s just tired, that’s all.” And then, to get the fellow out: “Bring a packet of cigarettes, will you?”

  When he had gone she leaned across. “That’s what you were trying to ask for in the shop, wasn’t it?”

  “Yes, but I didn’t really need them.”

  “Oh, come, I know what you need more than you do yourself. Don’t be scared of that little chap—he means all right.”

  The proprietor returned to their table with the cigarettes. “Looks to me as if ’e might ’ave the flu, miss. Lots o’ flu abart ’ere. Dyin’ like flies, they was, up at the ‘orspital a few weeks ago.”

  When he had gone again she comforted: “There now, don’t worry. If you don’t like it here, let’s eat and then we’ll be off.”

  “It isn’t that I don’t like it, only—only I’d rather them not come after me, that’s all.”

  “Why should they?”

  “He mentioned the hospital. He knows I’m from there, just as you did when you first saw me. It’s in my face—the way I look at people. I haven’t a chance—even if I knew where to go. They come round the wards every night at six. If I get back by then there’ll be no trouble.”

  “You really mean to go back?”

  “There’s nothing else to do.” He smiled wanly. “You’ve been very kind to bring me here.”

  “Oh, don’t talk like that.”

  “But you have. I’m grateful. Maybe I’ll be more satisfied now, because I shall know I’m not really well enough to be on my own—yet.”

  They ate in silence for a few moments after that; then she went up to the counter and paid the bill. “One and tenpence, miss. Can’t make it any more or I would. An’ if I were you, I’d get your pal ’ome pretty quick. ’E don’t look as if ’e ought to be aht, an’ that’s a fact.”

  A moment later the fog was curling round them in swathes, fanning the sound of cheers over distant invisible roofs. She took his arm again as they walked to the next corner, then turned through quiet residential roads away from the center of the town. But at one place jubilant householders were dancing round a bonfire, and to avoid passing through the blaze of light they made a second detour, along alleys that twisted more and more confusingly till, with a sudden rush of sound, they were back in the main street, caught in a madder, wilder throng. Already the war had been over for several hours, and the first shock of exultation was yielding to a hysteria that disguised an anticlimax. The war was over … but now what? The dead were still dead; no miracle of human signature could restore limbs and sight and sanity; the grinding hardships of those four years could not be wiped out by a headline. Emotions were numb, were to remain half-numbed for a decade, and relief that might have eased them could come no nearer than a fret to the nerves. A few things were done, symbolically; men climbed street lamps to tear away the shades that had darkened them since the first air raids in human history; shop windows suddenly blazed out with new globes in long-empty sockets. The traffic center at Melbury was like a hundred others in and around London that day; the crowds, the noise, the light, the fog. Beyond a certain limit of expression there was nothing to say, nothing much even to do; yet the urge to say and to do was self-torturing. So, as the day and the night wore on, throngs were swayed by sharp caprices—hoisting shoulder-high some chance-passing soldier on leave, smashing the windows of tradesmen rumored to have profiteered, making a fire of hoardings that proclaimed slogans for winning the now-extinct war, booing the harassed police who tried to keep such fires in check. From cheers to jeers, from applause to anger, were but a finger touch of difference in the play of events on taut nerves.

  Presently a girl summonin
g help for a soldier in hospital uniform who had fainted provided a new thrill—compassion; within a few seconds the crowd was entirely swept by it, pressing in on the two donors with cries of pity, indignation, and advice to do this and that.

  “Give ’im air! Keep back there! Pick ’im up and carry ’im inside—I got some whiskey—give the poor chap a nip. … No, ’e shouldn’t ’ave no alco’ol, not without a doctor. … Phone the ’orspital, they’ll send an amberlance. … Christ, I wouldn’t let ’im go there if ’e was my boy—they kill ’em, that’s what they do up there.”

  Presently a few men carried the soldier from the pavement into a grocery, whose owner nervously unbarred his front door to repeated knockings. Inside the shop the stream of advice would have continued indefinitely, but for the girl, who kept saying she would take him home.

  “Better ’ave a doctor first, miss.”

  “I’ll get a doctor when he’s home.”

  “Where’s ’e live?”

  “Not far away.”

  “Wounded badly, was ’e?”

  “No, he’s all right—just fainted, that’s all. See, he’s coming round now—if I can get him home—”

  “Your ’usband, lidy?”

  “That make any difference?”

  “Come to think of it, I seem to ’ave seen your face before.”

  “Maybe you have, old boy, but that doesn’t mean I’ll stand any of your lip. Come on now, and give me a hand. If I could get a cab—”

  “Not much chance o’ that, miss, not on a night like this.”

  But the shopkeeper, anxious to get them all off his premises, whispered to her, while the others were still arguing the point: “I’ve got a van and my son’ll drive you. Think your friend can walk to it?”

  “Oh yes, I’m certain he can. Let’s try.”

  It proved to be a large van, smelling of miscellaneous foods and soaps; its driver was a thin youth who easily made room for them on the front seat. After he had inched his way out of the yard he lit a cigarette and began proudly: “You ain’t supposed to drive these vans till you’re eighteen, but Dad don’t tell nobody. Where to, miss?”

  “D’you know the Owl—the other side of Bockley?”

  “You bet I do. Biffer’s place?”

  “That’s it. But stop in the lane just before you get there.”

  “Right you are. Won’t arf be a journey though, in this fog. ’Ow’s the patient?”

  “Fine. You keep your eye on the road.”

  That’s all right I could drive round ’Ere blindfold. Aren’t you on at the Empire this week?”

  “If there’s any show at all. They said there wouldn’t be tonight.”

  “I saw the show in Bockley last week. Jolly good.”

  “Think so? I thought it was rotten. Look where you’re driving.”

  “Sorry.”

  “Good of you to take us, anyhow, even if we do get killed on the way.”

  “Don’t mention it. Be in the army meself next year.”

  “Not now the war’s over, will you?”

  “Won’t they ’ave me because of that?” He looked puzzled and rather disappointed.

  “Maybe they will—if you live that long.”

  “Pretty quick, ain’t you, miss? Reminds me of that scene you ’ad in the play, when you kept tellin’ orf that fat old gent with the mustaches. I could ’ave larfed.”

  “Why the devil didn’t you then? You were supposed to.”

  “My dad’ll stare when I tell ’im it was Paula Ridgeway. ’E didn’t recognize you. Went to the show same as I did, only ’e don’t see so well lately.”

  They drove on, slowly, gropingly, chattering meanwhile, avoiding the main streets as far as possible, and especially the road junctions and shopping centers where crowds were likely. Melbury and Bockley were adjacent suburbs, completely built over in a crisscross of residential roads that afforded an infinity of routes; but once beyond Bockley the rows of identical houses came to an end with the abruptness of an army halted, and the wider highways narrowed and twisted into lanes. They pulled up eventually at the side of a hedge.

  “’Ere y’are, miss. The Owl’s just rahnd the corner. Sure I can’t tike yer no further?”

  “This’ll do fine. We can walk now.”

  He helped them out. “Sure you know where y’are?”

  “Yes—and thanks.” She was fishing in her bag for a coin when he stopped her. “No, miss—you send me a signed picture of yourself, that’s what I’d rather ’ave. … ’Is nibs feelin’ better? That’s good. Well, it’s bin a pleasure. Good luck to both of you. Good night, miss.”

  She waved to him and he drove off, leaving them alone.

  “Where are we going?”

  “Home—at least it’ll do for one.”

  “But—I—I have to get back to the hospital.”

  “We’ll see about that tomorrow.”

  “But this place—I don’t understand—”

  “It’s the Owl Hotel if you like the word. Call it a pub to be on the safe side. I know the landlord.”

  “Will he mind?”

  “The odds are he won’t even know, old boy, not in the state he’ll be in tonight.”

  She guided him a little way along the lane, then through a side gate into a garden where the shapes of trees loomed up at regular intervals. “Lovely here when the summer comes—they serve teas and there’s a view.”

  “What name was it he called you?”

  “Paula Ridgeway. It’s not my real name, though. What’s yours?”

  “Smith—but that’s not real either.”

  “You don’t remember your real name?”

  He shook his head.

  “Well, Smith’s good enough. Come on, Smithy.”

  As they found their way along a path, the silent blanket of fog was pierced by a murmur and then by a paleness ahead, the two presently merging into a vague impression of the Owl on this night of November the eleventh, 1918. A two-storied, ivy-clustered, steep-roofed building, ablaze with light from every downstairs room, and already packed with shouting celebrants of victory; a friendly pub, traditional without being self-consciously old-world. Established in the forties, when neighboring Bockley was a small country town, it had kept its character throughout an age that had seen the vast obliterating spread of the suburbs and the advent of motor traffic; it had kept, too, the sacred partitions between “private” and “public” bars—divisions rooted in the mythology of London life, and still acceptable because they no longer signify any snobbish separation, but merely an etiquette of occasion, dress, and a penny difference in the price of a pint of beer. Even the end of a great war could not shatter this etiquette; but with the sacred partitions still between, the patrons of both bars found community in songs that were roared in unison above the shouting and laughter and clatter of glasses. They were not especially patriotic songs; most were from the music halls of the nineties, a few were catchy hits from the recent West End revues. But by far the most popular of all was “Knees Up, Mother Brown,” a roaring chorus that set the whole crowd stamping into the beer-soaked sawdust.

  On the threshold of the Owl Smith felt a renewal of nervousness, especially as the girl’s entry was the signal for shouts of welcome from within. She pushed him into a chair in an unlighted corner of the lobby. “Stay there, Smithy—I won’t be long.” A group of men pressed out of the bar towards her, dragging her back with them; he could hear their greetings, and her own in answer. He sat there, waiting, trying to collect his thoughts, to come to terms with the strange sequence of events that had brought him to a noisy public house in company with a girl who was something on the stage. A few people passed without noticing him; that was reassuring, but he suspected it was only because they were drunk. He decided that if anyone spoke to him he would pretend to be drank also, and with the safeguarding decision once made the waiting became easier. He watched the door into the bar, expecting her to emerge amidst a corresponding roar of farewells, but when she did come,
it was quietly, silently, and from another direction. “I managed to get away, old boy, and believe me it wasn’t easy. Come on—let’s go before they find us.”

  She led him through another door close by, and up a back staircase to the first floor, turning along a corridor flanked by many rooms; she opened one of them and put a match to a gas jet just inside. It showed up a square simple apartment, containing an iron bed and heavy Victorian furniture. He stared around, then began to protest: “But how can I stay here? I can’t afford—”

  “Listen, Smithy—the war stopped this morning. If that’s possible, anything else ought to be. And you’ve got to stay somewhere.” She began to laugh. “You’re safe here—nobody’s going to bother you. I told you I know the man who runs this place—Biffer Briggs—used to be a prize fighter, but don’t let that frighten you. … It’s cold, though—wish there was a fire.”

  She suddenly knelt at his feet and began to unlace his boots. Again he protested.

  “Well, you must take your boots oft—that’s only civil, on a clean bed. I’ll come up again soon and bring you some tea.”

  He took off his boots as soon as she had gone, but the effort tired him more than he could have imagined. The day’s strains and stresses had utterly exhausted him, in fact; he almost wished he were back at the hospital, because that at least promised the likelihood of a known routine, whereas here, in this strange place … but he fell asleep amidst his uneasiness. When he woke he saw her standing in front of him, carrying a cup of tea. She placed the cup on the side table, then fixed the blankets here and there to cover him more warmly. She was about to tiptoe away when he reached out his hand in a wordless gesture of thanks.

  “Awake, Smithy?”

  “Have I been asleep?”

  “I should think you have. Four solid hours, and this is the third cup of tea I’ve made for you, just in case. … God, I’m tired—tell you what, old boy, I’ve had just about enough of it downstairs.”

  “It’s late, I suppose.”

  “One A.M. and they’re still hard at it.”

  “Do you live here?”

  “Not me—I just know the Biffer, that’s all. I reckon everybody’s living here tonight, though. Hope the noise won’t keep you awake—it’ll probably go on till morning.”

 
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