The slaves of solitude, p.19
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       The Slaves of Solitude, p.19

           Patrick Hamilton
 
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  Mr. Prest, alone in his corner, sent to Coventry, and apparently mentally deaf to all that took place in the boarding-house, in fact observed and understood more than any other spectator.

  Mr. Prest thought that the old man was a noisy, nattering, messy piece of work who ought to be in a mental home. He liked and pitied Miss Roach. He thought that the German woman was about as frightful a bitch as you were likely to find anywhere, and that something pretty nasty was going on, at that table, and between those three, one way and another.

  2

  Miss Roach had her work to do, and this she did in her bedroom, in front of the gas-fire, mostly in the mornings, but sometimes in the afternoons or evenings. But there was not enough to occupy her in any sense fully or satisfactorily, and she often wished that she was going up to London and back again each day by train.

  Miss Roach disliked, too, having to wait for her room to be done before she could go into it and work, and more still, when it was done, having to light the fire and settle down to tasks by herself, without the stimulus of external demands from fellow-workers. In fact, before long Miss Roach found herself taking a sort of aversion to her work, even dodging it as much as possible, and, on the pretext of shopping, wandering more or less aimlessly about the streets of Thames Lockdon instead.

  The war, in its character of petty pilferer, had been as busy in this little town as in London, and, for a woman’s personal needs, the shops had little save frustration, irritation, or delay to offer in almost every department. There were no stockings, there was no shampoo, there was no scent, there were no hairpins, no nail-varnish, no nail-varnish-remover, no ribbon, no watch-glasses, no watches to lend you while you waited for watch-glasses which might or might not come, no glycerine, no batteries for your torch, no scissors, no darning wool, no olive oil. . . . The pilferer, who for some reason had no taste for cocoa (which you could buy and bathe in if you had the money), had been here, there, and everywhere. . . .

  The pilferer was an insatiable reader, too, and Miss Roach spent a good deal of time at the library failing to find anything she wanted to take out. Here she more than once ran into Mr. Thwaites, who went almost daily to change his book in an angry and disdainful way.

  Miss Roach, listening to the remarks of Mr. Thwaites, as well as those of other subscribers, found the library one of the most peculiarly depressing features of the town. ‘Is this book Good?’ she would hear the assistant being asked. Or ‘Can you recommend a good Book?’ Or ‘I want a good Historical Book.’ Or ‘I want a book for my Nephew, who’s just taken his degree in Mathematics.’ Or ‘Is this book Interesting?’ And, sometimes, bitterly, ‘That book wasn’t at all good,’ as much as to say tha a practically fraudulent assistant had better do better next time or get into trouble . . .

  This depressed Miss Roach because it made her wonder whether the cultural level of the subscribers was, on the whole, very many degrees higher than that of Mr. Thwaites. She was aware, also, that a large amount of these subscribers came from boarding-houses round about in Thames Lockdon, and that Thames Lockdon was only one small town amongst the thousands of its sort spread out and hidden away from the world war all over the land.

  She was not, she saw, really cut out for small-town, boarding-house life during a world war.

  3

  A duty had been bequeathed to Miss Roach by a widowed dressmaker – a Mrs. Poulton – with whom Miss Roach had been very friendly when she had first come to the town, but who had since left. This duty was to maintain an interest in, and occasionally take out to tea, the dressmaker’s seventeen-year-old son, who was in due course going into the R.A.F.

  The boy – John Poulton – interested Miss Roach because he had a decided gift, for his age, for painting water-colours, and because he did not desire to go into the estate agent business to which his family connections were pointing the way. (He did not, of course, desire to go into the R.A.F., but that was beside the point.) He wanted, after the war, to make his living as a painter of water-colours, and had confided as much to Miss Roach.

  Miss Roach, as well as she could, supported him in this ambition – not because she really believed that his gift for painting water-colours was decided enough for him to make a living at it, but because she thought that the ambition was, in a general way, laudable, and better than an ambition to go into the estate agent business.

  He was a good-looking boy, pale, and with a slight tendency to spots appropriate to his age.

  One afternoon during this period they went for a walk, and, sitting on a felled tree in a field high above the town, he became more and more naïvely confiding to Miss Roach, and enlarged, earnestly and modestly, upon what he wanted to do and the opposition which he was encountering on all sides.

  ‘Well, you do what you want to do – that’s the only thing in life,’ said Miss Roach. And looking at the unhappy, bewildered boy, and remembering her own disappointed youth, with her grave, exhilarating theories about ‘education’, and realising that he would soon be in the R.A.F. and not likely to get out of it again for years, she felt a warm, happy, simple, sad, maternal feeling towards him.

  After this she had tea with him in the town. Coming out of the shop they bumped into Vicki, who had come in to buy some cakes.

  ‘Oh – hullo!’ said Miss Roach, and managed to force a smile. Vicki returned her ‘Hullo’ and also managed a sort of smile in return.

  Then she looked at Miss Roach and the boy in a fleeting but searching way.

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

  ABOUT certain things, and about the war in particular, Miss Roach was an ostrich, and purposely and determinedly so. In many respects she believed the ostrich to be a bird wiser than the owl. If you could do nothing to alleviate a situation, what sense was there in thinking about it, talking about it, taking any interest in it?

  There were, she knew, many total non-combatants who thought about, talked about, and took an intense interest in the war. There was, furthermore, still quite a large percentage of non-combatants who were enormously enjoying the war. Mr. Thwaites, for instance, if it had not been for the shortage of food and the personal bother he was having with the Russians, would have been adoring the war. Even in spite of the food and the Russians he was still liking it quite a lot. It is difficult to keep a good war-liker down.

  In her revulsion against this attitude Miss Roach went to the opposite extreme. So little could she bear to think about the war that she refused to apply her mind either to its details or general shape, and if she had been forced to enter for a general knowledge test on the subject would have probably scored less marks than anyone else in the country. So miserable was she made by the mere aspect of the national uniforms generally that she could not bring herself to look closely enough to differentiate between the ranks and regiments and kinds of any of these save those of the most obvious sort. She could not, off-hand, observe the difference between a lieutenant and a captain, let alone that between a squadron-leader and a wing-commander – and she particularly disliked non-combatant people who gloated over these differentiations. All badges, medals, and bars were a mystery to her, and if asked such questions as what the word ‘Wren’ actually meant, or ‘Waaf’ or ‘Naafi’ or ‘Ensa’, she would have been in most cases unable to supply an answer. She had never even properly questioned the Lieutenant about what he was doing now, or what part he was likely to play when the second front began. In pity and horror she didn’t want to hear. She hid her head in the sand, and didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

  Similarly she would hardly read the war-news in the newspapers apart from the headlines. She would just ascertain whether the right side was going forward or going back or staying where it was, and leave it at that. As for listening in morning, noon, and night to the wireless (particularly in the test match spirit which Mr. Thwaites brought to this pastime), she hated it, and she would always, if possible, leave the room.

  Thus hiding her head (or trying quite unsuccessfully to hide her head) from
the war, she had also lately been hiding her head from another reality – the approach of Christmas. There was a period, six or seven weeks before Christmas, in which people began to talk about doing things before Christmas, or doing things after Christmas, and against this attitude Miss Roach took a resolute and ostrich-like stand. She refused to think of, mention, or even fully believe in, the approach of Christmas. It couldn’t happen again, she felt. They couldn’t, in the present circumstances, be so silly as to do it again.

  But doing it they were. Mr. Thwaites was, of course, a pronounced and leading Christmasist, being the instinctive leader of everything irritating and depressing, and the others followed him.

  ‘Well,’ said Miss Steele, alluding to the general improvement of the war news, ‘we ought to be happier this Christmas anyway. And perhaps by next Christmas we’ll be really happy.’

  ‘Yes,’ said Mr. Thwaites. ‘We happen to have a rather funny little way of pulling through.’

  And a certain blend of austerity and modesty in his look and nasal voice gave the impression that he himself had been having a funny little way, and pulling through the Rosamund Tea Rooms and everybody outside it.

  ‘Yes,’ said Mr. Thwaites. ‘I think we may be said to have cooked Friend Hitler’s goose.’

  At this Miss Roach glanced at Vicki, and noticed a slightly discontented, evasive expression on her face, which she had seen there before when Hitler was unfavourably mentioned.

  As Christmas approached there was much talk of an excursion to the pictures, which, at this season, Mr. Thwaites was going to make with Vicki. Vicki was going to ‘take’ him, she said. Long before the time came Mr. Thwaites displayed undue excitement about this excursion, and talked about it almost every day, contriving to make suggestive remarks about even so innocent a matter as this. It was as though the thought of going to the pictures alone with Vicki, of sitting in the dark alone with her, perhaps, had gone to his head. It was as though he thought that this outing marked, or would mark, some further advance in his advancing relationship with her.

  Still Miss Roach resolutely denied the approach of Christmas, but at last Christmas cards arrived in spite of everything (which Miss Roach thought ought to be stopped, what with postmen trailing round and manpower and one thing and another), decorations (could you believe it?) were put up, and dreary cotton-wool snowstorms appeared in certain shop-windows.

  Miss Roach’s faith wavered. She did not, however, fully take in the fact that the season of peace and goodwill to men was upon her until, on Christmas Eve, coming back from a trip to London at about six o’clock in the evening, she found the Lieutenant in the Lounge, in the company of Mr. Thwaites, Vicki Kugelmann, an open bottle of whisky, a jug of water, and tumblers.

  CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

  1

  AH – that Christmas! – that Christmas of hatred, fear, pain, terror, and disgrace! It all began at that moment.

  And coming down in the train she had made up her mind that, because it was Christmas, she would make some effort to make things go smoothly, some effort at reconciliation even!

  ‘Hooray! – you’re just in time,’ said the Lieutenant, who was pouring the whisky into the tumblers. ‘Where’ve you been all this time?’ A question which, actually, she thought she might more fittingly ask him.

  ‘Salaams, good lady,’ said Mr. Thwaites, with his usual sarcasm. He was sitting on the sofa, and she noticed, from the beginning, that he was in a state of extra excitement. This was probably to be accounted for by the fact that he had been that afternoon to the pictures with Vicki.

  Vicki said nothing, and would not catch her eye.

  ‘Well, these are extraordinary goings-on,’ said Miss Roach brightly, because it was Christmas and she had made up her mind to make things go smoothly. ‘What do you think you’re all up to?’

  And she again tried to catch Vicki’s eye, but Vicki would not look at her.

  ‘And when did you drop in?’ she said to the Lieutenant, and it turned out that he had appeared only a quarter of an hour ago. Within five minutes of arriving he had gone downstairs to Mrs. Payne and procured the tumblers and water. Because it was Christmas Eve, and because it was the Lieutenant who had done it, Miss Roach presumed that they would not all be expelled for drinking whisky in the Lounge: but she had never expected to see such a thing happening.

  When the Lieutenant had poured out the whisky into the glasses, and added water, a silent, slightly interesting moment occurred in which Miss Roach wondered to whom he would offer a glass first – herself or Vicki. He offered a glass first to Miss Roach, though actually Vicki was nearer to him at the time.

  Then he gave a glass to Vicki, and then he went over with one to Mr. Thwaites, who at first refused it.

  ‘Aw, come on!’ said the Lieutenant, in the old way, and when Mr. Thwaites again refused, ‘Aw – come on! Snap out of it! It’s only Christmas once a year, isn’t it?’

  Mr. Thwaites gave in.

  With the aid of Christmas, clearly, the Lieutenant was going to get away with murder. Indeed, to judge by his appearance, which was, to one who knew him, that of a man who had been intimately associated with the bottle for several days, he had in this way been getting away with murder from the earliest possible date at which such an excuse might be considered valid.

  ‘Well,’ said Miss Roach, ‘how did you two get on at the pictures?’

  She would make this woman catch her eye, if she died in the attempt.

  But Vicki did not answer her or look at her. Neither did Mr. Thwaites.

  Were they not going to answer at all? An awkward situation was saved by the Lieutenant, who asked:

  ‘Why – have you two been to the movies?’

  ‘Yea. Verily,’ said Mr. Thwaites. ‘We have paid a visit unto the House of Many Shadows – the Mansion of Flickering Visions – much to the entertainment of our jaded souls.’

  ‘Good for you,’ said the Lieutenant.

  ‘Afterwards consorting,’ said Mr. Thwaites, ‘unto An Tea-shop – or Confectioner’s – wherein we were regaled with rock-cakes and tea, and enjoyed a tête-à-tête.’

  ‘Fine,’ said the Lieutenant, slightly embarrassed, and sitting down. They were all seated now, and all, with the exception of Mr. Thwaites, slightly embarrassed. Or so it seemed to Miss Roach.

  ‘Whereupon,’ said Mr. Thwaites, looking at Vicki, ‘inspired by the cheering fluid, and smitten by Dan Cupid’s dart, I proposed to the beauteous dame!’

  And with a sort of triumphant air he took a large sip at his whisky.

  (Hullo, thought Miss Roach – what was this? Was this the joke it seemed to be? Or was there something serious behind this? Mr. Thwaites, she saw, behind his jocular manner, was in a greater state of excitement than she had at first thought. In fact, she did not know that she had ever seen him in quite such a state of excitement. Was it wise to give him whisky in this state?)

  ‘Really?’ said the Lieutenant. ‘And what did the beauteous dame reply?’

  ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘The beauteous dame gave me neither Yea nor Nay. She keepeth her Knight-gallant on Tenterhooks.’

  And he took another enormous sip, one might say gulp, at his whisky.

  The Lieutenant noticed this.

  ‘How’s the whisky going down?’ he asked.

  ‘Passing well, I thank you,’ said Mr. Thwaites. ‘Much good fire-water. Heap good medicine. Plenty warm. Plenty fine.’

  ‘So that’s what you two have been up to, is it?’ said the Lieutenant, addressing Vicki.

  ‘Oh yes,’ said Vicki. ‘I have been vamping him mercilessly, I’m afraid.’

  (‘Vamping’!)

  ‘Yes,’ said Mr. Thwaites, ‘I should say she has! She’s a tease all right, isn’t she? Yes – she’s a tease – isn’t she?’

  This was bad. Was it possible that two sips of whisky (two inexperienced and enormous sips) had gone to his head?

  ‘Yes,’ said Mr. Thwaites, ‘she’s a vamp all right! She’s a tease. And she knows it,
too. Doesn’t she? What?’

  ‘Really,’ said Vicki, appealing to the Lieutenant, ‘he is quite A lad, isn’t he? He is quite A Knut – no?’

  (‘Knut’!)

  Even the Lieutenant, normally deaf to these atrocities, looked a little silly, and changed the subject.

  ‘And what did you see at the pictures?’ he asked.

  ‘We saw,’ said Mr. Thwaites, ‘one Oakie – Jack of that ilk, surrounded by diverse belles. Together with one thriller – gangster – which muchly froze our blood.’ And he took another sip at his whisky.

  ‘Oh, then it’s the same programme I saw,’ said Miss Roach, trying to calm things down. ‘I thought the gangster one rather good.’

  But this did not calm Mr. Thwaites down.

  ‘Stick ’em up, big boy!’ cried Mr. Thwaites. ‘Step on it, kiddo! Take ’em for a ride! Give ’em the Woiks!’

  ‘Well,’ said the Lieutenant, putting his finger on the mark, ‘the films certainly seem to have excited you, Mr. Thwaites.’

  ‘Yes,’ said Vicki. ‘I think you’d better calm down, Mr. Thwaites, or we won’t be able to take you out.’

  ‘Yes,’ said the Lieutenant. ‘You mustn’t disgrace us at dinner.’

  ‘Why,’ said Miss Roach. ‘Are you going out?’

  ‘What do you mean?’ said the Lieutenant. ‘Of course we’re going out. We’re all going out.’

  And finishing up his drink, he went to the bottle and said, ‘Come on. Fill up.’

  2

  He filled up Mr. Thwaites’ glass again, and Mr. Thwaites made no objection of any sort. She didn’t think it right, to excite an old man like this, but it wasn’t for her to say anything – in fact, as the alleged ‘spoil-sport’ it was beyond any strength of character she might have to say anything – and she wondered what on earth was going to happen.

 
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