The slaves of solitude, p.3
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       The Slaves of Solitude, p.3

           Patrick Hamilton
 

  In the glass door of the River Sun – perhaps Thames Lockdon’s most popular and fashionable public-house, which stood on a corner facing the river, and which she now passed on her left – she could see the cheerful word ‘OPEN’ gleaming dimly through transparent violet inserted in the black-out material. But even this small token of light and welcome, because of the way in which it had perforce to be made, gave again an impression of being muffled, bringing to the mind a picture of dark and surreptitious pleasures taking place within – as if the River Sun were some sort of waterside brothel instead of a healthy public-house.

  When she was level with the bridge she turned off to the left, and went past the church up Church Street. The Rosamund Tea Rooms were about half-way up on the left.

  She could not see Church Street, yet imagined it more vividly because of the blackness – imagined it with the brightness of vision such as a blind man may have, or a sleepless man who, having stared at his light, suddenly puts it out and forces his eyes shut. She saw it in the sunshine of summer – this broad and not very long shopping street, which was not the main shopping street, the High Street, but one having a greater air of distinction than that because of its breadth and the Church at its end. She saw each shop and building – the garage, the public-house, the Bank, the butcher, the tobacconist, the ironmonger, the various Lunch and Tea rooms, and all the other street-level commercial fronts inserted in the architectural farrago – the jostling of the graceful and genuine and old by the demented fake and ye-olde – characteristic of the half-village, half-town which Thames Lockdon was – a place a stockbroker or book-maker, passing through in his car in peacetime on the way back to his centrally-over-heated flat in a London block, would designate as ‘very pretty’ – a place to pass through, above all.

  2

  As she let herself in by the front door she could in the same way see the Rosamund Tea Rooms – the somewhat narrow, three-storied, red-brick house, wedged in between a half-hearted toy-shop on one side, and an antique-shop on the other. She saw its bow-window on the ground floor, jutting out obtrusively on to the pavement; and above this, beneath the first-floor windows, the oblong black wooden board with faded gilt letters running its length – ‘The Rosamund Tea Rooms’. But now, since the war, it was the Rosamund Tea Rooms no more – merely, if anything, ‘Mrs. Payne’s’. Mrs. Payne would have taken the sign down had not the golden letters been far too blistered and faded for anyone in his right mind to imagine that if he entered he would be likely to get tea. All the same, a few stray people in summer, probably driven slightly mad by the heat, did still enter with that idea in mind, and quietly had their error made clear to them.

  What did ‘Rosamund’ mean? Why, in heaven’s name, ‘Rosamund’? A ye-olde Rosamund’s Tea Bower, or what? Mrs. Payne could not have told you, and no one else knew. This active, grey-haired, spectacled, widowed woman had no interest in knowledge, only in gain. She had taken over the Rosamund Tea Rooms some four years before the war, run the place, as Tea Rooms, with very little profit, until the outbreak of the war, and then, with the general evacuation from London, had seen its possibilities as a boarding-house and proceeded to furnish it for that purpose. Her initiative had been more than justified, for when the first blitz came to London – with private cars still on the road and Thames Lockdon like a riverside Blackpool at the height of its season – she could have crammed her rooms with exhausted people at whatever price she cared to charge. And since then – after the blitz had subsided practically into nothingness – Mrs. Payne had never had a room empty.

  Miss Roach closed the front door. A small, dim oil-lamp burned in the hall, just illuminating the hall table, the bright, tinny, brass Oriental gong, and the green baize letter-rack criss-crossed with black tape. Mrs. Payne had put a stop to electricity on the landings simply by taking all the bulbs out – thus succouring her hard-pressed country, the spirit of the black-out generally, and her own pecuniary resources.

  Miss Roach kept on her torch as she went up the stairs. Another little lamp burned on the first floor outside the ‘Lounge’, from behind whose closed door she could hear (she was now aware that she had been hearing it in anticipation all the way back from the station) Mr. Thwaites’ voice booming nasally, indefatigably, interminably. . .

  She went on up past another landing, which was in complete darkness, to the top landing and her own room, which looked out on to Church Street.

  She was able to perceive that the black-out was not done, and went over and did it. The maid sometimes did this, but one could not rely upon her doing so. One’s responsibility in regard to the black-out had been the occasion of one of Mrs. Payne’s famous notes. ‘N.B. Visitors will be held personally responsible for completing their own black-outs in their bedrooms’ – this being pinned, sensibly enough (Mrs. Payne was nothing if not sensible), underneath the electric-light switch. Mrs. Payne left or pinned up notes everywhere, anywhere, austerely, endlessly – making one feel, sometimes, that a sort of paper-chase had been taking place in the Rosamund Tea Rooms – but a nasty, admonitory paperchase. All innovations were heralded by notes, and all withdrawals and adjustments thus proclaimed. Experienced guests were aware that to take the smallest step in an original or unusual direction would be to provoke a sharp note within twenty-four hours at the outside, and they had therefore, for the most part, abandoned originality.

  Miss Roach turned on the switch by the door, and saw her room in the feeble light of the bulb which hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room and which was shaded by pink parchment. She saw the pink artificial-silk bedspread covering the light single bed built of stained-oak – the pink bedspread which shone and slithered and fell off, the light bedstead which slid along the wooden floor if you bumped into it. She saw the red chequered cotton curtains (this side of the black-out material) which were hung on a brass rail and never quite met in the middle, or, if forced to meet in a moment of impatience, came flying away from the sides; she saw the stained-oak chest of drawers with its mirror held precariously at a suitable angle with a squashed match-box. She saw the wicker table by the bed, on which lay her leather illuminated clock, but no lamp, for Mrs. Payne was not a believer in reading in bed. She saw the gasfire, with its asbestos columns yellow and crumbling, and its gas-ring. She saw the small porcelain wash-basin with Running H. and C. (the H. impetuously H. at certain dramatic moments, but frequently not Running but feebly dribbling – the C. bitterly C. yet steadfastly Running). She saw the pink wall-paper, which bore the mottled pattern of a disease of the flesh; and in one corner were piled her ‘books’, treasures which she had saved from the bombing in London, but for which she had not yet obtained a shelf.

  Such was Miss Roach’s pink boudoir in Thames Lockdon before dinner at night. Before washing she looked at what she could see of herself in the mirror – at the thin, bird-like nose and face, and the healthy complexion – too healthy for beauty – the open-air, sun-and-wind complexion of a uniform red-brick colour, of a texture and colour to which it would be impossible or absurd to apply make-up of any sort. She had, she knew, the complexion of a farmer’s wife and the face of a bird. Her eyes, too, were bird-like – blackly brown, liquid, loving, appealing, confused. Her hair was of a nondescript brown colour, and she parted it in the middle. She was only thirty-nine, but she might have been taken for forty-five. She had given up ‘hope’ years ago. She had never actually had any ‘hope’. Like so many of her kind – the hopeless – she was too amiable and tried too hard in company and conversation, and so sometimes gave an air, untrue to her character, of being genteel.

  Oddly enough, though ‘hopeless’, she had only recently had an offer of marriage – this from an elderly accountant in the publisher’s firm in which she worked – a mean, impossible man who had somehow perceived her possibilities. As she sensitively and kindly rejected him in the taxi that night, with ‘No – it’s impossible – I’m very sorry, but I’m afraid it’s impossible!’, her liquid, loving eyes, looking shyly ou
t of the taxi window, were probably less those of one sympathising with the man she was rejecting (though they were this, too) than of one contemplating, with pensive resigned sadness, the joy which would have been hers had she now been receiving, or had ever in her life received, an offer which she could reasonably accept.

  She had a slim, straight figure, but she was slightly flat-chested. She was the daughter of a dentist. She had two brothers, one of whom, the youngest of the family, had recently been killed in the air. The other, older than she and from whom she heard about once every two years, was in Brazil. Both her parents were dead. She had matriculated, and had at one time been a schoolmistress in a boys’ preparatory school at Hove.

  When she had been bombed out of her room in Kensington, escaping with her life (for she was in the West End at the time) but with only a few of her small possessions, she had come down to Thames Lockdon and the Rosamund Tea Rooms at the invitation of her aunt, who had let her sleep in her room. Since then her aunt had moved on to Guildford to friends, and she had been given this room of her own at the top.

  Thames Lockdon had been ‘heaven’, then, with its dark, still nights, over which the sirens occasionally came yelling triumphantly forth, only to be gradually snubbed by the profound silence of the firmament, undisturbed even by the distant sound of guns and bombs, which followed. And she had been made a fuss of, then, a sort of heroine indeed, and given a fortnight’s holiday. And the town was ‘pretty’, and the food ‘very good’, and the people ‘very nice’ – even Mr. Thwaites had seemed ‘very nice’.

  But now, after more than a year of it, Mr. Thwaites was president in hell.

  She would have gone back to London if she had known where to go, or if she had not still feared guns and bombs at night, or if she could have summoned up enough initiative at any given moment.

  When she had washed she heard the tinny Oriental gong being hit pettishly by Mrs. Payne. Before going down to dinner, however, she paused in her room, listening at her door for Mr. Thwaites’ voice as he came out of the Lounge on his way down to the dining-room on the ground floor. Although she had to have dinner at the same table with him, her feelings towards Mr. Thwaites were of such a nature that she desired to put off the evil moment, to spare herself even the risk of an encounter with him outside the Lounge door, and the consequent necessity of walking down the stairs with him to eat. This morbid conduct she called to herself ‘letting him get down first’.

  3

  About the dining-room there was something peculiarly and gratuitously hellish. For this quite small room, with its bow-window jutting out on to the street, had once been the famous Tea Room itself! – the room into which, long ago, the seeker after tea in the street had hastily glimpsed, or perhaps rudely stared, rapidly absorbing through his pores the quality of the cakes, the class and quantity of the customers, the size of the room, the cleanliness of the cloths, and the comfort of the chairs, before making his decision to enter or go elsewhere! . . . And since those days hardly anything had been changed: all that had happened, practically, was that all the Tea Room now belonged to all the boarders at all the meal-times. (Mrs. Payne spoke with complacency of ‘Separate Tables’ on her printed leaflet.) There was the same slippery oilcloth of parquet pattern: there were the same tables covered with red chequered cloth: the same cheap black wooden chairs with rush seats: the same red chequered curtains (this side, never let it be forgotten, of the black-out material): the same passe-partouted etchings of country cottages on the wall . . . Ghosts of hot riverside trippers still haunted this room – ghosts of exhausted families, of sweating fathers shyly rebuking their children, of young men with open collars and a look of sunburned eczema, of timid husbands and wives exchanging no word with each other in corners, of cyclists with packs, and all the rest . . . And it was this distant yet indelible air of populous summer which brought home to the heart, so gloomily, the present cold and bleakness of the boarding-house in winter and war and black-out.

  The red chequered tables were, of course, fewer in number than in those days, and what remained were huddled in relation to the gas-fire in the middle of the wall opposite the window. The room was lit by two electric bulbs hanging from the ceiling – these bulbs being as weak in spirit as the one in Miss Roach’s bedroom, and shaded by the same pink parchment.

  The table for four, at which Mr. Thwaites sat, occupied the best situation in regard to the fire, and Miss Roach and Mrs. Barratt sat at this table. The other guests sat at tables for two, either in couples or by themselves.

  This system of separate tables, well meant as it may have been, added yet another hellish touch to the hellish melancholy prevailing. For, in the small space of the room, a word could not be uttered, a little cough could not be made, a hairpin could not be dropped at one table without being heard at all the others; and the general self-consciousness which this caused smote the room with a silence, a conversational torpor, and finally a complete apathy from which it could not stir itself. No one, it seemed, dared to speak above the level of a murmur, and two people, sitting at the same table and desiring to talk to each other, in order not to call attention to themselves, to enable the whole room to enter into the question and reply of their conversation, were compelled to employ that adenoidal, furtive, semi-audible tone such as is used by two lovers about to kiss each other.

  Sometimes an attempt at a conversational jailbreak was made, and there would be some unnecessarily loud and cheerful exchanges between table and table: but this never had any hope of success. As the maid handed round the vegetables one voice dropped down after another: the prisoners were back in their cells more subdued than ever.

  Mrs. Payne would, of course, have done better to have reverted to the practice of her boarding-house forebears, and have put back – in place of this uncanny segregation in the midst of propinquity – the long table with herself at the top dominating a free, frank intercourse in which all would be obliged to join as at a party. But no such step backwards had entered her mind, and, in the existing state of affairs, she made no attempt to assist her guests in their predicament, for she was careful never to appear at meals.

  It was in this respect that Mr. Thwaites yielded, unwittingly, a certain measure of relief. For long periods the self-conscious guests gave up any attempt at talking, and listened to Mr. Thwaites, who was not self-conscious.

  4

  ‘Oh, how the lodgers yell

  When they hear the dinner bell! . . .’

  went the old parody of the hymn. But all that exuberance has gone into the distant past. They enter now, not yelling, but slinking, murmuring, in a desultory manner, often three or four minutes late.

  When Miss Roach came in they were all in their places and no one was speaking.

  Mr. Prest was at his separate table, and Miss Steele was at hers. The two new war-time guests – the two shy American ‘Lootenants’ who had only arrived yesterday – were at their table for two in a corner by themselves. Mr. Thwaites and Mrs. Barratt were at the table at which she had to sit.

  How she had originally got ‘put’ at this table Miss Roach could not remember, but there was nothing to be done about it now. Nothing, that is, apart from asking to be put at a separate table, which, in a room and atmosphere of this sort, would bring about a sensation such as she was incapable of causing.

  ‘Ah – good evening, Miss Roach,’ said Mr. Thwaites, and she saw his moustached, elderly face giving her a funny, slightly nasty look. It was a look (or so it seemed to her acutely sensitive imagination) which seemed to be conscious of her having dodged him on the journey downstairs from the Lounge and of his having lost thereby a moment or so of good torturing-time, and for this reason it was a faintly rebuking, menacing look. At the same time this look bore traces of gratification at having got her safely now, of relief at the fact that she was back and was going to be present at dinner to be tortured – after all, she might have somehow managed to have got a meal with a friend outside. Mr. Thwaites was certainly on Miss
Roach’s ‘nerves’.

  ‘Good evening, Mr. Thwaites,’ she said. ‘Good evening, Mrs. Barratt . . .’ And she smiled feebly at both as she sat down.

  This Thwaites was a big, tall man, anything between sixty and seventy. He had a fresh complexion, and was, for his years, and for one who took practically no exercise, unusually healthy and virile. He resounded, nasally and indefatigably, with a steady health and virility. He was, above all, a steady man in all his ways. In his large, flat, moustached face (with its slightly flattened nose, as though someone in the past had punched it), in his lethargic yet watchful brown eyes, in his way of walking and his way of talking, there could be discerned the steady, self-absorbed, dreamy, almost somnambulistic quality of the lifelong trampler through the emotions of others, of what Miss Roach would call the ‘bully’. That steady look with which as a child he would have torn off a butterfly’s wing, with which as a boy he would have twisted another boy’s wrist, with which as a man he would have humiliated a servant or inferior, was upon him as he now looked at Miss Roach; it never entirely left him. He had money of his own and he had lived, resounded through boarding-houses and private hotels all his life. Such places, with the timid old women they contained, were hunting-grounds for his temperament – wonderfully suited and stimulating to his peculiar brand of loquacity and malevolence. He was as unfamiliar with toil as he was with exercise. He had at one time had a family connection with a firm of solicitors in London; but here he had never worked seriously, save at the task of torturing clerks and typists. ‘Ah – I Knows the Law’, or ‘Ah – I Happens to Know the Law’ were favourite expressions of his. He was particularly fond of this facetious substitution of the third in place of the first person in the verb.

 
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