The slaves of solitude, p.7
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       The Slaves of Solitude, p.7

           Patrick Hamilton
 

  Though she did not exactly know why, she found his enthusiasm for the laundry business faintly disheartening. Perhaps it was because the cold thoughts set in motion by the laundry business assorted so quaintly with the warm thoughts recently set in motion on the seat in the park – because of the crude contrast, in fact, between kisses in the darkness by the river and washing other people’s clothes in America.

  5

  He had in all four large whiskies before closing-time, and prevailed upon her to have two. It was not until he had his last whisky in front of him, and she had reason to believe that he was drunk again, that he exploded his next bombshell. The talk had still been running upon himself and his future, and somehow or other the question of his getting married and settling down had arisen, and somehow or other she had asked him who, or what sort of person, he would like to marry.

  ‘Why – who do you suppose,’ he said, ‘after all that?’

  ‘All what?’ she said, too stunned to get his meaning, or at any rate to believe that his meaning was what she thought it might be.

  ‘All that out there,’ he said.

  ‘Out where?’ she said.

  ‘Oh – along by the river,’ he said, and he looked at her. She looked quickly away at her glass, and there was a silence. Then he changed the subject, and she volubly assisted him to do so. This was simply too much even to think about at the moment: she must put it away and take it out later, when she was alone.

  Soon after this the River Sun closed down and they walked back to the Rosamund Tea Rooms. Outside the front door he embraced and kissed her again, and this lasted for two or three minutes. Then they said good-night and she went up to her room.

  The next day was Friday, and she spent a large part of her spare time, in the office in London and in the train going up and down, in puzzling out his meaning. The more she thought about it the less she could recall the exact form the conversation had taken, and the mood in which it had taken place. Had she asked him what sort of person he wanted to marry, or what sort of person he was going to marry. Or had she gone further and asked him who he wanted to marry, or even who he was going to marry? The significance of his reply. ‘Who do you suppose, after all that?’ (or was it ‘What do you suppose, after all that?’) depended, of course, entirely upon the way in which she had framed the question. And then, even if he had, as she certainly had believed he had at the time, as good as said that it was she herself, or that she was the type, that he desired, or hoped, or was determined to marry, what value was to be attached to the statement? Was he drunk at the time, and if he was not drunk was it not all in keeping with his total inconsequence? Or was it a joke – a sort of leg-pull? Or again, had she completely misheard or misunderstood what he had said?

  She decided at last that it was probably something between all these things, and she decided to put it out of her mind. But this she was unable to do successfully, and on returning to Thames Lockdon that night she definitely hoped that she would, meet him, and that he would take her out again – that he would, even, give her drinks and dinner, and say something else or further which would in some way clarify the problem. But he did not put in an appearance and did not telephone.

  On the next day, Saturday, he came in late to tea, and surreptitiously invited her to have a quick one at the River Sun. They had, he said, to hurry it up because he was going on to meet his friend Lieutenant Lummis at seven o’clock – he did not say where. He proceeded inconsequently but imperturbably to stay with her until twenty minutes past seven, and he then left in such a rush that no appointment was made for a future meeting.

  During the next fortnight, without previous arrangement, he invited her two or three times to drink with him at the River Sun, but on only one occasion did he give her dinner afterwards. Then he took her for the same walk by the river as before, this ending up in the same way upon the seat in the park. But on none of these occasions did he explode any further bombshells, or make any attempt to adjust the psychological confusion created by the one he had already thrown.

  Finally he had invited her to go to the movies with him on this Saturday afternoon, and she sat beside him in the white darkness looking at the screen without seeing what she was looking at and wondering in what sense she might be permitted to call Lieutenant Pike ‘her’ American.

  CHAPTER THREE

  1

  LOOKING at the clock glowing above the Exit sign to the right of the screen she saw that it was nearly half-past five.

  ‘Isn’t it time you were going?’ she said.

  On meeting her this afternoon he had told her that he had to catch a train into Maidenhead at a quarter to six. There he had an appointment to meet his friend Lummis – they were going, he said, to some sort of joint, Bindles or Spindles or what the hell it ever was. She had told him that he meant Skindles, and had mutely wondered who had introduced Lieutenant Lummis to Skindles, and who else would form part of the company when the two friends got there. She even had a faint feeling of displeasure, perhaps jealousy, at the thought of this meeting, and at the way in which Lieutenant Lummis had at such an early date found his feet and learned to get about generally. Nor was it quite the first time that she had felt faint internal intimations of this ungenerous feeling. It was, perhaps, because it was always Lieutenant Lummis with whom Lieutenant Pike had the appointment to which he was going when leaving her; and because no information had ever been forthcoming as to what took place at these meetings. Not that she had ever asked, or that any sort of pressure or curiosity under the sun would ever induce her to contemplate asking.

  His eyes were glued upon the screen and he did not answer her.

  ‘It’s about time you were going,’ she tried again, ‘isn’t it?’

  In answer to this he kept his eyes fixed on the screen, but, to show that he had heard her, he put out his hand and held hers.

  What a man this was! And what perfect inconsequence again! What did he mean to convey now? ‘Be quiet – I want to look at the picture’? Or ‘Never mind – I’ve plenty of time to catch the train’? Or ‘Bother the train – I’ll catch the next one’? Her knowledge of his character informed her that the answer might lie in any or all of these.

  She sat in silence, and he held her hand. And this hand-holding, in the darkness, with its quiet possessiveness and informality, seemed all at once to convince her finally that she was at any rate in a position to regard him, without any sort of presumption, as ‘her’ American in Thames Lockdon.

  But what if someone else could claim him as ‘their’ American in another locality? At Skindles tonight, for instance? What if he went out and behaved in the same way with other girls (or rather with girls, for she was not a girl)?

  And what, again, if he did nothing of the sort? What if, as was extremely likely, he was exclusively and faithfully her American? What if, as she still in her heart honestly believed, he had as good as told her that it was she herself whom he desired or intended to marry?

  What then? What about ‘love’? What about the Laundry business? What if he ‘loved’ her, and she ‘loved’, or came to ‘love’, him, and they were one day ‘married’? So unreal and outlandish was the whole hypothesis that she was compelled at present mentally to put these words in inverted commas: all the same, she had to put the hypothesis in front of her. What if her present existence as a toiler in London and boarding-house solitary in Thames Lockdon were to be exchanged for one as the inspirer, mistress, and power behind the throne of a Laundry business in America – a Laundry queen?

  What was there so peculiarly droll about the thought of the Laundry business, which always brought her back to earth when she indulged in these flights of fancy? Wherein did it differ from the car business, say, or the building business, or the legal business, or the book business? What, also, was there so faintly yet persistently chilling to her heart about the Laundry business when thought of as a steadfast flame of ambition burning in the breast of her companion?

  ‘Come on, then,’ he
said suddenly. ‘Let’s get going.’ He removed his hand from hers, and they rose, and went down and out into the street, upon which the black-out blackness of night had already fallen.

  She said that he would have to hurry to catch his train, and he said that he would not have to do this, and told her that she was to come round with him to see if he got it. On their arrival arm-in-arm at the station he was proved right: he had six minutes in hand. This was not to be wasted: he rushed her over to the public-house immediately opposite. She would drink nothing, for any time before six o’clock she regarded instinctively as tea-time, and her whole chemical and spiritual being forbade her to drink alcohol during such a well-defined phase of the evening: instead she watched him drink, with some haste and difficulty, a large whisky and soda. As he drank he asked her what she was doing with her evening. She said she was meeting Vicki. He asked her who was Vicki, and she said the German girl, she had told him about her. He said he remembered, and he was surprised at her going out with Germans, and she told him not to be so silly.

  All at once he banged down his drink and made her escort him over to the station and on to the platform. He found an empty compartment, pulled down the window, leaned out, and made her wait till the train moved off. When she heard whistling noises she was about to go, but he called her back. This was so that he might kiss her. She was not used to being kissed by him at this time of the evening – did not, indeed, remotely associate such a time of the evening with kissing – and as the train pulled out she walked down the platform in the state of confusion and bewilderment he only too often evoked in her, but not displeased.

  2

  She had arranged to meet her German friend at half-past six at the River Sun.

  It was not, as might be thought, the Lieutenant who had introduced Miss Roach to the River Sun or to the habit of meeting and drinking in bars. The blitz in London, with its attendant misery, peril, chaos and informality, had already introduced Miss Roach to this habit. She had no longer any fear of entering public-houses, and would, if necessary, and provided she was known in the place, enter one unaccompanied. Here again the war, the sombre begetter of crowds everywhere, had succeeded in conjuring into being yet another small population entirely of its own to help fill and afflict the public places – a population of which Miss Roach was a member – of respectable middle-class girls and women, normally timid, home-going and home-staying, who had come to learn of the potency of this brief means of escape in the evening from war-thought and war-endeavour. Without any taste for drink, and originally half-scandalised by the notion of drinking in public or of drinking at all, these women would at first imagine that the pleasure they obtained from the new habit lay in the company, the lights, the conversation, the novelty or humour of the experience: then, gradually, they would perceive that there was something further than this, that the longer they stayed and the more they drank the more their pleasure in this pastime was augmented, reaching, at moments, a point, almost, of ecstasy. Finally would come the realisation that the drink itself was not only intimately associated with, but was almost certainly the immediate cause of their sensations, and the bolder spirits among them would come to profess this openly, going so far as to make jokes about it, urging their friends, with naïve abandonment, to ‘have another’, speaking of having ‘had too much’, finally of being ‘drunk’ or of the danger of getting ‘drunk’. Actually very few of these women were constitutionally capable of getting drunk – but only of getting swimming sensations in their heads and wanting to go home and eat or go to bed.

  Miss Roach, then, had had no hesitation in arranging to meet her friend at the River Sun – she had, in fact, met her there two or three times before. Then again, the River Sun had a reputation in Thames Lockdon which rendered it something slightly different from an ordinary public-house. Well known to those who knew the river well, and, owing to its position or some obscure tradition, singled out as the rendezvous of the well-to-do in the town itself, it had a style of its own, and to be heard of drinking in there was not altogether the same thing as to be heard of drinking elsewhere. In almost every country town nowadays there is a house, or more than one house, of this sort.

  If Miss Roach had had any apprehensions this evening, they would have arisen, rather, from the nationality and reputation of the woman with whom she was to be seen in public – the fact that she was ‘going out with a German’, as the Lieutenant had put it. But this did not disturb Miss Roach either. On the contrary, she took a certain defiant and perhaps slightly childish pleasure in her enlightenment in regard to this matter – an attitude which probably had in fact assisted in bringing about the friendship. Certain self-indulgent shopping and shopkeeping members of the Thames Lockdon public, on the outbreak of hostilities with Germany in 1939, having stampeded themselves into the exhilarating assumption that a German spy was flaunting herself in their midst, Vicki Kugelmann had to some extent been victimised. Miss Roach had, in fact, first met her in a greengrocery, where she was being singled out for public humiliation by disregard on the part of the assistants, and she had gone out of her way to talk to her and help her get what she wanted. After that they had spoken to each other, from time to time, on the street, and one morning had had a coffee together at a confectioner’s. From this had arisen a habit of having coffee together on Saturday mornings, a visit or two to the pictures, and, lastly, an occasional meeting at the River Sun for a drink.

  Mr. Thwaites getting to hear of this, innuendo at table was at once begun, astutely detached mention being made of ‘our German friends in the town’ and certain people who ‘seemed to like them’, thus, according to Mr. Thwaites, encouraging the ineptitude of the authorities, who, instead of locking up, hanging, or shooting them, caused them to multiply and flourish. For although Mr. Thwaites in his heart profoundly respected the German people for their political wisdom, he was not the sort of man who could refrain from participation in any sort of popular chase when one appeared on his doorstep. A supreme and overpowering master in the craft of eating his cake and having it too, he was often led into such contradictions. His remarks, however, only served to harden and fortify Miss Roach in her pursuit of the friendship.

  Vicki Kugelmann, who was about the same age as herself, and who worked as assistant to a local vet, seemed to Miss Roach to be quiet, cultivated, and intelligent, and because isolated in the town (for different reasons but in much the same way as herself) admirably cut out as a friend. Apart from one or two joking references, made by Vicki herself, to her own reputation as a spy, and apart from one allusion made to the Hitler regime (‘Ah – I do not know what has happened to my country,’ she had said, and shuddered, or rather imitated a shudder, and looked into the distance), no mention ever arose between them of her race, and for this she seemed modestly grateful. Miss Roach began to look forward to these meetings, and to exchange confidences. The German girl was unhappy in her rooms, where her landlady, it seemed, was privately taking financial and other advantage of public prejudice, and Miss Roach had even gone so far as to speak of approaching Mrs. Payne and trying to get her into the Rosamund Tea Rooms – not in the house, of course, which was full, but in a room near by, whence she could come over to meals and take advantage of the Lounge. In the excitement of the last few weeks, however, and in the feeling of marked trepidation towards Mrs. Payne brought into being by certain telephoning incidents resulting from this excitement, she had neglected to do this.

  Miss Roach arrived promptly on time at the River Sun, and her friend was not there. She went to the bar, obtained a gin and french, and took it over to the corner in which she usually sat with the Lieutenant. She had been careful to take with her, as a sort of escort, a newspaper, which she could read while she waited. There were very few people in the bar, however, none of whom were interested in her, and she sat looking about her, studying the people and the room. This, about five years ago, had been redecorated by a new proprietor, and in such a startling manner as to give the impression of having
been redecorated only yesterday – in fact, it would probably, as numerous saloon lounges all over the country do, bear permanently the stamp of redecoration. The house being Elizabethan in origin, a curious aim at an Elizabethan manner had been made in the way of black beams, wooden panelling, uncomfortable black chairs and tables, odd pieces of armour, suspended swords, and almost indecipherable Gothic lettering over the doors. But upon this a Scottish atmosphere had been imposed – samples of Scottish tartans having been inserted into the upper panels, and pictures having been put up which dealt exclusively with Scottish Highlands and other Scottish matters. Also framed Scottish proverbs had been hung on either side of the red Devonshire fireplace, in which an electrical apparatus, set in an external semblance of burning coal, revolved incessantly. To add to the confusion, and in destruction of the other illusions, there were two electric ball-machines (one representing, when lit and clicking, an imitation of the sport of racing-motoring, and the other of the sport of ski-ing); a glass-enclosed machine with a chromium-plated crane which was by natural law capable of extracting cameras, watches, and wallets, but which in historical practice brought forth nothing save one or two hard, pea-like sweets to console the operator; several green-leather chromium-plated high stools along the bar, and a modern green carpet with whorls which put one in mind of sea-sickness.

  Nearly a quarter of an hour passed without Miss Roach’s friend appearing, and she was just about to fear that ‘something had happened’, when the door opened and she came in, looking about her. Spotting Miss Roach, she came over and sat beside her, smiling and saying ‘Ah – here you are!’ It struck Miss Roach that she made no mention of being late; in fact she gave out an atmosphere as if Miss Roach herself were a little late, and Miss Roach guessed that she might have made a mistake about the time, and said nothing. Miss Roach asking her what she was drinking, the other said, ‘No – what are you drinking?’, to which Miss Roach replied, ‘No – what are you drinking?’; and there began a rapid fire of protestations, all beginning with the word No, in regard to whose turn it was, who was ‘in the chair’, who had arrived first and who had invited whom – Miss Roach finally going to the bar and getting two gin and french.

 
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