He was making roughly in the direction of home. He looked up at the houses he was passing. It was a street he did not know. Oldish houses, mean-looking and rather dark, let off in flatlets and single rooms for the most part. Railed areas, smoke-grimed bricks, whited steps, dingy lace curtains. ‘Apartments’ cards in half the windows, aspidistras in nearly all. A typical lower-middle-class street. But not, on the whole, the kind of street that he wanted to see blown to hell by bombs.
He wondered about the people in houses like those. They would be, for example, small clerks, shop-assistants, commercial travellers, insurance touts, tram conductors. Did they know that they were only puppets dancing when money pulled the strings? You bet they didn’t. And if they did, what would they care? They were too busy being born, being married, begetting, working, dying. It mightn’t be a bad thing, if you could manage it, to feel yourself one of them, one of the ruck of men. Our civilisation is founded on greed and fear, but in the lives of common men the greed and fear are mysteriously transmuted into something nobler. The lower-middle-class people in there, behind their lace curtains, with their children and their scraps of furniture and their aspidistras—they lived by the money-code, sure enough, and yet they contrived to keep their decency. The money-code as they interpreted it was not merely cynical and hoggish. They had their standards, their inviolable points of honour. They ‘kept themselves respectable’—kept the aspidistra flying. Besides, they were alive. They were bound up in the bundle of life. They begot children, which is what the saints and the soul-savers never by any chance do.
The aspidistra is the tree of life, he thought suddenly.
He was aware of a lumpish weight in his inner pocket. It was the manuscript of London Pleasures. He took it out and had a look at it under a street lamp. A great wad of paper, soiled and tattered, with that peculiar, nasty, grimed-at-the-edges look of papers which have been a long time in one’s pocket. About four hundred lines in all. The sole fruit of his exile, a two years’ foetus which would never be born. Well, he had finished with all that. Poetry! Poetry, indeed! In 1935.
What should he do with the manuscript? Best thing, shove it down the WC. But he was a long way from home and had not the necessary penny. He halted by the iron grating of a drain. In the window of the nearest house an aspidistra, a striped one, peeped between the yellow lace curtains.
He unrolled a page of London Pleasures. In the middle of the labyrinthine scrawlings a line caught his eye. Momentary regret stabbed him. After all, parts of it weren’t half bad! If only it could ever be finished! It seemed such a shame to shy it away after all the work he had done on it., Save it, perhaps? Keep it by him and finish it secretly in his spare time? Even now it might come to something.
No, no! Keep your parole. Either surrender or don’t surrender.
He doubled up the manuscript and stuffed it between the bars of the drain. It fell with a plop into the water below.
Vicisti, O aspidistra!
RAVELSTON wanted to say good-bye outside the registry office, but they would not hear of it, and insisted on dragging him off to have lunch with them. Not at Modigliani’s, however. They went to one of those jolly little Soho restaurants where you get such a wonderful four-course lunch for half a crown. They had garlic sausage with bread and butter, fried plaice, entrecôte aux pommes frites and a rather watery caramel pudding; also a bottle of Médoc Supérieur, three and sixpence the bottle.
Only Ravelston was at the wedding. The other witness was a poor meek creature with no teeth, a professional witness whom they picked up outside the registry office and tipped half a crown. Julia hadn’t been able to get away from the tea-shop, and Gordon and Rosemary had only got the day off from the office by pretexts carefully manoeuvred a long time ahead. Nobody knew they were getting married, except Ravelston and Julia. Rosemary was going to go on working at the studio for another month or two. She had preferred to keep her marriage a secret until it was over, chiefly for the sake of her innumerable brothers and sisters, none of whom could afford wedding presents. Gordon, left to himself, would have done it in a more regular manner. He had even wanted to be married in church. But Rosemary had put her foot down on that idea.
Gordon had been back at the office two months now. Four ten a week he was getting. It would be a tight pinch when Rosemary stopped working, but there was hope of a rise next year. They would have to get some money out of Rosemary’s parents, of course, when the baby was due to arrive. Mr Clew had left the New Albion a year ago, and his place had been taken by a Mr Warner, a Canadian who had been five years with a New York publicity firm. Mr Warner was a live wire but quite a likeable person. He and Gordon had a big job on hand at the moment. The Queen of Sheba Toilet Requisites Co. were sweeping the country with a monster campaign for their deodorant, April Dew. They had decided that BO and halitosis were worked out, or nearly, and had been racking their brains for a long time past to think of some new way of scaring the public. Then some bright spark had suggested, What about smelling feet? That field had never been exploited and had immense possibilities. The Queen of Sheba had turned the idea over to the New Albion. What they asked for was a really telling slogan; something in the class of ‘Night Starvation’—something that would rankle in the public consciousness like a poisoned arrow. Mr Warner had thought it over for three days and then emerged with the unforgettable phrase ‘PP’. ‘PP’ stood for Pedic Perspiration. It was a real flash of genius, that. It was so simple and so arresting. Once you knew what they stood for, you couldn’t possibly see those letters ‘PP’ without a guilty tremor. Gordon had searched for the word ‘pedic’ in the Oxford Dictionary and found that it did not exist. But Mr Warner had said, Hell! what did it matter, anyway? It would put the wind up them just the same. The Queen of Sheba had jumped at the idea, of course.
They were putting every penny they could spare into the campaign. On every hoarding in the British Isles huge accusing posters were hammering ‘PP’ into the public mind. All the posters were identically the same. They wasted no words, but just demanded with sinister simplicity:
Just that—no pictures, no explanations. There was no longer any need to say what ‘PP’ stood for; everyone in England knew it by this time. Mr Warner, with Gordon to help him, was designing the smaller ads for the newspapers and magazines. It was Mr Warner who supplied the bold sweeping ideas, sketched the general lay-out of the ads and decided what pictures would be needed; but it was Gordon who wrote most of the letterpress—wrote the harrowing little stories, each a realistic novel in a hundred words, about despairing virgins of thirty, and lonely bachelors whose girls had unaccountably thrown them over, and overworked wives who could only afford to change their stockings once a week and who saw their husbands subsiding into the clutches of ‘the other woman’. He did it very well; he did it far better than he had ever done anything else in his life. Mr Warner gave golden reports of him. There was no doubt about Gordon’s literary ability. He could use words with the economy that is only learned by years of effort. So perhaps his long agonising struggles to be a ‘writer’ had not been wasted after all.
They said good-bye to Ravelston outside the restaurant. The taxi bore them away. Ravelston had insisted on paying for the taxi from the registry office, so they felt they could afford another taxi. Warmed with wine, they lolled together, in the dusty May sunshine that filtered through the taxi window. Rosemary’s head on Gordon’s shoulder, their hands together in her lap. He played with the very slender wedding ring on Rosemary’s ring finger. Rolled gold, five and sixpence. It looked all right, however.
‘I must remember to take it off before I go to the studio tomorrow,’ said Rosemary reflectively.
‘To think we’re really married! Till death do us part. We’ve done it now, right enough.’
‘Terrifying, isn’t it?’
‘I expect we’ll settle down all right, though. With a house of our own and a pram and an aspidistra.’
He lifted her face up to kiss her. She had a touch of make-up on today, the first he had ever seen on her, and not too skilfully applied. Neither of their faces stood the spring sunshine very well. There were fine lines on Rosemary’s, deep seams on Gordon’s. Rosemary looked twenty-eight, perhaps; Gordon looked at least thirty-five. But Rosemary had pulled the three white hairs out of her crown yesterday.
‘Do you love me?’ he said.
‘Adore you, silly.’
‘I believe you do. It’s queer. I’m thirty and moth-eaten.’
‘I don’t care.’
They began to kiss, then drew hurriedly apart as they saw two scrawny upper-middle-class women, in a car that was moving parallel to their own, observing them with catty interest.
The flat off the Edgware Road wasn’t too bad. It was a dull quarter and rather a slummy street, but it was convenient for the centre of London; also it was quiet, being a blind alley. From the back window (it was a top floor) you could see the roof of Paddington Station. Twenty-one and six a week, unfurnished. One bed, one reception, kitchenette, bath (with geyser) and we. They had got their furniture already, most of it on the never-never. Ravelston had given them a complete set of crockery for a wedding present—a very kindly thought, that. Julia had given them a rather dreadful ‘occasional’ table, veneered walnut with a scalloped edge. Gordon had begged and implored her not to give them anything. Poor Julia! Christmas had left her utterly broke, as usual, and Aunt Angela’s birthday had been in March. But it would have seemed to Julia a kind of crime against nature to let a wedding go by without giving a present. God knew what sacrifices she had made to scrape together thirty bob for that ‘occasional’ table. They were still very short of linen and cutlery. Things would have to be bought piecemeal, when they had a few bob to spare.
They ran up the last flight of stairs in their excitement to get to the flat. It was all ready to inhabit. They had spent their evenings for weeks past getting the stuff in. It seemed to them a tremendous adventure to have this place of their own. Neither of them had ever owned furniture before; they had been living in furnished rooms ever since their childhood. As soon as they got inside they made a careful tour of the flat, checking, examining and admiring everything as though they did not know by heart already every item that was there. They fell into absurd raptures over each separate stick of furniture. The double bed with the clean sheet ready turned down over the pink eiderdown! The linen and towels stowed away in the chest of drawers! The gate-leg table, the four hard chairs, the two armchairs, the divan, the bookcase, the red Indian rug, the copper coal-scuttle which they had picked up cheap in the Caledonian market! And it was all their own, every bit of it was their own—at least, so long as they didn’t get behind with the instalments! They went into the kitchenette. Everything was ready, down to the minutest detail. Gas stove, meat safe, enamel-topped table, plate rack, saucepans, kettle, sink basket, mops, dish-cloths—even a tin of Pan-shine, a packet of soapflakes and a pound of washing soda in a jamjar. It was all ready for use, ready for life. You could have cooked a meal in it here and now. They stood hand in hand by the enamel-topped table, admiring the view of Paddington Station.