Keep the Aspidistra Flying(10)

By: George Orwell


‘Something modern? Something by Barbara Bed-worthy, for instance? Have you read Almost a Virgin?’

‘Oh no, not her. She’s too Deep. I can’t bear Deep books. But I want something—well, you know—modern. Sex-problems and divorce and all that. You know.’

‘Modern, but not Deep,’ said Gordon, as lowbrow to lowbrow.

He ranged among the hot-stuff modern love-stories. There were not less than three hundred of them in the library. From the front room came the voices of the two upper-middle-class ladies, the one fruity, the other curried, disputing about dogs. They had taken out one of the dog-books and were examining the photographs. Fruity-voice enthused over the photograph of a Peke, the ickle angel pet, wiv his gweat big Soulful eyes and his ickle black nosie—oh, so ducky-duck! But curry-voice—yes, undoubtedly a colonel’s widow—said Pekes were soppy. Give her dogs with guts—dogs that would fight, she said; she hated these soppy lapdogs, she said. ‘You have no Soul, Bedelia, no Soul,’ said fruity-voice plaintively. The doorbell pinged again. Gordon handed the chemist’s girl Seven Scarlet Nights and booked it on her ticket. She took a shabby leather purse out of her overall pocket and paid him twopence.

He went back to the front room. The Nancy had put his book back in the wrong shelf and vanished. A lean, straight-nosed, brisk woman, with sensible clothes and gold-rimmed pince-nez—schoolmarm possibly, feminist certainly—came in and demanded Mrs Wharton-Beverley’s history of the suffrage movement. With secret joy Gordon told her that they hadn’t got it. She stabbed his male incompetence with gimlet eyes and went out again. The thin young man stood apologetically in the corner, his face buried in D. H. Lawrence’s Collected Poems, like some long-legged bird with its head buried under its wing.

Gordon waited by the door. Outside, a shabby-genteel old man with a strawberry nose and a khaki muffler round his throat was picking over the books in the sixpenny box. The two upper-middle-class ladies suddenly departed, leaving a litter of open books on the table. Fruity-face cast reluctant backward glances at the dog-books, but curry-face drew her away, resolute not to buy anything. Gordon held the door open. The two ladies sailed noisily out, ignoring him.

He watched their fur-coated upper-middle-class backs go down the street. The old strawberry-nosed man was talking to himself as he pawed over the books. A bit wrong in the head, presumably. He would pinch something if he wasn’t watched. The wind blew colder, drying the slime of the street. Time to light up presently. Caught by a swirl of air, the torn strip of paper on the QT Sauce advertisement fluttered sharply, like a piece of washing on the line. Ah!

Sharply the menacing wind sweeps over

The bending poplars, newly bare,

And the dark ribbons of the chimneys

Veer downward; flicked by whips of air,

Torn posters flutter.

Not bad, not bad at all. But he had no wish to go on—could not go on, indeed. He fingered the money in his pocket, not chinking it, lest the shy young man should hear. Twopence halfpenny. No tobacco all tomorrow. His bones ached.

A light sprang up in the Prince of Wales. They would be swabbing out the bar. The old strawberry-nosed man was reading an Edgar Wallace out of the twopenny box. A tram boomed in the distance. In the room upstairs Mr McKechnie, who seldom came down to the shop, drowsed by the gas-fire, white-haired and white-bearded, with snuff-box handy, over his calf-bound folio of Middleton’s Travels in the Levant.

The thin young man suddenly realised that he was alone and looked up guiltily. He was an habitué of bookshops, yet never stayed longer than ten minutes in any one shop. A passionate hunger for books, and the fear of being a nuisance, were constantly at war in him. After ten minutes in any shop he would grow uneasy, feel himself de trop, and take to flight, having bought something out of sheer nervousness. Without speaking he held out the copy of Lawrence’s poems and awkwardly extracted three florins from his pocket. In handing them to Gordon he dropped one. Both dived for it simultaneously; their heads bumped against one another. The young man stood back, blushing sallowly.

‘I’ll wrap it up for you,’ said Gordon.