Keep the Aspidistra Flying(11)

By: George Orwell

But the shy young man shook his head—he stammered so badly that he never spoke when it was avoidable. He clutched his book to him and slipped out with the air of having committed some disgraceful action.

Gordon was alone. He wandered back to the door. The strawberry-nosed man glanced over his shoulder, caught Gordon’s eye and moved off, foiled. He had been on the point of slipping Edgar Wallace into his pocket. The clock over the Prince of Wales struck a quarter past three.

Ding Dong! A quarter past three. Light up at half past. Four and three-quarter hours till closing time. Five and a quarter hours till supper. Twopence halfpenny in pocket. No tobacco tomorrow.

Suddenly a ravishing, irresistible desire to smoke came over Gordon. He had made up his mind not to smoke this afternoon. He had only four cigarettes left. They must be saved for tonight, when he intended to ‘write’; for he could no more ‘write’ without tobacco than without air. Nevertheless, he had got to have a smoke. He took out his packet of Player’s Weights and extracted one of the dwarfish cigarettes. It was sheer stupid indulgence; it meant half an hour off tonight’s ‘writing’ time. But there was no resisting it. With a sort of shameful joy he sucked the papery smoke into his lungs.

The reflection of his own face looked back at him from the greyish pane. Gordon Comstock, author of Mice; en l’an trentiesme de son eage, and moth-eaten already. Only twenty-six teeth left. However, Villon at the same age was poxed, on his own showing. Let’s be thankful for small mercies.

He watched the ribbon of torn paper whirling, fluttering on the QT Sauce advertisement. Our civilisation is dying. It must be dying. But it isn’t going to the in its bed. Presently the aeroplanes are coming. Zoom—whizz—crash! The whole western world going up in a roar of high explosives.

He looked at the darkening street, at the greyish reflection of his face in the pane, at the shabby figures shuffling past. Almost involuntarily he repeated:

‘C’est l’Ennui-l’œil chargé d’un pleur involontaire,

Il rêve d’échafauds en fumant son houka!’

Money, money! Roland Butta! The humming of the aeroplanes and the crash of the bombs.

Gordon squinted up at the leaden sky. Those aeroplanes are coming. In imagination he saw them coming now; squadron after squadron, innumerable, darkening the sky like clouds of gnats. With his tongue not quite against his teeth he made a buzzing, bluebottle-on-the-window-pane sound to represent the humming of the aeroplanes. It was a sound which, at that moment, he ardently desired to hear.





II




GORDON WALKED homeward against the rattling wind, which blew his hair backward and gave him more of a ‘good’ forehead than ever. His manner conveyed to the passers-by—at least, he hoped it did—that if he wore no overcoat it was from pure caprice. His overcoat was up the spout for fifteen shillings, as a matter of fact.

Willowbed Road, NW, was not definitely slummy, only dingy and depressing. There were real slums hardly five minutes’ walk away. Tenement houses where families slept five in a bed, and, when one of them died, slept every night with the corpse until it was buried; alleyways where girls of fifteen were deflowered by boys of sixteen against leprous plaster walls. But Willowbed Road itself contrived to keep up a kind of mingy, lower-middle-class decency. There was even a dentist’s brass plate on one of the houses. In quite two-thirds of them, amid the lace curtains of the parlour window, there was a green card with ‘Apartments’ on it in silver lettering, above the peeping foliage of an aspidistra.

Mrs Wisbeach, Gordon’s landlady, specialised in ‘single gentlemen’. Bed-sitting-rooms, with gaslight laid on and find your own heating, baths extra (there was a geyser), and meals in the tomb-dark dining-room with the phalanx of clotted sauce-bottles in the middle of the table. Gordon, who came home for his midday dinner, paid twenty-seven and six a week.

The gaslight shone yellow through the frosted transom above the door of Number 31. Gordon took out his key and fished about in the keyhole—in that kind of house the key never quite fits the lock. The darkish little hallway—in reality it was only a passage—smelt of dishwater, cabbage, rag mats and bedroom slops. Gordon glanced at the japanned tray on the hall-stand. No letters, of course. He had told himself not to hope for a letter, and nevertheless had continued to hope. A stale feeling, not quite a pain, settled upon his breast. Rosemary might have written! It was four days now since she had written. Moreover, there were a couple of poems that he had sent out to magazines and had not yet had returned to him. The one thing that made the evening bearable was to find a letter waiting for him when he got home. But he received very few letters—four or five in a week at the very most.