Keep the Aspidistra Flying(12)

By: George Orwell


On the left of the hall was the never-used parlour, then came the staircase, and beyond that the passage ran down to the kitchen and to the unapproachable lair inhabited by Mrs Wisbeach herself. As Gordon came in, the door at the end of the passage opened a foot or so. Mrs Wisbeach’s face emerged, inspected him briefly but suspiciously, and disappeared again. It was quite impossible to get in or out of the house, at any time before eleven at night, without being scrutinised in this manner. Just what Mrs Wisbeach suspected you of it was hard to say; smuggling women into the house, possibly. She was one of those malignant respectable women who keep lodging-houses. Age about forty-five, stout but active, with a pink, fine-featured, horribly observant face, beautiful grey hair and a permanent grievance.

Gordon halted at the foot of the narrow stairs. Above, a coarse rich voice was singing, ‘Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?’ A very fat man of thirty-eight or -nine came round the angle of the stairs, with the light dancing step peculiar to fat men, dressed in a smart grey suit, yellow shoes, a rakish trilby hat and a belted blue overcoat of startling vulgarity. This was Flaxman, the first-floor lodger and travelling representative of the Queen of Sheba Toilet Requisites Co. He saluted Gordon with a lemon-coloured glove as he came down.

‘Hullo, chappie!’ he said blithely. (Flaxman called everyone ‘chappie’.) ‘How’s life with you?’

‘Bloody,’ said Gordon shortly.

Flaxman had reached the bottom of the stairs. He threw a roly-poly arm affectionately round Gordon’s shoulders.

‘Cheer up, old man, cheer up! You look like a bloody funeral. I’m off down to the Crichton. Come on down and have a quick one.’

‘I can’t. I’ve got to work.’

‘Oh, hell! Be matey, can’t you? What’s the good of mooning about up here? Come on down to the Cri and we’ll pinch the barmaid’s bum.’

Gordon wriggled free of Flaxman’s arm. Like all small frail people, he hated being touched. Flaxman merely grinned, with the typical fat man’s good humour. He was really horribly fat. He filled his trousers as though he had been melted and then poured into them. But of course, like other fat people, he never admitted to being fat. No fat person ever uses the word ‘fat’ if there is any way of avoiding it. ‘Stout’ is the word they use—or, better still, ‘robust’. A fat man is never so happy as when he is describing himself as ‘robust’. Flaxman, at his first meeting with Gordon, had been on the point of calling himself ‘robust’, but something in Gordon’s greenish eye had deterred him. He compromised on ‘stout’ instead.

‘I do admit, chappie,’ he said, ‘to being—well, just a wee bit on the stout side. Nothing unwholesome, you know.’ He patted the vague frontier between his belly and his chest. ‘Good firm flesh. I’m pretty nippy on my feet, as a matter of fact. But—well, I suppose you might call me stout.’

‘Like Cortez,’ Gordon suggested.

‘Cortez? Cortez? Was that the chappie who was always wandering about in the mountains in Mexico?’

‘That’s the fellow. He was stout, but he had eagle eyes.’

‘Ah? Now that’s funny. Because the wife said something rather like that to me once. “George,” she said, “you’ve got the most wonderful eyes in the world. You’ve got eyes just like an eagle,” she said. That would be before she married me, you’ll understand.’

Flaxman was living apart from his wife at the moment. A little while back the Queen of Sheba Toilet Requisites Co. had unexpectedly paid out a bonus of thirty pounds to all its travellers, and at the same time Flaxman and two others had been sent across to Paris to press the new Sexapeal Naturetint lipstick on various French firms. Flaxman had not thought it necessary to mention the thirty pounds to his wife. He had had the time of his life on that Paris trip, of course. Even now, three months afterwards, his mouth watered when he spoke of it. He used to entertain Gordon with luscious descriptions. Ten days in Paris with thirty quid that wifie hadn’t heard about! Oh, boy! But unfortunately there had been a leakage somewhere; Flaxman had got home to find retribution awaiting him. His wife had broken his head with a cut-glass whisky decanter, a wedding present which they had had for fourteen years, and then fled to her mother’s house, taking the children with her. Hence Flaxman’s exile in Willowbed Road. But he wasn’t letting it worry him. It would blow over, no doubt; it had happened several times before.