Keep the Aspidistra Flying(14)

By: George Orwell


It was beastly cold. Gordon thought he would light the oil-lamp. He lifted it—it felt very light; the spare oil can also was empty—no oil till Friday. He applied a match; a dull yellow flame crept unwillingly round the wick. It might burn for a couple of hours, with any luck. As Gordon threw away the match his eye fell upon the aspidistra in its grass-green pot. It was a peculiarly mangy specimen. It had only seven leaves and never seemed to put forth any new ones. Gordon had a sort of secret feud with the aspidistra. Many a time he had furtively attempted to kill it—starving it of water, grinding hot cigarette-ends against its stem, even mixing salt with its earth. But the beastly things are practically immortal. In almost any circumstances they can preserve a wilting, diseased existence. Gordon stood up and deliberately wiped his kerosiny fingers on the aspidistra leaves.

At this moment Mrs Wisbeach’s voice rang shrewishly up the stairs:

‘Mister Com-stock!’

Gordon went to the door. ‘Yes?’ he called down.

‘Your supper’s been waiting for you this ten minutes. Why can’t you come down and have it, ’stead of keeping me waiting for the washing up?’

Gordon went down. The dining-room was on the first floor, at the back, opposite Flaxman’s room. It was a cold, close-smelling room, twilit even at midday. There were more aspidistras in it than Gordon had ever accurately counted. They were all over the place—on the sideboard, on the floor, on ‘occasional’ tables; in the window there was a sort of florist’s stand of them, blocking out the light. In the half-darkness, with aspidistras all about you, you had the feeling of being in some sunless aquarium amid the dreary foliage of water-flowers. Gordon’s supper was set out, waiting for him, in the circle of white light that the cracked gas-jet cast upon the table cloth. He sat down with his back to the fireplace (there was an aspidistra in the grate instead of a fire) and ate his plate of cold beef and his two slices of crumbly white bread, with Canadian butter, mousetrap cheese and Pan Yan pickle, and drank a glass of cold but musty water.

When he went back to his room the oil-lamp had got going, more or less. It was hot enough to boil a kettle by, he thought. And now for the great event of the evening—his illicit cup of tea. He made himself a cup of tea almost every night, in the deadliest secrecy. Mrs Wisbeach refused to give her lodgers tea with their supper, because she ‘couldn’t be bothered with hotting up extra water’, but at the same time making tea in your bedroom was strictly forbidden. Gordon looked with disgust at the muddled papers on the table. He told himself defiantly that he wasn’t going to do any work tonight. He would have a cup of tea and smoke up his remaining cigarettes, and read King Lear or Sherlock Holmes. His books were on the mantelpiece beside the alarm clock—Shakespeare in the Everyman edition, Sherlock Holmes, Villon’s poems, Roderick Random, Les Fleurs du Mal, a pile of French novels. But he read nothing nowadays, except Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes. Meanwhile, that cup of tea.

Gordon went to the door, pushed it ajar and listened. No sound of Mrs Wisbeach. You had to be very careful; she was quite capable of sneaking upstairs and catching you in the act. This tea-making was the major household offence, next to bringing a woman in. Quietly he bolted the door, dragged his cheap suitcase from under the bed and unlocked it. From it he extracted a sixpenny Woolworth’s kettle, a packet of Lyons’ tea, a tin of condensed milk, a teapot and a cup. They were all packed in newspaper to prevent them from chinking.

He had his regular procedure for making tea. First he half filled the kettle with water from the jug and set it on the oil-stove. Then he knelt down and spread out a piece of newspaper. Yesterday’s tea-leaves were still in the pot, of course. He shook them out onto the newspaper, cleaned out the pot with his thumb and folded the leaves into a bundle. Presently he would smuggle them downstairs. That was always the most risky part—getting rid of the used tea-leaves. It was like the difficulty murderers have in disposing of the body. As for the cup, he always washed it in his hand basin in the morning. A squalid business. It sickened him, sometimes. It was queer how furtively you had to live in Mrs Wisbeach’s house. You had the feeling that she was always watching you; and indeed, she was given to tiptoeing up and downstairs at all hours, in hope of catching the lodgers up to mischief. It was one of those houses where you cannot even go to the WC in peace because of the feeling that somebody is listening to you.