Keep the Aspidistra Flying(4)

By: George Orwell


However, there was nobody outside. The front room, unlike the rest of the shop, was smart and expensive-looking, and it contained about two thousand books, exclusive of those in the window. On the right there was a glass show-case in which children’s books were kept. Gordon averted his eyes from a beastly Rackhamesque dust-jacket; elvish children tripping Wendily through a bluebell glade. He gazed out through the glass door. A foul day, and the wind rising. The sky was leaden, the cobbles of the street were slimy. It was St Andrew’s day, the thirtieth of November. McKechnie’s stood on a corner, on a sort of shapeless square where four streets converged. To the left, just within sight from the door, stood a great elm-tree, leafless now, its multitudinous twigs making sepia-coloured lace against the sky. Opposite, next to the Prince of Wales, were tall hoardings covered with ads for patent foods and patent medicines exhorting you to rot your guts with this or that synthetic garbage. A gallery of monstrous doll-faces—pink vacuous faces, full of goofy optimism. QT Sauce, Tru-weet Breakfast Crisps (‘Kiddies clamour for their Breakfast Crisps’), Kangaroo Burgundy, Vitamalt Chocolate, Bovex. Of them all, the Bovex one oppressed Gordon the most. A spectacled rat-faced clerk, with patent-leather hair, sitting at a café table grinning over a white mug of Bovex. ‘Roland Butta enjoys his meal with Bovex,’ the legend ran.

Gordon shortened the focus of his eyes. From the dust-dulled pane the reflection of his own face looked back at him. Not a good face. Not thirty yet, but moth-eaten already. Very pale, with bitter, ineradicable lines. What people call a ‘good’ forehead—high, that is—but a small pointed chin, so that the face as a whole was pear-shaped rather than oval. Hair mouse-coloured and unkempt, mouth unamiable, eyes hazel inclining to green. He lengthened the focus of his eyes again. He hated mirrors nowadays. Outside, all was bleak and wintry. A tram, like a raucous swan of steel, glided groaning over the cobbles, and in its wake the wind swept a debris of trampled leaves. The twigs of the elm-tree were swirling, straining eastward. The poster that advertised QT Sauce was torn at the edge; a ribbon of paper fluttered fitfully like a tiny pennant. In the side-street too, to the right, the naked poplars that lined the pavement bowed sharply as the wind caught them. A nasty raw wind. There was a threatening note in it as it swept over; the first growl of winter’s anger. Two lines of a poem struggled for birth in Gordon’s mind:

Sharply the something wind—for instance, threatening wind? No, better, menacing wind. The menacing wind blows over—no, sweeps over, say.

The something poplars—yielding poplars? No, better, bending poplars. Assonance between bending and menacing? No matter. The bending poplars, newly bare. Good.

Sharply the menacing wind sweeps over

The bending poplars, newly bare.

Good. ‘Bare’ is a sod to rhyme; however, there’s always ‘air’, which every poet since Chaucer has been struggling to find rhymes for. But the impulse died away in Gordon’s mind. He turned the money over in his pocket. Twopence halfpenny and a Joey—twopence half penny. His mind was sticky with boredom. He couldn’t cope with rhymes and adjectives. You can’t, with only twopence halfpenny in your pocket.

His eyes refocused themselves upon the posters opposite. Foul, bloody things. He had his private reasons for hating them. Mechanically he re-read their slogans. ‘Kangaroo Burgundy—the wine for Britons.’ ‘QT Sauce Keeps Hubby Smiling.’ ‘Hike all day on a Slab of Vitamalt!’ ‘Are you a Highbrow? Dandruff is the Reason.’ ‘Kiddies clamour for their Breakfast Crisps.’ ‘Pyorrhea? Not me!’ ‘Roland Butta enjoys his meal with Bovex.’

Ha! A customer—potential, at any rate. Gordon stiffened himself. Standing by the door, you could get an oblique view out of the front window without being seen yourself. He looked the potential customer over.

A decentish middle-aged man, black suit, bowler hat, umbrella and despatch-case—provincial solicitor or Town Clerk—keeking at the window with large pale-coloured eyes. He wore a guilty look. Gordon followed the direction of his eyes. Ah! So that was it! He had nosed out those D. H. Lawrence first editions in the far corner. Pining for a bit of smut, of course. He had heard of Lady Chatterley afar off. A bad face he had, Gordon thought. Pale, heavy, downy, with bad contours. Welsh, by the look of him—Nonconformist, anyway. He had the regular Dissenting pouches round the corners of his mouth. At home, president of the local Purity League or Seaside Vigilance Committee (rubber-soled slippers and electric torch, spotting kissing couples along the beach parade), and now up in town on the razzle. Gordon wished he would come in. Sell him a copy of Women in Love. How it would disappoint him!