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Authors: Patrick Hamilton

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BOOK: Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky
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The only little advantage was that it gave Ella what she deserved. She was too clever by half.

‘None of your friends in to-night, Bob,’ she had said, working on some mystic divinations of her own, on that first evening of his disappointment. And she had clearly expected them to come sooner or later.

But they had not done so, for a whole week, and possibly would never do so again. Ella was therefore mistaken. Ella had been very properly snubbed for being right when she had no right to be – the most intolerable of all advantages.

But on Thursday evening (his next night off) Bob was again in the West End. He had bought a book in the Charing Cross Road, paid an early visit to the ‘Capitol,’ and then gone on to the Corner House for a meal. He came out of this at about half-past nine, and found himself in Shaftesbury Avenue.

It occurred to him that this was where he had met her before, and that he might very easily run into her now. Such an encounter, he decided, would give him indisputable pleasure – the pleasure of hearing her excuses and observing her bearing. Furthermore, he was detachedly interested in what had actually become of her.

For these reasons, on reaching the end of Shaftesbury Avenue, he turned again and strolled back. If he knew anything of her habits, she was certain to be somewhere about. He was not looking for her. He was submitting himself to the possibility of encounter. The night air was fine and he had nothing better to do than stroll around.

But she was not in Shaftesbury Avenue, and he turned down Wardour Street. The place was alive with them – old and young. He made a complete circle, round by the Pavilion to the top of Wardour Street again. He then once more walked along Shaftesbury Avenue towards the Palace.

Now there is an extraordinary allure in walking around, or hanging about the streets, in the vague hope of catching (and so justifying your rather bold speculations) one who has no thought of meeting you. You may, after a while, have lost all desire to see the individual in question, but at the same time you find a peculiar difficulty in behaving like a man and cutting a loss. Having gone to the trouble of trailing up and down six or seven streets, you are loth to lose your point for a ha’porth of obstinacy, and are almost convinced that the very street providence has selected for you is the eighth. You therefore go up it. Then your eighth will probably bring you to some short cut, or other topographically excusable ninth, and unless you are very careful you will find yourself before long calmly attacking your nineteenth. Meanwhile your obstinacy has hardened almost to the pitch of impregnability. You go round and round. Indeed, unless there is definitely something else to be done, only the strongest minds can ever tear themselves away from this diversion.

Half an hour later found Bob somewhere near the Hippodrome. . . .

She would certainly feel honoured, he reflected, if she knew what he was doing. He went in and had a drink.

He came out, walked into Leicester Square, and again up by Wardour Street into Shaftesbury Avenue – for the last time, he swore before Heaven (but he had already sworn before it) – and was just passing the Shaftesbury Theatre, when he discerned, on the other side of the street (just a few yards up Dean Street, in fact) a man in conversation with a woman. It was her.

The two, so far as he could see, were just about to part. He stopped, retraced his footsteps, crossed the road, and strolled up again in her direction. He was delighted with himself for having found her, and was not going to let her go now.

When he reached Dean Street again, the two were a yard
away from each other, and obviously having their final words. The man apparently intended to go up Dean Street, and she was coming down in Bob’s direction. Bob hesitated, and then stopped at the corner – waiting for her.

All at once, however, the two joined again, to discuss something else. Bob stayed where he was, lit a cigarette, and looked self-consciously about him.

Many people passed him, looking at him disinterestedly. A minute passed. The two were still in conversation.

He suddenly perceived that he had been trailing the streets for an hour for this girl, and was now awaiting her pleasure. It gave him rather a shock. He could not understand his own motives.

The two broke away, and she came down towards him. She was smiling, and, it seemed to him, breathlessly pretty. There was no doubt about that. He knew it already.

‘Saw you standin’ there,’ she said.

C
HAPTER XVI

H
E WAS AT
a loss, and anxious to maintain his dignity. He smiled and took her hand.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Saw you standin’ there, an’ thought I might’s well wait. Fancy meetin’ you, of all people!’

They were walking down towards the Palace. He saw, from her silence, that his assumed detachment had not quite washed, and waited for an opportunity to rectify matters. She wanted putting in her place. Seeing that she had not been in to see him, she had, really, no right to be alive – let alone calmly at large like this.

‘’Spect you’re wondering why I haven’t been in,’ she said, in her amiable drawl.

‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘Never noticed it, as a matter of fact.’

Now he had gone and overdone it. He had been deliberately rude.

‘Why weren’t you in, anyway?’ he asked, trying to pull himself out.

‘Don’t know, dear. Couldn’t get away, I suppose.’

She was angry. Unwarrantably and ungratefully angry, in view of all he had done for her, but there you were. He wasn’t going to have any of her cheek, though. With him she had no right to be anything but submissive. He saw that the whole thing would probably end here.

‘I been busy, too,’ he said. . . .

They walked on in silence until they reached the Palace. There she suddenly stopped.

‘Well,’ she said. ‘I got to be going somewhere now, I’m afraid.’

He had never thought she would go as far as this, and he was staggered by her impudence. Apparently he had been right. It
was
going to end here. All the little excitement of it, and intrigue, and fun, and sentimental stimulation, was over. Henceforward his life would be exactly as it was before – something uninspired by this little diversion. He would never see her again. She was a breathlessly pretty young woman, and he was letting her slip out into the night. He could not do it. He gave in.

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Must you?’

‘’Fraid I must,’ she drawled.

Bob’s fate hung in the balance. Could he submit to this second affront? She had managed to strike him down with her first talk of departure: now she had kicked him. He had either to grovel, or come up and settle with her once and for all. He decided to grovel.

‘Oh – must you?’ he said. ‘Can’t you just come an’ have one with me?’

She was looking at the passing people.

‘Well – I might stay just for one,’ she said. . . .

‘Right you are,’ he said. ‘Let’s go that little place what we went before.’ His grammar was in pieces.

‘No,’ she said. ‘Don’t want to go there. . . .’

‘Why not?’ he asked, observing her use of the word ‘want,’ and marvelling at its implications.

‘Had a bit of a bust up in there – the other night,’ she fortunately added.

‘Well what about this one, over the road – here?’

‘Yes – that’s all right,’ she said. . . .

They walked on. He thought that they had, perhaps, better try and be cheerful.

‘I was sorry you didn’t come in, you know,’ he said. ‘I thought you’d be along.’

‘Well, I’m sorry, too,’ she said, confessing, in her tone, that they had just had a row, but that she was as willing as him to patch it up. ‘I’m
very
sorry. But you don’t know the life I lead – really you don’t. It’s all one thing after another.’

‘Oh, I dunno,’ he said. ‘’Spect I can imagine it.’ He was almost enjoying himself in the old manner.

‘Well,
you
may,’ she said. ‘But others don’t. . . .’

He, then, was something without precise parallel in her life. . . . They were perfect friends again.

The house he had indicated was at the corner. The main bar was large, with partitions along the wall containing tables and padded seats. The floor was of chequered oil-cloth. It was rather crowded. She went straight to a table: he obtained drinks at the bar, and brought them to her in silence. They were friends again, but there was a difference. She made no attempt to thank him for the drinks, but took her first sip at once, slightly constricting her face as it went down. Then, holding her glass and with her legs crossed, she looked casually around at the people without talking.

He looked at her, and had himself nothing to say. It seemed, as he looked at her, that the tables were queerly turned. The little creature to whom he had given ten shillings a week ago was a quite different little creature from the one whom he was now privileged, after considerable obstruction, to be fortifying with drink.

And this, he realized, was the second of his Thursday evenings off that he was spending in this strange manner. He was puzzled. His own life was becoming unfamiliar to him. . . .

‘So you haven’t had a very bright time of it since I saw you last?’ he tried.

‘No,’ she said. ‘Not very.’

She was listless and inattentive. She was, as a matter of fact, interested in a garrulous little man who was holding forth at the bar. . . . There was a long silence, which he eagerly sought, but did not know how, to break.

‘Funny you meetin’ me like that,’ she said suddenly, and smiling. ‘That man I was with thought you was trying to get off with me.’

‘Oh – did he?’

‘Yes.’ She giggled. (She was a vulgar little bitch.) There was a pause.

‘Who’s he, then?’ asked Bob, in as off-hand a manner as possible, and taking a gulp at his beer.

‘Him? Oh, I’ve known him a long time. He’s been very good to me, ’s’matter of fact.’

‘Oh – has he?’

‘Yes.’

Silence.

‘Took me out in his car last Sunday. We went down to Maidenhead. Do you know Maidenhead?’

‘No. Never been there,’ said Bob, and took another gulp.

His mind was in a turmoil. Car? Maidenhead? What was this? She had, then, friends – and powerful friends – on an equality. ‘
Do you know Maidenhead?
’ It was the off-hand remark of a lady to a gentleman in a drawing-room. So far from being his wistful little protégée, she was his equal and more. Did she not comprehend her own degradation – the fact that she was an outcast?

‘It’s very nice down there, really,’ she said.

‘Yes,’ said Bob. ‘I expect it is.’

A meaningless reply, to fill in time, and he knew it at once. He decided to steal her thunder. She should not think she could surprise him. He would show her that this was all very natural, and that he knew all about his Maidenhead.

‘Went on the river, I suppose?’ he said, lighting a cigarette.

‘No,’ she said. ‘Not this time of year. . . .’

She had not only held her own: she had made him look a
fool. He was losing his nerve, and she was getting the best of it all along the line. There was a silence.

He again thought it would be better if they were cheerful.

He had heard that you could generally win their hearts by noting or belauding their attire.

‘That’s ever such a nice sort of dress you’ve got on,’ he said.

Apparently it had worked. She brightened at once.

‘Oh – do you like it?’ she said, fingering the sleeve. ‘It ain’t half bad, is it?’

He forged ahead. ‘Darned fine,’ he said. ‘Suits you like anything.’

‘My! What a price though!’ she said. And, magically, she was sitting up and entering into the conversation. You could hardly credit their vanity and susceptibility.

‘Well, you’ll never get nothin’ to suit you like that,’ said Bob. ‘So it’s well worth it, whatever it was.’

She was beaming upon him. His soul strangely rejoiced.

‘M’m,’ she said. ‘Came from Paris.’

‘Gay Paree, eh?’ he said, instantly deploring his own vulgarity.

‘Yes,’ she returned, brightly. ‘I been to Paris.’


Been to Paris
?’ It shot out of Bob before he could stop himself.

‘Yes. I spent two weeks there.’

She said this with a kind of naïve proudness which saved his own pride; but it was a terrible blow. Maidenhead was a trifle compared to this. It was too great a blow to contemplate even, and he would have to put it away and think about it afterwards.

‘Really?’ he said. ‘You’re a lucky one if you like. How did you manage it?’

‘Oh,’ she said, and smiled a kind of self-reproachful and disillusioned smile. ‘Chap took me. . . .’

He was grateful for that smile, and the humility it contained. She possibly realized it was a blow, and was doing her best to soften it for him. He smiled back, and was friendly.

‘How did you like it?’ he asked.

‘Oh, very well, really,’ she said. ‘Had a fine time.’ And there was another pause. . . .

‘Oo! – but they don’t half jabber over there!’ she added suddenly. . . .

‘Do they?’ asked Bob, amiably.

‘Oo, don’t they half! Jabber, jabber, jabber all the time . . . .
I
can’t understand their lingo.’

‘Yes, they do seem to go fast,’ said Bob, and there was yet another pause.

‘’Course – I don’t expect they’re
really
goin’ fast,’ she conceded, with an air of explaining something to herself as well as him. ‘I expect it only
seems
they do, like. ’Spect if they heard us, they would think
we
was fast. ’Spect it’s on’y the
lingo
, like. . . .’

Bob did not think that this was any great subtlety, but agreed with it as though it were. There was another pause.

‘Oo,’ she said. ‘An’ they don’t half treat their horses badly!’

‘Really?’

‘M’m,’ she said. ‘That Crool. . . .’

Bob nodded.

‘I can’t stand Cruelty,’ she said. ‘Can you?’

‘No. Awful.’

‘That’s one of the things I
can

t
stand,’ she said.

‘Go to any shows?’ he asked.

‘Shows?’ She looked meaningly at him. ‘Oo. I should say I did!’

He smiled.

BOOK: Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky
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