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Authors: Patrick Hamilton

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Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (6 page)

BOOK: Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky
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‘No,’ said Bob, and then added, with even greater self-consciousness: ‘He was an American “Cop.”’

‘My word!’ said the dark one, inclined to titter, and the news did not seem to have made a great impression upon either of the ladies. He was not wounded, however. Quite impossible for them, after all! Impossible for them to know of a clear and shining ideal – of a tall, sturdy figure in a trim uniform – a figure that swung a baton, and helped little children across roads, and was good, and strong, and authoritative, and kind, and brave, and his father. It was asking too much.

Jenny, however, suddenly and surprisingly, caught on to the idea.

‘Like what you see on the films,’ she said.

‘That’s right,’ he said, and his eyes spoke his gratitude for her thoughtfulness and sympathy.

‘I wonder
you
don’t go on the films, waiter,’ said the dark one.


Me?
–’ He realized that his duties, articulate in the noise of coins and tumblers being banged on tables, were calling him. ‘I must go. There’re three tables waiting.’ He left them.

Ella, as she served him, was ironic and reserved.

‘I’m surprised at
you
, Bob,’ said Ella.

‘Surprised at me? What’s up?’

But she preferred mystery. ‘I’m surprised at
you
, Bob,’ she reaffirmed, and left him.

He now worked for ten minutes unremittingly. The time was twenty to ten, and the place was still filling up. He had made four and ninepence already. He looked over in the direction of his new acquaintances and observed that the dark one had vanished. The other was sitting alone, staring absently, but at the same time inconsolably, in front of her. The combined unconsciousness, unhappiness, and harmlessness of her bearing, awoke his sympathy. He could not resist going over.

‘Well,’ he said. ‘How’s the Gin and Pep?’

She withdrew from dreams with a smile.

‘Oh – very nice, thanks. I’m feelin’ much better already.’

‘Doing its work?’

‘That’s right. I’m very glad you recommended it.’

He smiled, drummed on his tray with his fingers, looked about him, and wondered how he could excuse himself.

‘Don’t know what’s the matter with
me
,’ she said. ‘I’m always gettin’ these funny attacks.’

You would hardly credit, to listen to her, that she was a dreadfully wicked young woman.

‘Ah – that’s because you don’t get enough exercise,’ he said and smiled again.

‘Exercise? Physical jerks in the morning, I suppose you mean?’

‘Well. Don’t know about that. But you ought to go in for good long walks or something.’

She looked along the bar, with a little smile to herself.

‘Get enough walking,’ she said. ‘One way and another.’

There was a pause.

‘Oh well –’ he began.

‘An’ I guess I’ve got to do some more to-night,’ she said –

‘Oh – how’s that?’

‘How’s that?’ She smiled again. ‘You ask my landlady. She’ll tell you “How’s that.”’

‘What – short with the rent?’

‘You bet.’

‘That’s bad,’ said Bob, and there was a silence.

She smiled sadly at him. The sorrows of her existence descended upon them both, drawing them closer, flowing through each of them – as though they had joined hands affectionately.

‘Well – grumbling won’t help,’ she said . . . and both of them looked sideways at different objects. . . .

‘S’pose I shouldn’t have come in here drinking,’ she added, and looked at her wrist-watch. ‘What’s the time? I ought to be off.’

‘Only ten to ten.’

All at once she sat up stiffly.

‘Oh lord – I don’t half feel bad,’ she said. ‘Really.’

‘I guess you ought to be in bed,’ he said, not quite knowing what to say.

‘You bet.’ She drew her lips into a little sneer, not at him, but with him, against existence.

‘What about another Gin and Pep?’

She nodded. ‘Yes. That first one did me good, didn’t it?’ She was clearly in pain.

‘Yes. Go on. I’ll get you one.’

‘Right you are. A Gin and Pep.’

She smiled again, conveying her appreciation, and he returned to the bar.

Here the noise was tremendous, and Ella was off her head with work. ‘Well, what do
you
want, Bob?’ she asked, as she poured out drinks for somebody else.

‘I want a Gin and Peppermint, please, Ella.’

‘I’m surprised at
you
, Bob,’ she said, as she served him.

‘Heard that somewhere before. What’s the worry?’

Ella glanced at him reproachfully, and explained herself. ‘Talking to those
Pros
titutes,’ said Ella. . . .

Her violent stress upon the first syllable of this word implied a differentiation between a large class of almost venial Titutes, and another branch of the same class, designated as Pros, and beyond the pale.

‘What’s wrong with ’em?’ asked Bob.

‘What’s
wrong
with ’em!’ said Ella. ‘The
creatures
.’

‘Ladies must live,’ hazarded Bob, a little insecurely.

‘Don’t you tell
me
,’ said Ella, and left him.

Her illness and isolation glowed all the stronger for Ella’s derision, as he placed the drink upon her table and she fumbled in her bag and produced a two shilling piece. He gave her the change, and she tried to pass him another sixpence.

‘No,’ he said, smiling, and slipping it back. ‘I guess that’s the sort of thing you’re wanting.’

‘No. Go on. Don’t be silly.’

A sudden intimation that people near by were watching them, and that he, a self-respecting waiter in a decent house could not stand there arguing about change with a woman of the streets, compelled him to accept it. He picked it up quickly.

‘Well,’ he said. ‘I only wish I could do something, that’s all.’

Her reply was another weary smile.

He stood there, with his tray balanced on the table, looking around as though to see if anyone needed serving. . . .

‘And it’s only a question of eight and sixpence too,’ she said. . . .

‘What? –’ He spotted a customer. ‘I must go and work.’

He left her for five minutes.

He returned with a soul expanded.

‘That’s not much,’ he said.

‘Too much for me, at any rate.’

‘Why not let me give it to you.’

‘What? You? Likely! I bet you’ve got a lot to throw away.’

‘No. Go on. You can pay it back, if you like.’

‘Don’t be silly.’

‘No. Go on. It’s not silly.’

‘Don’t be silly. I wouldn’t think of it, an’ that’s flat.’

‘But what’s wrong, if you pay me back?’

There was a pause. She looked into the distance. ‘I’d certainly do that,’ she said. . . .

‘Well come on. I’ll give it you. An’ then you can go to bed.’

She still looked into the distance. ‘Come on,’ he said. . . . She was very pretty. It was almost as though he were making love to her. . . .

‘Well – if I pay it back to-morrow. . . .’

‘Just when you like.’

‘All right then.’ She met his eyes. ‘And you know how grateful I am, don’t you?’

‘No cause for that.’

‘Well, there is, an’ that’s a fact.’

‘Tell you what though. Don’t want ’em to see me giving it you in here. You finish that drink and then go out an’ wait outside. An’ then I’ll slip out an’ give it you. That’s the best way, isn’t it?’

‘That’ll do fine. Shall I go now?’ She sat up again.

‘No. Wait a bit. I’ve got to serve some people. I’ll spot you as you go out, and then I’ll follow. Don’t mind if I keep you waiting a bit. Well – good-bye for the present.’ He smiled and again left her.

In the next few minutes he threw himself into his work with tremendous bounce, once or twice looking over in her direction, and catching her eye, and smiling. And then he saw her rising, with a mock-serious and self-conscious little look (which was a kind of wink to him), and passing through the bar, and going out.

Some three or four minutes passed before he was again released. Then he went audaciously to the door, and out into the street.

She was not just outside, as he had expected she would be, but about twenty yards away, looking into the window of a little sweet-and-newspaper shop which was closed. He went towards her and she came towards him. The night was cold and serene in the light of a clear, buoyant moon. After the fuddled thick noise of the house it was as though he stepped from orgy into spirituality. He spoke low, out of deference to the atmosphere, and so did she.

‘Here’s the doings,’ he said, and proffered a ten shilling note.

‘Oh – but I don’t want all that. It’s only eight and six.’

‘Oh, that don’t matter. Go on.’

‘All right, I will then,’ she conceded, and put it in her bag, and snapped it close, without ado. Then she looked up at him, speaking rather like one who has been punished unjustly. ‘An’ I hope you know how grateful I am – ’cos I am.’

He held out his hand. ‘Not a bit. Only too glad to help where I can.’

‘An’ I’ll come in an’ pay it back to-morrow. I will, honest.’

‘No need for that. Just when you like.’

Their hands were still joined. ‘And whenever
you
want any help, I’ll give it to
you
,’ she said, in the same punished tone. ‘I will, truly.’

‘Let’s hope I won’t.’

It was all rather awkward. She released her hand, smilingly bending her head sideways to make the withdrawal gracious and tender. ‘Well – good night,’ she said.

‘Good night. Sleep well.’

‘You bet. Good night.’

‘Good night.’

He watched her going down the street. As she reached the corner she waved and vanished. He stood at the door of ‘The Midnight Bell’ for a few moments, with his hands on his hips, looking each way, savouring the night; then went inside.

C
HAPTER VIII

T
HE CLOCK STOOD
at five to ten, and he at once perceived that the climax of the evening had been reached. Apart from a few at the back of the lounge, there were now no women in the place, and it seemed as though their disappearance had relaxed the last bonds of equability and restraint.

A horrible excitement was upon everybody and everything. Indeed, to one unacquainted with the feverish magic that alcohol can work there could have been only one way of accounting for the scene. This house must have been the theatre of some tremendous conference, in which some tremendous crisis had arisen at the moment of adjournment, and the individuals had gathered into frightened but loquacious groups to discuss the bombshell. (But some of them were in fits of laughter about it.) In such circumstances alone might the ordinary despondence and lethargy of man have been galvanized into such potency of discourse, such keenness of confidence, such an air of released honour-brightness and getting down to the essentials of life as was apparent everywhere here.

Men! They thrust their hats back on their heads; they put their feet firmly on the rail; they looked you straight in the eye; they beat their palms with their fists, and they swilled largely and cried for more. Their arguments were top-heavy with the swagger of their altruism. They appealed passionately to the laws of logic and honesty. Life, just for to-night, was miraculously clarified into simple and dramatic issues. It was the last five minutes of the evening, and they were drunk.

And they were in every phase of drunkenness conceivable. They were talking drunk, and confidential drunk, and laughing drunk, and beautifully drunk, and leering drunk, and secretive drunk, and dignified drunk, and admittedly drunk, and fighting drunk, and even rolling drunk. One gentleman, Bob observed, was patently blind drunk. Only one stage off dead drunk, that is – in which event he would not be able to leave the place unassisted.

And over all this ranting scene Ella, bright and pert and
neat and industrious, held her barmaid’s sway. She was the recipient of half the confidences, and half the jokes, and half the leers. Because she symbolized, in her sober but smiling figure, all those restraints and righteous inhibitions which had been gloriously cast behind to-night, she was made the butt of their friendly irony and arrogance. And she accepted the challenge, and adopted one good-humoured, non-committal and chiding attitude to all. Furthermore she was never at a loss for a reply to throw over her shoulder as she swept away to fulfil the next order.

It seemed to Bob that he never admired Ella so much as at this time of night. Her naïve goodness and innate decency never glowed out so strongly as when she gave tit for tat amid this maudlin and besetting pack. But there was something even more than this. There was the fact of her femininity and the charm of her infinite tolerance. And these things, added to her wonderful equability and efficiency, transformed her into something quite maternal and irresistible. She became, in fact, scarcely a barmaid at all, but rather the little mother of the bar, and everyone was made just naughty and innocent in the radiance of her forgiveness.

But Bob was in that sort of mood to-night. He had only just come in from under the stars – stars in whose tender light he had proffered aid to a fallen human being. And one who has just done that sort of thing feels he wants to forgive and love everything.

He apprehended the enormous gulf that separated Ella from the little wretch (the rather pretty little wretch) he had just assisted. He apprehended the gulf, but bridged it with his magnanimity. Ella, the sweet and upright Ella, did as she should in designating her as a ‘Creature’ – but he also did as he should in bestowing his compassion upon a ‘creature’ – if only for the very reason that she was a ‘creature,’ and in need. For he was in that mood when he loved all human creatures. He loved Ella because she was a good woman, and he loved the other because she was a bad woman. It was a good world.

In brief, because he had given ten shillings to a young prostitute without expecting the usual thing in return he was
dreadfully conceited. He was so innocent as to believe the transaction was almost unique. He little suspected cunning mankind’s general awareness of the charms of chivalry. He was in love with himself.

And a man successfully in love desires above all things to sing. And the fates were so propitious to Bob to-night that no sooner was the desire formulated than he was given the chance to do so. The deceitful clock pointed to ten o’clock, and it was time to cry ‘All Out!’

BOOK: Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky
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