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Authors: Patrick Hamilton

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BOOK: Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky
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He spent over an hour in here, smoking three cigarettes, and strangely enjoying the electric-lit, spoon-clinking liveliness of the place; and when he came out the world was transfigured by dusk. Bob identified and adored this transfiguration. All day long the Hampstead Road is a thing of sluggish grey litter and rumbling trams. But at dusk it glitters. Glitters, and gleams, and twinkles, and is phosphorescent – and the very noises of the trams are like romantic thunders from the hoofs of approaching night. In exultant spirits he strolled down towards the West End.

It was half-past five by the time he reached the Charing Cross Road, and he spent half an hour amongst the books. He then had a drink at a corner near the Palace Theatre, and came out, and strolled along Shaftesbury Avenue.

There was a little red yet in the high clouds of the glowing sky, and in this inspiring light, and amid the winking illuminations of a mauve metropolis, Bob’s high spirits reached a peak of pure contentment and peace. The scene was, for indescribable reasons, so magnificent, and life was so indescribably fine. Or at least life could be so indescribably fine, and he was going to make it so.

Bob was not susceptible to the faintest glimmering of the fact that the people he was passing in the street really existed.
He observed their faces, he even caught their eyes, but he had no notion of their entity other than as inexplicable objects moving about in that vast disporting-place of his own soul – London. It is doubtful, of course, whether anybody, save in rare divining and emotional moments, suspects the true existence of the souls of anybody else: but Bob to-night, in his vainglory, exceeded this human rule.

And because he was so happy he went and had another drink at a bar at the corner of Wardour Street, where the lights were bright and they were already doing a brisk trade. And because the barmaid was affable, and because he had a kind of beautiful pity for the barmaid for not existing, and not being about to make her life indescribably fine, but being affable all the same, he had an extraordinary pleasant and forgiving chat with her about nothing in particular. And then he came out and walked down Wardour Street.

And then, because his heart was, after all, youthful and frivolous, and this was his evening off, he cast his high thoughts aside (or rather tucked them deliciously away on his person, knowing that he might resume them whenever he willed) and began to interest himself in the shops, and the sights, and the shoplit people, and to wonder what to do with his evening. He decided to go and have a look at the Capitol, and a look at the Plaza, and choose which to go to after he had had his meal at the Corner House. This he now did, and decided on the Plaza.

But even after this it was still a little too early to go and eat, and anyway the streets were far too fascinating to leave. He again entered Wardour Street, and walked up towards Shaftesbury Avenue.

Bob was always diverted by Wardour Street, because it was the principal resort of the women of the town. To him, as with most young men, of whatever class, the poisonous horror of their bearing yet bore the glamour and beauty of the macabre, even if he prided himself that he was superior to adventure of this kind. Or rather that he had now finished with adventure of this kind; for Bob had been to sea, and his behaviour had been neither eccentric nor snobbish in foreign ports.

This evening, too, passing these women and girls, as they lurked solitary in shop doorways, or aimlessly crossed the road, or came down the street in couples absorbed by that frantic garrulity and backbiting which rend their kind – this evening, remembering yesterday evening, and the chivalrous episode it contained, he experienced a new interest.

Indeed, his mood of vaingloriousness transferred itself to this. He again felt glowingly different from other men – and particularly those, of course, whom he now saw lingering in search of those contacts towards which he himself had adopted so austere and magnificent an attitude.

In fact, before long a bemused Bob had reached a phase of overweening spiritual swagger such as is granted to despairing humans seldom, and he had just bought a paper, and was strolling along Shaftesbury Avenue again, when he saw, coming in his direction, and on his side of the pavement, two of these women; in one of whom he thought he recognized the girl herself.

A few paces revealed that this was so. He was at once too flustered to know whether he intended to speak to her; and she, talking to her friend, did not notice him until he had nearly passed. But suddenly her face lit into a smile and she stopped.

‘Hullo! – how are
you
?’ she said, and offered her hand.

‘Hullo!’ he said, and smiled down upon her.

Her friend (it was a different friend from that of last night) moved on tactfully and looked in a shop window about five yards away.

‘What’re
you
doin’ up this end?’ she asked. She seemed very cheerful.

‘Oh – just strollin’.’

‘Well – come and have a drink with me.’

‘Right you are. Where shall we go?’

‘Good night, Bet,’ she cried.

‘Good night, Jen!’ returned her friend, and moved away.

They were walking together towards Piccadilly. He looked at her face. He was profoundly impressed by her prettiness and smartness of attire. She really didn’t look like one. He
saw people looking at them – rather enviously, it seemed to him. His entire evening was altered. He was enjoying himself tremendously.

C
HAPTER XI

‘I’
M GLAD
I met
you
to-night,’ she said.

‘Oh – why’s that?’ But he knew the answer. ‘So’s I can give you back that money what you gave me,’ she said.

His spirits expanded. ‘Oh no. That’s forgotten. How’d you get on when I left you?’

‘Fine, thanks,’ she said, briefly and cheerfully.

For a moment he was a little thrown out by this unsentimental retort. Also by the way in which she had gaily slid over the fact that he had (with his ‘That’s forgotten’) just presented her with the money. After all, it was ten shillings gone west. In his next remark he sought to connect with her again, to reinstate himself once more as her hero.

‘Were you coming back, as you said you were?’

‘Sure,’ she said with a continued airiness of manner which considerably piqued him. But he would not give in.

‘I bet you weren’t,’ he said, chaffingly.


Sure
,’ she said. ‘I
was
.’ And she met his eyes as much as to ask him what it was all about.

He had to be content with that. It was no use ragging her.

‘I say – where are we going?’ he said.

By this time they were half way down Wardour Street. She led him into a little alleyway leading therefrom, and into a little public house situated therein. They went up into a little room on the first floor, where there was a bar, tables, chairs and sofas, some people on them, and an automatic piano sort of instrument, which was susceptible to pennies, but brief in its susceptibility, and dumb at the time of their arrival.

She sat down on one of the sofas (she was extraordinarily pretty) and he asked her what she would have. She asked for a sherry, and he went to the bar to get it.

He observed in passing, quite uncritically, that whereas she had invited him to, he was paying for, the drinks; and when he came back to her she had already bribed, with a penny, the piano, which responded with a brisk rendering of ‘So Blue’ – which clamoured uproariously in the ears of all present, many of whom (including himself) would have eagerly given it a penny (or even sixpence) to have done nothing of the sort.

They smiled at each other once or twice while this lasted, and sipped their drinks.

Then, when it was over, ‘I Like Music,’ she said. ‘Don’t you?’

Bob said that he did.

‘Specially them waltzes,’ she added, ‘an’ all those Sad ones. Don’t you?’

‘Yes. I do. I think the waltz is the best of the lot.’

‘You know what I mean.’ She was in great travail to make herself clear. ‘I ain’t
sloppy
, but I think I got a taste for Good Music, like.
You
know what I mean.’

He comprehended only too well what she was at such pains to express, and it abruptly occurred to him that the evening was going to be rather a bore. He reflected, however, that it would hardly be fair to expect presentable conversation from her, and since she was desirous of his sympathy, he endeavoured to descend to her level.

‘Get’s you thinking of the Past,’ he tried. . . .

But this was descending even lower than he had intended, and there was a pause. Nevertheless she took it up.

‘Don’t want to get thinkin’ of
that
,’ she said.

‘Oh – why’s that?’ This was more hopeful. He believed they were verging on confessions, which would at any rate not be dull.

‘Well – can’t you imagine?’

They were positively verging on confessions.

‘Oh – I dunno,’ he said. ‘Future’s the important thing I guess.’

At this someone else put a penny into the piano, and confessions
were perforce abandoned in a wild flood of tintinnabulation.

Amid the noise she began to fumble in her bag. ‘I must give you that ten shillings now,’ she said.

Then she had not calmly accepted it as he had supposed? She was rather a dear.

‘Ten shillings? What ten shillings? Put it away. Go on. Put it away.’

‘No,’ she said. ‘Go on.’

‘No,’ he said. ‘Go on.’

‘No – go on,’ she said.

‘You put that away,’ he said.

She did so, adopting the injured tone with which he was familiar. ‘Well I will then,’ she said. ‘But I’m sure I don’t know how to thank you.’

‘Ain’t nothing.’

The music abruptly ceased.

‘An’ I don’t know
why
you’re so good to me,’ she said, without looking at him. . . .

‘Oh well. . . .’

There was a long, and undeniably rather delicious pause. . . .

‘Do you dance at all?’ she said, changing the subject with an ingenuous self-consciousness.

‘Oh – a bit. Not much good, though.’

‘Oh, go on. I expect you’re fine.’

‘I’m not. Really. Do you dance a lot, then?’

‘Oh – fair amount. When I get the chance.’

‘Where d’you go?’

‘Oh – I generally go down to the “Globe” – just round here. You can get the drinks till twelve there.’

‘Oh yes. I know it. Leicester Square way.’

‘That’s right.’

There was another silence. She sipped her drink. He watched her. She was awfully pretty. Whatever her sins, he and she were both young. . . . He saw a man, at a near table, looking at her. She really didn’t look like one – in here and in the company of a man. Last night he was her deliverer. He felt unaccountably proud and satisfied.

‘Couldn’t we go round there?’ he said.

‘What – the “Globe”?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well, we
could
. They don’t start dancin’ till eleven, though.’

‘Well, we’ll go there when the time comes. What about it?’

‘Fine,’ she said.

She was a bit of a puzzle. She had a way of suddenly taking things rather for granted. His mind fled darkly and rapidly into a contemplation of his own resources. He should get out of the ‘Globe’ on ten shillings, and five shillings should cover the drinks etc., before that. Fifteen shillings. Apart from a little loose change, he had two pounds on him, both of which were to have been deposited at the Midland Bank on Monday. But, he reflected, you only lived once, and not long at that.

C
HAPTER XII

‘W
E’LL GO ALONG
, then,’ he said, and seeing that she had finished her drink – ‘what are you going to have now?’

‘No. You ain’t going to pay for any more. I’ll pay for this one.’

Three drinks were already inside him, and now they announced their occupation.

‘You kindly do as you’re told,’ he said. ‘What’re you havin’?’

She was entirely responsive.

‘Shan’t do as I’m told. An’ I’m goin’ to pay for them, so there!’

He rose. ‘You’ll have another sherry,’ he said, and strode magnificently to the bar.

When he came back another tune from the piano had begun, and the whole conduct of the evening was altered – pitched to a light and frothy gaiety. He beamed upon her and she beamed upon him.

‘Never seems I c’n stop bein’ a waiter,’ he said as he put the drinks on the table and sat down. But she smiled and ignored the remark.

‘I’d like to know what your Girl would think of
you
,’ she said. ‘If she saw you in here.’

The naïve reasoning that led her to believe that he must have a ‘girl,’ or that, having one, he would be so two-faced and irresolute as to be sitting in here with her, amused him.

‘I ain’t got no girl,’ he said, but rather as though he had, really.

‘Oo! I bet!’

‘No, I ain’t –
really
.’

‘Oo, I bet you have! An’ I ’speck she’s just the opposite of me.’

She was wonderfully cheeky – taking to herself sufficient of consequence to place herself in contradistinction to this hypothetical girl. But he liked it.

‘Just the opposite of you?’ he said, feeding her.

‘Yes. Just the opposite. Dark – an’ brown-eyed – an’ nice straight nose, an’ all.’

‘Why – ain’t your nose nice an’ straight?’

‘Mine! Why, it’s turned up just like a little button!’

He saw that while she disparaged her own nose, she secretly fancied it; and he felt the same about it.

‘So much the better,’ he said.

‘Not like your girl’s,’ she said. ‘She’s lovely, ain’t she?’

‘There isn’t one, I keep on tellin’ you.’

‘You tell that somewhere else. An’ I ’speck she’s more than a nice straight nose. I ’speck she’s a nice straight
girl
, too.’

‘Why – aren’t you nice an’ straight?’

She paused and smiled.

‘Well,’ she said. ‘I hardly give that impression, do I, dear?’

He noted the spontaneous and characteristic ‘dear’ of the courtesan.

‘Why – what’s wrong with you?’ he asked courteously.

‘Heaps of things, dear – An’ you’ll marry her, an’ settle down, an’ she’ll look after you. That’s it, ain’t it?’

BOOK: Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky
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