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Authors: Patrick Hamilton

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Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (9 page)

BOOK: Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky
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‘Darn socks an’ things,’ suggested Bob.

‘That’s right. Sweet li’l wife. You won’t be able to see any more of me then. She’d scratch my eyes out.’

‘So you’re on’y my tempor’y girl?’

‘That’s right.’

‘M’m,’ said Bob, ruminating. . . .

‘Ain’t never not much more than tempor’y,’ she said. ‘I guess. . . .’

He was slightly baffled by these constant, and it seemed almost conscientious, allusions to her own profession. Also they struck him as being rather wistful and pathetic. Was she seeking his commiseration?

‘And who are
goin’ to marry?’ he asked.

‘Me? Oo – my dear! The Prince of Wales. Haven’t you heard?’

‘Oh yes,’ said Bob. ‘I did hear something to that effect. . . .’

And so on. The evening was off, with a flying start. They had two more rounds of drinks, and they sat on for an hour and a half. They laughed, and chatted, and she told him, in her indolent, friendly way, a good deal about herself. In fact she did most of the talking.

Only at half-past nine, just before they got up to go, did a slight cloud come to darken the calm and sunny contentment of his mood.

She was giving him proofs of the prevailing, the almost singular honesty of her temperament.

‘An’ I’ll tell you what,’ she said. ‘I once knew a man what used to give me four pounds a week – see?’

Bob, who had been Seeing continuously throughout the evening, saw.

‘Only it was only just until I got a job. It wasn’t
anything, like – see?’

Bob nodded.

‘’Cos he used to say he was
for us, see? He used to say he was sorry for us girls – an’ that we wasn’t the real ones to blame. An’ he used to go on givin’ me this money till I got a job, like – see?’

Bob saw.

‘Well, one day,’ she continued, settling down comfortably into her story, ‘I was walking about – just not far from here – when Up comes a Lady to speak to me. Oo – an’ she was a lady, too! all lovely fur coat’n everything. An’ she asks if she can speak to me, as she’s somethin’ private to say, like. An’ she takes me round the corner, like, an’ she says, “Now I want you to tell me,” she says, “what Relationship you Bear to my husband,” she says. She says, “You an’ I understand all about that sort of thing,” she says, “an’ I simply want you to tell me quite straight,” she says. “An’ I’ll make it Worth your While,” she says, “you needn’t worry about that.” See?’

Bob saw.

‘So I said “Well,” I said. “There’s no need to give me any money,” I said, “an’ I wouldn’t take it. Your husband’s just a straight an’ honourable gentleman,” I said, “an’ there’s never been nothing of that kind between us.” An’ she tried to offer me money, but I wouldn’t take it.’

There was a pause.

‘Must’ve been a very nice fellow,’ said Bob.

‘Oo – he was! An’ he used to say it wasn’t us girls’ fault. He used to say it was
. He used to say if only girls over here was paid decently, as they was in America, there wouldn’t be none of us on the street. An’
ought to have known, ’cos he was in Business. Oo – he was ever such a big man. He was in Cotton, ’s’ matter of fact. I mean he understood all about it. He was a big man in Cotton.’

‘M’m,’ said Bob, and there was another pause. Her implicit faith in Cotton as a product almost identical with economic erudition he could afford to take lightly. But for the rest, his happiness had flown.

He frankly resented this intruder in Cotton. He knew the economic side of the situation just as well as him, and he disliked him as much for having exceeded, as for having preceded, him in chivalry. Four pounds a week! The sum astonished and enraged him. How meagre was his own ten shillings now! And his eighty pounds at the bank, scraped together with such self-denial and rapture! It was a disgusting world, in which some people had everything, and others, for
no reason, nothing. And labour, ideals, and honesty were sheer waste of time. He would show them, though. He would show them.

And because he now suddenly saw her as the object of this extravagant and fatuous liberality – because the little man in Cotton had got in years before him and done the thing on an infinitely larger scale – because there had probably been, or even were, quantities of other little munificent men in her life – and because, therefore, his own ten shillings was a paltry trifle, and she positively magnanimous in giving him so much attention in return for it – because of all these things, she now suddenly seemed to draw away from him, to become more remote and self-contained. She had, after all, a life of her own, and had no need to bother with him.

Not that he wanted her to bother with him. It only was that, by reason of this detachment, her prettiness was transformed into something much less approachable, and because less approachable perhaps more desirable. And this irritated him.

He was her hero no more. He had, in fact, come down a peg or two.


out into Wardour Street again she took his arm. He felt reassured.

A passer-by would not have thought twice about either of them. He would have observed a fair, full-mouthed, pretty, and possibly rather fast young woman, arm in arm with a common but nicely dressed young man – probably her fiancé. They came out into Coventry Street, and walked along by the Corner House, wending their way through a thick, lingering mass of people lit by a garish shop-light.

There were millions and millions of people, millions and millions of winking lights, and millions and millions of cars,
taxis, and buses. And the people themselves were as silent and placid as the machinery was blustering, resolute, and violent. It was a horrible scene, and Bob wondered what the world was coming to.

She still held his arm, and they did not speak much. It might be well (he thought) to possess, in this tumultuous chaos, one thing at least of your own, one human and comprehending organism of your own. He sought sympathy and solace from the vast ramifications of civilization around him, and could almost imagine he had found it, in her light arm snuggled up gladly in his. . . . He wondered what
was thinking about it all.

She took him to another little house off the Haymarket, where they had sandwiches and continued to drink and talk, and whence they were at last ejected, at eleven o’clock, with the rest of imbibing London, on to the cold and still crowded streets.

It was indeed very cold; but then they were now very well filled, and they hurried along in great spirits to the ‘Globe.’ They might have known each other for years. It occurred to him that he was having a queer night, and that he had better be careful, for he had to be up working in the morning. She, of course, was not under that obligation.

The ‘Globe’ is in the vicinity of Leicester Square. On the ground floor there is a long spacious bar, with ample seating accommodation, to which the scum of the earth, or the cream of the West End underworld (as you wish it) nightly repairs. Everybody is drunk by half-past ten. By this time there are still remaining one or two boisterous young men from second-rate public schools and respectable business men having a night out, but the place is distinguished by an enormous prevalence of harlots, and their clientèle. Which includes American Sailors, crooks, thriving little Jew furriers and hairdressers, and nondescripts of all sorts – all with a great deal of ugly money to scatter about. At eleven o’clock they are all turned out, but those who wish may go downstairs. Here there is a band of four, a floor for dancing, and about forty odd tables with white cloths, at which you may have food and drink till
twelve. But the law forbids you to drink unless you make a pretence of eating as well, so you have to order a sandwich which you never touch. In this manner great profit accrues to the owners of the ‘Globe.’

When they arrived here, there was a thick crowd on the stairs going down, and it seemed rather doubtful whether they would get in. They did so, however – entering into the blare of the band, the shuffle of the crowded floor, and that confusion of blazing light, people, talk, and smoke almost inseparable from the pursuit of nightly pleasure. They found a seat at the back, and could barely hear each other talk. He ordered drinks as in a dream, and asked her to dance.

She danced, not to his surprise, beautifully. She snuggled up, as though with a gesture, in his arms. A lot of people looked at them, and he was very proud. He could hold his own with any of them. He held the prettiest woman in the room in his arms, and he could hold his own with any of them. He was convinced that she was the prettiest woman in the room. He was proud to be seen with her. He was having a great night.

The dance ended, they smiled and clapped, and they went back to their table. Here drinks were waiting for them, and at last the alcohol began to mount to Bob’s brain in real earnest. Everything became excited and confused. Another tune began. Somebody came up and asked her to dance. She appealed for permission, he gave it, and she went. He watched her dancing. He danced with her again. He came back and ordered more drinks. Someone else came up and asked her to dance (this was apparently customary at the ‘Globe’); and he again watched her.

As she danced with others he could not take his eyes off her. The prettiest thing in the room. He observed her body, embraced by another, as he had embraced it, swaying to the tune. A kind of jealous sense of ownership prompted him to smile at her nearly every time she came round. She never failed him. She was phenomenally desirable, and he was proud of her. He had never had such a delightful evening. He was drunk.

And now everything grew more and more confused. He was talking gaily with her at the tables; he was dancing with her; he was talking with her again. The place was beginning to reel; she was speaking with amused disparagement of her other partners; he was finding himself strangely gratified by the disparagement, and trying to order some more drinks. They were getting on famously. And all at once there was a strange pause, and she was looking at him in a new way.

‘Ain’t you really got a girl?’ she said.

He looked at her – in a queer, exalted moment – and then replied:

‘No,’ he said. ‘I said I hadn’t. . . .’


‘Yes. Honest. Why?’

‘Oh – only just wondered.’ She stuck out her cigarette on the plate. ‘Come on. Let’s dance this one. It’s the last.’

They went on to the floor. It was, as she had said, the last dance, and the band took it at a terrific rate, ending up with a kind of jig. It then carefully played precisely one half of ‘God Save the King.’ At this the spirit of loyalty, not to say Imperialism, filled the ‘Globe’ (the gentlemen standing impressively to attention, and the ladies looking respectfully at a loss) – but only for the duration of the tune. In a few minutes they were all out in the air.

‘Well, where are you going now?’ she asked.

‘Well. S’pose I ought to go home. What’re you doing?’

‘Me? Oh – I suppose I got to hang about. . . .’

‘Oh. . . .’

‘Tell you what. I’ll walk up some of the way with you.’

She took his arm, and walked up with him, through Soho, as far as Oxford Street. They were cheerful, sprightly in retort, and very friendly.

‘Well – when do I see you again?’ he said, taking her hand, as they came to the point of departure.

‘Well – tell you what. I’ll come in and see you one evening. I’ll come in to-morrow.’

‘Will you?’

‘Yes. I will. I’ll be in about seven. That’s right. About seven.’

‘All right. An’ I’ll expect you, mind you. About seven. Then if I’m not workin’ too hard I’ll come over and talk to you.’

‘That’s right. . . . I’ll be in all right. Good night, then, dear.’

‘Good night.’

He smiled down at her smile, and left her.

He paced down the silent and lamp-lit spaciousness of Great Portland Street. Gleaming motors crouched in the darkness behind shimmering show windows. Couples of policemen were at deserted corners. It was almost one o’clock. It had been a great evening.

Out of two pounds he had seven shillings left. It was hard to credit that you could spend all that on so innocent an evening. She could hardly have extracted more from him if she had been a harpy.

It occurred to him that she had never thanked him. He supposed it was implied. For one moment a vision of his lost evening – a quiet evening at the pictures with himself and his ambitions (and his two pounds intact), awoke a suspicion of a regret. But he cast it away. A little nonsense now and then was relished by the wisest men.

And her? Arranging to meet her to-morrow. . . . What was this queer alliance, and what was she herself thinking about it all?

All that talk about his not having a ‘girl.’ . . . It was rather appalling. Was it possible that she herself desired to be his ‘girl’? No, she was a sensible girl, and plainly saw that this was beyond reason.

But the thing must have crossed her mind. He had respected her and treated her with unexampled tenderness; he was quite personable; they were, in the beginning, of the same class. Was it not indeed plausible to hazard that she was already in love with him?

He sincerely hoped not. It was all rather sad. He would never forget her asking him, like that, if he had a girl. Did that type of girl fall in love? They needed such consolation, surely, more than others. Their love, if once given, might indeed be blind and devastating.

For that reason they would never allow themselves to enter
into it unless they were sure of their ground, unless sincere advances had been made to them. He remembered her own half-humorous insistence upon her ineligibility as his ‘girl.’

He was therefore quite safe. He had made no advances, and even if the idea had entered her head she would keep it as something quite impractical and apart.

He would have to be a little careful, though. It must not go any further. It would never do to start breaking anybody’s heart.


bed with a rich and glorious evening, and he awoke at seven to find that it had gone bad overnight, as it were (like milk), and was in his mouth – bitter and sickly. He had been fooled. He had not, after all, had a great time: he had merely been drinking again. All the exalted expansiveness of the night before was transformed into the ranting ebullition of intoxication. He had been fooling about the West End with a woman of the streets. He had spent two pounds. He had, in fact, done it again: and he was becoming, according to his own standards, totally dissolute.

BOOK: Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky
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