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Chapter Four (B)

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Author Topic: Chapter Four (B)  (Read 28 times)
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« on: July 28, 2023, 08:58:04 am »

While the man was busying himself with the tea, Orvil began to look more carefully round the hut. Each corner seemed to be used for a different purpose. The living corner had shelves of tattered books high up on the wall, and a very shabby and bedraggled Knole settee upholstered in brown corduroy. The washing corner had a scrubbed wood trestle table on which stood four enamel basins. The sleeping corner took up most room; three or four camp-beds, and one more important-looking iron-framed one, spread along each wall. The last corner was rigged up as a little oratory. Between two screens of blue brocade, a lamp of ruby glass and gilt hung in front of a holy picture.

‘Is he Roman Catholic, or only High?’ thought Orvil hurriedly. ‘I must be careful not to say anything about either. I wonder if he can smell the communion wine on my breath; I mustn’t go too near.’

Before leaving the oratory corner, he looked more carefully at the screens, the lamp and the holy picture, and was surprised once more to find that ecclesiastical objects were just as commercial and mass-produced as secular things. He always expected them to be made very lovingly and sentimentally by the worshippers themselves. Instead, he found that the holy picture was a Medici print of Piero della Francesca; the altar lamp reminded him strongly of one of those swinging bulbs of liquid soap which he loved to turn upside-down in public lavatories; the blue brocade had an animal stench and stiffness from size, and the coarse gold thread leapt out at him like strands of tartish, peroxided hair.

Orvil turned back to the living corner, where the man was just about to pour the boiling water on to the tea-leaves in a brilliant yellow enamel teapot. A green tin tray, patterned to resemble tiles, stood on a low stool in front of the settee. On the tray the man had arranged the biscuits, the mugs, the bread and the jam.

“Come along,” he called out; “everything’s ready. Let’s have it at once.”

Orvil padded across the hut on his bare feet. The man’s words made him hurry. He felt the treacherous, furry softness of the boards, and hoped that no splinter would dig suddenly into his flesh.

The tea-tray in front of the comfortably sagging couch looked so inviting to the hungry and tired Orvil that he let out an involuntary “Oogh!” Something leapt up inside him and he clasped his arms tightly across his chest.

“Greedy devil!” the man said, as he patted the place next to him.

“How many spoonfuls?” asked the man, poising the aluminium spoon over the sugar-basin.

“Er---I don’t know---about two?” Orvil suggested, not being able to gauge the amount needed to sweeten such large mugs, but privately thinking that two teaspoonfuls would be no use at all.

He was relieved to see that the man quietly put in four.

“Help yourself to bread and jam,” the man said, as he handed Orvil his mug.

It was one of Orvil’s fads that he only liked bread in the form of toast or crusty rolls, but he now quite willingly cut a large hunk of soft bread and spread it thickly with cherry jam. He bit into the doorstep. How delicious was the plain bread, under the jam! It was a little like nuts, a little like earth, like blankets, like---Orvil’s defining powers gave out. He knew really that it was only like bread.

“This is my favourite jam,” he said to the man gratefully. He thought to himself, ‘I’m always missing lunch and making up for it afterwards on bread and cakes.’

“What a good thing we knew you were coming!” the man replied facetiously.

“You asked me in; I wouldn’t be here otherwise. I’d never have spoken to you if you hadn’t spoken to me,” said Orvil, outraged and mortified.

“Of course I asked you in. Don’t be such an idiot; I was only trying to be funny.” The man gave Orvil an unnecessarily hard thump, and Orvil immediately remembered the rough punches meted out to the boy who played with his sausage.

The man stretched back in his comer of the settee and relaxed. They both lay back, comfortably munching for some moments. The refilled kettle, as it heated, twittered delicately like some insect.

“Do you live near here?” the man asked gently at last. “I’m staying for the summer with my father and brothers in the hotel over there,” said Orvil, pointing vaguely.

“Oh, you’re not camping, then?”

“No, I wish I were. I wish I could live like this in a hut by the river, wearing hardly any clothes, getting brown all over, making fires to cook my meals, boating, swimming, singing,” said Orvil with deep envy. “Is it your hut?” he asked after a pause.

“Well, it belongs to the Mission which I help to run at Bethnal Green in London,” the man explained. “You see, I’m a schoolmaster, so in the summer holidays I have plenty of time to do this. The boys from the East End absolutely love this place. There’s only room for a few at a time, but most of them seem to wangle part of their holiday down here.”

“I saw you with two of them the other day,” Orvil said suddenly, as if he had decided to disclose a secret.

“Did you?” the man answered.

Orvil wondered why he did not show more surprise.

“Did I?” The man laughed. “I expect they were. But where were you all this time?”

“I was crouching in my boat, hidden by the long grass on the river-bank.”

“If you felt like it, why didn’t you come and join us?” the man asked.

“Oh, I don’t expect any of you would have liked that. I was a complete stranger.”

“Those boys went this morning,” the man said; “the next lot come tomorrow. Why don’t you come down and help me with them sometimes? You’d learn an awful lot.”

“They’d think it was queer. They’d think I was much too young to help you. They’d get annoyed.” Orvil thought of all the things that would be likely to spoil this plan, because it was so attractive to him.

“They’d think all those things if you put them into their heads. Otherwise they’d take you for granted as a perfectly ordinary person.”

There was a silence. Orvil felt small and lectured. When the man spoke again, it was to ask where Orvil went to school. Orvil told him.

“You ought to be all right there,” he said comfortably. Orvil was about to answer as he always did, “I like it very much, thank you.” But something made him utter his real thoughts instead.

“I hate it so much,” he said, “I don’t know how I’m going to go back at the end of the holidays.”

“Oh, you’ll be all right,” the man replied cheerfully. “When you get a bit higher up and can throw your weight about, you’ll begin to enjoy it, and then you’ll hate the thought of leaving.”

Orvil saw at once that it would spoil the afternoon to rake out his unhappiness. It would break up the delightful sense of security which had come upon him as he sat by the stove, listening to the storm outside. The schoolmaster would only become more firm and stem and sensible. With a fierce effort, Orvil shut the thought of school away. ‘I may be dead before I have to go back,’ he told himself. ‘I may get chicken-pox or measles; or I might be much luckier still and get awfully ill with consumption, and then I wouldn’t be interfered with again for the rest of my life.’

He turned sharply to the man---away from his thoughts. “Are you going to sleep here all alone tonight?” he asked. He wanted to realize to the utmost the hut’s isolation and remoteness from school, hotel and all human beings.

“Christ, what a noise!” the man said; “like an army marching over gravel.”

‘He says “Christ” and he’s religious!’ thought Orvil.

“It must be lovely,” he mused aloud, “to be here all alone by the river in the night, with the trees waving outside, the rain beating down on the roof, and inside, the stove and the blankets and lots of nice food and books.”

Here the man cut in with, “You’ve forgotten my pipe.” He stretched down to the floor beside the settee and picked up a pipe and a yellow oiled-silk pouch.

Orvil obediently added the pipe to his catalogue of delights.

The man took tobacco from the pouch, and stuffed it into the bowl. Orvil watched the nail on his square thumb going white as he pressed, and then flushing dull red when the pressure was relieved. He watched the man waste several matches before he got the pipe to draw properly.

“I hate living at the hotel,” Orvil said, when he thought he had the man’s attention again. “I can’t talk to anyone; I just do exercises in my room, then I roam about, exploring, till the evening, when I have to go back for dinner.”

The man made no answer. He seemed to be paying very little attention to what was being said. He stood up, stretched out his hands and brought down a curious stringed instrument from the topmost shelf. “One of the lads made it from a cigar-box and an old tennis-racket handle. Isn’t it clever!” he said, holding it out to Orvil.

Orvil ran his fingers along the rough wood, then plucked one of the strings. It was so loose that it gave out a rising and sinking whine.

“Play something to me on it,” he said.

After pouring more tea into both mugs, the man rested the instrument on his knees and started to tune the four strings. He had nothing to go by but his ear. Orvil was much impressed by his apparent sureness and precision.

When he had finished, he squatted back in the settee, folded his legs under him, and started to strike chords on the instrument as he sang very softly and persuasively,

  “Bring out your hundred-dollar coffin,
    Bring out your rubber-tyred hack,
    To take poor Johnny to the cemetery,
    Never for to bring him back.
    He was her man---but he done her wrong!”

The effect was very lovely; it cut straight through to Orvil.

“Sing it all from the beginning,” he shouted urgently. “I want it all. I want every word.”

The man thought for a few moments, then sang verse after verse of ‘Frankie and Johnnie.’ Orvil listened, holding his breath. He thought, ‘It’s beautiful, because the man sings it absolutely properly. He never pretends it’s funny.’

Orvil made the man go on singing to him. He joined in sometimes. The singing melted Orvil’s heart. He wanted to stay in the hut for ever, singing and talking and helping to do the housework.

The man put down the hand-made instrument and picked up his pipe again. It had gone out, and so more matches were held to the bowl, until blue smoke belched out at last. The man looked at Orvil through the smoke.

“Now you wash up the tea-things and put them away,” he said. Orvil stood up awkwardly. He was a little surprised at the curtness, but felt quite willing to do odd jobs for the man.

“There’s some water in one of the white basins over there; just rinse each piece round and then dry it on one of the towels.”

Orvil felt a mixture of pleasure and annoyance.

‘The lazy sod just sits there on his arse, pretending I’m his slave,’ he said to himself, with a tingle. Usually, he hardly ever used these particular coarse words, but something prompted him to do so now.

When he had polished the last piece of china, he turned to the man and said in burlesque impudent servant’s language, “Will you be wanting anything else, sir?”

The man’s retaliation was to take him quite seriously.

“Yes, you can polish my brown shoes, if you like,” he said; “they’re under the bed, and the polish and brushes are at the bottom of the dresser.”

The man took no more notice of Orvil, but began to cut his nails noisily with one of the gadgets on his large penknife.

In a dazed way, Orvil fetched the shoes and started to polish them. As he thrust his hand into one of them, he thought, ‘It’s always mysterious inside shoes; like a dark cave. No light ever reaches the end. You can only feel along the walls blindly.’ He placed his fingers in the little hollows---like a string of graded pearls---made by the toes. He traced the curve where the ball of the foot fitted. Pressing his knuckles up, he touched the over-arching leather, which seemed cracked and yet humid. He thought that there was a whole atmosphere and little world inside the shoe.

Orvil polished away lustily until the shoes glistened like wet brown stones.

“You ought to be able to see your face in them good enough to shave by now, sir,” he said with the same facetiousness and cockney accent.

“Come over here and let me pass them,” said the man sternly.

Orvil went across and poked the shoes under his nose.

“Yes, they’ll do,” the man conceded. He looked about the hut restlessly.

‘He’s going to get me to trim up the holy lamp or wash his dirty pyjamas or do something else frightful,’ thought Orvil, again with the mixture of resentment and pleasure. His pleasure lay chiefly in the fact that the man seemed to have accepted him as completely as he did the chairs and tables in the hut, or the trees outside.

“I ought to go now,” said Orvil in a loud voice.

“No, you can’t go yet; it’s early still, and the rain hasn’t quite stopped. Come over here and I’ll show you some knots. I’m sure your education has been neglected.”

The man had taken up a long piece of white cord and was playing with it, crocheting it with his fingers into a lanyard, and then ripping it undone again with one zip.

Orvil first went up to the stove to feel his clothes. Parts were still damp, but he decided to put them on. He huddled into his trousers, then abandoned the dressing-gown and pulled the shirt over his head.

“I'll leave your shoes and socks to dry a bit more. I want to show you these knots,” said the man impatiently.

Orvil sat down on the settee and the man began to demonstrate a Bowline, a Double Sheet Bend, two Clove Hitches and two Half Hitches, two Round Turns and two Half Hitches.

Orvil became confused, but said “Yes” and nodded his head as if he had followed all the complications of the cord.

“Hold out your hands,” the man said suddenly.

Orvil did so, and in a moment the man had tied them tightly together. He threw the other end of the long cord over a metal strut in the roof and then began to pull. In this way he hoisted Orvil to his feet and soon had him standing on tiptoe, his arms stretched to their utmost, his body, as it lost balance, eddying and turning slightly, like a corpse on a gibbet.

“Let me down!” Orvil cried. “You’ll wrench my arms out of their sockets.”

The man laughed, then poked him sharply in the ribs and slapped his behind resoundingly,

“You see how defenceless you are now! I’ve not yet quite decided whether to hang you over the stove and roast you very, very slowly, or whether just to beat you into a jelly with a cricket bat as you eddy to and fro.”

Orvil began to struggle silently. He kicked out his legs and dragged on his arms, but he could do nothing; he only hurt himself the more.

With the same surprise tactics, the man suddenly let go of the cord, so that Orvil crumpled into a heap on the floor. The man went up to him, quietly undid his wrists and offered his own. “Now it’s your turn,” he said; “you can tie me up exactly as you like.” He seemed to be contrite after so much teasing.

Orvil set about it with a will; he made reef knots, the only sort he knew, at the man’s ankles and wrists.

“The cord’s cutting into me,” the man said, but Orvil took no notice. Soon he had him completely trussed. This gave Orvil great pleasure.

“I think I ought to go now,” he said quietly. “Thank you so much for a very delightful afternoon. I hope we’ll meet again.” He smirked at the man in imitation of a lady at a vicarage tea; then he turned his back and began to put on his shoes and socks. He made for the door, pretending that he was about to leave the hut.

“Come back, you devil!” the man shouted.

Orvil turned very slowly. “Did you say anything?” he asked. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I forgot all about you.” Orvil began to undo the knots in a very leisurely fashion.

As soon as the man’s hands were free, he gave Orvil a sound cuff on the side of the head.

Orvil thought this exceedingly mean, unfair and treacherous. He got up, hurt and silent, and turned to go.

“Good-bye,” he said, as if he’d decided never to see the man again.

“But I expect that you’ll often be coming down here now,” said the man questioningly, as he followed Orvil to the door.

“No, there’ll be all those other people from the Mission.”

“That won’t matter; you’ll like them.”

Orvil made no further answer. They walked in silence through the whipping bushes again. The man looked at Orvil, not understanding him. Orvil jerked his head round and said, “Thank you”; then he pulled his bicycle out of the bush and jumped on to it. The saddle was soft and soggy. The heavy sprays of leaves scattered him with water and grew lighter as he brushed against them.

The man waved his hand in a dazed way, then called out, “Stop a minute, we don’t even know each other’s names.” But Orvil still rode on, pretending not to hear.
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