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5: Time the Tiger (part 1)


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Author Topic: 5: Time the Tiger (part 1)  (Read 2 times)
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« on: January 22, 2023, 09:37:05 am »

IT WAS, as usual in London about that time of the year, endeavouring to snow. There had been a hard frost for days, in fact it was so cold that in any other country it would have snowed long ago. The sky was a constipated mass, yellowed by the fog, suspended over a city awaiting the Deluge. It was eight-thirty in the morning. The streets of Rotting Hill were like Pompeii with Vesuvius in catastrophic eruption, a dull glare, saffronish in colour, providing an unearthly uniformity. The self-centred precipitancy of the bowed pedestrians resembled a procession of fugitives.

Mark Robins was standing at his bathroom window. His eye followed with displeasure the absurdly ominous figures moving under mass-pressure to be there at nine o'clock, passing on through the hollow twilit streets towards the swarming undergrounds. It was the urgency that jarred, their will-to-live as a machine.

He could see into the lighted baker's shop. The lady known in his private mind as "bum-face" arranged yesterday's and of course the day before yesterday's pastry in the window. Whenever he saw the old pastries ranged in the window he thought of that air of uprightness and invincible integrity owned by the little master-baker. Why were his loaves the least white, the greyest, of any in Rotting Hill? He held very strong opinions on the subject of the socialist administration: perhaps cause and effect. His bread became as hard as a brick within forty-eight hours. It became like that in the stomach too if you failed to expel it promptly. This baker's views on the socialist government were as forcible as a pick-pocket's are regarding the police force, only the baker's had the added force of moral indignation.

Then, as Mark idly watched, "Fringe" (in his private mind she was known as that) erect and white in her chemist's uniform, came out of Willough's. She moved like clockwork, as steady as the swan on the surface of the lake. Whenever she turned she turned abruptly at right-angles with the precision of a Royal Marine. She had been a she-soldier. Mark approved of "Fringe", and regretfully noted how she stopped, pivoted to face at right-angles, and entered the baker's shop (as she did every morning) and selected an ageing pastry. However, she worked in a chemist's and no doubt kept her bowels open.

In several windows of the lofty Victorian houses—all Private Hotels—where the diligent refugees of Rotting Hill were already at work on their biographies of Goethe or of Meyerbeer, there was electric light. The silversmith and diamond merchant was (typical of his class! thought Mark) the latest riser of the tradesmen of Rotting Hill. The last snores of the night blew out of his nostrils upon the little fluttery moustache as his head lay on the pillow beside that of Mrs. Silversmith. Both the Silversmiths and Mark had a low opinion of the other's morale: their flats so situated that nothing that went on in one was exactly a closed book for the other—especially in view of the prohibitive cost of material for curtains and the veils that in happier times shroud our domestic interiors.

Mark withdrew from the window. He sighed. He did not know why he sighed. But a large white "Ascot heater" stood in a corner of the bathroom which no longer produced hot water. Three months earlier the mechanic of the gas service had called for the routine clean-up. Since then it had been out of action. Mark boiled some water in the kitchen and washed: then he filled the kettle again, and again put it on to boil. After that he went to his guest's room, knocked at the door, and put his head inside.

"Charles! Stop dreaming and get up. I have put some water on to boil for you."

"Thank you, Mark. Whooah!" Charles yawned.

"You slept well?"

"Perfectly."

"Good."

"Whooah."

As he went to his room Mark was smiling. "Whooah!" was so like Charles. Seeing Charles in bed "whooahing" had caused him for some reason to think of Ida Dyat, Charles's sister. He thought of her, as he always did, in repose. Action was not her element: so, though on horseback her hair was dramatic as a maenad's, he preferred to think of the stationary cloud of dull gold as she lay back in an armchair reading a book. The indolent red lips he would see for preference at their most indolent, when she had been too lazy to smile and had smiled with her eyes instead—which was less trouble. Her beauty was preraphaelite at its best, brooding or dreaming in some equivalent of the mirror of the Lady of Shalott.

It was a certain inactivity in Ida's composition which attracted him most, and it was that, too, that accounted for his romantic attachment remaining in a state of abortive repression, contained within the forms of youthful camaraderie: Mark being one of those men who needed, if not to be hunted by the female, at least to be reminded that women are sexual phenomena. But always a warm wind from the past rushed into his mind when he had, as now, these images of her. Then the image suddenly dissolved, his smile faded. For Ida must be a hag of forty-five, he thought. Thinking of Ida as greying and pathetic was so immensely distasteful that he began moving quickly and noisily about. Old Charles stopped young though, he thought. "Whooah." Mark smiled again.

But he soon forgot Charles's sea-lion cry, for he became grimly absorbed in dressing. His bedroom was a far more efficient refrigerator than the "Ascot heater" was a heater. However, the Briton regards chilliness as next to godliness. Mark would have been quite as displeased had the refrigerator failed as he had been at the defection of the "heater".

Taking a fresh shirt out of the drawer he identified it—as the one with the smallest buttonholes of any. This abnormality was revealed by all new shirts to some degree. With the shirt in question the buttons refused to go in. Each buttonhole had to be forcibly entered, the one at the top entailing as much sometimes as five minutes strenuous thumbing. Unquestionably this afforded him that grim satisfaction the Briton experiences when senseless obstacles are placed in his way or life bristles with purposeful mischance, all food for his "grit". But in this case there was another factor: namely the credit and good name of a socialist Britain. Probably it would prove a better advertisement if British manufacturers turned out serviceable shirts—easy to button up and with such conveniences as are prized by self-indulgent foreigners. It was like our taxation. Few foreigners understood that. Taxes such as we can stand up to would cause a revolution anywhere else. Only we have the guts to "take it". Besides, the obvious explanation of the smallness of these buttonholes aroused Mark's party-zeal: the motive was profit. It saved labour and time in the factory to make them small. It was a relief to one's feelings to reflect that the days were numbered of "free enterprise" shirt manufacture.

Even the best shirts tended to shrink and the buttonholes lost width in the wash quite as much as the sleeves lost length, if only a little. But the button naturally was unaffected. Any slight dilation of the buttonholes attendant upon the constant passage, in and out, of the button, was less than its shrinkage in the wash. It had of course occurred to Mark to purchase a few dozen shirt buttons, smaller than those on the shirt. But although there were many sorts of buttons in the shops, shirt-buttons (oddly enough) were practically unobtainable.

As he pulled on a sock one of his fingernails caught in the wool. With an almost new pair of nail-scissors he attempted to cut off the chipped nail. But the scissors were already loose and of a metal formerly unknown to cutlery. The nail was bent by them, it was not severed. He fell back on his nail-file. After a little he gave that up, and stuck a band-aid over the nail.

The quality of all goods supplied by the sundriesmen had inevitably deteriorated. Then he knew about the small piratic factories that turned out the defective steel goods, inundating England with gimcrack merchandise, and felt grateful that their days were numbered in a collectivist society.

Mark was superstitious. To start the day in slippers appeared to him almost an ill-omen. The shoes on which his choice fell, on this occasion, were his recently-acquired £5 brown pair. Of these he was still rather proud—an emotion the shoes were not fitted to inspire. And Charles had assured him that there was no pair of shoes to be had worth putting on your feet under seven pounds ten.

With these shoes he invariably attempted, completely without success, to tie a bow. The shoelaces were too short. In England today the statutory length for shoelaces is fourteen inches. It is illegal to supply laces longer than that. Mark was not aware that he had to thank the Government for this idiotic difficulty, and put it down to some dishonest manufacturer selling short weight on the plea of a non-existent "shortage". As usual, for all his stout finger-work, he got nothing but a solitary loop, one for the left foot, one for the right.

He rose to his feet, the petty frustrations involved in the act of dressing done with. A tweed jacket hung from a peg. No peasant weaver could ever have been responsible for the vulgarity of the colour. Mark, who had paid twenty pounds for it, eyed it dubiously. It was about the maximum price for a ready-made tweed. All first-quality tweeds, of course, must be reserved for export. But why (the question had once forced its way into Mark's mind) need what was left for the home-market be so ugly and vulgar?

Another question: Why should all ready-made jackets, cardigans, jumpers, be made for small and frail men? Mark was tall and muscular, so that question it would have been inhuman to ignore. But it was easily answered, too. Far less material was required for a small man or a child than for someone of Mark's size. Consequently the manufacturers preferred to think that Englishmen, with a few exceptions, are stunted and emaciated.

Mark took the jacket off the hanger and a phoney smell of ersatz peat assailed his nostrils. It was with no possessive glow he put on this practically new garment and as he left the bedroom he registered depression. He could not guess why sans amour et sans haine his heart was so full of a low-grade pain.

There was no sound of Charles, so he went into the kitchen to prepare the breakfast. He took the "Strachey loaf", as Charles cheaply called it, out of the bread tin. Officially[Pg 169] it was one day old, but when he applied the bread-saw it was like sawing brick. He sawed off four slices and grilled them two at a time. The kettle had been refilled and was acquiring a little heat. He threw the remainder of his butter-ration into the repast, added a few pinches of alleged Darjeeling to the pseudo-Ceylon in the teapot: placed on the tray the two dishes of cereal, a teaspoonful of sugar for each. Sugar was always a bad shortage with him. He took down a jar marked "Strawberry Jam", recognized by housewives as mainly pectin and/or carrot pulp, given appropriate local colour of course and flavour to match. There was neither nourishment nor pleasure to be had from it. Charles appeared, yawning and smiling.

"Why no Mrs. Bristers?" he enquired.

"Oh, she does not come when I have 'flu."

"Why?"

"Because—I believe this is the reason—Mrs. Bristers thinks I am putting it on. Swinging the lead."

"When you quit malingering she comes back."

"Yes. Of course she malingers herself meanwhile. She calls off her malinger as soon as I announce my recovery."

"Anything I can do," Charles said, "in Mrs. Bristers' absence?"

He was given the kettle to carry.

"How do you feel this morning?" The guest put the question.

Mark hesitated a moment. "Depressed!" he confided. "Unaccountably depressed."

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