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5: Time the Tiger (part 2)


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« on: January 22, 2023, 10:03:51 am »

THEY both moved into the living-room, the lightly laden Charles in the van.

"What a poisonous day," Charles shouted, and the room was in fact so dark that when a match was struck to light the gas-fire it was like a miniature firework display.

"A bit of fog," Mark conceded with didactic firmness.

Where the weather was concerned Mark was always on the defensive, because people were apt to blame the Government for the weather. Then, he had a feeling that very bad weather (of which there was an awful lot) was, in fact, compromising in a brave new day.

They sat down facing one another and Mark poured out the tea.

"Ah, that is a capital idea." Charles picked up a piece of toast and examined it. "The dreadful bread arrives disguised as good old-fashioned toast."

"Let's see, you like sugar?" Mark looked up, a cube poised above the cup.

"If you think it won't spoil the tea!"

Mark laughed. Even a bureaucrat laughs sometimes on such occasions, as a clergyman would consider it politic to laugh at not too coarse an anecdote. Besides, he was fond of tea. "It is certainly not good tea," he said in a firm voice. "I have tried to coax some decent tea out of my grocer. But I really believe he had none."

"Have you tipped him?"

"Good gracious no!" Mark protested.

Charles shook his head, dogmatically flourishing a piece of toast. "I am afraid you cannot expect to get anything if you don't oil their palms."

Mark's was a damp smile. "Do you," he enquired, "go around oiling everyone's palm? I know that is done. But it does not strike me as very nice. You may get the lion's share that way but it is the behaviour of a less noble animal. I will not say a rat."

"A pig, you think, eh!" Charles laughed, drinking with relish. "Best to drink this stuff while it is so hot you can't taste it."

Since Mark had worked at the Ministry of Education and since Charles had become a farmer of a rather lurid black-market type, they had started arguing differently. In their discussions in the old days nothing more concrete or subjective, as a rule, was touched on than the present Catholic revival or the currency of the Incas. Also when, in easy-going debate, Charles's opinion prevailed, Mark did not mind in the least. Today, however, he would defend his position, at times, almost acrimoniously, particularly where the issue was political. This was very unMark like.

Mark Robins and Charles Dyat had known one another as schoolboys, been at Marlborough, then at Oxford together. Neither had formed any close friendship except this one of theirs. But its rationale was not likemindedness. Charles was what is labelled "a leader-type". Mark had little taste for responsibility. These two facts alone may have provided the essential ingredients for a friendship.

Theirs was not quite the comic marriage-of-opposites, instances of which are so common. Leaving aside physical contrast—Charles who was fair, being only of middling height and Mark being a tall black-haired man—Charles looked at life from a certain social eminence (an imaginary one), whereas Mark was uninterested in social distinctions. Where intellectual distinctions are concerned he was rather romantic, from which circumstance Charles had benefited. Charles he considered very brilliant, unquestionably destined for great things. Again, were one to investigate and collate, their roots would reveal a common soil exploited to different ends. Both came from the prosperous professional middle class: but Charles's father had been a successful and a pretentious country lawyer, who ran at one time a butler and footman, his large house, Tadicombe Priory, standing in half a dozen acres of pseudo-park, a small satellite farm completing the picture: Mark's father, on the other hand, was a Manchester doctor with a big practice, with neither time nor inclination to emulate his most snooty patients.

---

So the conversation had taken the acrimonious turn it nowadays was always liable to do. Mark ate his handful of cereal, inadequately sweetened with the teaspoonful of sugar (although the Jamaicans were starving because nobody wanted their sugar-cane). Charles noisily tested the friability of a blackened and gritty crust, smeared with ersatz jam. Then Charles sat back, and after a minute or two took up again the question of tipping.

"Of course I go around oiling palms," he began aggressively. "Your masters don't need to—they have their farms like Stalin's commissars and their privileges. But you and I have to exude pourboires or our health would suffer. You can't live on one ration book without tipping. Tipping is the black market of the poor."

Mark no longer hesitated to recognize the political gulf which yawned and gaped between them. Charles smiled his tough gay smile, belonging to his cavalier complex, as he glanced into the yawning chasm. The white hairs in his brushed-off-the-mouth moustache were not numerous enough to make it "gray", the gold-gray of the temples he kept clipped. In the yellow gloom he sat up, eyes dancing, a gallant little daguerreotype darkened by the fog of time. Mark returned his gaze, with a bit of a waver, across the grim period-piece of sham-tea, sham-jam, "processed" butter, grey bread scorched into toast. He admired, as he had always done, the lawless eye, the witty mouth.

Charles was too monotonously destructive, however: he had an individualist itch to pick holes, in Mark's phrase. Where Mark would be apt to respect the most pernicious by-law, Charles would be quite certain to break it. Was he not (in imagination) of the class that made the laws? As part of his synthetic "aristocratic" outfit he despised all laws and the law-abiding. But the great social changes since 1945 of necessity complicated the role of the synthetic "aristocrat". Charles was towered over by a hostile Zeitgeist. Mark saw quite well this menacing shadow looming over his friend as he argued: for the natural lawgiver had become a potential outlaw.

"In our young days, Mark," Charles said softly, "it was you, you know, who were the little Tory, I the little radical. Do you remember?"

Mark agreed that he had been a dreadful reactionary and that Charles had been most frightfully advanced. "A perfect devil, in fact!" he laughed a little derisively.

Charles pushed his cup towards the teapot. "May I have some more of that bloody tea? Yes, you were quite shocked at my red tie."

"I was!"

Flushed and animated, Charles had laid aside his imperious technique—he had chosen to soothe and to charm. For the second time that morning Charles forcibly recalled his sister—the submerged sexual asset in this friendship was brought into play. Mark softened at once in response: and it was with eyes still moist that he looked up and cooperated in recalling the pleasurable absurdities of undergraduate youth. "You did really alarm me at one time," he confessed. "We nearly parted company for ever on the subject of Trotsky, for whom you had a most irrational admiration. Do you, I wonder, retain any vestige of that obsession?"

"He would be better than this lot!" Charles answered. He emptied his cup. "For what we have received by gracious permission of the Ministry of Food may the Lord make us truly thankful."

"Amen," said Mark. Charles lighted a cigarette, then rather abruptly he announced:

"No, I am no Tory. I am just a defeatist."

Frown lines returned to Mark's forehead, he bent a questioning eye upon the peccant Charles.

"You should not be that," he said.

"Why not?" Charles asked, with amiable truculence. "We are not going to win the Peace on monkey-nuts and black bread, whether as socialists or Churchillites. I suppose I am, after all, not defeatist. I don't want England to degenerate into a slum, presided over by a sanctimonious official class. If I despaired as you do and sold out to Beelzebub, then I should complain no more of course—I should say yes to bad tea, to bad bread, to the purchase-tax, to the income tax, to no petrol, to three-and-sixpence for cigarettes, and to a doctrine of servile submission."

"If you think it is the way to win the Peace, Charles—to use your ridiculous expression—to find fault...?"

But Charles broke in impatiently.

"Of course one must find fault, Mark. You work for them, that is another matter. But why on earth should I swallow their rotten tea, and smoke their extortionately-priced cigarettes (two shillings and tuppence of the three-and-sixpence goes to the Government) and say it is heaven? Besides, mankind cannot dispense with fault finding, or call it by its proper name, criticism. If an inventor were enraptured with every model he produced, even his first rough draught, if he dispensed with the principle of trial and error—if he tested but never discarded—he would not get very far."

"Nor would he if he listened to every ignorant suggestion."

"The trouble is that all the experts are outside, not inside, the Government and its committees."

"Quite untrue, but go on."

"These people are not trying, however, that is my main complaint. They have in mind something quite different from a prosperous society. They have in mind an abject society. When you and I yearn for good tea and for white bread, that is 'reactionary'."

"Which is utter nonsense, Charles. There is a world food crisis. I am sorry, but there is."

"Do you really believe that? Are you incapable of using your reason, have they deprived you of that, my poor Mark?"

"No. It is not I who am irrational...."

Charles gathered himself for an assault upon the citadel of Unreason, and Mark, smiling nervously, manned the walls.

"I am as sure as that I am sitting in this chair—it seems to me self-evident, that the most irksome of the restrictions and shortages are not economic but ideologic; political. A Government which wanted to create an atmosphere differing from that of a Poor House, which is what we experience, could do so without risk of any kind to its economic stability. Why is there no rationing in Switzerland, a country which imports proportionately just as much food as we do? Why are things more 'normal' in France, Italy, Belgium, Holland? The answer is that our rulers do not wish for a return to normality. They desire to maintain abnormality and 'crisis'. Even in Western Germany there is much more food than here."

They had both pushed their chairs back a little from the table, the glow from their cigarettes sometimes lit up their faces in the yellow gloom, which the electric light did not banish.

"Is it really necessary for me to point out why England appears worse off than neighbouring countries?" Mark asked testily. "It is easy enough to explain, and it is very much to her credit that she does so appear."

"Oh, yeees?"

"Yes. In other west European countries Marshall Aid has reached the top crust only, the idea being that it would somehow, some of it, trickle down to the bottom. A return to normal luxury was in that way rapidly achieved. You mentioned Western Germany. The most dreadful contrasts exist there—of a new Schiebertum in stark contrast with an indescribable poverty. They have just fixed prices so high that only the rich can buy the best food—and then they abandon rationing! So could we easily if we were so inhumane as to adopt that method! In England rationing stopped the well-off from getting all the food. It is a façade of immoral luxury in Paris that makes the French seem 'better off' than the English to the tourist. Underneath the gilded crust those countries are worse off. You ought to know better than to believe...."

"So ought you, so ought you!" Charles yelled delightedly, waving his hands. "Don't you believe all that stuff about a thin gilded top crust, with famine underneath. In Paris restaurants frequented by taxi-drivers you feed better than at the Savoy. Anywhere in France one can eat far better, far more, and far cheaper, than here in England. And there is no filthy purchase-tax either. You forgot to mention that!"

"Really old chap...!"

"Be patient. We English are in the presence of a Great Design. The big idea is to push this people down to a living-plane strictly that of the average manual worker. That is the first phase. When they have us tied up with controls so that we cannot move hand or foot and have drugged us[Pg 177] with dogmas, the idea is to push the entire mass down lower yet, to a carefully regulated peonage, paid possibly with scrip, all shops state-owned. Nothing must stick up above the primitive level decreed except the Party. Even such tiny protuberances as us, Mark, with our hankering after good tea (of the old middle-class days) are an offence. The 'crisis' atmosphere is of the same kind as the wartime black-out. All are now agreed that the black-out was grossly overdone in England if not totally pointless. It was 'atmosphere'. This tasteless tea is atmosphere. So is that ghastly bread!"

Mark had been listening more attentively at last, but his expression became much more severe. He examined his friend—the eloquent moustachioed mouth, the eager ideologic eye, the inflexion of the "county": he watched as if engaged in making a diagnosis, with a patient who revealed symptoms more and more disquieting. As Charles stopped his host suddenly stood up.

"Charles, you are hopeless," Mark told him quietly—in a tone in which a doctor would wind up, "and I fear it is malignant."

"Incurable. I am chronically sick of the present Government."

"Where on earth did you collect all those batty beliefs? A Great Design! Socialists are sparing you, Charles, the exquisite inconveniences of a bloody revolution."

"Fiddlesticks. Like Kerensky they are paving the way for communism."

Mark shook his head.

"You get your politics from the Daily Express." He stretched. "I am going to get my mail."

"Postman doesn't bring it up any more—pops it in a box downstairs—have to fetch it yourself—serve you right!" Charles chanted, lying back, his face to the ceiling and puffing derisive smoke through his moustache.

Mark stopped at the door. "Egotist! Why should that poor devil climb fifty flights of flat-stairs every morning and get varicose veins and fallen arches!"

"He did before!" Charles called after him. "And—he's varicosed already. His feet are as flat as a pancake!"

Mark roared back from the stair-head. "You will be a postman yourself in your next incarnation."

"Not going to have any more lives," howled Charles. "This life is quite enough for me!"

When Mark got back, muttering "excuse me" he tore open a buff envelope, glanced at the contents and hastened to the telephone. He dialled a number and waited. With an irritable sigh he hung up and redialled. After a minute or so he rehung and dialled a single number.

Charles laughed. "Telephone not working this morning? The Exchange will see what they can do! Dial O."

"Will you try and get me Whitehall 6688?... Yes, I have dialled twice. There was absolutely no sound.... Thank you." (A long pause.) "Number engaged? But there are twenty lines at least.... Thank you." (A long pause.) "What?... The number is Whitehall 6688 not Whitechapel 8866.... No, it is not 8866.... All right."

During this pause Charles chattered. "It keeps a lot of people out of mischief playing telephones. An American woman wrote to my paper the other day that it took longer to get through to Brighton than to Buffalo, New York."

Mark was speaking at the telephone. "Yes. I am having a blood test at twelve o'clock.... No, they think it is all right.... I will. I will mail it tonight."

Mark looked at his watch, quickly dialled again. Then he exploded.

"Are you Temple Bar 5032 or not!... Oh, 8976. I see. Sorry." He rehung and dialled again. A short pause.

"What is your number?... Not 8976 again!... Oh damn. Sorry."

Mark rehung and dialled a single number.

"The symbolical number Zero!" observed Charles as he went to the door. "You are showing the Dunkirk spirit, stout fellow. You haven't left your post at the telephone. You have to vacate all numbers except Zero. So you go and live with good old Zero. Why not always dial O? Why have any truck with anything but Zero?"

Ten minutes later Mark was setting off, a brown paper parcel held against the stomach. Charles joined him.

"Going to be bled?" said he.

"If you care to call it that."

"Just what you need as a matter of fact, bleeding."

"You think so, Charles?"

"What we all have to put up with, you deny the existence of. You bottle up the curses to which I give vent! You suppress more than I spit out. One of these fine days at that rotten old telephone you will explode, the bad blood you bottle up will tear you apart—bang!"

Mark laughed. "You have got it all wrong! The telephone staff are...."

"Wonderful—I know, I know, all ought to have a Victoria Cross and a Nobel Prize. And so ought you—so ought you! Come along and be bled—quick."

Outside the flat-door before pulling it shut, Mark stood still and fixed an Ancient Mariner-like eye upon Charles.

"Let me tell you something, Charlie!"

"Yes?"

"All the intelligent people I know—intelligent, Charles, intelligent—are socialists. They have discovered suddenly that they are socialists."

"You mean all the smart alecks."

"Oh no. For it is stupid, Charles, to be a little black-marketeer. Not very intelligent, Charles!" And Mark poked Charles with a stiff forefinger.

"And, Mark, my lad!" Charles poked an expressive forefinger into Mark's midriff. "The winning side, eh! Cowardy cowardy custard!"

Mark growled with sporting glee and his eyes sparkled as he flattened the tip of his square-headed forefinger upon Charles's chest. "Not so, Robin Hood! Not so Dick Turpin! You will end with a price on your head!"

"Ha! And your head"—and Charles flattened his forefinger upon Mark's cheekbone—"won't fetch a farthing if it ever comes up in a witches' auction. This yes-man's skull one farding! No bids."

"I suppose, Charlot, you pat yourself on the back," and Mark flattened his forefingertip on Charles's arm. "You outwit the police, yes? Rich Americans get their black-market eggs, illegal rashers, and what not, thanks to good little Charlie! Fine intelligent work, what!"

"And you, my smart man," Charles poked him pointedly with his finger, "you have one egg a week and crow as though the millennium were here!"

And they went shouting down the stairs, jabbing each other mirthfully with their forefingers.

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