Coming up for Air, by George Orwell

2

The dining-room had changed, too.

I could remember the old room, though I’d never had a meal there, with its brown mantelpiece and its bronzy-yellow wallpaper — I never knew whether it was meant to be that colour, or had just got like that from age and smoke — and the oil-painting, also by Wm. Sandford, Painter & Carpenter, of the battle of Tel-el-Kebir. Now they’d got the place up in a kind of medieval style. Brick fireplace with inglenooks, a huge beam across the ceiling, oak panelling on the walls, and every bit of it a fake that you could have spotted fifty yards away. The beam was genuine oak, came out of some old sailing-ship, probably, but it didn’t hold anything up, and I had my suspicions of the panels as soon as I set eyes on them. As I sat down at my table, and the slick young waiter came towards me fiddling with his napkin, I tapped the wall behind me. Yes! Thought so! Not even wood. They fake it up with some kind of composition and then paint it over.

But the lunch wasn’t bad. I had my lamb and mint sauce, and I had a bottle of some white wine or other with a French name which made me belch a bit but made me feel happy. There was one other person lunching there, a woman of about thirty with fair hair, looked like a widow. I wondered whether she was staying at the George, and made vague plans to get off with her. It’s funny how your feelings get mixed up. Half the time I was seeing ghosts. The past was sticking out into the present, Market day, and the great solid farmers throwing their legs under the long table, with their hobnails grating on the stone floor, and working their way through a quantity of beef and dumpling you wouldn’t believe the human frame could hold. And then the little tables with their shiny white cloths and wine-glasses and folded napkins, and the faked-up decorations and the general expensiveness would blot it out again. And I’d think, ‘I’ve got twelve quid and a new suit. I’m little Georgie Bowling, and who’d have believed I’d ever come back to Lower Binfield in my own motorcar?’ And then the wine would send a kind of warm feeling upwards from my stomach, and I’d run an eye over the woman with fair hair and mentally take her clothes off.

It was the same in the afternoon as I lay about in the lounge — fake-medieval again, but it had streamlined leather armchairs and glass-topped tables — with some brandy and a cigar. I was seeing ghosts, but on the whole I was enjoying it. As a matter of fact I was a tiny bit boozed and hoping that the woman with fair hair would come in so that I could scrape acquaintance. She never showed up, however. It wasn’t till nearly tea-time that I went out.

I strolled up to the market-place and turned to the left. The shop! It was funny. Twenty-one years ago, the day of Mother’s funeral, I’d passed it in the station fly, and seen it all shut up and dusty, with the sign burnt off with a plumber’s blowflame, and I hadn’t cared a damn. And now, when I was so much further away from it, when there were actually details about the inside of the house that I couldn’t remember, the thought of seeing it again did things to my heart and guts. I passed the barber’s shop. Still a barber’s, though the name was different. A warm, soapy, almondy smell came out of the door. Not quite so good as the old smell of bay rum and latakia. The shop — our shop — was twenty yards farther down. Ah!

An arty-looking sign — painted by the same chap as did the one at the George, I shouldn’t wonder — hanging out over the pavement:

WENDY’S TEASHOP

MORNING COFFEE

HOME-MADE CAKES

A tea-shop!

I suppose if it had been a butcher’s or an ironmonger’s, or anything else except a seedsman’s, it would have given me the same kind of jolt. It’s absurd that because you happen to have been born in a certain house you should feel that you’ve got rights over it for the rest of your life, but so you do. The place lived up to its name, all right. Blue curtains in the window, and a cake or two standing about, the kind of cake that’s covered with chocolate and has just one walnut stuck somewhere on the top. I went in. I didn’t really want any tea, but I had to see the inside.

They’d evidently turned both the shop and what used to be the parlour into tea-rooms. As for the yard at the back where the dustbin used to stand and Father’s little patch of weeds used to grow, they’d paved it all over and dolled it up with rustic tables and hydrangeas and things. I went through into the parlour. More ghosts! The piano and the texts on the wall, and the two lumpy old red armchairs where Father and Mother used to sit on opposite sides of the fireplace, reading the People and the News of the World on Sunday afternoons! They’d got the place up in an even more antique style than the George, with gateleg tables and a hammered-iron chandelier and pewter plates hanging on the wall and what-not. Do you notice how dark they always manage to make it in these arty tea-rooms? It’s part of the antiqueness, I suppose. And instead of an ordinary waitress there was a young woman in a kind of print wrapper who met me with a sour expression. I asked her for tea, and she was ten minutes getting it. You know the kind of tea — China tea, so weak that you could think it’s water till you put the milk in. I was sitting almost exactly where Father’s armchair used to stand. I could almost hear his voice, reading out a ‘piece’, as he used to call it, from the People, about the new flying machines, or the chap who was swallowed by a whale, or something. It gave me a most peculiar feeling that I was there on false pretences and they could kick me out if they discovered who I was, and yet simultaneously I had a kind of longing to tell somebody that I’d been born here, that I belonged to this house, or rather (what I really felt) that the house belonged to me. There was nobody else having tea. The girl in the print wrapper was hanging about by the window, and I could see that if I hadn’t been there she’d have been picking her teeth. I bit into one of the slices of cake she’d brought me. Home-made cakes! You bet they were. Home-made with margarine and egg-substitute. But in the end I had to speak. I said:

‘Have you been in Lower Binfield long?’

She started, looked surprised, and didn’t answer. I tried again:

‘I used to live in Lower Binfleld myself, a good while ago.’

Again no answer, or only something that I couldn’t hear. She gave me a kind of frigid look and then gazed out of the window again. I saw how it was. Too much of a lady to go in for back-chat with customers. Besides, she probably thought I was trying to get off with her. What was the good of telling her I’d been born in the house? Even if she believed it, it wouldn’t interest her. She’d never heard of Samuel Bowling, Corn & Seed Merchant. I paid the bill and cleared out.

I wandered up to the church. One thing that I’d been half afraid of, and half looking forward to, was being recognized by people I used to know. But I needn’t have worried, there wasn’t a face I knew anywhere in the streets. It seemed as if the whole town had got a new population.

When I got to the church I saw why they’d had to have a new cemetery. The churchyard was full to the brim, and half the graves had names on them that I didn’t know. But the names I did know were easy enough to find. I wandered round among the graves. The sexton had just scythed the grass and there was a smell of summer even there. They were all alone, all the older folks I’d known. Gravitt the butcher, and Winkle the other seedsman, and Trew, who used to keep the George, and Mrs Wheeler from the sweet-shop — they were all lying there. Shooter and Wetherall were opposite one another on either side of the path, just as if they were still singing at each other across the aisle. So Wetherall hadn’t got his hundred after all. Born in ‘43 and ‘departed his life’ in 1928. But he’d beaten Shooter, as usual. Shooter died in ‘26. What a time old Wetherall must have had those last two years when there was nobody to sing against him! And old Grimmett under a huge marble thing shaped rather like a veal-and-ham pie, with an iron railing round it, and in the corner a whole batch of Simmonses under cheap little crosses. All gone to dust. Old Hodges with his tobacco-coloured teeth, and Lovegrove with his big brown beard, and Lady Rampling with the coachman and the tiger, and Harry Barnes’s aunt who had a glass eye, and Brewer of the Mill Farm with his wicked old face like something carved out of a nut — nothing left of any of them except a slab of stone and God knows what underneath.

I found Mother’s grave, and Father’s beside it. Both of them in pretty good repair. The sexton had kept the grass clipped. Uncle Ezekiel’s was a little way away. They’d levelled a lot of the older graves, and the old wooden head-pieces, the ones that used to look like the end of a bedstead, had all been cleared away. What do you feel when you see your parents’ graves after twenty years? I don’t know what you ought to feel, but I’ll tell you what I did feel, and that was nothing. Father and Mother have never faded out of my mind. It’s as if they existed somewhere or other in a kind of eternity, Mother behind the brown teapot, Father with his bald head a little mealy, and his spectacles and his grey moustache, fixed for ever like people in a picture, and yet in some way alive. Those boxes of bones lying in the ground there didn’t seem to have anything to do with them. Merely, as I stood there, I began to wonder what you feel like when you’re underground, whether you care much and how soon you cease to care, when suddenly a heavy shadow swept across me and gave me a bit of a start.

I looked over my shoulder. It was only a bombing plane which had flown between me and the sun. The place seemed to be creeping with them.

I strolled into the church. For almost the first time since I got back to Lower Binfield I didn’t have the ghostly feeling, or rather I had it in a different form. Because nothing had changed. Nothing, except that all the people were gone. Even the hassocks looked the same. The same dusty, sweetish corpse-smell. And by God! the same hole in the window, though, as it was evening and the sun was round the other side, the spot of light wasn’t creeping up the aisle. They’d still got pews — hadn’t changed over to chairs. There was our pew, and there was the one in front where Wetherall used to bellow against Shooter. Sihon king of the Amorites and Og the king of Bashan! And the worn stones in the aisle where you could still half-read the epitaphs of the blokes who lay beneath them. I squatted down to have a look at the one opposite our pew. I still knew the readable bits of it by heart. Even the pattern they made seemed to have stuck in my memory. Lord knows how often I’d read them during the sermon.

Here. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ..fon, Gent.,
of this parif h. . . . . . . . ..his juft &
upright. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ..
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ..
To his. . . . . . . . manifold private bene
volences he added a diligent. . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . beloved wife
Amelia, by. . . . . . . . . . . . ..iffue feven
daughters. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ..

I remembered how the long S’s used to puzzle me as a kid. Used to wonder whether in the old days they pronounced their S’s as F’s, and if so, why.

There was a step behind me. I looked up. A chap in a cassock was standing over me. It was the vicar.

But I mean THE vicar! It was old Betterton, who’d been vicar in the old days — not, as a matter of fact, ever since I could remember, but since 1904 or thereabouts. I recognized him at once, though his hair was quite white.

He didn’t recognize me. I was only a fat tripper in a blue suit doing a bit of sightseeing. He said good evening and promptly started on the usual line of talk — was I interested in architecture, remarkable old building this, foundations go back to Saxon times and so on and so forth. And soon he was doddering round, showing me the sights, such as they were — Norman arch leading into the vestry, brass effigy of Sir Roderick Bone who was killed at the Battle of Newbury. And I followed him with the kind of whipped-dog air that middle-aged businessmen always have when they’re being shown round a church or a picture-gallery. But did I tell him that I knew it all already? Did I tell him that I was Georgie Bowling, son of Samuel Bowling — he’d have remembered my father even if he didn’t remember me — and that I’d not only listened to his sermons for ten years and gone to his Confirmation classes, but even belonged to the Lower Binfield Reading Circle and had a go at Sesame and Lilies just to please him? No, I didn’t. I merely followed him round, making the kind of mumble that you make when somebody tells you that this or that is five hundred years old and you can’t think what the hell to say except that it doesn’t look it. From the moment that I set eyes on him I’d decided to let him think I was a stranger. As soon as I decently could I dropped sixpence in the Church Expenses box and bunked.

But why? Why not make contact, now that at last I’d found somebody I knew?

Because the change in his appearance after twenty years had actually frightened me. I suppose you think I mean that he looked older. But he didn’t! He looked YOUNGER. And it suddenly taught me something about the passage of time.

I suppose old Betterton would be about sixty-five now, so that when I last saw him he’d have been about forty-five — my own present age. His hair was white now, and the day he buried Mother it was a kind of streaky grey, like a shaving-brush. And yet as soon as I saw him the first thing that struck me was that he looked younger. I’d thought of him as an old, old man, and after all he wasn’t so very old. As a boy, it occurred to me, all people over forty had seemed to me just worn-out old wrecks, so old that there was hardly any difference between them. A man of forty-five had seemed to me older than this old dodderer of sixty-five seemed now. And Christ! I was forty-five myself. It frightened me.

So that’s what I look like to chaps of twenty, I thought as I made off between the graves. Just a poor old hulk. Finished. It was curious. As a rule I don’t care a damn about my age. Why should I? I’m fat, but I’m strong and healthy. I can do everything I want to do. A rose smells the same to me now as it did when I was twenty. Ah, but do I smell the same to the rose? Like an answer a girl, might have been eighteen, came up the churchyard lane. She had to pass within a yard or two of me. I saw the look she gave me, just a tiny momentary look. No, not frightened, nor hostile. Only kind of wild, remote, like a wild animal when you catch its eye. She’d been born and grown up in those twenty years while I was away from Lower Binfield. All my memories would have been meaningless to her. Living in a different world from me, like an animal.

I went back to the George. I wanted a drink, but the bar didn’t open for another half-hour. I hung about for a bit, reading a Sporting and Dramatic of the year before, and presently the fair- haired dame, the one I thought might be a widow, came in. I had a sudden desperate yearning to get off with her. Wanted to show myself that there’s life in the old dog yet, even if the old dog does have to wear false teeth. After all, I thought, if she’s thirty and I’m forty-five, that’s fair enough. I was standing in front of the empty fireplace, making believe to warm my bum, the way you do on a summer day. In my blue suit I didn’t look so bad. A bit fat, no doubt, but distingue. A man of the world. I could pass for a stockbroker. I put on my toniest accent and said casually:

‘Wonderful June weather we’re having.’

It was a pretty harmless remark, wasn’t it? Nor in the same class as ‘Haven’t I met you somewhere before?’

But it wasn’t a success. She didn’t answer, merely lowered for about half a second the paper she was reading and gave me a look that would have cracked a window. It was awful. She had one of those blue eyes that go into you like a bullet. In that split second I saw how hopelessly I’d got her wrong. She wasn’t the kind of widow with dyed hair who likes being taken out to dance-halls. She was upper-middle-class, probably an admiral’s daughter, and been to one of those good schools where they play hockey. And I’d got myself wrong too. New suit or no new suit, I COULDN’T pass for a stockbroker. Merely looked like a commercial traveller who’d happened to get hold of a bit of dough. I sneaked off to the private bar to have a pint or two before dinner.

The beer wasn’t the same. I remember the old beer, the good Thames Valley beer that used to have a bit of taste in it because it was made out of chalky water. I asked the barmaid:

‘Have Bessemers’ still got the brewery?’

‘Bessemers? Oo, NO, sir! They’ve gorn. Oo, years ago — long before we come ‘ere.’

She was a friendly sort, what I call the elder-sister type of barmaid, thirty-fivish, with a mild kind of face and the fat arms they develop from working the beer-handle. She told me the name of the combine that had taken over the brewery. I could have guessed it from the taste, as a matter of fact. The different bars ran round in a circle with compartments in between. Across in the public bar two chaps were playing a game of darts, and in the Jug and Bottle there was a chap I couldn’t see who occasionally put in a remark in a sepulchral kind of voice. The barmaid leaned her fat elbows on the bar and had a talk with me. I ran over the names of the people I used to know, and there wasn’t a single one of them that she’d heard of. She said she’d only been in Lower Binfield five years. She hadn’t even heard of old Trew, who used to have the George in the old days.

‘I used to live in Lower Binfield myself,’ I told her. ‘A good while back, it was, before the war.’

‘Before the war? Well, now! You don’t look that old.’

‘See some changes, I dessay,’ said the chap in the Jug and Bottle.

‘The town’s grown,’ I said. ‘It’s the factories, I suppose.’

‘Well, of course they mostly work at the factories. There’s the gramophone works, and then there’s Truefitt Stockings. But of course they’re making bombs nowadays.’

I didn’t altogether see why it was of course, but she began telling me about a young fellow who worked at Truefitt’s factory and sometimes came to the George, and he’d told her that they were making bombs as well as stockings, the two, for some reason I didn’t understand, being easy to combine. And then she told me about the big military aerodrome near Walton — that accounted for the bombing planes I kept seeing — and the next moment we’d started talking about the war, as usual. Funny. It was exactly to escape the thought of war that I’d come here. But how can you, anyway? It’s in the air you breathe.

I said it was coming in 1941. The chap in the Jug and Bottle said he reckoned it was a bad job. The barmaid said it gave her the creeps. She said:

‘It doesn’t seem to do much good, does it, after all said and done? And sometimes I lie awake at night and hear one of those great things going overhead, and think to myself, “Well, now, suppose that was to drop a bomb right down on top of me!” And all this A.R.P., and Miss Todgers, she’s the Air Warden, telling you it’ll be all right if you keep your head and stuff the windows up with newspaper, and they say they’re going to dig a shelter under the Town Hall. But the way I look at it is, how could you put a gas- mask on a baby?’

The chap in the Jug and Bottle said he’d read in the paper that you ought to get into a hot bath till it was all over. The chaps in the public bar overheard this and there was a bit of a by-play on the subject of how many people could get into the same bath, and both of them asked the barmaid if they could share her bath with her. She told them not to get saucy, and then she went up the other end of the bar and hauled them out a couple more pints of old and mild. I took a suck at my beer. It was poor stuff. Bitter, they call it. And it was bitter, right enough, too bitter, a kind of sulphurous taste. Chemicals. They say no English hops ever go into beer nowadays, they’re all made into chemicals. Chemicals, on the other hand, are made into beer. I found myself thinking about Uncle Ezekiel, what he’d have said to beer like this, and what he’d have said about A.R.P. and the buckets of sand you’re supposed to put the thermite bombs out with. As the barmaid came back to my side of the bar I said:

‘By the way, who’s got the Hall nowadays?’

We always used to call it the Hall, though its name was Binfield House. For a moment she didn’t seem to understand.

‘The Hall, sir?’

‘‘E means Binfield ‘Ouse,’ said the chap in the Jug and Bottle.

‘Oh, Binfield House! Oo, I thought you meant the Memorial Hall. It’s Dr Merrall’s got Binfield House now.’

‘Dr Merrall?’

‘Yes, sir. He’s got more than sixty patients up there, they say.’

‘Patients? Have they turned it into a hospital, or something?’

‘Well — it’s not what you’d call an ordinary hospital. More of a sanatorium. It’s mental patients, reely. What they call a Mental Home.’

A loony-bin!

But after all, what else could you expect?

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/orwell/george/o79co/part4.2.html

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 20:48