Coming up for Air, by George Orwell

3

I crawled out of bed with a bad taste in my mouth and my bones creaking.

The fact was that, what with a bottle of wine at lunch and another at dinner, and several pints in between, besides a brandy or two, I’d had a bit too much to drink the day before. For several minutes I stood in the middle of the carpet, gazing at nothing in particular and too done-in to make a move. You know that god-awful feeling you get sometimes in the early morning. It’s a feeling chiefly in your legs, but it says to you clearer than any words could do, ‘Why the hell do you go on with it? Chuck it up, old chap! Stick your head in the gas oven!’

Then I shoved my teeth in and went to the window. A lovely June day, again, and the sun was just beginning to slant over the roofs and hit the house-fronts on the other side of the street. The pink geraniums in the window-boxes didn’t look half bad. Although it was only about half past eight and this was only a side-street off the market-place there was quite a crowd of people coming and going. A stream of clerkly-looking chaps in dark suits with dispatch-cases were hurrying along, all in the same direction, just as if this had been a London suburb and they were scooting for the Tube, and the schoolkids were straggling up towards the market- place in twos and threes. I had the same feeling that I’d had the day before when I saw the jungle of red houses that had swallowed Chamford Hill. Bloody interlopers! Twenty thousand gate-crashers who didn’t even know my name. And here was all this new life swarming to and fro, and here was I, a poor old fatty with false teeth, watching them from a window and mumbling stuff that nobody wanted to listen to about things that happened thirty and forty years ago. Christ! I thought, I was wrong to think that I was seeing ghosts. I’m the ghost myself. I’m dead and they’re alive.

But after breakfast — haddock, grilled kidneys, toast and marmalade, and a pot of coffee — I felt better. The frozen dame wasn’t breakfasting in the dining-room, there was a nice summery feeling in the air, and I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that in that blue flannel suit of mine I looked just a little bit distingue. By God! I thought, if I’m a ghost, I’ll BE a ghost! I’ll walk. I’ll haunt the old places. And maybe I can work a bit of black magic on some of these bastards who’ve stolen my home town from me.

I started out, but I’d got no farther than the market-place when I was pulled up by something I hadn’t expected to see. A procession of about fifty school-kids was marching down the street in column of fours — quite military, they looked — with a grim-looking woman marching alongside of them like a sergeant-major. The leading four were carrying a banner with a red, white, and blue border and BRITONS PREPARE on it in huge letters. The barber on the corner had come out on to his doorstep to have a look at them. I spoke to him. He was a chap with shiny black hair and a dull kind of face.

‘What are those kids doing?’

‘It’s this here air-raid practice,’ he said vaguely. ‘This here A.R.P. Kind of practising, like. That’s Miss Todgers, that is.’

I might have guessed it was Miss Todgers. You could see it in her eye. You know the kind of tough old devil with grey hair and a kippered face that’s always put in charge of Girl Guide detachments, Y.W.C.A. hostels, and whatnot. She had on a coat and skirt that somehow looked like a uniform and gave you a strong impression that she was wearing a Sam Browne belt, though actually she wasn’t. I knew her type. Been in the W.A.A.C.s in the war, and never had a day’s fun since. This A.R.P. was jam to her. As the kids swung past I heard her letting out at them with the real sergeant-major yell, ‘Monica! Lift your feet up!’ and I saw that the rear four had another banner with a red, white, and blue border, and in the middle

WE ARE READY. ARE YOU?

‘What do they want to march them up and down for?’ I said to the barber.

‘I dunno. I s’pose it’s kind of propaganda, like.’

I knew, of course. Get the kids war-minded. Give us all the feeling that there’s no way out of it, the bombers are coming as sure as Christmas, so down to the cellar you go and don’t argue. Two of the great black planes from Walton were zooming over the eastern end of the town. Christ! I thought, when it starts it won’t surprise us any more than a shower of rain. Already we’re listening for the first bomb. The barber went on to tell me that thanks to Miss Todgers’s efforts the school-kids had been served with their gas-masks already.

Well, I started to explore the town. Two days I spent just wandering round the old landmarks, such of them as I could identify. And all that time I never ran across a soul that knew me. I was a ghost, and if I wasn’t actually invisible, I felt like it.

It was queer, queerer than I can tell you. Did you ever read a story of H.G. Wells’s about a chap who was in two places at once — that’s to say, he was really in his own home, but he had a kind of hallucination that he was at the bottom of the sea? He’d been walking round his room, but instead of the tables and chairs he’d see the wavy waterweed and the great crabs and cuttlefish reaching out to get him. Well, it was just like that. For hours on end I’d be walking through a world that wasn’t there. I’d count my paces as I went down the pavement and think, ‘Yes, here’s where so-and- so’s field begins. The hedge runs across the street and slap through that house. That petrol pump is really an elm tree. And here’s the edge of the allotments. And this street (it was a dismal little row of semi-detached houses called Cumberledge Road, I remember) is the lane where we used to go with Katie Simmons, and the nut-bushes grew on both sides.’ No doubt I got the distances wrong, but the general directions were right. I don’t believe anyone who hadn’t happened to be born here would have believed that these streets were fields as little as twenty years ago. It was as though the countryside had been buried by a kind of volcanic eruption from the outer suburbs. Nearly the whole of what used to be old Brewer’s land had been swallowed up in the Council housing estate. The Mill Farm had vanished, the cow-pond where I caught my first fish had been drained and filled up and built over, so that I couldn’t even say exactly where it used to stand. It was all houses, houses, little red cubes of houses all alike, with privet hedges and asphalt paths leading up to the front door. Beyond the Council Estate the town thinned out a bit, but the jerry-builders were doing their best. And there were little knots of houses dumped here and there, wherever anybody had been able to buy a plot of land, and the makeshift roads leading up to the houses, and empty lots with builders’ boards, and bits of ruined fields covered with thistles and tin cans.

In the centre of the old town, on the other hand, things hadn’t changed much, so far as buildings went. A lot of the shops were still doing the same line of trade, although the names were different. Lillywhite’s was still a draper’s, but it didn’t look too prosperous. What used to be Gravitt’s, the butcher’s, was now a shop that sold radio parts. Mother Wheeler’s little window had been bricked over. Grimmett’s was still a grocer’s, but it had been taken over by the International. It gives you an idea of the power of these big combines that they could even swallow up a cute old skinflint like Grimmett. But from what I know of him — not to mention that slap-up tombstone in the churchyard — I bet he got out while the going was good and had ten to fifteen thousand quid to take to heaven with him. The only shop that was still in the same hands was Sarazins’, the people who’d ruined Father. They’d swollen to enormous dimensions, and they had another huge branch in the new part of the town. But they’d turned into a kind of general store and sold furniture, drugs, hardware, and ironmongery as well as the old garden stuff.

For the best part of two days I was wandering round, not actually groaning and rattling a chain, but sometimes feeling that I’d like to. Also I was drinking more than was good for me. Almost as soon as I got to Lower Binfield I’d started on the booze, and after that the pubs never seemed to open quite early enough. My tongue was always hanging out of my mouth for the last half-hour before opening time.

Mind you, I wasn’t in the same mood all the time. Sometimes it seemed to me that it didn’t matter a damn if Lower Binfield had been obliterated. After all, what had I come here for, except to get away from the family? There was no reason why I shouldn’t do all the things I wanted to do, even go fishing if I felt like it. On the Saturday afternoon I even went to the fishing-tackle shop in the High Street and bought a split-cane rod (I’d always pined for a split-cane rod as a boy — it’s a little bit dearer than a green- heart) and hooks and gut and so forth. The atmosphere of the shop cheered me up. Whatever else changes, fishing-tackle doesn’t — because, of course, fish don’t change either. And the shopman didn’t see anything funny in a fat middle-aged man buying a fishing-rod. On the contrary, we had a little talk about the fishing in the Thames and the big chub somebody had landed the year before last on a paste made of brown bread, honey, and minced boiled rabbit. I even — though I didn’t tell him what I wanted them for, and hardly even admitted it to myself — bought the strongest salmon trace he’d got, and some No. 5 roach-hooks, with an eye to those big carp at Binfield House, in case they still existed.

Most of Sunday morning I was kind of debating it in my mind — should I go fishing, or shouldn’t I? One moment I’d think, why the hell not, and the next moment it would seem to me that it was just one of those things that you dream about and don’t ever do. But in the afternoon I got the car out and drove down to Burford Weir. I thought I’d just have a look at the river, and tomorrow, if the weather was right, maybe I’d take my new fishing-rod and put on the old coat and grey flannel bags I had in my suitcase, and have a good day’s fishing. Three or four days, if I felt like it.

I drove over Chamford Hill. Down at the bottom the road turns off and runs parallel to the towpath. I got out of the car and walked. Ah! A knot of little red and white bungalows had sprung up beside the road. Might have expected it, of course. And there seemed to be a lot of cars standing about. As I got nearer the river I came into the sound — yes, plonk-tiddle-tiddle-plonk! — yes, the sound of gramphones.

I rounded the bend and came in sight of the towpath. Christ! Another jolt. The place was black with people. And where the water-meadows used to be — tea-houses, penny-in-the-slot machines, sweet kiosks, and chaps selling Walls’ Ice-Cream. Might as well have been at Margate. I remember the old towpath. You could walk along it for miles, and except for the chaps at the lock gates, and now and again a bargeman mooching along behind his horse, you’d meet never a soul. When we went fishing we always had the place to ourselves. Often I’ve sat there a whole afternoon, and a heron might be standing in the shallow water fifty yards up the bank, and for three or four hours on end there wouldn’t be anyone passing to scare him away. But where had I got the idea that grown-up men don’t go fishing? Up and down the bank, as far as I could see in both directions, there was a continuous chain of men fishing, one every five yards. I wondered how the hell they could all have got there until it struck me that they must be some fishing-club or other. And the river was crammed with boats — rowing-boats, canoes, punts, motor-launches, full of young fools with next to nothing on, all of them screaming and shouting and most of them with a gramphone aboard as well. The floats of the poor devils who were trying to fish rocked up and down on the wash of the motor-boats.

I walked a little way. Dirty, choppy water, in spite of the fine day. Nobody was catching anything, not even minnows. I wondered whether they expected to. A crowd like that would be enough to scare every fish in creation. But actually, as I watched the floats rocking up and down among the ice-cream tubs and the paper bags, I doubted whether there were any fish to catch. Are there still fish in the Thames? I suppose there must be. And yet I’ll swear the Thames water isn’t the same as it used to be. Its colour is quite different. Of course you think that’s merely my imagination, but I can tell you it isn’t so. I know the water has changed. I remember the Thames water as it used to be, a kind of luminous green that you could see deep into, and the shoals of dace cruising round the reeds. You couldn’t see three inches into the water now. It’s all brown and dirty, with a film of oil in it from the motor-boats, not to mention the fag-ends and the paper bags.

After a bit I turned back. Couldn’t stand the noise of the gramophones any longer. Of course it’s Sunday, I thought. Mightn’t be so bad on a week-day. But after all, I knew I’d never come back. God rot them, let ‘em keep their bloody river. Wherever I go fishing it won’t be in the Thames.

The crowds swarmed past me. Crowds of bloody aliens, and nearly all of them young. Boys and girls larking along in couples. A troop of girls came past, wearing bell-bottomed trousers and white caps like the ones they wear in the American Navy, with slogans printed on them. One of them, seventeen she might have been, had PLEASE KISS ME. I wouldn’t have minded. On an impulse I suddenly turned aside and weighed myself on one of the penny-in-the-slot machines. There was a clicking noise somewhere inside it — you know those machines that tell your fortune as well as your weight — and a typewritten card came sliding out.

‘You are the possessor of exceptional gifts,’ I read, ‘but owing to excessive modesty you have never received your reward. Those about you underrate your abilities. You are too fond of standing aside and allowing others to take the credit for what you have done yourself . You are sensitive, affectionate, and always loyal to your friends. You are deeply attractive to the opposite sex. Your worst fault is generosity. Persevere, for you will rise high!

‘Weight: 14 stone 11 pounds.’

I’d put on four pounds in the last three days, I noticed. Must have been the booze.

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