Coming up for Air, by George Orwell

4

I drove back to the George, dumped the car in the garage, and had a late cup of tea. As it was Sunday the bar wouldn’t open for another hour or two. In the cool of the evening I went out and strolled up in the direction of the church.

I was just crossing the market-place when I noticed a woman walking a little way ahead of me. As soon as I set eyes on her I had a most peculiar feeling that I’d seen her somewhere before. You know that feeling. I couldn’t see her face, of course, and so far as her back view went there was nothing I could identify and yet I could have sworn I knew her.

She went up the High Street and turned down one of the side-streets to the right, the one where Uncle Ezekiel used to have his shop. I followed. I don’t quite know why — partly curiosity, perhaps, and partly as a kind of precaution. My first thought had been that here at last was one of the people I’d known in the old days in Lower Binfield, but almost at the same moment it struck me that it was just as likely that she was someone from West Bletchley. In that case I’d have to watch my step, because if she found out I was here she’d probably split to Hilda. So I followed cautiously, keeping at a safe distance and examining her back view as well as I could. There was nothing striking about it. She was a tallish, fattish woman, might have been forty or fifty, in a rather shabby black dress. She’d no hat on, as though she’d just slipped out of her house for a moment, and the way she walked gave you the impression that her shoes were down at heel. All in all, she looked a bit of a slut. And yet there was nothing to identify, only that vague something which I knew I’d seen before. It was something in her movements, perhaps. Presently she got to a little sweet and paper shop, the kind of little shop that always keeps open on a Sunday. The woman who kept it was standing in the doorway, doing something to a stand of postcards. My woman stopped to pass the time of day.

I stopped too, as soon as I could find a shop window which I could pretend to be looking into. It was a plumber’s and decorator’s, full of samples of wallpaper and bathroom fittings and things. By this time I wasn’t fifteen yards away from the other two. I could hear their voices cooing away in one of those meaningless conversations that women have when they’re just passing the time of day. ‘Yes, that’s jest about it. That’s jest where it is. I said to him myself, I said, “Well, what else do you expect?” I said. It don’t seem right, do it? But what’s the use, you might as well talk to a stone. It’s a shame!’ and so on and so forth. I was getting warmer. Obviously my woman was a small shopkeeper’s wife, like the other. I was just wondering whether she mightn’t be one of the people I’d known in Lower Binfield after all, when she turned almost towards me and I saw three-quarters of her face. And Jesus Christ! It was Elsie!

Yes, it was Elsie. No chance of mistake. Elsie! That fat hag!

It gave me such a shock — not, mind you, seeing Elsie, but seeing what she’d grown to be like — that for a moment things swam in front of my eyes. The brass taps and ballstops and porcelain sinks and things seemed to fade away into the distance, so that I both saw them and didn’t see them. Also for a moment I was in a deadly funk that she might recognize me. But she’d looked bang in my face and hadn’t made any sign. A moment more, and she turned and went on. Again I followed. It was dangerous, she might spot I was following her, and that might start her wondering who I was, but I just had to have another look at her. The fact was that she exercised a kind of horrible fascination on me. In a manner of speaking I’d been watching her before, but I watched her with quite different eyes now.

It was horrible, and yet I got a kind of scientific kick out of studying her back view. It’s frightening, the things that twenty- four years can do to a woman. Only twenty-four years, and the girl I’d known, with her milky-white skin and red mouth and kind of dull-gold hair, had turned into this great round-shouldered hag, shambling along on twisted heels. It made me feel downright glad I’m a man. No man ever goes to pieces quite so completely as that. I’m fat, I grant you. I’m the wrong shape, if you like. But at least I’m A shape. Elsie wasn’t even particularly fat, she was merely shapeless. Ghastly things had happened to her hips. As for her waist, it had vanished. She was just a kind of soft lumpy cylinder, like a bag of meal.

I followed her a long way, out of the old town and through a lot of mean little streets I didn’t know. Finally she turned in at the doorway of another shop. By the way she went in, it was obviously her own. I stopped for a moment outside the window. ‘G. Cookson, Confectioner and Tobacconist.’ So Elsie was Mrs Cookson. It was a mangy little shop, much like the other one where she’d stopped before, but smaller and a lot more flyblown. Didn’t seem to sell anything except tobacco and the cheapest kinds of sweets. I wondered what I could buy that would take a minute or two. Then I saw a rack of cheap pipes in the window, and I went in. I had to brace my nerve up a little before I did it, because there’d need to be some hard lying if by any chance she recognized me.

She’d disappeared into the room behind the shop, but she came back as I tapped on the counter. So we were face to face. Ah! no sign. Didn’t recognize me. Just looked at me the way they do. You know the way small shopkeepers look at their customers — utter lack of interest.

It was the first time I’d seen her full face, and though I half expected what I saw, it gave me almost as big a shock as that first moment when I’d recognized her. I suppose when you look at the face of someone young, even of a child, you ought to be able to foresee what it’ll look like when it’s old. It’s all a question of the shape of the bones. But if it had ever occurred to me, when I was twenty and she was twenty-two, to wonder what Elsie would look like at forty-seven, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind that she could ever look like THAT. The whole face had kind of sagged, as if it had somehow been drawn downwards. Do you know that type of middle-aged woman that has a face just like a bulldog? Great underhung jaw, mouth turned down at the corners, eyes sunken, with pouches underneath. Exactly like a bulldog. And yet it was the same face, I’d have known it in a million. Her hair wasn’t completely grey, it was a kind of dirty colour, and there was much less of it than there used to be. She didn’t know me from Adam. I was just a customer, a stranger, an uninteresting fat man. It’s queer what an inch or two of fat can do. I wondered whether I’d changed even more than she had, or whether it was merely that she wasn’t expecting to see me, or whether — what was the likeliest of all — she’s simply forgotten my existence.

‘Devening,’ she said, in that listless way they have.

‘I want a pipe,’ I said flatly. ‘A briar pipe.’

‘A pipe. Now jest lemme see. I know we gossome pipes somewhere. Now where did I— ah! ‘Ere we are.’

She took a cardboard box full of pipes from somewhere under the counter. How bad her accent had got! Or maybe I was just imagining that, because my own standards had changed? But no, she used to be so ‘superior’, all the girls at Lilywhite’s were so ‘superior’, and she’d been a member of the vicar’s Reading Circle. I swear she never used to drop her aitches. It’s queer how these women go to pieces once they’re married. I fiddled among the pipes for a moment and pretended to look them over. Finally I said I’d like one with an amber mouthpiece.

‘Amber? I don’t know as we got any —’ she turned towards the back of the shop and called: ‘Ge-orge!’

So the other bloke’s name was George too. A noise that sounded something like ‘Ur!’ came from the back of the shop.

‘Ge-orge! Where ju put that other box of pipes?’

George came in. He was a small stoutish chap, in shirtsleeves, with a bald head and a big gingery-coloured soupstrainer moustache. His jaw was working in a ruminative kind of way. Obviously he’d been interrupted in the middle of his tea. The two of them started poking round in search of the other box of pipes. It was about five minutes before they ran it to earth behind some bottles of sweets. It’s wonderful, the amount of litter they manage to accumulate in these frowsy little shops where the whole stock is worth about fifty quid.

I watched old Elsie poking about among the litter and mumbling to herself. Do you know the kind of shuffling, round-shouldered movements of an old woman who’s lost something? No use trying to describe to you what I felt. A kind of cold, deadly desolate feeling. You can’t conceive it unless you’ve had it. All I can say is, if there was a girl you used to care about twenty-five years ago, go and have a look at her now. Then perhaps you’ll know what I felt.

But as a matter of fact, the thought that was chiefly in my mind was how differently things turn out from what you expect. The times I’d had with Elsie! The July nights under the chestnut trees! Wouldn’t you think it would leave some kind of after-effect behind? Who’d have thought the time would ever come when there would be just no feeling whatever between us? Here was I and here was she, our bodies might be a yard apart, and we were just as much strangers as though we’d never met. As for her, she didn’t even recognize me. If I told her who I was, very likely she wouldn’t remember. And if she did remember, what would she feel? Just nothing. Probably wouldn’t even be angry because I’d done the dirty on her. It was as if the whole thing had never happened.

And on the other hand, who’d ever have foreseen that Elsie would end up like this? She’d seemed the kind of girl who’s bound to go to the devil. I know there’d been at least one other man before I had met her, and it’s safe to bet there were others between me and the second George. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that she’d had a dozen altogether. I treated her badly, there’s no question about that, and many a time it had given me a bad half-hour. She’ll end up on the streets, I used to think, or stick her head in the gas oven. And sometimes I felt I’d been a bit of a bastard, but other times I reflected (what was true enough) that if it hadn’t been me it would have been somebody else. But you see the way things happen, the kind of dull pointless way. How many women really end up on the streets? A damn sight more end up at the mangle. She hadn’t gone to the bad, or to the good either. Just ended up like everybody else, a fat old woman muddling about a frowsy little shop, with a gingery-moustached George to call her own. Probably got a string of kids as well. Mrs George Cookson. Lived respected and died lamented — and might die this side of the bankruptcy-court, if she was lucky.

They’d found the box of pipes. Of course there weren’t any with amber mouthpieces among them.

‘I don’t know as we got any amber ones just at present, sir. Not amber. We gossome nice vulcanite ones.’

‘I wanted an amber one,’ I said.

‘We gossome nice pipes ‘ere.’ She held one out. ‘That’s a nice pipe, now. ‘Alf a crown, that one is.’

I took it. Our fingers touched. No kick, no reaction. The body doesn’t remember. And I suppose you think I bought the pipe, just for old sake’s sake, to put half a crown in Elsie’s pocket. But not a bit of it. I didn’t want the thing. I don’t smoke a pipe. I’d merely been making a pretext to come into the shop. I turned it over in my fingers and then put it down on the counter.

‘Doesn’t matter, I’ll leave it,’ I said. ‘Give me a small Players’.’

Had to buy something, after all that fuss. George the second, or maybe the third or fourth, routed out a packet of Players’, still munching away beneath his moustache. I could see he was sulky because I’d dragged him away from his tea for nothing. But it seemed too damn silly to waste half a crown. I cleared out and that was the last I ever saw of Elsie.

I went back to the George and had dinner. Afterwards I went out with some vague idea of going to the pictures, if they were open, but instead I landed up in one of the big noisy pubs in the new part of the town. There I ran into a couple of chaps from Staffordshire who were travelling in hardware, and we got talking about the state of trade, and playing darts and drinking Guinness. By closing time they were both so boozed that I had to take them home in a taxi, and I was a bit under the weather myself, and the next morning I woke up with a worse head than ever.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/orwell/george/o79co/part4.4.html

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