Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell

Chapter 5

‘We’re printing that poem of yours in next month’s Antichrist,’ said Ravelston from his first-floor window.

Gordon, on the pavement below, affected to have forgotten the poem Ravelston was speaking about; he remembered it intimately, of course, as he remembered all his poems.

‘Which poem?’ he said.

‘The one about the dying prostitute. We thought it was rather successful.’ Gordon laughed a laugh of gratified conceit, and managed to pass it off as a laugh of sardonic amusement.

‘Aha! A dying prostitute! That’s rather what you might call one of my subjects. I’ll do you one about an aspidistra next time.’

Ravelston’s over-sensitive, boyish face, framed by nice dark-brown hair, drew back a little from the window.

‘It’s intolerably cold,’ he said. ‘You’d better come up and have some food, or something.’

‘No, you come down. I’ve had dinner. Let’s go to a pub and have some beer.’

‘All right then. Half a minute while I get my shoes on.’

They had been talking for some minutes, Gordon on the pavement, Ravelston leaning out of the window above. Gordon had announced his arrival not by knocking at the door but by throwing a pebble against the window pane. He never, if he could help it, set foot inside Ravelston’s flat. There was something in the atmosphere of the flat that upset him and made him feel mean, dirty, and out of place. It was so overwhelmingly, though unconsciously, upper-class. Only in the street or in a pub could he feel himself approximately Ravelston’s equal. It would have astonished Ravelston to learn that his four-roomed flat, which he thought of as a poky little place, had this effect upon Gordon. To Ravelston, living in the wilds of Regent’s Park was practically the same thing as living in the slums; he had chosen to live there, en bon socialiste, precisely as your social snob will live in a mews in Mayfair for the sake of the ‘WI’ on his notepaper. It was part of a lifelong attempt to escape from his own class and become, as it were, an honorary member of the proletariat. Like all such attempts, it was foredoomed to failure. No rich man ever succeeds in disguising himself as a poor man; for money, like murder, will out.

On the street door there was a brass plate inscribed:

P. W. H. RAVELSTON

ANTICHRIST

Ravelston lived on the first floor, and the editorial offices of Antichrist were downstairs. Antichrist was a middle — to high-brow monthly, Socialist in a vehement but ill-defined way. In general, it gave the impression of being edited by an ardent Nonconformist who had transferred his allegiance from God to Marx, and in doing so had got mixed up with a gang of vers libre poets. This was not really Ravelston’s character; merely he was softer-hearted than an editor ought to be, and consequently was at the mercy of his contributors. Practically anything got printed in Antichrist if Ravelston suspected that its author was starving.

Ravelston appeared a moment later, hatless and pulling on a pair of gauntlet gloves. You could tell him at a glance for a rich young man. He wore the uniform of the moneyed intelligentsia; an old tweed coat — but it was one of those coats which have been made by a good tailor and grow more aristocratic as they grow older — very loose grey flannel bags, a grey pullover, much-worn brown shoes. He made a point of going everywhere, even to fashionable houses and expensive restaurants, in these clothes, just to show his contempt for upper-class conventions; he did not fully realize that it is only the upper classes who can do these things. Though he was a year older than Gordon he looked much younger. He was very tall, with a lean, wide-shouldered body and the typical lounging grace of the upper-class youth. But there was something curiously apologetic in his movements and in the expression of his face. He seemed always in the act of stepping out of somebody else’s way. When expressing an opinion he would rub his nose with the back of his left forefinger. The truth was that in every moment of his life he was apologizing, tacitly, for the largeness of his income. You could make him uncomfortable as easily by reminding him that he was rich as you could make Gordon by reminding him that he was poor.

‘You’ve had dinner, I gather?’ said Ravelston, in his rather Bloomsbury voice.

‘Yes, ages ago. Haven’t you?’

‘Oh, yes, certainly. Oh, quite!’

It was twenty past eight and Gordon had had no food since midday. Neither had Ravelston. Gordon did not know that Ravelston was hungry, but Ravelston knew that Gordon was hungry, and Gordon knew that Ravelston knew it. Nevertheless, each saw good reason for pretending not to be hungry. They seldom or never had meals together. Gordon would not let Ravelston buy his meals for him, and for himself he could not afford to go to restaurants, not even to a Lyons or an A.B.C. This was Monday and he had five and ninepence left. He might afford a couple of pints at a pub, but not a proper meal. When he and Ravelston met it was always agreed, with silent manoeuvrings, that they should do nothing that involved spending money, beyond the shilling or so one spends in a pub. In this way the fiction was kept up that there was no serious difference in their incomes.

Gordon sidled closer to Ravelston as they started down the pavement. He would have taken his arm, only of course one can’t do that kind of thing. Beside Ravelston’s taller, comelier figure he looked frail, fretful, and miserably shabby. He adored Ravelston and was never quite at ease in his presence. Ravelston had not merely a charm of manner, but also a kind of fundamental decency, a graceful attitude to life, which Gordon scarcely encountered elsewhere. Undoubtedly it was bound up with the fact that Ravelston was rich. For money buys all virtues. Money suffereth long and is kind, is not puffed up, doth not behave unseemly, seeketh not her own. But in some ways Ravelston was not even like a moneyed person. The fatty degeneration of the spirit which goes with wealth had missed him, or he had escaped it by a conscious effort. Indeed his whole life was a struggle to escape it. It was for this reason that he gave up his time and a large part of his income to editing an unpopular Socialist monthly. And apart from Antichrist, money flowed from him in all directions. A tribe of cadgers ranging from poets to pavement-artists browsed upon him unceasingly. For himself he lived upon eight hundred a year or thereabouts. Even of this income he was acutely ashamed. It was not, he realized, exactly a proletarian income; but he had never learned to get along on less. Eight hundred a year was a minimum living wage to him, as two pounds a week was to Gordon.

‘How is your work getting on?’ said Ravelston presently.

‘Oh, as usual. It’s a drowsy kind of job. Swapping back-chat with old hens about Hugh Walpole. I don’t object to it.’

‘I meant your own work — your writing. Is London Pleasures getting on all right?’

‘Oh, Christ! Don’t speak of it. It’s turning my hair grey.’

‘Isn’t it going forward at all?’

‘My books don’t go forward. They go backward.’

Ravelston sighed. As editor of Antichrist, he was used to encouraging despondent poets that it had become a second nature to him. He did not need telling why Gordon ‘couldn’t’ write, and why all poets nowadays ‘can’t’ write, and why when they do write it is something as arid as the rattling of a pea inside a big drum. He said with sympathetic gloom:

‘Of course I admit this isn’t a hopeful age to write poetry in.’

‘You bet it isn’t.’

Gordon kicked his heel against the pavement. He wished that London Pleasures had not been mentioned. It brought back to him the memory of his mean, cold bedroom and the grimy papers littered under the aspidistra. He said abruptly:

‘This writing business! What b — s it all is! Sitting in a corner torturing a nerve which won’t even respond any longer. And who wants poetry nowadays? Training performing fleas would be more useful by comparison.’

‘Still, you oughtn’t to let yourself be discouraged. After all, you do produce something, which is more than one can say for a lot of poets nowadays. There was Mice, for instance.’

‘Oh, Mice! It makes me spew to think of it.’

He thought with loathing of that sneaky little foolscap octavo. Those forty or fifty drab, dead little poems, each like a little abortion in its labelled jar. ‘Exceptional promise’, The Times Lit. Supp. had said. A hundred and fifty-three copies sold and the rest remaindered. He had one of those movements of contempt and even horror which every artist has at times when he thinks of his own work.

‘It’s dead,’ he said. ‘Dead as a blasted foetus in a bottle.’

‘Oh, well, I suppose that happens to most books. You can’t expect an enormous sale for poetry nowadays. There’s too much competition.’

‘I didn’t mean that. I meant the poems themselves are dead. There’s no life in them. Everything I write is like that. Lifeless, gutless. Not necessarily ugly or vulgar; but dead — just dead.’ The word ‘dead’ re-echoed in his mind, setting up its own train of thought. He added: ‘My poems are dead because I’m dead. You’re dead. We’re all dead. Dead people in a dead world.’

Ravelston murmured agreement, with a curious air of guilt. And now they were off upon their favourite subject — Gordon’s favourite subject, anyway; the futility, the bloodiness, the deathliness of modern life. They never met without talking for at least half an hour in this vein. But it always made Ravelston feel rather uncomfortable. In a way, of course, he knew — it was precisely this that Antichrist existed to point out — that life under a decaying capitalism is deathly and meaningless. But this knowledge was only theoretical. You can’t really feel that kind of thing when your income is eight hundred a year. Most of the time, when he wasn’t thinking of coal-miners, Chinese junk-coolies, and the unemployed in Middlesbrough, he felt that life was pretty good fun. Moreover, he had the naive belief that in a little while Socialism is going to put things right. Gordon always seemed to him to exaggerate. So there was subtle disagreement between them, which Ravelston was too good-mannered to press home.

But with Gordon it was different. Gordon’s income was two pounds a week. Therefore the hatred of modern life, the desire to see our money-civilization blown to hell by bombs, was a thing he genuinely felt. They were walking southward, down a darkish, meanly decent residential street with a few shuttered shops. From a hoarding on the blank end of a house the yard-wide face of Corner Table simpered, pallid in the lamplight. Gordon caught a glimpse of a withering aspidistra in a lower window. London! Mile after mile of mean lonely houses, let off in flats and single rooms; not homes, not communities, just clusters of meaningless lives drifting in a sort of drowsy chaos to the grave! He saw men as corpses walking. The thought that he was merely objectifying his own inner misery hardly troubled him. His mind went back to Wednesday afternoon, when he had desired to hear the enemy aeroplanes zooming over London. He caught Ravelston’s arm and paused to gesticulate at the Corner Table poster.

‘Look at that bloody thing up there! Look at it, just look at it! Doesn’t it make you spew?’

‘It’s aesthetically offensive, I grant. But I don’t see that it matters very greatly.’

‘Of course it matters — having the town plastered with things like that.’

‘Oh, well, it’s merely a temporary phenomenon. Capitalism in its last phase. I doubt whether it’s worth worrying about.’

‘But there’s more in it than that. Just look at that fellow’s face gaping down at us! You can see our whole civilization written there. The imbecility, the emptiness, the desolation! You can’t look at it without thinking of French letters and machine guns. Do you know that the other day I was actually wishing war would break out? I was longing for it — praying for it, almost.’

‘Of course, the trouble is, you see, that about half the young men in Europe are wishing the same thing.’

‘Let’s hope they are. Then perhaps it’ll happen.’

‘My dear old chap, no! Once is enough, surely.’

Gordon walked on, fretfully. ‘This life we live nowadays! It’s not life, it’s stagnation, death-in-life. Look at all these bloody houses, and the meaningless people inside them! Sometimes I think we’re all corpses. Just rotting upright.’

‘But where you make your mistake, don’t you see, is in talking as if all this was incurable. This is only something that’s got to happen before the proletariat take over.’

‘Oh, Socialism! Don’t talk to me about Socialism.’

‘You ought to read Marx, Gordon, you really ought. Then you’d realize that this is only a phase. It can’t go on for ever.’

‘Can’t it? It FEELS as if it was going on for ever.’

‘It’s merely that we’re at a bad moment. We’ve got to die before we can be reborn, if you take my meaning.’

‘We’re dying right enough. I don’t see much signs of our being reborn.’

Ravelston rubbed his nose. ‘Oh, well, we must have faith, I suppose. And hope.’

‘We must have money you mean,’ said Gordon gloomily.

‘Money?’

‘It’s the price of optimism. Give me five quid a week and I’D be a Socialist, I dare say.’

Ravelston looked away, discomforted. This money-business! Everywhere it came up against you! Gordon wished he had not said it. Money is the one thing you must never mention when you are with people richer than yourself. Or if you do, then it must be money in the abstract, money with a big ‘M’, not the actual concrete money that’s in your pocket and isn’t in mine. But the accursed subject drew him like a magnet. Sooner or later, especially when he had a few drinks inside him, he invariably began talking with self-pitiful detail about the bloodiness of life on two quid a week. Sometimes, from sheer nervous impulse to say the wrong thing, he would come out with some squalid confession — as, for instance, that he had been without tobacco for two days, or that his underclothes were in holes and his overcoat up the spout. But nothing of that sort should happen tonight, he resolved. They veered swiftly away from the subject of money and began talking in a more general way about Socialism. Ravelston had been trying for years to convert Gordon to Socialism, without even succeeding in interesting him in it. Presently they passed a low-looking pub on a corner in a side-street. A sour cloud of beer seemed to hang about it. The smell revolted Ravelston. He would have quickened his pace to get away from it. But Gordon paused, his nostrils tickled.

‘Christ! I could do with a drink,’ he said.

‘So could I,’ said Ravelston gallantly.

Gordon shoved open the door of the public bar, Ravelston following. Ravelston persuaded himself that he was fond of pubs, especially low-class pubs. Pubs are genuinely proletarian. In a pub you can meet the working class on equal terms — or that’s the theory, anyway. But in practice Ravelston never went into a pub unless he was with somebody like Gordon, and he always felt like a fish out of water when he got there. A foul yet coldish air enveloped them. It was a filthy, smoky room, low-ceilinged, with a sawdusted floor and plain deal tables ringed by generations of beer-pots. In one corner four monstrous women with breasts the size of melons were sitting drinking porter and talking with bitter intensity about someone called Mrs Croop. The landlady, a tall grim woman with a black fringe, looking like the madame of a brothel, stood behind the bar, her powerful forearms folded, watching a game of darts which was going on between four labourers and a postman. You had to duck under the darts as you crossed the room, there was a moment’s hush and people glanced inquisitively at Ravelston. He was so obviously a gentleman. They didn’t see his type very often in the public bar.

Ravelston pretended not to notice that they were staring at him. He lounged towards the bar, pulling off a glove to feel for the money in his pocket. ‘What’s yours?’ he said casually.

But Gordon had already shoved his way ahead and was tapping a shilling on the bar. Always pay for the first round of drinks! It was his point of honour. Ravelston made for the only vacant table. A navvy leaning on the bar turned on his elbow and gave him a long, insolent stare ‘A—— toff!’ he was thinking. Gordon came back balancing two pint glasses of the dark common ale. They were thick cheap glasses, thick as jam jars almost, and dim and greasy. A thin yellow froth was subsiding on the beer. The air was thick with gunpowdery tobacco-smoke. Ravelston caught sight of a well-filled spittoon near the bar and averted his eyes. It crossed his mind that this beer had been sucked up from some beetle-ridden cellar through yards of slimy tube, and that the glasses had never been washed in their lives, only rinsed in beery water. Gordon was very hungry. He could have done with some bread and cheese, but to order any would have been to betray the fact that he had had no dinner. He took a deep pull at his beer and lighted a cigarette, which made him forget his hunger a little. Ravelston also swallowed a mouthful or so and set his glass gingerly down. It was typical London beer, sickly and yet leaving a chemical after-taste. Ravelston thought of the wines of Burgundy. They went on arguing about Socialism.

‘You know, Gordon, it’s really time you started reading Marx,’ said Ravelston, less apologetically than usual, because the vile taste of the beer had annoyed him.

‘I’d sooner read Mrs Humphry Ward,’ said Gordon.

‘But don’t you see, your attitude is so unreasonable. You’re always tirading against Capitalism, and yet you won’t accept the only possible alternative. One can’t put things right in a hole-and-corner way. One’s got to accept either Capitalism or Socialism. There’s no way out of it.’

‘I tell you I can’t be bothered with Socialism. The very thought of it makes me yawn.’

‘But what’s your objection to Socialism, anyway?’

‘There’s only one objection to Socialism, and that is that nobody wants it.’

‘Oh, surely it’s rather absurd to say that!’

‘That’s to say, nobody who could see what Socialism would really mean.’

‘But what WOULD Socialism mean, according to your idea of it?’

‘Oh! Some kind of Aldous Huxley Brave New World: only not so amusing. Four hours a day in a model factory, tightening up bolt number 6003. Rations served out in grease-proof paper at the communal kitchen. Community-hikes from Marx Hostel to Lenin Hostel and back. Free abortion-clinics on all the corners. All very well in its way, of course. Only we don’ t want it.’

Ravelston sighed. Once a month, in Antichrist, he repudiated this version of Socialism. ‘Well, what DO we want, then?’

‘God knows. All we know is what we don’t want. That’s what’s wrong with us nowadays. We’re stuck, like Buridan’s donkey. Only there are three alternatives instead of two, and all three of them make us spew. Socialism’s only one of them.’

‘And what are the other two?’

‘Oh, I suppose suicide and the Catholic Church.’

Ravelston smiled, anticlerically shocked. ‘The Catholic Church! Do you consider that an alternative?’

‘Well, it’s a standing temptation to the intelligentsia, isn’t it?’

‘Not what I should call the intelligentsia. Though there was Eliot, of course,’ Ravelston admitted.

‘And there’ll be plenty more, you bet. I dare say it’s fairly cosy under Mother Church’s wing. A bit insanitary, of course — but you’d feel safe there, anyway.’

Ravelston rubbed his nose reflectively. ‘It seems to me that’s only another form of suicide.’

‘In a way. But so’s Socialism. At least it’s a counsel of despair. But I couldn’t commit suicide, real suicide. It’s too meek and mild. I’m not going to give up my share of earth to anyone else. I’d want to do in a few of my enemies first.’

Ravelston smiled again. ‘And who are your enemies?’

‘Oh, anyone with over five hundred a year.’

A momentary uncomfortable silence fell. Ravelston’s income, after payment of income tax, was probably two thousand a year. This was the kind of thing Gordon was always saying. To cover the awkwardness of the moment, Ravelston took up his glass, steeled himself against the nauseous taste, and swallowed about two-thirds of his beer — enough at any rate, to give the impression that he had finished it.

‘Drink up!’ he said with would-be heartiness. ‘It’s time we had the other half of that.’

Gordon emptied his glass and let Ravelston take it. He did not mind letting Ravelston pay for the drinks now. He had paid the first round and honour was satisfied. Ravelston walked self-consciously to the bar. People began staring at him again as soon as he stood up. The navvy, still leaning against the bar over his untouched pot of beer, gazed at him with quiet insolence. Ravelston resolved that he would drink no more of this filthy common ale.

‘Two double whiskies, would you, please?’ he said apologetically.

The grim landlady stared. ‘What?’ she said.

‘Two double whiskies, please.’

‘No whisky ‘ere. We don’t sell spirits. Beer ‘ouse, we are.’

The navvy smiled flickering under his moustache. ‘—— ignorant toff!’ he was thinking. ‘Asking for a whisky in a —— beer ‘ouse!’ Ravelston’s pale face flushed slightly. He had not known till this moment that some of the poorer pubs cannot afford a spirit licence.

‘Bass, then, would you? Two pint bottles of Bass.’

There were no pint bottles, they had to have four half pints. It was a very poor house. Gordon took a deep, satisfying swallow of Bass. More alcoholic than the draught beer, it fizzed and prickled in his throat, and because he was hungry it went a little to his head. He felt at once more philosophic and more self-pitiful. He had made up his mind not to begin belly-aching about his poverty; but now he was going to begin after all. He said abruptly:

‘This is all b — s that we’ve been talking.’

‘What’s all b — s?’

‘All this about Socialism and Capitalism and the state of the modern world and God knows what. I don’t give a —— for the state of the modern world. If the whole of England was starving except myself and the people I care about, I wouldn’t give a damn.’

‘Don’t you exaggerate just a little?’

‘No. All this talk we make — we’re only objectifying our own feelings. It’s all dictated by what we’ve got in our pockets. I go up and down London saying it’s a city of the dead, and our civilization’s dying, and I wish war would break out, and God knows what; and all it means is that my wages are two quid a week and I wish they were five.’

Ravelston, once again reminded obliquely of his income, stroked his nose slowly with the knuckle of his left forefinger.

‘Of course, I’m with you up to a point. After all, it’s only what Marx said. Every ideology is a reflection of economic circumstances.’

‘Ah, but you only understand it out of Marx! You don’t know what it means to have to crawl along on two quid a week. It isn’t a question of hardship — it’s nothing so decent as hardship. It’s the bloody, sneaking, squalid meaness of it. Living alone for weeks on end because when you’ve no money you’ve no friends. Calling yourself a writer and never even producing anything because you’re always too washed out to write. It’s a sort of filthy sub-world one lives in. A sort of spiritual sewer.’

He had started now. They were never together long without Gordon beginning to talk in this strain. It was the vilest manners. It embarrassed Ravelston horribly. And yet somehow Gordon could not help it. He had got to retail his troubles to somebody, and Ravelston was the only person who understood. Poverty, like every other dirty wound, has got to be exposed occasionally. He began to talk in obscene detail of his life in Willowbed Road. He dilated on the smell of slops and cabbage, the clotted sauce-bottles in the dining-room, the vile food, the aspidistras. He described his furtive cups of tea and his trick of throwing used tea-leaves down the W.C. Ravelston, guilty and miserable, sat staring at his glass and revolving it slowly between his hands. Against his right breast he could feel, a square accusing shape, the pocket-book in which, as he knew, eight pound notes and two ten-bob notes nestled against his fat green cheque-book. How awful these details of poverty are! Not that what Gordon was describing was real poverty. It was at worst the fringe of poverty. But what of the real poor? What of the unemployed in Middlesbrough, seven in a room on twenty-five bob a week? When there are people living like that, how dare one walk the world with pound notes and cheque-books in one’s pocket?

‘It’s bloody,’ he murmured several times, impotently. In his heart he wondered — it was his invariable reaction — whether Gordon would accept a tenner if you offered to lend it to him.

They had another drink, which Ravelston again paid for, and went out into the street. It was almost time to part. Gordon never spent more than an hour or two with Ravelston. One’s contacts with rich people, like one’s visits to high altitudes, must always be brief. It was a moonless, starless night, with a damp wind blowing. The night air, the beer, and the watery radiance of the lamps induced in Gordon a sort of dismal clarity. He perceived that it is quite impossible to explain to any rich person, even to anyone so decent as Ravelston, the essential bloodiness of poverty. For this reason it became all the more important to explain it. He said suddenly:

‘Have you read Chaucer’s Man of Lawe’s Tale?’

‘The Man of Lawe’s Tale? Not that I remember. What’s it about?’

‘I forget. I was thinking of the first six stanzas. Where he talks about poverty. The way it gives everyone the right to stamp on you! The way everyone WANTS to stamp on you! It makes people HATE you, to know that you’ve no money. They insult you just for the pleasure of insulting you and knowing that you can’t hit back.’

Ravelston was pained. ‘Oh, no, surely not! People aren’t so bad as all that.’

‘Ah, but you don’t know the things that happen!’

Gordon did not want to be told that ‘people aren’t so bad’. He clung with a sort of painful joy to the notion that because he was poor everyone must WANT to insult him. It fitted in with his philosophy of life. And suddenly, with the feeling that he could not stop himself, he was talking of the thing that had been rankling in his mind for two days past — the snub he had had from the Dorings on Thursday. He poured the whole story out quite shamelessly. Ravelston was amazed. He could not understand what Gordon was making such a fuss about. To be disappointed at missing a beastly literary tea-party seemed to him absurd. He would not have gone to a literary tea-party if you had paid him. Like all rich people, he spent far more time in avoiding human society than in seeking it. He interrupted Gordon:

‘Really, you know, you ought not to take offence so easily. After all, a thing like that doesn’t really matter.’

‘It isn’t the thing itself that matters, it’s the spirit behind it. The way they snub you as a matter of course, just because you’ve got no money.’

‘But quite possibly it was all a mistake, or something. Why should anyone want to snub you?’

‘“If thou be poure, thy brother hateth thee,”’ quoted Gordon perversely.

Ravelston, deferential even to the opinions of the dead, rubbed his nose. ‘Does Chaucer say that? Then I’m afraid I disagree with Chaucer. People don’t hate you, exactly.’

‘They do. And they’re quite right to hate you. You ARE hateful. It’s like those ads for Listerine. “Why is he always alone? Halitosis is ruining his career.” Poverty is spiritual halitosis.’

Ravelston sighed. Undoubtedly Gordon was perverse. They walked on, arguing, Gordon vehemently, Ravelston deprecatingly. Ravelston was helpless against Gordon in an argument of this kind. He felt that Gordon exaggerated, and yet he never liked to contradict him. How could he? He was rich and Gordon was poor. And how can you argue about poverty with someone who is genuinely poor?

‘And then the way women treat you when you’ve no money!’ Gordon went on. ‘That’s another thing about this accursed money business — women!’

Ravelston nodded rather gloomily. This sounded to him more reasonable than what Gordon had been saying before. He thought of Hermione Slater, his own girl. They had been lovers two years but had never bothered to get married. It was ‘too much fag’, Hermione always said. She was rich, of course, or rather her people were. He thought of her shoulders, wide, smooth, and young, that seemed to rise out of her clothes like a mermaid rising from the sea; and her skin and hair, which were somehow warm and sleepy, like a wheatfield in the sun. Hermione always yawned at the mention of Socialism, and refused even to read Antichrist. ‘Don’t talk to me about the lower classes,’ she used to say. ‘I hate them. They SMELL.’ And Ravelston adored her.

‘Of course women ARE a difficulty,’ he admitted.

‘They’re more than a difficulty, they’re a bloody curse. That is, if you’ve got no money. A woman hates the sight of you if you’ve got no money.’

‘I think that’s putting it a little too strongly. Things aren’t so crude as all that.’

Gordon did not listen. ‘What rot it is to talk about Socialism or any other ism when women are what they are! The only thing a woman ever wants is money; money for a house of her own and two babies and Drage furniture and an aspidistra. The only sin they can imagine is not wanting to grab money. No woman ever judges a man by anything except his income. Of course she doesn’t put it to herself like that. She says he’s SUCH A NICE man — meaning that he’s got plenty of money. And if you haven’t got money you aren’t NICE. You’re dishonoured, somehow. You’ve sinned. Sinned against the aspidistra.’

‘You talk a great deal about aspidistras,’ said Ravelston.

‘They’re a dashed important subject,’ said Gordon.

Ravelston rubbed his nose and looked away uncomfortably.

‘Look here, Gordon, you don’t mind my asking — have you got a girl of your own?’

‘Oh, Christ! don’t speak of her!’

He began, nevertheless, to talk about Rosemary. Ravelston had never met Rosemary. At this moment Gordon could not even remember what Rosemary was like. He could not remember how fond he was of her and she of him, how happy they always were together on the rare occasions when they could meet, how patiently she put up with his almost intolerable ways. He remembered nothing save that she would not sleep with him and that it was now a week since she had even written. In the dank night air, with beer inside him, he felt himself a forlorn, neglected creature. Rosemary was ‘cruel’ to him — that was how he saw it. Perversely, for the mere pleasure of tormenting himself and making Ravelston uncomfortable, be began to invent an imaginary character for Rosemary. He built up a picture of her as a callous creature who was amused by him and yet half despised him, who played with him and kept him at arm’s length, and who would nevertheless fall into his arms if only he had a little more money. And Ravelston, who had never met Rosemary, did not altogether disbelieve him. He broke in:

‘But I say, Gordon, look here. This girl, Miss — Miss Waterlow, did you say her name was? — Rosemary; doesn’t she care for you at all, really?’

Gordon’s conscience pricked him, though not very deeply. He could not say that Rosemary did not care for him.

‘Oh, yes, she does care for me. In her own way, I dare say she cares for me quite a lot. But not enough, don’t you see. She can’t, while I’ve got no money. It’s all money.’

‘But surely money isn’t so important as all that? After all, there ARE other things.’

‘What other things? Don’t you see that a man’s whole personality is bound up with his income? His personality IS his income. How can you be attractive to a girl when you’ve got no money? You can’t wear decent clothes, you can’t take her out to dinner or to the theatre or away for week-ends, you can’t carry a cheery, interesting atmosphere about with you. And it’s rot to say that kind of thing doesn’t matter. It does. If you haven’t got money there isn’t even anywhere where you can meet. Rosemary and I never meet except in the streets or in picture galleries. She lives in some foul women’s hostel, and my bitch of a landlady won’t allow women in the house. Wandering up and down beastly wet streets — that’s what Rosemary associates me with. Don’t you see how it takes the gilt off everything?’

Ravelston was distressed. It must be pretty bloody when you haven’t even the money to take your girl out. He tried to nerve himself to say something, and failed. With guilt, and also with desire, he thought of Hermione’s body, naked like a ripe warm fruit. With any luck she would have dropped in at the flat this evening. Probably she was waiting for him now. He thought of the unemployed in Middlesbrough. Sexual starvation is awful among the unemployed. They were nearing the flat. He glanced up at the windows. Yes, they were lighted up. Hermione must be there. She had her own latchkey.

As they approached the flat Gordon edged closer to Ravelston. Now the evening was ending, and he must part from Ravelston, whom he adored, and go back to his foul lonely bedroom. And all evenings ended in this way; the return through the dark streets to the lonely room, the womanless bed. And Ravelston would say ‘Come up, won’t you?’ and Gordon, in duty bound, would say, ‘No.’ Never stay too long with those you love — another commandment of the moneyless.

They halted at the foot of the steps. Ravelston laid his gloved hand on one of the iron spearheads of the railing.

‘Come up, won’t you?’ he said without conviction.

‘No, thanks. It’s time I was getting back.’

Ravelston’s fingers tightened round the spearhead. He pulled as though to go up, but did not go. Uncomfortably, looking over Gordon’s head into the distance, he said:

‘I say, Gordon, look here. You won’t be offended if I say something?’

‘What?’

‘I say, you know, I hate that business about you and your girl. Not being able to take her out, and all that. It’s bloody, that kind of thing.’

‘Oh, it’s nothing really.’

As soon as he heard Ravelston say that it was ‘bloody’, he knew that he had been exaggerating. He wished that he had not talked in that silly self-pitiful way. One says these things, with the feeling that one cannot help saying them, and afterwards one is sorry.

‘I dare say I exaggerate,’ he said.

‘I say, Gordon, look here. Let me lend you ten quid. Take the girl out to dinner a few times. Or away for the week-end, or something. It might make all the difference. I hate to think —’

Gordon frowned bitterly, almost fiercely. He had stepped a pace back, as though from a threat or an insult. The terrible thing was that the temptation to say ‘Yes’ had almost overwhelmed him. There was so much that ten quid would do! He had a fleeting vision of Rosemary and himself at a restaurant table — a bowl of grapes and peaches, a bowing hovering waiter, a wine bottle dark and dusty in its wicker cradle.

‘No fear!’ he said.

‘I do wish you would. I tell you I’d LIKE to lend it you.’

‘Thanks. But I prefer to keep my friends.’

‘Isn’t that rather — well, rather a bourgeois kind of thing to say?’

‘Do you think it would be BORROWING if I took ten quid off you? I couldn’t pay it back in ten years.’

‘Oh, well! It wouldn’t matter so very much.’ Ravelston looked away. Out it had got to come — the disgraceful, hateful admission that he found himself forced so curiously often to make! ‘You know, I’ve got quite a lot of money.’

‘I know you have. That’s exactly why I won’t borrow off you.’

‘You know, Gordon, sometimes you’re just a little bit — well, pigheaded.’

‘I dare say. I can’t help it.’

‘Oh, well! Good night, then.’

‘Good night.’

Ten minutes later Ravelston rode southwards in a taxi, with Hermione. She had been waiting for him, asleep or half asleep in one of the monstrous armchairs in front of the sitting-room fire. Whenever there was nothing particular to do, Hermione always fell asleep as promptly as an animal, and the more she slept the healthier she became. As he came across to her she woke and stretched herself with voluptuous, sleepy writhings, half smiling, half yawning up at him, one cheek and bare arm rosy in the firelight. Presently she mastered her yawns to greet him:

‘Hullo, Philip! Where have you been all this time? I’ve been waiting ages.’

‘Oh, I’ve been out with a fellow. Gordon Comstock. I don’t expect you know him. The poet.’

‘Poet! How much did he borrow off you?’

‘Nothing. He’s not that kind of person. He’s rather a fool about money, as a matter of fact. But he’s very gifted in his way.’

‘You and your poets! You look tired, Philip. What time did you have dinner?’

‘Well — as a matter of fact I didn’t have any dinner.’

‘Didn’t have any dinner! Why?’

‘Oh, well, you see — I don’t know if you’ll understand. It was a kind of accident. It was like this.’

He explained. Hermione burst out laughing and dragged herself into a more upright position.

‘Philip! You ARE a silly old ass! Going without your dinner, just so as not to hurt that little beast’s feelings! You must have some food at once. And of course your char’s gone home. Why don’t you keep some proper servants, Philip? I hate this hole-and-corner way you live. We’ll go out and have supper at Modigliani’s.’

‘But it’s after ten. They’ll be shut.’

‘Nonsense! They’re open till two. I’ll ring up for a taxi. I’m not going to have you starving yourself.’

In the taxi she lay against him, still half asleep, her head pillowed on his breast. He thought of the unemployed in Middlesbrough, seven in a room on twenty-five bob a week. But the girl’s body was heavy against him, and Middlesbrough was very far away. Also he was damnably hungry. He thought of his favourite corner table at Modigliani’s, and of that vile pub with its hard benches, stale beer-stink, and brass spittoons. Hermione was sleepily lecturing him.

‘Philip, why do you have to live in such a dreadful way?’

‘But I don’t live in a dreadful way.’

‘Yes, you do. Pretending you’re poor when you’re not, and living in that poky flat with no servants, and going about with all these beastly people.’

‘What beastly people?’

‘Oh, people like this poet friend of yours. All those people who write for your paper. They only do it to cadge from you. Of course I know you’re a Socialist. So am I. I mean we’re all Socialists nowadays. But I don’t see why you have to give all your money away and make friends with the lower classes. You can be a Socialist AND have a good time, that’s what I say.’

‘Hermione, dear, please don’t call them the lower classes!’

‘Why not? They ARE the lower classes, aren’t they?’

‘It’s such a hateful expression. Call them the working class, can’t you?’

‘The working class, if you like, then. But they smell just the same.’

‘You oughtn’t to say that kind of thing,’ he protested weakly.

‘Do you know, Philip, sometimes I think you LIKE the lower classes.’

‘Of course I like them.’

‘How disgusting. How absolutely disgusting.’

She lay quiet, content to argue no longer, her arms round him, like a sleepy siren. The woman-scent breathed out of her, a powerful wordless propaganda against all altruism and all justice. Outside Modigliani’s they had paid off the taxi and were moving for the door when a big, lank wreck of a man seemed to spring up from the paving-stones in front of them. He stood across their path like some fawning beast, with dreadful eagerness and yet timorously, as though afraid that Ravelston would strike him. His face came close up to Ravelston’s — a dreadful face, fish-white and scrubby-bearded to the eyes. The words ‘A cup of tea, guv’nor!’ were breathed through carious teeth. Ravelston shrank from him in disgust. He could not help it. His hand moved automatically to his pocket. But in the same instant Hermione caught him by the arm and hauled him inside the restaurant.

‘You’d give away every penny you’ve got if I let you,’ she said.

They went to their favourite table in the corner. Hermione played with some grapes, but Ravelston was very hungry. He ordered the grilled rumpsteak he had been thinking of, and half a bottle of Beaujolais. The fat, white-haired Italian waiter, an old friend of Ravelston’s, brought the smoking steak. Ravelston cut it open. Lovely, its red-blue heart! In Middlesbrough the unemployed huddle in frowzy beds, bread and marg and milkless tea in their bellies. He settled down to his steak with all the shameful joy of a dog with a stolen leg of mutton.

Gordon walked rapidly homewards. It was cold. The fifth of December — real winter now. Circumcise ye your foreskins, saith the Lord. The damp wind blew spitefully through the naked trees. Sharply the menacing wind sweeps over. The poem he had begun on Wednesday, of which six stanzas were now finished, came back to his mind. He did not dislike it at this moment. It was queer how talking with Ravelston always bucked him up. The mere contact with Ravelston seemed to reassure him somehow. Even when their talk had been unsatisfactory, he came away with the feeling that, after all, he wasn’t quite a failure. Half aloud he repeated the six finished stanzas. They were not bad, not bad at all.

But intermittently he was going over in his mind the things he had said to Ravelston. He stuck to everything he had said. The humiliation of poverty! That’s what they can’t understand and won’t understand. Not hardship — you don’t suffer hardship on two quid a week, and if you did it wouldn’t matter — but just humiliation, the awful, bloody humiliation. The way it gives everyone the right to stamp on you. The way everyone WANTS to stamp on you. Ravelston wouldn’t believe it. He had too much decency, that was why. He thought you could be poor and still be treated like a human being. But Gordon knew better. He went into the house repeating to himself that he knew better.

There was a letter waiting for him on the hall tray. His heart jumped. All letters excited him nowadays. He went up the stairs three at a time, shut himself in and lit the gas. The letter was from Doring.

DEAR COMSTOCK— What a pity you didn’t turn up on Saturday. There were some people I wanted you to meet. We did tell you it was Saturday and not Thursday this time, didn’t we? My wife says she’s certain she told you. Anyway, we’re having another party on the twenty-third, a sort of before-Christmas party, about the same time. Won’t you come then? Don’t forget the date this time.

Yours

PAUL DORING

A painful convulsion happened below Gordon’s ribs. So Doring was pretending that it was all a mistake — was pretending not to have insulted him! True, he could not actually have gone there on Saturday, because on Saturday he had to be at the shop; still, it was the intention that counted.

His heart sickened as he re-read the words ‘some people I wanted you to meet’. Just like his bloody luck! He thought of the people he might have met — editors of highbrow magazines, for instance. They might have given him books to review or asked to see his poems or Lord knew what. For a moment he was dreadfully tempted to believe that Doring had spoken the truth. Perhaps after all they HAD told him it was Saturday and not Thursday. Perhaps if he searched his memory he might remember about it — might even find the letter itself lying among his muddle of papers. But no! He wouldn’t think of it. He fought down the temptation. The Dorings HAD insulted him on purpose. He was poor, therefore they had insulted him. If you are poor, people will insult you. It was his creed. Stick to it!

He went across to the table, tearing Doring’s letter into small bits. The aspidistra stood in its pot, dull green, ailing, pathetic in its sickly ugliness. As he sat down, he pulled it towards him and looked at it meditatively. There was the intimacy of hatred between the aspidistra and him. ‘I’ll beat you yet, you b — ’ he whispered to the dusty leaves.

Then he rummaged among his papers until he found a clean sheet, took his pen and wrote in his small, neat hand, right in the middle of the sheet:

DEAR DORING— With reference to your letter: Go and —— yourself.

Yours truly

GORDON COMSTOCK

He stuck it into an envelope, addressed it, and at once went out to get stamps from the slot machine. Post it tonight: these things look different in the morning. He dropped it into the pillar-box. So there was another friend gone west.

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