The boy lay on his bed in the dark, fully dressed, and stared at the ceiling.
There were no street lamps outside to illuminate this back room under the slates; but the faint haze of light that hangs over London at night, emanation from a million arcs and gas-lights and paraffin lamps, shone ghost-like on the ceiling so that its cracks and stains showed like a world map.
The boy was looking at a map of the world too, but it was not on the ceiling. He was examining his odyssey; conducting a private inventory. That meeting to-day had shaken him. Somewhere, it seemed, there was another fellow so like him that for a moment they could be mistaken for each other. To one who had been very much alone all his life that was an amazing thought.
Indeed, it was the most surprising thing that had happened to him in all his twenty-one years. In a way it was as if all those years that had seemed so full and exciting at the time had been merely leading up to that moment when the actor chap had caught himself short in the street and said: “Hello, Simon.”
“Oh! Sorry!” he had said at once. “Thought you were a friend of ——” And then he had stopped and stared.
“Can I do something for you?” the boy had asked at last, since the man showed no sign of moving on.
“Yes. You could come and have lunch with me.”
“It’s lunch-time, and that’s my favourite pub behind you.”
“But why me?”
“Because you interest me. You are so like a friend of mine. My name is Loding, by the way. Alec Loding. I act a bad part in a bad farce at that very bad old theatre over there.” He had nodded across the street. “But Equity, God bless them, has ordained a minimum fee for my labours, so the hire is considerably better than the part, I rejoice to say. Do you mind telling me your name?”
“Oh.” The amused, considering look was still in his eye. “Is it long since you came back to England?”
“How did you know I had been out of it?”
“Your clothes, my boy. Clothes are my business. I have dressed too many parts not to recognise American tailoring when I see it. Even the admirably conservative tailoring that you so rightly wear.”
“Then what makes you think I’m not American?”
At that the man had smiled quite broadly. “Ah, that,” he said, “is the eternal mystery of the English. You watch a procession of monks in Italy and your eye singles out one and you say: ‘Ha! An Englishman.’ You come across five hoboes wrapped in gunny sacks sheltering from the rain in Wisconsin, and you notice the fifth and think: ‘Dear goodness, that chap’s English.’ You see ten men stripped to the buff for the Foreign Legion doctor to pass judgement on, and you say —— But come to lunch and we can explore the subject at leisure.”
So he had gone to lunch, and the man had talked and been charming. But always behind the lively puffy eyes there had been that quizzical, amused, almost unbelieving look. That look was more eloquent than any of his subsequent argument. Truly he, Brat Farrar, must be like that other fellow to bring that look of half-incredulous amusement into someone’s eyes.
He lay on the bed and thought about it. This sudden identification in an unbelonging life. He had a great desire to see this twin of his; this Ashby boy. Ashby. It was a nice name: a good English name. He would like to see the place too: this Latchetts, where his twin had grown up in belonging quiet while he had bucketed round the world, all the way from the orphanage to that moment in a London street, belonging nowhere.
The orphanage. It was no fault of the orphanage that he had not belonged. It was a very good orphanage; a great deal happier than many a home he had seen in passing since. The children had loved it. They had wept when they left and had come back for visits; they had sent contributions to the funds; they had invited the staff to their marriages, and brought their subsequent children for the matron’s approval. There was never a day when some old girl or boy was not cluttering up the front door. Then why had he not felt like that?
Because he was a foundling? Was that why? Because no visitors ever came for him; no parcels or letters or invitations? But they had been very wise about that; very determined to prop his self-esteem. If anything he had been privileged beyond the other children by his foundling status. His Christmas present from Matron, he remembered, had been looked upon with envy by children whose only present came from an aunt or uncle; a mere relation, as it were. It was Matron who had taken him off the doorstep; and who saw to it that he heard how well-dressed and cared-for he had been. (He heard about this at judicious intervals for fifteen years but he had never been able to feel any satisfaction about it.) It was Matron who had determined his name with the aid of a pin and the telephone directory. The pin had come down on the word Farrell. Which had pleased Matron considerably; her pin had once, long ago, come down on the word Coffin, and she had had to cheat and try again.
There had never been any doubt about his first name, since he had arrived on the doorstep on St. Bartholomew’s day. He had been Bart from the beginning. But the older children had changed that to Brat, and presently even the staff used the more familiar name (another device of Matron’s to prevent his feeling “different”?) and the name had followed him to the grammar school.
The grammar school. Why had he not “belonged” there, then?
Because his clothes were subtly different? Surely not. He had not been thin-skinned as a child; merely detached. Because he was a scholarship boy? Certainly not: half his form were scholarship boys. Then why had he decided that the school was not for him? Decided with such un-boylike finality that all Matron’s arguments had died into ultimate silence, and she had countenanced his going to work.
There was no mystery about his not liking the work, of course. The office job had been fifty miles away, and since no ordinary lodgings could be paid for out of his salary he had had to stay in the local “boys’ home.” He had not known how good the orphanage was until he had sampled the boys’ home. He could have supported either the job or the home, but not the two simultaneously. And of the two the office was by far the worse. It was, as a job, comfortable, leisurely, and graced with certain, if far-off, prospects; but to him it had been a prison. He was continually aware of time running past him; time that he was wasting. This was not what he wanted.
He had said good-bye to his office life almost accidentally; certainly without premeditation. “DAY RETURN TO DIEPPE” a bill had said, plastered against the glass of a newsagent’s window; and the price, in large red figures, was exactly the amount of his savings to the nearest half-crown. Even so, he would have done nothing about it if it had not been for old Mr. Hendren’s funeral. Mr. Hendren was the “retired” partner, and on the day of his funeral the office shut down “out of respect.” And so, with a week’s pay in his pocket and a whole week-day free, he had taken his savings and gone to see “abroad.” He had had a grand time in Dieppe, where his first-year French was no deterrent to enjoyment, but it had not even crossed his mind to stay there until he was on his way home. He had reached the harbour before the shocking idea took hold of him.
Was it native honesty, he thought, staring at the Pimlico ceiling, or his good orphanage training that had made his unpaid laundry bill bulk so large in the subsequent mental struggle? A boy who had no money and no bed for the night should hardly have been concerned with the ethics of bilking a laundry of two-and-threepence.
The camion, rolling up from the harbour, had been his salvation. He had held up his thumb, and the brown, sweaty brigand at the wheel had grinned at this international gesture and slowed as he passed. He had run at the moving cliff-face, snatched and clung, and been hauled aboard. And all his old life was behind him.
He had planned to stay and work in France. Debated with himself during the long run to Havre, when gesture had given out and the driver’s patois proved unintelligible, how best he might earn enough to eat. It was his neighbour in the Havre bistro who enlightened him. “My young friend,” the man had said, fixing him with melancholy spaniel’s eyes, “it is not sufficient to be a man in France in order to work. One has also to have papers.”
“And where,” he had asked, “does one not have papers? I mean, in what country? I can go anywhere.” He was suddenly conscious of the world, and that he was free of it.
“God knows,” the man had said. “Mankind grows every day more like sheep. Go to the harbour and take a ship.”
“It is immaterial. Have you in English a game that ——” He made descriptive gestures.
“A counting-out game? Oh, yes. Eenie, meenie, minie, moe.”
“Good. Go to the harbour and do ‘Eenie, meenie, minie, moe’. And when you go aboard ‘moe’ see that no one is looking. On ships they have a passion for papers that amounts to a madness.”
“Moe” was the Barfleur, and he had not needed papers after all. He was the gift from heaven that the Barfleur’s cook had been looking for for years.
Good old Barfleur; with her filthy pea-green galley smelling of over-used olive oil, and the grey seas combing up mountains high, and the continuous miracle of their harmless passing, and the cook’s weekly drunk that left him acting unpaid cook, and learning to play a mouth-organ, and the odd literature in the fo’c’sle. Good old Barfleur!
He had taken a lot away with him when he left her, but most important of all he took a new name. When he had written his name for the Captain, old Bourdet had taken the final double-L to be an R, and copied the name Farrar. And he had kept it so. Farrell came out of a telephone directory; and Farrar out of a tramp skipper’s mistake. It was all one.
And then what?
Tampico and the smell of tallow. And the tally-man who had said: “You Englishman? You want shore job?”
He had gone to inspect the “job,” expecting dish-washing.
Odd to think that he might still be living in that great quiet house with the tiled patio, and the bright scentless flowers, and the bare shadowed rooms with the beautiful furniture. Living in luxury, instead of lying on a broken-down bedstead in Pimlico. The old man had liked him, had wanted to adopt him; but he had not “belonged.” He had enjoyed reading the English newspaper to him twice a day, the old man following with a slender yellow forefinger on his own copy; but it was not the life he was looking for. (“If he doesn’t understand English, what’s the good of reading English to him?” he had asked when the job was first explained to him; and they had made him understand that the old man knew “reading” English; having taught himself from a dictionary, but did not know how to pronounce it. He wanted to listen to it spoken by an Englishman.)
No, it had not been for him. It had been like living in a film set.
So he had gone as cook to a collection of botanists. And as he was packing to go the butler had said consolingly: “Better you go, after all. If you stay his mistress poison you.”
It was the first he had heard of a mistress.
He had cooked his way steadily to the New Mexico border. That was the easy way into the States: where there was no river to stop you. He enjoyed this absurd, brilliant, angular country but, like the old aristocrat’s home near Tampico, it was not what he was looking for.
After that it had been a slow crescendo of satisfaction.
Assistant cook for that outfit at Las Cruces. Their intolerance of any variation from the food they knew, and their delight in his accent. (“Say it again, Limey.” And then their laughter and their delighted “Whaddya know!”)
Cook to the Snake River round-up. And his discovery of horses. And the feeling it gave him of having come home.
Riding herd for the Santa Clara. And the discovery that “ornery” horses were less ornery when ridden by the limey kid.
A spell with the shoesmith at the Wilson ranch. He had had his first girl there, but it hadn’t been half as exciting as seeing what he could do with the “hopeless lot” in the corral. “Nothing but shooting for them,” the boss had said. And when he had suggested trying to do something about them, the boss had said unenthusiastically: “Go ahead; but don’t expect me to pay hospital bills. You’re hired as help to the farrier.”
It was from that lot that Smoky came: his beautiful Smoky. The boss gave it him as a reward for what he had done with the hard cases. And when he went to the Lazy Y he took Smoky with him.
Breaking horses for the Lazy Y. That had been happiness. That had been happiness full up and running over. Nearly two years of it.
And then. That momentary slowness on his part; drowsy with heat or dazzled by the sun. And seeing the writhing brown back turning over on him. And hearing his thighbone crack.
The hospital at Edgemont. It had not been at all like the hospitals in films. There were no pretty nurses and no handsome internes. The ward had sage-green walls, the fittings were old and dingy, and the nurses overworked. They alternately spoiled and ignored him.
The sudden stoppage of letters from the boys.
The sweat-making business of learning to walk again, and the slow realisation that his leg had mended “short.” That he was going to be permanently lame.
The letter from the boss that put an end to the Lazy Y.
Oil. They had struck oil. The first derrick was already going up not two hundred yards from the bunk house. The enclosed cheque would look after Brat till he was well again. Meanwhile, what should be done with Smoky?
What would a lame man do with a horse in an oil field?
He had cried about Smoky; lying in the dark of the ward. It was the first time he had cried about anyone.
Well, he might be too slow to break horses any more, but he would be no servant to oil. There were other ways of living with horseflesh.
The dude ranch. That had not been like the films either.
Ungainly women in unseemly clothes punishing the saddles of broken-spirited horses until he wondered that they didn’t break in two.
The woman who had wanted to marry him.
She had been not at all the kind of woman you’d imagine would want a “kept man.” Not fat or silly or amorous. She was thin, and tired-looking, and rather nice; and she had owned the place up the hill from the dude ranch. She would get his leg put right for him, she said. That was the bait she had offered.
The one good thing about the dude ranch was that you made money at it. He had never had so much money in his life as when he finished there. He planned to go East and spend it. And then something had happened to him. The smaller, greener country in the East, the smell of spring gardens, woke in him a nostalgia for England that dismayed him. He had no intention of going back to England for years yet.
For several restless weeks he fought the longing — it was a baby thing to want to go back — and then quite suddenly gave in. After all, he had never seen London. Going to see London was quite a legitimate reason for going to England.
And so to the back room in Pimlico and that meeting in the street.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01