And it was only now, when he was down to two quid a week and had practically cut himself off from the prospect of earning more, that he grasped the real nature of the battle he was fighting. The devil of it is that the glow of renunciation never lasts. Life on two quid a week ceases to be a heroic gesture and becomes a dingy habit. Failure is as great a swindle as success. He had thrown up his ‘good’ job and renounced ‘good’ jobs for ever. Well, that was necessary. He did not want to go back on it. But it was no use pretending that because his poverty was self-imposed he had escaped the ills that poverty drags in its train. It was not a question of hardship. You don’t suffer real physical hardship on two quid a week, and if you did it wouldn’t matter. It is in the brain and the soul that lack of money damages you. Mental deadness, spiritual squalor—they seem to descend upon you inescapably when your income drops below a certain point. Faith, hope, money—only a saint could have the first two without having the third.

He was growing more mature. Twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine. He had reached the age when the future ceases to be a rosy blur and becomes actual and menacing. The spectacle of his surviving relatives depressed him more and more. As he grew older he felt himself more akin to them. That was the way he was going! A few years more, and he would be like that, just like that! He felt this even with Julia, whom he saw oftener than his uncle and aunt. In spite of various resolves never to do it again, he still borrowed money off Julia periodically. Julia’s hair was greying fast; there was a deep line scored down each of her thin red cheeks. She had settled her life into a routine in which she was not unhappy. There was her work at the shop, her ‘sewing’ at nights in her Earl’s Court bed-sitting-room (second floor, back, nine bob a week unfurnished), her occasional for gatherings with spinster friends as lonely as herself. It was the typical submerged life of the penniless unmarried woman; she accepted it, hardly realising that her destiny could ever have been different. Yet in her way she suffered, more for Gordon than for herself. The gradual decay of the family, the way they had died off and died off and left nothing behind, was a sort of tragedy in her mind. Money, money! ‘None of us ever seems to make any money!’ was her perpetual lament. And of them all, Gordon alone had had the chance to make money; and Gordon had chosen not to. He was sinking effortless into the same rut of poverty as the others. After the first row was over, she was too decent to ‘go for’ him again because he had thrown up his job at the New Albion. But his motives were quite meaningless to her. In her wordless feminine way she knew that the sin against money is the ultimate sin.

And as for Aunt Angela and Uncle Walter—oh dear, oh dear! What a couple! It made Gordon feel ten years older every time he looked at them.

Uncle Walter, for example. Uncle Walter was very depressing. He was sixty-seven, and what with his various ‘agencies’ and the dwindling remnants of his patrimony his income might have been nearly three pounds a week. He had a tiny little cabin of an office off Cursitor Street, and he lived in a very cheap boarding-house in Holland Park. That was quite according to precedent; all the Com-stock men drifted naturally into boarding-houses. When you looked at poor old uncle, with his large tremulous belly, his bronchitic voice, his broad, pale, timidly pompous face, rather like Sargent’s portrait of Henry James, his entirely hairless head, his pale, pouchy eyes and his ever-drooping moustache, to which he tried vainly to give an upward twirl—when you looked at him, you found it totally impossible to believe that he had ever been young. Was it conceivable that such a being had ever felt life tingle in his veins? Had he ever climbed a tree, taken a header off a spring-board, or been in love? Had he ever had a brain in working order? Even back in the early ‘nineties, when he was arithmetically young, had he ever made any kind of stab at life? A few furtive half-hearted frolics, perhaps. A few whiskies in dull bars, a visit or two to the Empire promenade, a little whoring on the QT; the sort of dingy, drabby fornications that you can imagine happening between Egyptian mummies after the museum is closed for the night. And after that the long, long quiet years of business failure, loneliness, and stagnation in godless boarding-houses.

And yet uncle in his old age was probably not unhappy. He had one hobby of never-failing interest, and that was his diseases. He suffered, by his own account, from every disease in the medical dictionary, and was never weary of talking about them. Indeed, it seemed to Gordon that none of the people in his uncle’s boarding-house—he had been there occasionally—ever did talk about anything except their diseases. All over the darkish drawing-room, ageing, discoloured people sat about in couples, discussing symptoms. Their conversation was like the dripping of stalactite to stalagmite. Drip, drip. ‘How is your lumbago?’ says stalactite to stalagmite. ‘I find my Kruschen Salts are doing me good,’ says stalagmite to stalactite. Drip, drip, drip.

And then there was Aunt Angela, aged sixty-nine. Gordon tried not even to think of Aunt Angela oftener than he could help.

Poor, dear, good, kind, depressing Aunt Angela! Poor, shrivelled, parchment-yellow, skin-and-bone Aunt Angela! There in her miserable little semi-detached house in Highgate—Briarbrae, its name was—there in her palace in the northern mountains, there dwelleth she, Angela the Ever-virgin, of whom no man either living or among the shades can say truly that upon her lips he hath pressed the dear caresses of a lover. All alone she dwelleth, and all day long she fareth to and fro, and in her hand is the feather-mop fashioned from the tail feathers of the contumacious turkey, and with it she polisheth the dark-leaved aspidistras and flicketh the hated dust from the resplendent never-to-be-used Crown Derby china tea-service. And ever and anon she comforteth her dear heart with draughts of the dark brown tea, both Flowery Orange and Pekoe Points, which the small-bearded sons of Coromandel have ferried to her across the wine-dark sea. Poor, dear, good, kind, but on the whole unlovable Aunt Angela! Her annuity was ninety-eight pounds a year (thirty-eight bob a week, but she retained the middle-class habit of thinking of her income as a yearly and not a weekly thing), and out of that, twelve and sixpence a week went on house rates. She would probably have starved occasionally if Julia had not smuggled her packets of cakes and bread and butter from the shop—always, of course, presented as ‘Just a few little things that it seemed a pity to throw away,’ with the solemn pretence that Aunt Angela didn’t really need them.

Yet she too had her pleasures, poor old auntie. She had become a great novel-reader in her old age, the public library being only ten minutes’ walk from Briarbrae. During his lifetime, on some whim or other, Gran’pa Comstock had forbidden his daughters to read novels. Consequently, having only begun to read novels in 1902, Aunt Angela was always a couple of decades behind the current mode in fiction. But she plodded along in the rear, faint yet pursuing. In the nineteen-hundreds she was still reading Rhoda Broughton and Mrs Henry Wood. In the War years she discovered Hall Caine and Mrs Humphrey Ward. In the nineteen-twenties she was reading Silas Hocking and H. Seton Merriman, and by the nineteen-thirties she had almost, but not quite, caught up with W. B. Maxwell and William J. Locke. Further she would never get. As for the post-War novelists, she had heard of them afar off, with their immorality and their blasphemies and their devastating ‘cleverness’. But she would never live to read them. Walpole we know, and Hichens we read, but Hemingway, who are you?

Well, this was 1934, and that was what was left of the Comstock family. Uncle Walter, with his ‘agencies’ and his diseases. Aunt Angela, dusting the Crown Derby china tea-service in Briarbrae. Aunt Charlotte, still preserving a vague, vegetable existence in the Mental Home. Julia, working a seventy-two-hour week and doing her ‘sewing’ at nights by the tiny gas-fire in her bed-sitting-room. Gordon, nearly thirty, earning two quid a week in a fool’s job, and struggling, as the sole demonstrable object of his existence, with a dreadful book that never got any further.

Possibly there were some other, more distantly related Comstocks, for Gran’pa Comstock had been one of a family of twelve. But if any survived they had grown rich and lost touch with their poor relations; for money is thicker than blood. As for Gordon’s branch of the family, the combined income of the five of them, allowing for the lump sum that had been paid down when Aunt Charlotte entered the Mental Home, might have been six hundred a year. Their combined ages were two hundred and sixty-three years. None of them had ever been out of England, fought in war, been in prison, ridden a horse, travelled in an aeroplane, got married or given birth to a child. There seemed no reason why they should not continue in the same style until they died. Year in, year out, nothing ever happened in the Comstock family.


‘Sharply the menacing wind sweeps over

The bending poplars, newly bare.’

As a matter of fact, though, there was not a breath of wind that afternoon. It was almost as mild as spring. Gordon repeated to himself the poem he had begun yesterday, in a cadenced whisper, simply for the pleasure of the sound of it. He was pleased with the poem at this moment. It was a good poem—or would be when it was finished, anyway. He had forgotten that last night it had almost made him sick.

The plane trees brooded motionless, dimmed by faint wreaths of mist. A tram boomed in the valley far below. Gordon walked up Malkin Hill, rustling instep-deep through the dry, drifted leaves. All down the pavement they were strewn, crinkly and golden, like the rustling flakes of some American breakfast cereal; as though the queen of Brobdingnag had upset her packet of Tru-weet Breakfast Crisps down the hillside.

Jolly, the windless winter days! Best time of all the year—or so Gordon thought at this moment. He was as happy as you can be when you haven’t smoked all day and have only three-halfpence and a Joey in the world. This was Thursday, early-closing day and Gordon’s afternoon off. He was going to the house of Paul Doring, the critic, who lived in Coleridge Grove and gave literary tea-parties.

It had taken him an hour or more to get himself ready. Social life is so complicated when your income is two quid a week. He had had a painful shave in cold water immediately after dinner. He had put on his best suit—three years old but just passable when he remembered to press the trousers under his mattress. He had turned his collar inside out and tied his tie so that the torn place didn’t show. With the point of a match he had scraped enough blacking from the tin to polish his shoes. He had even borrowed a needle from Lorenheim and darned his socks—a tedious job, but better than inking the places where your ankle shows through. Also he had procured an empty Gold Flake packet and put into it a single cigarette extracted from the penny-in-the-slot-machine. That was just for the look of the thing. You can’t, of course, go to other people’s houses with no cigarettes. But if you have even one it’s all right, because when people see one cigarette in a packet they assume that the packet has been full. It is fairly easy to pass the thing off as an accident.

‘Have a cigarette?’ you say casually to someone.

‘Oh—thanks.’ Copyright 2016 - 2023