Mrs Wisbeach was coming up the stairs. Gordon listened. The footsteps paused on the first floor. A letter for Flaxman. They ascended, paused again on the second floor. A letter for the engineer. Gordon’s heart beat painfully. A letter, please God, a letter! More footsteps. Ascending or descending? They were coming nearer, surely! Ah, no, no! The sound grew fainter. She was going down again. The footsteps died away. No letters.

He took up his pen again. It was a quite futile gesture. She hadn’t written after all! The little beast! He had not the smallest intention of doing any more work. Indeed, he could not. The disappointment had taken all the heart out of him. Only five minutes ago his poem had still seemed to him a living thing; now he knew it unmistakably for the worthless tripe that it was. With a kind of nervous disgust he bundled the scattered sheets together, stacked them in an untidy heap and dumped them on the other side of the table, under the aspidistra. He could not even bear to look at them any longer.

He got up. It was too early to go to bed; at least, he was not in the mood for it. He pined for a bit of amusement—something cheap and easy. A seat in the pictures, cigarettes, beer. Useless! No money to pay for any of them. He would read King Lear and forget this filthy century. Finally, however, it was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes that he took from the mantelpiece. Sherlock Holmes was his favourite of all books, because he knew it by heart. The oil in the lamp was giving out and it was getting beastly cold. Gordon dragged the quilt from his bed, wrapped it round his legs and sat down to read. His right elbow on the table, his hands under his coat to keep them warm, he read through ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band.’ The little gas-mantle sighed above, the circular flame of the oil-lamp burned low, a thin bracelet of fire, giving out no more heat than a candle.

Down in Mrs Wisbeach’s lair the clock struck half past ten. You could always hear it striking at night. Ping-ping, ping-ping—a note of doom! The ticking of the alarm clock on the mantelpiece became audible to Gordon again, bringing with it the consciousness of the sinister passage of time. He looked about him. Another evening wasted. Hours, days, years slipping by. Night after night, always the same. The lonely room, the womanless bed; dust, cigarette ash, the aspidistra leaves. And he was thirty, nearly. In sheer self-punishment he dragged forth a wad of London Pleasures, spread out the grimy sheets and looked at them as one looks at a skull for a memento mori. London Pleasures, by Gordon Comstock, author of Mice. His magnum opus. The fruit (fruit, indeed!) of two years’ work—that labyrinthine mess of words! And tonight’s achievement—two lines crossed out; two lines backward instead of forward.

The lamp made a sound like a tiny hiccup and went out. With an effort Gordon stood up and flung the quilt back onto his bed. Better get to bed, perhaps, before it got any colder. He wandered over towards the bed. But wait. Work tomorrow. Wind the clock, set the alarm. Nothing accomplished, nothing done, has earned a night’s repose.

It was some time before he could find the energy to undress. For a quarter of an hour, perhaps, he lay on the bed fully dressed, his hands under his head. There was a crack on the ceiling that resembled the map of Australia. Gordon contrived to work off his shoes and socks without sitting up. He held up one foot and looked at it. A smallish, delicate foot. Ineffectual, like his hands. Also, it was very dirty. It was nearly ten days since he had had a bath. Becoming ashamed of the dirtiness of his feet, he sagged into a sitting position and undressed himself, throwing his clothes onto the floor. Then he turned out the gas and slid between the sheets, shuddering, for he was naked. He always slept naked. His last suit of pyjamas had gone west more than a year ago.

The clock downstairs struck eleven. As the first coldness of the sheets wore off, Gordon’s mind went back to the poem he had begun that afternoon. He repeated in a whisper the single stanza that was finished:

‘Sharply the menacing wind sweeps over

The bending poplars, newly bare,

And the dark ribbons of the chimneys

Veer downward; flicked by whips of air,

Tom posters flutter.’

The octosyllables flicked to and fro. Click-click, click-click! The awful, mechanical emptiness of it appalled him. It was like some futile little machine ticking over. Rhyme to rhyme, click-click, click-click. Like the nodding of a clockwork doll. Poetry! The last futility. He lay awake, aware of his own futility, of his thirty years, of the blind alley into which he had led his life.

The clock struck twelve. Gordon had stretched his legs out straight. The bed had grown warm and comfortable. The upturned beam of a car, somewhere in the street parallel to Willowbed Road, penetrated the blind and threw into silhouette a leaf of the aspidistra, shaped like Agamemnon’s sword.


‘GORDON COMSTOCK’ was a pretty bloody name, but then Gordon came of a pretty bloody family. The ‘Gordon’ part of it was Scotch, of course. The prevalence of such names nowadays is merely a part of the Scotchification of England that has been going on these last fifty years. ‘Gordon’, ‘Colin’, ‘Malcolm’, ‘Donald’—these are the gifts of Scotland to the world, along with golf, whisky, porridge and the works of Barrie and Stevenson.

The Comstocks belonged to the most dismal of all classes, the middle-middle class, the landless gentry. In their miserable poverty they had not even the snobbish consolation of regarding themselves as an ‘old’ family fallen on evil days, for they were not an ‘old’ family at all, merely one of those families which rose on the wave of Victorian prosperity and then sank again faster than the wave itself. They had had at most fifty years of comparative wealth, corresponding with the lifetime of Gordon’s grandfather, Samuel Comstock—Gran’pa Comstock, as Gordon was taught to call him, though the old man died four years before he was born.

Gran’pa Comstock was one of those people who even from the grave exert a powerful influence. In life he was a tough old scoundrel. He plundered the proletariat and the foreigner of fifty thousand pounds, he built himself a red-brick mansion as durable as a pyramid, and he begot twelve children, of whom eleven survived. Finally he died quite suddenly, of a cerebral hæmorrhage. In Kensal Green his children placed over him a monolith with the following inscription:

In ever loving memory of

Samuel Ezekiel Comstock,

A faithful husband, a tender father and

An upright and godly man,

Who was born on July 9th, 1828, and

Departed this life September 5th, 1901,

This stone is erected by

His sorrowing children.

He sleeps in the arms of Jesus.

No need to repeat the blasphemous comments which everyone who had known Gran’pa Comstock made on that last sentence. But it is worth pointing out that the chunk of granite on which it was inscribed weighed close on five tons and was quite certainly put there with the intention, though not the conscious intention, of making sure that Gran’pa Comstock shouldn’t get up from underneath it. If you want to know what a dead man’s relatives really think of him, a good rough test is the weight of his tombstone.

The Comstocks, as Gordon knew them, were a peculiarly dull, shabby, dead-alive, ineffectual family. They lacked vitality to an extent that was surprising. That was Gran’pa Comstock’s doing, of course. By the time when he died all his children were grown up and some of them were middle-aged, and he had long ago succeeded in crushing out of them any spirit they might ever have possessed. He had lain upon them as a garden roller lies upon daisies, and there was no chance of their flattened personalities ever expanding again. One and all they turned out listless, gutless, unsuccessful sort of people. None of the boys had proper professions, because Gran’pa Comstock had been at the greatest pains to drive all of them into professions for which they were totally unsuited. Only one of them—John, Gordon’s father—had even braved Gran’pa Comstock to the extent of getting married during the latter’s lifetime. It was impossible to imagine any of them making any sort of mark in the world, or creating anything, or destroying anything, or being happy, or vividly unhappy, or fully alive, or even earning a decent income. They just drifted along in an atmosphere of semi-genteel failure. They were one of those depressing families, so common among the middle-middle classes, in which nothing ever happens.

From his earliest childhood Gordon’s relatives had depressed him horribly. When he was a little boy he still had great numbers of uncles and aunts living. They were all more or less alike—grey, shabby, joyless people, all rather sickly in health and all perpetually harassed by money-worries which fizzled along without ever reaching the sensational explosion of bankruptcy. It was noticeable even then that they had lost all impulse to reproduce themselves. Really vital people, whether they have money or whether they haven’t, multiply almost as automatically as animals. Gran’pa Comstock, for instance, himself one of a litter of twelve, had produced eleven progeny. Yet all those eleven produced only two progeny between them, and those two—Gordon and his sister Julia—had produced, by 1934, not even one. Gordon, last of the Comstocks, was born in 1905, an unintended child; and thereafter, in thirty long, long years, there was not a single birth in the family, only deaths. And not only in the matter of marrying and begetting, but in every possible way, nothing ever happened in the Comstock family. Every one of them seemed doomed, as though by a curse, to a dismal, shabby, hole-and-corner existence. None of them ever did anything. They were the kind of people who in every conceivable activity, even if it is only getting onto a bus, are automatically elbowed away from the heart of things. All of them, of course, were hopeless fools about money. Gran’pa Comstock had finally divided his money among them more or less equally, so that each received, after the sale of the red-brick mansion, round about five thousand pounds. And no sooner was Gran’pa Comstock underground than they began to fritter their money away. None of them had the guts to lose it in sensational ways such as squandering it on women or at the races; they simply dribbled it away and dribbled it away, the women in silly investments and the men in futile little business ventures that petered out after a year or two, leaving a net loss. More than half of them went unmarried to their graves. Some of the women did make rather undesirable middle-aged marriages after their father was dead, but the men, because of their incapacity to earn a proper living, were the kind who ‘can’t afford’ to marry. None of them, except Gordon’s Aunt Angela, ever had so much as a home to call their own; they were the kind of people who live in godless ‘rooms’ and tomb-like boarding-houses. And year after year they died off and died off, of dingy but expensive little diseases that swallowed up the last penny of their capital. One of the women, Gordon’s Aunt Charlotte, wandered off into the Mental Home at Clapham in 1916. The Mental Homes of England, how chock-a-block they stand! And it is above all derelict spinsters of the middle-middle classes who keep them going. By 1934 only three of that generation survived; Aunt Charlotte already mentioned, and Aunt Angela, who by some happy chance had been induced to buy a house and a tiny annuity in 1912, and Uncle Walter, who dingily existed on the few hundred pounds that were left out of his five thousand and by running short-lived ‘agencies’ for this and that. Copyright 2016 - 2023