Read The Girls of Slender Means Online

Authors: Muriel Spark

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary

The Girls of Slender Means (10 page)

    She read over the first draft of the letter, then very carefully began again, making an authentic-looking letter in a small but mature hand such as Charles Morgan might use. She had no idea what Charles Morgan's handwriting looked like; and there was no reason to find out, since George would certainly not know either, and was not to be allowed to retain the document. She had an address at Holland Park which Nicholas had supplied. She wrote this at the top of her writing paper, hoping that it looked all right, and assuring herself that it did, since many nice people did not attempt to have their letter-heads printed in wartime and thus make unnecessary demands on the nation's labour.

    She had finished by the time the supper-bell rang. She folded the letter with meticulous neatness, having before her eyes the pencil-line features of Charles Morgan's photograph. Jane calculated that this letter by Charles Morgan which she had just written was worth at least fifty pounds to Nicholas. George would be in a terrible state of conflict when he saw it. Poor Tilly, George's wife, had told her that when George was persecuted by an author, he went on and on about it for hours.

    Nicholas was coming to the club after supper to spend the evening, having at last persuaded Joanna to give a special recital of _The Wreck of the Deutschland__. It was to be recorded on a tape-machine that Nicholas had borrowed from the news-room of a Government office.

    Jane joined the throng in its descent to supper. Only Selina loitered above, finishing off her evening's disciplinary recitation:


    . . . _Elegant dress, immaculate grooming, and perfect deportment all contribute to the attainment of self-confidence__.


    The warden's car stopped piercingly outside as the girls reached the lower floor. The warden drove a car as she would have driven a man had she possessed one. She strode, grey, into her office and shortly afterwards joined them in the dining room, banging on the water-jug with her fork for silence, as she always did when about to make an announcement. She announced that an American visitor, Mrs. G. Felix Dobell, would address the club on Friday evening on the subject "Western Woman: Her Mission." Mrs. Dobell was a leading member of the Guardians of Ethics and had recently come to join her husband who was serving with the United States Intelligence Service stationed in London.

    After supper Jane was struck by a sense of her treachery to the establishment of Throvis-Mew, and to George with whom she was paid to conspire in the way of business. She was fond of old George, and began to reflect on his kindly qualities. Without the slightest intention of withdrawing from her conspiracy with Nicholas, she gazed at the letter she had written and wondered what to do about her feelings. She decided to telephone to his wife, Tilly, and have a friendly chat about something.

    Tilly was delighted. She was a tiny red-head of lively intelligence and small information, whom George kept well apart from the world of books, being experienced in wives. To Tilly, this was a great deprivation, and she loved nothing better than to keep in touch, through Jane, with the book business and to hear Jane say, "Well, Tilly, it's a question of one's raison d'être." George tolerated this friendship, feeling that it established himself with Jane. He relied on Jane. She understood his ways.

    Jane was usually bored by Tilly, who, although she had not exactly been a cabaret dancer, imposed on the world of books, whenever she was given the chance, a high legkicker's spirit which played on Jane's nerves, since she herself was newly awed by the gravity of literature in general. She felt Tilly was altogether too frivolous about the publishing and writing scene, and moreover failed to realise this fact. But her heart in its treachery now swelled with an access of warmth for Tilly. She telephoned and invited her to supper on Friday. Jane had already calculated that, if Tilly should be a complete bore, they would be able to fill in an hour with Mrs. G. Felix Dobell's lecture. The club was fairly eager to see Mrs. Dobell, having already seen a certain amount of her husband as Selina's escort, rumoured to be her lover. "There's a talk on Friday by an American woman on the Western Woman's Mission, but we won't listen to that, it would be a bore," Jane said, contradicting her resolution in her effusive anxiety to sacrifice anything, anything to George's wife, now that she had betrayed and was about to deceive George.

    Tilly said, "I always love the May of Teck. It's like being back at school." Tilly always said that, it was infuriating.


Nicholas arrived early with his tape-recorder, and sat in the recreation room with Joanna, waiting for the audience to drift in from supper. She looked to Nicholas very splendid and Nordic, as from a great saga.

    "Have you lived here long?" said Nicholas sleepily, while he admired her big bones. He was sleepy because he had spent most of the previous night on the roof with Selina.

    "About a year. I dare say I'll die here," she said with the conventional contempt of all members for the club.

    He said, "You'll get married."

    "No, no." She spoke soothingly, as to a child who had just been prevented from spooning jam into the stew.

    A long shriek of corporate laughter came from the floor immediately above them. They looked at the ceiling and realised that the dormitory girls were as usual exchanging those R.A.F. anecdotes which needed an audience hilariously drunken, either with alcohol or extreme youth, to give them point.

    Greggie had appeared, and cast her eyes up to the laughter as she came towards Joanna and Nicholas. She said, "The sooner that dormitory crowd gets married and gets out of the club, the better. I've never known such a rowdy dormitory crowd in all my years in the club. Not a farthing's worth of intelligence between them."

    Collie arrived and sat down next to Nicholas. Greggie said, "I was saying about the dormitory girls up there: they ought to get married and get out."

    This was also, in reality, Collie's view. But she always opposed Greggie on principle, and moreover, in company she felt that a contradiction made conversation. "Why should they get married? Let them enjoy themselves while they're young."

    "They need marriage to enjoy themselves properly," Nicholas said, "for sexual reasons."

    Joanna blushed. Nicholas added, "Heaps of sex. Every night for a month, then every other night for two months, then three times a week for a year. After that, once a week." He was adjusting the tape-recorder, and his words were like air.

    "If you're trying to shock us, young man, we're un-shockable," said Greggie, with a delighted glance round the four walls which were not accustomed to this type of talk, for, after all, it was the public recreation room.

    "I'm shockable," said Joanna. She was studying Nicholas with an apologetic look.

    Collie did not know what attitude she should take up. Her fingers opened the clasp of her bag and snapped it shut again; then they played a silent tip-tap on its worn bulging leather sides. Then she said, "He isn't trying to shock us. He's very realistic. If one is growing in grace—I would go so far as to say when one _has__ grown in grace—one can take realism, sex and so forth in one's stride."

    Nicholas beamed lovingly at this.

    Collie gave a little half-cough, half-laugh, much encouraged in the success of her frankness. She felt modern and continued excitedly, "It's a question of what you never have you never miss, of course."

    Greggie put on a puzzled air, as if she genuinely did not know what Collie was talking about. After thirty years' hostile fellowship with Collie, of course she did quite well understand that Collie had a habit of skipping several stages in the logical sequence of her thoughts, and would utter apparently disconnected statements, especially when confused by an unfamiliar subject or the presence of a man.

    "Whatever do you mean?" said Greggie. "_What__ is a question of what you never have you never miss?"

    "Sex, of course," Collie said, her voice unusually loud with the effort of the topic. "We were discussing sex and getting married. I say, of course, there's a lot to be said for marriage, but if you never have it you never miss it."

    Joanna looked at the two excited women with meek compassion. To Nicholas she looked stronger than ever in her meekness, as she regarded Greggie and Collie at their rivalry to be uninhibited.

    "What do you mean, Collie?" Greggie said.

    "You're quite wrong there, Collie. One does miss sex. The body has a life of its own. We do miss what we haven't had, you and I. Biologically. Ask Sigmund Freud. It is revealed in dreams. The absent touch of the warm limbs at night, the absent—"

    "Just a minute," said Nicholas, holding up his hand for silence, in the pretence that he was tuning in to his empty tape-machine. He could see that the two women would go to any lengths, now they had got started.

    "Open the door, please." From behind the door came the warden's voice and the rattle of the coffee tray. Before Nicholas could leap up to open it for her she had pushed into the room with some clever manoeuvring of hand and foot like a business-like parlourmaid.

    "The Beatific Vision does not appear to _me__ to be an adequate compensation for what we miss," Greggie said conclusively, getting in a private thrust at Collie's religiosity.

    While coffee was being served and the girls began to fill the room, Jane entered, fresh from her telephone conversation with Tilly, and, feeling somewhat absolved by it, she handed over to Nicholas her brain-work letter from Charles Morgan. While reading it, he was handed a cup of coffee. In the process of taking the cup he splashed some coffee on the letter.

    "Oh, you've ruined it!" Jane said. "I'll have to do it all over again."

    "It looks more authentic than ever," Nicholas said. "Naturally, if I've received a letter from Charles Morgan telling me I'm a genius, I am going to spend a lot of time reading it over and over, in the course of which the letter must begin to look a bit worn. Now, are you sure George will be impressed by Morgan's name?"

    "Very," said Jane.

    "Do you mean you're very sure or that George will be very impressed?"

    "I mean both."

    "It would put me off, if I were George."

    The recital of _The Wreck of the Deutschland__ started presently. Joanna stood with her book ready.

    "Not a hush from anybody," said the warden, meaning, "Not a sound."—"Not a hush," she said, "because this instrument of Mr. Farringdon's apparently registers the drop of a pin."

    One of the dormitory girls, who sat mending a ladder in a stocking, carefully caused her needle to fall on the parquet floor, then bent and picked it up again. Another dormitory girl who had noticed the action snorted a suppressed laugh. Otherwise there was silence but for the quiet purr of the machine waiting for Joanna.


            _Thou mastering me__

          _God! giver of breath and bread;__

          _World's strand, sway of the sea;__

            _Lord of living and dead;__

    _Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh, And after it almost unmade . . .__




A scream of panic from the top floor penetrated the house as Jane returned to the club on Friday afternoon, the 27th of July. She had left the office early to meet Tilly at the club. She did not feel that the scream of panic meant anything special. Jane climbed the last flight of stairs. There was another more piercing scream, accompanied by excited voices. Screams of panic in the club might relate to a laddered stocking or a side-splitting joke.

    When she reached the top landing, she saw that the commotion came from the wash-room. There, Anne and Selina, with two of the dormitory girls, were attempting to extricate from the little slit window another girl who had evidently been attempting to climb out and had got stuck. She was struggling and kicking without success, exhorted by various instructions from the other girls. Against their earnest advice, she screamed aloud from time to time. She had taken off her clothes for the attempt and her body was covered with a greasy substance; Jane immediately hoped it had not been taken from her own supply of cold cream which stood in a jar on her dressing table.

    "Who is it?" Jane said, with a close inspective look at the girl's unidentifiable kicking legs and wriggling bottom which were her only visible portions.

    Selina brought a towel which she attempted to fasten round the girl's waist with a safety-pin. Anne kept imploring the girl not to scream, and one of the others went to the top of the stairs to look over the banister in the hope that nobody in authority was being unduly attracted upward.

    "Who is it?" Jane said.

    Anne said, "I'm afraid it's Tilly."


    "She was waiting downstairs and we brought her up here for a lark. She said it was like being back at school, here at the club, so Selina showed her the window. She's just half an inch too large, though. Can't you get her to shut up?"

    Jane spoke softly to Tilly. "Every time you scream," she said, "it makes you swell up more. Keep quiet, and we'll work you out with wet soap."

    Tilly went quiet. They worked on her for ten minutes, but she remained stuck by the hips. Tilly was weeping. "Get George," she said at last, "get him on the phone."

    Nobody wanted to fetch George. He would have to come upstairs. Doctors were the only males who climbed the stairs, and even then they were accompanied by one of the staff.

    Jane said, "Well, I'll get somebody." She was thinking of Nicholas. He had access to the roof from the Intelligence Headquarters; a hefty push from the roof-side of the window might be successful in releasing Tilly. Nicholas had intended to come to the club after supper to hear the lecture and observe, in a jealous complex of curiosity, the wife of Selina's former lover. Felix himself was to be present.

    Jane decided to telephone and beg Nicholas to come immediately and help with Tilly. He could then have supper at the club, his second supper, Jane reflected, that week. He might now be home from work, he usually returned to his room at about six o'clock.

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