Read The Girls of Slender Means Online

Authors: Muriel Spark

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary

The Girls of Slender Means (6 page)

 

    "I ask you a question," Rudi said. "It is a simple question. He wants monarchy, he wants anarchism. What does he want? These two are enemies in all of history. Simple answer is, he is a mess."

    "How old was the barrow-boy?" Jane said.

    "And _again__," said Joanna's voice from the upper window.

    Dorothy Markham had joined the girls on the sunny terrace. She was telling a hunting story. ". . . the only one time I've been thrown, it shook me to the core. What a brute!"

    "Where did you land?"

    "Where do you think?"

    The girl at the piano stopped and folded her scale-sheet with seemly concentration.

    "I go," said Rudi, looking at his watch. "I have an appointment to meet a contact for a drink." He rose and once more, before he handed over the book, flicked through the typewritten pages. He said, sadly, "Nicholas is a friend of mine, but I regret to say he's a non-contributive thinker, by the way. Come here, listen to this:"

 

        There is a kind of truth in the popular idea of an

    anarchist as a wild man with a home-made bomb in

    his pocket. In modern times this bomb, fabricated in

    the back workshops of the imagination, can only take

    one effective form: Ridicule.

 

    Jane said, "‘Only take' isn't grammatical, it should be ‘take only.' I'll have to change that, Rudi."

 

So much for the portrait of the martyr as a young man as it was suggested to Jane on a Sunday morning between armistice and armistice, in the days of everyone's poverty, in 1945. Jane, who lived to distort it in many elaborate forms, at the time merely felt she was in touch with something reckless, intellectual and Bohemian by being in touch with Nicholas. Rudi's contemptuous attitude bounded back upon himself in her estimation. She felt she knew too much about Rudi to respect him; and was presently astonished to find that there was indeed a sort of friendship between himself and Nicholas, lingering on from the past.

    Meantime, Nicholas touched lightly on the imagination of the girls of slender means, and they on his. He had not yet slept on the roof with Selina on the hot summer nights—he gaining access from the American-occupied attic of the hotel next door, and she through the slit window—and he had not yet witnessed that action of savagery so extreme that it forced him involuntarily to make an entirely unaccustomed gesture, the signing of the cross upon himself. At this time Nicholas still worked for one of those left-hand departments of the Foreign Office, the doings of which the right-hand did not know. It came under Intelligence. After the Normandy landing he had been sent on several missions to France. Now there was very little left for his department to do except wind-up. Winding-up was arduous, it involved the shuffling of papers and people from office to office; particularly it involved considerable shuffling between the British and American Intelligence pockets in London. He had a bleak furnished room at Fulham. He was bored.

 

"I've got something to tell you, Rudi," said Jane.

    "Hold on please, I have a customer."

    "I'll ring you back later, then, I'm in a hurry. I only wanted to tell you that Nicholas Farringdon's dead. Remember that book of his he never published—he gave you the manuscript. Well, it might be worth something now, and I thought—"

    "Nick's dead? Hold on please, Jane. I have a customer waiting here to buy a book. Hold on."

    "I'll ring you later."

 

Nicholas came, then, to dine at the club.

 

        _I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy,__

        _The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride;__

 

    "Who is that?"

    "It's Joanna Childe, she teaches elocution, you must meet her."

    The twittering movements at other points in the room, Joanna's singular voice, the beautiful aspects of poverty and charm amongst these girls in the brown-papered drawing room, Selina, furled like a long soft sash, in her chair, came to Nicholas in a gratuitous flow. Months of boredom had subdued him to intoxication by an experience which, at another time, might itself have bored him.

    Some days later he took Jane to a party to meet the people she longed to meet, young male poets in corduroy trousers and young female poets with waist-length hair, or at least females who typed the poetry and slept with the poets, it was nearly the same thing. Nicholas took her to supper at Bertorelli's; then he took her to a poetry reading at a hired meeting-house in the Fulham Road; then he took her on to a party with some of the people he had collected from the reading. One of the poets who was well thought of had acquired a job at Associated News in Fleet Street, in honour of which he had purchased a pair of luxurious pig-skin gloves; he displayed these proudly. There was an air of a resistance movement against the world at this poetry meeting. Poets seemed to understand each other with a secret instinct, almost a kind of prearrangement, and it was plain that the poet with the gloves would never show off these poetic gloves so frankly, or expected to be understood so well in relation to them, at his new job in Fleet Street or anywhere else, as here.

    Some were men demobilised from the non-combatant corps. Some had been unfit for service for obvious reasons—a nervous twitch of the facial muscles, bad eyesight or a limp. Others were still in battle-dress. Nicholas had been out of the Army since the month after Dunkirk, from which he had escaped with a wound in the thumb; his release from the Army had followed a mild nervous disorder in the month after Dunkirk.

    Nicholas stood noticeably aloof at the poets' gathering, but although he greeted his friends with a decided reserve, it was evident that he wanted Jane to savour her full joy of it. In fact, he wanted her to invite him again to the May of Teck Club, as dawned on her later in the evening.

    The poets read their poems, two each, and were applauded. Some of these poets were to fail and fade into a no-man's-land of Soho public houses in a few years' time, and become the familiar messes of literary life. Some, with many talents, faltered, in time, from lack of stamina, gave up and took a job in advertising or publishing, detesting literary people above all. Others succeeded and became paradoxes; they did not always continue to write poetry, or even poetry exclusively.

    One of these young poets, Ernest Claymore, later became a mystical stockbroker of the 1960's, spending his weekdays urgently in the City, three week-ends each month at his country cottage—an establishment of fourteen rooms, where he ignored his wife and, alone in his study, wrote Thought—and one week-end a month in retreat at a monastery. In the 1960's Ernest Claymore read a book a week in bed before sleep, and sometimes addressed a letter to the press about a book review: "Sir, Maybe I'm dim. I have read your review of . . ."; he was to publish three short books of philosophy which everyone could easily understand indeed; at the moment in question, the summer of 1945, he was a dark-eyed young poet at the poetry recital, and had just finished reading, with husky force, his second contribution:

 

    _I in my troubled night of the dove clove brightly my__

    _Path from the tomb of love incessantly to redress my__

    _Articulate womb, that new and necessary rose,__

                        _exposing my ...__

 

    He belonged to the Cosmic school of poets. Jane, perceiving that he was orthosexual by definition of his manner and appearance, was uncertain whether to cultivate him for future acquaintance or whether to hang on to Nicholas. She managed to do both, since Nicholas brought along this dark husky poet, this stockbroker to be, to the party which followed, and there Jane was able to make a future assignment with him before Nicholas drew her aside to enquire further into the mysterious life of the May of Teck Club.

    "It's just a girls' hostel," she said, "that's all it boils down to."

    Beer was served in jam-jars, which was an affectation of the highest order, since jam-jars were at that time in shorter supply than glasses and mugs. The house where the party was held was in Hampstead. There was a stifling crowd. The hosts, Nicholas said, were communist intellectuals. He led her up to a bedroom where they sat on the edge of an unmade bed and looked, with philosophical exhaustion on Nicholas's side, and on hers the enthusiasm of the neophyte Bohemian, at the bare boards of the floor. The people of the house, said Nicholas, were undeniably communist intellectuals, as one could see from the variety of dyspepsia remedies on the bathroom shelf. He said he would point them out to her on the way downstairs when they rejoined the party. By no means, said Nicholas, did the hosts expect to meet their guests at this party. "Tell me about Selina," said Nicholas.

    Jane's dark hair was piled on top of her head. She had a large face. The only attractive thing about her was her youth and those mental areas of inexperience she was not yet conscious of. She had forgotten for the time being that her job was to reduce Nicholas's literary morale as far as possible, and was treacherously behaving as if he were the genius that, before the week was out, he claimed to be in the letter he got her to forge for him in Charles Morgan's name. Nicholas had decided to do everything nice for Jane, except sleep with her, in the interests of two projects: the publication of his book and his infiltration of the May of Teck Club in general and Selina in particular. "Tell me more about Selina." Jane did not then, or at any time, realise that he had received from his first visit to the May of Teck Club a poetic image that teased his mind and pestered him for details as he now pestered Jane. She knew nothing of his boredom and social discontent. She did not see the May of Teck Club as a microcosmic ideal society; far from it. The beautiful heedless poverty of a Golden Age did not come into the shilling-meter life which any sane girl would regard only as a temporary one until better opportunities occurred.

 

          _A damsel with a dulcimer__

          _In a vision once I saw:__

          _It was an Abyssinian maid,__

 

    The voice had wafted with the night breeze into the drawing room. Nicholas said, now, "Tell me about the elocution teacher."

    "Oh, Joanna—you must meet her."

    "Tell me about the borrowing and lending of clothes."

    Jane pondered as to what she could barter for this information which he seemed to want. The party downstairs was going on without them. The bare boards under her feet and the patchy walls seemed to hold out no promise of becoming memorable by tomorrow. She said, "We've got to discuss your book sometime. George and I've got a list of queries."

    Nicholas lolled on the unmade bed and casually thought he would probably have to plan some defence measures with George. His jam-jar was empty. He said, "Tell me more about Selina. What does she do apart from being secretary to a pansy?"

    Jane was not sure how drunk she was, and could not bring herself to stand up, this being the test. She said, "Come to lunch on Sunday." Sunday lunch for a guest was two-and-sixpence extra; she felt she might be taken to more of these parties by Nicholas, among the inner circle of the poets of today; but she supposed he wanted to take Selina out, and that was that; she thought he would probably want to sleep with Selina, and as Selina had slept with two men already, Jane did not envisage any obstacle. It made her sad to think, as she did, that the whole rigmarole of his interest in the May of Teck Club, and the point of their sitting in this bleak room, was his desire to sleep with Selina. She said, "What bits would you say were the most important?"

    "What bits?"

    "Your book," she said. "_The Sabbath Notebooks__. George is looking for a genius. It must be you."

    "It's all important." He formed the plan immediately of forging a letter from someone crudely famous to say it was a work of genius. Not that he believed it to be so one way or the other, the idea of such an unspecific attribute as genius not being one on which his mind was accustomed to waste its time. However, he knew a useful word when he saw it, and, perceiving the trend of Jane's question, made his plan. He said, "Tell me again that delightful thing Selina repeats about poise."

    "Poise is perfect balance, an equanimity of body and mind, complete composure whatever the social scene. Elegant dress, immaculate . . . Oh, Christ," she said, "I'm tired of picking crumbs of meat out of the shepherd's pie, picking with a fork to get the little bits of meat separated from the little bits of potato. You don't know what it's like trying to eat enough to live on and at the same time avoid fats and carbohydrates."

    Nicholas kissed her tenderly. He felt there might be a sweetness in Jane, after all, for nothing reveals a secret sweetness so much as a personal point of misery bursting out of a phlegmatic creature.

    Jane said, "I've got to feed my brain."

    He said he would try to get her a pair of nylon stockings from the American with whom he worked. Her legs were bare and dark-haired. There and then he gave her six clothing coupons out of his coupon book. He said she could have his next week's egg. She said, "You need your egg for your brain."

    "I have breakfast at the American canteen," he said. "We have eggs there, and orange juice."

    She said she would take his egg. The egg-ration was one a week at this time, it was the beginning of the hardest period of food-rationing, since the liberated countries had now to be supplied. Nicholas had a gas-ring in his bed-sitting room on which he cooked his supper when he was at home and remembered about supper. He said, "You can have all my tea, I drink coffee. I get it from the Americans."

    She said she would be glad of his tea. The tea-ration was two ounces one week and three ounces the next, alternately. Tea was useful for bartering purposes. She felt she would really have to take the author's side, where Nicholas was concerned, and somehow hoodwink George. Nicholas was a true artist and had some feelings. George was only a publisher. She would have to put Nicholas wise to George's fault-finding technique of business.

Other books

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
Linger by Lauren Jameson
Mexican WhiteBoy by Matt de la Pena
Restless by William Boyd
Terra Incognita by Sara Wheeler