Read The Girls of Slender Means Online

Authors: Muriel Spark

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary

The Girls of Slender Means (8 page)

    Greggie, who had very little patience with the two other elder members, had been winning her way with Felix, and had enquired what went on "up there, next door," meaning in the hotel, the top floor of which the American Intelligence was using, the lower floors being strangely empty and forgotten by the requisitioners.

    "Ah, you'd be surprised, ma'am," Felix said.

    Greggie said she must show the men round the garden before they set off for Richmond. The fact that Greggie did practically all the gardening detracted from its comfort for the rest of the girls. Only the youngest and happiest girls could feel justified in using it to sit about in, as it was so much Greggie's toiled-at garden. Only the youngest and happiest could walk on the grass with comfort; they were not greatly given to scruples and consideration for others, by virtue of their unblighted spirits.

    Nicholas had noticed a handsome bright-cheeked fair-haired girl standing, drinking down her coffee fairly quickly. She left the room with graceful speed when she had drunk her coffee.

    Jane said, "That's Joanna Childe who does elocution."

    Later, in the garden, while Greggie was conducting her tour, they heard Joanna's voice. Greggie was displaying her various particular items, rare plants reared from stolen cuttings, these being the only objects that Greggie would ever think of stealing. She boasted, like a true gardening woman, of her thefts and methods of acquiring snips of other people's rare plants. The sound of Joanna's afternoon pupil lilted down from her room.

    Nicholas said, "The voice is coming from up there, now. Last time, it came from the ground floor."

    "She uses her own room at week-ends when the recreation room is used a lot. We're very proud of Joanna."

    Joanna's voice followed her pupil's.

    Greggie said, "This hollow shouldn't be there. It's where the bomb dropped. It just missed the house."

    "Were you in the house at the time?" said Felix.

    "I was," said Greggie. "I was in bed. Next moment I was on the floor. All the windows were broken. And it's my suspicion there was a second bomb that didn't go off. I'm almost sure I saw it drop as I picked myself up off the floor. But the disposal squad found only the one bomb and removed it. Anyway, if there's a second it must have died a natural death by now. I'm talking about the year 1942."

    Felix said, with his curious irrelevancy, "My wife Gareth talks of coming over here with UNRRA. I wonder if she could put up at your club in transit for a week or two? I have to be back and forth, myself. She would be lonely in London."

    "It would have been lying underneath the hydrangeas on the right if I was correct," Greggie said.


    _The sea of faith__

    _Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore__

    _Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.__

    _But now I only hear__

    _Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,__

    _Retreating, to the breath__

    _Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear__

    _And naked shingles of the world.__


    "We'd better be on our way to Richmond," Felix said.

    "We're awfully proud of Joanna," said Greggie.

    "A fine reader."

    "No, she recites from memory. But her pupils read, of course. It's elocution."

    Selina gracefully knocked some garden mud off her wedge shoes on the stone step, and the party moved inside.

    The girls went to get ready. The men disappeared into the dark little downstairs cloak-room.

    "That is a fine poem," said Felix, for Joanna's voices were here, too, and the lesson had moved to _Kubla Khan__.

    Nicholas almost said, "She is orgiastical in her feeling for poetry. I can hear it in her voice," but refrained in case the Colonel should say "Really?" and he should go on to say, "Poetry takes the place of sex for her, I think."

    "Really? She looked sexually fine to me."

    Which conversation did not take place, and Nicholas kept it for his notebooks.

    They waited in the hall till the girls came down. Nicholas read the notice-board, advertising secondhand clothes for sale, or in exchange for clothing coupons. Felix stood back, a refrainer from such intrusions on the girls' private business, but tolerant of the other man's curiosity. He said, "Here they come."

    The number and variety of muted noises-off were considerable. Laughter went on behind the folded doors of the first-floor dormitory. Someone was shovelling coal in the cellar, having left open the green baize door which led to those quarters. The telephone desk within the office rang distantly shrill with boy-friends, and various corresponding buzzes on the landings summoned the girls to talk. The sun broke through as the forecast had promised.


        _Weave a circle round him thrice,__

        _And close your eyes with holy dread,__

        _For he on honey-dew hath fed,__

        _And drunk the milk of Paradise.__




"Dear Dylan Thomas," wrote Jane.

    Downstairs, Nancy Riddle, who had finished her elocution lesson, was attempting to discuss with Joanna Childe the common eventualities arising from being a clergyman's daughter.

    "My father's always in a filthy temper on Sundays. Is yours?"

    "No, he's rather too occupied."

    "Father goes on about the Prayer Book. I must say, I agree with him there. It's out of date."

    "Oh, I think the Prayer Book's wonderful," said Joanna. She had the Book of Common Prayer practically by heart, including the Psalms—especially the Psalms—which her father repeated daily at Matins and Evensong in the frequently empty church. In former years at the rectory Joanna had attended these services every day, and had made the responses from her pew, as it might be on "Day 13," when her father would stand in his lofty meekness, robed in white over black, to read:


        _Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered:__


    whereupon without waiting for pause Joanna would respond:


        _let them also that hate him flee before him__.


    The father continued:


        _Like as the smoke vanisheth, so shall thou drive__

          _them away:__


    And Joanna came in swiftly:


    _and like as wax melteth at the fire, so let the__

        _ungodly perish at the presence of God.__


    And so on had circled the Psalms, from Day 1 to Day 31 of the months, morning and evening, in peace and war; and often the first curate, and then the second curate, took over the office, uttering as it seemed to the empty pews, but by faith to the congregations of the angels, the Englishly rendered intentions of the sweet singer of Israel.

    Joanna lit the gas-ring in her room in the May of Teck Club and put on the kettle. She said to Nancy Riddle:

    "The Prayer Book is wonderful. There was a new version got up in 1928, but Parliament put it out. Just as well, as it happened."

    "What's the Prayer Book got to do with them?"

    "It's within their jurisdiction funnily enough."

    "I believe in divorce," Nancy said.

    "What's that got to do with the Prayer Book?"

    "Well, it's all connected with the C. of E. and all the arguing."

    Joanna mixed some powdered milk carefully with water from the tap and poured the mixture upon two cups of tea. She passed a cup to Nancy and offered saccharine tablets from a small tin box. Nancy took one tablet, dropped it in her tea, and stirred it. She had recently got involved with a married man who talked of leaving his wife.

    Joanna said, "My father had to buy a new cloak to wear over his cassock at funerals, he always catches cold at funerals. That means no spare coupons for me this year."

    Nancy said, "Does he wear a cloak? He must be High. My father wears an overcoat; he's Low to Middle, of course."


All through the first three weeks of July Nicholas wooed Selina and at the same time cultivated Jane and others of the May of Teck Club.

    The sounds and sights impinging on him from the hall of the club intensified themselves, whenever he called, into one sensation, as if with a will of their own. He thought of the lines:


          _Let us roll all our strength, and all__

          _Our sweetness up into one ball;__


    And I would like, he thought, to teach Joanna that poem or rather demonstrate it; and he made spasmodic notes of all this on the back pages of his Sabbath manuscript.

    Jane told him everything that went on in the club. "Tell me more," he said. She told him things, in her clever way of intuition, which fitted his ideal of the place. In fact, it was not an unjust notion, that it was a miniature expression of a free society, that it was a community held together by the graceful attributes of a common poverty. He observed that at no point did poverty arrest the vitality of its members but rather nourished it. Poverty differs vastly from want, he thought.


"Hallo, Pauline?"


    "It's Jane."


    "I've got something to tell you. What's the matter?

    "I was resting."


    "No, resting. I've just got back from the psychiatrist, he makes me rest after every session. I've got to lie down."

    "I thought you were finished with the psychiatrist. Are you not very well again?"

    "This is a new one. Mummy found him, he's marvellous."

    "Well, I just wanted to tell you something, can you listen? Do you remember Nicholas Farringdon?"

    "No, I don't think so. Who's he?"

    "Nicholas . . . remember that last time on the roof at the May of Teck . . . Haiti, in a hut. . . among some palms, it was market day, everyone had gone to the market centre. Are you listening?"


We are in the summer of 1945 when he was not only enamoured of the May of Teck Club as an aesthetic and ethical conception of it, lovely frozen image that it was, but he presently slept with Selina on the roof.


    _The mountains look on Marathon__

      _And Marathon looks on the sea;__

    _And musing there an hour alone,__

      _I dream'd that Greece might still be free;__

    _for standing on the Persians' grave,__

    _I could not deem myself a slave.__


    Joanna needs to know more life, thought Nicholas, as he loitered in the hall on one specific evening, but if she knew life she would not be proclaiming these words so sexually and matriarchally as if in the ecstatic art of suckling a divine child.


    _At the top of the house the apples are laid__

                _in rows__


    She continued to recite as he loitered in the hall. No one was about. Everyone was gathered somewhere else, in the drawing room or in the bedrooms, sitting round wireless sets, tuning in to some special programme. Then one wireless, and another, roared forth louder by far than usual from the upper floors; others tuned in to the chorus, justified in the din by the voice of Winston Churchill. Joanna ceased. The wirelesses spoke forth their simultaneous Sinaitic predictions of what fate would befall the freedom-loving electorate should it vote for Labour in the forthcoming elections. The wirelesses suddenly started to reason humbly:


          We shall have Civil Servants . . .


    The wirelesses changed their tones, they roared:


          No longer civil . . .


    Then they were sad and slow:


          No longer . . .

          . . . _servants__."


    Nicholas imagined Joanna standing by her bed, put out of business as it were, but listening, drawing it into her bloodstream. As in a dream of his own that depicted a dream of hers, he thought of Joanna in this immovable attitude, given up to the cadences of the wireless as if it did not matter what was producing them, the politician or herself. She was a proclaiming statue in his mind.

    A girl in a long evening dress slid in the doorway, furtively. Her hair fell round her shoulders in a brown curl. Through the bemused mind of the loitering, listening man went the fact of a girl slipping furtively into the hall; she had a meaning, even if she had no meaningful intention.

    She was Pauline Fox. She was returning from a taxi-ride round the park at the price of eight shillings. She had got into the taxi and told the driver to drive round, round anywhere, just drive. On such occasions the taxi-drivers suspected at first that she was driving out to pick up a man, then as the taxi circled the Park and threepences ticked up on the meter, the drivers suspected she was mad, or even, perhaps, one of those foreign royalties still exiled in London: and they concluded one or the other when she ordered them back to the door to which she had summoned them by carefully prearranged booking. It was dinner with Jack Buchanan which Pauline held as an immovable idea to be established as fact at the May of Teck Club. In the daytime she worked in an office and was normal. It was dinner with Jack Buchanan that prevented her from dining with any other man, and caused her to wait in the hall for half an hour after the other members had gone to the dining room, and to return surreptitiously half an hour later when nobody, or few, were about.

    At times, when Pauline had been seen returning within so short a time, she behaved quite convincingly.

    "Goodness, back already, Pauline! I thought you'd gone out to dinner with—"

    "Oh! Don't talk to me. We've had a row." Pauline, with one hand holding a handkerchief to her eye, and the other lifting the hem of her dress, would run sobbing up the stairs to her room.

    "She must have had a row with Jack Buchanan again. Funny she never brings Jack Buchanan here."

    "Do you believe it?"

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