Read The Girls of Slender Means Online

Authors: Muriel Spark

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary

The Girls of Slender Means (9 page)

    "What?"

    "That she goes out with Jack Buchanan?"

    "Well, I've wondered."

    Pauline looked furtive, and Nicholas cheerfully said to her, "Where have _you__ been?"

    She came and gazed into his face and said, "I've been to dinner with Jack Buchanan."

    "You've missed Churchill's speech."

    "I know."

    "Did Jack Buchanan get rid of you the moment you had finished your dinner?"

    "Yes. He did. We had a row."

    She shook back her shining hair. For this evening, she had managed to borrow the Schiaparelli dress. It was made of taffeta, with small side panniers stuck out with cleverly curved pads over the hips. It was coloured dark blue, green, orange and white in a floral pattern as from the Pacific Islands.

    He said, "I don't think I've ever seen such a gorgeous dress."

    "Schiaparelli," she said.

    He said, "Is it the one you swap amongst yourselves?"

    "Who told you that?"

    "You look beautiful," he replied.

    She picked up the rustling skirt and floated away up the staircase.

    Oh, girls of slender means!

    The election speech having come to an end, everybody's wireless was turned off for a space, as if in reverence to what had just passed through the air.

    He approached the office door which stood open. The office was still empty. The warden came up behind him, having deserted her post for the duration of the speech.

    "I'm still waiting for Miss Redwood."

    "I'll ring her again. No doubt she's been listening to the speech."

    Selina came down presently. Poise is perfect balance, an equanimity of body and mind. Down the staircase she floated, as it were even more realistically than had the sad communer with the spirit of Jack Buchanan a few moments ago floated up it. It might have been the same girl, floating upwards in a Schiaparelli rustle of silk with a shining hood of hair, and floating downwards in a slim skirt with a white-spotted blue blouse, her hair now piled high. The normal noises of the house began to throb again. "Good evening," said Nicholas.

 

          _And all my days are trances,__

            _And all my nightly dreams__

          _Are where thy dark eye glances,__

            _And where thy footstep gleams—__

          _In what ethereal dances,__

          _By what eternal streams!__

 

    "Now repeat," said Joanna's voice.

    "Come on then," said Selina, stepping ahead of him into the evening light like a racer into the paddock, with a high disregard of all surrounding noises.

 

7

 

"Have you got a shilling for the meter?" said Jane.

    "Poise is perfect balance, an equanimity of body and mind, complete composure whatever the social scene. Elegant dress, immaculate grooming, and perfect deportment all contribute to the attainment of self-confidence."

    "Have you got a shilling for two sixpence?"

    "No. Anne's got a key that opens the meters, though."

    "Anne, are you in? What about a loan of the key?"

    "If we all start using it too often we'll be found out."

    "Only this once. I've got brain-work to do."

 

        _Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;__

 

    Selina sat, not yet dressed, on the edge of Nicholas's bed. She had a way of glancing sideways beneath her lashes that gave her command of a situation which might otherwise place her in a weakness.

    She said, "How can you bear to live here?"

    He said, "It does till one finds a flat."

    In fact he was quite content with his austere bed-sitting room. With the reckless ambition of a visionary, he pushed his passion for Selina into a desire that she, too, should accept and exploit the outlines of poverty in her life. He loved her as he loved his native country. He wanted Selina to be an ideal society personified amongst her bones, he wanted her beautiful limbs to obey her mind and heart like intelligent men and women, and for these to possess the same grace and beauty as her body. Whereas Selina's desires were comparatively humble, she only wanted, at that particular moment, a packet of hair-grips which had just then disappeared from the shops for a few weeks.

    It was not the first instance of a man taking a girl to bed with the aim of converting her soul, but he, in great exasperation, felt that it was, and poignantly, in bed, willed and willed the awakening of her social conscience. After which, he sighed softly into his pillow with a limp sense of achievement, and presently rose to find, with more exasperation than ever, that he had not in the least conveyed his vision of perfection to the girl. She sat on the bed and glanced around beneath her lashes. He was experienced in girls sitting on his bed, but not in girls as cool as Selina about their beauty, and such beauty as hers. It was incredible to him that she should not share with him an understanding of the lovely attributes of dispossession and poverty, her body was so austere and economically furnished.

    She said, "I don't know how you can live in this place, it's like a cell. Do you cook on that thing?" She meant the gas-grill.

    He said, while it dawned upon him that his love affair with Selina remained a love affair on his side only, "Yes, of course. Would you like some bacon and egg?"

    "Yes," she said, and started to dress.

    He took hope again, and brought out his rations. She was accustomed to men who got food from the black market.

    "After the twenty-second of this month," said Nicholas, "we are to get two and a half ounces of tea—two ounces one week and three ounces the next."

    "How much do we get now?"

    "Two ounces every week. Two ounces of butter; margarine, four ounces."

    She was amused. She laughed for a long time. She said, "You sound so funny."

    "Christ, so I do!" he said.

    "Have you used all your clothing coupons?"

    "No, I've got thirty-four left."

    He turned the bacon in the pan. Then, on a sudden thought, he said, "Would you like some clothing coupons?"

    "Oh yes, please."

    He gave her twenty, ate some bacon with her, and took her home in a taxi.

    He said, "I've arranged about the roof."

    She said, "Well, see and arrange about the weather."

    "We can go to the pictures if it's raining," he said.

 

He had arranged to have access to the roof through the top floor of the hotel next door, occupied as it was by American Intelligence, which organisation he served in another part of London. Colonel Dobell, who, up to ten days ago, would have opposed this move, now energetically supported it. The reason for this was that his wife Gareth was preparing to join him in London and he was anxious to situate Selina in another context, as he put it.

    In the north of California, up a long drive, Mrs. G. Felix Dobell had not only resided, but held meetings of the Guardians of Ethics. Now she was coming to London, for she said that a sixth sense told her Felix was in need of her presence there.

 

        _Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;__

 

    Nicholas greatly desired to make love to Selina on the roof, it needed must be on the roof. He arranged everything as precisely as a practised incendiary.

    The flat roof of the club, accessible only by the slit window on the top floor, was joined to a similar flat roof of the neighbouring hotel by a small gutter. The hotel had been requisitioned and its rooms converted into offices for the use of the American Intelligence. Like many other requisitioned premises in London, it had been overcrowded with personnel during the war in Europe, and now was practically unoccupied. Only the top floor of this hotel, where uniformed men worked mysteriously day and night, and the ground floor, which was guarded day and night by two American servicemen, and served by night- and day-porters who worked the lift, were in use. Nobody could enter this house without a pass. Nicholas obtained a pass quite easily, and he also by means of a few words and a glance obtained the ambivalent permission of Colonel Dobell, whose wife was already on her journey, to move into a large attic office which was being used as a typing pool. Nicholas was given a courtesy desk there. This attic had a hatch door leading to the flat roof.

 

The weeks had passed, and since in the May of Teck Club they were weeks of youth in the ethos of war, they were capable of accommodating quick happenings and reversals, rapid formations of intimate friendships, and a range of lost and discovered loves that in later life and in peace would take years to happen, grow and fade. The May of Teck girls were nothing if not economical. Nicholas, who was past his youth, was shocked at heart by their week-by-week emotions.

    "I thought you said she was in love with the boy."

    "So she was."

    "Well, wasn't it only last week he died? You said he died of dysentery in Burma."

    "Yes I know. But she met this naval type on Monday, she's madly in love with him."

    "She can't be in love with him," said Nicholas.

    "Well, they've got a lot in common she says."

    "A lot in common? It's only Wednesday now."

 

          _Like one, that on a lonesome road__

          _Doth walk in fear and dread,__

          _And having once turned round, walks on,__

          _And turns no more his head;__

          _Because he knows a frightful fiend__

          _Doth close behind him tread.__

 

    "Joanna's marvellous at that one, I love it."

    "Poor Joanna."

    "Why do you say poor Joanna?"

    "Well, she never gets any fun, no men-friends."

    "She's terribly attractive."

    "Frightfully attractive. Why doesn't someone do something about Joanna?"

 

Jane said, "Look here, Nicholas, there's something you ought to know about Huy Throvis-Mew as a firm and George himself as a publisher."

    They were sitting in the offices of Throvis-Mew, high above Red Lion Square; but George was out.

    "He's a crook," said Nicholas.

    "Well, that would be putting it a bit strongly," she said.

    "He's a crook with subtleties."

    "It's not quite that, either. It's a psychological thing about George. He's got to get the better of an author."

    "I know that," Nicholas said. "I had a long emotional letter from him making a lot of complaints about my book."

    "He wants to break down your confidence, you see, and then present you with a rotten contract to sign. He finds out the author's weak spot. He always attacks the bit the author likes best. He—"

    "I know that," said Nicholas.

    "I'm only telling you because I like you," Jane said. "In fact, it's part of my job to find out the author's weak spot, and report to George. But I like you, and I'm telling you all this because—"

    "You and George," said Nicholas, "draw me a tiny bit closer to understanding the Sphinx's inscrutable smile. And I'll tell you another fact."

    Beyond the grimy window rain fell from a darkening sky on the bomb-sites of Red Lion Square. Jane had looked out in an abstract pose before making her revelation to Nicholas. She now actually noticed the scene, it made her eyes feel miserable and her whole life appeared steeped in equivalent misery. She was disappointed in life, once more.

    "I'll tell you another fact," said Nicholas. "I'm a crook, too. What are you crying for?"

    "I'm crying for myself," said Jane. "I'm going to look for another job."

    "Will you write a letter for me?"

    "What sort of a letter?"

    "A crook-letter. From Charles Morgan to myself. Dear Mr. Farringdon, When first I received your manuscript I was tempted to place it aside for my secretary to return to you with some polite excuse. But as happy chance would have it, before passing your work to my secretary, I flicked over the pages and my eyes lit on . . ."

    "Lit on what?" said Jane.

    "I'll leave that to you. Only choose one of the most concise and brilliant passages when you come to write the letter. That will be difficult, I admit, since all are equally brilliant. But choose the piece you like best. Charles Morgan is to say he read that one piece, and then the whole, avidly, from start to finish. He is to say it's a work of genius. He congratulates me on a work of genius, you realise. Then I show the letter to George."

    Jane's life began to sprout once more, green with possibility. She recalled that she was only twenty-three, and smiled.

    "Then I show the letter to George," Nicholas said, "and I tell him he can keep his contract, and—"

    George arrived. He looked busily at them both. Simultaneously, he took off his hat, looked at his watch, and said to Jane, "What's the news?"

    Nicholas said, "Ribbentrop is captured."

    George sighed.

    "No news," said Jane. "Nobody's rung at all. No letters, nobody's been, nobody's rung us up. Don't worry."

    George went into his inner office. He came out again immediately.

    "Did you get my letter?" he said to Nicholas.

    "No," said Nicholas, "which letter?"

    "I wrote, let me see, the day before yesterday, I think. I wrote—"

    "Oh, that letter," said Nicholas. "Yes, I believe I did receive a letter."

    George went away into his inner office.

    Nicholas said to Jane, in a good, loud enough voice, that he was going for a stroll in the Park now that the rain had stopped, and that it was lovely having nothing to do but dream beautiful dreams all the day long.

 

"Yours very sincerely and admiringly, Charles Morgan," wrote Jane. She opened the door of her room and shouted, "Turn down the wireless a bit, I've got to do some brain-work before supper."

    On the whole, they were proud of Jane's brain-work and her connection with the world of books. They turned down all the wirelesses on the landing.

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