COMING UP FOR AIR
The primroses had started. I suppose it was some time in March.
I’d driven through Westerham and was making for Pudley. I’d got to do an assessment of an ironmonger’s shop, and then, if I could get hold of him, to interview a life-insurance case who was wavering in the balance. His name had been sent in by our local agent, but at the last moment he’d taken fright and begun to doubt whether he could afford it. I’m pretty good at talking people round. It’s being fat that does it. It puts people in a cheery kind of mood, makes ‘em feel that signing a cheque is almost a pleasure. Of course there are different ways of tackling different people. With some it’s better to lay all the stress on the bonuses, others you can scare in a subtle way with hints about what’ll happen to their wives if they die uninsured.
The old car switchbacked up and down the curly little hills. And by God, what a day! You know the kind of day that generally comes some time in March when winter suddenly seems to give up fighting. For days past we’d been having the kind of beastly weather that people call ‘bright’ weather, when the sky’s a cold hard blue and the wind scrapes you like a blunt razor-blade. Then suddenly the wind had dropped and the sun got a chance. You know the kind of day. Pale yellow sunshine, not a leaf stirring, a touch of mist in the far distance where you could see the sheep scattered over the hillsides like lumps of chalk. And down in the valleys fires were burning, and the smoke twisted slowly upwards and melted into the mist. I’d got the road to myself. It was so warm you could almost have taken your clothes off.
I got to a spot where the grass beside the road was smothered in primroses. A patch of clayey soil, perhaps. Twenty yards farther on I slowed down and stopped. The weather was too good to miss. I felt I’d got to get out and have a smell at the spring air, and perhaps even pick a few primroses if there was nobody coming. I even had some vague notion of picking a bunch of them to take home to Hilda.
I switched the engine off and got out. I never like leaving the old car running in neutral, I’m always half afraid she’ll shake her mudguards off or something. She’s a 1927 model, and she’s done a biggish mileage. When you lift the bonnet and look at the engine it reminds you of the old Austrian Empire, all tied together with bits of string but somehow keeps plugging along. You wouldn’t believe any machine could vibrate in so many directions at once. It’s like the motion of the earth, which has twenty-two different kinds of wobble, or so I remember reading. If you look at her from behind when she’s running in neutral it’s for all the world like watching one of those Hawaiian girls dancing the hula-hula.
There was a five-barred gate beside the road. I strolled over and leaned across it. Not a soul in sight. I hitched my hat back a bit to get the kind of balmy feeling of the air against my forehead. The grass under the hedge was full of primroses. Just inside the gate a tramp or somebody had left the remains of a fire. A little pile of white embers and a wisp of smoke still oozing out of them. Farther along there was a little bit of a pool, covered over with duck-weed. The field was winter wheat. It sloped up sharply, and then there was a fall of chalk and a little beech spinney. A kind of mist of young leaves on the trees. And utter stillness everywhere. Not even enough wind to stir the ashes of the fire. A lark singing somewhere, otherwise not a sound, not even an aeroplane.
I stayed there for a bit, leaning over the gate. I was alone, quite alone. I was looking at the field, and the field was looking at me. I felt—I wonder whether you’ll understand.
What I felt was something that’s so unusual nowadays that to say it sounds like foolishness. I felt HAPPY. I felt that though I shan’t live for ever, I’d be quite ready to. If you like you can say that that was merely because it was the first day of spring. Seasonal effect on the sex-glands, or something. But there was more to it than that. Curiously enough, the thing that had suddenly convinced me that life was worth living, more than the primroses or the young buds on the hedge, was that bit of fire near the gate. You know the look of a wood fire on a still day. The sticks that have gone all to white ash and still keep the shape of sticks, and under the ash the kind of vivid red that you can see into. It’s curious that a red ember looks more alive, gives you more of a feeling of life than any living thing. There’s something about it, a kind of intensity, a vibration—I can’t think of the exact words. But it lets you know that you’re alive yourself. It’s the spot on the picture that makes you notice everything else.
I bent down to pick a primrose. Couldn’t reach it—too much belly. I squatted down on my haunches and picked a little bunch of them. Lucky there was no one to see me. The leaves were kind of crinkly and shaped like rabbits’ ears. I stood up and put my bunch of primroses on the gatepost. Then on an impulse I slid my false teeth out of my mouth and had a look at them.
If I’d had a mirror I’d have looked at the whole of myself, though, as a matter of fact, I knew what I looked like already. A fat man of forty-five, in a grey herring-bone suit a bit the worse for wear and a bowler hat. Wife, two kids, and a house in the suburbs written all over me. Red face and boiled blue eyes. I know, you don’t have to tell me. But the thing that struck me, as I gave my dental plate the once-over before slipping it back into my mouth, was that IT DOESN’T MATTER. Even false teeth don’t matter. I’m fat—yes. I look like a bookie’s unsuccessful brother—yes. No woman will ever go to bed with me again unless she’s paid to. I know all that. But I tell you I don’t care. I don’t want the women, I don’t even want to be young again. I only want to be alive. And I was alive that moment when I stood looking at the primroses and the red embers under the hedge. It’s a feeling inside you, a kind of peaceful feeling, and yet it’s like a flame.
Farther down the hedge the pool was covered with duck-weed, so like a carpet that if you didn’t know what duck-weed was you might think it was solid and step on it. I wondered why it is that we’re all such bloody fools. Why don’t people, instead of the idiocies they do spend their time on, just walk round LOOKING at things? That pool, for instance—all the stuff that’s in it. Newts, water- snails, water-beetles, caddis-flies, leeches, and God knows how many other things that you can only see with a microscope. The mystery of their lives, down there under water. You could spend a lifetime watching them, ten lifetimes, and still you wouldn’t have got to the end even of that one pool. And all the while the sort of feeling of wonder, the peculiar flame inside you. It’s the only thing worth having, and we don’t want it.
But I do want it. At least I thought so at that moment. And don’t mistake what I’m saying. To begin with, unlike most Cockneys, I’m not soppy about ‘the country’. I was brought up a damn sight too near to it for that. I don’t want to stop people living in towns, or in suburbs for that matter. Let ‘em live where they like. And I’m not suggesting that the whole of humanity could spend the whole of their lives wandering round picking primroses and so forth. I know perfectly well that we’ve got to work. It’s only because chaps are coughing their lungs out in mines and girls are hammering at typewriters that anyone ever has time to pick a flower. Besides, if you hadn’t a full belly and a warm house you wouldn’t want to pick flowers. But that’s not the point. Here’s this feeling that I get inside me—not often, I admit, but now and again. I know it’s a good feeling to have. What’s more, so does everybody else, or nearly everybody. It’s just round the corner all the time, and we all know it’s there. Stop firing that machine-gun! Stop chasing whatever you’re chasing! Calm down, get your breath back, let a bit of peace seep into your bones. No use. We don’t do it. Just keep on with the same bloody fooleries.
And the next war coming over the horizon, 1941, they say. Three more circles of the sun, and then we whizz straight into it. The bombs diving down on you like black cigars, and the streamlined bullets streaming from the Bren machine-guns. Not that that worries me particularly. I’m too old to fight. There’ll be air- raids, of course, but they won’t hit everybody. Besides, even if that kind of danger exists, it doesn’t really enter into one’s thoughts beforehand. As I’ve said several times already, I’m not frightened of the war, only the after-war. And even that isn’t likely to affect me personally. Because who’d bother about a chap like me? I’m too fat to be a political suspect. No one would bump me off or cosh me with a rubber truncheon. I’m the ordinary middling kind that moves on when the policeman tells him. As for Hilda and the kids, they’d probably never notice the difference. And yet it frightens me. The barbed wire! The slogans! The enormous faces! The cork-lined cellars where the executioner plugs you from behind! For that matter it frightens other chaps who are intellectually a good deal dumber than I am. But why! Because it means good-bye to this thing I’ve been telling you about, this special feeling inside you. Call it peace, if you like. But when I say peace I don’t mean absence of war, I mean peace, a feeling in your guts. And it’s gone for ever if the rubber truncheon boys get hold of us.
I picked up my bunch of primroses and had a smell at them. I was thinking of Lower Binfield. It was funny how for two months past it had been in and out of my mind all the time, after twenty years during which I’d practically forgotten it. And just at this moment there was the zoom of a car coming up the road.
It brought me up with a kind of jolt. I suddenly realized what I was doing—wandering round picking primroses when I ought to have been going through the inventory at that ironmonger’s shop in Pudley. What was more, it suddenly struck me what I’d look like if those people in the car saw me. A fat man in a bowler hat holding a bunch of primroses! It wouldn’t look right at all. Fat men mustn’t pick primroses, at any rate in public. I just had time to chuck them over the hedge before the car came in sight. It was a good job I’d done so. The car was full of young fools of about twenty. How they’d have sniggered if they’d seen me! They were all looking at me—you know how people look at you when they’re in a car coming towards you—and the thought struck me that even now they might somehow guess what I’d been doing. Better let ‘em think it was something else. Why should a chap get out of his car at the side of a country road? Obvious! As the car went past I pretended to be doing up a fly-button.
I cranked up the car (the self-starter doesn’t work any longer) and got in. Curiously enough, in the very moment when I was doing up the fly-button, when my mind was about three-quarters full of those young fools in the other car, a wonderful idea had occurred to me.
I’d go back to Lower Binfield!
Why not? I thought as I jammed her into top gear. Why shouldn’t I? What was to stop me? And why the hell hadn’t I thought of it before? A quiet holiday in Lower Binfield—just the thing I wanted.
Don’t imagine that I had any ideas of going back to LIVE in Lower Binfield. I wasn’t planning to desert Hilda and the kids and start life under a different name. That kind of thing only happens in books. But what was to stop me slipping down to Lower Binfield and having a week there all by myself, on the Q.T.?
I seemed to have it all planned out in my mind already. It was all right as far as the money went. There was still twelve quid left in that secret pile of mine, and you can have a very comfortable week on twelve quid. I get a fortnight’s holiday a year, generally in August or September. But if I made up some suitable story— relative dying of incurable disease, or something—I could probably get the firm to give me my holiday in two separate halves. Then I could have a week all to myself before Hilda knew what was happening. A week in Lower Binfield, with no Hilda, no kids, no Flying Salamander, no Ellesmere Road, no rumpus about the hire- purchase payments, no noise of traffic driving you silly—just a week of loafing round and listening to the quietness?
But why did I want to go back to Lower Binfield? you say. Why Lower Binfield in particular? What did I mean to do when I got there?
I didn’t mean to do anything. That was part of the point. I wanted peace and quiet. Peace! We had it once, in Lower Binfield. I’ve told you something about our old life there, before the war. I’m not pretending it was perfect. I dare say it was a dull, sluggish, vegetable kind of life. You can say we were like turnips, if you like. But turnips don’t live in terror of the boss, they don’t lie awake at night thinking about the next slump and the next war. We had peace inside us. Of course I knew that even in Lower Binfield life would have changed. But the place itself wouldn’t have. There’d still be the beech woods round Binfield House, and the towpath down by Burford Weir, and the horse-trough in the market-place. I wanted to get back there, just for a week, and let the feeling of it soak into me. It was a bit like one of these Eastern sages retiring into a desert. And I should think, the way things are going, there’ll be a good many people retiring into the desert during the next few years. It’ll be like the time in ancient Rome that old Porteous was telling me about, when there were so many hermits that there was a waiting list for every cave.
But it wasn’t that I wanted to watch my navel. I only wanted to get my nerve back before the bad times begin. Because does anyone who isn’t dead from the neck up doubt that there’s a bad time coming? We don’t even know what it’ll be, and yet we know it’s coming. Perhaps a war, perhaps a slump—no knowing, except that it’ll be something bad. Wherever we’re going, we’re going downwards. Into the grave, into the cesspool—no knowing. And you can’t face that kind of thing unless you’ve got the right feeling inside you. There’s something that’s gone out of us in these twenty years since the war. It’s a kind of vital juice that we’ve squirted away until there’s nothing left. All this rushing to and fro! Everlasting scramble for a bit of cash. Everlasting din of buses, bombs, radios, telephone bells. Nerves worn all to bits, empty places in our bones where the marrow ought to be.
I shoved my foot down on the accelerator. The very thought of going back to Lower Binfield had done me good already. You know the feeling I had. Coming up for air! Like the big sea-turtles when they come paddling up to the surface, stick their noses out and fill their lungs with a great gulp before they sink down again among the seaweed and the octopuses. We’re all stifling at the bottom of a dustbin, but I’d found the way to the top. Back to Lower Binfield! I kept my foot on the accelerator until the old car worked up to her maximum speed of nearly forty miles an hour. She was rattling like a tin tray full of crockery, and under cover of the noise I nearly started singing.
Of course the fly in the milk-jug was Hilda. That thought pulled me up a bit. I slowed down to about twenty to think it over.
There wasn’t much doubt Hilda would find out sooner or later. As to getting only a week’s holiday in August, I might be able to pass that off all right. I could tell her the firm were only giving me a week this year. Probably she wouldn’t ask too many questions about that, because she’d jump at the chance of cutting down the holiday expenses. The kids, in any case, always stay at the seaside for a month. Where the difficulty came in was finding an alibi for that week in May. I couldn’t just clear off without notice. Best thing, I thought, would be to tell her a good while ahead that I was being sent on some special job to Nottingham, or Derby, or Bristol, or some other place a good long way away. If I told her about it two months ahead it would look as if I hadn’t anything to hide.
But of course she’d find out sooner or later. Trust Hilda! She’d start off by pretending to believe it, and then, in that quiet, obstinate way she has, she’d nose out the fact that I’d never been to Nottingham or Derby or Bristol or wherever it might be. It’s astonishing how she does it. Such perseverance! She lies low till she’s found out all the weak points in your alibi, and then suddenly, when you’ve put your foot in it by some careless remark, she starts on you. Suddenly comes out with the whole dossier of the case. ‘Where did you spend Saturday night? That’s a lie! You’ve been off with a woman. Look at these hairs I found when I was brushing your waistcoat. Look at them! Is my hair that colour?’ And then the fun begins. Lord knows how many times it’s happened. Sometimes she’s been right about the woman and sometimes she’s been wrong, but the after-effects are always the same. Nagging for weeks on end! Never a meal without a row—and the kids can’t make out what it’s all about. The one completely hopeless thing would be to tell her just where I’d spent that week, and why. If I explained till the Day of Judgment she’d never believe that.
But, hell! I thought, why bother? It was a long way off. You know how different these things seem before and after. I shoved my foot down on the accelerator again. I’d had another idea, almost bigger than the first. I wouldn’t go in May. I’d go in the second half of June, when the coarse-fishing season had started, and I’d go fishing!
Why not, after all? I wanted peace, and fishing is peace. And then the biggest idea of all came into my head and very nearly made me swing the car off the road.
I’d go and catch those big carp in the pool at Binfield House!
And once again, why not? Isn’t it queer how we go through life, always thinking that the things we want to do are the things that can’t be done? Why shouldn’t I catch those carp? And yet, as soon as the idea’s mentioned, doesn’t it sound to you like something impossible, something that just couldn’t happen? It seemed so to me, even at that moment. It seemed to me a kind of dope-dream, like the ones you have of sleeping with film stars or winning the heavyweight championship. And yet it wasn’t in the least impossible, it wasn’t even improbable. Fishing can be rented. Whoever owned Binfield House now would probably let the pool if they got enough for it. And Gosh! I’d be glad to pay five pounds for a day’s fishing in that pool. For that matter it was quite likely that the house was still empty and nobody even knew that the pool existed.
I thought of it in the dark place among the trees, waiting for me all those years. And the huge black fish still gliding round it. Jesus! If they were that size thirty years ago, what would they be like now?