COMING UP FOR AIR
Part 3, Chapter 3
It was June the seventeenth, Friday, the second day of the coarse- fishing season.
I hadn’t had any difficulty in fixing things with the firm. As for Hilda, I’d fitted her up with a story that was all shipshape and watertight. I’d fixed on Birmingham for my alibi, and at the last moment I’d even told her the name of the hotel I was going to stay at, Rowbottom’s Family and Commercial. I happened to know the address because I’d stayed there some years earlier. At the same time I didn’t want her writing to me at Birmingham, which she might do if I was away as long as a week. After thinking it over I took young Saunders, who travels for Glisso Floor Polish, partly into my confidence. He’d happened to mention that he’d be passing through Birmingham on the eighteenth of June, and I got him to promise that he’d stop on his way and post a letter from me to Hilda, addressed from Rowbottom’s. This was to tell her that I might be called away and she’d better not write. Saunders understood, or thought he did. He gave me a wink and said I was wonderful for my age. So that settled Hilda. She hadn’t asked any questions, and even if she turned suspicious later, an alibi like that would take some breaking.
I drove through Westerham. It was a wonderful June morning. A faint breeze blowing, and the elm tops swaying in the sun, little white clouds streaming across the sky like a flock of sheep, and the shadows chasing each other across the fields. Outside Westerham a Walls’ Ice Cream lad, with cheeks like apples, came tearing towards me on his bike, whistling so that it went through your head. It suddenly reminded me of the time when I’d been an errand boy myself (though in those days we didn’t have free-wheel bikes) and I very nearly stopped him and took one. They’d cut the hay in places, but they hadn’t got it in yet. It lay drying in long shiny rows, and the smell of it drifted across the road and got mixed up with the petrol.
I drove along at a gentle fifteen. The morning had a kind of peaceful, dreamy feeling. The ducks floated about on the ponds as if they felt too satisfied to eat. In Nettlefield, the village beyond Westerham, a little man in a white apron, with grey hair and a huge grey moustache, darted across the green, planted himself in the middle of the road and began doing physical jerks to attract my attention. My car’s known all along this road, of course. I pulled up. It’s only Mr Weaver, who keeps the village general shop. No, he doesn’t want to insure his life, nor his shop either. He’s merely run out of change and wants to know whether I’ve got a quid’s worth of ‘large silver’. They never have any change in Nettlefield, not even at the pub.
I drove on. The wheat would have been as tall as your waist. It went undulating up and down the hills like a great green carpet, with the wind rippling it a little, kind of thick and silky- looking. It’s like a woman, I thought. It makes you want to lie on it. And a bit ahead of me I saw the sign-post where the road forks right for Pudley and left for Oxford.
I was still on my usual beat, inside the boundary of my own ‘district’, as the firm calls it. The natural thing, as I was going westward, would have been to leave London along the Uxbridge Road. But by a kind of instinct I’d followed my usual route. The fact was I was feeling guilty about the whole business. I wanted to get well away before I headed for Oxfordshire. And in spite of the fact that I’d fixed things so neatly with Hilda and the firm, in spite of the twelve quid in my pocket-book and the suitcase in the back of the car, as I got nearer the crossroads I actually felt a temptation—I knew I wasn’t going to succumb to it, and yet it was a temptation—to chuck the whole thing up. I had a sort of feeling that so long as I was driving along my normal beat I was still inside the law. It’s not too late, I thought. There’s still time to do the respectable thing. I could run into Pudley, for instance, see the manager of Barclay’s Bank (he’s our agent at Pudley) and find out if any new business had come in. For that matter I could even turn round, go back to Hilda, and make a clean breast of the plot.
I slowed down as I got to the corner. Should I or shouldn’t I? For about a second I was really tempted. But no! I tooted the klaxon and swung the car westward, on to the Oxford road.
Well, I’d done it. I was on the forbidden ground. It was true that five miles farther on, if I wanted to, I could turn to the left again and get back to Westerham. But for the moment I was headed westward. Strictly speaking I was in flight. And what was curious, I was no sooner on the Oxford road than I felt perfectly certain that THEY knew all about it. When I say THEY I mean all the people who wouldn’t approve of a trip of this kind and who’d have stopped me if they could—which, I suppose, would include pretty well everybody.
What was more, I actually had a feeling that they were after me already. The whole lot of them! All the people who couldn’t understand why a middle-aged man with false teeth should sneak away for a quiet week in the place where he spent his boyhood. And all the mean-minded bastards who COULD understand only too well, and who’d raise heaven and earth to prevent it. They were all on my track. It was as if a huge army were streaming up the road behind me. I seemed to see them in my mind’s eye. Hilda was in front, of course, with the kids tagging after her, and Mrs Wheeler driving her forward with a grim, vindictive expression, and Miss Minns rushing along in the rear, with her pince-nez slipping down and a look of distress on her face, like the hen that gets left behind when the others have got hold of the bacon rind. And Sir Herbert Crum and the higher-ups of the Flying Salamander in their Rolls- Royces and Hispano-Suizas. And all the chaps at the office, and all the poor down-trodden pen-pushers from Ellesmere Road and from all such other roads, some of them wheeling prams and mowing- machines and concrete garden-rollers, some of them chugging along in little Austin Sevens. And all the soul-savers and Nosey Parkers, the people whom you’ve never seen but who rule your destiny all the same, the Home Secretary, Scotland Yard, the Temperance League, the Bank of England, Lord Beaverbrook, Hitler and Stalin on a tandem bicycle, the bench of Bishops, Mussolini, the Pope—they were all of them after me. I could almost hear them shouting:
‘There’s a chap who thinks he’s going to escape! There’s a chap who says he won’t be streamlined! He’s going back to Lower Binfield! After him! Stop him!’
It’s queer. The impression was so strong that I actually took a peep through the little window at the back of the car to make sure I wasn’t being followed. Guilty conscience, I suppose. But there was nobody. Only the dusty white road and the long line of the elms dwindling out behind me.
I trod on the gas and the old car rattled into the thirties. A few minutes later I was past the Westerham turning. So that was that. I’d burnt my boats. This was the idea which, in a dim sort of way, had begun to form itself in my mind the day I got my new false teeth.