Coming Up For Air

Part IV


George Orwell

BUT I had to see the pool at Binfield House.

I felt really bad that morning. The fact was that ever since I struck Lower Binfield I’d been drinking almost continuously from every opening time to every closing time. The reason, though it hadn’t occurred to me till this minute, was that really there’d been nothing else to do. That was all my trip had amounted to so far—three days on the booze.

The same as the other morning, I crawled over to the window and watched the bowler hats and school caps hustling to and fro. My enemies, I thought. The conquering army that’s sacked the town and covered the ruins with fag-ends and paper bags. I wondered why I cared. You think, I dare say, that if it had given me a jolt to find Lower Binfield swollen into a kind of Dagenham, it was merely because I don’t like to see the earth getting fuller and country turning into town. But it isn’t that at all. I don’t mind towns growing, so long as they do grow and don’t merely spread like gravy over a tablecloth. I know that people have got to have somewhere to live, and that if a factory isn’t in one place it’ll be in another. As for the picturesqueness, the sham countrified stuff, the oak panels and pewter dishes and copper warming-pans and what-not, it merely gives me the sick. Whatever we were in the old days, we weren’t picturesque. Mother would never have seen any sense in the antiques that Wendy had filled our house with. She didn’t like gateleg tables—she said they ‘caught your legs’. As for pewter, she wouldn’t have it in the house. ‘Nasty greasy stuff’, she called it. And yet, say what you like, there was something that we had in those days and haven’t got now, something that you probably can’t have in a streamlined milk-bar with the radio playing. I’d come back to look for it, and I hadn’t found it. And yet somehow I half believe in it even now, when I hadn’t yet got my teeth in and my belly was crying out for an aspirin and a cup of tea.

And that started me thinking again about the pool at Binfield House. After seeing what they’d done to the town, I’d had a feeling you could only describe as fear about going to see whether the pool still existed. And yet it might, there was no knowing. The town was smothered under red brick, our house was full of Wendy and her junk, the Thames was poisoned with motor-oil and paper bags. But maybe the pool was still there, with the great black fish still cruising round it. Maybe, even, it was still hidden in the woods and from that day to this no one had discovered it existed. It was quite possible. It was a very thick bit of wood, full of brambles and rotten brushwood (the beech trees gave way to oaks round about there, which made the undergrowth thicker), the kind of place most people don’t care to penetrate. Queerer things have happened.

I didn’t start out till late afternoon. It must have been about half past four when I took the car out and drove on to the Upper Binfield road. Half-way up the hill the houses thinned out and stopped and the beech trees began. The road forks about there and I took the right-hand fork, meaning to make a detour round and come back to Binfield House on the road. But presently I stopped to have a look at the copse I was driving through. The beech trees seemed just the same. Lord, how they were the same! I backed the car on to a bit of grass beside the road, under a fall of chalk, and got out and walked. Just the same. The same stillness, the same great beds of rustling leaves that seem to go on from year to year without rotting. Not a creature stirring except the small birds in the tree-tops which you couldn’t see. It wasn’t easy to believe that that great noisy mess of a town was barely three miles away. I began to make my way through the little copse, in the direction of Binfield House. I could vaguely remember how the paths went. And Lord! Yes! The same chalk hollow where the Black Hand went and had catapult shots, and Sid Lovegrove told us how babies were born, the day I caught my first fish, pretty near forty years ago!

As the trees thinned out again you could see the other road and the wall of Binfield House. The old rotting wooden fence was gone, of course, and they’d put up a high brick wall with spikes on top, such as you’d expect to see round a loony-bin. I’d puzzled for some time about how to get into Binfield House until finally it had struck me that I’d only to tell them my wife was mad and I was looking for somewhere to put her. After that they’d be quite ready to show me round the grounds. In my new suit I probably looked prosperous enough to have a wife in a private asylum. It wasn’t till I was actually at the gate that it occurred to me to wonder whether the pool was still inside the grounds.

The old grounds of Binfield House had covered fifty acres, I suppose, and the grounds of the loony-bin weren’t likely to be more than five or ten. They wouldn’t want a great pool of water for the loonies to drown themselves in. The lodge, where old Hodges used to live, was the same as ever, but the yellow brick wall and the huge iron gates were new. From the glimpse I got through the gates I wouldn’t have known the place. Gravel walks, flower-beds, lawns, and a few aimless-looking types wandering about—loonies, I suppose. I strolled up the road to the right. The pool—the big pool, the one where I used to fish—was a couple of hundred yards behind the house. It might have been a hundred yards before I got to the corner of the wall. So the pool was outside the grounds. The trees seemed to have got much thinner. I could hear children’s voices. And Gosh! there was the pool.

I stood for a moment, wondering what had happened to it. Then I saw what it was—all the trees were gone from round its edge. It looked all bare and different, in fact it looked extraordinarily like the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens. Kids were playing all round the edge, sailing boats and paddling, and a few rather older kids were rushing about in those little canoes which you work by turning a handle. Over to the left, where the old rotting boat-house used to stand among the reeds, there was a sort of pavilion and a sweet kiosk, and a huge white notice saying UPPER BINFIELD MODEL YACHT CLUB.

I looked over to the right. It was all houses, houses, houses. One might as well have been in the outer suburbs. All the woods that used to grow beyond the pool, and grew so thick that they were like a kind of tropical jungle, had been shaved flat. Only a few clumps of trees still standing round the houses. There were arty-looking houses, another of those sham-Tudor colonies like the one I’d seen the first day at the top of Chamford Hill, only more so. What a fool I’d been to imagine that these woods were still the same! I saw how it was. There was just the one tiny bit of copse, half a dozen acres perhaps, that hadn’t been cut down, and it was pure chance that I’d walked through it on my way here. Upper Binfield, which had been merely a name in the old days, had grown into a decent-sized town. In fact it was merely an outlying chunk of Lower Binfield.

I wandered up to the edge of the pool. The kids were splashing about and making the devil of a noise. There seemed to be swarms of them. The water looked kind of dead. No fish in it now. There was a chap standing watching the kids. He was an oldish chap with a bald head and a few tufts of white hair, and pince-nez and very sunburnt face. There was something vaguely queer about his appearance. He was wearing shorts and sandals and one of those celanese shirts open at the neck, I noticed, but what really struck me was the look in his eye. He had very blue eyes that kind of twinkled at you from behind his spectacles. I could see that he was one of those old men who’ve never grown up. They’re always either health-food cranks or else they have something to do with the Boy Scouts—in either case they’re great ones for Nature and the open air. He was looking at me as if he’d like to speak.

‘Upper Binfield’s grown a great deal,’ I said.

He twinkled at me.

‘Grown! My dear sir, we never allow Upper Binfield to grow. We pride ourselves on being rather exceptional people up here, you know. Just a little colony of us all by ourselves. No interlopers—te-hee!’

‘I mean compared with before the war,’ I said. ‘I used to live here as a boy.’

‘Oh-ah. No doubt. That was before my time, of course. But the Upper Binfield Estate is something rather special in the way of building estates, you know. Quite a little world of its own. All designed by young Edward Watkin, the architect. You’ve heard of him, of course. We live in the midst of Nature up here. No connexion with the town down there’—he waved a hand in the direction of Lower Binfield—‘the dark satanic mills—te-hee!’

He had a benevolent old chuckle, and a way of wrinkling his face up, like a rabbit. Immediately, as though I’d asked him, he began telling me all about the Upper Binfield Estate and young Edward Watkin, the architect, who had such a feeling for the Tudor, and was such a wonderful fellow at finding genuine Elizabethan beams in old farmhouses and buying them at ridiculous prices. And such an interesting young fellow, quite the life and soul of the nudist parties. He repeated a number of times that they were very exceptional people in Upper Binfield, quite different from Lower Binfield, they were determined to enrich the countryside instead of defiling it (I’m using his own phrase), and there weren’t any public houses on the estate.

‘They talk of their Garden Cities. But we call Upper Binfield the Woodland City—te-hee! Nature!’ He waved a hand at what was left of the trees. ‘The primeval forest brooding round us. Our young people grow up amid surroundings of natural beauty. We are nearly all of us enlightened people, of course. Would you credit that three-quarters of us up here are vegetarians? The local butchers don’t like us at all—te-hee! And some quite eminent people live here. Miss Helena Thurloe, the novelist—you’ve heard of her, of course. And Professor Woad, the psychic research worker. Such a poetic character! He goes wandering out into the woods and the family can’t find him at mealtimes. He says he’s walking among the fairies. Do you believe in fairies? I admit—te-hee!—I am just a wee bit sceptical. But his photographs are most convincing.’

I began to wonder whether he was someone who’d escaped from Binfield House. But no, he was sane enough, after a fashion. I knew the type. Vegetarianism, simple life, poetry, nature-worship, roll in the dew before breakfast. I’d met a few of them years ago in Ealing. He began to show me round the estate. There was nothing left of the woods. It was all houses, houses—and what houses! Do you know these faked-up Tudor houses with the curly roofs and the buttresses that don’t buttress anything, and the rock-gardens with concrete bird-baths and those red plaster elves you can buy at the florists’? You could see in your mind’s eye the awful gang of food-cranks and spook-hunters and simple-lifers with 1,000 pounds a year that lived there. Even the pavements were crazy. I didn’t let him take me far. Some of the houses made me wish I’d got a hand-grenade in my pocket. I tried to damp him down by asking whether people didn’t object to living so near the lunatic asylum, but it didn’t have much effect. Finally I stopped and said:

‘There used to be another pool, besides the big one. It can’t be far from here.’

‘Another pool? Oh, surely not. I don’t think there was ever another pool.’

‘They may have drained it off,’ I said. ‘It was a pretty deep pool. It would leave a big pit behind.’

For the first time he looked a bit uneasy. He rubbed his nose.

‘Oh-ah. Of course, you must understand our life up here is in some ways primitive. The simple life, you know. We prefer it so. But being so far from the town has its inconveniences, of course. Some of our sanitary arrangements are not altogether satisfactory. The dust-cart only calls once a month, I believe.’

‘You mean they’ve turned the pool into a rubbish-dump?’

‘Well, there is something in the nature of a—’ he shied at the word rubbish-dump. ‘We have to dispose of tins and so forth, of course. Over there, behind that clump of trees.’

We went across there. They’d left a few trees to hid it. But yes, there it was. It was my pool, all right. They’d drained the water off. It made a great round hole, like an enormous well, twenty or thirty feet deep. Already it was half full of tin cans.

I stood looking at the tin cans.

‘It’s a pity they drained it,’ I said. ‘There used to be some big fish in that pool.’

‘Fish? Oh, I never heard anything about that. Of course we could hardly have a pool of water here among the houses. The mosquitoes, you know. But it was before my time.’

‘I suppose these houses have been built a good long time?’ I said.

‘Oh—ten or fifteen years, I think.’

‘I used to know this place before the war,’ I said. ‘It was all woods then. There weren’t any houses except Binfield House. But that little bit of copse over there hasn’t changed. I walked through it on my way here.’

‘Ah, that! That is sacrosanct. We have decided never to build in it. It is sacred to the young people. Nature, you know.’ He twinkled at me, a kind of roguish look, as if he was letting me into a little secret: ‘We call it the Pixy Glen.’

The Pixy Glen. I got rid of him, went back to the car and drove down to Lower Binfield. The Pixy Glen. And they’d filled my pool up with tin cans. God rot them and bust them! Say what you like—call it silly, childish, anything—but doesn’t it make you puke sometimes to see what they’re doing to England, with their bird-baths and their plaster gnomes, and their pixies and tin cans, where the beech woods used to be?

Sentimental, you say? Anti-social? Oughtn’t to prefer trees to men? I say it depends what trees and what men. Not that there’s anything one can do about it, except to wish them the pox in their guts.

One thing, I thought as I drove down the hill, I’m finished with this notion of getting back into the past. What’s the good of trying to revisit the scenes of your boyhood? They don’t exist. Coming up for air! But there isn’t any air. The dustbin that we’re in reaches up to the stratosphere. All the same, I didn’t particularly care. After all, I thought, I’ve still got three days left. I’d have a bit of peace and quiet, and stop bothering about what they’d done to Lower Binfield. As for my idea of going fishing—that was off, of course. Fishing, indeed! At my age! Really, Hilda was right.

I dumped the car in the garage of the George and walked into the lounge. It was six o’clock. Somebody had switched on the wireless and the news-broadcast was beginning. I came through the door just in time to hear the last few words of an S.O.S. And it gave me a bit of a jolt, I admit. For the words I heard were:

‘—where his wife, Hilda Bowling, is seriously ill.’

The next instant the plummy voice went on: ‘Here is another S.O.S. Will Percival Chute, who was last heard of—’, but I didn’t wait to hear any more. I just walked straight on. What made me feel rather proud, when I thought it over afterwards, was that when I heard those words come out of the loudspeaker I never turned an eyelash. Not even a pause in my step to let anyone know that I was George Bowling, whose wife Hilda Bowling was seriously ill. The landlord’s wife was in the lounge, and she knew my name was Bowling, at any rate she’d seen it in the register. Otherwise there was nobody there except a couple of chaps who were staying at the George and who didn’t know me from Adam. But I kept my head. Not a sign to anyone. I merely walked on into the private bar, which had just opened, and ordered my pint as usual.

I had to think it over. By the time I’d drunk about half the pint I began to get the bearings of the situation. In the first place, Hilda wasn’t ill, seriously or otherwise. I knew that. She’d been perfectly well when I came away, and it wasn’t the time of the year for ’flu or anything of that kind. She was shamming. Why?

Obviously it was just another of her dodges. I saw how it was. She’d got wind somehow—trust Hilda!—that I wasn’t really at Birmingham, and this was just her way of getting me home. Couldn’t bear to think of me any longer with that other woman. Because of course she’d take it for granted that I was with a woman. Can’t imagine any other motive. And naturally she assumed that I’d come rushing home as soon as I heard she was ill.

But that’s just where you’ve got it wrong, I thought to myself as I finished off the pint. I’m too cute to be caught that way. I remembered the dodges she’d pulled before, and the extraordinary trouble she’ll take to catch me out. I’ve even known her, when I’d been on some journey she was suspicious about, check it all up with a Bradshaw and a road-map, just to see whether I was telling the truth about my movements. And then there was that time when she followed me all the way to Colchester and suddenly burst in on me at the Temperance Hotel. And that time, unfortunately, she happened to be right—at least, she wasn’t, but there were circumstances which made it look as if she was. I hadn’t the slightest belief that she was ill. In fact, I knew she wasn’t, although I couldn’t say exactly how.

I had another pint and things looked better. Of course there was a row coming when I got home, but there’d have been a row anyway. I’ve got three good days ahead of me, I thought. Curiously enough, now that the things I’d come to look for had turned out not to exist, the idea of having a bit of holiday appealed to me all the more. Being away from home—that was the great thing. Peace perfect peace with loved ones far away, as the hymn puts it. And suddenly I decided that I would have a woman if I felt like it. It would serve Hilda right for being so dirty-minded, and besides, where’s the sense of being suspected if it isn’t true?

But as the second pint worked inside me, the thing began to amuse me. I hadn’t fallen for it, but it was damned ingenious all the same. I wondered how she’d managed about the S.O.S. I’ve no idea what the procedure is. Do you have to have a doctor’s certificate, or do you just send your name in? I felt pretty sure it was the Wheeler woman who’d put her up to it. It seemed to me to have the Wheeler touch.

But all the same, the cheek of it! The lengths that women will go! Sometimes you can’t help kind of admiring them.

Coming Up For Air    |    Part IV, 6

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