The next moment I heard something. And at the same moment, if you’d happened to be there, you’d have seen an interesting instance of what I believe is called conditioned reflex. Because what I’d heard—there wasn’t any question of mistake—was the whistle of a bomb. I hadn’t heard such a thing for twenty years, but I didn’t need to be told what it was. And without taking any kind of thought I did the right thing. I flung myself on my face.
After all I’m glad you didn’t see me. I don’t suppose I looked dignified. I was flattened out on the pavement like a rat when it squeezes under a door. Nobody else had been half as prompt. I’d acted so quickly that in the split second while the bomb was whistling down I even had time to be afraid that it was all a mistake and I’d made a fool of myself for nothing.
But the next moment—ah!
A noise like the Day of Judgment, and then a noise like a ton of coal falling on to a sheet of tin. That was falling bricks. I seemed to kind of melt into the pavement. ‘It’s started,’ I thought. ‘I knew it! Old Hitler didn’t wait. Just sent his bombers across without warning.’
And yet here’s a peculiar thing. Even in the echo of that awful, deafening crash, which seemed to freeze me up from top to toe, I had time to think that there’s something grand about the bursting of a big projectile. What does it sound like? It’s hard to say, because what you hear is mixed up with what you’re frightened of. Mainly it gives you a vision of bursting metal. You seem to see great sheets of iron bursting open. But the peculiar thing is the feeling it gives you of being suddenly shoved up against reality. It’s like being woken up by somebody shying a bucket of water over you. You’re suddenly dragged out of your dreams by a clang of bursting metal, and it’s terrible, and it’s real.
There was a sound of screams and yells, and also of car brakes being suddenly jammed on. The second bomb which I was waiting for didn’t fall. I raised my head a little. On every side people seemed to be rushing round and screaming. A car was skidding diagonally across the road, I could hear a woman’s voice shrieking, ‘The Germans! The Germans!’ To the right I had a vague impression of a man’s round white face, rather like a wrinkled paper bag, looking down at me. He was kind of dithering:
‘What is it? What’s happened? What are they doing?’
‘It’s started,’ I said. ‘That was a bomb. Lie down.’
But still the second bomb didn’t fall. Another quarter of a minute or so, and I raised my head again. Some of the people were still rushing about, others were standing as if they’d been glued to the ground. From somewhere behind the houses a huge haze of dust had risen up, and through it a black jet of smoke was streaming upwards. And then I saw an extraordinary sight. At the other end of the market-place the High Street rises a little. And down this little hill a herd of pigs was galloping, a sort of huge flood of pig-faces. The next moment, of course, I saw what it was. It wasn’t pigs at all, it was only the schoolchildren in their gas-masks. I suppose they were bolting for some cellar where they’d been told to take cover in case of air-raids. At the back of them I could even make out a taller pig who was probably Miss Todgers. But I tell you for a moment they looked exactly like a herd of pigs.
I picked myself up and walked across the market-place. People were calming down already, and quite a little crowd had begun to flock towards the place where the bomb had dropped.
Oh, yes, you’re right, of course. It wasn’t a German aeroplane after all. The war hadn’t broken out. It was only an accident. The planes were flying over to do a bit of bombing practice—at any rate they were carrying bombs—and somebody had put his hands on the lever by mistake. I expect he got a good ticking off for it. By the time that the postmaster had rung up London to ask whether there was a war on, and been told that there wasn’t, everyone had grasped that it was an accident. But there’d been a space of time, something between a minute and five minutes, when several thousand people believed we were at war. A good job it didn’t last any longer. Another quarter of an hour and we’d have been lynching our first spy.
I followed the crowd. The bomb had dropped in a little side-street off the High Street, the one where Uncle Ezekiel used to have his shop. It wasn’t fifty yards from where the shop used to be. As I came round the corner I could hear voices murmuring ‘Oo-oo!’—a kind of awed noise, as if they were frightened and getting a big kick out of it. Luckily I got there a few minutes before the ambulance and the fire-engine, and in spite of the fifty people or so that had already collected I saw everything.
At first sight it looked as if the sky had been raining bricks and vegetables. There were cabbage leaves everywhere. The bomb had blown a greengrocer’s shop out of existence. The house to the right of it had part of its roof blown off, and the roof beams were on fire, and all the houses round had been more or less damaged and had their windows smashed. But what everyone was looking at was the house on the left. Its wall, the one that joined the greengrocer’s shop, was ripped off as neatly as if someone had done it with a knife. And what was extraordinary was that in the upstairs rooms nothing had been touched. It was just like looking into a doll’s house. Chests-of-drawers, bedroom chairs, faded wallpaper, a bed not yet made, and a jerry under the bed—all exactly as it had been lived in, except that one wall was gone. But the lower rooms had caught the force of the explosion. There was a frightful smashed-up mess of bricks, plaster, chair-legs, bits of a varnished dresser, rags of tablecloth, piles of broken plates, and chunks of a scullery sink. A jar of marmalade had rolled across the floor, leaving a long streak of marmalade behind, and running side by side with it there was a ribbon of blood. But in among the broken crockery there was lying a leg. Just a leg, with the trouser still on it and a black boot with a Wood-Milne rubber heel. This was what people were oo-ing and ah-ing at.
I had a good look at it and took it in. The blood was beginning to get mixed up with the marmalade. When the fire-engine arrived I cleared off to the George to pack my bag.
This finishes me with Lower Binfield, I thought. I’m going home. But as a matter of fact I didn’t shake the dust off my shoes and leave immediately. One never does. When anything like that happens, people always stand about and discuss it for hours. There wasn’t much work done in the old part of Lower Binfield that day, everyone was too busy talking about the bomb, what it sounded like and what they thought when they heard it. The barmaid at the George said it fair gave her the shudders. She said she’d never sleep sound in her bed again, and what did you expect, it just showed that with these here bombs you never knew. A woman had bitten off part of her tongue owing to the jump the explosion gave her. It turned out that whereas at our end of the town everyone had imagined it was a German air-raid, everyone at the other end had taken it for granted that it was an explosion at the stocking factory. Afterwards (I got this out of the newspaper) the Air Ministry sent a chap to inspect the damage, and issued a report saying that the effects of the bomb were ‘disappointing’. As a matter of fact it only killed three people, the greengrocer, Perrott his name was, and an old couple who lived next door. The woman wasn’t much smashed about, and they identified the old man by his boots, but they never found a trace of Perrott. Not even a trouser-button to read the burial service over.
In the afternoon I paid my bill and hooked it. I didn’t have much more than three quid left after I’d paid the bill. They know how to cut it out of you these dolled-up country hotels, and what with drinks and other odds and ends I’d been shying money about pretty freely. I left my new rod and the rest of the fishing tackle in my bedroom. Let ’em keep it. No use to me. It was merely a quid that I’d chucked down the drain to teach myself a lesson. And I’d learnt the lesson all right. Fat men of forty-five can’t go fishing. That kind of thing doesn’t happen any longer, it’s just a dream, there’ll be no more fishing this side of the grave.
It’s funny how things sink into you by degrees. What had I really felt when the bomb exploded? At the actual moment, of course, it scared the wits out of me, and when I saw the smashed-up house and the old man’s leg I’d had the kind of mild kick that you get from seeing a street-accident. Disgusting, of course. Quite enough to make me fed-up with this so-called holiday. But it hadn’t really made much impression.
But as I got clear of the outskirts of Lower Binfield and turned the car eastward, it all came back to me. You know how it is when you’re in a car alone. There’s something either in the hedges flying past you, or in the throb of the engine, that gets your thoughts running in a certain rhythm. You have the same feeling sometimes when you’re in the train. It’s a feeling of being able to see things in better perspective than usual. All kinds of things that I’d been doubtful about I felt certain about now. To begin with, I’d come to Lower Binfield with a question in my mind. What’s ahead of us? Is the game really up? Can we get back to the life we used to live, or is it gone for ever? Well, I’d had my answer. The old life’s finished, and to go back to Lower Binfield, you can’t put Jonah back into the whale. I knew, though I don’t expect you to follow my train of thought. And it was a queer thing I’d done coming here. All those years Lower Binfield had been tucked away somewhere or other in my mind, a sort of quiet corner that I could step back into when I felt like it, and finally I’d stepped back into it and found that it didn’t exist. I’d chucked a pineapple into my dreams, and lest there should be any mistake the Royal Air Force had followed up with five hundred pounds of T.N.T.
War is coming. 1941, they say. And there’ll be plenty of broken crockery, and little houses ripped open like packing-cases, and the guts of the chartered accountant’s clerk plastered over the piano that he’s buying on the never-never. But what does that kind of thing matter, anyway? I’ll tell you what my stay in Lower Binfield had taught me, and it was this. It’s all going to happen. All the things you’ve got at the back of your mind, the things you’re terrified of, the things that you tell yourself are just a nightmare or only happen in foreign countries. The bombs, the food-queues, the rubber truncheons, the barbed wire, the coloured shirts, the slogans, the enormous faces, the machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows. It’s all going to happen. I know it—at any rate, I knew it then. There’s no escape. Fight against it if you like, or look the other way and pretend not to notice, or grab your spanner and rush out to do a bit of face-smashing along with the others. But there’s no way out. It’s just something that’s got to happen.
I trod on the gas, and the old car whizzed up and down the little hills, and the cows and elm trees and fields of wheat rushed past till the engine was pretty nearly red-hot. I felt in much the same mood as I’d felt that day in January when I was coming down the Strand, the day I got my new false teeth. It was as though the power of prophecy had been given me. It seemed to me that I could see the whole of England, and all the people in it, and all the things that’ll happen to all of them. Sometimes, of course, even then, I had a doubt or two. The world is very large, that’s a thing you notice when you’re driving about in a car, and in a way it’s reassuring. Think of the enormous stretches of land you pass over when you cross a corner of a single English county. It’s like Siberia. And the fields and beech spinneys and farmhouses and churches, and the villages with their little grocers’ shops and the parish hall and the ducks walking across the green. Surely it’s too big to be changed? Bound to remain more or less the same. And presently I struck into outer London and followed the Uxbridge Road as far as Southall. Miles and miles of ugly houses, with people living dull decent lives inside them. And beyond it London stretching on and on, streets, squares, back-alleys, tenements, blocks of flats, pubs, fried-fish shops, picture-houses, on and on for twenty miles, and all the eight million people with their little private lives which they don’t want to have altered. The bombs aren’t made that could smash it out of existence. And the chaos of it! The privateness of all those lives! John Smith cutting out the football coupons, Bill Williams swapping stories in the barber’s. Mrs Jones coming home with the supper beer. Eight million of them! Surely they’ll manage somehow, bombs or no bombs, to keep on with the life that they’ve been used to?
Illusion! Baloney! It doesn’t matter how many of them there are, they’re all for it. The bad times are coming, and the streamlined men are coming too. What’s coming afterwards I don’t know, it hardly even interests me. I only know that if there’s anything you care a curse about, better say good-bye to it now, because everything you’ve ever known is going down, down, into the muck, with the machine-guns rattling all the time.
But when I got back to the suburb my mood suddenly changed.
It suddenly struck me—and it hadn’t even crossed my mind till that moment—that Hilda might really be ill after all.
That’s the effect of environment, you see. In Lower Binfield I’d taken it absolutely for granted that she wasn’t ill and was merely shamming in order to get me home. It had seemed natural at the time, I don’t know why. But as I drove into West Bletchley and the Hesperides Estate closed round me like a kind of red-brick prison, which is what it is, the ordinary habits of thought came back. I had this kind of Monday morning feeling when everything seems bleak and sensible. I saw what bloody rot it was, this business that I’d wasted the last five days on. Sneaking off to Lower Binfield to try and recover the past, and then, in the car coming home, thinking a lot of prophetic baloney about the future. The future! What’s the future got to do with chaps like you and me? Holding down our jobs—that’s our future. As for Hilda, even when the bombs are dropping she’ll be still thinking about the price of butter.
And suddenly I saw what a fool I’d been to think she’d do a thing like that. Of course the S.O.S. wasn’t a fake! As though she’d have the imagination! It was just the plain cold truth. She wasn’t shamming at all, she was really ill. And Gosh! at this moment she might be lying somewhere in ghastly pain, or even dead, for all I knew. The thought sent a most horrible pang of fright through me, a sort of dreadful cold feeling in my guts. I whizzed down Ellesmere Road at nearly forty miles an hour, and instead of taking the car to the lock-up garage as usual I stopped outside the house and jumped out.
So I’m fond of Hilda after all, you say! I don’t know exactly what you mean by fond. Are you fond of your own face? Probably not, but you can’t imagine yourself without it. It’s part of you. Well, that’s how I felt about Hilda. When things are going well I can’t stick the sight of her, but the thought that she might be dead or even in pain sent the shivers through me.
I fumbled with the key, got the door open, and the familiar smell of old mackintoshes hit me.
‘Hilda!’ I yelled. ‘Hilda!’
No answer. For a moment I was yelling ‘Hilda! Hilda!’ into utter silence, and some cold sweat started out on my backbone. Maybe they carted her away to hospital already—maybe there was a corpse lying upstairs in the empty house.
I started to dash up the stairs, but at the same moment the two kids, in their pyjamas, came out of their rooms on either side of the landing. It was eight or nine o’clock, I suppose—at any rate the light was just beginning to fail. Lorna hung over the banisters.
‘Oo, Daddy! Oo, it’s Daddy! Why have you come back today? Mummy said you weren’t coming till Friday.’
‘Where’s your mother?’ I said.
‘Mummy’s out. She went out with Mrs Wheeler. Why have you come home today, Daddy?’
‘Then your mother hasn’t been ill?’
‘No. Who said she’d been ill? Daddy! Have you been in Birmingham?’
‘Yes. Get back to bed, now. You’ll be catching cold.’
‘But where’s our presents, Daddy?’
‘The presents you’ve bought us from Birmingham.’
‘You’ll see them in the morning,’ I said.
‘Oo, Daddy! Can’t we see them tonight?’
‘No. Dry up. Get back to bed or I’ll wallop the pair of you.’
So she wasn’t ill after all. She had been shamming. And really I hardly knew whether to be glad or sorry. I turned back to the front door, which I’d left open, and there, as large as life, was Hilda coming up the garden path.
I looked at her as she came towards me in the last of the evening light. It was queer to think that less than three minutes earlier I’d been in the devil of a stew, with actual cold sweat on my backbone, at the thought that she might be dead. Well, she wasn’t dead, she was just as usual. Old Hilda with her thin shoulders and her anxious face, and the gas bill and the school-fees, and the mackintoshy smell and the office on Monday—all the bedrock facts that you invariably come back to, the eternal verities as old Porteous calls them. I could see that Hilda wasn’t in too good a temper. She darted me a little quick look, like she does sometimes when she’s got something on her mind, the kind of look some little thin animal, a weasel for instance, might give you. She didn’t seem surprised to see me back, however.
‘Oh, so you’re back already, are you?’ she said.
It seemed pretty obvious that I was back, and I didn’t answer. She didn’t make any move to kiss me.
‘There’s nothing for your supper,’ she went on promptly. That’s Hilda all over. Always manages to say something depressing the instant you set foot inside the house. ‘I wasn’t expecting you. You’ll just have to have bread and cheese—but I don’t think we’ve got any cheese.’
I followed her indoors, into the smell of mackintoshes. We went into the sitting-room. I shut the door and switched on the light. I meant to get my say in first, and I knew it would make things better if I took a strong line from the start.
‘Now’, I said, ‘what the bloody hell do you mean by playing that trick on me?’
She’d just laid her bag down on top of the radio, and for a moment she looked genuinely surprised.
‘What trick? What do you mean?’
‘Sending out that S.O.S.!’
‘What S.O.S.? What are you talking about, George?’
‘Are you trying to tell me you didn’t get them to send out an S.O.S. saying you were seriously ill?’
‘Of course I didn’t! How could I? I wasn’t ill. What would I do a thing like that for?’
I began to explain, but almost before I began I saw what had happened. It was all a mistake. I’d only heard the last few words of the S.O.S. and obviously it was some other Hilda Bowling. I suppose there’d be scores of Hilda Bowlings if you looked the name up in the directory. It just was the kind of dull stupid mistake that’s always happening. Hilda hadn’t even showed that little bit of imagination I’d credited her with. The sole interest in the whole affair had been the five minutes or so when I thought she was dead, and found that I cared after all. But that was over and done with. While I explained she was watching me, and I could see in her eye that there was trouble of some kind coming. And then she began questioning me in what I call her third-degree voice, which isn’t, as you might expect, angry and nagging, but quiet and kind of watchful.
‘So you heard this S.O.S. in the hotel at Birmingham?’
‘Yes. Last night, on the National Broadcast.’
‘When did you leave Birmingham, then?’
‘This morning, of course.’ (I’d planned out the journey in my mind, just in case there should be any need to lie my way out of it. Left at ten, lunch at Coventry, tea at Bedford—I’d got it all mapped out.)
‘So you thought last night I was seriously ill, and you didn’t even leave till this morning?’
‘But I tell you I didn’t think you were ill. Haven’t I explained? I thought it was just another of your tricks. It sounded a damn sight more likely.’
‘Then I’m rather surprised you left at all!’ she said with so much vinegar in her voice that I knew there was something more coming. But she went on more quietly: ‘So you left this morning, did you?’
‘Yes. I left about ten. I had lunch at Coventry—’
‘Then how do you account for this?’ she suddenly shot out at me, and in the same instant she ripped her bag open, took out a piece of paper, and held it out as if it had been a forged cheque, or something.
I felt as if someone had hit me a sock in the wind. I might have known it! She’d caught me after all. And there was the evidence, the dossier of the case. I didn’t even know what it was, except that it was something that proved I’d been off with a woman. All the stuffing went out of me. A moment earlier I’d been kind of bullying her, making out to be angry because I’d been dragged back from Birmingham for nothing, and now she’d suddenly turned the tables on me. You don’t have to tell me what I look like at that moment. I know. Guilt written all over me in big letters—I know. And I wasn’t even guilty! But it’s a matter of habit. I’m used to being in the wrong. For a hundred quid I couldn’t have kept the guilt out of my voice as I answered:
‘What do you mean? What’s that thing you’ve got there?’
‘You read it and you’ll see what it is.’
I took it. It was a letter from what seemed to be a firm of solicitors, and it was addressed from the same street as Rowbottom’s Hotel, I noticed.
‘Dear Madam,’ I read, ‘With reference to your letter of the 18th inst., we think there must be some mistake. Rowbottom’s Hotel was closed down two years ago and has been converted into a block of offices. No one answering the description of your husband has been here. Possibly—’
I didn’t read any further. Of course I saw it all in a flash. I’d been a little bit too clever and put my foot in it. There was just one faint ray of hope—young Saunders might have forgotten to post the letter I’d addressed from Rowbottom’s, in which case it was just possible I could brazen it out. But Hilda soon put the lid on that idea.
‘Well, George, you see what the letter says? The day you left here I wrote to Rowbottom’s Hotel—oh, just a little note, asking them whether you’d arrived there. And you see the answer I got! There isn’t even any such place as Rowbottom’s Hotel. And the same day, the very same post, I got your letter saying you were at the hotel. You got someone to post it for you, I suppose. That was your business in Birmingham!’
‘But look here, Hilda! You’ve got all this wrong. It isn’t what you think at all. You don’t understand.’
‘Oh, yes, I do, George. I understand perfectly.’
‘But look here, Hilda—’
Wasn’t any use, of course. It was a fair cop. I couldn’t even meet her eye. I turned and tried to make for the door.
‘I’ll have to take the car round to the garage,’ I said.
‘Oh, no George! You don’t get out of it like that. You’ll stay here and listen to what I’ve got to say, please.’
‘But, damn it! I’ve got to switch the lights on, haven’t I? It’s past lighting-up time. You don’t want us to get fined?’
At that she let me go, and I went out and switched the car lights on, but when I came back she was still standing there like a figure of doom, with the two letters, mine and the solicitor’s on the table in front of her. I’d got a little of my nerve back, and I had another try:
‘Listen, Hilda. You’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick about this business. I can explain the whole thing.’
‘I’m sure you could explain anything, George. The question is whether I’d believe you.’
‘But you’re just jumping to conclusions! What made you write to these hotel people, anyway?’
‘It was Mrs Wheeler’s idea. And a very good idea too, as it turned out.’
‘Oh, Mrs Wheeler, was it? So you don’t mind letting that blasted woman into our private affairs?’
‘She didn’t need any letting in. It was she who warned me what you were up to this week. Something seemed to tell her, she said. And she was right, you see. She knows all about you, George. She used to have a husband just like you.’
I looked at her. Her face had gone a kind of white under the surface, the way it does when she thinks of me with another woman. A woman. If only it had been true!
And Gosh! what I could see ahead of me! You know what it’s like. The weeks on end of ghastly nagging and sulking, and the catty remarks after you think peace has been signed, and the meals always late, and the kids wanting to know what it’s all about. But what really got me down was the kind of mental squalor, the kind of mental atmosphere in which the real reason why I’d gone to Lower Binfield wouldn’t even be conceivable. That was what chiefly struck me at the moment. If I spent a week explaining to Hilda why I’d been to Lower Binfield, she’d never understand. And who would understand, here in Ellesmere Road? Gosh! did I even understand myself? The whole thing seemed to be fading out of my mind. Why had I gone to Lower Binfield? Had I gone there? In this atmosphere it just seemed meaningless. Nothing’s real in Ellesmere Road except gas bills, school-fees, boiled cabbage, and the office on Monday.
One more try:
‘But look here, Hilda! I know what you think. But you’re absolutely wrong. I swear to you you’re wrong.’
‘Oh, no, George. If I was wrong why did you have to tell all those lies?’
No getting away from that, of course.
I took a pace or two up and down. The smell of old mackintoshes was very strong. Why had I run away like that? Why had I bothered about the future and the past, seeing that the future and the past don’t matter? Whatever motives I might have had, I could hardly remember them now. The old life in Lower Binfield, the war and the after-war, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, machine-guns, food-queues, rubber truncheons—it was fading out, all fading out. Nothing remained except a vulgar low-down row in a smell of old mackintoshes.
One last try:
‘Hilda! Just listen to me a minute. Look here, you don’t know where I’ve been all this week, do you?’
‘I don’t want to know where you’ve been. I know what you’ve been doing. That’s quite enough for me.’
‘But dash it—’
Quite useless, of course. She’d found me guilty and now she was going to tell me what she thought of me. That might take a couple of hours. And after that there was further trouble looming up, because presently it would occur to her to wonder where I’d got the money for this trip, and then she’d discover that I’d been holding out on her about the seventeen quid. Really there was no reason why this row shouldn’t go on till three in the morning. No use playing injured innocence any longer. All I wanted was the line of least resistance. And in my mind I ran over the three possibilities, which were:
A. To tell her what I’d really been doing and somehow make her believe me.
B. To pull the old gag about losing my memory.
C. To let her go on thinking it was a woman, and take my medicine.
But, damn it! I knew which it would have to be.