Keep the Aspidistra Flying


George Orwell

THIS woman business! What a bore it is! What a pity we can’t cut it right out, or at least be like the animals—minutes of ferocious lust and months of icy chastity. Take a cock pheasant, for example. He jumps up on the hens’ backs without so much as a with your leave or by your leave. And no sooner it is over than the whole subject is out of his mind. He hardly even notices his hens any longer; he ignores them, or simply pecks them if they come too near his food. He is not called upon to support his offspring, either. Lucky pheasant! How different from the lord of creation, always on the hop between his memory and his conscience!

Tonight Gordon wasn’t even pretending to do any work. He had gone out again immediately after supper. He walked southward, rather slowly, thinking about women. It was a mild, misty night, more like autumn than winter. This was Tuesday and he had four and fourpence left. He could go down to the Crichton if he chose. Doubtless Flaxman and his pals were already boozing there. But the Crichton, which had seemed like paradise when he had no money, bored and disgusted him when it was in his power to go there. He hated the stale, beery place, and the sights, sounds, smells, all so blatantly and offensively male. There were no women there; only the barmaid with her lewd smile which seemed to promise everything and promised nothing.

Women, women! The mist that hung motionless in the air turned the passers-by into ghosts at twenty yards’ distance; but in the little pools of light about the lamp-posts there were glimpses of girls’ faces. He thought of Rosemary, of women in general, and of Rosemary again. All afternoon he had been thinking of her. It was with a kind of resentment that he thought of her small, strong body, which he had never yet seen naked. How damned unfair it is that we are filled to the brim with these tormenting desires and then forbidden to satisfy them! Why should one, merely because one has no money, be deprived of that? It seems so natural, so necessary, so much a part of the inalienable rights of a human being. As he walked down the dark street, through the cold yet languorous air, there was a strangely hopeful feeling in his breast. He half believed that somewhere ahead in the darkness a woman’s body was waiting for him. But also he knew that no woman was waiting, not even Rosemary. It was eight days now since she had even written to him. The little beast! Eight whole days without writing! When she knew how much her letters meant to him! How manifest it was that she didn’t care for him any longer, that he was merely a nuisance to her with his poverty and his shabbiness and his everlasting pestering of her to say she loved him! Very likely she would never write again. She was sick of him—sick of him because he had no money. What else could you expect? He had no hold over her. No money, therefore no hold. In the last resort, what holds a woman to any man, except money?

A girl came down the pavement alone. He passed her in the light of the lamp-post. A working-class girl, eighteen years old it might be, hatless, with wildrose face. She turned her head quickly when she saw him looking at her. She dreaded to meet his eyes. Beneath the thin silky raincoat she was wearing, belted at the waist, her youthful flanks showed supple and trim. He could have turned and followed her, almost. But what was the use? She’d run away or call a policeman. My golden locks time hath to silver turned, he thought. He was thirty and moth-eaten. What woman worth having would ever look at him again?

This woman business! Perhaps you’d feel differently about it if you were married? But he had taken an oath against marriage long ago. Marriage is only a trap set for you by the money-god. You grab the bait; snap goes the trap; and there you are, chained by the leg to some ‘good’ job till they cart you to Kensal Green. And what a life! Licit sexual intercourse in the shade of the aspidistra. Pram-pushing and sneaky adulteries. And the wife finding you out and breaking the cut-glass whisky decanter over your head.

Nevertheless he perceived that in a way it is necessary to marry. If marriage is bad, the alternative is worse. For a moment he wished that he were married; he pined for the difficulty of it, the reality, the pain. And marriage must be indissoluble, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, till death do you part. The old Christian ideal—marriage tempered by adultery. Commit adultery if you must, but at any rate have the decency to call it adultery. None of that American soul-mate slop. Have your fun and then sneak home, juice of the forbidden fruit dripping from your whiskers, and take the consequences. Cut-glass whisky decanters broken over your head, nagging, burnt meals, children crying, clash and thunder of embattled mothers-in-law. Better that, perhaps, than horrible freedom? You’d know, at least, that it was real life that you were living.

But anyway, how can you marry on two quid a week? Money, money, always money! The devil of it is, that outside marriage, no decent relationship with a woman is possible. His mind moved backwards, over his ten years of adult life. The faces of women flowed through his memory. Ten or a dozen of them there had been. Tarts, also. Comme au long d’un cadavre un cadavre etendu. And even when they were not tarts it had been squalid, always squalid. Always it had started in a sort of cold-blooded wilfulness and ended in some mean, callous desertion. That, too, was money. Without money, you can’t be straightforward in your dealings with women. For without money, you can’t pick and choose, you’ve got to take what women you can get; and then, necessarily, you’ve got to break free of them. Constancy, like all other virtues, has got to be paid for in money. And the mere fact that he had rebelled against the money code and wouldn’t settle down in the prison of a ‘good’ job—a thing no woman will ever understand—had brought a quality of impermanence, of deception, into all his affairs with women. Abjuring money, he ought to have abjured women to. Serve the money-god, or do without women—those are the only alternatives. And both were equally impossible.

From the side-street just ahead, a shade of white light cut through the mist, and there was a bellowing of street hawkers. It was Luton Road, where they have the open-air market two evenings a week. Gordon turned to his left, into the market. He often came this way. The street was so crowded that you could only with difficulty thread your way down the cabbage-littered alley between the stalls. In the glare of hanging electric bulbs, the stuff on the stalls glowed with fine lurid colours—hacked, crimson chunks of meat, piles of oranges and green and white broccoli, stiff, glassy-eyed rabbits, live eels looping in enamel troughs, plucked fowls hanging in rows, sticking out their naked breasts like guardsmen naked on parade. Gordon’s spirits revived a little. He liked the noise, the bustle, the vitality. Whenever you see a street-market you know there’s hope for England yet. But even here he felt his solitude. Girls were thronging everywhere, in knots of four or five, prowling desirously about the stalls of cheap underwear and swapping backchat and screams of laughter with the youths who followed them. None had eyes for Gordon. He walked among them as though invisible, save that their bodies avoided him when he passed them. Ah, look there! Involuntarily he paused. Over a pile of art-silk undies on a stall, three girls were bending, intent, their faces close together—three youthful faces, flower-like in the harsh light, clustering side by side like a truss of blossom on a Sweet William or phlox. His heart stirred. No eyes for him, of course! One girl looked up. Ah! Hurriedly, with an offended air, she looked away again. A delicate flush like a wash of aquarelle flooded her face. The hard, sexual stare in his eyes had frightened her. They flee from me that sometime did me seek! He walked on. If only Rosemary were here! He forgave her now for not writing to him. He could forgive her anything, if only she were here. He knew how much she meant to him, because she alone of all women was willing to save him from the humiliation of his loneliness.

At this moment he looked up, and saw something that made his heart jump. He changed the focus of his eyes abruptly. For a moment he thought he was imagining it. But no! It was Rosemary!

She was coming down the alley between the stalls, twenty or thirty yards away. It was as though his desire had called her into being. She had not seen him yet. She came towards him, a small debonair figure, picking her way nimbly through the crowd and the muck underfoot, her face scarcely visible because of a flat black hat which she wore cocked down over her eyes like a Harrow boy’s straw hat. He started towards her and called her name.

‘Rosemary! Hi, Rosemary!’

A blue-aproned man thumbing codfish on a stall turned to stare at him. Rosemary did not hear him because of the din. He called again.

‘Rosemary! I say, Rosemary!’

They were only a few yards apart now. She started and looked up.

‘Gordon! What are you doing here?’

‘What are you doing here?’

‘I was coming to see you.’

‘But how did you know I was here?’

‘I didn’t. I always come this way. I get out of the tube at Camden Town.’

Rosemary sometimes came to see Gordon at Willowbed Road. Mrs Wisbeach would inform him sourly that ‘there was a young woman to see him’, and he would come downstairs and they would go out for a walk in the streets. Rosemary was never allowed indoors, not even into the hall. That was a rule of the house. You would have thought ‘young women’ were plague-rats by the way Mrs Wisbeach spoke of them. Gordon took Rosemary by the upper arm and made to pull her against him.

‘Rosemary! Oh, what a joy to see you again! I was so vilely lonely. Why didn’t you come before?’

She shook off his hand and stepped back out of his reach. Under her slanting hat-brim she gave him a glance that was intended to be angry.

‘Let me go, now! I’m very angry with you. I very nearly didn’t come after that beastly letter you sent me.’

‘What beastly letter?’

‘You know very well.’

‘No, I don’t. Oh, well, let’s get out of this. Somewhere where we can talk. This way.’

He took her arm, but she shook him off again, continuing however, to walk at his side. Her steps were quicker and shorter than his. And walking beside him she had the appearance of something extremely small, nimble, and young, as though he had had some lively little animal, a squirrel for instance, frisking at his side. In reality she was not very much smaller than Gordon, and only a few months younger. But no one would ever have described Rosemary as a spinster of nearly thirty, which in fact she was. She was a strong, agile girl, with stiff black hair, a small triangular face, and very pronounced eyebrows. It was one of those small, peaky faces, full of character, which one sees in sixteenth-century portraits. The first time you saw her take her hat off you got a surprise, for on her crown three white hairs glittered among the black ones like silver wires. It was typical of Rosemary that she never bothered to pull the white hairs out. She still thought of herself as a very young girl, and so did everybody else. Yet if you looked closely the marks of time were plain enough on her face.

Gordon walked more boldly with Rosemary at his side. He was proud of her. People were looking at her, and therefore at him as well. He was no longer invisible to women. As always, Rosemary was rather nicely dressed. It was a mystery how she did it on four pounds a week. He liked particularly the hat she was wearing—one of those flat felt hats which were then coming into fashion and which caricatured a clergyman’s shovel hat. There was something essentially frivolous about it. In some way difficult to be described, the angle at which it was cocked forward harmonized appealingly with the curve of Rosemary’s behind.

‘I like your hat,’ he said.

In spite of herself, a small smile flickered at the corner of her mouth.

‘It is rather nice,’ she said, giving the hat a little pat with her hand.

She was still pretending to be angry, however. She took care that their bodies should not touch. As soon as they had reached the end of the stalls and were in the main street she stopped and faced him sombrely.

‘What do you mean by writing me letters like that?’ she said.

‘Letters like what?’

‘Saying I’d broken your heart.’

‘So you have.’

‘It looks like it, doesn’t it!’

‘I don’t know. It certainly feels like it.’

The words were spoken half jokingly, and yet they made her look more closely at him—at his pale, wasted face, his uncut hair, his general down-at-heel, neglected appearance. Her heart softened instantly, and yet she frowned. Why won’t he take care of himself? was the thought in her mind. They had moved closer together. He took her by the shoulders. She let him do it, and, putting her small arms round him, squeezed him very hard, partly in affection, partly in exasperation.

‘Gordon, you are a miserable creature!’ she said.

‘Why am I a miserable creature?’

‘Why can’t you look after yourself properly? You’re a perfect scarecrow. Look at these awful old clothes you’re wearing!’

‘They’re suited to my station. One can’t dress decently on two quid a week, you know.’

‘But surely there’s no need to go about looking like a rag-bag? Look at this button on your coat, broken in half!’

She fingered the broken button, then suddenly lifted his discoloured Woolworth’s tie aside. In some feminine way she had divined that he had no buttons on his shirt.

‘Yes, again! Not a single button. You are awful, Gordon!’

‘I tell you I can’t be bothered with things like that. I’ve got a soul above buttons.’

‘But why not give them to me and let me sew them on for you? And, oh, Gordon! You haven’t even shaved today. How absolutely beastly of you. You might at least take the trouble to shave every morning.’

‘I can’t afford to shave every morning,’ he said perversely.

‘What do you mean, Gordon? It doesn’t cost money to shave, does it?’

‘Yes, it does. Everything costs money. Cleanness, decency, energy, self-respect—everything. It’s all money. Haven’t I told you that a million times?’

She squeezed his ribs again—she was surprisingly strong—and frowned up at him, studying his face as a mother looks at some peevish child of which she is unreasonably fond.

What a fool I am!’ she said.

‘In what way a fool?’

‘Because I’m so fond of you.’

‘Are you fond of me?’

‘Of course I am. You know I am. I adore you. It’s idiotic of me.’

‘Then come somewhere where it’s dark. I want to kiss you.’

‘Fancy being kissed by a man who hasn’t even shaved!’

‘Well, that’ll be a new experience for you.’

‘No, it won’t, Gordon. Not after knowing you for two years.’

‘Oh, well, come on, anyway.’

They found an almost dark alley between the backs of houses. All their lovemaking was done in such places. The only place where they could ever be private was the streets. He pressed her shoulders against the rough damp bricks of the wall. She turned her face readily up to his and clung to him with a sort of eager violent affection, like a child. And yet all the while, though they were body to body, it was as though there were a shield between them. She kissed him as a child might have done, because she knew that he expected to be kissed. It was always like this. Only at very rare moments could he awake in her the beginnings of physical desire; and these she seemed afterwards to forget, so that he always had to begin at the beginning over again. There was something defensive in the feeling of her small, shapely body. She longed to know the meaning of physical love, but also she dreaded it. It would destroy her youth, the youthful, sexless world in which she chose to live.

He parted his mouth from hers in order to speak to her.

‘Do you love me?’ he said.

‘Of course, silly. Why do you always ask me that?’

‘I like to hear you say it. Somehow I never feel sure of you till I’ve heard you say it.’

‘But why?’

‘Oh, well, you might have changed your mind. After all, I’m not exactly the answer to a maiden’s prayer. I’m thirty, and moth-eaten at that.’

‘Don’t be so absurd, Gordon! Anyone would think you were a hundred, to hear you talk. You know I’m the same age as you are.’

‘Yes, but not moth-eaten.’

She rubbed her cheek against his, feeling the roughness of his day-old beard. Their bellies were close together. He thought of the two years he had wanted her and never had her. With his lips almost against her ear he murmured:

‘Are you ever going to sleep with me?’

‘Yes, some day I will. Not now. Some day.’

‘It’s always “some day”. It’s been “some day” for two years now.’

‘I know. But I can’t help it.’

He pressed her back against the wall, pulled off the absurd flat hat, and buried his face in her hair. It was tormenting to be so close to her and all for nothing. He put a hand under her chin and lifted her small face up to his, trying to distinguish her features in the almost complete darkness.

‘Say you will, Rosemary. There’s a dear! Do!’

‘You know I’m going to some time.’

‘Yes, but not some time—now. I don’t mean this moment, but soon. When we get an opportunity. Say you will!’

‘I can’t. I can’t promise.’

‘Say “yes,” Rosemary. Please do!’


Still stroking her invisible face, he quoted:

‘Veuillez le dire donc selon Que vous estes benigne et doulche, Car ce doulx mot n’est pas si long Qu’il vous face mal en la bouche.’

‘What does that mean?’

He translated it.

‘I can’t, Gordon. I just can’t.’

‘Say “yes,” Rosemary, there’s a dear. Surely it’s as easy to say “yes” as “no”?’

‘No, it isn’t, it’s easy enough for you. You’re a man. It’s different for a woman.’

‘Say “yes,” Rosemary! “Yes”—it’s such an easy word. Go on, now; say it. “Yes!”’

‘Anyone would think you were teaching a parrot to talk, Gordon.’

‘Oh, damn! Don’t make jokes about it.’

It was not much use arguing. Presently they came out into the street and walked on, southward. Somehow, from Rosemary’s swift, neat movements, from her general air of a girl who knows how to look after herself and who yet treats life mainly as a joke, you could make a good guess at her upbringing and her mental background. She was the youngest child of one of those huge hungry families which still exist here and there in the middle classes. There had been fourteen children all told—the father was a country solicitor. Some of Rosemary’s sisters were married, some of them were schoolmistresses or running typing bureaux; the brothers were farming in Canada, on tea-plantations in Ceylon, in obscure regiments of the Indian Army. Like all women who have had an eventful girlhood, Rosemary wanted to remain a girl. That was why, sexually, she was so immature. She had kept late into life the high-spirited sexless atmosphere of a big family. Also she had absorbed into her very bones the code of fair play and live-and-let-live. She was profoundly magnanimous, quite incapable of spiritual bullying. From Gordon, whom she adored, she put up with almost anything. It was the measure of her magnanimity that never once, in the two years that she had known him, had she blamed him for not attempting to earn a proper living.

Gordon was aware of all this. But at the moment he was thinking of other things. In the pallid circles of light about the lamp-posts, beside Rosemary’s smaller, trimmer figure, he felt graceless, shabby, and dirty. He wished very much that he had shaved that morning. Furtively he put a hand into his pocket and felt his money, half afraid—it was a recurrent fear with him—that he might have dropped a coin. However, he could feel the milled edge of a form, his principal coin at the moment. Four and fourpence left. He couldn’t possibly take her out to supper, he reflected. They’d have to trail dismally up and down the streets, as usual, or at best go to a Lyons for a coffee. Bloody! How can you have any fun when you’ve got no money? He said broodingly:

‘Of course it all comes back to money.’

This remark came out of the blue. She looked up at him in surprise.

‘What do you mean, it all comes back to money?’

‘I mean the way nothing ever goes right in my life. It’s always money, money, money that’s at the bottom of everything. And especially between me and you. That’s why you don’t really love me. There’s a sort of film of money between us. I can feel it every time I kiss you.’

‘Money! What has money got to do with it, Gordon?’

‘Money’s got to do with everything. If I had more money you’d love me more.’

‘Of course, I wouldn’t! Why should I?’

‘You couldn’t help it. Don’t you see that if I had more money I’d be more worth loving? Look at me now! Look at my face, look at these clothes I’m wearing, look at everything else about me. Do you suppose I’d be like that if I had two thousand a year? If I had more money I should be a different person.’

‘If you were a different person I shouldn’t love you.’

‘That’s nonsense, too. But look at it like this. If we were married would you sleep with me?’

‘What questions you do ask! Of course I would. Otherwise, where would be the sense of being married?’

‘Well then, suppose I was decently well off, would you marry me?’

‘What’s the good of talking about it, Gordon? You know we can’t afford to marry.’

‘Yes, but if we could. Would you?’

‘I don’t know. Yes, I would, I dare say.’

‘There you are, then! That’s what I said—money!’

‘No, Gordon, no! That’s not fair! You’re twisting my words round.’

‘No, I’m not. You’ve got this money-business at the bottom of your heart. Every woman’s got it. You wish I was in a good job now, don’t you?’

‘Not in the way you mean it. I’d like you to be earning more money—yes.’

‘And you think I ought to have stayed on at the New Albion, don’t you? You’d like me to go back there now and write slogans for Q. T. Sauce and Truweet Breakfast Crisps. Wouldn’t you?’

‘No, I wouldn’t. I never said that.’

‘You thought it, though. It’s what any woman would think.’

He was being horribly unfair, and he knew it. The one thing Rosemary had never said, the thing she was probably quite incapable of saying, was that he ought to go back to the New Albion. But for the moment he did not even want to be fair. His sexual disappointment still pricked him. With a sort of melancholy triumph he reflected that, after all, he was right. It was money that stood between them. Money, money, all is money! He broke into a half-serious tirade:

‘Women! What nonsense they make of all our ideas! Because one can’t keep free of women, and every woman makes one pay the same price. “Chuck away your decency and make more money”—that’s what women say. “Chuck away your decency, suck the blacking off the boss’s boots, and buy me a better fur coat than the woman next door.” Every man you can see has got some blasted woman hanging round his neck like a mermaid, dragging him down and down—down to some beastly little semi-detached villa in Putney, with hire-purchase furniture and a portable radio and an aspidistra in the window. It’s women who make all progress impossible. Not that I believe in progress,’ he added rather unsatisfactorily.

‘What absolute nonsense you do talk, Gordon! As though women were to blame for everything!’

‘They are to blame, finally. Because it’s the women who really believe in the money-code. The men obey it; they have to, but they don’t believe in it. It’s the women who keep it going. The women and their Putney villas and their fur coats and their babies and their aspidistras.’

‘It is not the women, Gordon! Women didn’t invent money, did they?’

‘It doesn’t matter who invented it, the point is that it’s women who worship it. A woman’s got a sort of mystical feeling towards money. Good and evil in a women’s mind mean simply money and no money. Look at you and me. You won’t sleep with me, simply and solely because I’ve got no money. Yes, that is the reason. (He squeezed her arm to silence her.) You admitted it only a minute ago. And if I had a decent income you’d go to bed with me tomorrow. It’s not because you’re mercenary. You don’t want me to pay you for sleeping with me. It’s not so crude as that. But you’ve got that deep-down mystical feeling that somehow a man without money isn’t worthy of you. He’s a weakling, a sort of half-man—that’s how you feel. Hercules, god of strength and god of money—you’ll find that in Lempriere. It’s women who keep all mythologies going. Women!’

‘Women!’ echoed Rosemary on a different note. ‘I hate the way men are always talking about women. “Women do this,” and “women do that”—as though all women were exactly the same!’

‘Of course all women are the same! What does any woman want except a safe income and two babies and a semi-detached villa in Putney with an aspidistra in the window?’

‘Oh, you and your aspidistras!’

‘On the contrary, your aspidistras. You’re the sex that cultivates them.’

She squeezed his arm and burst out laughing. She was really extraordinarily good-natured. Besides, what he was saying was such palpable nonsense that it did not even exasperate her. Gordon’s diatribes against women were in reality a kind of perverse joke; indeed, the whole sex-war is at bottom only a joke. For the same reason it is great fun to pose as a feminist or an anti-feminist according to your sex. As they walked on they began a violent argument upon the eternal and idiotic question of Man versus Woman. The moves in this argument—for they had it as often as they met— were always very much the same. Men are brutes and women are soulless, and women have always been kept in subjection and they jolly well ought to be kept in subjection, and look at Patient Griselda and look at Lady Astor, and what about polygamy and Hindu widows, and what about Mother Pankhurst’s piping days when every decent woman wore mousetraps on her garters and couldn’t look at a man without feeling her right hand itch for a castrating knife? Gordon and Rosemary never grew tired of this kind of thing. Each laughed with delight at the other’s absurdities. There was a merry war between them. Even as they disputed, arm in arm, they pressed their bodies delightedly together. They were very happy. Indeed, they adored one another. Each was to the other a standing joke and an object infinitely precious. Presently a red and blue haze of Neon lights appeared in the distance. They had reached the beginning of the Tottenham Court Road. Gordon put his arm round her waist and turned her to the right, down a darkish side-street. They were so happy together that they had got to kiss. They stood clasped together under the lamp-post, still laughing, two enemies breast to breast. She rubbed her cheek against his.

‘Gordon, you are such a dear old ass! I can’t help loving you, scrubby jaw and all.’

‘Do you really?’

‘Really and truly.’

Her arms still round him, she leaned a little backwards, pressing her belly against his with a sort of innocent voluptuousness.

‘Life is worth living, isn’t it, Gordon?’


‘If only we could meet a bit oftener! Sometimes I don’t see you for weeks.’

‘I know. It’s bloody. If you knew how I hate my evenings alone!’

‘One never seems to have time for anything. I don’t even leave that beastly office till nearly seven. What do you do with yourself on Sundays, Gordon?’

‘Oh, God! Moon about and look miserable, like everyone else.’

‘Why not let’s go out for a walk in the country sometimes. Then we would have all day together. Next Sunday, for instance?’

The words chilled him. They brought back the thought of money, which he had succeeded in putting out of his mind for half an hour past. A trip into the country would cost money, far more than he could possibly afford. He said in a non-committal tone that transferred the whole thing to the realm of abstraction:

‘Of course, it’s not too bad in Richmond Park on Sundays. Or even Hampstead Heath. Especially if you go in the mornings before the crowds get there.’

‘Oh, but do let’s go right out into the country! Somewhere in Surrey, for instance, or to Burnham Beeches. It’s so lovely at this time of year, with all the dead leaves on the ground, and you can walk all day and hardly meet a soul. We’ll walk for miles and miles and have dinner at a pub. It would be such fun. Do let’s!’

Blast! The money-business was coming back. A trip even as far as Burnham Beeches would cost all of ten bob. He did some hurried arithmetic. Five bob he might manage, and Julia would ‘lend’ him five; give him five, that was. At the same moment he remembered his oath, constantly renewed and always broken, not to ‘borrow’ money off Julia. He said in the same casual tone as before:

‘It would be rather fun. I should think we might manage it. I’ll let you know later in the week, anyway.’

They came out of the side-street, still arm in arm. There was a pub on the corner. Rosemary stood on tiptoe, and, clinging to Gordon’s arm to support herself, managed to look over the frosted lower half of the window.

‘Look, Gordon, there’s a clock in there. It’s nearly half past nine. Aren’t you getting frightfully hungry?’

‘No,’ he said instantly and untruthfully.

‘I am. I’m simply starving. Let’s go and have something to eat somewhere.’ Money again! One moment more, and he must confess that he had only four and fourpence in the world—four and fourpence to last till Friday.

‘I couldn’t eat anything,’ he said. ‘I might manage a drink, I dare say. Let’s go and have some coffee or something. I expect we’ll find a Lyons open.’

‘Oh, don’t let’s go to a Lyons! I know such a nice little Italian restaurant, only just down the road. We’ll have Spaghetti Napolitaine and a bottle of red wine. I adore spaghetti. Do let’s!’

His heart sank. It was no good. He would have to own up. Supper at the Italian Restaurant could not possibly cost less than five bob for the two of them. He said almost sullenly:

‘It’s about time I was getting home, as a matter of fact.’

‘Oh, Gordon! Already? Why?’

‘Oh, well! If you must know, I’ve only got four and fourpence in the world. And it’s got to last till Friday.’

Rosemary stopped short. She was so angry that she pinched his arm with all her strength, meaning to hurt him and punish him.

‘Gordon, you are an ass! You’re a perfect idiot! You’re the most unspeakable idiot I’ve ever seen!’

‘Why am I an idiot?’

‘Because what does it matter whether you’ve got any money! I’m asking you to have supper with me.’

He freed his arm from hers and stood away from her. He did not want to look her in the face.

‘What! Do you think I’d go to a restaurant and let you pay for my food?’

‘But why not?’

‘Because one can’t do that sort of thing. It isn’t done.’

‘It “isn’t done”! You’ll be saying it’s “not cricket” in another moment. What “isn’t done”?’

‘Letting you pay for my meals. A man pays for a woman, a woman doesn’t pay for a man.’

‘Oh, Gordon! Are we living in the reign of Queen Victoria?’

‘Yes, we are, as far as that kind of thing’s concerned. Ideas don’t change so quickly.’

‘But my ideas have changed.’

‘No, they haven’t. You think they have, but they haven’t. You’ve been brought up as a woman, and you can’t help behaving like a woman, however much you don’t want to.’

‘But what do you mean by behaving like a woman, anyway?’

‘I tell you every woman’s the same when it comes to a thing like this. A woman despises a man who’s dependent on her and sponges on her. She may say she doesn’t, she may think she doesn’t, but she does. She can’t help it. If I let you pay for my meals you’d despise me.’

He had turned away. He knew how abominably he was behaving. But somehow he had got to say these things. The feeling that people— even Rosemary—must despise him for his poverty was too strong to be overcome. Only by rigid, jealous independence could he keep his self-respect. Rosemary was really distressed this time. She caught his arm and pulled him round, making him face her. With an insistent gesture, angrily and yet demanding to be loved, she pressed her breast against him.

‘Gordon! I won’t let you say such things. How can you say I’d ever despise you?’

‘I tell you you couldn’t help it if I let myself sponge on you.’

‘Sponge on me! What expressions you do use! How is it sponging on me to let me pay for your supper just for once!’

He could feel the small breasts, firm and round, just beneath his own. She looked up at him, frowning and yet not far from tears. She thought him perverse, unreasonable, cruel. But her physical nearness distracted him. At this moment all he could remember was that in two years she had never yielded to him. She had starved him of the one thing that mattered. What was the good of pretending that she loved him when in the last essential she recoiled? He added with a kind of deadly joy:

‘In a way you do despise me. Oh, yes, I know you’re fond of me. But after all, you can’t take me quite seriously. I’m a kind of joke to you. You’re fond of me, and yet I’m not quite your equal— that’s how you feel.’

It was what he had said before, but with this difference, that now he meant it, or said it as if he meant it. She cried out with tears in her voice:

‘I don’t, Gordon, I don’t! You know I don’t!’

‘You do. That’s why you won’t sleep with me. Didn’t I tell you that before?’

She looked up at him an instant longer, and then buried her face in his breast as suddenly as though ducking from a blow. It was because she had burst into tears. She wept against his breast, angry with him, hating him, and yet clinging to him like a child. It was the childish way in which she clung to him, as a mere male breast to weep on, that hurt him most. With a sort of self-hatred he remembered the other women who in just the same way had cried against his breast. It seemed the only thing he could do with women, to make them cry. With his arm round her shoulders he caressed her clumsily, trying to console her.

‘You’ve gone and made me cry!’ she whimpered in self-contempt.

‘I’m sorry! Rosemary, dear one! Don’t cry, please don’t cry.’

‘Gordon, dearest! Why do you have to be so beastly to me?’

‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry! Sometimes I can’t help it.’

‘But why? Why?’

She had got over her crying. Rather more composed, she drew away from him and felt for something to wipe her eyes. Neither of them had a handkerchief. Impatiently, she wrung the tears out of her eyes with her knuckles.

‘How silly we always are! Now, Gordon, be nice for once. Come along to the restaurant and have some supper and let me pay for it.’


‘Just this once. Never mind about the old money-business. Do it just to please me.’

‘I tell you I can’t do that kind of thing. I’ve got to keep my end up.’

‘But what do you mean, keep your end up?’

‘I’ve made a war on money, and I’ve got to keep the rules. The first rule is never to take charity.’

‘Charity! Oh, Gordon, I do think you’re silly!’

She squeezed his ribs again. It was a sign of peace. She did not understand him, probably never would understand him; yet she accepted him as he was, hardly even protesting against his unreasonableness. As she put her face up to be kissed he noticed that her lips were salt. A tear had trickled here. He strained her against him. The hard defensive feeling had gone out of her body. She shut her eyes and sank against him and into him as though her bones had grown weak, and her lips parted and her small tongue sought for his. It was very seldom that she did that. And suddenly, as he felt her body yielding, he seemed to know with certainty that their struggle was ended. She was his now when he chose to take her, and yet perhaps she did not fully understand what it was that she was offering; it was simply an instinctive movement of generosity, a desire to reassure him—to smooth away that hateful feeling of being unloveable and unloved. She said nothing of this in words. It was the feeling of her body that seemed to say it. But even if this had been the time and the place he could not have taken her. At this moment he loved her but did not desire her. His desire could only return at some future time when there was no quarrel fresh in his mind and no consciousness of four and fourpence in his pocket to daunt him.

Presently they separated their mouths, though still clinging closely together.

‘How stupid it is, the way we quarrel, isn’t it Gordon? When we meet so seldom.’

‘I know. It’s all my fault. I can’t help it. Things rub me up. It’s money at the bottom of it, always money.’

‘Oh, money! You let it worry you too much, Gordon.’

‘Impossible. It’s the only thing worth worrying about.’

‘But, anyway, we will go out into the country next Sunday, won’t we? To Burnham Beeches or somewhere. It would be so nice if we could.’

‘Yes, I’d love to. We’ll go early and be out all day. I’ll raise the train fares somehow.’

‘But you’ll let me pay my own fare, won’t you?’

‘No, I’d rather I paid them, but we’ll go, anyway.’

‘And you really won’t let me pay for your supper—just this once, just to show you trust me?’

‘No, I can’t. I’m sorry. I’ve told you why.’

‘Oh, dear! I suppose we shall have to say good night. It’s getting late.’

They stayed talking a long time, however, so long that Rosemary got no supper after all. She had to be back at her lodgings by eleven, or the she-dragons were angry. Gordon went to the top of the Tottenham Court Road and took the tram. It was a penny cheaper than taking the bus. On the wooden seat upstairs he was wedged against a small dirty Scotchman who read the football finals and oozed beer. Gordon was very happy. Rosemary was going to be his mistress. Sharply the menacing wind sweeps over. To the music of the tram’s booming he whispered the seven completed stanzas of his poem. Nine stanzas there would be in all. It was good. He believed in it and in himself. He was a poet. Gordon Comstock, author of Mice. Even in London Pleasures he once again believed.

He thought of Sunday. They were to meet at nine o’clock at Paddington Station. Ten bob or so it would cost; he would raise the money if he had to pawn his shirt. And she was going to become his mistress; this very Sunday, perhaps, if the right chance offered itself. Nothing had been said. Only, somehow, it was agreed between them.

Please God it kept fine on Sunday! It was deep winter now. What luck if it turned out one of those splendid windless days—one of those days that might almost be summer, when you can lie for hours on the dead bracken and never feel cold! But you don’t get many days like that; a dozen at most in every winter. As likely as not it would rain. He wondered whether they would get a chance to do it after all. They had nowhere to go, except the open air. There are so many pairs of lovers in London with ‘nowhere to go’; only the streets and the parks, where there is no privacy and it is always cold. It is not easy to make love in a cold climate when you have no money. The ‘never the time and the place’ motif is not made enough of in novels.

Keep The Aspidistra Flying    |    7

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