Down and Out in Paris and London

George Orwell


CHARLIE told us a good story one Saturday night in the bistro. Try and picture him—drunk, but sober enough to talk consecutively. He bangs on the zinc bar and yells for silence:

‘Silence, messieurs et dames—silence, I implore you! Listen to this story, that I am about to tell you. A memorable story, an instructive story, one of the souvenirs of a refined and civilized life. Silence, messieurs et dames!

‘It happened at a time when I was hard up. You know what that is like—how damnable, that a man of refinement should ever be in such a condition. My money had not come from home; I had pawned everything, and there was nothing open to me except to work, which is a thing I will not do. I was living with a girl at the time—Yvonne her name was—a great half-witted peasant girl like Azaya there, with yellow hair and fat legs. The two of us had eaten nothing in three days. Mon Dieu, what sufferings! The girl used to walk up and down the room with her hands on her belly, howling like a dog that she was dying of starvation. It was terrible.

‘But to a man of intelligence nothing is impossible. I propounded to myself the question, “What is the easiest way to get money without working?” And immediately the answer came: “To get money easily one must be a woman. Has not every woman something to sell?” And then, as I lay reflecting upon the things I should do if I were a woman, an idea came into my head. I remembered the Government maternity hospitals—you know the Government maternity hospitals? They are places where women who are enceinte are given meals free and no questions are asked. It is done to encourage childbearing. Any woman can go there and demand a meal, and she is given it immediately.

‘“Mon Dieu!” I thought, “if only I were a woman! I would eat at one of those places every day. Who can tell whether a woman is enceinte or not, without an examination?”

‘I turned to Yvonne. “Stop that insufferable bawling.” I said, “I have thought of a way to get food.”

‘“How?” she said.

‘“It is simple,” I said. “Go to the Government maternity hospital. Tell them you are enceinte and ask for food. They will give you a good meal and ask no questions.”

‘Yvonne was appalled. “Mais, mon Dieu,” she cried, “I am not enceinte!”

‘“Who cares?” I said. “That is easily remedied. What do you need except a cushion—two cushions if necessary? It is an inspiration from heaven, ma chère. Don’t waste it.”

‘Well, in the end I persuaded her, and then we borrowed a cushion and I got her ready and took her to the maternity hospital. They received her with open arms. They gave her cabbage soup, a ragoût of beef, a purée of potatoes, bread and cheese and beer, and all kinds of advice about her baby. Yvonne gorged till she almost burst her skin, and managed to slip some of the bread and cheese into her pocket for me. I took her there every day until I had money again. My intelligence had saved us.

‘Everything went well until a year later. I was with Yvonne again, and one day we were walking down the Boulevard Port Royal, near the barracks. Suddenly Yvonne’s mouth fell open, and she began turning red and white, and red again.

‘“Mon Dieu!” she cried, “look at that who is coming! It is the nurse who was in charge at the maternity hospital. I am ruined!”

‘“Quick!” I said, “run!” But it was too late. The nurse had recognized Yvonne, and she came straight up to us, smiling. She was a big fat woman with a gold pince-nez and red cheeks like the cheeks of an apple. A motherly, interfering kind of woman.

‘“I hope you are well, ma petite?” she said kindly. “And your baby, is he well too? Was it a boy, as you were hoping?”

‘Yvonne had begun trembling so hard that I had to grip her arm. “No,” she said at last.

‘“Ah, then, évidemment, it was a girl?”

‘Thereupon Yvonne, the idiot, lost her head completely. “No,” she actually said again!

‘The nurse was taken aback. “Comment!” she exclaimed, “neither a boy nor a girl! But how can that be?”

‘Figure to yourselves, messieurs et dames, it was a dangerous moment. Yvonne had turned the colour of a beetroot and she looked ready to burst into tears; another second and she would have confessed everything. Heaven knows what might have happened. But as for me, I had kept my head; I stepped in and saved the situation.

‘“It was twins,” I said calmly.

‘“Twins!” exclaimed the nurse. And she was so pleased that she took Yvonne by the shoulders and embraced her on both cheeks, publicly.

‘Yes, twins . . . ’

Down and Out in Paris and London    |    Chapter 19

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