The room was nothing, which suited Blake. It was small without being cramped, bare without being mean and tasteless in that no taste, good, bad or bizarre had been used on its space. The divan, armchair, two straight-chairs and gate-leg table were simply the accumulation of cast-offs from other rooms. In contrast stood a dour Victorian desk-bureau; the property of a previous occupant who for the past three years had been daily expected to come and take the piece away. And yet, the décor’s disunity suited the room: there was nothing about any of it to elicit the smallest emotional investment from anyone who had not decided to die there. Blake had no such intention.
Blake was an acceptably plain-looking man barking his shins on the lower slopes of middle-age. He was married and had found the experience educational: akin to the Chinese water torture. However, the erosive drip of disapproval on the shale of his personality had eventually overcome his capacity for forming new psychological strata and he had disappeared. He had disappeared quickly. One surly-aired Sunday afternoon he knew that he would rather sleep in the street than ever again lie in the one bed with his wife, and he had gone and done so. And in parks, churchyards, loading bays and Underground trains. He did this partly as a penance and partly in reluctance to visit his rage on its cause, either in blows or invective.
He had found the room after a fortnight of fruitless lunch-hour phone calls and depressing tea-time interviews. It was above a shop on the corner of a court leading from one of the market streets that lie nervously adjacent to the Aldgate end of the City of London. This industrial-commercial slum, veined with council housing marginally less squalid than the remaining private dwellings, had an aura of ineradicable insecurity that spoke to Blake’s present condition. The shop defined the area both in its brightly shoddy merchandise and the contemptuous cynicism with which its young proprietor pandered to the waxing and waning ethnicities of the people who lived and worked nearby. In his prowling of the neighbourhood Blake often paused opposite a rambling 18th century dilapidation that had been built as a Huguenot church, had for many years been a synagogue and was presently a mosque. He drew an arid comfort from this building. He drew comfort from his walking generally. Blake’s current work was on a long-term building site near Saint Mary Axe and the room’s convenience to that had decided him to take it. But proximity had its own disadvantages. With no travelling to do and no urge to domestic regularity, Blake found the evenings long; especially during the first month that had come at the beginning of a dismal London spring. Blake had always fallen easily into patterns and one evolved now that consisted of his eating in one of the City cafes immediately he had finished work, and then walking. Sometimes he walked east into Whitechapel, Stepney and Limehouse; sometimes west through the City as far as Holborn borders; sometimes south into the docks or over the bridges to the Borough and Bermondsey, and, less often north into Shoreditch, Hoxton and St. Luke’s. He went this way least because he had lived in New North Road for most of his time London, knew the area well and found its associations unhappy. In the course of his walks Blake stopped in public houses. He would visit three or four in an evening, never having more than one pint in each. He never initiated a conversation and discouraged anyone inclined to start one with him. He was always polite and seldom went into the same house twice.
The Friday following the Spring Bank Holiday had been the first hot day of the year. After his work Blake walked through the artificial breezes that hectored around the Undershaft office blocks. He wandered left at the sooty edifice of St. Andrew’s and the dropping sun stroked his back. An unopened pay-packet caused his shirt to bounce stickily against his breast. His thighs and upper trunk felt heavy, as they always did at the end of the week. He passed the polished brass snout of Aldgate Pump and crossed to a café of plain, wooden spaciousness that he had found refreshing in the modern City. During his meal and three cups of black tea Blake lined fitfully through a fat, dog-eared paperback that had been almost forcibly loaned to him by a workmate who had seen him reading a book in a pub one lunch-time. Blake let the tea dregs slip back from his lips to the cup and rose to leave. The widowishly handsome Italian woman who took Blake’s money smiled at him and he acknowledged the smile with a left inclination of the head and a fluttery wink of the left eye. The charm of the smile lay in its own surprise at existing for a person like Blake.
“Thanks very much,” said Blake.
Blake stopped near St. Botolph’s and bought an Evening Standard. He looked at the upper right-hand of the front page.
“Have you not got a Closing?”
The vole-like paper-seller snatched the tabloid back, dug pettishly into his sheaf and whipped the later edition into Blake’s hand. As he walked between church and municipal railings Blake looked at the Stop-Press column and saw that a horse he had backed had finished second. He calculated his profit to be £1.22.
Blake closed the door of the room behind him. He scaled the paperback onto the top of the desk-bureau and sat on the wing of the armchair. He slowly slid back into the chair until he rested on the base of his spine and his left leg hung over the chair arm. His newspaper had a one word scare headline and he tried to read the story below it without getting past the second sentence. He twitched his jaw convulsively and rustled to the sports pages. He tried to study the field of an important handicap to be run the next day but the names and numbers ran into each other every few seconds. He raised his eyes and, avoiding the room itself, stared out through the window and at other windows across the roof of the single-storey extension at the back of the building. The flats showed small, frosted-glass lavatory windows and the factories’ dark windows with dust-furred grilles set into bricks the colour of dirty blood. After a few moments a woman stepped out onto the roof pulling a large hamper behind her. Through the riffling, gauzy curtain Blake recognized the woman as the mainspring female member of a three generation Bengali family who lived on the floor above him. With movements of languorous and economic function the woman hung out to dry a bewilderment of shirts, socks, underwear, denims, jibbas, tee-shirts, sari and turban cloths and market stall knitwear. In a setting of space and cleanliness the traditional stuffs would have been pleasing, but in the drabness of the court the bright secondary colours were made to seem garish. Blake remembered the shy, grave courtesy with which the woman and her husband always greeted him when they met on the stairs and his own brusque nods of acknowledgement. He continued to gaze out at the random of collages the drying garments made as they shimmied in the spring dusk that appeared to find the court early. Blake stretched and scratched and rubbed and shook himself, and decided that he did not wish to see the room by the illumination of the single bare bulb of the overhead light. He stood up, tucked the paper under his arm and let himself out.
The pub that stood closest to the court lay across Commercial Street and Blake had visited it once before. The general tone of the house was low, but a well-marked division existed between the saloon and the public bars. The saloon drew a handful of people whose connection with the area went back for more than a generation, some of the sportier market-men and a few of the newer merchants and small manufacturers who were sufficiently lapsed in their religious observances to drink. For reasons of social prejudice and economy Blake inclined to the public bar. Its clientele limped unsteadily back and forth over a line between labourers and derelicts. They tended to be preyed upon birds of passage from the fringes of old spheres of influence. Some had not been able to make the lump work for them. Some had found themselves dying slow, insane deaths on the stairways of omnibuses. To most of them a successful day meant enough work pushing barrows around the market to be able to afford a flagon of Strongbow to take to a churchyard. They were all unable to cope with life away from the moral certainties of their various islands. Blake sat among them with his customary unobtrusiveness, his paper open to a picture spread in the centre-pages. There were photographs of the aftermath of a horrific central London bombing. Blake, uncomfortable at the failure of the pictures to evoke any feeling in him, became aware of a third cloud of cigarette smoke ricocheting back at him from the open pages.
“Sorry, sonny. Diabolical isn’t it?”
She was a woman of perhaps 45, perhaps 55, whose face made no secret of endless private and public battles. She seemed to have fought most of them to a stalemate though she had obviously lost some big ones.
“Rough enough,” said Blake.
He folded the paper and offered it to the woman, saying, “I’m through with it anyway.” She took the paper with a perfunctory smile and reopened it to the pictures. She shook her head over a large photograph of three Scotland Yard bomb squad men.
“The sons a’ bitches,” she said, giving no indication whether she meant the policemen or the bombers. Blake looked at her hair and thought that dressed by talented hands, or even decently left alone, it might have been distinctive. Halfway between two Whitechapel permanents it was not. She wore a saffron dress under a dusty black coat. She had heavy stockings on well-shaped, hard used legs. These and her good shoes made Blake think improbably of dancing. He thought of dancing still more when the woman looked at him and he notice a quality of her eyes that made the cloudy rims of her green irises seem to reel out into their reddish whites and the world, and turn into a deeper green near her pupils and to some area private to herself. He wondered at the effect.
“I hate that,” said the woman. “They brought some of the poor people, you know, what d’ye, victims like, to the hospital after that one went off in the Tower. Poor children an’ all. Ah, it was on’y brutal.”
“Yeh, the London, where I work. Down Whitechapel.
“’Tis useful work,” said Blake.
“Ah, go ‘way, what d’ye take me for, a bleedin’ surgeon? I’m on’y a skivvy.” The woman poured out the last of a bottle of Guinness and Blake reckoned that that would go with her tatter of a brogue.
“A dirty hospital’s no use to anyone,” said Blake, anxious that she should not think him patronising. The woman laughed outright as she lit another cigarette. A head or two turned toward her, a vague resentment emanating from those whose mirth was usually sour or hysterical.
“You don’t know the half of it, sonny. I’m a cleaner for eighteen years and I’ll tell you a thing now: the human race has a mighty talent for leaving a mess behind them.” She rose and went to the bar. She turned suddenly and caught Blake, head cocked staring at her back.
“What’s that you’re drinkin’, sonny?
“No, no,” said Blake, half-rising, “I’ll get you one.”
“Go ‘way an’ leave that carry-on to the large brandy merchants over the half-crown side.”
Unreadily Blake smiled, both at her manner and at the anachronism of the phrase.
“Bitter, thanks,” he said, finishing the last inch of the pint in his hand. “I didn’t hear that expression for a long time.”
She jerked her head up. “Thanks be to God, there’s still some of us old enough to’ve drunk in shillin’s and pence. Cheers, sonny.”
He nodded back at her and sipped from the fresh pint as she settled into her seat, setting bottle and glass on the rickety, burn-scarred table in front of them. She filled out the glass, lit another cigarette and shrugged when Blake shook his head at the packet she offered him.
“You’re dead right there, sonny, a dirty hospital’s no use to anyone. You wouldn’t believe the filth if I told you. ‘Course a lot of them say it’s the coloureds fault.”
Blake didn’t say anything. There was nothing to say. As the woman’s face registered her distaste and she looked at Blake for an indication of his own attitude, she did not see a small, shrivel-mouthed drunk who was cringing over toward their table. “I hate that: workin’ people callin’ other workin’ people black bastards.” She now saw the drunk and scowled at him before he spoke. When he did speak it was in a broken whine, pathetic in its failure to be authoritative.
“Come here a minute, Oona,” said the drunk, “I’ve a message from Tommy.”
“G’way from me, y’ bowsey,” she growled at him.
“But I’ve a mess—“
“I want no message from you or from Tommy. I won’t hear any message. You feck off with yourself and leave me in peace.”
The drunk leaned over the table, looked with sidelong hostility at Blake and brought his scabbed and stubbled face closer to the woman. “But Tommy says—“
“Will you ever fuck off with what Tommy says, or, by Jesus, I’ll have you barred out here for good, so help me.”
The drunk grimaced, tried to give an impression of put upon good intent and then stumbled off muttering with abject truculence. With one last look of miserable anger at Blake, he banged out the door. A clumsily torn piece of cardboard that had been put into the door to cover a broken pane of glass dropped slightly at the impact. The woman looked at Blake’s troubled face.
“Don’t mind him,” she said as casually as she could manage. “They’re on’y a pair a’ messers that’re always botherin’ me.”
Blake shifted uncomfortably and the woman’s contrition grew that she had, even indirectly, caused his disquiet.
“Sure, don’t think of them,” she said, unthinkingly offering him the cigarette packet again. He shook his head again. “Tell us, where’s this you’re from?”
He continued to shake his head gently, paused, and then told her where he had been born. He was happy that she didn’t say, ‘sure, don’t I know it well’ or anything of that sort and they talked generally about Ireland for a while. Suddenly she said: “Come on, sonny, what am I, a German? Hold your corner.” Blake chuckled and went to the bar.
They sat for another two hours and Blake returned her round with interest. He told her that he had digs nearby and that he worked in the City, but did not elaborate. He did not ask her any questions but let her thoughts follow where her impressions led her. She was scandalous about several of the people in the saloon bar. She was contemptuous about the host of a quiz programme that wavered across the screen of the television above the bar: “Would you ever look at the great git, got up like a traffic signal with all the lights stuck on?” She brought her attention to an esoteric theory of greyhound handicapping and gave it as her opinion that either the bookmakers were in the pay of the government or vice versa. After buying a final round Blake left the woman talking happily to the barmaid and took a slow, roundabout walk back to the court. He did not turn on the room light but lay on the divan and smiled at the recollection of the woman’s talk. He resolved not to visit the pub again.
Three weeks later Blake turned the corner of Norton Folgate, walked down Folgate Street and turned again into Commercial Street. There was a cloying warmth in the early air following a light rain that had stopped not long after midnight and the broken road and market refuse were wet and greasy looking. He passed the Jack The Ripper, reached the corner of Fournier Street and Christ Church rose abruptly before him, its grey spire disappearing into a sky where clouds were beginning to break up in the rising wind. A late-night whelk stall stood in front of the church steps, its glare illuminating a decrepit sign reading Jesus Gives Real Peace. There was a milling crowd of nomads wandering dazedly in and out of the light. Oona sat by herself on the stone plinth of the church railings. She was too still to be drunk. She stared at the pavement, its oily footmarks, discarded ring-pulls and rain-run pigeon shit, her forehead propped on her finger-tips. She did not see Blake as he walked past. Blake continued walking for another 50 yards. He stopped at a corner and stared down Fashion Street. He smiled grimly, dragged a sigh up from his quaking abdomen and turned back.
The street light cast Blake’s shadow across the woman’s knees and she looked up. A film of strangeness and distrust formed over her odd green eyes, then dissolved and she grinned.
Her face was puffed on the right side and her right eye was discoloured. Both puffiness and discolouration would get worse. Blake looked at her without speaking. He took a key-ring from his pocket and began to twirl it back and forth on his right index-finger. The keys had jangled into his palm a half-dozen times when he tossed the bunch in the air and caught them.
“How’re keeping?” he asked
She closed her eyes, grazed her cheek with her fingers and winced slightly. “Diafeckin’bolical, sonny. On’y brutal.”
Blake looked off at the half-lit, half-mossed shapes in the churchyard beyond the locked railings and then lowered his head as she spoke: “Two of them there were, and that whooer.”
“Tommy?” said Blake.
“And that rats’ leavin’s Byrne. The great culchie t’ick. The two of them expectin’ me to make tea! Tea, d’ye mind, for them and that whooer. I tell you, sonny, I was never afraid to show a man I fancied him, but I was never a whooer, nor anyt’ing like it. ‘Put the kettle on,’ says he, the cheek of him in me own digs. I told him to take his scum of friends and feck off with himself – and got this for me trouble. And that piss-dregs Byrne eggin’ him on.” She threw an almost burnt-down match to the pavement and twined her hand and forearm around the paling. “The hell with them. They can have the poxy room. And the whooer. I slept by the river before this.”
“You can’t do that,” said Blake, a sharp image of cool, black, wharf-side dawn rising irresistibly within his mind. “If you need a few bob for a kip I could… Well, you needn’t—“
“No,” said the woman wearily, “you’d get nothin’ decent this hour anyway. I’d rather stop out.”
She avoided his eye, unnecessarily as he was looking up again at the huge, weather-streaked and brooding church. When he did look down at her again he saw her bruise the colour of a market plum that had lain in the street for a day and a night. Her lashes fluttered rather than blinked and he knew that in her emotional bone-fatigue she was as unable to refuse his reluctant chivalry as he was to keep from offering it.
“Come on then,” said Blake, “I’ll make you cup of tea then.” He twirled the key-ring a last time and thrust it, still on his finger, into his trouser pocket. He turned again and began walking. Oona hesitated long enough for it to take a dozen strides to come level with him. They said nothing and walked out of step. They did not touch at all as they passed from the shuttered market doorways and chipped, flaking-signed frontages of Spitalfields, by stacked barrows and disassembled stalls in Toynbee Street and into the court and the properly obscure door that led up to Blake’s room.
“I’ll go up first, there’s no light on the landing.”
Brash light smote the divan-bed, armchair, two straight chairs, gate-leg table and a dour Victorian desk-bureau: they were anonymous, spiritless and, to Blake, infinitely restful. He took Oona’s coat and hung it carefully in the clothes cupboard. He stood for a moment before her, wondering if he should shut the window. She put a hand up, palm over his ear and temple and, with long fingers, pressed gently the back of his head.
“It’s on’y that I kipped with him once, that didn’t mean I owed him anyt’ing.”
“I know about that,” said Blake, touching the hand upon his cheek,]. “Sit down there and I’ll make some tea.”
“Don’t trouble, sonny,” she said, sitting on the edge of the divan.
“No trouble. I’d want it myself anyway.” He went out leaving the tired woman looking down at the undulating toe of one of her good shoes.
In a narrow kitchenette of clean surfaces and filthy corners Blake plugged in the dull electric kettle, looked at it, unplugged it, emptied it, refilled it with fresh water and plugged it in again. He rinsed and wiped two mugs and put a tea bag in each. He borrowed the tea bags from the cache of the man who lived in the room next to his. Blake had never brought anything to eat or drink into the house. He decided to put milk and sugar on a tray with the mugs rather than guess about the woman’s preferences. The kettle hissed and shhhed. Blake stared out of the dark kitchen window at a composition of brick wall, another window, a drain-pipe and a chained-up bicycle, with clouds running through the upper corner of the frame. While the tea bags drew Blake wiped all the surfaces, rinsed out the cloth and dried his hands.
When Blake, carrying the tray, re-entered the room he looked at the woman. She had collapsed sideways on the divan, her hands hanging over the foot-end, her feet still on the floor. She breathed regularly and was profoundly asleep. Blake put the tray down gingerly on the top of the desk-bureau and turned out the light. He approached the bed, saw that the folded eiderdown was acting as a pillow and gently raised the woman’s red and flaccid legs onto the bed. He covered her with the sides of the top blanket. He sat in the armchair and looked at the dim squares of open window above the woman’s head. The curtain twisted and caught on itself in the continually rising wind and the panes whistled and creaked softly. Grey-scales of scud were quickening in their movements above the solid forms outside, and against the forms shook the dulled colours of the crazy commonwealth of drying clothes. After a long time Blake’s face shifted toward that of the sleeping woman. Her hair, loosened and straightened by sweat, exhaustion and neglect, shielded her face from the weak pallor beginning to come through the window. Her bruises were ugly but they were as bad as they were going to be. She curled herself more tightly and pulled a corner of the blanket down against her breast. She emitted a groaning sigh. Blake watched as her unconscious recuperation permeated the room. The cold tea sat on the desk-bureau and lines of tracery and curlicues came into relief in the wind-jumbled morning light. As he began to doze Blake tried to think of reasons why it had been abandoned. His sense of defeat rose as his sensibility waned. After so little time he had lost. This would never be the cell he had imagined: he had lost the space to a presence that would take any amount of emotional punishment and stay human, the calamitous courage intact. He saw the possibility of their being friends; being glad to see one another; of taking care in the impressions and conclusions that they drew from and about one another; of becoming involved in each other’s foolishness.
The morning was high, mild and calm when Blake awoke. The bedclothes were neat upon the divan and the tea-tray was gone. Large, callow brown eyes stared in at Blake. Behind the face that held them the Bengali woman was piling dried garments over her arm. As he smiled at the little girl the woman spoke sharply and the child darted away and through the roof-doorway. As the woman drew down the last of the laundry Blake heard steps scurrying above him and the slam of a door.
Blake had a new job in the West Midlands. He sat easily in a train that was a few minutes outside of Euston Station on its way to Coventry. All Blake’s possessions were in a valise that perched above his head. The backside of London passed by him: barely decipherable signs painted on slowly pulverising brick, haphazard allotments and small mausoleums of neglected motors, containers and machinery. Blake was soothed by the evidences of urban continuity and by the speed with which their corporeality disappeared. The door of the compartment opened and a large face full of defeated Irish friendliness looked in at Blake. The face peered over its right shoulder at wood, blinds and glass and then turned to its left shoulder, over which it rumbled something out into the corridor of the carriage. Both shoulders then turned obsequiously to right-angles with the compartment door and were passed by Oona and an over-steeled young woman who was obviously her daughter. The relations arranged themselves in three of the five empty seats.
“Are you all right, Mrs. M? the man asked, hoisting a carry-all onto the overhead rack. “Would you like anyt’ing, love? “ he said to the younger woman as, with an expression of avid disgust, she began leafing through a glossy magazine.
The man made tentative, tickish facial overtures which Blake ignored. Once Oona fleetingly allowed Blake’s frank gaze to hold her eye. In 94 miles she did not speak to him once.
NOTE: As certain internal clues will attest, this story was written over 30 years ago. It has never been published previously. BBC Radio Drama producer Pam Brighton – who had directed a play of mine called “Scattering Day” – was keen to use it for one of Radio 4’s short story slots but it was ultimately rejected by the then-Commissioning Editor Duncan Minshull on the grounds that the story was too gloomy. I leave it to readers – if any there be – to agree or disagree.