Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Blue in Greene

As Hargreaves came in, the rain dripping from his Burberry, the cracked bell from the churchtower behind the pub was sounding for Low Mass. He had often considered stepping through the door of the ugly redbrick church but, on the only occasion he had ventured as far as the threshold, the bell had brought to mind a moment from his schooldays, and he had retreated instead to the Red Lion.

It would do no good anyway, and the sausages in the Red Lion were excellent, even if the bitter was indifferent. Sometimes he drank the mild instead, but it was not much better. Besides, he did not really like mild.

“Hello, Lily,” he said, fumbling amongst the old tram tickets in his overcoat pocket for coins.

“The usual, dearie?” She smelled of soap and pork pies, and had already poured his half pint. “And what will it be today? A ham sandwich?”

“No, I think a pork pie,” he said.

“We’re clean out of them,” said Lily cheerfully. “I sold the last two to those gents there.” She waved vaguely towards the corner where Hargreaves usually sat.

There were seldom pork pies still to be had at ten past one, but Hargreaves never felt that he could leave the office until Jennings came back in.

Jennings usually took a girl from the typing pool to the Old Ship; she would come back, two ports and lemon later, but unmolested. Despite his sports car and his broad hints, Jennings seldom got anywhere very much, Hargreaves thought. The girls in the typing pool had fathers who were brigadiers, and brothers who were high up in the Treasury, or the FCO. They had bigger fish to fry.

“A ham sandwich, then,” he said. “Some crisps?”

“Cheese and onion do you, dearie?”

“Haven’t you any ready salted?”

“Fraid not, love.”

He seemed destined to be disappointed today.

“Oh, cheese and onion, I suppose.” He perched at the bar, self-consciously and uncomfortably, and took the newspaper from his briefcase, pulling it from between The Eagle – bought for Sam – and his copy of the Jerusalem Bible, with sections heavily underlined.

“Six and ninepence, dearie,” said Lily. He found that he had only five shillings and sixpence in his pocket.

“Haven’t you a friend who’ll cash you a cheque?”

“Yes, yes, I suppose so. Later, perhaps.”

“Never mind, love,” she said, unapologetically taking the coins he offered apologetically. “I know you. I’ll trust you.”

She knew him; she would trust him. He thought of his friends and colleagues, the stratagems they adopted.

The ease with which they dealt with one another, with tradesmen, with members of the Party, as easily as Sam, back at home near Woking (or as his wife insisted, near Guildford) played with the puppy. Would he trust himself? Did she know him?

He felt in his pocket for the broken plastic rosary that he had found in the street that morning. No one would want it now. Any pretence it had had of magic would surely have gone. And yet its owner had presumably hoped that this cheap piece of tat would put her (for some reason Hargreaves was sure it would have been a women) in touch with a world beyond this one. What a lot of nonsense it was.

It was like the office’s certainties and secure measures. No, it was like the Party’s diktats and chalked messages on trees. No, it was like the difficulties you had with your wife, her telling you to come home, and go easy on the J&B. No, it was like a cheap competition in a shoddy newspaper.

Where was it you could buy tickets to Central America?

If only my vacuum cleaner worked.