SUMMARY: William before he died. PG13. Spoilers for "Fool for Love".
Written May 2002.
William wakes around seven, when the housemaid comes in with a jug of warm water. He gropes for his glasses on the bedside table and mutters a sleepy "Hallo." He doesn't want to get up: it's warm and comfortable in his bed and the house is cold even in summer. He stares blearily at the hazy strip of sun lying on the coverlet and tries to rouse himself into action. But why should he get up? It's only kedgeree for breakfast. Work will be dull. And he's still got that huge report to finish before he can... His legs swing out of the bed before he finishes the thought. Before I can go to the party tonight.
He performs his morning ablutions and then pours the warm water into a dish, peering at his reflection in the small mirror as he scrapes a razor over his face. There is just nothing he can do about his hair, he thinks, unless he gets time to go to the barber's. He could try and stick it down a bit, but he doesn't like the smell of macassar oil.
Downstairs he pokes a bit at his breakfast, drinks lukewarm tea and says good morning to his mother. Then he grabs his coat and his hat and sets off for the bus.
The omnibus is cramped and foul-smelling. The weather isn't nearly as good as it had looked---it's muggy and overcast, and he finds himself sweaty and uncomfortable in his clothes. Everyone else is dabbing at their foreheads with handkerchiefs and shuffling ripely. They peer at their shoes or sit reading religious tracts or the papers. William has a magazine which he can't seem to read. It has a mystery story in it (but he worked out the plot and probably the twist ending within a couple of paragraphs), some discussion of the elections (as if either Gladstone or Disraeli would make any sort of difference), and pieces of poetry. These last make him miserable, because they only point out to him just how bad his writing is.
But that's not going to matter, he tells himself. That's not the point.
He squeezes out of the bus fifteen minutes later and walks the last couple of streets to the office. He steps warily over the cobblestones, avoiding the more obvious piles of manure, refuses to buy either oranges or matches from a range of small, stick-brittle-thin girls, and dodges several thundering broughams. He's particularly careful, crossing the road: one time, coming home from work, he saw a man slip in the mud in front of a four-wheeler, and the man's head had just been crushed, caved in like a soft-boiled egg.
Mr Morton is sick, he's told, when he arrives at the office. Mr Morton is his immediate boss, not a bad man but a little too fond of his porter. He's probably not actually sick per se, just hungover, or still drunk from the night before after a binge at his club. This means that it will be Robinson looking over William's shoulder today, and isn't that just a joy to hear first thing in the morning? Robinson's a boor. And a cad. And a self-righteous bounder. And other things that William does actually know the words for but chooses not to recall.
"Mr Robinson, sir," he says, as he sits down at his desk.
"Late again, are we?" Robinson says.
"No, sir, it's not quite yet nine."
"Really? I think your watch must be broken. I'm going to record you as late."
William just tries to smile pleasantly and starts on his work, reminding himself just how good a job he has and how lucky he is to have it. But then his shoulders slump when he looks over the draft of his report.
He'd started out as a schoolmaster at one of the lesser prepartory schools, trying to instill an enthusiasm for Greek. His charges---well, they weren't all horrors, but they had blank little eyes and blank little stares and seemed to be interested only in Games. He couldn't blame them: it wasn't as if anyone else had tried to inspire them. Besides, he wasn't all that good at keeping discipline in class---a quick whack! across the palm and he left it at that. He knew that some of the older masters actually enjoyed beating the boys---it seemed to salve their own self-loathing---but William did not want to become one of them.
Still, sometimes the pupils tried anyone's patience. There was one whiny little boy who bullied the smaller kids and then pretended to the masters that he was the picked-on one: William could never understand why the other masters always fell for this ruse, which was, in his opinion, blindingly obvious . Once he came across this boy as he was breaking the finger of a newcomer, and William had just lost it, back-handed the little monster across his jaw. And then they had just stared at each other, the newcomer still wailing in pain on the floor. Because the little monster knew, and William knew, that no-one would believe this of the wet Greek master with the floppy hair, and that William could probably pick up the horror by the neck and smash him into the wall and still no-one would believe it. So the little monster (and he was little---did you enjoy that, William, beating a child?) had backed slowly away and slid out of the door.
After that, William had wanted a new job.
So here he is now, a valiant servant of the Queen, with a secure position and a good pension in the metropolis. Except that, just as he had once entertained notions of Shaping Young Minds and found himself Rearranging Young Faces, he finds that he is making his country a better nation through the taxation of imported wool. Jibes from Robinson about the Department of Woolly Thinking do not help him any.
And it's dull! Duller than ditchwater (not that he's ever gone to look) and he gets bored very easily. He has the concentration span of a gnat, he knows, and he thinks he only managed his degree because of his excellent memory. That's actually why he sticks to poetry as well, because he gets bored of writing prose after a couple of paragraphs. That is, if he can laughingly call himself a poet at all.
He doesn't understand why the words won't come to him. He really wants to be good at it and he tries very hard. Of course, in speech he stammers a bit when he's nervous, but in the right company he's very fluent. He can be lyrical, he can be witty. But as soon as he tries to put words down on the page, it's all about Doing the Right Thing and Using Proper Expression and Demonstrating Your Vocabulary. And it's a mess.
But he's persevered at poetry for years (so some part of his attention span isn't all that gnat-like) and he scribbles down bits of verse whenever he gets bored of wool. He fears that one day Robinson may notice and William may end up out on his ear, but it's become a compulsion.
Perhaps it's because he used to think of it as a way out. He, William, could become a famous writer, win respect and buy his way out of the life he was living. But he knows now that's not going to happen. So he suspects he writes these days because you ought to leave the world a better place than you found it, and he can't think of any other way he might do it. He's not going to go out on soapboxes because he finds politics depressing. He's not going to convert heathens because he's an agnostic. And he won't go and lecture the poor on morals and good hygiene because sometimes all he wants to say is "Life is terrible. Do what you want. We're not better than you, we've just got better-paid positions."
Because you only have to look at the people around the office: Morton's a drunk, Robinson's a low-life, and Pettifer has both his hands in the till. Levy's old and bitter because Church-of-England types like William get promoted instead. And Watley, well, Watley's worst vice appears to be philately, but William hasn't known him very long.
The strange thing is, no-one else seems to see this kind of thing. Morton thinks Robinson is simply a charming gentleman with a fine sense of humour. Pettifer laughs and calls Levy a "jolly old Jew". And Watley says of Morton, "Fellow's got an accent! Why does he keep slurring his words?" Are they all blind? If he could write any of this down, that would make a book and a half, but an unpleasant book, an unhappy one, the kind you wouldn't want to read, like something by Zola. Or maybe he should use this information, lean a little on Pettifer, drop hints to Robinson about that woman-not-his-wife-with- the-hat, and then see if a few cushier positions don't open up. But if he did that he'd lose the one quality in himself that he still values. He's a good man, and he won't do it.
He eats his lunch in a chophouse and tries to work on his poem. But it's no use and he keeps crossing half of it out. Besides, if she is what he thinks she is, she won't care. His dull job and his scruffy clothes just won't matter.
He spends his afternoon making half-hearted corrections to his report, thinking about Miss Cecily Addams. He met her through Robinson, which is in itself a bad sign, but he thought he saw something. Some sort of look in her eye, the faintest smile, that suggested to him that she saw the world and her surroundings as he did.
By six p.m. he hates wool more than he thought was humanly possible, but Robinson won't let him go home. The report has to be sent to the typing pool and William will have to correct it so that it can reach Liverpool by the Saturday post. He tries to beg off so he can at least go and get his hair cut, but no---Robinson's just not in a forgiving mood. He's blaming William for keeping them behind on a Friday night, which is when he likes to go for a tryst.
It's eight p.m.---eight p.m.!---before William escapes this circle of hell. The party's at nine and he wants to be a little early because the last time Cecily only showed up for the first half an hour and then retired to her room and he missed her entirely. But there's no way now that he can get home and get dressed first, before getting halfway across London to her house. So he hails a cab and checks the little money he has with him and is three streets away from the station before he realises that he has left his hat in the office. So now he's going to look like something the cat dragged in when he tries to woo a woman above his station. He thinks about calling it all off, just going home, hoping for another invitation another night. But if he goes home now, his mother will ask him how his evening has gone, and William will shout at her and possibly burst into tears and he doesn't want to do that. So he thinks he should be brave and hopeful and just get this over with.
The train is late. People try to sell him newspapers, lemon ices, pork pies and sexual favours, but does anyone try and sell him a new hat or a ticket out of wherever he is? By the time the train arrives, his mouth is dry and he's doing that nervous thing with his glasses where he keeps trying to push them up his nose. What if he's wrong about Cecily, he wonders, as the carriage floor shudders beneath him. What if his perspicacity has failed him and this---infatuation---is built out of nothing but sheer, sickening desperation? What will he do then?
He doesn't know.
He's hurrying now, across the evening streets, a few last streaks of sunlight slanting across his face. "Radiant," he mutters, "effulgent, luminious, illuminating, illuminated." Why can't he manage it? Just one beautiful line would be enough. What's wrong with him that he can barely get out of bed during the day or stand to look at himself in a mirror, when he knows that he does as best as he can? Why isn't that enough?
But he is at the mighty heart of the greatest empire that the world has ever known, and the air's too thick to breathe and the streets are sticky with manure. When he walks along the riverbank he has to gag at the smell; in parks he's beseiged by beggars and propositioned by whores. The beer's spiked with strychnine and the bread's laced with alum and the poor eat meat speckled with anthrax spores. And it's cheaper to buy the virginity of a twelve-year-old girl than a good hat.
And sometimes he thinks that he really should just give in, that if he sang the same old song as the city, became a part of it, danced to its mocking tune, then life would be easier, or at least more bearable.
But here he is, wiping the sweat from his palms and walking up to Cecily's door.
The butler greets him; he steps in.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
W.H. Auden, The Unknown Citizen
God save the Queen
The fascist regime