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George Orwell > Coming up for Air > Part 4, Chapter 4

Coming up for Air

Part 4, Chapter 4

I drove back to the George, dumped the car in the garage, and had a
late cup of tea. As it was Sunday the bar wouldn't open for
another hour or two. In the cool of the evening I went out and
strolled up in the direction of the church.

I was just crossing the market-place when I noticed a woman walking
a little way ahead of me. As soon as I set eyes on her I had a
most peculiar feeling that I'd seen her somewhere before. You know
that feeling. I couldn't see her face, of course, and so far as
her back view went there was nothing I could identify and yet I
could have sworn I knew her.

She went up the High Street and turned down one of the side-streets
to the right, the one where Uncle Ezekiel used to have his shop. I
followed. I don't quite know why--partly curiosity, perhaps, and
partly as a kind of precaution. My first thought had been that
here at last was one of the people I'd known in the old days in
Lower Binfield, but almost at the same moment it struck me that it
was just as likely that she was someone from West Bletchley. In
that case I'd have to watch my step, because if she found out I was
here she'd probably split to Hilda. So I followed cautiously,
keeping at a safe distance and examining her back view as well as I
could. There was nothing striking about it. She was a tallish,
fattish woman, might have been forty or fifty, in a rather shabby
black dress. She'd no hat on, as though she'd just slipped out of
her house for a moment, and the way she walked gave you the
impression that her shoes were down at heel. All in all, she
looked a bit of a slut. And yet there was nothing to identify,
only that vague something which I knew I'd seen before. It was
something in her movements, perhaps. Presently she got to a little
sweet and paper shop, the kind of little shop that always keeps
open on a Sunday. The woman who kept it was standing in the
doorway, doing something to a stand of postcards. My woman stopped
to pass the time of day.

I stopped too, as soon as I could find a shop window which I could
pretend to be looking into. It was a plumber's and decorator's,
full of samples of wallpaper and bathroom fittings and things. By
this time I wasn't fifteen yards away from the other two. I could
hear their voices cooing away in one of those meaningless
conversations that women have when they're just passing the time of
day. 'Yes, that's jest about it. That's jest where it is. I said
to him myself, I said, "Well, what else do you expect?" I said. It
don't seem right, do it? But what's the use, you might as well
talk to a stone. It's a shame!' and so on and so forth. I was
getting warmer. Obviously my woman was a small shopkeeper's wife,
like the other. I was just wondering whether she mightn't be one
of the people I'd known in Lower Binfield after all, when she
turned almost towards me and I saw three-quarters of her face.
And Jesus Christ! It was Elsie!

Yes, it was Elsie. No chance of mistake. Elsie! That fat hag!

It gave me such a shock--not, mind you, seeing Elsie, but seeing
what she'd grown to be like--that for a moment things swam in front
of my eyes. The brass taps and ballstops and porcelain sinks and
things seemed to fade away into the distance, so that I both saw
them and didn't see them. Also for a moment I was in a deadly funk
that she might recognize me. But she'd looked bang in my face and
hadn't made any sign. A moment more, and she turned and went on.
Again I followed. It was dangerous, she might spot I was following
her, and that might start her wondering who I was, but I just had
to have another look at her. The fact was that she exercised a
kind of horrible fascination on me. In a manner of speaking I'd
been watching her before, but I watched her with quite different
eyes now.

It was horrible, and yet I got a kind of scientific kick out of
studying her back view. It's frightening, the things that twenty-
four years can do to a woman. Only twenty-four years, and the girl
I'd known, with her milky-white skin and red mouth and kind of
dull-gold hair, had turned into this great round-shouldered hag,
shambling along on twisted heels. It made me feel downright glad
I'm a man. No man ever goes to pieces quite so completely as that.
I'm fat, I grant you. I'm the wrong shape, if you like. But at
least I'm A shape. Elsie wasn't even particularly fat, she was
merely shapeless. Ghastly things had happened to her hips. As for
her waist, it had vanished. She was just a kind of soft lumpy
cylinder, like a bag of meal.

I followed her a long way, out of the old town and through a lot of
mean little streets I didn't know. Finally she turned in at the
doorway of another shop. By the way she went in, it was obviously
her own. I stopped for a moment outside the window. 'G. Cookson,
Confectioner and Tobacconist.' So Elsie was Mrs Cookson. It was
a mangy little shop, much like the other one where she'd stopped
before, but smaller and a lot more flyblown. Didn't seem to sell
anything except tobacco and the cheapest kinds of sweets. I
wondered what I could buy that would take a minute or two. Then I
saw a rack of cheap pipes in the window, and I went in. I had to
brace my nerve up a little before I did it, because there'd need to
be some hard lying if by any chance she recognized me.

She'd disappeared into the room behind the shop, but she came back
as I tapped on the counter. So we were face to face. Ah! no sign.
Didn't recognize me. Just looked at me the way they do. You know
the way small shopkeepers look at their customers--utter lack of

It was the first time I'd seen her full face, and though I half
expected what I saw, it gave me almost as big a shock as that first
moment when I'd recognized her. I suppose when you look at the
face of someone young, even of a child, you ought to be able to
foresee what it'll look like when it's old. It's all a question of
the shape of the bones. But if it had ever occurred to me, when I
was twenty and she was twenty-two, to wonder what Elsie would look
like at forty-seven, it wouldn't have crossed my mind that she
could ever look like THAT. The whole face had kind of sagged, as
if it had somehow been drawn downwards. Do you know that type of
middle-aged woman that has a face just like a bulldog? Great
underhung jaw, mouth turned down at the corners, eyes sunken, with
pouches underneath. Exactly like a bulldog. And yet it was the
same face, I'd have known it in a million. Her hair wasn't
completely grey, it was a kind of dirty colour, and there was much
less of it than there used to be. She didn't know me from Adam.
I was just a customer, a stranger, an uninteresting fat man. It's
queer what an inch or two of fat can do. I wondered whether I'd
changed even more than she had, or whether it was merely that she
wasn't expecting to see me, or whether--what was the likeliest of
all--she's simply forgotten my existence.

'Devening,' she said, in that listless way they have.

'I want a pipe,' I said flatly. 'A briar pipe.'

'A pipe. Now jest lemme see. I know we gossome pipes somewhere.
Now where did I--ah! 'Ere we are.'

She took a cardboard box full of pipes from somewhere under the
counter. How bad her accent had got! Or maybe I was just
imagining that, because my own standards had changed? But no, she
used to be so 'superior', all the girls at Lilywhite's were so
'superior', and she'd been a member of the vicar's Reading Circle.
I swear she never used to drop her aitches. It's queer how these
women go to pieces once they're married. I fiddled among the pipes
for a moment and pretended to look them over. Finally I said I'd
like one with an amber mouthpiece.

'Amber? I don't know as we got any--' she turned towards the back
of the shop and called: 'Ge-orge!'

So the other bloke's name was George too. A noise that sounded
something like 'Ur!' came from the back of the shop.

'Ge-orge! Where ju put that other box of pipes?'

George came in. He was a small stoutish chap, in shirtsleeves,
with a bald head and a big gingery-coloured soupstrainer moustache.
His jaw was working in a ruminative kind of way. Obviously he'd
been interrupted in the middle of his tea. The two of them started
poking round in search of the other box of pipes. It was about
five minutes before they ran it to earth behind some bottles of
sweets. It's wonderful, the amount of litter they manage to
accumulate in these frowsy little shops where the whole stock is
worth about fifty quid.

I watched old Elsie poking about among the litter and mumbling to
herself. Do you know the kind of shuffling, round-shouldered
movements of an old woman who's lost something? No use trying to
describe to you what I felt. A kind of cold, deadly desolate
feeling. You can't conceive it unless you've had it. All I can
say is, if there was a girl you used to care about twenty-five
years ago, go and have a look at her now. Then perhaps you'll know
what I felt.

But as a matter of fact, the thought that was chiefly in my mind
was how differently things turn out from what you expect. The
times I'd had with Elsie! The July nights under the chestnut
trees! Wouldn't you think it would leave some kind of after-effect
behind? Who'd have thought the time would ever come when there
would be just no feeling whatever between us? Here was I and here
was she, our bodies might be a yard apart, and we were just as much
strangers as though we'd never met. As for her, she didn't even
recognize me. If I told her who I was, very likely she wouldn't
remember. And if she did remember, what would she feel? Just
nothing. Probably wouldn't even be angry because I'd done the
dirty on her. It was as if the whole thing had never happened.

And on the other hand, who'd ever have foreseen that Elsie would
end up like this? She'd seemed the kind of girl who's bound to go
to the devil. I know there'd been at least one other man before I
had met her, and it's safe to bet there were others between me and
the second George. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that she'd had
a dozen altogether. I treated her badly, there's no question about
that, and many a time it had given me a bad half-hour. She'll end
up on the streets, I used to think, or stick her head in the gas
oven. And sometimes I felt I'd been a bit of a bastard, but other
times I reflected (what was true enough) that if it hadn't been me
it would have been somebody else. But you see the way things
happen, the kind of dull pointless way. How many women really end
up on the streets? A damn sight more end up at the mangle. She
hadn't gone to the bad, or to the good either. Just ended up like
everybody else, a fat old woman muddling about a frowsy little
shop, with a gingery-moustached George to call her own. Probably
got a string of kids as well. Mrs George Cookson. Lived respected
and died lamented--and might die this side of the bankruptcy-court,
if she was lucky.

They'd found the box of pipes. Of course there weren't any with
amber mouthpieces among them.

'I don't know as we got any amber ones just at present, sir. Not
amber. We gossome nice vulcanite ones.'

'I wanted an amber one,' I said.

'We gossome nice pipes 'ere.' She held one out. 'That's a nice
pipe, now. 'Alf a crown, that one is.'

I took it. Our fingers touched. No kick, no reaction. The body
doesn't remember. And I suppose you think I bought the pipe, just
for old sake's sake, to put half a crown in Elsie's pocket. But
not a bit of it. I didn't want the thing. I don't smoke a pipe.
I'd merely been making a pretext to come into the shop. I turned
it over in my fingers and then put it down on the counter.

'Doesn't matter, I'll leave it,' I said. 'Give me a small

Had to buy something, after all that fuss. George the second, or
maybe the third or fourth, routed out a packet of Players', still
munching away beneath his moustache. I could see he was sulky
because I'd dragged him away from his tea for nothing. But it
seemed too damn silly to waste half a crown. I cleared out and
that was the last I ever saw of Elsie.

I went back to the George and had dinner. Afterwards I went out
with some vague idea of going to the pictures, if they were open,
but instead I landed up in one of the big noisy pubs in the new
part of the town. There I ran into a couple of chaps from
Staffordshire who were travelling in hardware, and we got talking
about the state of trade, and playing darts and drinking Guinness.
By closing time they were both so boozed that I had to take them
home in a taxi, and I was a bit under the weather myself, and the
next morning I woke up with a worse head than ever.

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