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George Orwell > Coming up for Air > Part 4, Chapter 5

Coming up for Air

Part 4, Chapter 5

But I had to see the pool at Binfield House.

I felt really bad that morning. The fact was that ever since I
struck Lower Binfield I'd been drinking almost continuously from
every opening time to every closing time. The reason, though it
hadn't occurred to me till this minute, was that really there'd
been nothing else to do. That was all my trip had amounted to so
far--three days on the booze.

The same as the other morning, I crawled over to the window and
watched the bowler hats and school caps hustling to and fro. My
enemies, I thought. The conquering army that's sacked the town and
covered the ruins with fag-ends and paper bags. I wondered why I
cared. You think, I dare say, that if it had given me a jolt to
find Lower Binfield swollen into a kind of Dagenham, it was merely
because I don't like to see the earth getting fuller and country
turning into town. But it isn't that at all. I don't mind towns
growing, so long as they do grow and don't merely spread like gravy
over a tablecloth. I know that people have got to have somewhere
to live, and that if a factory isn't in one place it'll be in
another. As for the picturesqueness, the sham countrified stuff,
the oak panels and pewter dishes and copper warming-pans and what-
not, it merely gives me the sick. Whatever we were in the old
days, we weren't picturesque. Mother would never have seen any
sense in the antiques that Wendy had filled our house with. She
didn't like gateleg tables--she said they 'caught your legs'. As
for pewter, she wouldn't have it in the house. 'Nasty greasy
stuff', she called it. And yet, say what you like, there was
something that we had in those days and haven't got now, something
that you probably can't have in a streamlined milk-bar with the
radio playing. I'd come back to look for it, and I hadn't found
it. And yet somehow I half believe in it even now, when I hadn't
yet got my teeth in and my belly was crying out for an aspirin and
a cup of tea.

And that started me thinking again about the pool at Binfield
House. After seeing what they'd done to the town, I'd had a
feeling you could only describe as fear about going to see whether
the pool still existed. And yet it might, there was no knowing.
The town was smothered under red brick, our house was full of Wendy
and her junk, the Thames was poisoned with motor-oil and paper
bags. But maybe the pool was still there, with the great black
fish still cruising round it. Maybe, even, it was still hidden in
the woods and from that day to this no one had discovered it
existed. It was quite possible. It was a very thick bit of wood,
full of brambles and rotten brushwood (the beech trees gave way to
oaks round about there, which made the undergrowth thicker), the
kind of place most people don't care to penetrate. Queerer things
have happened.

I didn't start out till late afternoon. It must have been about
half past four when I took the car out and drove on to the Upper
Binfield road. Half-way up the hill the houses thinned out and
stopped and the beech trees began. The road forks about there and
I took the right-hand fork, meaning to make a detour round and come
back to Binfield House on the road. But presently I stopped to
have a look at the copse I was driving through. The beech trees
seemed just the same. Lord, how they were the same! I backed the
car on to a bit of grass beside the road, under a fall of chalk,
and got out and walked. Just the same. The same stillness, the
same great beds of rustling leaves that seem to go on from year to
year without rotting. Not a creature stirring except the small
birds in the tree-tops which you couldn't see. It wasn't easy to
believe that that great noisy mess of a town was barely three miles
away. I began to make my way through the little copse, in the
direction of Binfield House. I could vaguely remember how the
paths went. And Lord! Yes! The same chalk hollow where the Black
Hand went and had catapult shots, and Sid Lovegrove told us how
babies were born, the day I caught my first fish, pretty near forty
years ago!

As the trees thinned out again you could see the other road and the
wall of Binfield House. The old rotting wooden fence was gone, of
course, and they'd put up a high brick wall with spikes on top,
such as you'd expect to see round a loony-bin. I'd puzzled for
some time about how to get into Binfield House until finally it had
struck me that I'd only to tell them my wife was mad and I was
looking for somewhere to put her. After that they'd be quite ready
to show me round the grounds. In my new suit I probably looked
prosperous enough to have a wife in a private asylum. It wasn't
till I was actually at the gate that it occurred to me to wonder
whether the pool was still inside the grounds.

The old grounds of Binfield House had covered fifty acres, I
suppose, and the grounds of the loony-bin weren't likely to be more
than five or ten. They wouldn't want a great pool of water for the
loonies to drown themselves in. The lodge, where old Hodges used
to live, was the same as ever, but the yellow brick wall and the
huge iron gates were new. From the glimpse I got through the gates
I wouldn't have known the place. Gravel walks, flower-beds, lawns,
and a few aimless-looking types wandering about--loonies, I
suppose. I strolled up the road to the right. The pool--the big
pool, the one where I used to fish--was a couple of hundred yards
behind the house. It might have been a hundred yards before I got
to the corner of the wall. So the pool was outside the grounds.
The trees seemed to have got much thinner. I could hear children's
voices. And Gosh! there was the pool.

I stood for a moment, wondering what had happened to it. Then I
saw what it was--all the trees were gone from round its edge. It
looked all bare and different, in fact it looked extraordinarily
like the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens. Kids were playing all
round the edge, sailing boats and paddling, and a few rather older
kids were rushing about in those little canoes which you work by
turning a handle. Over to the left, where the old rotting boat-
house used to stand among the reeds, there was a sort of pavilion
and a sweet kiosk, and a huge white notice saying UPPER BINFIELD

I looked over to the right. It was all houses, houses, houses.
One might as well have been in the outer suburbs. All the woods
that used to grow beyond the pool, and grew so thick that they were
like a kind of tropical jungle, had been shaved flat. Only a few
clumps of trees still standing round the houses. There were arty-
looking houses, another of those sham-Tudor colonies like the one
I'd seen the first day at the top of Chamford Hill, only more so.
What a fool I'd been to imagine that these woods were still the
same! I saw how it was. There was just the one tiny bit of copse,
half a dozen acres perhaps, that hadn't been cut down, and it was
pure chance that I'd walked through it on my way here. Upper
Binfield, which had been merely a name in the old days, had grown
into a decent-sized town. In fact it was merely an outlying chunk
of Lower Binfield.

I wandered up to the edge of the pool. The kids were splashing
about and making the devil of a noise. There seemed to be swarms
of them. The water looked kind of dead. No fish in it now. There
was a chap standing watching the kids. He was an oldish chap with
a bald head and a few tufts of white hair, and pince-nez and very
sunburnt face. There was something vaguely queer about his
appearance. He was wearing shorts and sandals and one of those
celanese shirts open at the neck, I noticed, but what really struck
me was the look in his eye. He had very blue eyes that kind of
twinkled at you from behind his spectacles. I could see that he
was one of those old men who've never grown up. They're always
either health-food cranks or else they have something to do with
the Boy Scouts--in either case they're great ones for Nature and
the open air. He was looking at me as if he'd like to speak.

'Upper Binfield's grown a great deal,' I said.

He twinkled at me.

'Grown! My dear sir, we never allow Upper Binfield to grow. We
pride ourselves on being rather exceptional people up here, you
know. Just a little colony of us all by ourselves. No

'I mean compared with before the war,' I said. 'I used to live
here as a boy.'

'Oh-ah. No doubt. That was before my time, of course. But the
Upper Binfield Estate is something rather special in the way of
building estates, you know. Quite a little world of its own. All
designed by young Edward Watkin, the architect. You've heard of
him, of course. We live in the midst of Nature up here. No
connexion with the town down there'--he waved a hand in the
direction of Lower Binfield--'the dark satanic mills--te-hee!'

He had a benevolent old chuckle, and a way of wrinkling his face
up, like a rabbit. Immediately, as though I'd asked him, he began
telling me all about the Upper Binfield Estate and young Edward
Watkin, the architect, who had such a feeling for the Tudor, and
was such a wonderful fellow at finding genuine Elizabethan beams in
old farmhouses and buying them at ridiculous prices. And such an
interesting young fellow, quite the life and soul of the nudist
parties. He repeated a number of times that they were very
exceptional people in Upper Binfield, quite different from Lower
Binfield, they were determined to enrich the countryside instead of
defiling it (I'm using his own phrase), and there weren't any
public houses on the estate.

'They talk of their Garden Cities. But we call Upper Binfield the
Woodland City--te-hee! Nature!' He waved a hand at what was left
of the trees. 'The primeval forest brooding round us. Our young
people grow up amid surroundings of natural beauty. We are nearly
all of us enlightened people, of course. Would you credit that
three-quarters of us up here are vegetarians? The local butchers
don't like us at all--te-hee! And some quite eminent people live
here. Miss Helena Thurloe, the novelist--you've heard of her, of
course. And Professor Woad, the psychic research worker. Such a
poetic character! He goes wandering out into the woods and the
family can't find him at mealtimes. He says he's walking among the
fairies. Do you believe in fairies? I admit--te-hee!--I am just a
wee bit sceptical. But his photographs are most convincing.'

I began to wonder whether he was someone who'd escaped from
Binfield House. But no, he was sane enough, after a fashion. I
knew the type. Vegetarianism, simple life, poetry, nature-worship,
roll in the dew before breakfast. I'd met a few of them years ago
in Ealing. He began to show me round the estate. There was
nothing left of the woods. It was all houses, houses--and what
houses! Do you know these faked-up Tudor houses with the curly
roofs and the buttresses that don't buttress anything, and the
rock-gardens with concrete bird-baths and those red plaster elves
you can buy at the florists'? You could see in your mind's eye the
awful gang of food-cranks and spook-hunters and simple-lifers with
1,000 pounds a year that lived there. Even the pavements were
crazy. I didn't let him take me far. Some of the houses made me
wish I'd got a hand-grenade in my pocket. I tried to damp him down
by asking whether people didn't object to living so near the
lunatic asylum, but it didn't have much effect. Finally I stopped
and said:

'There used to be another pool, besides the big one. It can't be
far from here.'

'Another pool? Oh, surely not. I don't think there was ever
another pool.'

'They may have drained it off,' I said. 'It was a pretty deep
pool. It would leave a big pit behind.'

For the first time he looked a bit uneasy. He rubbed his nose.

'Oh-ah. Of course, you must understand our life up here is in some
ways primitive. The simple life, you know. We prefer it so. But
being so far from the town has its inconveniences, of course. Some
of our sanitary arrangements are not altogether satisfactory. The
dust-cart only calls once a month, I believe.'

'You mean they've turned the pool into a rubbish-dump?'

'Well, there IS something in the nature of a--' he shied at the
word rubbish-dump. 'We have to dispose of tins and so forth, of
course. Over there, behind that clump of trees.'

We went across there. They'd left a few trees to hid it. But yes,
there it was. It was my pool, all right. They'd drained the water
off. It made a great round hole, like an enormous well, twenty or
thirty feet deep. Already it was half full of tin cans.

I stood looking at the tin cans.

'It's a pity they drained it,' I said. 'There used to be some big
fish in that pool.'

'Fish? Oh, I never heard anything about that. Of course we could
hardly have a pool of water here among the houses. The mosquitoes,
you know. But it was before my time.'

'I suppose these houses have been built a good long time?' I said.

'Oh--ten or fifteen years, I think.'

'I used to know this place before the war,' I said. 'It was all
woods then. There weren't any houses except Binfield House. But
that little bit of copse over there hasn't changed. I walked
through it on my way here.'

'Ah, that! That is sacrosanct. We have decided never to build in
it. It is sacred to the young people. Nature, you know.' He
twinkled at me, a kind of roguish look, as if he was letting me
into a little secret: 'We call it the Pixy Glen.'

The Pixy Glen. I got rid of him, went back to the car and drove
down to Lower Binfield. The Pixy Glen. And they'd filled my pool
up with tin cans. God rot them and bust them! Say what you like--
call it silly, childish, anything--but doesn't it make you puke
sometimes to see what they're doing to England, with their bird-
baths and their plaster gnomes, and their pixies and tin cans,
where the beech woods used to be?

Sentimental, you say? Anti-social? Oughtn't to prefer trees to
men? I say it depends what trees and what men. Not that there's
anything one can do about it, except to wish them the pox in their

One thing, I thought as I drove down the hill, I'm finished with
this notion of getting back into the past. What's the good of
trying to revisit the scenes of your boyhood? They don't exist.
Coming up for air! But there isn't any air. The dustbin that
we're in reaches up to the stratosphere. All the same, I didn't
particularly care. After all, I thought, I've still got three days
left. I'd have a bit of peace and quiet, and stop bothering about
what they'd done to Lower Binfield. As for my idea of going
fishing--that was off, of course. Fishing, indeed! At my age!
Really, Hilda was right.

I dumped the car in the garage of the George and walked into the
lounge. It was six o'clock. Somebody had switched on the wireless
and the news-broadcast was beginning. I came through the door just
in time to hear the last few words of an S.O.S. And it gave me a
bit of a jolt, I admit. For the words I heard were:

'--where his wife, Hilda Bowling, is seriously ill.'

The next instant the plummy voice went on: 'Here is another S.O.S.
Will Percival Chute, who was last heard of--', but I didn't wait to
hear any more. I just walked straight on. What made me feel
rather proud, when I thought it over afterwards, was that when I
heard those words come out of the loudspeaker I never turned an
eyelash. Not even a pause in my step to let anyone know that I was
George Bowling, whose wife Hilda Bowling was seriously ill. The
landlord's wife was in the lounge, and she knew my name was
Bowling, at any rate she'd seen it in the register. Otherwise
there was nobody there except a couple of chaps who were staying at
the George and who didn't know me from Adam. But I kept my head.
Not a sign to anyone. I merely walked on into the private bar,
which had just opened, and ordered my pint as usual.

I had to think it over. By the time I'd drunk about half the pint
I began to get the bearings of the situation. In the first place,
Hilda WASN'T ill, seriously or otherwise. I knew that. She'd been
perfectly well when I came away, and it wasn't the time of the year
for 'flu or anything of that kind. She was shamming. Why?

Obviously it was just another of her dodges. I saw how it was.
She'd got wind somehow--trust Hilda!--that I wasn't really at
Birmingham, and this was just her way of getting me home. Couldn't
bear to think of me any longer with that other woman. Because of
course she'd take it for granted that I was with a woman. Can't
imagine any other motive. And naturally she assumed that I'd come
rushing home as soon as I heard she was ill.

But that's just where you've got it wrong, I thought to myself as
I finished off the pint. I'm too cute to be caught that way. I
remembered the dodges she'd pulled before, and the extraordinary
trouble she'll take to catch me out. I've even known her, when I'd
been on some journey she was suspicious about, check it all up with
a Bradshaw and a road-map, just to see whether I was telling the
truth about my movements. And then there was that time when she
followed me all the way to Colchester and suddenly burst in on me
at the Temperance Hotel. And that time, unfortunately, she
happened to be right--at least, she wasn't, but there were
circumstances which made it look as if she was. I hadn't the
slightest belief that she was ill. In fact, I knew she wasn't,
although I couldn't say exactly how.

I had another pint and things looked better. Of course there was
a row coming when I got home, but there'd have been a row anyway.
I've got three good days ahead of me, I thought. Curiously enough,
now that the things I'd come to look for had turned out not to
exist, the idea of having a bit of holiday appealed to me all the
more. Being away from home--that was the great thing. Peace
perfect peace with loved ones far away, as the hymn puts it. And
suddenly I decided that I WOULD have a woman if I felt like it. It
would serve Hilda right for being so dirty-minded, and besides,
where's the sense of being suspected if it isn't true?

But as the second pint worked inside me, the thing began to amuse
me. I hadn't fallen for it, but it was damned ingenious all the
same. I wondered how she'd managed about the S.O.S. I've no idea
what the procedure is. Do you have to have a doctor's certificate,
or do you just send your name in? I felt pretty sure it was the
Wheeler woman who'd put her up to it. It seemed to me to have the
Wheeler touch.

But all the same, the cheek of it! The lengths that women will go!
Sometimes you can't help kind of admiring them.

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