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George Orwell > Keep the Aspidistra Flying > Chapter 2

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Chapter 2

Gordon walked homeward against the rattling wind, which blew his
hair backward and gave him more of a 'good' forehead than ever.
His manner conveyed to the passers-by--at least, he hoped it did--
that if he wore no overcoat it was from pure caprice. His overcoat
was up the spout for fifteen shillings, as a matter of fact.

Willowbed Road, NW, was not definitely slummy, only dingy and
depressing. There were real slums hardly five minutes' walk away.
Tenement houses where families slept five in a bed, and, when one
of them died, slept every night with the corpse until it was
buried; alley-ways where girls of fifteen were deflowered by boys
of sixteen against leprous plaster walls. But Willowbed Road
itself contrived to keep up a kind of mingy, lower-middle-class
decency. There was even a dentist's brass plate on one of the
houses. In quite two-thirds of them, amid the lace curtains of the
parlour window, there was a green card with 'Apartments' on it in
silver lettering, above the peeping foliage of an aspidistra.

Mrs Wisbeach, Gordon's landlady, specialized in 'single gentlemen'.
Bed-sitting-rooms, with gaslight laid on and find your own heating,
baths extra (there was a geyser), and meals in the tomb-dark
dining-room with the phalanx of clotted sauce-bottles in the middle
of the table. Gordon, who came home for his midday dinner, paid
twenty-seven and six a week.

The gaslight shone yellow through the frosted transom above the
door of Number 31. Gordon took out his key and fished about in the
keyhole--in that kind of house the key never quite fits the lock.
The darkish little hallway--in reality it was only a passage--smelt
of dishwater, cabbage, rag mats, and bedroom slops. Gordon glanced
at the japanned tray on the hall-stand. No letters, of course. He
had told himself not to hope for a letter, and nevertheless had
continued to hope. A stale feeling, not quite a pain, settled upon
his breast. Rosemary might have written! It was four days now
since she had written. Moreover, there were a couple of poems that
he had sent out to magazines and had not yet had returned to him.
The one thing that made the evening bearable was to find a letter
waiting for him when he got home. But he received very few
letters--four or five in a week at the very most.

On the left of the hall was the never-used parlour, then came the
staircase, and beyond that the passage ran down to the kitchen and
to the unapproachable lair inhabited by Mrs Wisbeach herself. As
Gordon came in, the door at the end of the passage opened a foot or
so. Mrs Wisbeach's face emerged, inspected him briefly but
suspiciously, and disappeared again. It was quite impossible to
get in or out of the house, at any time before eleven at night,
without being scrutinized in this manner. Just what Mrs Wisbeach
suspected you of it was hard to say; smuggling women into the
house, possibly. She was one of those malignant respectable women
who keep lodging-houses. Age about forty-five, stout but active,
with a pink, fine-featured, horribly observant face, beautifully
grey hair, and a permanent grievance.

Gordon halted at the foot of the narrow stairs. Above, a coarse
rich voice was singing, 'Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?' A very
fat man of thirty-eight or nine came round the angle of the stairs,
with the light dancing step peculiar to fat men, dressed in a smart
grey suit, yellow shoes, a rakish trilby hat, and a belted blue
overcoat of startling vulgarity. This was Flaxman, the first-floor
lodger and travelling representative of the Queen of Sheba Toilet
Requisites Co. He saluted Gordon with a lemon-coloured glove as he
came down.

'Hullo, chappie!' he said blithely. (Flaxman called everyone
'chappie'.) 'How's life with you?'

'Bloody,' said Gordon shortly.

Flaxman had reached the bottom of the stairs. He threw a roly-poly
arm affectionately round Gordon's shoulders.

'Cheer up, old man, cheer up! You look like a bloody funeral. I'm
off down to the Crichton. Come on down and have a quick one.'

'I can't. I've got to work.'

'Oh, hell! Be matey, can't you? What's the good of mooning about
up here? Come on down to the Cri and we'll pinch the barmaid's

Gordon wriggled free of Flaxman' s arm. Like all small frail
people, he hated being touched. Flaxman merely grinned, with the
typical fat man's good humour. He was really horribly fat. He
filled his trousers as though he had been melted and then poured
into them. But of course, like other fat people, he never admitted
to being fat. No fat person ever uses the word 'fat' if there is
any way of avoiding it. 'Stout' is the word they use--or, better
still, 'robust'. A fat man is never so happy as when he is
describing himself as 'robust'. Flaxman, at his first meeting with
Gordon, had been on the point of calling himself 'robust', but
something in Gordon's greenish eye had deterred him. He compromised
on 'stout' instead.

'I do admit, chappie,' he said, 'to being--well, just a wee bit on
the stout side. Nothing unwholesome, you know.' He patted the
vague frontier between his belly and his chest. 'Good firm flesh.
I'm pretty nippy on my feet, as a matter of fact. But--well, I
suppose you might call me STOUT.'

'Like Cortez,' Gordon suggested.

'Cortez? Cortez? Was that the chappie who was always wandering
about in the mountains in Mexico?'

'That's the fellow. He was stout, but he had eagle eyes.'

'Ah? Now that's funny. Because the wife said something rather
like that to me once. "George," she said, "you've got the most
wonderful eyes in the world. You've got eyes just like an eagle,"
she said. That would be before she married me, you'll understand.'

Flaxman was living apart from his wife at the moment. A little
while back the Queen of Sheba Toilet Requisites Co. had
unexpectedly paid out a bonus of thirty pounds to all its
travellers, and at the same time Flaxman and two others had been
sent across to Paris to press the new Sexapeal Naturetint lipstick
on various French firms. Flaxman had not thought it necessary to
mention the thirty pounds to his wife. He had had the time of his
life on that Paris trip, of course. Even now, three months
afterwards, his mouth watered when he spoke of it. He used to
entertain Gordon with luscious descriptions. Ten days in Paris
with thirty quid that wifie hadn't heard about! Oh boy! But
unfortunately there had been a leakage somewhere; Flaxman had got
home to find retribution awaiting him. His wife had broken his
head with a cut-glass whisky decanter, a wedding present which they
had had for fourteen years, and then fled to her mother's house,
taking the children with her. Hence Flaxman's exile in Willowbed
Road. But he wasn't letting it worry him. It would blow over, no
doubt; it had happened several times before.

Gordon made another attempt to get past Flaxman and escape up the
stairs. The dreadful thing was that in his heart he was pining to
go with him. He needed a drink so badly--the mere mention of the
Crichton Arms had made him feel thirsty. But it was impossible, of
course; he had no money. Flaxman put an arm across the stairs,
barring his way. He was genuinely fond of Gordon. He considered
him 'clever'--'cleverness', to him, being a kind of amiable lunacy.
Moreover, he detested being alone, even for so short a time as it
would take him to walk to the pub.

'Come on, chappie!' he urged. 'You want a Guinness to buck you up,
that's what you want. You haven't seen the new girl they've got in
the saloon bar yet. Oh, boy! There's a peach for you!'

'So that's why you're all dolled up, is it?' said Gordon, looking
coldly at Flaxman's yellow gloves.

'You bet it is, chappie! Coo, what a peach! Ash blonde she is.
And she knows a thing or two, that girlie does. I gave her a stick
of our Sexapeal Naturetint last night. You ought to have seen her
wag her little bottom at me as she went past my table. Does she
give me the palpitations? Does she? Oh, boy!'

Flaxman wriggled lascivously. His tongue appeared between his
lips. Then, suddenly pretending that Gordon was the ash-blonde
barmaid, he seized him by the waist and gave him a tender squeeze.
Gordon shoved him away. For a moment the desire to go down to the
Crichton Arms was so ravishing that it almost overcame him. Oh,
for a pint of beer! He seemed almost to feel it going down his
throat. If only he had had any money! Even sevenpence for a pint.
But what was the use? Twopence halfpenny in pocket. You can't let
other people buy your drinks for you.

'Oh, leave me alone, for God's sake!' he said irritably, stepping
out of Flaxman's reach, and went up the stairs without looking

Flaxman settled his hat on his head and made for the front door,
mildly offended. Gordon reflected dully that it was always like
this nowadays. He was for ever snubbing friendly advances. Of
course it was money that was at the bottom of it, always money.
You can't be friendly, you can't even be civil, when you have no
money in your pocket. A spasm of self-pity went through him. His
heart yearned for the saloon bar at the Crichton; the lovely smell
of beer, the warmth and bright lights, the cheery voices, the
clatter of glasses on the beer-wet bar. Money, money! He went on,
up the dark evil-smelling stairs. The thought of his cold lonely
bedroom at the top of the house was like a doom before him.

On the second floor lived Lorenheim, a dark, meagre, lizard-like
creature of uncertain age and race, who made about thirty-five
shillings a week by touting vacuum-cleaners. Gordon always went
very hurriedly past Lorenheim's door. Lorenheim was one of those
people who have not a single friend in the world and who are
devoured by a lust for company. His loneliness was so deadly that
if you so much as slowed your pace outside his door he was liable
to pounce out upon you and half drag, half wheedle you in to listen
to interminable paranoiac tales of girls he had seduced and
employers he had scored off. And his room was more cold and
squalid than even a lodging-house bedroom has any right to be.
There were always half-eaten bits of bread and margarine lying
about everywhere. The only other lodger in the house was an
engineer of some kind, employed on nightwork. Gordon only saw him
occasionally--a massive man with a grim, discoloured face, who wore
a bowler hat indoors and out.

In the familiar darkness of his room, Gordon felt for the gas-jet
and lighted it. The room was medium-sized, not big enough to be
curtained into two, but too big to be sufficiently warmed by one
defective oil lamp. It had the sort of furniture you expect in a
top floor back. White-quilted single-bed; brown lino floor-
covering; wash-hand-stand with jug and basin of that cheap white
ware which you can never see without thinking of chamberpots. On
the window-sill there was a sickly aspidistra in a green-glazed

Up against this, under the window, there was a kitchen table with
an inkstained green cloth. This was Gordon's 'writing' table. It
was only after a bitter struggle that he had induced Mrs Wisbeach
to give him a kitchen table instead of the bamboo 'occasional'
table--a mere stand for the aspidistra--which she considered proper
for a top floor back. And even now there was endless nagging
because Gordon would never allow his table to be 'tidied up'. The
table was in a permanent mess. It was almost covered with a muddle
of papers, perhaps two hundred sheets of sermon paper, grimy and
dog-eared, and all written on and crossed out and written on again--
a sort of sordid labyrinth of papers to which only Gordon possessed
the key. There was a film of dust over everything, and there were
several foul little trays containing tobacco ash and the twisted
stubs of cigarettes. Except for a few books on the mantelpiece,
this table, with its mess of papers, was the sole mark Gordon's
personality had left on the room.

It was beastly cold. Gordon thought he would light the oil lamp.
He lifted it--it felt very light; the spare oil can also was empty--
no oil till Friday. He applied a match; a dull yellow flame crept
unwillingly round the wick. It might burn for a couple of hours,
with any luck. As Gordon threw away the match his eye fell upon
the aspidistra in its grass-green pot. It was a peculiarly mangy
specimen. It had only seven leaves and never seemed to put forth
any new ones. Gordon had a sort of secret feud with the
aspidistra. Many a time he had furtively attempted to kill it--
starving it of water, grinding hot cigarette-ends against its stem,
even mixing salt with its earth. But the beastly things are
practically immortal. In almost any circumstances they can
preserve a wilting, diseased existence. Gordon stood up and
deliberately wiped his kerosiny fingers on the aspidistra leaves.

At this moment Mrs Wisbeach's voice rang shrewishly up the stairs:

'Mister Com-stock!'

Gordon went to the door. 'Yes?' he called down.

'Your supper's been waiting for you this ten minutes. Why can't
you come down and have it, 'stead of keeping me waiting for the
washing up?'

Gordon went down. The dining-room was on the first floor, at the
back, opposite Flaxman's room. It was a cold, close-smelling room,
twilit even at midday. There were more aspidistras in it than
Gordon had ever accurately counted. They were all over the place--
on the sideboard, on the floor, on 'occasional' tables; in the
window there was a sort of florist's stand of them, blocking out
the light. In the half-darkness, with aspidistras all about you,
you had the feeling of being in some sunless aquarium amid the
dreary foliage of water-flowers. Gordon's supper was set out,
waiting for him, in the circle of white light that the cracked gas-
jet cast upon the table cloth. He sat down with his back to the
fireplace (there was an aspidistra in the grate instead of a fire)
and ate his plate of cold beef and his two slices of crumbly white
bread, with Canadian butter, mousetrap cheese and Pan Yan pickle,
and drank a glass of cold but musty water.

When he went back to his room the oil lamp had got going, more or
less. It was hot enough to boil a kettle by, he thought. And now
for the great event of the evening--his illicit cup of tea. He
made himself a cup of tea almost every night, in the deadliest
secrecy. Mrs Wisbeach refused to give her lodgers tea with their
supper, because she 'couldn't be bothered with hotting up extra
water', but at the same time making tea in your bedroom was
strictly forbidden. Gordon looked with disgust at the muddled
papers on the table. He told himself defiantly that he wasn't
going to do any work tonight. He would have a cup of tea and smoke
up his remaining cigarettes, and read King Lear or Sherlock Holmes.
His books were on the mantelpiece beside the alarm clock--
Shakespeare in the Everyman edition, Sherlock Holmes, Villon's
poems, Roderick Random, Les Fleurs du Mal, a pile of French novels.
But he read nothing nowadays, except Shakespeare and Sherlock
Holmes. Meanwhile, that cup of tea.

Gordon went to the door, pushed it ajar, and listened. No sound of
Mrs Wisbeach. You had to be very careful; she was quite capable of
sneaking upstairs and catching you in the act. This tea-making was
the major household offence, next to bringing a woman in. Quietly
he bolted the door, dragged his cheap suitcase from under the bed,
and unlocked it. From it he extracted a sixpenny Woolworth's
kettle, a packet of Lyons' tea, a tin of condensed milk, a tea-pot,
and a cup. They were all packed in newspaper to prevent them from

He had his regular procedure for making tea. First he half filled
the kettle with water from the jug and set it on the oil stove.
Then he knelt down and spread out a piece of newspaper. Yesterday's
tea-leaves were still in the pot, of course. He shook them out on
to the newspaper, cleaned out the pot with his thumb and folded the
leaves into a bundle. Presently he would smuggle them downstairs.
That was always the most risky part--getting rid of the used
tea-leaves. It was like the difficulty murderers have in disposing
of the body. As for the cup, he always washed it in his hand basin
in the morning. A squalid business. It sickened him, sometimes.
It was queer how furtively you had to live in Mrs Wisbeach's house.
You had the feeling that she was always watching you; and indeed,
she was given to tiptoeing up and downstairs at all hours, in hope
of catching the lodgers up to mischief. It was one of those houses
where you cannot even go to the W.C. in peace because of the
feeling that somebody is listening to you.

Gordon unbolted the door again and listened intently. No one
stirring. Ah! A clatter of crockery far below. Mrs Wisbeach was
washing up the supper things. Probably safe to go down, then.

He tiptoed down, clutching the damp bundle of tea-leaves against
his breast. The W.C. was on the second floor. At the angle of
the stairs he halted, listened a moment longer. Ah! Another
clatter of crockery.

All clear! Gordon Comstock, poet ('of exceptional promise', The
Times Lit. Supp. had said), hurriedly slipped into the W.C., flung
his tea-leaves down the waste-pipe, and pulled the plug. Then he
hurried back to his room, rebolted the door, and, with precautions
against noise, brewed himself a fresh pot of tea.

The room was passably warm by now. The tea and a cigarette worked
their short-lived magic. He began to feel a little less bored and
angry. Should he do a spot of work after all? He ought to work,
of course. He always hated himself afterwards when he had wasted a
whole evening. Half unwillingly, he shoved his chair up to the
table. It needed an effort even to disturb that frightful jungle
of papers. He pulled a few grimy sheets towards him, spread them
out, and looked at them. God, what a mess! Written on, scored
out, written over, scored out again, till they were like poor
old hacked cancer-patients after twenty operations. But the
handwriting, where it was not crossed out, was delicate and
'scholarly'. With pain and trouble Gordon had acquired that
'scholarly' hand, so different from the beastly copper-plate they
had taught him at school.

Perhaps he WOULD work; for a little while, anyway. He rummaged in
the litter of papers. Where was that passage he had been working
on yesterday? The poem was an immensely long one--that is, it was
going to be immensely long when it was finished--two thousand lines
or so, in rhyme royal, describing a day in London. London
Pleasures, its name was. It was a huge, ambitious project--the
kind of thing that should only be undertaken by people with endless
leisure. Gordon had not grasped that fact when he began the poem;
he grasped it now, however. How light-heartedly he had begun it,
two years ago! When he had chucked up everything and descended
into the slime of poverty, the conception of this poem had been at
least a part of his motive. He had felt so certain, then, that he
was equal to it. But somehow, almost from the start, London
Pleasures had gone wrong. It was too big for him, that was the
truth. It had never really progressed, it had simply fallen apart
into a series of fragments. And out of two years' work that was
all that he had to show--just fragments, incomplete in themselves
and impossible to join together. On every one of those sheets of
paper there was some hacked scrap of verse which had been written
and rewritten and rewritten over intervals of months. There were
not five hundred lines that you could say were definitely finished.
And he had lost the power to add to it any longer; he could only
tinker with this passage or that, groping now here, now there, in
its confusion. It was no longer a thing that he created, it was
merely a nightmare with which he struggled.

For the rest, in two whole years he had produced nothing except a
handful of short poems--perhaps a score in all. It was so rarely
that he could attain the peace of mind in which poetry, or prose
for that matter, has got to be written. The times when he 'could
not' work grew commoner and commoner. Of all types of human being,
only the artist takes it upon him to say that he 'cannot' work.
But it is quite true; there ARE times when one cannot work. Money
again, always money! Lack of money means discomfort, means squalid
worries, means shortage of tobacco, means ever-present consciousness
of failure--above all, it means loneliness. How can you be anything
but lonely on two quid a week? And in loneliness no decent book was
ever written. It was quite certain that London Pleasures would
never be the poem he had conceived--it was quite certain, indeed,
that it would never even be finished. And in the moments when he
faced facts Gordon himself was aware of this.

Yet all the same, and all the more for that very reason, he went on
with it. It was something to cling to. It was a way of hitting
back at his poverty and his loneliness. And after all, there were
times when the mood of creation returned, or seemed to return. It
returned tonight, for just a little while--just as long as it takes
to smoke two cigarettes. With smoke tickling his lungs, he
abstracted himself from the mean and actual world. He drove his
mind into the abyss where poetry is written. The gas-jet sang
soothing overhead. Words became vivid and momentous things. A
couplet, written a year ago and left as unfinished, caught his eye
with a note of doubt. He repeated it to himself, over and over.
It was wrong, somehow. It had seemed all right, a year ago; now,
on the other hand, it seemed subtly vulgar. He rummaged among the
sheets of foolscap till he found one that had nothing written on
the back, turned it over, wrote the couplet out anew, wrote a dozen
different versions of it, repeated each of them over and over to
himself. Finally there was none that satisfied him. The couplet
would have to go. It was cheap and vulgar. He found the original
sheet of paper and scored the couplet out with thick lines. And in
doing this there was a sense of achievement, of time not wasted, as
though the destruction of much labour were in some way an act of

Suddenly a double knock deep below made the whole house rattle.
Gordon started. His mind fled upwards from the abyss. The post!
London Pleasures was forgotten.

His heart fluttered. Perhaps Rosemary HAD written. Besides, there
were those two poems he had sent to the magazines. One of them,
indeed, he had almost given up as lost; he had sent it to an
American paper, the Californian Review, months ago. Probably they
wouldn't even bother to send it back. But the other was with an
English paper, the Primrose Quarterly. He had wild hopes of that
one. The Primrose Quarterly was one of those poisonous literary
papers in which the fashionable Nancy Boy and the professional
Roman Catholic walk bras dessus, bras dessous. It was also by a
long way the most influential literary paper in England. You were
a made man once you had had a poem in it. In his heart Gordon knew
that the Primrose Quarterly would never print his poems. He wasn't
up to their standard. Still, miracles sometimes happen; or, if not
miracles, accidents. After all, they'd had his poem six weeks.
Would they keep it six weeks if they didn't mean to accept it? He
tried to quell the insane hope. But at the worst there was a
chance that Rosemary had written. It was four whole days since she
had written. She wouldn't do it, perhaps, if she knew how it
disappointed him. Her letters--long, ill-spelt letters, full of
absurd jokes and protestations of love for him--meant far more to
him than she could ever understand. They were a reminder that
there was still somebody in the world who cared for him. They even
made up for the times when some beast had sent back one of his
poems; and, as a matter of fact, the magazines always did send back
his poems, except Antichrist, whose editor, Ravelston, was his
personal friend.

There was a shuffling below. It was always some minutes before Mrs
Wisbeach brought the letters upstairs. She liked to paw them
about, feel them to see how thick they were, read their postmarks,
hold them up to the light and speculate on their contents, before
yielding them to their rightful owners. She exercised a sort of
droit du seigneur over letters. Coming to her house, they were,
she felt, at least partially hers. If you had gone to the front
door and collected your own letters she would have resented it
bitterly. On the other hand, she also resented the labour of
carrying them upstairs. You would hear her footsteps very slowly
ascending, and then, if there was a letter for you, there would be
loud aggrieved breathing on the landing--this to let you know that
you had put Mrs Wisbeach out of breath by dragging her up all those
stairs. Finally, with a little impatient grunt, the letters would
be shoved under your door.

Mrs Wisbeach was coming up the stairs. Gordon listened. The
footsteps paused on the first floor. A letter for Flaxman. They
ascended, paused again on the second floor. A letter for the
engineer. Gordon's heart beat painfully. A letter, please God, a
letter! More footsteps. Ascending or descending? They were
coming nearer, surely! Ah, no, no! The sound grew fainter. She
was going down again. The footsteps died away. No letters.

He took up his pen again. It was a quite futile gesture. She
hadn't written after all! The little beast! He had not the
smallest intention of doing any more work. Indeed, he could not.
The disappointment had taken all the heart out of him. Only five
minutes ago his poem had still seemed to him a living thing; now he
knew it unmistakably for the worthless tripe that it was. With a
kind of nervous disgust he bundled the scattered sheets together,
stacked them in an untidy heap, and dumped them on the other side
of the table, under the aspidistra. He could not even bear to look
at them any longer.

He got up. It was too early to go to bed; at least, he was not in
the mood for it. He pined for a bit of amusement--something cheap
and easy. A seat in the pictures, cigarettes, beer. Useless! No
money to pay for any of them. He would read King Lear and forget
this filthy century. Finally, however, it was The Adventures of
Sherlock Holmes that he took from the mantelpiece. Sherlock Holmes
was his favourite of all books, because he knew it by heart. The
oil in the lamp was giving out and it was getting beastly cold.
Gordon dragged the quilt from his bed, wrapped it round his legs,
and sat down to read. His right elbow on the table, his hands
under his coat to keep them warm, he read through 'The Adventure of
the Speckled Band.' The little gas-mantle sighed above, the
circular flame of the oil lamp burned low, a thin bracket of fire,
giving out no more heat than a candle.

Down in Mrs Wisbeach's lair the clock struck half past ten. You
could always hear it striking at night. Ping-ping, ping-ping--a
note of doom! The ticking of the alarm clock on the mantelpiece
became audible to Gordon again, bringing with it the consciousness
of the sinister passage of time. He looked about him. Another
evening wasted. Hours, days, years slipping by. Night after
night, always the same. The lonely room, the womanless bed; dust,
cigarette ash, the aspidistra leaves. And he was thirty, nearly.
In sheer self-punishment he dragged forth a wad of London
Pleasures, spread out the grimy sheets, and looked at them as one
looks at a skull for a memento mori. London Pleasures, by Gordon
Comstock, author of Mice. His magnum opus. The fruit (fruit,
indeed!) of two years' work--that labyrinthine mess of words! And
tonight's achievement--two lines crossed out; two lines backward
instead of forward.

The lamp made a sound like a tiny hiccup and went out. With an
effort Gordon stood up and flung the quilt back on to his bed.
Better get to bed, perhaps, before it got any colder. He wandered
over towards the bed. But wait. Work tomorrow. Wind the clock,
set the alarm. Nothing accomplished, nothing done, has earned a
night's repose.

It was some time before he could find the energy to undress. For a
quarter of an hour, perhaps, he lay on the bed fully dressed, his
hands under his head. There was a crack on the ceiling that
resembled the map of Australia. Gordon contrived to work off his
shoes and socks without sitting up. He held up one foot and looked
at it. A smallish, delicate foot. Ineffectual, like his hands.
Also, it was very dirty. It was nearly ten days since he had a
bath. Becoming ashamed of the dirtiness of his feet, he sagged
into a sitting position and undressed himself, throwing his clothes
on to the floor. Then he turned out the gas and slid between the
sheets, shuddering, for he was naked. He always slept naked. His
last suit of pyjamas had gone west more than a year ago.

The clock downstairs struck eleven. As the first coldness of the
sheets wore off, Gordon's mind went back to the poem he had begun
that afternoon. He repeated in a whisper the single stanza that
was finished:

Sharply the menacing wind sweeps over
The bending poplars, newly bare,
And dark ribbons of the chimneys
Veer downward; flicked by whips of air,
Torn posters flutter.

The octosyllables flicked to and fro. Click-click, click-click!
The awful, mechanical emptiness of it appalled him. It was like
some futile little machine ticking over. Rhyme to rhyme, click-
click, click-click. Like the nodding of a clock-work doll.
Poetry! The last futility. He lay awake, aware of his own
futility, of his thirty years, of the blind alley into which he
had led his life.

The clock struck twelve. Gordon had stretched his legs out
straight. The bed had grown warm and comfortable. The upturned
beam of a car, somewhere in the street parallel to Willowbed Road,
penetrated the blind and threw into silhouette a leaf of the
aspidistra, shaped like Agamemnon's sword.

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George Orwell. Copyright 2003,
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