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Authors: Muriel Spark

Far Cry from Kensington

BOOK: Far Cry from Kensington
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So great was the noise during the day that I used to lie awake at
night listening to the silence. Eventually, I fell asleep contented, filled with
soundlessness, but while I was awake I enjoyed the experience of darkness, thought,
memory, sweet anticipations. I heard the silence. It was in those days of the early
‘fifties of this century that I formed the habit of insomnia. Insomnia is not
bad in itself. You can lie awake at night and think; the quality of insomnia depends
entirely on what you decide to think of. Can you decide to think? — Yes, you
can. You can put your mind to anything most of the time. You can sit peacefully in
front of a blank television set, just watching nothing; and sooner or later you can
make your own programme much better than the mass product. It’s fun, you should
try it. You can put anyone you like on the screen, alone or in company, saying and
doing what you want them to do, with yourself in the middle if you prefer it that

At night I lay awake looking at the darkness, listening to the silence, prefiguring
the future, picking out of the past the scraps I had overlooked, those rejected
events which now came to the foreground, large and important, so that the weight of
destiny no longer bore on the current problems of my life, whatever they were at the
time (for who lives without problems every day? Why waste the nights on them?).

Often, it is a far cry from Kensington and the early 1950s, this scene of my
night-watch. But even now when I return to London, to Kensington, and have paid the
taxi and been greeted by the people waiting there, and have telephoned the friends
and opened the mail, that night I find again my hours of sweet insomnia and know that
it is a far cry from that Kensington of the past, that Old Brompton Road, that
Brompton Road, that Brompton Oratory, a far cry. My thoughts of the night dwell often
on those past thoughts of the night in the same way that my daily life at the time
has a certain bearing on what I do now.

It was 1954. I was living in furnished rooms in a tall house in South Kensington. I
was startled, some years ago, by a friend’s referring to ‘that
rooming-house near South Kensington Underground you used to stay in’. Milly,
the owner, would have denied indignantly that it was a rooming-house, but I suppose
that is what it was.

Milly was sixty years of age, a widow. She is now well over ninety, and still very
much Milly.

The house was semi-detached, and on the detached side was separated from its neighbour
by no more than three feet. There were eighteen houses on each side of the street, of
identical pattern. The wrought-iron front gates led up a short path, with a patch of
gravel and flower-beds on either side and lined with speckled laurel bushes, to a
front door which bore two panes of patterned glass. All Milly Sanders’ tenants
had a key to the front door which led into a small entrance hall. Milly herself
occupied the ground floor. On the right, as you came in, was a hall-stand with a
mirror, some coat-pegs, and a place for umbrellas; on one of its flat surfaces stood
the telephone. On the left was Milly’s best room, with a bow window, used only
for visitors. Ahead was the staircase leading to the tenants’ landings, and, to
the left of the staircase, a short passage leading to Milly’s sitting-room,
kitchen, bedroom and its adjoining conservatory and her back garden which was good
and sizeable for a London house. These streets had been built for merchant-families
of the past century.

Upstairs on the first floor was a bathroom and furnished rooms let to two single
tenants and a couple. In the front bed-sitting-room, which also had a bow window and
a small kitchen adjacent, lived the couple, Basil Carlin and his wife, Eva, both
approaching forty and without children. Eva was a part-time infant-school teacher.
Basil, by his own definition, was an engineering accountant. The Carlins were
unusually quiet. Once they were locked in their room no sound ever issued, even after
midnight when the natural noises of the house had ended for the day.

Next door to the Carlins was a large bedroom looking out into the garden. It had a
wash-basin and a gas-ring with the usual dark steel box beside it with slots for
pennies and for shillings. Here lived and worked Wanda, the Polish dressmaker whose
capacity for suffering verged on rapacity. But Wanda Podolak was generous of heart
even though she could never admit to an instant of happiness. She had many visitors,
some clients — her ladies, she called them — volubly having their dresses
fitted, some compatriot friends, some of whom she described as enemies. Most of her
visitors came from six o’clock in the evening onwards, after their hours of
work the clients being given preference over the friends and enemies, who had to wait
on the landing till the fittings should be over. When Wanda entertained she
didn’t put away her work; the buzz of her sewing-machine went on intermittently
together with the sonorous Polish voices of the men, the clamour of the women and the
clatter of cups and saucers as tea was prepared. The Polish conversations seemed all
the louder for being unintelligible, to anyone passing Wanda’s door.

At the far end of the first landing was a smaller room occupied by Kate Parker, a
twenty-five-year-old district nurse, small, dark, plump, with round black bird-like
eyes and white gleaming teeth. She was a cockney. She seemed to give off vibrations
of vigour and certainly she had great courage. Kate was frequently out for the
evening or away on a job, but on the few nights she was at home she cleaned her room.
She was very thorough and eager about her cleaning, indeed about everybody’s
house-cleaning; when she entered anyone else’s room, for a cup of tea or to
take their temperature, she would often say, politely, ‘Your room’s nice
and clean.’ If she failed to say this, it meant that your room wasn’t
clean. Kate detested germs, the work of the Devil. So on the evenings when she was at
home she would haul her furniture out on the landing and scrub her linoleum with
Dettol. The furniture, too, would have been scrubbed with disinfectant had it not
been the landlady’s property. Milly, long-suffering though she was, had
objected to her table, chairs and bed being so much as wiped with a cloth impregnated
with the stuff; it was enough, she said, that the house smelt of hospital after
Kate’s energetic cleaning. She gave Kate some lavender wax to clean her
furniture with. It was impossible not to know that Kate was at home for the evening
by the bumping and dragging of the furniture on to the landing, and the mixed reek of
lavender and disinfectant. Kate vowed that when she had the money saved up, and a
place of her own, it would be furnished with white-painted washable wood. Kate was
strict and proud about her savings; they went into the Post Office. She kept in a
cupboard in her room a series of little boxes with ready money in them. They were
respectively marked ‘electricity’, ‘gas’,
‘bus-fares’, lunches’, ‘phone’ and
‘sundries’. Kate manicured her nails very carefully before going to bed,
after the cleaning and hauling was over. She laid out her clothes for the morning
with extra neatness. She would sometimes accept a drink, a sherry or a whisky, before
going to bed, but always with a solemn sigh, as if to convey that she shouldn’t
really be taking the stuff, it might lead to ruin.

The floor above was where I lived in an attic room with a slanting ceiling. A stove
and sink were installed; there was a built-in shower in the corner and under the
slanting roof a deep, low cupboard.

On this floor was a communal lavatory and two other rooms, one occupied by young
Isobel, who had a telephone of her own in her room so that she could ring her Daddy
in Sussex every evening; it was only on this condition that Isobel had been allowed
to come to London to work as a secretary. Sometimes Isobel would spend an entire
evening on the telephone, not only to her Daddy but to her large acquaintance, and
her voice trilled and sang through the thin walls with the cadences and saga of her
daily doings.

The other room on the attic floor, smaller still, looked out on the garden. It was
occupied by a medical student, William Todd, whose auditory effects were achieved by
his wireless, frequently switched on to the classical music of the Third Programme.
He studied better that way, he claimed.

Sometimes I had a party, and I suppose that gave evidence of my tenancy. Apart from
that I was fairly quiet when I wasn’t out for the evening. But generally when I
was at home I would go downstairs and talk to Milly. Even down there in Milly’s
ground-floor rooms, there was frequently a din, for repairs and odd jobs to the house
had to be done in the evening by a Mr Twinny who lived a few doors away. The reason
Mr Twinny came to hammer and scrape after his own day’s work was done was that
Milly’s economy didn’t run to contractors or daytime workmen. Mr Twinny
papered walls, with the paper laid out on a trestle work-table while Milly prepared
the flour-and-water paste and brought to Mr Twinny the gelatinous size that he
plastered over the paper. Or he would be unchoking a drain, with a clatter of tools,
while Milly’s television resounded, and I sat watching, drinking tea.

Milly, like everyone else in the house or in my office, never used my first name.
Although I was a young woman of twenty-eight I was generally known as Mrs Hawkins.
This seemed so natural to me and was obviously so natural to those around me that I
never, at the time, thought of insisting otherwise. I was a war-widow, Mrs Hawkins.
There was something about me, Mrs Hawkins, that invited confidences. I was abundantly
aware of it, and indeed abundance was the impression I gave. I was massive in size,
strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and
fat backside; I carried an ample weight with my five-foot-six of height, and was
healthy with it. It was, of course, partly this physical factor that disposed people
to confide in me. I looked comfortable. Photographs of the time show me with a
moon-face, two ample chins and sleepy eyes. These are black-and-white photos. Taken
in colour they would have shown my Rubens quality of flesh, eyes, skin. And I was Mrs
Hawkins. It was not till later, when I decided to be thin, that right away I noticed
that people didn’t confide their thoughts to me so much, neither men nor women.
As an aside, I can tell you that if there’s nothing wrong with you except fat
it is easy to get thin. You eat and drink the same as always, only half. If you are
handed a plate of food, leave half; if you have to help yourself, take half. After a
while, if you are a perfectionist, you can consume half of that again. On the
question of will-power, if that is a factor, you should think of will-power as
something that never exists in the present tense, only in the future and the past. At
one moment you have decided to do or refrain from an action and the next moment you
have already done or refrained; it is the only way to deal with will-power. (Only
under sub-human stress does willpower live in time present but that is a different
discourse.) I offer this advice without fee; it is included in the price of this

However all that may be, in the year 1954 I was comfortable in my fatness, known as a
‘wonderful woman’ although I had never done anything wonderful at all. I
was admired for my largeness and that all-motherly look. A young woman who I imagine
was older than myself once got up in a bus to offer me a seat. I declined. She
insisted. I realized she thought I was pregnant and accepted graciously. I enjoyed
universal affection. I was Mrs Hawkins.

BOOK: Far Cry from Kensington
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