Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong — belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd. They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road standing on the tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes into fresh and glittering air: the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west like a pale Victorian watercolour; a race in miniature motors, a band playing, flower gardens in bloom below the front, an aeroplane advertising something for the health in pale vanishing clouds across the sky.
It had seemed quite easy to Hale to be lost in Brighton. Fifty thousand people besides himself were down for the day, and for quite a while he gave himself up to the good day, drinking gins and tonics wherever his programme allowed. For he had to stick closely to a programme: from ten till eleven Queen’s Road and Castle Square, from eleven till twelve the Aquarium and Palace Pier, twelve till one the front between the Old Ship and West Pier, back for lunch between one and two in any restaurant he chose round the Castle Square, and after that he had to make his way all down the parade to the West Pier and then to the station by the Hove streets. These were the limits of his absurd and widely advertised sentry-go.
Advertised on every Messenger
poster: ‘Kolley Kibber in Brighton today.’ In his pocket he had a packet of cards to distribute in hidden places along his route; those who found them would receive ten shillings from the Messenger
, but the big prize was reserved for whoever challenged Hale in the proper form of words and with a copy of the Messenger
in his hand: ‘You are Mr Kolley Kibber. I claim the Daily Messenger
This was Hale’s job to do sentry-go, until a challenger released him, in every seaside town in turn: yesterday Southend, today Brighton, tomorrow—
He drank his gin and tonic hastily as a clock struck eleven and moved out of Castle Square. Kolley Kibber always played fair, always wore the same kind of hat as in the photograph the Messenger
printed, was always on time. Yesterday in Southend he had been unchallenged: the paper liked to save its guineas occasionally, but not too often. It was his duty today to be spotted — and it was his inclination too. There were reasons why he didn’t feel too safe in Brighton, even in a Whitsun crowd.
He leant against the rail near the Palace Pier and showed his face to the crowd as it uncoiled endlessly past him, like a twisted piece of wire, two by two, each with an air of sober and determined gaiety. They had stood all the way from Victoria in crowded carriages, they would have to wait in queues for lunch, at midnight half asleep they would rock back in trains to the cramped streets and the closed pubs and the weary walk home. With immense labour and immense patience they extricated from the long day the grain of pleasure: this sun, this music, the rattle of the miniature cars, the ghost train diving between the grinning skeletons under the Aquarium promenade, the sticks of Brighton rock, the paper sailors’ caps.
Nobody paid any attention to Hale; no one seemed to be carrying a Messenger
. He deposited one of his cards carefully on the top of a little basket and moved on, with his bitten nails and his inky fingers, alone. He only felt his loneliness after his third gin; until then he despised the crowd, but afterwards he felt his kinship. He had come out of the same streets, but he was condemned by his higher pay to pretend to want other things, and all the time the piers, the peepshows pulled at his heart. He wanted to get back — but all he could do was to carry his sneer along the front, the badge of loneliness. Somewhere out of sight a woman was singing, ‘When I came up from Brighton by the train’: a rich Guinness voice, a voice from a public bar. Hale turned into the private saloon and watched her big blown charms across two bars and through a glass partition.
She wasn’t old, somewhere in the late thirties or the early forties, and she was only a little drunk in a friendly accommodating way. You thought of sucking babies when you looked at her, but if she’d borne them she hadn’t let them pull her down: she took care of herself. Her lipstick told you that, the confidence of her big body. She was well-covered, but she wasn’t careless; she kept her lines for those who cared for lines.
Hale did. He was a small man and he watched her with covetous envy over the empty glasses tipped up in the lead trough, over the beer handles, between the shoulders of the two serving in the public bar. ‘Give us another, Lily,’ one of them said and she began, ‘One night — in an alley — Lord Rothschild said to me.’ She never got beyond a few lines. She wanted to laugh too much to give her voice a chance, but she had an inexhaustible memory for ballads. Hale had never heard one of them before. With his glass to his lips he watched her with nostalgia: she was off again on a song which must have dated back to the Australian gold rush.
‘Fred,’ a voice said behind him, ‘Fred.’
The gin slopped out of Hale’s glass on to the bar. A boy of about seventeen watched him from the door — a shabby smart suit, the cloth too thin for much wear, a face of starved intensity, a kind of hideous and unnatural pride.
‘Who are you Freding?’ Hale said. ‘I’m not Fred.’
‘It don’t make any difference,’ the boy said. He turned back towards the door, keeping an eye on Hale over his narrow shoulder.
‘Where are you going?’
‘Got to tell your friends,’ the boy said.
They were alone in the saloon bar except for an old commissionaire, who slept over a pint glass of old and mild. ‘Listen,’ Hale said, ‘have a drink. Come and sit down over here and have a drink.’
‘Got to be going,’ the boy said. ‘You know I don’t drink, Fred. You forget a lot, don’t you?’
‘It won’t make any difference having one drink. A soft drink.’
‘It’ll have to be a quick one,’ the boy said. He watched Hale all the time closely and with wonder: you might expect a hunter searching through the jungle for some half-fabulous beast to look like that — at the spotted lion or the pygmy elephant — before the kill. ‘A grape-fruit squash,’ he said.
‘Go on, Lily,’ the voices implored in the public bar. ‘Give us another, Lily,’ and the boy took his eyes for the first time from Hale and looked across the partition at the big breasts and the blown charm.
‘A double whisky and a grape-fruit squash,’ Hale said. He carried them to a table, but the boy didn’t follow. He was watching the woman with an expression of furious distaste. Hale felt as if hatred had been momentarily loosened like handcuffs to be fastened round another’s wrists. He tried to joke, ‘A cheery soul.’
‘Soul,’ the boy said. ‘You’ve no cause to talk about souls.’ He turned his hatred back on Hale, drinking down the grape-fruit squash in a single draught.
Hale said, ‘I’m only here for my job. Just for the day. I’m Kolley Kibber.’
‘You’re Fred,’ the boy said.
‘All right,’ Hale said, ‘I’m Fred. But I’ve got a card in my pocket which’ll be worth ten bob to you.’
‘I know all about the cards,’ the boy said. He had a fair smooth skin, the faintest down, and his grey eyes had an effect of heartlessness like an old man’s in which human feeling has died. ‘We were all reading about you,’ he said, ‘in the paper this morning,’ and suddenly he sniggered as if he’d just seen the point of a dirty story.
‘You can have one,’ Hale said. ‘Look, take this Messenger
. Read what it says there. You can have the whole prize. Ten guineas,’ he said. ‘You’ll only have to send this form to the Messenger
‘Then they don’t trust you with the cash,’ the boy said, and in the other bar Lily began to sing, ‘We met — ’twas in a crowd — and I thought he would shun me.’ ‘Christ,’ the boy said, ‘won’t anybody stop that buer’s mouth?’
‘I’ll give you a fiver,’ Hale said. ‘It’s all I’ve got on me. That and my ticket.’
‘You won’t want your ticket,’ the boy said.
‘I wore my bridal robe, and I rivall’d its whiteness.’
The boy rose furiously, and giving way to a little vicious spurt of hatred — at the song? at the man? — he dropped his empty glass on to the floor. ‘The gentleman’ll pay,’ he said to the barman and swung through the door of the private lounge. It was then Hale realized that they meant to murder him.‘A wreath of orange blossoms,
When next we met, she wore;
The expression of her features
Was more thoughtful than before.’
The commissionaire slept on and Hale watched her from the deserted elegant lounge. Her big breasts pointed through the thin vulgar summer dress, and he thought: I must get away from here, I must get away: sadly and desperately watching her, as if he were gazing at life itself in the public bar. But he couldn’t get away, he had his job to do: they were particular on the Messenger
. It was a good paper to be...
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