Behind the Window
Read H.V.Morton's biography
IN that mean London street the small shop stands with certain air of authority, due to the fact that the world's problems break out like a daily rash on contents boards. 'You may telephone from here,' says a tin plate over the door.
I went in to telephone. It was a tiny, dark shop that suggested in a melancholy manner that steak and onions had recently passed that way. I rapped on the counter. There was a quick movement across a glass window, through which was revealed a dark sitting-room behind the shop.
A young woman came out smiling. She was good looking. Her hair was beautiful, her hands were rough, and her mouth looked as though a hard word would not be possible to her. She was a surprise to me, because it was just the kind of shop in which you expect to find a large man in shirt-sleeves who lost his razor last month.
'There's the telephone box!' said the young woman. Then:
'Oh, lor', Mrs. B., fancy seeing you! Alf will be glad!' Mrs. B., who had entered on my heels, was a neat, bleak woman of the kind that harbours an unquenchable enthusiasm for funerals. The young girl departed in excitement. My number was engaged, so I sat down on a chair in the shop and waited.
* * * * *
'He's coming!' said the young girl, returning. 'How is he?' asked the sorrowful woman. 'Bad,' replied Mrs. Alf. 'But ever so cheerful. It's wonderful. "There's millions worse off," he says; and I suppose he's right!'
'When was he took worse?' asked the visitor avidly. 'Six months gone. After he came out of hospital we thought he was cured, and he got a good job round at Morrisons. Then all of a sudden...'
'You've been a good wife. . .' began the bleak woman.
'Well, who wouldn't have been?' asked the girl indignantly. 'I don't know so much about that,' said the visitor. 'There's many a girl promised to marry a boy in 1914 who didn't marry him in 1919 when he came back wounded, you take my word for that.'
* * * * *
There was a shuffle from the back room. A young man came slowly into the shop leaning on a stick. His eyes were bright and sunken in his skull. His smile seemed the only live thing about him except a cough. On his waistcoat was the Mons medal. I looked at him and said to myself:
'How are you?' asked the melancholy friend.
'Not so bad,' said the man, trying not to cough. 'There's millions worse.' He smiled. 'You must be glad to be alive these days,' he added.
A child came in and bought a pennyworth of red sweets.
'What we should do without the shop I don't know,' said the little wife, with a laugh.
'Yes, that's a fact; we're very lucky to have the shop,' agreed Alf smiling.
A fit of coughing seized him suddenly, he waved his hand, and went back slowly into the dark room.
* * * * *
'Poor feller,' mused Mrs. 'Gloom.' 'You don't have a very gay life, do you?'
Just for a second I caught the passage of something terribly sad across the face of the young woman.
'Sometimes,' she said, in a low voice, 'when I see girls going past to the pictures-house I feel I'd give anything to put on me hat and go out for a bit, but I daren't leave him alone. "There's only one thing I'm sorry for," he says, "and that's you." . . . When he talks like that he makes me feel that ashamed I could cry.'
'Well, well...' said the visitor with a sigh. 'Take a plum!' She opened a bag. 'Go on, help yourself!'
'Don't think I'm grumbling,' said the wife, 'because I'm not. If I could go back, there's nothing I wouldn't do the same all over again, and that's straight!'
* * * * *
'Yes, it's a lovely day, isn't it?' said the little wife as I bought a newspaper. 'Just like summer again!'
Through the window in the wall I saw the hand of her young husband groping along the mantelpiece to find somethingthe thin, sallow hand of a man of eighty.
* * * * *
'There's millions worse off,' I whispered as I went out, A gallant gentleman in a side street.
From The Spell of London (1926)