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Down and Out in Paris and London

- George Orwell


The table was wiped with a cloth, Madame F. brought more litre bottles and loaves of bread, and we Settled down to serious drinking. There were more songs. An itinerant singer came in with his banjo and performed for five-sou pieces. An Arab and a girl from the BISTRO down the street did a dance, the man wielding a painted wooden phallus the size of a rolling-pin. There were gaps in the noise now. People had begun to talk about their love-affairs, and the war, and the barbel fishing in the Seine, and the best way to FAIRE LA REVOLUTION, and to tell stories. Charlie, grown sober again, captured the conversation and talked about his soul for five minutes. The doors and windows were opened to cool the room. The street was emptying, and in the distance one could hear the lonely milk train thundering down the Boulevard St Michel. The air blew cold on our foreheads, and the coarse African wine still tasted good: we were still happy, but meditatively, with the shouting and hilarious mood finished.

By one o'clock we were not happy any longer. We felt the joy of the evening wearing thin, and called hastily for more bottles, but Madame F. was watering the wine now, and it did not taste the same. Men grew quarrelsome. The girls were violently kissed and hands thrust into their bosoms and they made off lest worse should happen. Big Louis, the bricklayer, was drunk, and crawled about the floor barking and pretending to be a dog. The others grew tired of him and kicked at him as he went past. People seized each other by the arm and began long rambling confessions, and were angry when these were not listened to. The crowd thinned. Manuel and another man, both gamblers, went across to the Arab BISTRO, where card-playing went on till daylight. Charlie suddenly borrowed thirty francs from Madame F. and disappeared, probably to a brothel. Men began to empty their glasses, call briefly, ''SIEURS, DAMES!' and go off to bed.

By half past one the last drop of pleasure had evaporated, leaving nothing but headaches. We perceived that we were not splendid inhabitants of a splendid world, but a crew of underpaid workmen grown squalidly and dismally drunk. We went on swallowing the wine, but it was only from habit, and the stuff seemed suddenly nauseating. One's head had swollen up like a balloon, the floor rocked, one's tongue and lips were stained purple. At last it was no use keeping it up any longer. Several men went out into the yard behind the BISTRO and were sick. We crawled up to bed, tumbled down half dressed, and stayed there ten hours.

Most of my Saturday nights went in this way. On the whole, the two hours when one was perfectly and wildly happy seemed worth the subsequent headache. For many men in the quarter, unmarried and with no future to think of, the weekly drinking-bout was the one thing that made life worth living.

Charlie told us a good story one Saturday night in the BISTRO. Try and picture him - drunk, but sober enough to talk consecutively. He bangs on the zinc bar and yells for silence:

'Silence, MESSIEURS ET DAMES - silence, I implore you! Listen to this story, that I am about to tell you. A memorable story, an instructive story, one of the souvenirs of a refined and civilized life. Silence, MESSIEURS ET DAMES!

'It happened at a time when I was hard up. You know what that is like - how damnable, that a man of refinement should ever be in such a condition. My money had not come from home; I had pawned everything, and there was nothing open to me except to work, which is a thing I will not do. I was living with a girl at the time - Yvonne her name was - a great half-witted peasant girl like Azaya there, with yellow hair and fat legs. The two of us had eaten nothing in three days. MON DIEU, what sufferings! The girl used to walk up and down the room with her hands on her belly, howling like a dog that she was dying of starvation. It was terrible.

'But to a man of intelligence nothing is impossible. I propounded to myself the question, 'What is the easiest way to get money without working?' And immediately the answer came: 'To get money easily one must be a woman. Has not every woman something to sell?' And then, as I lay reflecting upon the things I should do if I were a woman, an idea came into my head. I remembered the Government maternity hospitals - you know the Government maternity hospitals? They are places where women who are ENCEINTE are given meals free and no questions are asked. It is done to encourage childbearing. Any woman can go there and demand a meal, and she is given it immediately.

''MON DIEU!' I thought, 'if only I were a woman! I would eat at one of those places every day. Who can tell whether a woman is ENCEINTE or not, without an examination?'

'I turned to Yvonne. 'Stop that insufferable bawling.' I said, 'I have thought of a way to get food.'

''How?' she said.

''It is simple,' I said. 'Go to the Government maternity hospital. Tell them you are ENCEINTE and ask for food. They will give you a good meal and ask no questions.'

'Yvonne was appalled. 'MAIS, MON DIEU,' she cried, 'I am not ENCEINTE!'

''Who cares?' I said. 'That is easily remedied. What do you need except a cushion - two cushions if necessary? It is an inspiration from heaven, MA CHERE. Don't waste it.'

'Well, in the end I persuaded her, and then we borrowed a cushion and I got her ready and took her to the maternity hospital. They received her with open arms. They gave her cabbage soup, a ragout of beef, a puree of potatoes, bread and cheese and beer, and all kinds of advice about her baby. Yvonne gorged till she almost burst her skin, and managed to slip some of the bread and cheese into her pocket for me.

I took her there every day until I had money again. My intelligence had saved us.

'Everything went well until a year later. I was with Yvonne again, and one day we were walking down the Bou-levard Port Royal, near the barracks. Suddenly Yvonne's mouth fell open, and she began turning red and white, and red again.

''MON DIEU!' she cried, 'look at that who is coming! It is the nurse who was in charge at the maternity hospital. I am ruined!'

''Quick!' I said, 'run!' But it was too late. The nurse had recognized Yvonne, and she came straight up to us, smiling. She was a big fat woman with a gold pince-nez and red cheeks like the cheeks of an apple. A motherly, interfering kind of woman.

''I hope you are well, MA PETITE?' she said kindly. 'And your baby, is he well too? Was it a boy, as you were hoping?'

'Yvonne had begun trembling so hard that I had to grip her arm. 'No,' she said at last.

''Ah, then, EVIDEMMENT, it was a girl?'

'Thereupon Yvonne, the idiot, lost her head completely. 'No,' she actually said again!

'The nurse was taken aback. 'COMMENT!' she exclaimed, 'neither a boy nor a girl! But how can that be?'

'Figure to yourselves, MESSIEURS ET DAMES, it was a dangerous moment. Yvonne had turned the colour of a beetroot and she looked ready to burst into tears; another second and she would have confessed everything. Heaven knows what might have happened. But as for me, I had kept my head; I stepped in and saved the situation.

''It was twins,' I said calmly.

''Twins!' exclaimed the nurse. And she was so pleased that she took Yvonne by the shoulders and embraced her on both cheeks, publicly.

'Yes, twins ..'

More from Down and Out in Paris and London:    Excerpt 1

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