In Search of a Home
By A. J. COOPER (Wadham College, Oxford) THE Delegacy of Lodgings is a forbidding building, full - of doors and corridors. It was from this, a week before the beginning of term, that we issued, clutching a printed list of landladies' names that had been thrust at us in reply to our muttered, "Somewhere cheap and central." The search for lodgings, especially in university towns,- has developed into something that is almost a science. We were two inexperienced scientists, but the day did not close until we had learnt a great deal-of the subtle art. It was a bitter winter day; the wind lashed round the corners of the bare and empty streets, seem- ing to cut us as it rode by. We huddled by a lamp-post and considered the printed list.
"Somewhere cheap and central." Mrs. Junks of 110 Amelia Avenue, and it really was Mrs. Junks, turned out to be old and deaf but kindly. The house was also old. It smelt of age. Mrs. Junks talked incessantly. We followed her mutely upstairs, looking at one another as we climbed. The room was small and horribly square. It was brown. An oar leant unhappily against the far wall; draped over it was a pair of very dirty shorts. An egg-collector's box lay on the floor; books were scattered about. Mrs. Junks seemed used to the confusion. "The other gentleman said he'd take 'is things out, but 'e 'asn't," she finished rather irrelevantly in a triumphant high falsetto.
"There's a bed," she added, and led us across the landing. There certainly was a bed. It filled the whole room with its brassy Victorian vastness. This room was also brown. "Look," she said," I keep an 'ot-water bottle in it. Terrible damp here it is."
"Are you on the telephone ? "said John. She looked at him as if from a great distance.
"No," she said. "Three pounds ten a week." We retreated, and she followed us down the stairs saying that the gentleman's things would, of course, be moved, and that she cooked break- fast. The other gentleman liked lots of toast. Did we ? We retreated a little faster down the hall, telling her that we'd let her know soon. Her face fell. "Only three pounds ten," she said as we went out of the door. Outside we just looked at one another. Round the corner was a telephone-box. We used it.
The next door was more imposing. Ferns draped it; pillars supported it. A face eyed us suspiciously from an upper window as we approached. John banged on the door. A pause. He twisted the bell, and the door flew open. " Sssh. You'll wake the baby," said a cross female whisper. - "I'm so sorry," said John. "I believe that you have a room to let ? '
"Might we see it, if that won't disturb the baby." A smile flickered on her face. "Very well then. The other gentleman just went off; so I haven't done anything to it." That we had no difficulty in believing. After climbing several flights of stairs we were shown a scene of indescribable con- fusion. The bed was still unmade with an open suitcase' on it. A box of matches had sprayed across the floor. Margarine had turned green on the plate. The inevitable books lay in heaps and piles over the room. A pair of trousers leered drunkenly from the chair in front of the fire. "He just went, and I've been busy. It's three guineas a week," she said. "Yes," said John. ." The heating ? " "Oh. there's a fire somewhere. I'll put it in here before you come." Then she added "Gas."
"There's another Wardrobe if you want it," the woman said almost hopefully. "Have you another lamp ? " "No. I provide one light. Have you got any linen ? " " Well-er," John paused. "Not on me I'm afraid." And the landlady laughed. Again we fled, this time trying not to wake the baby.
Then we met the Marquis. That the Marquis was unknown in Oxford was not at all surprising, for, we soon learnt, his stay had been a short one. ' This was to be our third and last attempt for the day, for we had to be back in London that night. It was also the most instructive.
In a corridor that reminded one of Charles Dickens we met a rather hostile landlady. We climbed the stairs towards what proved to be the Marquis=s room. It was she who told us the story, prompted from the background by a stuttering but friendly husband. "'E was a proper one, 'e was," she said. "Took us in completely. First one to do that since we been 'ere, and that's twenty-three years," she added a little belligerently. She looked mournfully at the room. The sight was, by now, familiar to us. In the middle of the floor a suit- case lay open, full of papers and odd personal belongings. A wardrobe showed us two suits. Books and papers covered the 'room with their confusion. But there was one fresh object. A cheque-book lay open on the table. "'E came up two weeks late, and went away four weeks early," she said, and laughed at her joke. To us " he " was still a mystery, but she was determined that we should not remain in the dark for long. "'E said 'is mother lived in France."
"Yes," said her husband, " F-F-France. I t-t-t-told them that at the p-p-p-police station." Not for the first time that afternoon John and I exchanged silent glances. "What did he do ? " I said.
"Well 'e 'ad a high time," she said. "'E came 'ere and said that he wanted a room for three years. all the time, 'cos 'is mother was in France you see, name of Johnstone. Well, then he said he'd pay me weekly, good. Well, then he started accounts up all over the place, these suits and things, none of 'em paid for, you know. With all these he called 'imself- what was it, George ? "
George thus addressed grinned and scratched himself. "Well. it was the Marquis de something or other wasn't it, de Bou, no, de Buff. . . . Wait a minute, I think I've got one of 'is cards that 'e 'ad printed and didn't pay for."
He bent over and scuffled through the papers, grunting as he did so. We waited. Even the landlady stopped talking. " N-N-N-No, I can't see them." More scuffling.
"Aren't they downstairs George ? " The landlady was determined that we should know all the facts of the case and see the evidence. " N-N-No, here somewhere."
Letting of rooms had faded away. The Marquis held the floor. We were, by now, equally determined to hear the rest of the story. "'E was at college with the other gentlemen here," we were informed. "Nice gentlemen they are."
"'Ere they are." A happy voice, his triumph obliterating his stutter for a moment, cried, "The Marquis de Boff, no, Bouffremont Croixville requests the pleasure of your company to cocktails. R.S.V.P." He laughed hollowly. We were both presented with a card. Then the landlady resumed her tale. "After two weeks I wanted my rent, so I asked 'im, and 'e writes me out a cheque for two weeks, all well and good; then that night 'e just goes. We never seen 'im since. Then it all came out. He'd accounts all over the place." Here she laughed. "Drink-shops everywhere. After he gave us the cheque 'e 'ad dinner at the Mitre. Then he went to the Gents, took off his evening clothes and went out through the window, just so nobody 'ud see 'im. Left all 'is evening clothes on the floor, and that's the last anybody ever saw of 'im. 'Cept we did 'ear that 'e'd cashed a dud cheque for thirty-five quid on 'is mother. . . . Police after 'im all over the place." " Y-Y-Yes, I 'ad to go to the p'lice station," grinned the man, "but w-w-w-we won't get anything out of them."
"It's the first time we've ever been had," the good lady repeated once more. "And it will be the last," she said look- ing meaningly at John. John smiled his Irish smile, and all was well at once.
"Four guineas a week and no breakfast," she said. Again we fled.