24 OCTOBER 1952, Page 10


Tenpence Return

By MARGARET E. Sill/EN (University of Edinburgh)

1 CAUGHT it—just. The last one flew past heedless-and full: the one before sated itself with the first two in the queue, the red-headed gentleman with the brief-case who always seems to be at the head of the queue and the girl in the green gaberdine who looks meticulous—a typist, we think— well groomed and powdered, with coral lips. - Has she had breakfast ? We doubt it. But she's neat, and morning coffee is not far off. I clambered in, clutching my -books, and became sandwiched between two fellow-travellers standing gripping the rail by the luggage-rack, wretched and sleepful. Breakfast had been a rushed and silent meal for all of us, and the eyelids longed heavily for sleep uninterrupted by the rude insistence of the alarm-clock.

Mechanically the hand goes up to clutch the bar to which we cling lest we should be tossed forward or backward into the lap or on to the toes of the miserable-looking herd. Miserable; but interesting. Each with a day ahead of- him or her: each not particularly interested in the day, and- yet the day must hold something new. Time goes on, and we all go with it. Like animals, yet all human. Human ? I suppose we are: yet were ever animals packed like this -in an atmosphere of torpid tobacco fumes ? Forty-two people breathing this foil, foul air. We're mad : or are we really frightened of the fresh fine air beyond the steamed-up window ? Let's try it' " May I open the window, please ? Just a little ? "

Grunts come from all round, possibly intended to be nega- tive, but we're bold and take the plunge, drawing open the unused window. just a fraction. The collars automatically are pulled up as though little demons labelled " Neuritis," " Neuralgia," "-Laryngitis " or " Lumbago "—anything with a name—were, in phalanx-formation, poised on the window ledge, ready to leap, on their victims. - We see the bespectacled gentleman from behind the Daily Mail eyeing this fresh-air fiend. " Such audacity " is written on his lips. Or is it just the grim thought of the office from nine till five with the continual clatter of the -typewriter: of the same old ledgers, the same old desk, the same old lunch- hour with the same old friends at the same old table ? And the roast beef is bound to be " off " and the waitress always with the inevitable salutation, " Sorry, Sir, but .. ."

The traffic-lights change to red, and we, standing, lurch en masse. My right foot treads clumsily on the delicately nyloned ankle of the comptometerist (or is she a trifle more distin- guished—perhaps mounting the ladder in the accountant's office ? ). I apologise profusely, blush and hastily divert my gaze out of the window—the gutter, the kerb, the pavement and four feet of wall. What inspiration ! And there a communal dustbin, bases of lamp-posts, of bus-stops; the legs of dis- appointed queuers, disgruntled and awake only to the realis- ation that unless the next bus takes them they will be late and the usual excuse will be received less cr‘dulously than the time before. I suppose for them even the rigours of a journey such as mine would be received more gratefully than the incredulity and resigned nod of the boss.

I changed position replacing my right arm, now almost numb with the necessary tautening of muscles in my wrist and forearm to maintain my balance, by my left; and succeeded in getting my right nostril in contact with the single stream of- fresh air, an oasis in the fume-filled atmosphere. " Oh there is blessing in this gentle breeze "-' but how different this all is from 'the scene which inspired Wordsworth. What heaven- it would be to walk encompassed by the soft breeze; to muse undisturbed " Save when, amid the gtately grove of oaks, Now here, now there, an acorn,' from its cup • Dislodged, through sere leaves iustled, or at once To the bare earth dropped with a startling sound." A noisy acorn, forsooth ! The brakes screech. Is it a dog or a cat, a child or an wild man ? No, none of these. It is just a zebra on whose back awkward creatures tread gently and possessively : the traffic rolls back from them as the breakers of the Red Sea fell back before the Host of Israel.

The passengers having regained their composure (the more communicative ones discussing the merits of the pedestrians' luxury, the more clumsy of those standing begging pardon once more ftom the owner of the nyloned leg or well-polished foot- wear, and the others looking askance at the gradual unfurling of a heated blush from the overwhelined driver's neck), the journey continued.

More gutter, strewn with richly coloured' and variously tinted autbmn leaves, more pavement, and, to break the monotony of the wall, three newsagents' bills propped up on the pave- ment. I caught a glimpse of the headlines chalked boldly in black : LATEST NEWS : —Baby Drowned, Mother Sus- . 'pected; Rise in Foodstuffs, Butter, etc.; Increased T.B. Death Rate. The first,- I reckoned, would provide gossip over tubs of steaming soap-suds for women at the public wash-house : the second would create yet another financial crisis at home : and the third I read almost unconcernedly. " Just the usual," my 8.45 a.m. brain said: but no, it's serious and nonsensical. " Increased T.B. Death Rate." How many subtle germs were being fostered in this bus and hundreds like it, in these travel- lers and thousands like them because they are frightened of fresh air ? No stringent flinging open of windows is required: surely just a little would do the trick. Yet another impulsive theory about the modern age incites me—and then the sicken- ing thought of a Greek prose...:.. But I'm sure Socrates would not have endured the filthy nicotine fog, nor Alexander, who defied Porus with his horde of elephants, the paltry zebra crossingt-but then civilisation has advanced, and we have mass radiography and an efficient highway code. Yes, that prose must be finished before afternoon and that English essay for Friday. Don't let's worry about people contracting T.B. and being sent to Switzerland.

I disembarked, inhaled some refreshing air and walked to my nine o'clock lecture. Another day begun in the same way. Thank goodness I can return this evening before the rush- hour, relax in comfort on a seat and view the six-mile journey from a different angle.

Honourable mention and one guinea to Connolly Cole, of Trinity College, Dublin.