By DIANA GRAVES
CHRISTMAS 1937 in New York started with a matutinal bang which blew me clean out of my senses.
`We must take refuge in the street immedi- ately!' I announced as coolly as possible to my sleep-besotted husband. 'That blasting in the sub- way is going-to kill us off within seconds.'
`Nonsense,' he mumbled. 'They won't be blast- ing on Christmas Day.' `Then what was that bang?'
`A balloon bursting, I expect.'
`But why should we have a balloon in the bedroom?'
There' was another deafening bang. We peered up at the ceiling. There, suspended like a deflated sausage, was my Christmas stocking attached to a great galaxy of multi-coloured balloons, two of which were as flaccid as dying foxgloves. Not having enough money to fill my stocking with more conventional gifts, I discovered, he had sat up late on the stairs, blowing up this exuberance of balloons in order that I should wake up to a festive atmosphere. During the night the stock- ing had floated up to the ceiling.
I had reason for anxiety about these bangs. Over the last few weeks they had been remorse- lessly blasting a new subway underneath our house. Every day at twelve, two amiable men with harassed faces would pop in, affix a piece of sticking plaster across the cracks in our walls, write some figures on it, and tell us in an avuncu- lar way that as soon as the plaster broke we were to inform them. It would mean that the house was likely to collapse. Every day the cracks ex- panded a millimetre, but the plaster, straining, mind you, at the leash, had miraculously re- mained intact. Nevertheless, the fear of immi- nent disaster was rapidly unhinging my mind.
We were living in a brownstone house on West 52nd Street, which had proved to our astonishment to be a brothel. On account of our youth and guilelessness it had taken us a few weeks to reach this conclusion. It was only after a succession of gentlemen had strolled into our room asking me if I were Louise, Marion, Gretel or Godina that we had realised something was amiss. By then it was too late to move out. We were in arrears with the rent, the room was cheap, and anyway we rather liked our land- lady, Madame Vionet, who, as she never ceased to explain, had had an unfortunate life. She wore ostrich feathers in her bat and had a plung- ing neckline, but in spite of these attractions had been left bereft by various heartless fellows throughout the length and breadth of America. What could she do? she asked us, tears in her eyes, but inaugurate a school for 'les jeunes filles europeennes,' who would profit by her ex- periences, realising that all men were congenital cochons. Not quite following her arguments, we would nod our heads sagely and offer her a cup of tea, which, preferring gin, she seldom accepted.
We were grateful to have a roof over our heads at all. The theatrical management which had brought us to New York four months previously had gone bankrupt with quite startling alacrity. We were both minors. As we had eloped, my husband, who was a ward in Chancery, had con- tempted court by marrying me. We hesitated to tempt Providence or nettle the law by asking the consul to repatriate us until we became of age. We were stranded in that city of canyons. Over the last month we had been distressingly reduced to eating the shockingly clean cabbage leaves from the prodigal dustbin outside Tony's bar. They were perfectly nutritious.
Christmas, however, was going to be different. We were invited, that night, to our dear friend Stefan's, who promised us chops, peas, potatoes, carrots and half a pudding. He himself was not Proposing to eat excessively as he would already have had a slap-up luncheon with his father, who was a famous pianist. We decided to sleep for the rest of the day. Sleep is the panacea for all hunger. By lunch-time, however, we were woken up by the pretty little heads of the girls upstairs Poking round the door. 'Still in bed?' they cried; leering at us happily. 'We are going out with our boy friends. Buon Natale! Happy Christmas! H eureux Noel! Frohe Weihnachten!' They had the day off and were on the way to guzzle turkey. We could have wept. We spent the rest of the afternoon, which was punctuated by the bursting of yet more balloons, discussing the magnificent meal we were going to eat that evening.
Stefan lived on East 80th Street and we walked there through a blizzard. He greeted us at the door, gleaming with pleasure. Behind him, sil- houetted against the. New York skyline, was the most magnificent Chastmas tree: silver tinsel, golden baubles, an angel on the top, glowing candles and tiny packages for both himself and his two guests. We hung our presents for him on the branches and found ourselves unable to speak from joy.
`Into the kitchen,' he cried, 'we will have a drink while we wait for the chops to cook.'
Everything smelt wonderful. We sat in a state of ecstasy, sipping red wine. Then suddenly a new smell assailed our noses and a curious wind- like sound beat on our ears. We rushed back into the drawing-room. The tree was ablaze. So were the curtains.
`Don't worry!' cried Stefan. '1 have the fire extinguisher.' He fetched it from the passage and with a tremendous jolt slammed it down on his foot. `Aah!' he moaned. 'Aah. Aah. A-a-ah l' My husband took over while I com- forted our friend. Half an hour later the fire was extinguished. There was nothing left of the tree and the curtains were reduced to spiders' webs.
'Never mind,' said Stefan, 'we can still eat.'
We went back to the kitchen. Black smoke was billowing from the oven. We opened it in anguish. The beautiful meal was charred beyond recognition. Stefan burst into tears. 'My foot, your food!' he•lamented, as indiscriminating in his woe as Shylock. 'Aiee, aiee, aiee! My food! Your foot!'
We assured him the food didn't matter a bit as we'd been stuffing ourselves all day, but the foot was important. Sighing with despair inter- spersed with terrible jokes, we set off to the
nearest hospital. They diagnosed a broken toe and put him to bed for the night. _
We got home just before dawn. The girls' rooms were ablaze with light and what I can only describe as the sound of fury. My stomach was beating against my backbone. There was a crash of furniture upstairs.
`They seem to be having a rollicking time,' said my husband. 'I'll pop up and see if they can spare us a drumstick or something.' A few minutes later he came down, his face as white as whey.
`Do you know what they're doing?' be said. 'They're drunk and striking each other about the head with their bras.' He sank into a kind of lethargy. 'Padded bras,' he went on. 'Think of that!'
'No food?' I asked.
'I couldn't interrupt them. Oh well, happy Boxing Day.'
'Yes, happy Boxing Day,' I said, cheering up like anything. 'I bet when we wake up we'll And something pretty recherche in that dustbin.'