Graham Greene: A Little Place off the Edgware Road

Craven came up past the Achilles statue in the thin summer rain. It was only just after lighting-up time, but already the cars were lined up all the way to the Marble Arch, and the sharp acquisitive Jewish faces peered out ready for a good time with anything possible which came along. Craven went bitterly by with the collar of his mackintosh tight round his throat: it was one of his bad days.

All the way up the park he was reminded of passion, but you needed money for love. All that a poor man could get was lust. Love needed a good suit, a car, a flat somewhere, or a good hotel. It needed to be wrapped in cellophane. He was aware all the time of the stringy tie beneath the mackintosh, and the frayed sleeves: he carried his body about with him like something he hated. (There were moments of happiness in the British Museum reading-room, but the body called him back.) He bore, as his only sentiment, the memory of ugly deeds committed on park chairs. People talked as if the body died too soon—that wasn’t the trouble, to Craven, at all. The body kept alive—and through the glittering tinselly rain, on his way to a rostrum, passed a little man in a black suit carrying a banner, “The Body shall rise again.” He remembered a dream he had three times woken trembling from: He had been alone in the huge dark cavernous burying ground of all the world. Every grave was connected to another under the ground: the globe was honeycombed for the sake of the dead, and on each occasion of dreaming he had discovered anew the horrifying fact that the body doesn’t decay. There are no worms and dissolution. Under the ground the world was littered with masses of dead flesh ready to rise again with their warts and boils and eruptions. He had lain in bed and remembered—as “tidings of great joy”—that the body after all was corrupt.

He came up into the Edgware Road walking fast—the Guardsmen were out in couples, great languid elongated beasts—the bodies like worms in their tight trousers. He hated them, and hated his hatred because he knew what it was, envy. He was aware that every one of them had a better body than himself: indigestion creased his stomach: he felt sure that his breath was foul—but who could he ask? Sometimes he secretly touched himself here and there with scent: it was one of his ugliest secrets. Why should he be asked to believe in the resurrection of this body he wanted to forget? Sometimes he prayed at night (a hint of religious belief was lodged in his breast like a worm in a nut) that his body at any rate should never rise again.

He knew all the side streets round the Edgware Road only too well: when a mood was on, he simply walked until he tired, squinting at his own image in the windows of Salmon & Gluckstein and the A.B.C.’s. So he noticed at once the posters outside the disused theatre in Culpar Road. They were not unusual, for sometimes Barclays Bank Dramatic Society would hire the place for an evening, or an obscure film would be trade-shown there. The theatre had been built in 1920 by an optimist who thought the cheapness of the site would more than counter-balance its disadvantage of lying a mile outside the conventional theatre zone. But no play had ever succeeded, and it was soon left to gather rat-holes and spiderwebs. The covering of the seats was never renewed, and all that ever happened to the place was the temporary false life of an amateur’s play or a trade show.

Craven stopped and read—there were still optimists it appeared, even in 1939, for nobody but the blindest optimist could hope to make money out of the place as “The Home of the Silent Film.” The first season of “primitives” was announced (a high-brow phrase): there would never be a second. Well, the seats were cheap, and it was perhaps worth a shilling to him, now that he was tired, to get in somewhere out of the rain. Craven bought a ticket and went in to the darkness of the stalls.

In the dead darkness a piano tinkled something monotonously recalling Mendelssohn: he sat down in a gangway seat, and could immediately feel the emptiness all round him. No, there would never be another season. On the screen a large woman in a kind of toga wrung her hands, then wobbled with curious jerky movements towards a couch. There she sat and stared out like a sheep-dog distractedly through her loose and black and stringy hair. Sometimes she seemed to dissolve altogether into dots and flashes and wiggly lines. A sub-title said,  “Pompilia betrayed by her beloved Augustus seeks an end to her troubles.”

Craven began at last to see—a dim waste of stalls. There were not twenty people in the place—a few couples whispering with their heads touching, and a number of lonely men like himself wearing the same uniform of the cheap mackintosh. They lay about at intervals like corpses—and again Craven’s obsession returned: the toothache of horror. He thought miserably—I am going mad: other people don’t feel like this. Even a disused theatre reminded him of those interminable caverns where the bodies were waiting for resurrection.

“A slave to his passion Augustus calls for yet more wine.”

A gross middle-aged Teutonic actor lay on an elbow with his arm round a large woman in a shift. The “Spring Song” tinkled ineptly on, and the screen flickered like indigestion. Somebody felt his way through the darkness, scrabbling past Craven’s knees—a small man: Craven experienced the unpleasant feeling of a large beard brushing his mouth. Then there was a long sigh as the newcomer found the next chair, and on the screen events had moved with such rapidity that Pompilia had already stabbed herself—or so Craven supposed—and lay still and buxom among her weeping slaves.

A low breathless voice sighed out close to Craven’s ear, “What’s happened? Is she asleep?”

“No. Dead.”

“Murdered?” the voice asked with a keen interest.

“I don’t think so. Stabbed herself.”

Nobody said “Hush”: nobody was enough interested to object to a voice: they drooped among the empty chairs in attitudes of weary inattention.

The film wasn’t nearly over yet: there were children somehow to be considered: was it all going on to a second generation? But the small bearded man in the next seat seemed to be interested only in Pompilia’s death. The fact that he had come in at that moment apparently fascinated him. Craven heard the word “coincidence” twice, and he went on talking to himself about it in low out-of-breath tones. “Absurd when you come to think of it,” and then “no blood at all.” Craven didn’t listen: he sat with his hands clasped between his knees, facing the fact as he had faced it so often before, that he was in danger of going mad. He had to pull himself up, take a holiday, see a doctor (God knew what infection moved in his veins). He became aware that his bearded neighbour had addressed him directly. “What?” he asked impatiently, “what did you say?”

“There would be more blood than you can imagine.”

“What are you talking about?”

When the man spoke to him, he sprayed him with damp breath. There was a little bubble in his speech like an impediment. He said, “When you murder a man…”

“This was a woman,” Craven said impatiently.

“That wouldn’t make any difference.”

“And it’s got nothing to do with murder anyway.”

“That doesn’t signify.” They seemed to have got into an absurd and meaningless wrangle in the dark.

“I know, you see,” the little bearded man said in a tone of enormous conceit.

“Know what?”

“About such things,” he said with guarded ambiguity.

Craven turned and tried to see him clearly. Was he mad? Was this a warning of what he might become-babbling incomprehensibly to strangers in cinemas? He thought, By God, no, trying to see: I’ll be sane yet. I will be sane. He could make out nothing but a small black hump of body. The man was talking to himself again. He said, “Talk. Such talk. They’ll say it was all for fifty pounds. But that’s a lie. Reasons and reasons. They always take the first reason. Never look behind. Thirty years of reasons. Such simpletons,” he added again in that tone of breathless and unbounded conceit. So this was madness. So long as he could realize that, he must be sane himself—relatively speaking. Not so sane perhaps as the Jews in the park or the Guardsmen in the Edgware Road, but saner than this. It was like a message of encouragement as the piano tinkled on.

Then again the little man turned and sprayed him. “Killed herself, you say? But who’s to know that? It’s not a mere question of what hand holds the knife.” He laid a hand suddenly and confidingly on Craven’s: it was damp and sticky: Craven said with horror as a possible meaning came to him, “What are you talking about?”

“I know,” the little man said. “A man in my position gets to know almost everything.”

“What is your position?” Craven said, feeling the sticky hand on his, trying to make up his mind whether he was being hysterical or not; after all, there were a dozen explanations—it might be treacle.

“A pretty desperate one you’d say.” Sometimes the voice almost died in the throat altogether. Something incomprehensible had happened on the screen-take your eyes from these early pictures for a moment and the plot had proceeded on at such a pace! Only the actors moved slowly and jerkily. A young woman in a night  dress seemed to be weeping in the arms of a Roman centurion: Craven hadn’t seen either of them before. “I am not afraid of death, Lucius—in your arms.”

The little man began to titter, knowingly. He was talking to himself again. It would have been easy to ignore him altogether if it had not been for those sticky hands which he now removed; he seemed to be fumbling at the seat in front of him. His head had a habit of lolling suddenly sideways, like an idiot child’s. He said distinctly and irrelevantly, “Bayswater Tragedy.”

“What was that?” Craven said sharply. He had seen those words on a poster before he entered the park.

“What?”

“About the tragedy.”

“To think they call Cullen Mews Bayswater.” Suddenly the little man began to cough, turning his face towards Craven and coughing right at him: it was like vindictiveness. The voice said brokenly, “Let me see. My umbrella.” He was getting up.

“You didn’t have an umbrella.”

“My umbrella,” he repeated. “My…” and seemed to lose the word altogether. He went scrabbling out past Craven’s knees.

Craven let him go, but before he had reached the billowy dusty curtains of the exit the screen went blank and bright—the film had broken, and somebody immediately turned up one dirt-choked chandelier above the circle. It shone down just enough for Craven to see the smear on his hands. This wasn’t hysteria: this was a fact. He wasn’t mad: he had sat next a madman who in some mews—what was the name Colon, Collin… Craven jumped up and made his own way out: the black curtain flapped in his mouth. But he was too late: the man had gone and there were three turnings to choose from. He chose instead a telephone box and dialled, wit an odd sense for him of sanity and decision, 999.

It didn’t take two minutes to get the right department. They were interested and very kind. Yes, there had been a murder in a mews, Cullen Mews. A man’s neck ha been cut from ear to ear with a bread knife—a horrid crime. He began to tell them how he had sat next the murderer in a cinema: it couldn’t be anyone else: there was blood now on his hands—and he remembered with repulsion as he spoke the damp beard. There must have been a terrible lot of blood. But the voice from the Yar interrupted him. “Oh, no,” it was saying, “we have the murderer-no doubt of it at all. It’s the body that’s disappeared.”

Craven put down the receiver. He said to himself aloud, “Why should this happen to me? Why to me?” He was back in the horror of his dream—the squalid darkering street outside was only one of the innumerable tunnels connecting grave to grave where the imperishable bodies lay. He said, “It was a dream, a dream,” and leaning forward he saw in the mirror above the telephone his own face sprinkled by tiny drops of blood like dew from a scent-spray. He began to scream, “I won’t go mad. won’t go mad. I’m sane. I won’t go mad.” Presently a little crowd began to collect, and soon a policeman came.

Bibliographic data

Author: Graham Greene
Title: A Little Place off the Edgware Road
Published in: 19 Stories (1947)

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Graham Greene
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