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THE ROWDY gang of singers who sat at the scattered tables saw Arthur walk: unsteadily to the head of the stairs, and though they must all have known that he was dead drunk, and seen the danger he would soon be in, no one attempted to talk to him and lead him back to his seat. With eleven pints of beer and seven small gins playing hide-and-seek inside his stomach, he fell from the top-most stair to the bottom.
It was Benefit Night for the White Horse Club, and the pub had burst its contribution box and spread a riot through its rooms and between its four walls. Floors shook and windows rattled, and leaves of aspidistras wilted in the fumes of beer and smoke. Notts County had beaten the visiting team, and the members of the White Horse supporters club were quartered upstairs to receive a flow of victory. Arthur was not a member of the club, but Brenda was, and so he was drinking the share of her absent husband-as far as it would go-and when the club went bust and the shrewd publican put on the towels for those that couldn't pay, he laid eight half-crowns on the table, intending to fork out for his own.
For it was Saturday night, the best and bingiest glad-time of the week, one of the fifty-two holidays in the slow-turning Big Wheel of the year, a violent preamble to a prostrate Sabbath. Piled-up passions were exploded on Saturday night, and the effect of a week's monotonous graft in the factory was swilled out of your system in a burst of goodwill. You followed the motto of "be drunk and be happy," kept your crafty arms around female waists, and felt the beer going beneficially down into the elastic capacity of your guts.
Brenda and two other women sitting at Arthur's table saw him push back his chair and stand up with a clatter, his grey eyes filmed over so that he looked like a tall, thin Druid about to begin a maniacal dance. Instead, he muttered something that they were too tight or far away to understand, and walked unsteadily to the top stair. Many people looked at him as he held on to the rail. He turned his head in a slow stare around the packed room, as if he did not know which foot to move first in order to start his body on the descent, or even know why he wanted to go down the stairs at that particular moment.
He felt electric light bulbs shining and burning into the back of his head, and sensed in the opening and closing flash of a second that his mind and body were entirely separate entities inconsiderately intent on going their different ways. For some reason, the loud, cracked voice singing in the room behind seemed like a signal that he should begin descending at once, so he put one foot forward, watched it turn towards the next step in a hazy fashion, and felt the weight of his body bending towards it until pressure from above became so great that he started rolling down the stairs.
A high-octane fuel of seven gins and eleven pints had set him into motion like a machine, and had found its way into him because of a man's boast. A big, loud-mouthed bastard who said he had been a sailor-so Arthur later summed him upwas throwing his weight about and holding dominion over several tables, telling his listeners of all the places he had been to in the world, each anecdote pointing to the fact that he was a champion boozer and the palliest bloke in the pub. He was forty and in his prime, with a gut not too much gone to fat, wearing a brown waist-coated suit and a shirt with matching stripes whose cuffs came down to the hairs of self-assurance on the back of his beefy hand.
"Drink?" Brenda's friend exclaimed. "I'll bet you can't drink like young Arthur Seaton there"-nodding to Arthur's end of the table. "He's on'y twenty-one and 'e can tek it in like a fish. I don't know where 'e puts it all. It just goes in and in and you wonder when 'is guts are goin' ter go bust all over the room, but 'e duzn't even get fatter!"
Loudmouth grunted and tried to ignore her eulogy, but at the end of a fiery and vivid description of a brothel in Alexandria he called over to Arthur: "I hear you drink a lot, matey?"
Arthur didn't like being called "matey." It put his back up straight away. "Middlin'," he answered modestly. "Why?"
"What's the most you've ever drunk, then?" Loudmouth wanted to know. "We used to have boozing matches on shore- leave," he added with a wide, knowing smile to the aroused group of spectators. He reminded Arthur of a sergeant-major who once put him on a charge.
"I don't know," Arthur told him. "I can't count, you see."
"Well," Loudmouth rejoined, "let's see how much you can drink now. Loser pays the bill."
Arthur did not hesitate. Free booze was free booze. Anyway, he begrudged big talkers their unearned glory, and hoped to show him up and take him down to his right size.
Loudmouth's tactics were skilful and sound, he had to admit that. Having won the toss-up for choice, he led off on gins, and after the seventh gin he switched to beer, pints. Arthur enjoyed the gins, and relished the beer. It seemed an even contest for a long time, as if they would sit there swilling it back for ever, until Loudmouth suddenly went green halfway through the tenth pint and had to rush outside. He must have paid the bill downstairs, because he didn't come back. Arthur, as if nothing had happened, went back to his beer.
He was laughing to himself as he rolled down the stairs, at the dull bumping going on behind his head and along his spine, as if it were happening miles away, like a vibration on another part of the earth's surface, and he an earthquake-machine on which it was faintly recorded. This rolling motion was so restful and soporific, in fact, that when he stopped travelling-having arrived at the bottom of the stairs-he kept his eyes closed and went to sleep. It was a pleasant and faraway feeling, and he wanted to stay in exactly the same position for the rest of his life.
Someone was poking him in the ribs: he recognized it not as the vicious poke of someone who had beaten him in a fight, or the gentle and playful poke of a woman whom he had taken to bed, but the tentative poke of a man who did not know whether he was poking the ribs of someone who might suddenly spring up and give him a bigger poke back. It seemed to Arthur that the man was endeavouring to tell him something as well, so he tried very hard, but unsuccessfully, to make an answer, though he did not yet know what the man was saying. Even had he been able to make his lips move the man would not have understood him, because Arthur's face was pulled down into his stomach, so that for all the world he looked like a fully-dressed and giant foetus curled up at the bottom of the stairs on a plush-red carpet, hiding in the shadow of two aspidistras that curved out over him like arms of jungle foliage.
The man's pokes became more persistent, and Arthur dimly realised that the fingers must belong either to one of the waiters or to the publican himself. It was a waiter, towel in one hand and tray in the other, white jacket open from overwork, a face normally blank but now expressing some character because he had begun to worry about this tall, iron-faced, crop-haired youth lying senseless at his feet.
"He's had a drop too much, poor bloke," said an elderly man, stepping over Arthur's body and humming a hymn tune as he went up the stairs, thinking how jolly yet sinful it would be if he possessed the weakness yet strength of character to get so drunk and roll down the stairs in such a knocked-out state.
"Come on, Jack," the waiter pleaded with Arthur. "We don't want the pleece to come in and find you like that or we shall get summonsed. We had trubble wi' a man last week who had a fit and had to be taken to 't General Hospital in an amb'lance. We don't want any more trubble, or the pub'll get a bad name."
As Arthur rolled over to consolidate and deepen his sleep a glaring overhead light caught his eyes and he opened them to see the waiter's white coat and pink face.
"Christ!" he mumbled.
"He won't help you," the waiter said dispassionately. "Come on, get up and go out for some fresh air, then you'll feel better."
Arthur felt happy yet unco-operative when the waiter tried to get him to his feet: like being in hospital and having a nurse do everything for you with great exertion, and all the time warning you that you mustn't try to help yourself in any way or else it would result in you being kept in bed for another week. Like after he had been knocked down by a lorry riding to Derby two years ago. But the waiter had a different point of view, and after pulling him into a sitting position cried, his heavy breath whistling against the aspidistra leaves: "All right. That's enough. You aren't lifeless. Come on, get up yoursen now."
When another man's legs opened and closed over Arthurthe retreating shoe knocked his shoulder-he shouted in a belligerent and fully-awake voice: "Hey, mate, watch what yer doin', can't yer? Yo' an' yer bloody grett clod-'oppers." He turned to the waiter: "Some people love comin' out on a Saturday night in their pit-boots."
The man turned from halfway up the stairs: "You shouldn't go to sleep in everybody's way. Can't tek the drink, that's what's the matter wi' yo' young 'uns."
"That's what yo' think," Arthur retaliated, pulling himself up by the stair-rail and holding firmly on to it.
"You'll have to go out, you know," the waiter said sadly, as if he had donned a black cap to pronounce sentence. "We can't serve you any more ale in that condition."
"There's nowt wrong wi' me," Arthur exclaimed, recognising a situation of extreme peril.
"No," the waiter retorted, coolly sarcastic, "I know there ain't, but it's a bit thick, you know, getting drunk like this."
Arthur denied that he was drunk, speaking so clearly that the waiter was inclined to believe him.
"Have a fag, mate," he said, and lit both cigarettes with a perfectly calm hand. "You must be busy tonight," he suggested, so sanely that he might just have walked in off the street and not yet sipped a shandy.
His remark touched the waiter's grievance. "Not much we aren't. I'm so tired I can't feel my feet. These Saturday nights'll be the death o' me."
"It ain't what yer might call a good job," Arthur said with sympathy.
"Well, it's not that exactly," the waiter began to complain, friendly and confiding all of a sudden. "It's because we're short of staff. Nobody'll take on a job like this, you now, and ..."
The publican came out of the saloon door, a small wiry man In a pin-striped suit whom no one would know as a publican unless they recognised the slight cast of authority and teetotalness in his right eye. "Come on, Jim," he said sharply. "I don't pay my waiters to talk to their pals. You now it's a busy night. Get back upstairs and keep 'em happy."
Jim nodded towards Arthur: "This bloke here"-but the publican was already carrying his fanatic stare to another department, and so the waiter saw no point in going on. He shrugged his shoulders and obeyed the order, leaving Arthur free to walk into the saloon bar.
Fixing an iron-grip on the brass rail, he shouted for a pints the only sufficient liquid measure that could begin to swill away the tasteless ash-like thirst at the back of his mouth. After the rapid disposal of the pint, so long in coming, he would bluff his way back upstairs, dodge the waiter, and rejoin Brenda, the woman he had been sitting with before his fall. He could not believe that the descending frolic of the stairs had happened to him. His memory acted at first like a beneficial propaganda machine, a retainer and builder of morale, saying that he could not have been so drunk and rolled down the stairs in that way, and that what had really happened, yes, this was it for sure, was that he must have walked down and fallen asleep on the bottom step. It could happen to anybody, especially if they had been at work all day, standing near a capstan lathe in the dull roar of the turnery department. Yet this explanation was too tame. Perhaps he really had tripped down a few of the stairs; yes, he distinctly remembered bumping a few steps.
For the third time he demanded a pint. His eyes were glazed with fatigue, and he would have let go of the bar-rail had not an ever-ready instinct of self-preservation leapt into his fist at the weakest moment and forced him to tighten his grip. He was beginning to feel sick, and in fighting this temptation his tiredness increased. He did not know whether he would go back upstairs to Brenda afterwards, or have his pint and get home to bed, the best place when you feel done-in, he muttered to himself.
The bartender placed a pint before him. He paid one-and-eightpence and drank it almost in a single gulp. His strength magically returned, and he shouted out for another, thinking: the thirteenth. Unlucky for some, but we'll see how it turns out. He received the pint and drank a little more slowly, but halfway through it, the temptation to be sick became a necessity that beat insistently against the back of his throat. He fought it off and struggled to light a cigarette.
Smoke caught in his windpipe and he had just time enough to push his way back through the crush-nudging his elbow into standing people who unknowingly blocked his way, half choked by smoke now issuing from mouth and nostrils, feeling strangely taken up by a fierce power that he could not control-before he gave way to the temptation that had stood by him since falling down the stairs, and emitted a belching roar over a middle-aged man sitting with a woman on one of the green leather seats.