“In his daily walks through London,” notes Jeremy Treglown in his Introduction to this collection, “Pritchett watched and listened to people as a naturalist observes wild creatures and birds. He knew that oddity is the norm, not the exception.” This finely attuned sense, coupled with an understanding that nothing in life is mundane, is what makes these stories so immensely enjoyable. Drawing on a vast treasure chest of writings, Treglown has selected sixteen of Pritchett’s gems, including “A Serious Question,” which makes its debut in book form here. Featuring some of the best work from a long career, this new compilation of Pritchett’s brilliantly compact stories illuminates his legendary skills.
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The Sack of Lights
She was an old charwoman whose eyes stared like two bits of tin and whose lips were twisted like rope round three protruding teeth. All day long she was down on her knees scrubbing flights of stone stairs, cleaning out evil passages, emptying oozy pails down the drain with the soapsuds frilled about it, and listening to its dirty little voice gulping out of the street. All day long she chattered to herself and sang “Valencia, land of oranges . . .” and broke out into laughter so loud at some fantastic recollection that it sounded as though she had kicked her pail downstairs.
One evening, after a week’s absence from her work, she said mysteriously, as she left the house, “I’m going to do it again. I’m going orf to git me lights.”
“Yes, ’e stopped me ’e did. ‘Better practise it at ’ome,’ ’e said. So I took the lot. I took the train, an’ rockets, an’ that wicked ol’ General with the monercle, oh, I took ’im. I took ’em all ’ome. O, ’e warn’t ’arf a wicked ol’ dear.” She laughed, and her teeth seemed to skip up and down like three acrobats with the rope lips twirling round them. “Yer know what ’e called me, the ol’ monercle? ‘Lor,’ says ’e, peeping through the winder, ‘ain’t she a proper beauty!’ That’s what ’e called me. We didn’t ’arf dance.”
“Trains! Rockets? Generals? Dance?” The people of the house touched their sound foreheads. “Gone, oh quite gone,” said the people of the house. “Haven’t you noticed, the last few days? Away a week and comes back singing and talking about dances and Generals worse than ever.”
Before there was time to say any more she was off again down the road singing “Valencia, land of oranges . . .” and gutter children calling after her.
No one else could hear what her mind heard. No one else could see what her eyes saw. Alight with it, she walked from her room at the back of Euston to Piccadilly Circus with a sack on her back—the sack which she always carried in case there was anything worth having in the gutters—and “Valencia, land of oranges . . .” twiddling like a ballroom of dancers in her head.
No one noticed her as she stood on the curb of Piccadilly Circus, nor guessed that at that moment she could have died of laughter, she was so happy. She wanted to shout to see what would happen, but she laughed instead. A miraculous place as high and polished as a ballroom. The façades of the buildings were tall mirrors framed in gold, speeding lights. “Chucking it about,” she cried out. The crowds did not even hear her in the roar. If she jumped, could she see herself in the mirrors? She jumped, but not high enough. She laughed. Rockets shot up in numbered showers and exploded noiselessly into brief diagrams of green stars. A tilted bottle dripped beads of wine as red as rail- way signals into a glass and there was the General—Smoke the Army Smoke—standing on a house-top, with a white-hot monocle in his eye, and his cigarette pricking red. Diamonds and pearls and rubies were streamers flying into the Circus and flashed so that people’s faces bobbed up and down like Chinese lanterns.
But below the streaming lights everything was dancing. That was what she noticed. Below it was “Valencia, land of oranges . . .” She sang it out and waved to the cars as they passed. “Valencia . . .” The dark couples of taxis waltzed down dipping to the roll of the tune, and the big dowager cars slipped by, their jewelled bosoms beaming. The young sparking cars darted like dragon-flies—those were the ones she liked, the noisy, erratic ones. The perfume of the dance rose among them. Low horns breathed out flights of warning. The saxophone horns wailed, the jazz engines drummed—how her heart was dancing—and under all was the everlasting undertone, the deep ’cello vibration of the wheels. The ’cello, the voice of movement being born, the voice of the soul. That sound caught her by the waist like a lover. “Valencia . . .” She ran out into the traffic, not to cross the road, but to dance in it!
In a second she was carried away by the traffic, and it waltzed graciously, understandingly about her. She felt its rhythm. Dancing a grotesque step she let herself drift on a river of circling moody joy as though she were another Ophelia floating with flowers about her.
She was dancing in a land of oranges, and she saw women as beautiful as orchids gliding high beside her in their dowager saloons. She chased them as you chase butterflies, but she could not keep up with them. The chauffeurs were at their wits’ ends, swerving to avoid her, as something too awful even to run over. Then as she gambolled the cars began to slow down; she saw the spaces narrowing, the floor of the Circus disappearing under thickening wheels. The traffic crowded, breathing and swearing about her. To her surprise she saw it had stopped. A policeman was coming for her. She wanted to throw her arms round his neck and kiss him, but he gripped one arm and led her away.
“ ’Ere, Lizzy,” he said. “You’d better practise it at home a bit before you try it on ’ere.”
“Yer right. In course y’are,” she shouted at him. “But I must get me lights. Can’t do it without me lights.” And with her free hand she held the sack open like a pail she was filling to wash down flights and flights of stairs with, but in poured the lights instead: all the signs and diagrams and patterns, the bottle that poured endless wine, the engine wheels that never stopped, all the jerks and clicks of brilliance. The last to go was the General, monocle and all.
“Garn, yer wicked ol’ dear,” she laughed, giving him a kick. The following crowd laughed to see her give the policeman one like that.
“Lor, it’s ol’ Bertha,” voices shouted. “Drunk and disorderly, got it bad. Ya! Gor!”
She was in a cold cell, but she was far too excited to know that. As soon as they left her she carefully took her sack and shook it upside down. The warder was watching her through the grille. The tune began turning again in her head. “Valencia . . .” she jumped to her feet. Out of the sack the lights sprang like so many eels and serpents. The wine poured, the engine wheels whizzed, the yellow rockets broke upwards, and the General—he skipped out like a harlequin.
“Gawd! Ain’t she a proper beauty!” said a voice from the grille of the cell.
“Lor, General!” she retorted. “I’m surprised at a man of your age.” She danced up to him and tried to pull the monocle out of his eye. He dodged her. She danced up to him and away from him, leading him on while the lights rained their brilliance upon her. Big cars swayed by as she pirouetted, and there hummed in her ear the buzzing undertone of wheels, like the voice of a lover. She jumped sky high to see herself in the tall gilt mirrors that went up out of sight among the stars. She jumped, but not high enough. She laughed. The rockets clicked and spilled and glittered in tune like an orchestra playing. The railway engines running on catherine-wheels rushed on and on, into infinity. Words hopped off into space. The messages of the electric signs stepped away as daintily as a ballet into nothing.