It was the coldest winter for forty-five years. Villages in the English countryside were cut off by the snow and the Thames froze over. One day in January the Glasgow-London train arrived at Euston twenty-four hours late. The snow and the blackout combined to make motoring perilous; road accidents doubled, and people told jokes about how it was more risky to drive an Austin Seven along Piccadilly at night than to take a tank across the Siegfried Line.
Then, when the spring came, it was glorious. Barrage balloons floated majestically in bright blue skies, and soldiers on leave flirted with girls in sleeveless dresses on the streets of London.
The city did not look much like the capital of a nation at war. There were signs, of course; and Henry Faber, cycling from Waterloo Station toward Highgate, noted them: piles of sandbags outside important public buildings, Anderson shelters in suburban gardens, propaganda posters about evacuation and Air Raid Precautions. Faber watched such things he was considerably more observant than the average railway clerk. He saw crowds of children in the parks, and concluded that evacuation had been a failure. He marked the number of motor cars on the road, despite petrol rationing; and he read about the new models announced by the motor manufacturers. He knew the significance of night-shift workers pouring into factories where, only months previously, there had been hardly enough work for the day shift. Most of all, he monitored the movement of troops around Britain's railway network; all the paperwork passed through his office. One could learn a lot from that paperwork. Today, for example, he had rubber-stamped a batch of formsthat led him to believe that a new Expeditionary Force was being gathered. He was fairly sure that it would have a complement of about 100,000 men, and that it was for Finland.
There were signs, yes; but there was something jokey about it all. Radio shows satirized the red tape of wartime regulations, there was community singing in the air raid shelters, and fashionable women carried their gas masks in couturier-designed containers. They talked about the Bore War. It was at once larger-than-life and trivial, like a moving picture show. All the air raid warnings, without exception, had been false alarms.
Faber had a different point of view but then, he was a different kind of person.
He steered his cycle into Archway Road and leaned forward a little to take the uphill slope, his long legs pumping as tirelessly as the pistons of a railway engine. He was very fit for his age, which was thirty-nine, although he lied about it; he lied about most things, as a safety precaution.
He began to perspire as he climbed the hill into Highgate. The building in which he lived was one of the highest in London, which was why he chose to live there. It was a Victorian brick house at one end of a terrace of six. The houses were high, narrow and dark, like the minds of the men for whom they had been built. Each had three stones plus a basement with a servants' entrance the English middle class of the nineteenth century insisted on a servants' entrance, even if they had no servants. Faber was a cynic about the English.
Number Six had been owned by Mr. Harold Garden, of Garden's Tea and Coffee, a small company that went broke in the Depression. Having lived by the principle that in solvency is a mortal sin, the bankrupt Mr. Garden had no option but to die. The house was all he bequeathed to his widow, who was then obliged to take in boarders. She enjoyed being a landlady, although the etiquette of her social circle demanded that she pretend to be a little ashamed of it. Faber had a room on the top floor with a dormer window. He lived there from Monday to Friday, and told Mrs. Garden that he spent weekends with his mother in Erith. In fact, he had another landlady in Blackheath who called him Mr. Baker and believed he was a traveling salesman for a stationery manufacturer and spent all week on the road.
He wheeled his cycle up the garden path under the disapproving frown of the tall front-room windows. He put it in the shed and padlocked it to the lawn mower it was against the law to leave a vehicle unlocked. The seed potatoes in boxes all around the shed were sprouting. Mrs. Garden had turned her flower beds over to vegetables for the war effort.
Faber entered the house, hung his hat on the hall-stand, washed his hands and went in to tea.
Three of the other lodgers were already eating: a pimply boy from Yorkshire who was trying to get into the Army; a confectionery salesman with receding sandy hair; and a refired naval officer who, Faber was convinced, was a degenerate. Faber nodded to them and sat down.
The salesman was telling a joke. "So the Squadron Leader says, 'You're back early!' and the pilot turns round and says, 'Yes, I dropped my leaflets in bundles, wasn't that right?' So the Squadron Leader says, 'Good God! You might've hurt somebody!"'
The naval officer cackled and Faber smiled. Mrs. Garden came in with a teapot. "Good evening, Mr. Faber. We started without you I hope you don't mind."
Faber spread margarine thinly on a slice of wholemeal bread, and momentarily yearned for a fat sausage. "Your seed potatoes are ready to plant," he told her.
Faber hurried through his tea. The others were arguing over whether Chamberlain should be sacked and replaced by Churchill. Mrs. Garden kept voicing opinions, then looking at Faber for a reaction. She was a blowsy woman, a little overweight. About Faber's age, she wore the clothes of a woman of thirty, and he guessed she wanted another husband. He kept out of the discussion...