30

Good Morning, Midnight

Jean Rhys

Set in a 1930s Paris of shabby hotel rooms, seedy bars and drunken encounters, Jean Rhys’s semi-autobiographical portrayal of a young woman’s sexual encounters is a searingly honest exploration of loneliness and yearning.

‘Saved, rescued, fished‑up, half‑drowned, out of the deep, dark river, dry clothes, hair shampooed and set…’

Quite like old times,’ the room says. ‘Yes? No?’

There are two beds, a big one for madame and a smaller one on the opposite side for monsieur. The wash-basin is shut off by a curtain. It is a large room, the smell of cheap hotels faint, almost imperceptible. The street outside is narrow, cobble-stoned, going sharply uphill and ending in a flight of steps. What they call an impasse.

I have been here five days. I have decided on a place to eat in at midday, a place to eat in at night, a place to have my drink in after dinner. I have arranged my little life.

The place to have my drink in after dinner. . . . Wait, I must be careful about that. These things are very important

Last night, for instance. Last night was a catastrophe. . . . The woman at the next table started talking to me – a dark, thin woman of about forty, very well made-up. She had the score of a song with her and she had been humming it under her breath, tapping the accompaniment with her fingers.

‘I like that song.’

‘Ah, yes, but it’s a sad song. Gloomy Sunday.’ She giggled. ‘A little sad.’

She was waiting for her friend, she told me.

The friend arrived – an American. He stood me another brandy-and-soda and while I was drinking it I started to cry.

I said: ‘It was something I remembered.’

The dark woman sat up very straight and threw her chest out.

‘I understand,’ she said, ‘I understand. All the same. . . . Sometimes I’m just as unhappy as you are. But that’s not to say that I let everybody see it.’

Unable to stop crying, I went down into the lavabo. A familiar lavabo, and luckily empty. The old dame was outside near the telephone, talking to a girl.

I stayed there, staring at myself in the glass. What do I want to cry about? . . . On the contrary, it’s when I am quite sane like this, when I have had a couple of extra drinks and am quite sane, that I realize how lucky I am. Saved, rescued, fished-up, half-drowned, out of the deep, dark river, dry clothes, hair shampooed and set. Nobody would know I had ever been in it. Except, of course, that there always remains something. Yes, there always remains something. . . . Never mind, here I am, sane and dry, with my place to hide in. What more do I want? . . . I’m a bit of an automaton, but sane, surely – dry, cold and sane. Now I have forgotten about dark streets, dark rivers, the pain, the struggle and the drowning. . . . Mind you, I’m not talking about the struggle when you are strong and a good swimmer and there are willing and eager friends on the bank waiting to pull you out at the first sign of distress. I mean the real thing. You jump in with no willing and eager friends around, and when you sink you sink to the accompaniment of loud laughter.

Lavabos. . . . What about that monograph on lavabos – toilets – ladies? . . . A London lavabo in black and white marble, fifteen women in a queue, each clutching her penny, not one bold spirit daring to dash out of her turn past the stern-faced attendant. That’s what I call discipline. . . . The lavabo in Florence and the very pretty, fantastically dressed girl who rushed in, hugged and kissed the old dame tenderly and fed her with cakes out of a paper bag. The dancer-daughter? . . . That cosy little Paris lavabo, where the attendant peddled drugs – something to heal a wounded heart.

When I got upstairs the American and his friend had gone. ‘It was something I remembered,’ I told the waiter, and he looked at me blankly, not even bothering to laugh at me. His face was unsurprised, blank.

That was last night.

I lie awake, thinking about it, and about the money Sidonie lent me and the way she said: ‘I can’t bear to see you like this.’ Half-shutting her eyes and smiling the smile which means: ‘She’s getting to look old. She drinks.’

‘We’ve known each other too long, Sasha,’ she said, ‘to stand on ceremony with each other.’

I had just come in from my little health-stroll round Mecklenburgh Square and along the Gray’s Inn Road. I had looked at this, I had looked at that, I had looked at the people passing in the street and at a shop-window full of artificial limbs. I came in to somebody who said: ‘I can’t bear to see you looking like this.’

‘Like what?’ I said.

‘I think you need a change. Why don’t you go back to Paris for a bit? . . . You could get yourself some new clothes – you certainly need them. . . . I’ll lend you the money,’ she said. ‘I’ll be over there next week and I could find a room for you if you like.’ Etcetera, etcetera.

I had not seen this woman for months and then she swooped down on me. . . . Well, here I am. When you’ve been made very cold and very sane you’ve also been made very passive. (Why worry, why worry?)

I can’t sleep. Rolling from side to side. . . .

Was it in 1923 or 1924 that we lived round the corner, in the Rue Victor-Cousin, and Enno bought me that Cossack cap and the imitation astrakhan coat? It was then that I started calling myself Sasha. I thought it might change my luck if I changed my name. Did it bring me any luck, I wonder – calling myself Sasha?

Was it in 1926 or 1927?

I put the light on. The bottle of Evian on the bedtable, the tube of Luminal, the two books, the clock ticking on the ledge, the red curtains. . . .

I can see Sidonie carefully looking round for an hotel just like this one. She imagines that it’s my atmosphere. God, it’s an insult when you come to think about it! More dark rooms, more red curtains. . . . /p>

But one mustn’t put everything on the same plane. That’s her great phrase. And one mustn’t put everybody on the same plane, either. Of course not. And this is my plane. . . . Quatrième à gauche, and mind you don’t trip over the hole in the carpet. That’s me.

There are some black specks on the wall. I stare at them, certain they are moving. Well, I ought to be able to ignore a few bugs by this time. ‘Il ne faut pas mettre tout sur le même plan. . . .

I get up and look closely. Only splashes of dirt. It’s not the time of year for bugs, anyway.

I take some more Luminal, put the light out and sleep at once.

I am in the passage of a tube station in London. Many people are in front of me; many people are behind me. Everywhere there are placards printed in red letters: This Way to the Exhibition, This Way to the Exhibition. But I don’t want the way to the exhibition – I want the way out. There are passages to the right and passages to the left, but no exit sign. Everywhere the fingers point and the placards read: This Way to the Exhibition. . . . I touch the shoulder of the man walking in front of me. I say: ‘I want the way out.’ But he points to the placards and his hand is made of steel. I walk along with my head bent, very ashamed, thinking: ‘Just like me – always wanting to be different from other people.’ The steel finger points along a long stone passage. This Way – This Way – This Way to the Exhibition. . . . /p>

Now a little man, bearded, with a snub nose, dressed in a long white night-shirt, is talking earnestly to me. ‘I am your father,’ he says. ‘Remember that I am your father.’ But blood is streaming from a wound in his forehead. ‘Murder,’ he shouts, ‘murder, murder.’ Helplessly I watch the blood streaming. At last my voice tears itself loose from my chest. I too shout: ‘Murder, murder, help, help,’ and the sound fills the room. I wake up and a man in the street outside is singing the waltz from Les Saltimbanques. ‘C’est l’amour qui flotte dans l’air à ronde,’ he sings.

I believe it’s a fine day, but the light in this room is so bad that you can’t be sure. Outside on the landing you can’t see at all unless the electric light is on. It’s a large landing, cluttered up from morning to night with brooms, pails, piles of dirty sheets and so forth – the wreckage of the spectacular floors below.

The man who has the room next to mine is parading about as usual in his white dressing-gown. Hanging around. He is like the ghost of the landing. I am always running into him.

He is as thin as a skeleton. He has a bird-like face and sunken, dark eyes with a peculiar expression, cringing, ingratiating, knowing. What’s he want to look at me like that for? . . . He is always wearing a dressing-gown – a blue one with black spots or the famous white one. I can’t imagine him in street clothes.


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