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Excerpt: 'A Far Cry from Kensington'

The Cypriot husband and his English wife in the house next door to Milly's were having a row. It was two in the morning. They had started the rumpus in the garden but had gone indoors to continue it.

Now the first half-flight of Milly's stairs led to a small landing with a window from which you could see straight through the opposite window into the next-door house, three feet away; if you sat on the second half-flight of Milly's stairs you could see the exact equivalent of landing and half-flight next door.

I had been to bed but the fearfulness of the noise on this occasion had brought me down to Milly who was already up in her dressing-gown. The wife next door was screaming. Should we do something? Should we ring the police? We sat on the stairs and watched through the landing windows. Our stair-light was out but theirs was on. Apart from the empty piece of staircase we could see nothing as yet. The rest of our house was quiet, everybody asleep or simply ignoring the noise.

There had been a christening party that afternoon in the house next door. The row concerned the true paternity of the baby boy, some friend of the husband having raised the subject to him, in an aside, at the christening party. I do not think there was any real doubt in the husband's mind that he was the father; only, it gave rationality to the couple's mutual need to dispute, which had spilt rowdily over into the garden; the guests had all gone home.

Evidently, the baby slept through the pandemonium for all we could hear were the wife's shouts and screams and the husband's fury: noises off.

Suddenly they appeared on the stairs, the second half of their staircase, before our eyes, as on a stage. Milly, always with her sense of the appropriate, dashed down to her bedroom and reappeared with a near-full box of chocolates. We sat side by side, eating chocolates, and watching the show. So far, no blows, no fisticuffs; but much waving of arms and menacing. Then the husband seized his wife by the hair and dragged her up a few stairs, she meanwhile beating his body and caterwauling.

Eventually I phoned the police, for the fight was becoming more serious. A policeman arrived at our door within ten minutes. He seemed to take a less urgent view of the din going on in the next-door house and was reluctant to interfere. He joined us on the staircase from where we could now only see the couple's feet as they wrestled. The policeman crowded beside us, for there was no convenient place for him to sit. My hips took up all the spare space. But finally our neighbours descended their staircase so that we could see them in full.

"Can't you stop them?" said Milly, passing the chocolates.

The policeman accepted a chocolate. "Mustn't come between husband and wife," he said. "Inadvisable. You get no thanks, and they both turn on you."

We could see the force of this argument. Milly offered to make a cup of tea, which she was always ready to do. Finally the policeman said, "I'll go and have a word with them. This time of night, disturbing the peace."

We heard him ring their front door-bell; it was a long ring, and at the same time we saw the scene before us disintegrate. The wife and husband sprang apart, she tidying her hair, he pushing his shirt into his trousers. They disappeared from view. From the street came the sound of their front door opening, and the mild reproving voice of the policeman. The wife's voice, thrown high and clear into the empty night, was pleading, apologetic, conciliatory. "We was just having a bit of an argument, officer."

The light on the stairs opposite went out. End of the show. Milly and I had a cup of tea in the kitchen and discussed something else.

When I left the house for the office at nine the next morning, the smiling, nut-brown face of our Cypriot neighbour looked up at me from the job he was doing on one of the wheels of his car. "Good morning, Mrs Hawkins," he said.

How did he know my name? I didn't know his. People always knew who I was before I knew them, in those days. Later, when I got thin I had to take my chance with everyone else; and this confirms my impression that a great large girl is definitely a somebody, whatever she loses by way of romantic encounters. "Good morning," I said.

Generally, I got to the office between half-past nine and quarter to ten in the morning. The clock in the big general office was unreliable, and because of a chronic lack of ready cash was likely to remain so. I think that if a clock is not punctual you can't expect the people who live with it to be so. We were all fairly lax about time as the business more and more declined. Patrick, the packer and sorter, was most often the first to arrive, and it was he who would take the first phone calls. I don't know if my memory exaggerates but, looking back, it seems to me that almost every morning I would find Patrick on the phone, shouting to cover his embarrassment and inability to cope with the caller's problem. At that hour the caller was usually an author and the problem was money. Later in the morning, just before noon, the printers and binders would have their hour; their problem too was money, bills unpaid. And certainly, till the bills were paid, there was no hope of sending more books to press.

The telephone: "Would you mind calling back later? Mrs Hawkins isn't in." That was Ivy, getting rid of someone. Again, the telephone: "Ullswater Press," says Ivy.

Hardy a morning passed but Mabel, the distraught wife of Patrick, would come in to visit him. She invariably turned on me with accusations that I was seducing her husband.

"Mabel! Mabel!" - Patrick was a tall young man with glasses and lanky fair hair, very like a curate in his precocious solemnity; a little younger than me. He was hoping to make a career in publishing; books and reading were his passion. It was true he was attached to me, for he felt he could confide in me. I would listen to him often during the lunch hour when, if it was too cold and rainy to go to the park, we would send out for sandwiches and eat them with our office-made coffee. I think he had married Mabel because she was pregnant. Now Patrick earned very little, but Mabel had a job, and their young child was looked after during the day by Mabel's mother. Whether it was because Patrick was too engrossed in his books to pay attention to his wife or whether he had spoken approvingly of me to her, or whether it was both, Mabel had taken it into her head that I was enticing Patrick away from her. She was in a great state of nerves, and if we had not all tolerated these outbursts of accusation when she came into our office on her way to work, I think she would have been unable to go on to her job in the offices of a paint firm nearby. As it was, we always calmed her down and she would leave with backward looks of reproach at me on her small blade-like face. "Mrs Hawkins, you don't know the harm you're doing. Perhaps you don't know," she said more than once.

"Mabel! Mabel!" said her husband.

Ivy the typist would batter on all through this scene. Cathy the book-keeper, her eyes bulging behind her thick lenses, would rise to her feet, wave her hands, and croak, "Mrs Hawkins is our editor-in-chief and innocent of the crime."

Patrick was always mournful after his wife's departure. "It's good of you to take it like this, Mrs Hawkins," he would say sometimes, although all I had done was stand in my buxom bulk. And at other times he would say nothing, intensely studying the books he was packing so carefully, so expertly and rapidly.

One of our creditors, a small printer, had taken the difficulties of Ullswater Press so personally as to employ a man with a raincoat to stand in the lane outside our office windows all morning and afternoon, staring up. That's all he did: stare up. This was supposed to put us to shame. In the coffee break we did a certain amount of staring back, standing in threes and fours at the window with our cups in our hands. It was strange to see the raincoated man: he was out of place in that smart, expensive area of London; indeed, he was supposed to be shabbily noticeable. In that part of South Kensington from where I emerged every morning from Monday to Friday, the man would have been merely that man-in-the-street that the politicians referred to: one of many. But here in the West End everyone looked at the man, then up at our windows, then back again at him.

At Milly's in South Kensington, everybody paid their weekly rent, however much they had to scrape and budget, balancing the shillings and pence of those days against small fractions saved on groceries and electric light; at Milly's, people added and subtracted, they did division and multiplication sums incessantly; and there was Kate with her good little boxes marked 'bus-fares,' 'gas,' 'sundries.' Here, in the West End, the basic idea was upper-class, scornful of the bothersome creditors as if they were impeding a more expansive view. We, in the noisy general office, were not greatly concerned: after all, the responsibility was not ours, it was that of the Ullswater Press, of Mr Ullswater and of Martin York, and the other names who formed a board of directors; especially of Martin York who ran the firm. It was he who brought me manuscripts he had picked up from his fellow-officers of war-time, or former school friends. "Will this make a best-seller? Read it and tell me if it might be a best-seller. We need a few best-sellers." As for the proofs of books waiting to be published, these piled up on my desk, waiting their long turn. I worked on them meticulously; words, phrases, paragraphs, semi-colons. But they remained on my desk long after they were ready to be returned to the printers. New credit from printers and binders was difficult to get. "Mrs Hawkins, keep these authors away from me."

From A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark. Copyright 2000 by Muriel Spark. Published by New Directions Publishing Corporation. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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Muriel Spark