Free Women 3
‘Not as many as before,’ he said. ‘Alas, I must confess it. Of course I do pretty well, in spite of ups and downs, but I do have to take pretty good care of myself.’
‘Perhaps you should find a permanent rich protector very soon.’
‘Oh my dear,’ he exclaimed, with a little writhing movement of the hips that was quite unconscious, ‘you can’t imagine that I haven’t tried?’
‘I didn’t realize that the market was so badly over-supplied,’ said Anna, speaking out of her disgust, and already ashamed of doing so before the words were out. Good Lord! she thought, to be born a Ronnie! to be born like that — I complain about the difficulties of being my kind of woman, but good Lord! — I might have been born a Ronnie.
He gave her a quick frank look full of hatred. He hesitated, an impulse was too strong for him, and he said: ‘I think after all that I do prefer your lotion to mine.’ He had his hand on the bottle, claiming it. He smiled at her sideways, challenging her, hating her openly.
She, smiling, put her hand out and took the bottle: ‘Well you’d better buy some of your own, hadn’t you?’
And now his smile was quick, impertinent, and acknowledged that she had defeated him, that he hated her for it, that he proposed to try again soon. Then the smile faded and was succeeded by the cold haggard fear she had seen earlier. He was telling himself that his spiteful impulses were dangerous, and that he should be placating her, not challenging her.
He excused himself quickly, in a charming placating murmur, said good night, and tripped upstairs to Ivor.
Anna took her bath and went upstairs to see if Janet was settled for the night. The door into the young men’s room stood open. Anna was surprised, knowing that they knew she came upstairs at this time every night to see Janet. Then she realized it was open on purpose. She heard: ‘Fat buttocky cows …’ That was Ivor’s voice, and he added an obscene noise. Then Ronnie’s voice: ‘Sagging sweaty breasts …’ And he made the sound of vomiting.
Anna, furious, was on the point of going forward to quarrel with them. She found herself, instead, shaken, trembling and frightened. She crept downstairs, hoping they had not known she was there. But they now shut their door with a bang, and she heard shouts of laughter — from Ivor; and shrill graceful peals from Ronnie. She got into bed, appalled. At herself. For she saw that the obscene little play that had been prepared for her was nothing more than the night-face of Ronnie’s girlishness, Ivor’s big-dog friendliness, and that she might have deduced it all for herself without waiting to have it demonstrated. She was frightened because she was affected. She sat up in bed in the big dark room, smoking, and felt herself as vulnerable and helpless. She said again: If I cracked up then … The man on the train had shaken her; the two young men upstairs had reduced her to trembling. A week ago, coming home late from the theatre, a man had exposed himself on a dark street corner. Instead of ignoring it, she had found herself shrinking inwardly, as if it had been a personal attack on Anna — she had felt as if she, Anna, had been menaced by it. Yet, looking back only a short time, she saw Anna who walked through the hazards and ugliness of the big city unafraid and immune. Now it seemed as if the ugliness had come close and stood so near to her she might collapse, screaming.