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Man Alone

Chapter XIX

page 197

Chapter XIX

The summer ran by, never settled or hot, but with patches of clear sunshine between quick showers. They got the harvest in working piece-work late hours into the evening. It was early in September that he had a note from Jim, the brother, saying that he must see him; it was urgent, Jim said, it was serious, by God. Johnson laughed reading the scrawled pencil note for, to his brother, Johnson was a fearful man, and Johnson, remembering the week-end when he had gone to see them, the children sent away, Jim's wife pale and mean with dislike of him, the small shop, the texts on the wall, could understand what he felt. To be concerned in Johnson's life was as bad to them as crimes committed – and discovered – in their own right. He guessed he would leave the farm now and go and see Jim in London. He would go to avoid trouble for Jim and perhaps because he was ready for movement himself with the winter coming on and the harvest money in his pocket, and each time I move, he said, I carry less.

So he left the farm in September and went down to London. He had a note from Jim telling where to meet him and walked down the Strand on a warm autumn day and waited outside the Corner House for him. You could have seen him standing there hatless and brown and thin, Johnson going on for forty.

Jim came up by himself and they went in and took a table and ordered tea.

‘Mabel and the kids have gone to a picture,’ Jim said. ‘I wanted to see you. I'm picking them up in an hour's time.’

Johnson nodded. He was watching Jim disinterestedly. It was Jim that was frightened and had a hunted look, not page 198 Johnson. He kept looking round as if he didn't want to be seen. He didn't look very much like Johnson's brother. He was the same build only darker. His face had a settled, stolid look except now for the expressions of uneasiness that ran over it. He looked like a man that was comfortable most of the time. He was quietly was neatly dressed. He looked like a man who knew his place.

‘What's the trouble?’ Johnson said.

Jim, not looking at him and stirring his tea, playing with his teaspoon as if he disliked it, said:

‘There was someone round asking about you the other day.’


‘I don't know. I didn't see him. I was working, Mabel saw him. She thinks it was the police.’

‘Didn't say he was the police, did he? The police always say if it's them.’

‘I don't know. Mabel was pretty mad about it.’

Johnson grinned.

‘I'm sorry she was upset,’ he said. ‘What did this fellow want?’

‘Just wanted to know if we'd heard from you at all. She said we hadn't. He said it was just a routine inquiry. Mabel was pretty upset about it.’

Jim was watching the waitress uneasily. He lowered his voice while he was speaking.

Johnson poured himself some more tea. He opened a packet of cigarettes, offered Jim one, and took one himself.

‘I don't think they're on to anything,’ he said. ‘They wouldn't look for me in this country. I got American papers in Panama, they wouldn't ever pick me up here.’

Jim said suddenly:

‘You shouldn't've come to see us.’

page 199

‘Maybe,’ Johnson said. ‘I wanted to explain about the money. No one knew who I was.’

‘Mabel and I've been talking it over,’ Jim said, still not looking at Johnson. ‘We think you'd begetter out of the country.’

‘It's as safe here as anywhere.’

‘It's not so safe for us. We'd be dragged in if they knew about the money, so'd your friend Petersen be. You don't want to get anyone into a mess. It's the kids we're thinking of.’

‘They're nice kids,’ Johnson said. ‘I still owe you some money.’

‘It doesn't matter about that.’

‘How much is it now?’

‘You've paid me twenty-six.’

‘I better pay you the rest before I go.’

‘It doesn't matter about that. We'd be happier if we knew you were away somewhere.’

‘O.K.,’ Johnson said. ‘You don't worry about me any more. You haven't heard from me. I won't write to you.’

‘It's the kids we're thinking of,’ Jim said.

‘I'll fade away,’ Johnson said. ‘I'm used to it now.’

Jim nodded. He looked to be easier in his mind. He smoothed down his coat and put a shilling on the table.

‘If you'll settle this,’ he said, ‘Ill be getting along now.’

‘Your hour's not up yet,’ Johnson said, ‘you'll be too early.’

‘Got one or two things to do first,’ Jim said. ‘I'll be gettine along.’

Johnson nodded. ‘O.K.,’ he said. ‘You might leave me that paper. I'll stay on here a bit.’

Jim put the paper on the table as he got up to go and Johnson spread it out.

page 200

‘Things getting warm down in Spain and places,’ he said, looking at the headlines, but Jim had gone. He lit himself another cigarette and smoked it while he read the paper through.

He didn't leave London just at once. He took a room near Liverpool Street and got work washing cars in a garage. Hell, he said, so long as Jim doesn't know where I am that'll stop him worrying. He liked London. It was pleasant to wander about among so many people. There were so many people that no one cared for individuals. It was as lonely and impersonal as living in the bush. He liked the sailors who drifted in and out of the boarding house where he lived. He watched them drinking, spending their money, going off again and talked to them, liking them, feeling with them the same feeling of belonging to the whole world and to no one place.

He found he didn't want very much now for himself. He didn't want to drink except modestly, to smoke a little, read the papers, lie in bed Sunday morning. The hours of work were long and the pay small and the air bad, but the work itself was simple.

He found himself wanting to talk more, he was friendly to the men he met, especially the older men. He made friends with a little nuggetty Irishman who was head mechanic in the garage. This little man called O'Reilly gave him easy jobs and didn't worry him.

He tried to teach Johnson something about cars, but Johnson wouldn't learn.

‘I'm too old,’ he said.

‘It's dull work just washing 'em down,’ O'Reilly said. ‘Me, I could be getting bigger money in one of the big factories, Morris, Wolseley, Vauxhall, there's money there, but hell, that's no life, that's what I always say. You get interested in patching up cars, the job gets you.’

page 201

‘Too old for me to learn now,’ Johnson said. ‘This suits me fine.’

O'Reilly took Johnson home with him to his house in the suburbs. He was a widower with two daughters who worked in shops and kept house for him, and he and Johnson used to sit in the evenings over a bottle or two of stout and talk.

Johnson told O'Reilly bits of what he had done and O'Reilly had stories of America, where he had worked as a boy, and Ireland in the years just after the war.

‘That's one thing they didn't get me in,’ he said. ‘There was plenty of fighting back home in Ireland or out Detroit way with the union. There wasn't any need to get into these organized wars.’

Johnson told him about Stenning and Rua.

‘Me,’ O'Reilly said, ‘I wouldn't 'a gone to all that trouble running away. I'd take a term in jail any day. I wouldn't 'a lived that life in the bush not if they wanted to hang me.

He couldn't understand Stenning.

‘If my old woman had done a thing like that,’ he said, ‘I’ 'a taken it out of her; she was a good old girl, she never did anything like that, but what's the use going around fighting all the men that get off with your wife if she's fool enough to let them. There's trouble enough about for a man without quarrelling over women.’

O'Reilly was interested in politics. He was a Labour and a Union man. He had fought through a steel strike in Detroit and with the I.R.A. and down at the docks in the great strike of ‘twenty-six. He had a phrase he liked using, industrial war. He used it a lot.

‘It's the only kind of war a man knows what he's fighting for,’ he said.

Johnson listened, tried to argue with him, was interested, but knew nothing.

page 202

‘I've never thought things over that way, Jack,’ he said.

‘I've just knocked around,’

‘You've been knocked around, that's what you've done.’

‘I had some good years.’

‘Yeah, and you had some bad years, that's what does it, the fellows like you not ever stopping to think, just bumming about, when things are good not a care in the world and when they're bad it's nobody's fault.’

‘You go ahead, Jack,’ said Johnson. ‘You go ahead. I'll listen to the theories. All my life I've been listening to fellows with theories. I don't mind listening to yours.’

‘This is the solid stuff you're getting now, boy,’ O'Reilly said. ‘It's this way.…’

Johnson was happy then working with Jack O'Reilly. He got to know a lot of the fellows knocking about the town doing one thing and another. He was happy, not caring, they can't do anything more to me, he said, and he liked seeing these men he got to know trying to do things, like things, be political. Everything that was restless, fighting in them, made him feel good. He even went about with O'Reilly distributing pamphlets, but he gave it up after a while.

‘It's embarrassing,’ he said.

‘You don't want to get embarrassed by a lot of smug bastards that don't know what's going on in the world.’

‘Well, I get embarrassed, I don't know anything myself. Someone asks me what's this for, what's all this about, someone asks me am I a Communist, I say no, I'm a democrat and something about the rights of the working man. It doesn't go down the way it ought to.’

Once he got arrested fighting in the East End when the Fascists were doing some marching. The police crowded in and broke the demonstration and the counter-demonstration up. Someone knocked Johnson from behind with page 203 a loaded stick and the next thing he knew he was in a police van being taken to the station. He didn't like that much for a moment, not being quite so close to the police, but he kept quiet and it came out all right.

‘He seems a quiet, decent sort of fellow,’ the police-sergeant said. ‘We haven't seen him around before,’ and they bound him over to keep the peace.

‘You better not start fighting around too much,’ Jack O'Reilly said, ‘they'll go to work and get something on you. They're hell on earth once they want to get a man.’

So Johnson kept quiet at meetings after that. You could have seen him standing in the background sometimes, a little shy and out of place, while someone was talking, but quite happy to be there. He went about with Jack O'Reilly and had a drink occasionally with the others and listened to them talking and arguing, not saying much himself.

‘I don't know a damn thing about it, Jack,’ he said.

‘You'll learn,’ Jack O'Reilly said.

‘It's security the working class wants,’ said someone else another time.

‘I could do with a bit of that,’ Johnson said. ‘I could do with a bit of that all right. There hasn't been much of that about in my time.’

‘But it's all right,’ he said once, when they were talking. ‘I like you fellows and I believe you mean what you say you believe. I'll stay around. I'll even walk in a procession.’

But he wasn't in London by May Day.

Early in the New Year, when Jack O'Reilly said he was going to Spain, Johnson said he would go too. O'Reilly was glad though he tried to persuade him against it.

‘It's all right just knocking about here,’ he said. ‘You come along because you like us, you haven't got anything page 204 to do, but this is different. This is war. You get killed in war-time.’

‘They can't kill me,’ Johnson said. ‘I've been in wars there's nothing in them. The peace is more dangerous.’

‘You think it over a bit.’

‘You tell me what you're going for, Jack, then I'll think it over.’

‘Well, me,’ O'Reilly said, ‘the wife's dead and the girls are grown up so it doesn't matter.’

‘I haven't got a wife,’ Johnson said. ‘I haven't got any girls. I'll come if you're going.’

He patted him on the back affectionately.

‘I like you, Jack,’ he said. ‘I like the fellows you go around with. If you're going that suits me.’

‘You got to fight fascism,’ Jack O'Reilly said, ‘wherever it is.’

‘Sure, I know. Spain or here, you got to fight it.’

‘You know as well as I do,’ O'Reilly said, ‘you know well enough what it's all about.’

‘Sure, we'll go out and burn some churches and rape some nuns,’ said Johnson, grinning.

‘It's O.K., Jack,’ he said. ‘I know which side I'm on.’

‘It's better than the London winter,’ he said.

‘My brother'll be pleased,’ he said, later in the evening. ‘He won't know, but if he did know he'd be very pleased. So'll Mabel, she'll be very pleased.’

He had a little of the same trouble when he was interviewed for the brigade.

‘I'm not a Communist,’ he said, ‘I'm a democrat.’

‘You're a New Zealander?’

‘I've been in New Zealand.’

‘We had a New Zealand airman who had your complaint. He was quite a good airman.’

‘He's O.K.,’ said Jack O'Reilly, who was with him.

page 205

‘You're not too old for this?’ they asked him.

‘I'm just starting,’ Johnson said. ‘This is nothing.’

When he passed the medical examination they took him without any more questions.

Volunteers were banned by that time so that they left together with ten others one Saturday night from Victoria on week-end tickets. There was quite a party down to see them off with the police looking stolidly on, trying to pick up faces from the crowd. In the carriage going down to Newhaven Johnson was feeling happy. He was trying to explain this to a man with a university accent and a bearded face. He was a medical student who was going out with them.

‘I've only felt like this sometimes,’ he said, ‘going some-where with people I liked, doing something together. It's a fine feeling. Most of the time a man spends too much alone.’

‘Did you get this in the war – the Great War–’ the man asked him, ‘marching off together?’

‘Maybe, I don't know,’ Johnson said. ‘It was a long time ago. I was young then. I was frightened a good deal of the time.’

‘E viva the government socialista of New Zealand,’ said a little Cockney opposite that Johnson knew. This was just after a Labour Government got into power in New Zealand, so they were giving Johnson credit for it.

‘E viva the New Zealand socialista,’ said someone else. They were under the illusion that they were going to speak Spanish in Spain.

‘They're not Socialists, those fellows,’ Johnson said, deprecatingly. ‘They're currency reformers.’

‘E viva anyway,’ said the little Cockney. They were all feeling very happy with the drinks of people that had been seeing them off.

page break

‘A man spends too much time alone,’ Johnson said to himself.

It wasn't so warm or so cheerful when the channel boat got out from Newhaven. Johnson walked round the little bit of steerage deck talking to O'Reilly. After a while O'Reilly was sick and went to lie down and Johnson walked round alone, watching the ship's lights on the waves and the gleam of foam and after a while the lights of Dieppe coming up ahead. He had a drink just before they got in and felt comfortable though sleepy by the time they got into the train. It was more tiring than cheerful though the journey in the train and the wooden benches, cold and tiring too the long journey south after Paris. It was cold and wet the night they went over the frontier. The man who was guiding them lost his way in the wind and rain and they had to wait over night until the dawn broke.

‘This is nothing,’ Johnson said, not cheerfully, but as a matter of fact.

‘You bloody democrat,’ O'Reilly said.

The sun came out for a moment as they were coming down the mountain-side into Spain.