The Night Watch
To Lucy Vaughan
So this, said Kay to herself, is the sort of person you’ve become: a person whose clocks and wristwatches have stopped, and who tells the time, instead, by the particular kind of cripple arriving at her landlord’s door.
For she was standing at her open window, in a collarless shirt and a pair of greyish underpants, smoking a cigarette and watching the coming and going of Mr Leonard’s patients. Punctually, they came-so punctually, she really could tell the time by them: the woman with the crooked back, on Mondays at ten; the wounded soldier, on Thursdays at eleven. On Tuesdays at one an elderly man came, with a fey-looking boy to help him: Kay enjoyed watching for them. She liked to see them making their slow way up the street: the man neat and dark-suited as an undertaker, the boy patient, serious, handsome-like an allegory of youth and age, she thought, as done by Stanley Spencer
or some finicky modern painter like that. After them there came a woman with her son, a little lame boy in spectacles; after that, an elderly Indian lady with rheumatics. The little lame boy would sometimes stand scuffing up moss and dirt from the broken path to the house with his great boot, while his mother spoke with Mr Leonard in the hall. Once, recently, he’d looked up and seen Kay watching; and she’d heard him making a fuss on the stairs, then, about going on his own to the lavatory.
‘Is it them angels on the door?’ she had heard his mother say. ‘Good heavens, they’re only pictures! A great boy like you!’
Kay guessed it wasn’t Mr Leonard’s lurid Edwardian angels that frightened him, but the thought of encountering her. He must have supposed she haunted the attic floor like a ghost or a lunatic.
He was right, in a way. For sometimes she walked restlessly about, just as lunatics were said to. And other times she’d sit still, for hours at a time-stiller than a shadow, because she’d watch the shadows creeping across the rug. And then it seemed to her that she really might be a ghost, that she might be becoming part of faded fabric of the house, dissolving into the gloom which gathered, like dust, in its crazy angles.
A train ran by, two streets away, heading into Clapham Junction; she felt the thrill and shudder of it in the sill beneath her arms. The bulb in a lamp behind her shoulder sprang into life, flickered for a second like an irritated eye, and then went out. The clinker in the fireplace-a brutal little fireplace; this had been a room for a servant, once-gently collapsed. Kay took a final draw on her cigarette, then pinched out the flame of it between her forefinger and thumb.
She had been standing at her window for more than an hour. It was a Tuesday: she’d seen a snub-nosed man with a wasted arm arrive, and had been waiting, in a vague kind of way, for the Stanley Spencer couple. But now she’d decided to give up on them. She’d decided to go out. The day was fine, after all: a day in the middle of a warm September, the third September after the war. She went through to the room, next to this one, that she used as a bedroom, and began to get changed.
The room was dim. Some of the window-glass had been lost, and Mr Leonard had replaced it with lino. The bed was high, with a balding candlewick bedspread: the sort of bed which turned your thoughts, not pleasantly, to the many people who must, over the years, have slept on it, made love on it, been born on it, died on it, thrashed around on it in fevers. It gave off a slightly sour scent, like the feet of worn stockings.