For a week Bicket had seen ‘the job,’ slippery as an eel, evasive as a swallow, for ever passing out of reach. A pound for keep, and three shillings invested on a horse, and he was down to twenty-four bob. The weather had turned sou’-westerly and Victorine had gone out for the first time. That was something off his mind, but the cramp of the unemployed sensation, that fearful craving for the means of mere existence, a protesting, agonising anxiety, was biting into the very flesh of his spirit. If he didn’t get a job within a week or two, there would be nothing for it but the workhouse, or the gas. ‘The gas,’ thought Bicket, ‘if she will, I will. I’m fed up. After all, what is it? In her arms I wouldn’t mind.’ Instinct, however, that it was not so easy as all that to put one’s head under the gas, gave him a brainwave that Monday night. Balloons—that chap in Oxford Street today! Why not? He still had the capital for a flutter in them, and no hawker’s licence needed. His brain, working like a squirrel in the small hours, grasped the great, the incalculable advantage of coloured balloons over all other forms of commerce. You couldn’t miss the man who sold them—there he was for every eye to see, with his many radiant circumferences dangling in front of him! Not much profit in them, he had gathered—a penny on a sixpenny globe of coloured air, a penny on every three small twopenny globes; still their salesman was alive, and probably had pitched him a poor tale for fear of making his profession seem too attractive. Over the Bridge, just where the traffic—no, up by St. Paul’s! He knew a passage where he could stand back a yard or two, like that chap in Oxford Street! But to the girl sleeping beside him he said nothing. No word to her till he had thrown the die. It meant gambling with his last penny. For a bare living he would have to sell—why, three dozen big and four dozen small balloons a day would only be twenty-six shillings a week profit, unless that chap was kidding. Not much towards ‘Austrylia’ out of that! And not a career—Victorine would have a shock! But it was neck or nothing now—he must try it, and in off hours go on looking for a job.
Our thin capitalist, then, with four dozen big and seven dozen small on a tray, two shillings in his pocket, and little in his stomach, took his stand off St. Paul’s at two o’clock next day. Slowly he blew up and tied the necks of two large and three small, magenta, green and blue, till they dangled before him. Then with the smell of rubber in his nostrils, and protruding eyes, he stood back on the kerb and watched the stream go by. It gratified him to see that most people turned to look at him. But the first person to address him was a policeman, with:
“I’m not sure you can stand there.”
Bicket did not answer, his throat felt too dry. He had heard of the police. Had he gone the wrong way to work? Suddenly he gulped, and said: “Give us a chance, constable; I’m right on my bones. If I’m in the way, I’ll stand anywhere you like. This is new to me, and two bob’s all I’ve got left in the world besides a wife.”
The constable, a big man, looked him up and down. “Well, we’ll see. I shan’t make trouble for you if no one objects.”
Bicket’s gaze deepened thankfully.
“I’m much obliged,” he said; “tyke one for your little girl—to please me.”
“I’ll buy one,” said the policeman, “and give you a start. I go off duty in an hour, you ‘ave it ready—a big one, magenta.”
He moved away. Bicket could see him watching. Edging into the gutter, he stood quite still; his large eyes clung to every face that passed; and, now and then, his thin fingers nervously touched his wares. If Victorine could see him! All the spirit within him mounted. By Golly! he would get out of this somehow into the sun, into a life that was a life!
He had been standing there nearly two hours, shifting from foot to unaccustomed foot, and had sold four big and five small—sixpenny worth of profit—when Soames, who had changed his route to spite those fellows who couldn’t get past William Gouldyng Ingerer, came by on his way to the P.P.R.S. board. Startled by a timid murmur: “Balloon, sir, best quality,” he looked round from that contemplation of St. Paul’s which had been his lifelong habit, and stopped in sheer surprise.
“Balloon!” he said. “What should I want with a balloon?”
Bicket smiled. Between those green and blue and orange globes and Soames’ grey self-containment there was incongruity which even he could appreciate.
“Children like ’em—no weight, sir, waistcoat pocket.”
“I daresay,” said Soames, “but I’ve no children.”
“Nor any grandchildren.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Soames gave him one of those rapid glances with which he was accustomed to gauge the character of the impecunious. ‘A poor, harmless little rat!’ he thought “Here, give me two—how much?”
“A shilling, sir, and much obliged.”
“You can keep the change,” said Soames hurriedly, and passed on, astonished. Why on earth he had bought the things, and for more than double their price, he could not conceive. He did not recollect such a thing having happened to him before. Extremely peculiar! And suddenly he realised why. The fellow had been humble, mild—to be encouraged, in these days of Communistic bravura. After all, the little chap was—was on the side of Capital, had invested in those balloons! Trade! And, raising his eyes towards St. Paul’s again, he stuffed the nasty-feeling things down into his overcoat pocket. Somebody would be taking them out, and wondering what was the matter with him! Well, he had other things to think of!…
Bicket, however, stared after him, elated. Two hundred and fifty odd per cent. profit on those two—that was something like. The feeling, that not enough women were passing him here, became less poignant—after all, women knew the value of money, no extra shillings out of them! If only some more of these shiny-hatted old millionaires would come along!
At six o’clock, with a profit of three and eightpence, to which Soames had contributed just half, he began to add the sighs of deflating balloons to his own; untying them with passionate care he watched his coloured hopes one by one collapse, and stored them in the drawer of his tray. Taking it under his arm, he moved his tired legs in the direction of the Bridge. In a full day he might make four to five shillings—Well, it would just keep them alive, and something might turn up! He was his own master, anyway, accountable neither to employer nor to union. That knowledge gave him a curious lightness inside, together with the fact that he had eaten nothing since breakfast.
‘Wonder if he was an alderman,’ he thought; ‘they say those aldermen live on turtle soup.’ Nearing home, he considered nervously what to do with the tray? How prevent Victorine from knowing that he had joined the ranks of Capital, and spent his day in the gutter? Ill luck! She was at the window! He must put a good face on it. And he went in whistling.
“What’s that, Tony?” she said, pointing to the tray.
“Ah! ha! Great stunt—this! Look ’ere!”
Taking a balloon out from the tray, he blew. He blew with a desperation he had not yet put into the process. They said the things would swell to five feet in circumference. He felt somehow that if he could get it to attain those proportions, it would soften everything. Under his breath the thing blotted out Victorine, and the room, till there was just the globe of coloured air. Nipping its neck between thumb and finger, he held it up, and said:
“There you are; not bad value for sixpence, old girl!” and he peered round it. Lord, she was crying! He let the ‘blymed’ thing go; it floated down, the air slowly evaporating till a little crinkled wreck rested on the dingy carpet. Clasping her heaving shoulders, he said desperately:
“Cheerio, my dear, don’t quarrel with bread and butter. I shall get a job, this is just to tide us over. I’d do a lot worse than that for you. Come on, and get my tea, I’m hungry, blowin’ up those things.”
She stopped crying, looked up, said nothing—mysterious with those big eyes! You’d say she had thoughts! But what they were Bicket could not tell. Under the stimulus of tea, he achieved a certain bravado about his new profession. To be your own master! Go out when you liked, come home when you liked—lie in bed with Vic if he jolly well pleased. A lot in that! And there rose in Bicket something truly national, something free and happy-go-lucky, resenting regular work, enjoying a spurt, and a laze-off, craving independence—something that accounted for the national life, the crowds of little shops, of middlemen, casual workers, tramps, owning their own souls in their own good time, and damning the consequences—something inherent in the land, the race, before the Saxons and their conscience and their industry came in-something that believed in swelling and collapsing coloured air, demanded pickles and high flavours without nourishment—yes, all that something exulted above Bicket’s kipper and his tea, good and strong. He would rather sell balloons than be a packer any day, and don’t let Vic forget it! And when she was able to take a job, they would get on fine, and not be long before they’d saved enough to get out of it to where those blue butterflies came from. And he spoke of Soames. A few more aldermen without children—say two a day, fifteen bob a week outside legitimate trade. Why, in under a year they’d have the money! And once away, Vic would blow out like one of those balloons; she’d be twice the size, and a colour in her cheeks to lay over that orange and magenta. Bicket became full of air. And the girl, his wife, watched with her large eyes and spoke little; but she did not cry again, or, indeed, throw any water, warm or cold, on him who sold balloons.