Harbingers of the new smartness were the occasional flower tub or window box, a gaily painted dustbin, a bicycle painted in a flower pattern, and a smattering of trendily dressed girls. Empty wine bottles could now be seen standing next to dustbins in place of Tizer empties. It was still by no means certain, however, if the district was really on the way up, or whether it would sink back again into its old downtrodden ways. The flowers in their boxes were certainly at risk should there be any early budding before the football season finished, for thousands of blue and white scarfed Chelsea supporters, swarming home after a match, made the street hazardous.
Anyone who may have lost his way and stumbled into this street of character and potential would not fail to see a Chinese takeaway restaurant locally called 'the Chinese chip shop'. The interior of the establishment was hidden from occidental eyes by a beaded curtain in the window. Beside the restaurant was a front door screening a narrow staircase which led to the flat above.
It happened to be a Monday morning at about eight-fifteen. The bedroom in the flat was cheap, cheerful and furnished inexpensively with a few touches from Habitat and elsewhere. It was the bedroom of a young couple. A young man, tangled up in the sheets and wearing only pyjama trousers, was precariously asleep on the edge of the double bed. The sleeper answered to the name of Robin Tripp -- when awake.
An attractive girl, wearing the matching top, came in, balancing a breakfast tray loaded with all those commodities generally associated with the repast. This was Victoria, the paramour of the slumbering figure. She put the tray on her side table and climbed into bed beside him, displaying for a moment the pink soles of her feet and varnished toenails.
'Coffee, Robin?' she said. There was, however, no reaction, and so she leaned across him, holding a steaming mug and wafting the aroma under his nose. He sniffed it, in the manner of the Bisto Kids, without opening his eyes. 'Lovely coffee,' she reiterated.
'Ah!' he said appreciatively, moving towards the aromatic brew and in doing so falling out of bed into a tangled heap of limbs and pyjamas. Victoria placed the mug on his side table and looked down on him with humorous tenderness.
'Just leave the money on the dressing table, dearie,' she said.
Robin climbed back into bed, saying 'I haven't finished with you yet!' He dived under the bedclothes, and she squealed as they struggled for a moment before she drove him off.
'Oh, get off,' she said good-humouredly, 'the toast'll go cold! Not in front of the Teasmaid!'
He let her go and sat up in bed, pulling the blankets and sheets up. 'Very well,' he threatened, 'I shall go back to Susan George.' He settled down as if to go to sleep again, changed his mind and sat up. 'On second thoughts, I wasn't getting anywhere with her either.'
'It's not your day,' she said, putting the breakfast tray across her knees, afraid for a moment that the boiled egg would fall out her cup as it joggled. They talked as they ate.
'Oh, I'm not bothered. As you get older it takes its place as just another hobby. Listen, what are you doing this Saturday?'
'Why?' she said, wondering what treat it was he had planned for her.
'Well, I was thinking, if there isn't a decent football match on, and if it's a nice day, I was thinking we could stroll down the road and get married.'
'No, thanks,' she said, smiling. That was not her idea of a good way of passing Saturday.
'Vicki, we've got to get married,' he said urgently.
'Why, are you pregnant?'
'I don't think so,' he said, looking under the sheets to verify his assertion. 'No,' he said, reassured. 'But we could do with the wedding presents.'
'Twenty past eight in the morning is no time to -- twenty past!' She leaped out of bed, still drinking coffee, and went into the living room.
'Relax, that clock's slow,' Robin called out.
'About ten minutes.'
Victoria relaxed and said, 'You might have -- slow!' She left the room hastily. Robin got up and followed her, pulling on a dressing gown and still munching toast, hearing his jaws crunch on the scorched dough. 'See? That could be the top of the list -- a new clock.'
The living room was quite spacious, with one door leading to the bedroom and another to the bathroom. A third door led to the stairs down below. The room would have been admirably suited as the set to one of Feydeau's farces with all these exits. It was furnished in the way that young couples almost invariably fit them out. There was a Toulouse-Lautrec poster on one wall. There was another by Alphonse Mucha. Bullfight posters were now completely passť or they would have had one of those as well. In one corner of the room was an open-plan kitchenette. Victoria hurried into the bathroom and Robin stood outside it.
'And a new toaster,' he shouted at the door. 'I could make decent toast and know what time I was doing it.'
He heard the sound of the tap running in the bathroom, making as much noise as Niagra Falls and drowning Victoria's reply. Her enunciation was not at its best either, as she had a toothbrush in her mouth and was cleaning her teeth carefully from top to bottom, so she would not wear holes in the enamel or make the gums recede. You had to get every particle of plaque off, or the acid formed in it would form great holes in your teeth, she thought.
'A plausible argument, I grant you,' Robin said, unable to make out a word.
Victoria popped her head out, toothpaste caked around her mouth, so she looked as though she had just been eating a Devonshire cream in the dark. 'I said I can't discuss marriage with a mouthful of toothpaste.'
'You're discussing it now.'
'That's because I've swallowed half of it. I'll be hiccupping rings of confidence all day.'
'You're not taking me seriously.' After all, a proposal was not a thing to be made light of.
'I am,' she said, giving him a kiss and leaving toothpaste round his mouth. Then she returned to the bathroom.
'Ugh,' said Robin, finding her cold, frothy mouth not at all erotic. A goldfish would have had a warmer pair of lips.
A Jaguar XJ6 was now parked outside the Chinese takeaway, its wheels arrogantly on the pavement. The driver, a prosperous middle-aged man, was climbing out. This was Mr Nicholls, Victoria's father. He was a very smart, sophisticated man of the Kensington type, and wore a well-cut, formal-looking navy blue suit. He had a very determined look on his face as he tried the door of the takeaway and found it locked. He peered in and rapped on the glass, hoping to see shadowy oriental figures inside, laying out chopsticks or whatever they did with themselves. This lot, coming from Hong Kong, certainly would not be amusing themselves with The Thoughts of Chairman Mao.
Her ablutions completed, Victoria was now putting on the dark blue uniform of a ground hostess at the London Air Terminal. The colour went well with her blonde hair and she looked very sweet and pretty. Robin sat cross-legged on the bed, still drinking coffee. He was in his dressing gown. He had longish black hair which hung unevenly around his ears and brow in what Victoria thought was a romantic way, like Byron's or Shelley's -- or Ken Dodd's. He was amusing himself by playing with her pillbox uniform hat.
'All I'm saying is,' he said, 'there's no harm in you making an honest man of me.' He couldn't wait to get his hands on the wedding certificate and was longing to write 'married' on his income tax forms.
'Look, I know about marriage. My parents were married.'
'I'm glad to hear it.'
'And it was only because of that they got divorced.'
'Well, yes, but that wouldn't happen to us,' he said, idly putting her hat on his head, giving himself something of a sixteenth-century Florentine look.
'It might. You've got some irritating habits.'
'Such as?' he said, very sceptical of this.
'Such as proposing to me all the time.'
'I'd stop doing that if we were married.'
'That's what you say now. Anyway, I don't want to live with a married man. What sort of girl do you take me for?'
'I didn't mean to -- what?'
'It's only the glamour of the uniform. You wouldn't fancy me if I took this off.'
'Oh, I would, I would.'
The doorbell rang downstairs.
'If that's Mary, tell her I'll be right down,' Victoria said. Robin hurried down the narrow stairs into the hallway below. A door led straight into the Chinese takeaway. There was another door marked TOILETS. Just when the bell rang again Robin opened the front door, still wearing the British Airways cap. He found Mr Nicholls standing outside, looking impatient, his finger still on the button.
'Ah, morning, Mr Nicholls, I thought we'd paid the rent.'
'The Chinese takeaway is locked up,' he said in a voice like an ice cube. What with defaulting Chinks and this fellow, life was hard.
'Well, I could make you a quick sandwich.'
'Thank you, no.' He pushed past Robin, glancing with disapproval at his hat, which he recognized as Victoria's. It reminded him of what a flippant sort of person the boy was. 'I just want to get in.' He tried the inside door of the takeaway and said, 'Ah.'
The room had been stripped, leaving only a few Hong Kong film posters of Kung Fu pictures, a few broken or splintered chopsticks, and stacks of menus. There was a Formica table stained with soy sauce and fried rice. The telephone had one or two noodles sticking to the handset. Behind the counter was a hatch and a door into the kitchen. Nicholls entered, followed by Robin.
'I see,' Nicholls said at once. 'Yes, I thought so. It's pretty obvious what's happened here.' Damn clever these Chinese, he thought. He would never find them again as you couldn't tell one from another.
Robin removed his hat and said, 'They've joined the Heavenly Tong of the Moonlight Flit.'
'Exactly. Owing me three months' rent.' He crossed to the kitchen and looked in. 'When did you last see them?'
'Ooh, it's hard to tell against the yellow wallpaper -- about a week?'
Nicholls sighed and said, 'If they've gone to ground in Gerrard Street I'll never find 'em.'
'I should have guessed. I saw them loading sweet 'n' sour pork balls on to a handcart.'
'You seem to find this amusing, young man. I . . . ' The telephone rang and he picked it up. 'Hello. What? Two small fours and a large sixty-nine?'
Robin waved at the menu and said, 'Pancake rolls and chicken chow mein.'
'We're closed,' Nicholls snapped into the phone and hung up. Then he said to Robin, 'I might have known he'd do this. What sort of man goes around with a name like Won Hung Lo?'
As Nicholls went into the kitchen Robin said wisely, 'They do say that every fourth rent dodger born into the world is Chinese.' The same also applied to rent dodgers who died.
He followed the older man into the kitchen and saw it had been stripped of everything portable, while the cooking range, sinks and other culinary aids were still intact. There was a door leading on to the back yard. As the two men talked, Nicholls poked about. He found nothing but an old ginseng packet, an expired firecracker and a paper tiger.
'I didn't like him, you know, or his wife,' he said. 'They're different from us.'
'Oh, I think that's just a rumour.'
'Well about the . . . ' Robin decided it would be indecorous to pursue it. 'They didn't do very good business. Two hours after one of their meals you felt like never having a Chinese meal again.'
'He thought he was inscrutable, you know. Well, I think he did; it was hard to tell with him.'
'That's the way,' Robin comforted him, 'look on the funny side.'
'What funny side?' said Nicholls, as frosty as an ice lolly just out of the refrigerator. 'They must have sneaked away silently with all their beanshoots and sharkfins.; It was not improbable either, he thought, they they had taken their pre-cooked birds' nests as well, also snake in aspic and desiccated dog.
'We didn't hear anything upstairs.'
'When? When didn't you hear anything? That was probably when they were doing it.' Typical of the cunning yellow devils, he thought.
They heard Victoria calling for Robin, and he excused himself to Nicholls, went through the hallway and found her standing there.
'I'm going to work and you've got my hat,' she said, taking it from him and knocking the dents out. Robin apologized and, looking around, she said, 'What's happening here?'
Robin assumed the nearest he could get to a Chinese accent, although whether Mandarin or Cantonese it was hard to guess. 'Ah, so. Won Hung Lo done moonlight frit, according to our landlord.' He nodded towards Nicholls, who had just entered the hall, trying to work out how much he had been caught for.
'Hello, darling,' he said. 'How are you?' He gave her a paternal kiss.
'I'm fine, dad. How are you?' she said, always pleased to see her progenitor.
'Not too bad, apart from a small twinge in the wallet.' But it was a wonder it had not had a coronary with the shock.
'Never mind,' said Robin, 'you've got two good tenants upstairs. What could be better?'
'One good tenant,' Nicholls said, in the Siberian tones with which he habitually addressed Robin, indicating his daughter.
'Ah,' said Robin, with a nervous clearing of his epiglottis. Nicholls did not do his nerves any good, he thought.
'Don't start that again, you two,' said Victoria sharply.
'Now be fair, Victoria,' her father said, 'I may not approve, but you must admit I've never actually said anything about it.'
'About what?' said Robin with simulated obtuseness, though he knew Nicholls' silences had been as heavy as a sack of freshly made suet pudding.
'I think that proves my point,' said Nicholls in the manner of the counsel for the prosecution.
'About us sleeping together?' Robin received a look so chilly from his non father-in-law that it might have come from Novaya Zemlya or one of the colder parts of the Gulag Archipelago. 'Well, living together -- and eating. There's not a lot of actual sleeping. Well, there is a bit. But it's mainly living and eating,' he said, struggling to be tactful and getting himself into a quagmire. 'You don't have to make excuses to my father,' said Victoria defiantly.
'I wasn't, no. Actually, we do sleep together quite a lot.'
'And there's no need to rub his nose in it.'
'Well, we had better leave it at that then, shall we?' said Robin.
Nicholls, having heard by now enough of this line of conversation, said to his daughter, 'Can I give you a lift? I pass the air terminal.'
There was a toot outside which sounded as though it had come from an electrified plastic whistle from a Christmas cracker.
'Thanks, Dad, but I think my transport's here.'
Out on the street there was another girl in a British Airways uniform, waiting on a motor scooter, her skirt drawn up uncomfortably, exposing a lot of stocking. Victoria hurried from the front door of the flat, with Robin close behind.
'He doesn't like me, you know,' he said.
'It's not you. He wouldn't like any man who bedded me without benefit of clergy. See you tonight.'
She gave him a loving kiss while the beaded curtain in the window of the Chinese takeaway parted to her reveal her father frowning like a Chinese devil, his eyebrows highly arched and lips twisted. Robin become aware of the baleful look and hastily tore his lips away from those of his beloved.
'Come on, we're late,' said Mary, turning her head as she sat on the scooter. Victoria settled herself on the pillion and the machine swept away with a crackling roar, like twenty Chinese crackers set off at once by an enthusiastic New Year celebrant.
Robin returned to the hall and Nicholls intercepted him there with, 'Just a moment, young man.' He was determined to straighten out a few things with this young member of the one and a half million unemployed.
'I'd like a word. Victoria takes after her mother.'
'Oh good.' He had not met her but she must be an improvement in every way on Nicholls.
Nicholls gave him a fleetingly menacing look and then said, 'They're both stubborn, both independent and they both have the same weakness for scruffy young men.' An idea struck him and he went on, 'You don't have a boat in the Algarve, do you?'
'No,' said Robin, who could not see the connection.
'Well, there the similarity ends. Victoria and I used to have a very close relationship. I potty trained her, you know, not her mother.'
'You're going back a little now.'
'I should have thought that was fairly obvious. She was always my favourite.'
'She's the only one you've got,' said Robin, thinking Nicholls' favourite must be Nicholls.
'I can count. I meant between her and her mother. I had high hopes for her, which included marriage to some young man, reasonably wealthy, professional, good looking.'
'A sort of younger version of yourself?'
'You could put it li . . . Are you being sarcastic?'
'No,' said Robin innocently.
'Well, what I'm saying is you're not my ideal, but if you wish to ask my permission to marry her it will not be unreasonably withheld.'
'Thank you,' said Robin, with a smile as weak as old ladies' tea.
'Is that all?'
'Thank you very much,' he said, reinforcing his gratitude.
'I don't suppose you've got a job yet?' the older man said, sighing.
'Oh yes, you're absolutely right. I haven't, not yet. But I'm trying, really trying.'
'Yes, you are trying.' Then Nicholls thought, Why couldn't Vicky have found herself some nice young fellow on the Stock Exchange, a promising broker? No, perhaps that would not have been such a good thing, the way the market was now. And if she married a doctor they would emigrate, so he could get three times the salary that he would get here, and he would hardly ever see her again. If she were to marry an army officer he would be axed before he reached the rank of major, with all the cuts the Labour Government was forever making. Wilson had gone on shrinking the services until some American brass hat had said all we had left were generals and the band. If her future spouse were a captain of industry the firm would go bankrupt through lack of export orders. The ideal would be a bright young executive working at a Japanese car plant in England, then his darling would be safe and well respected. Failing that, someone well connected with the Icelandic fishing industry would be very gratifying. Or even a solicitor with a great deal of conveyancing business would not be an ill match. But these were idle dreams, as she as in the clutches of this Svengali of the fry-up.
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