In time, I felt exhausted, satisfied but depleted, emptied. I confessed I needed to get to bed; she remained bright-eyed and fully alert.

"You lack stamina, dear," she told me. "Very well, there is a nice room at the front on the second floor. Bathroom suite opposite on the landing. Fresh soap and towels, everything you need. That'll be thirteen shillings and sixpence, dear."

I paid her the right money.

"There'll be a receipt in the letter rack. A little kiss good-night?"

I intended to do no more than brush her forehead lightly with my chin, but as I leaned forward, holding my breathe so as not to inhale the stench, she lifted her head and kissed me, wet, full on the lips. I shuddered ambivalently, for I found I had closed my eyes and lingered, even though her lips were cold, cold as the hard winter earth outside.

She whispered, "'Night, 'night."

Embarrassed out of my drowsiness, I fled into the hall.

I felt my way up the unlit stairs. The walls were worn, shiny smooth the touch. Beyond the ground floor, I was walking on bare floorboards. By dim street light cast through a grimy window, I could make out that my room was bare, except for a narrow bed, a dining-room chair, a cast iron washstand and a chipped enamel bowl.

I groped my way to the bathroom. As far as I could tell, it was a communal wash place, with a row of basins and the jagged glass of broken black mirrors. A WC cubicle gave off the indelible smell of stale urine. I had no hot water, no soap and no towel on which to dry my cold wet hands. I was saddened and disappointed but too tired to be angry.

I would make a point of seeing her in the morning and telling her what a state things are in up here, I decided. She must be under the illusion that all is as it should be and, from her tone, sumptuous. She needed to be told. The poor thing wouldn't be able to get up here to see for herself. Someone had taken advantage of her vulnerability.

I flopped onto the bed, noted mentally the lack of a pillowcase on the striped ticking and fell into a deep sleep. The sleep of the dead.

 

Next