Some Time I Shall Sleep Out

The night-sergeant at the police station surveyed me dubiously from behind his desk. “Not drunk, are you?” he said. 

“No. But all the hotels are full and I want a bed for the night.”

“Can’t book you unless you’re drunk, I’m afraid,” the sergeant said. “We’re full up too, anyhow.” He nodded towards a noise of muffled shouting from the cells. “Whitsun,” he said. “Drunks. Not a single bit of room to spare. If you’ve any money, you might try the Y.M.C.A. Or the Salvation Army Hostel, Waterloo way.”

“Crammed to the doors. I’ve been.”

“Well, there’s always Euston Station. The waiting-room.” He looked up at the clock; it was already 2 a.m. “Might get in there if you hurry. Course, officially, you’re not supposed to sleep on the station, but chances are no constable’ll bother you. Got all we can cope with here tonight.”

I thanked him and wandered out into a wide empty road balefully lit by orange sodium lamps. Voices singing Mother Machree died away in the distance and traffic had temporarily ceased. I’d been walking about for hours, and my briefcase seemed by now to weigh a ton. I stood on the kerb, a sudden prey to agoraphobia, daunted by the shining width of the street I had to cross.

Then, ahead of me, I saw the lone figure of a man approaching. It bore down slowly, limping a little, with the inexorable step of some symbolic character in a foreign film: one who might turn out to be Destiny, Satan, or perhaps even the Saviour. This effect of a fated encounter was heightened by his opening address, delivered as he drew level and halted.

“Bound for Euston, I daresay?”

“Yes. Are you?”

The man nodded, looking at me sadly and with compassion. He wore a plastic mac and carried a small attaché case of considerable antiquity. He himself was not young either, though his actual age in the lurid sodium glare, was hard to assess.

“Euston Station,” he said. “The only place where one is allowed to rest in comparative peace and comfort, free of charge. Come, let us make the journey together.”

He took my arm and steered me across the road towards crimson neon capitals spelling out the station’s name. “Charing Cross is no good nowadays,” he said. “Doesn’t open till 5 a.m. I was an inmate of Rowton House until this evening but, alas, they don’t let you remain more than three nights in succession — and besides I haven’t the entrance-fee.” He paused in the vast booking-hall to remove his shoe and shake from inside it a sizeable lump of grit. “I am an anachronism, ” he said. “An officer of the First World War.” Swiftly he whipped from his pocket a small tin box and allowed me to glance inside. It contained medal ribbons of indubitable ’14-’18 vintage. “Pensioned of course, but it’s not enough to live on, and frankly whenever it comes in, I blow the lot.”

At a brisker pace, as though revived by the thought of this improvidence, he moved towards the doors of the waiting-room and stood alertly surveying the terrain. “Not too bad considering,” he said. I followed him into what was in fact another huge hall, where every cough raised a hollow echo, and where the benches, padded in scarlet leather, were almost all occupied by sleeping people: some huddled in pairs, others — fortunate enough to secure a bench to themselves — stretched out full length with their feet up. Few had luggage, though some soldiers’ heads were pillowed on their packs, and many stirred awake at the sound of our footsteps on the tiled floor.

“This way,” the officer told me, heading straight in front of him. “Avoid the Russian,” he added in a lower tone, indicating a bench on our right. Slumped half across this was an old man wearing several overcoats, a green furry cap pulled low over his ears, and a matted yellow-white beard. He also wore two pairs of boots, with folded newspaper inserted between their gaping toes, and muttered malevolently to himself as we approached.

“Verminous,” the officer hissed in my ear, steering me towards a vacant bench at the rear, onto which he sank with a sigh. I was about to follow suit, but started suddenly back in alarm. Towering above me was a gigantic figure, sightless and square-bearded, carved out of snuff-coloured stone and clutching a scroll. 

“Stephenson,” the officer said. “The Rocket, you know. Gives one quite a turn, doesn’t he?” 

 I sat uneasily below the statue and took fuller stock of my surroundings. I saw now that round the walls, at regular intervals, were a series of large black bins resembling sarcophagi, on each of which a sleeping man lay recumbent, like a figure sculpted in relief upon his own tomb. But before I’d time to comment on this sepulchral feature of the station, the officer clutched my arm. 

“Police!” he hissed. “If accosted, say you’re waiting for the 7.55 to Manchester. We’ll be away by then.” 

But the two constables were not aiming to question us. They were headed for the Russian, who watched them approach with rancour, scratching first inside one of his overcoats and then in his beard. “They’ll move him on for sure,” the officer said. “Poor old devil.” He was right, but not until a spirited exchange had taken place, during which the Russian produced masses of tattered documents, some from inside his boots, and proferred them as evidence that he was a bona fide traveller. But the police were adamant: plainly the Russian was not waiting for the 7.55 to Manchester. At last he rose and shuffled away, with the two constables pacing behind, and those who had awoken settled down to sleep again.

“Now for a spot of shut-eye,” the officer said. “Until the Buffet opens, five o’clock sharp,” and he dropped off immediately, sitting bolt upright with his attaché case clipped firmly between his ankles. I didn’t find it easy to follow his example, my head kept slipping off the arm I attempted to rest it on, and the sleepless antiseptic glare of the light-globes beat down from above.

Nevertheless I woke to find the officer shaking me gently and pointing with his other hand towards the Refreshment Room, part of which was called the Flying Scot, and where signs of movement were now perceptible beyond the closed glass doors. “Quick,” he said. “Before the lunch rush begins. That is, if you’ve the wherewithal, dear boy.”

At that moment the door clanged open and the rush began in earnest. Even the sarcophagus-men rose from their death-like trance and flung themselves down to join in the stampede. But, owing to the officer’s foresight, we were first in the queue, and soon sitting at a table well-screened from the rest of the room, with sausage-rolls, sandwiches, and cups of coffee before us.

“A welcome break,” the officer said, munching avidly. “Bless you, dear boy. One day I may be able to repay. I haven’t always been like this, not by any means. I had my own business once, but it went bust. Some people said I drank too much.” He brushed crumbs from his grey military moustache, clipped toothbrush-style. “Malicious gossip, of course. Then I got married. Well, enough said. I daresay you’ve had woman-trouble yourself. Mine, to cut it short, is a sordid simple story of domestic infelicity. She had a parrot,” he said with sudden venom. “ A parrot and a Pekinese. Also oodles of dough. But I got away from her in the end.” He dozed lightly off with his head bowed over the empty plate, then awoke to say: “Freedom. I prize my freedom above all things. I’ll never go back, never. On the other hand, I’m getting a bit ancient for this kind of life. Anno domini, dear boy. I was sixty-five last birthday.”

At this point I dozed off myself; when I awoke, to the clatter of cups being collected, daylight had broken over the hall outside, women with mops and pails were swabbing down the tiles, and the Whitsun crowd was pushing eagerly in from the booking-hall. “Now for a wash-and-brush up, dear fellow,” the officer said, jumping up greatly refreshed. 

Downstairs we washed and shaved; and afterwards, opening his attaché case, the officer took out brushes of various kinds, polished his shoes and brushed his clothes carefully, even combing his moustache with a tiny tortoise-shell comb. “I’ve made a decision, my boy,” he said. “I’m going back. Back to the wife. It’ll mean sacrificing my freedom, but against that there’s my age. It’s a fact one’s got to admit, getting older. Oh, she’ll take me in all right. I’ve only got to turn up. No, no, thanks — I’ve saved the fare all right. It’s not far, on the Tube, to her suburban mansion.”

We said good-bye at the Underground entrance, and I watched him walk away. Once he shivered slightly, perhaps thinking of the parrot and the Pekinese, but then he pulled his shoulders back and trod jauntily out of sight: as years before, perhaps, he had led his men over the top, at zero-hour, on some forgotten field.

© The Estate of Julian Maclaren-Ross 

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