“Well,” Poppet was saying crossly, from the gas stove. “When do the army step in and shoot Hitler?”
She was a remarkably silly girl, and, as such, had commanded Basil’s immediate attention when they met, three weeks earlier, with Ambrose Silk. With her Basil had spent the time he had promised to Angela at Cannes; on her he had spent the twenty pounds Angela had sent him for the journey. Even now when her fatuous face pouted in derision, she found a soft place in Basil’s heart.
Evidence of her silliness abounded in the canvases, finished and unfinished, which crowded the studio. Eighty years ago her subjects would have been knights in armour; ladies in whimples and distress; fifty years ago ‘nocturnes’; twenty years ago pierrots and willow trees; now, in 1939, they were bodiless heads, green horses and violet grass, seaweed, shells and fungi, neatly executed, conventionally arranged in the manner of Dali. Her work in progress on the easel was an overlarge, accurate but buttercup-coloured head of the Aphrodite of Melos, poised against a background of bulls’-eyes and barley sugar.
“My dear.” Ambrose had said, “you can positively hear her imagination creaking, as she does them, like a pair of old, old corsets, my dear, on a harridan.”
“They’ll destroy London. What shall I do?” asked Poppet plaintively. “Where can I go? It’s the end of my painting. I’ve a good mind to follow Parsnip and Pimpernel” (two great poets of her acquaintance who had recently fled to New York).
“You’ll be in more danger crossing the Atlantic than staying in London,” said Basil. “There won’t be any air raids in London.”
“For God’s sake don’t say that.” Even as she spoke the sirens wailed. Poppet stood paralysed with horror. “Oh God,” she said. “You’ve done it. They’ve come.”
“Faultless timing.” Said Basil cheerfully. “That’s always been Hitler’s strong point.”
Poppet began to dress in an ineffectual fever of reproach. “You said there wouldn’t be a war. You said the bombers would never come. Now we shall all be killed and you just sit there talking and talking.”
“You know I should have thought an air raid was just the thing for a surréaliste; it ought to give you plenty of compositions – limbs and things lying about in odd places, you know.”
I wish I’d never met you. I wish I’d been to church. I was brought up in a convent. I wanted to be a nun once. I wish I was a nun. I’m going to be killed. Oh. I wish I was a nun. I’m going to be killed. Oh, I wish I was a nun. Where’s my gas-mask? I shall go mad if I don’t find my gas-mask.”
Basil lay back on the divan and watched her with fascination. This was how he liked to see women behave in moments of alarm. He rejoiced, always, in the spectacle of women at a disadvantage: thus he would watch, in the asparagus season, a dribble of melted butter on a woman’s chin, while she would still talk and smile and turn her head, not knowing how she appeared to him.
“Now do make up your mind what you’re frightened of.” He urged. “If you’re going to be bombed with high explosive run down to the shelter; if you’re going to be gassed, shut the skylight and stay up here. In any case I should’nt bother about that respirator. If they use anything it’ll be arsenical smoke and it’s no use against that. You’ll find arsenical smoke quite painless at first. You won’t know you’ve been gassed for a couple of days; then it’ll be too late. In fact for all we know we’re being gassed at this moment. If they fly high enough and let the wind carry the stuff they may be twenty miles away. The symptoms, when they do appear, are rather revolting . . .”
But Poppet was gone, helter-skelter downstairs making little moaning noises as she went.
Basil dressed and, only pausing to paint in a ginger moustache across Poppet’s head of Aphrodite, strolled out into the streets.
. . . . .
After the All Clear various friends of Poppet’s came together in her studio.
“I wasn’t the least frightened. I was so surprised at my own courage I felt quite giddy.”
“I wasn’t frightened I just felt glum.”
“I felt positively glad. After all we’ve all said for years that the present order of things was doomed, haven’t we?” I mean it’s always been the choice for us between concentration camp and being blown up, hasn’t it?” I just sat thinking how much I preferred being blown up to being beaten with rubber truncheons.”
“I was frightened,” said Poppet.
“Dear Poppet, you always have the healthiest reactions. Erchman really did wonders for you.”
“Well, I’m not sure they were so healthy this time. D’you know, I found myself actually praying.”
“I say, did you? That’s bad.”
“Better see Erchman again.”
“Unless he’s in a concentration camp.”
“We shall all be in concentration camps.”
“If anyone so much as mentions concentration camps again,” said Ambrose Silk, “I shall go frankly hay wire.” (“He had an unhappy love affair in Munich,” one of Poppet’s friends explained to another, “then they found he was half Jewish and the Brown Shirt was shut away.”) “Let’s look at Poppet’s pictures and forget the war. Now that,” he said pausing before the Aphrodite, “that I consider good, I consider it good, Poppet. The moustache . . . it shows you have crossed one of the artistic rubicons and feel strong enough to be facetious. Like those wonderfully dramatic old chestnuts in Parsnip’s Guernica Revisted. You’re growing up Poppet, my dear.”
. . . . .
Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art. Nature in the raw is seldom mild; red in tooth and claw; matelots in Toulon smelling of wine and garlic, with tough brown necks, cigarettes stuck to the lower lip, lapsing into unintelligible, contemptuous argot.
Art: this was where Art had brought him, to this studio, to these coarse and tedious youngsters, to that preposterous yellow face among the boiled sweets.
Evelyn Waugh, 1903-1966. Put out More Flags, 1942. (Chapter. 1. Autumn. 4)
Image: Ithell Colquhoun, 1906-1988