and snickered and said, ‘He’s come down in the world. It will be the knacker’s for him next.’ We drew level with the hunchback and Francie stopped and set himself squarely before him with hands in pockets, feigning enthusiastic appreciation, swaying his head in time to the poor fellow’s tuneless bellowing. Quasimodo, alarmed by this unexpected attention, roared all the louder and looked rapidly from one of us to the other in mulish panic, showing the yellowed whites of his eyes. I was wondering where he lived, what hovel sheltered him, and thinking in that slow, amazed way that one does that he would have had a mother once. I tried to picture him as a suckling babe, but failed. At last the song warbled to a close and he wrapped himself in his old grey coat and sidled off, glancing back at us over his hump. Francie watched him go and said, ‘Off for a bracer, I don’t doubt.’ We walked on. Francie was laughing softly to himself again and shaking his head. ‘Have you heard this one? Raggedy old geezer staggers into a chemist’s shop.
Bottle of meths, please, miss
. Girl brings the bottle, old boy feels it, hands it back.
Have you got one chilled, my dear? – it brings out the bouquet, you know.’
I must say something about Francie’s laugh, though I am not sure laugh is the right word. With eyes slitted and his upper lip curled at one side to reveal a wax-coloured canine, he would produce a low, rasping, squeezed-out sound in falling triplets, a sort of repeated nasal wheeze, while his shoulders faintly shook. It was a guarded, costive sort of laugh, as if he were enjoying too much the world’s sidesplitting ridiculousness to let others in on the fun and thus risk diminishing it for himself. Even when, as now, he told the joke himself there was the suspicion that it was only a blind and that what was really amusing him was something else altogether that only he was privy to. He gave theimpression always of a sort of surreptitious squirming, of slipping and ducking in and out of view. He was like the trickster who comes up silently at your left shoulder and taps you on the right, and when you spin around you think no one is there until you hear his soft chuckle on the other side of you.
The Boatman was loud with nine-to-fivers released for the day, callow young men in cheap sharp suits and watchful girls with crinkled hair and baked-chicken skin. We sat on stools at the bar and Francie took off his cap and set it on his knee and leaned back against a partition with a mirror in it in which I could see reflected the two taut strings at the back of his neck and one of his uncannily flat ears; I was there, too, or half of me: an oddly startled eye and gloomy jowl and one side of a mouth fixed in a sort of rictus over which I seemed to have no control. I drank gin while Francie toyed with a glass of thin beer; he would suck up a mouthful and strain it back and forth through his teeth and then let half of it wash back fizzing into the glass, so that after a while a clouded, stringy deposit that I tried not to look at gathered at the bottom of the glass. One of my headaches was coming on. Even with his eyes fixed on mine Francie gave the impression of looking me up and down with a sort of muffled amusement.
‘And you’ve got down to it already,’ he said and gave a low whistle. ‘Well, there’s eager!’ For a moment I thought he was talking about A. and I experienced a hot heave in the region of the solar plexus, sure he must have seen into my mind, where the image of her supple young silken back was still before me, climbing the steps of a steadily ascending scale of speculation. He was watching me with a narrowed eye, and I caught something, like the flash of a weasel’s tooth down in the dark of the burrow. ‘So what do you think?’ he said.
A tall young woman with naked shoulders and extraordinary,glaucescent eyes bumped into me and apologised and immediately burst out laughing and passed on.