Underground London ca. 1919

Serge, Audrey and Becky visit the salon several times over the next few weeks. After a while Becky teaches them the password sequence so that they can go without her: it consists of the visitor enquiring whether there’ll be a piano recital today, and the servant (since Madame Z’s seems to be open round the clock, these keep rotating) asking whether they’ve come to hear the Chopin or the Liszt, to which the visitor must answer “Liszt.” There is a piano in the main room, as it happens; from time to time, one of the guests will play it for a while, but their recitals never get completed, any more than the intermittent conversations rippling about the place, which fade away almost as soon as they get going. Serge learns other passwords too: there’s one that works at Wooldridge and Co. chemist’s shop in Lisle Street, and another in a taxidermist’s store in Holborn; at a confectioner’s in Bond Street, by announcing himself favourable to liquorice, then purchasing either a flask of perfume or a box of sweetmeats, Serge is able to procure much more than he ostensibly requests; at an antique dealer’s out in Kensington, the code works the other way, one or other (sometimes both) of two Oriental objets d’art, calligraphic watercolours bearing (originally, at least, quite accidentally, Serge imagines) the likenesses of the Western letters C and H, appearing in the window to indicate the availability of various stock. He starts seeing all of London’s surfaces and happenings as potentially encrypted: street signage, chalk-marks scrawled on walls, phrases on newspaper vendors’ stalls and sandwich boards, snatches of conversations heard in passing, the arrangements of flowers on window-sills or clothes on washing lines. He also comes to realise just how many of his fellow citizens are subject to the same vices as him. He picks up the telltale signals all over town: the sniffs, the slightly jaundiced skin, the hands jerky and limp by turns, eyes dull yet somehow restless too. Sometimes a look passes between him and a chance companion on the bus, or in a queue, or someone brushed past in a doorway, a look of mutual recognition of the type that members of a secret sect might give each other: Ah, you’re one of us … (211).

from Tom McCarthy C

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