The Khelim Rug

"Professor Badgecumbe has just telephoned to say that he is very sorry indeed, but he can't get back for another twenty minutes." Behind his secretary's air of apology crouched a protecting tigress, ready to spring if Mrs. Miniver showed the least sign of vexation. To Miss Perrin Badger was a god, and luncheon guests whom he kept waiting had no right whatever to complain. The privilege of knowing him ought to be enough for them.

"It doesn't matter in the least," said Mrs. Miniver, who rather agreed with her. "I'm sure he must have been unavoidably detained."

"I'm sure he must." The tigress relaxed, mollified.

Unavoidably detained my foot, thought Mrs. Miniver. He had probably been messing about in his laboratory and had simply forgotten the time; or else he had been struck by a brilliant new idea in the Tube and had been carried on to the terminus. She knew this perfectly well, and so did Miss Perrin, and each knew that the other knew it. But they both loved Badger: so the Professor was unavoidably detained, and Mrs. Miniver sat down to wait in his study.

As a matter of fact she was glad. She had been living for several weeks through one of those and stretches of life which lie here and there between its more rewarding moments; where there is neither nobility nor gaiety, neither civic splendour nor country peace, but only allotments and rubbish-tips, the gasworks on one side and a row of dilapidated hoardings on the other. As a rule she managed to keep household matters in what she considered their proper place. They should be no more, she felt, than a low unobtrusive humming in the background of consciousness: the mechanics of life should never be allowed to interfere with living. But every now and then some impish poltergeist seemed to throw a spanner into the works. Everything went wrong at once: chimneys smoked, pipes burst, vacuum-cleaners fused, china and glass fell to pieces, net curtains disintegrated in the wash. Nannie sprained her ankle, the cook got tonsillitis, the house-parlour- maid left to be married, and the butterfly nut off the mincing-machine was nowhere to be found.

At such times, she knew, you must just put on spiritual dungarees and remain in them until things are running smoothly again. Every morning you awake to the kind of list which begins: -- Sink-plug. Ruffle-tape. X-hooks. Glue ... and ends: -- Ring plumber. Get sweep. Curse laundry. Your horizon contracts, your mind's eye is focused upon a small circle of exasperating detail. Sterility sets in; the hatches of your mind are battened down. Your thoughts, once darling companions, turn into club bores, from which only sleep can bring release. When you are in this state, to be kept waiting for half an hour in somebody else's house is nothing but the purest joy. At home the footstool limps, legless, thirsting for its glue; the curtain material lies virginally unruffled; the laundry, unconscious of your displeasure, dozes peacefully at Acton: while you yourself are free. Yet you have not played truant: truancy has been thrust upon you, thanks to the fact that elderly professors so obligingly live up to their reputation for absent-mindedness.

She leant back in Badger's armchair and prepared to let her mind stray wherever it liked. But it had got into spiritless habits, like a dog which has been kept on a lead, and for several minutes it would do nothing but potter about sniffing at the kind of object it had grown accustomed to. There was a handle, it informed her, missing from Badger's desk; the bookcase had a cracked pane, and the glass finger-plate on the door was hanging by a single screw. Look here, said Mrs. Miniver, haven't I had enough of this sort of thing lately? Run away and bring me something interesting. That's what any decent mind ought to do for its owner when she lets it off the leash -- just go bounding away into the long grass and bring back a really profound thought, laying it at her feet all furry and palpitating. C’mon, now. Hey los’!

Her gaze wandered to the floor. The hearth-rug was an old Khelim strip, threadbare but still glowing. Its border was made up of a row of small lozenges, joined by their acute angles. Beginning on the extreme left, she let her eye run idly along this row, naming the colours to herself as she came to them. Blue, purple, red. Blue, purple, re -- but here she was checked, for the second red was different from the first. So she had to begin again. Blue, purple, scarlet. Blue, purple, crimson. Blue, purple, sc -- but here was yet a third red, which made the first one look almost orange. Blue, purple, flame, then. Blue, purple, crimson. Blue, purple, scarlet....

And this, it occurred to her, is one of the things that make life so difficult. The linked experiences of which it is composed appear to you one at a time; it is therefore impossible to gauge their relative significance. In how much detail ought you to notice each one before it slips into the past? Will "red" do, or must you cudgel your brains for a more exact description, hesitating between claret and magenta, vermillion and cardinal? This grief, that joy, this interview, that relationship, this motor-smash, that picnic -- can you weigh it up once for all and assign to it a fixed position in your scale of memories, or will you sooner or later be forced to take it out again and reclassify it? This dusty and tedious little patch of time -- could she safely label it "drab" and have done with it, or would she find herself one day living through a period so relentlessly subfusc that this present lozenge would seem, by contrast, gay?

The door opened and Badger came in. His beard arrived first, his eyebrows next, then the rest of his vast yet twinkling bulk.

"I'm afraid I'm a little late," he said. It was five minutes past two.


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