When the baby looked up at me from its wicker basket and winked – on the opposite seat somewhere between Reading and Slough – I became uneasy. It was if he had discovered my secret interest.
It is awful to think how little we change. So often an old acquaintance, whom one has not seen for forty years when he occupied the neighboring chopped and inky desk, detains one in the street with his unwelcome memory. Even as a baby we carry the future with us. Clothes cannot change us, the clothes are the uniform of our character, and our character changes as little as the shape of our nose and the expression of the eyes.
It has always been my hobby in railway trains to visualize in a baby’s face the man he is to become – the bar-lounger, the gadabout, the frequenter of fashionable weddings; you need only supply the cloth cap, the grey topper, the uniform of the sad, smug, or hilarious future. But I have always felt a certain contempt for the babies I have studied with such superior wisdom (they little know), and it was a shock last week when one of the brood not only detected me in the act of observation but returned that knowing signal, as if he shared my knowledge of what the years would make of him.
He had been momentarily left alone by his young mother on the seat opposite. She had smiled towards me with a tacit understanding that I would look after her baby for a few moments. What danger, after all, could happen to it? (Perhaps she was less certain of his sex than I was. She knew the shape under the nappies, of course, but shapes can deceive: parts alter, operations performed.) She could not see what I had seen - the tilted bowler and the umbrella over the arm. (No arm was yet apparent under the coverlet printed with pink rabbits.)
When she was safely out of the carriage I bent towards the basket and asked him a question. I had never carried my researches quite so far.
“What’s yours?” I said.
He blew a thick white bubble, brown at the edges. There could be no doubt at all that he was saying, “A pint of the best bitter.”
“Haven’t seen you lately – you know – in the old place,” I said. He gave a quick smile, passing it off, then he winked again. You couldn’t doubt that he was saying “The other half?”
I blew a bubble in my turn – we spoke the same language.
Very slightly he turned his head to one side. He didn’t want anybody to hear what he was going to say now.
“You’ve got a tip? I asked.
Don’t mistake my meaning. It was not racing information I wanted. Of course I could not see his waist under all those pink rabbit wrappings, but I knew perfectly well that he wore a double-breasted waistcoat and had nothing to do with tracks. I said very rapidly, because his mother might return at any moment, “My brokers are Druce, Davis, and Burrows.”
He looked up at me with bloodshot eyes, and a line of spittle began to form at the corner of his mouth. I said, “Oh, I know they’re not all that good. But at the moment they’re recommending Stores.”
He gave a high wail of pain – you could have mistaking the cause for wind, but I knew better. In his club they didn’t have to serve dill water. I said, “I don’t agree, mind you,” and he stopped crying and blew a bubble – a little white tough one which lingered on his lip.
I caught his meaning at once. “My round,” I said. “Time for a short?”
“Scotch?” I know few people will believe me, but he raised his head an inch or two and gazed unmistakably at my watch.
“A bit early?” I said. “Pink gin?”
I didn’t have to wait for his reply. “Make them large one,” I said to my imaginary barman.
He spat at me, so I added, “Throw away the pink.”
“Well,” I said, “here’s to you. Happy future,” and we smiled at each other, well content.
“I don’t know what you would advise,” I said, “but surely Tobaccos are about as low as they will go. When you think Imps were a cool eighty in the early thirties and now you can pick them up for under sixty . . . this cancer scare can’t go on. People will have got to have their fun.”
At the word “fun” he winked again, looking secretly around, and I realized that perhaps I had been on the wrong tack. It was not, after all, the state of the markets he had been so ready to talk about.
“I heard a damn good one yesterday,” I said. “A man got into a tube train, and there was a pretty girl with one stocking coming down . . .”
He yawned and closed his eyes.
“Sorry,” I said, “I thought it was new. You tell me one.”
And do you know that damned baby was quite ready to oblige? But he belonged to the school who find their own jokes funny, and when he tried to speak he could only laugh. He couldn’t get his story out for laughter. He laughed and winked and laughed again – what a good story it must have been. I could have dined out for a week on the strength of it. His limbs twitched in the basket; he even tried to get his hands free from the pink rabbits, and then the laughter died. I could almost hear him saying, “Tell you later, old man.”
His mother opened the door of the compartment. She said, “You’ve been amusing baby. How kind of you. Are you fond of babies?” And she gave me such a look – the love-wrinkles forming round the mouth and eyes – that I was tempted to reply with the warmth and hypocrisy required, but then I met the baby’s hard relentless gaze.
“Well as a matter of fact,” I said, “I’m not. Not really.” I drooled on, losing all my chances before the blue and bubbly stare. “You know how it is . . . never had one of my own . . . I’m fond of fishes, though . . .
I suppose in a way I got my reward. The baby blew a whole succession of bubbles. He was satisfied, after all, a chap shouldn’t make passes at another chap’s mother, especially if he belongs to the same club he would belong in twenty-five years’ time. “On me,” he was obviously saying now. “Doubles all round.” I could only hope that I would not live so long.