Bombed out of a boarding room in Kensington and thus forced to take up residence in the sleepy suburban town of Thames Lockdon, Miss Roach – the thirty-nine year old beak-nosed narrator of Patrick Hamilton’s 1947 novel The Slaves of Solitude – inhabits a small, pink room on the top floor of a tea house turned boarding house under conditions “of intense war, intense winter and intense blackout in the month of December.”
Miss Roach’s daily suburban life varies but little. She works as a secretary in a London publishing firm. Each evening she rides the 6:30 train from Paddington to Thames Lockdon, where “wedged between a half-hearted toy-shop on one side, and an antique shop on the other” stands her present digs. Around eight the proprietress pettily rings a “tinny Oriental gong,” and she and the other boarders descend to dinner in a room in which once hungry vacationers – “exhausted families,” “sweating fathers shyly rebuking their children,” “cyclists with packs,” and “young men with open collars and a look of sunburned eczema” – enjoyed sweet breads and tea. Now only a small collection of displaced Londoners sit two or three to a table, silent and weary over the evening meal.
Indeed it is the proprietress’s “system of separate tables, well meant as it may have been,” that serve to add “yet another hellish touch to the hellish melancholy prevailing,” as Miss Roach observes. “For, in the small space of the room, a word could not be uttered, a little cough could not be made, a hairpin could not be dropped at one table without being heard at all the others.” Such disturbances engender “general self-consciousness” among the tenants and smite “the room with silence, a conversational torpor, and finally a complete apathy from which it could not stir itself.”
The reader may well wonder what kind of meal Miss Roach consumed under such circumstances. She tells us it was an equally drab wartime dish of spam and mashed potatoes followed by “plates of steamed pudding and custard.” Should you feel inclined to host a melancholy boarding room–style repast, then try Leicestershire Library’s recipe for wartime steamed custard, which despite its simplicity is guaranteed to lurch the most intransigent palate from its blitz-induced ennui.
1 pint milk
1-2 level tablespoons sugar
METHOD – Beat the eggs and sugar very thoroughly. Heat the milk and, when boiling, pour it very gradually on to the eggs, stirring well all the time. Add the flavouring and pour into a greased cup or mould. Steam in a saucepan until set.