The Best British Short Stories of 1922 HTML version

Where Was Wych Street?
(From The Strand Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post)
1921, 1922
In the public bar of the Wagtail, in Wapping, four men and a woman were drinking beer
and discussing diseases. It was not a pretty subject, and the company was certainly not a
handsome one. It was a dark November evening, and the dingy lighting of the bar seemed
but to emphasize the bleak exterior. Drifts of fog and damp from without mingled with
the smoke of shag. The sanded floor was kicked into a muddy morass not unlike the
surface of the pavement. An old lady down the street had died from pneumonia the
previous evening, and the event supplied a fruitful topic of conversation. The things that
one could get! Everywhere were germs eager to destroy one. At any minute the
symptoms might break out. And so--one foregathered in a cheerful spot amidst friends,
and drank forgetfulness.
Prominent in this little group was Baldwin Meadows, a sallow-faced villain with battered
features and prominent cheek-bones, his face cut and scarred by a hundred fights. Ex-
seaman, ex-boxer, ex-fish-porter --indeed, to every one's knowledge, ex-everything. No
one knew how he lived. By his side lurched an enormous coloured man who went by the
name of Harry Jones. Grinning above a tankard sat a pimply-faced young man who was
known as The Agent. Silver rings adorned his fingers. He had no other name, and most
emphatically no address, but he "arranged things" for people, and appeared to thrive upon
it in a scrambling, fugitive manner. The other two people were Mr. and Mrs. Dawes. Mr.
Dawes was an entirely negative person, but Mrs. Dawes shone by virtue of a high,
whining, insistent voice, keyed to within half a note of hysteria.
Then, at one point, the conversation suddenly took a peculiar turn. It came about through
Mrs. Dawes mentioning that her aunt, who died from eating tinned lobster, used to work
in a corset shop in Wych Street. When she said that, The Agent, whose right eye
appeared to survey the ceiling, whilst his left eye looked over the other side of his
tankard, remarked:
"Where was Wych Street, ma?"
"Lord!" exclaimed Mrs. Dawes. "Don't you know, dearie? You must be a young 'un, you
must. Why, when I was a gal every one knew Wych Street. It was just down there where
they built the Kingsway, like."
Baldwin Meadows cleared his throat, and said:
"Wych Street used to be a turnin' runnin' from Long Acre into Wellington Street."