Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Eat Like Shot While The Stirabout's Hot

A London Victorian workhouse sits at the top of my garden. Its inmates call out to me at night while I’m tucking into my minge supper. I try to ignore them but the cries, especially from the children, are incessant.

I have had complaints from my neighbours. They find it difficult to sleep with all the racket going on. I’ve told them there’s nothing I can do. Besides, the noise from their dogs is also incessant.

My wife says that the workhouse is a portal to the past. She says that on the other side of the workhouse lie the old Victorian streets. She says it is a wonderland of preserved Victoriana.

Minge supper?

Through the porthole, the round window, the workhouse is a shift in both time and space that results in all kinds of spooky backward and forwarding. The inmates, the paupers, are nauseating tramps, skinny in both body and mind. No wonder they, as they say, rattle their bones all over the stones. Bone munching is far too good for them.

On the other side of the workhouse my wife is proved, yet again, correct. She basks for a moment, let her bask. Indeed, as she said, those streets, those street lamps, those street performers are exactly as they were in the old Queen’s day. There, look, a pickpocket, a lamplighter, a chimney sweep, a group of half dead, pox-ridden kids. Their charms knows no bounds. And for a fig of toast, why, I’ll be blue blazed, look, it’s Mr Sherlock Holmes!

The Bash Street Kids, those runners in rags, that gang of coppers’ narks, are on the loose, up and down Baker Street.

Those Baker Street Irregulars, curly eyelashed orphans of Artful Dodger bent are a slink of eyes and ears through grates, doorways, coal bunkers and key holes. Nothing can escape their attentions. Mr Sherlock Holmes, esteemed bachelor of 221B, is a gaseous figure in these adventures, a wisp here, a shadow there, a voice in the dark over there. Our focus, as visitors from the future, is on those young boys who, let’s face it, have no future. Will they meet sticky ends at the hands of nefarious villains, Moriarty maybe? Or will disease and hunger capture them? Better yet, will they end their days picking oakum or losing their jaws from the sulphur on fire matches?

Victorian London is a cold breeze over our pampered, girly arms. It is a cool snap at the end of a small ice age where babies and children are frozen to their graves. We visit them there, make notes of their names and make a note to visit them again, sometime in the future. The Victorian pea soup is no comfort, no hiding to warmth. Its curl along alleyways is just enough to get the ladies screaming.

Old Jack of old London Town
blowing his blackness behind
a leather satchel of implements
a shine for every eye.

For the pardon he seeks we arrange to meet at the Ten Bells where, avoiding the strippers and the walking guided tour, we stare into the fall of his tiny black eyes. Blue eyes, says my wife later, he had the most open pools of blue frost it had ever been my pleasure to gaze into. He could, she continues, tear at my throat any time. But over a tankard of ale back in 1888 we are concerned, or at least I am, with the cessation of violence because, although being strict passive observers, neither myself nor my wife wish to be bound by rules that we have neither understanding nor knowledge of. That is, we are acting innocently and ignorantly, let that be our defence if we are ever called to question by the Time Travel Trust. But that tankard sinks fast and soon old Jack is baying once more for blood. Quickly we return him to his rooms where he downs, in one lusty gulp, the contents of a certain green phial. Behind the chaise longue he falls, emerging a moment later as a dishevelled, hairy regression of his former dapper self. Let the games commence! as he leaps with new-found agility on to the cobbled turrets of those Victorian London roofs. Chimney sweeps, and especially their boys, are no longer safe.

Victorian London, we discover, is a home to vampires. It is a hell hole of old satanic proportions. On every corner of every street, Madame Gurvatsky, a chain of barrow boys plying her talisman trade, a reading of cards for a thrupenny tuppence bit. On stairs and hallways, down dusty passageways, her eyes and ears are a pasted presence, observing the passage of our time, the reasons for our visit. Unable to resist her call, we take tea with her in her chambers.

Madame Gurvatsky: You - the one with the beard - you will die by water.

My Wife: Oh my! I’ll drown?

Madame Gurvatsky: Not you, him. With the other beard.

Me: Eh?

My Wife: She says you will drown.

Me: Me? Drown? How?

Madame Gurvatsky: Not drown. Die by water.

Me: Well, how?

Madame Gurvatsky: I cannot say.

Me: Why not?

Madame Gurvatsky: Eh?

Me: I said, why not?

Madame Gurvatsky: It is not in my power to tell you.

Me: Give me those!

Madame Gurvatsky: No! Do not touch the cards!

Me: These are Christmas cards!

In Victorian London, the invention of Christmas. Oh, that jolly fat fool with his length of white beard was not, contrary to your anti-establishment beliefs and better grasp of irony, invented by the murderers, thieves and child-rapists at Coca-Cola. He is wisdom caught, his twinkled eyes setting aglow every fireplace across the world’s first, and mightiest, industrial nation. Watch those sparks fly, be careful of your eye. Old Saint Nick is a transformation to grandfatherly goodness, a sack on his back as long as your arm. Nuts and humbugs, spinning tops and a kiss on the forehead. Yes, there’s snow, as accurately rendered by the detail of those greetings cards. You should see it here, you should see them go. A Scrooge simulacrum tapping his way home, the chestnut whiff passing him by, the children lit alive by the glad tidings of the season, jumping into his footprints, turning them into hooves. By morning this Scrooge will be either dead or well chosen.

Bishopgate bound and back to the workhouse, the irresistible pull of gruel and the children’s desperate cries. In this one, presided over by the tyrant McDougal, we are witness to the horrors of their daily London life. His fat wife, an expert in eschatology, captures souls by way of a buzzing light and the sulphuric flash of photography. Once caught, the transmigration of their essence into their veins guarantees these McDougals the promise of eternal life. We have a plan don’t we? pleads my wife as we peer past the black of the curtains watched, although we do not know it, by a small army of empty vampiric shells. We will, if we do not turn now, shake up the foundations of time.

Quickly, the plan, such as it was, was this: We go back to the future. We hunt down these long-lived McDougals and drag them back through the potholes of time, bringing them face-to-face with themselves, causing an implosion of such proportion that the workhouse would fly into space, its contents with it, suffer the little children for the greater, longer good. But as this plan took root, I turned.

The empty vampiric shells were all ashes and mummy. Open, yawning mouths, bound shut by infinity chains. Their leader, of a certain cast and hue: You do not be fearful. We are but empty treasures of once flesh and blood like you. We are held here as captors, back and forth through time. They suckle from us. Lift our skirts. But we are just like you. Help us.

Back home, the garden is a state. Where the workhouse once stood, the grass no longer grows. In our house, on every table, against every wall, the remnants of our Victorian past. Those empty vampiric shells crying out for dust.


Blogger Molly Bloom said...

I enjoyed this very, very much. So many great references to the Victorian age - both literary and historical. With a strong, bucket-tipping humour (they didn't have toilets in those days you know)that is totally wonderful.

And a great play on different ideas from the time - The Time Machine - but also a sly nod to now. Also, I loved the critique of Cola and Christmas. And, it made me think about the way people have great nostalgia for the period (re your last lines) but actually the horror of it would have been overwhelming: 'inmates, the paupers, nauseating tramps' etc. Brilliant Paul, I loved it.
Fantastic title too.

6:17 PM  
Blogger Molly Bloom said...

I've just come back to read this again. It's still as good the second time around.

3:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enjoyed a lot! »

6:56 AM  

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