Read Horse Submission 8: Sticks

From Issue 8. Topics were Landlords, Mist and Victorian London. 

View it on the website: http://readhorse.morekasia.co.uk/?p=620

Sticks

“Hoy! I ought ter put yer lights out for that!”

As any visitor to London knows, the simple act of walking along the streets is a perilous activity, fraught with  opportunities to be pushed, shoved, jostled and knocked to the ground without so much as a backwards glance from your assailant. One can spot the Londoner immediately. London ladies lift their skirts, aware they will be thoughtlessly trampled by the crowds. Men walk purposefully, barging and elbowing, or hopping and weaving to avoid the juddering carriages and cabs.

The young man hollering at such a furious volume,  named by his mother Master Gideon Black, but known to all others as Stick (on account of his having a frame like little matchsticks, and a temper  what went up like tinder), was most definitely a Londoner. However, he was a little way from the filthy slums of St Giles, where he’d arrived seventeen years ago, a screaming and wretched thing that seemed destined even then to be a very scrawny specimen. As he walked down Borough High Street, a Brougham had clattered past most speedily, spraying the contents of the gutter over Gideon’s worn black coat. He waved his fist and shouted his futile threats at the rear of the departing carriage. Looking down, he saw that he now had one foot in the gutter- a small trickling river of effluvia- the sewage, slaughter-house swill, and alehouse slops, all flowing merrily to Father Thames. Gideon cursed, and then felt a brief sense of relief when he realised it was not his shilling shoe. Like most residents of St Giles, the young man had grown up with a street-sharpness, and kept all his money safely where robbers rarely went- in the bottom of his shoe. He’ d dippers and hooks in the family, and knew how to relieve a person of their wallet if the opportunity presented itself, or his personal finances reached a point of sorry abjection.

He felt for the sixpence and wondered whether he should save it for bread in the morning. His stomach churned excitably at the thought of food. But it was getting awful chilly, and even drawing his overcoat around his bony shoulders brought no warmth. The fog was getting darker, its yellow acrid smoke setting into a thick black smog which seemed to cloak everything. There was only one place to go. Well, thousands of ‘em, and the dirtier the area, the grander and more glittering they are, but only one choice, if you see what I mean.

Stick pushed past the crowds hanging out of the doorways and into the public house. At once he felt warmer, a flush creeping up his scraggy neck and making his hollow cheeks glow.  The gas-lamps burnt brightly and everything in the room seemed to twinkle softly, the plate glass and gilded edges glittering in the light. No wonder they call ‘em gin palaces; they’re beautifully resplendent. He elbowed his way to the bar and the Landlord, a thick-set, ruddy chap with arms like Christmas hams, raised his brows in enquiry.

“A pot of Old Tom”, says our boy, and dropped his sixpence into the bung’s expansive hand. Slowly, slowly, he nursed each drink, sipping, letting the warmth of the liquor burn its way down his gullet. The crowds began to thin, the red-faced noise-makers stumbling out in happy packs, cheering and fighting and shouting, arm in arm with those sort of girls with whom a good time might cost a few bob. Soon only the last few sad stragglers are left. Stick, sitting on a stool, counted his last few pennies and decided on another.

“Got lodgings tonight then?” The Landlord sniffed. Stick glowered at him blackly.

“I’ll make do.”

“Suit yourself”, he shrugged, and set the drink down on the bar. As he watched Stick miserably counting out his final coins, a thought seemed to pass across his whiskery, well-fed face.

“Ere… what if I told you there’s a job you’d be just about perfect for?”

Stick looked at him suspiciously and pushed his coins across the wet wooden bar-top.

“You ‘eard of the Necropolis?”

Stick thought it rang a few bells, but people talked so much these days about grand things; diamonds the size of your head, and tribes of savages in far-flung places, that he could hardly keep up with it all. He shook his head.

“You know a few years back, when the Cholera was really bad?”

Stick had lost two sisters to it, and the little baby had followed. Between the workhouse, the typhus, cholera and the gallows, most of his family had gawn. He nodded now, rather too vigorously.

“Well, they was worried, see? About the graves… no-where to bury ‘em all. And the more bodies there are lying about… well”.

Stick remembered how the man from the Sanitary Department had visited his tenement, and pronounced that the bodies of his sisters and the little baby should be taken away at once. And they’d slung them on the back of that cart, their hair and fingers trailing in the mud. He’d hobbled along behind, all the way to the pits where they’d been rolled in with a pitifully soft thud.  

“So they decided to build a new cemetery. There’s no room left in London, is there?”

The Landlord shrugged rhetorically, splaying sausage fingers.

“Now the thing is… if your graveyard ain’t in London”, he went on, “but your dearly departed are… how are you gonna get ‘em from one place t’other?”

Gideon Black frowned. It couldn’t be a boat. It would take too long by carriage. That only left…

“Train?” he said, his voice a ragged whisper.

“Exactly!” said the landlord, smacking his hands together with relish. “Now every day, the trains go up to Woking! Right around the corner, they go from- just next to Waterloo.”

Gideon must have looked puzzled, for the landlord now leaned in conspiratorially and said,

“Now you’re probably wondering what this has got to do with you. Well. Just like any other train, you’ve got your folks as want to travel first class, and ‘ave the shillings to do so. Now that’s a lovely journey. Nice an’ slow, respectful like, with velvet-lining in yer coffin, and all your relatives on board sipping drinks and dabbing ‘ankies.”

“What about them as can’t afford first class?” Stick frowned, only to have his question waved away.

“Sling ‘em in and pile ‘em ‘igh! Full steam ahead til they can roll em into a big ‘ole! But that doesn’t matter. Only ones you’ve to worry about is the Nobs. Cause part of the service is the attendants”.

Gideon’s brow furrowed even further in a vain effort to recollect the meaning of the word. As ever, the landlord was prompt to put him out of his misery.

“When you get there, you walk along beside the train. Nice and slow, respectful. Carry a black flag, wearing a hat, part of the procession.”

“I  don’t have a hat”.

“They’ll give you a hat, my boy! For a cut o’ wages, o’ course… but don’t you worry!” He spread his thick arms wide on the bar, trapping Gideon on either side. “What d’you say then?”

Gideon’s naturally downturned expression took a further plunge into dark suspicion.

“What’s in it for you then?” he asked, draining the last of his drink.

The landlord affected an air of wounded indignance.

“Nothing! Nothing! I just like to see my customers don’t starve. But if that’s how you like it-”

And as part of his sham he turned his back, and went about as if to polish glasses. Gideon shifted in his seat. He certainly wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth, and at present his options were hardly plentiful.

“Sorry Mister”, he croaked pathetically. The Landlord turned round, beaming.

“Quite alright. I understand. Folks is on the make these days, no doubt about that. Now,” he leaned in once more, so that Gideon could smell his sour sloe-berry breath, “if there were to be a little… favour you could do me every once in a while, I’d be ever so grateful. Nothing- nothing dramatic!”

“What sort of favour?” Stick’s grey eyes were full of mistrust.

“Well,” and now the Landlord leaned in so near that Stick could almost feel the bristles of his gingery moustache, “I do ‘appen, now an’ again, to find myself in possession of…” he paused to lick his lips. “some rather quiet friends, looking for a final resting place. And these friends don’t much like the attentions of the law.” He raised his brows, searching for Gideon’s comprehension and complicity.

Gideon thought and pursed his lips, weighing up the proposition. Finally he looked up at the Landlord and nodded an agreement. 

“Good, my boy. Excellent! You shall make an excellent wraith. There’s barely a scrap of flesh on you!” The Landlord laughed and gestured to the hearth. “You can sleep in there with the dog. I shall wake you first light.”

Gideon curled up, pulling his filthy coat across him, and pressed his self against the stone.

At first light, as kindly promised, the landlord woke him by shaking him roughly by the shoulders, which I may have earlier mentioned were of a kind extraordinarily bony. Though the smell of the landlord’s pikelets toasting threatened to send Gideon mad with lustful hunger, and gladly he’d have spiked him with the toasting fork just to taste one, he followed the directions and crossed the cold streets to Waterloo.

When he reached the place it was awful quiet. A few stray cats and some men unloading boxes and pallets.

“Yes?” An officious looking, red-faced man enquired, drawing himself up to full height to do so.

“I’ve… come about the attendance”.

“Eh?”

“For the train. For first class.” Gideon began to panic now at the man’s blank reception. “They said you’d give me an ‘at.”

“Oh, you mean the attendant’s job. Right.” The man sniffed, looking Gideon up and down with an affected carelessness. “Well, I shall ‘ave to ask the boss, but I should say you’ll do.”

By ten o’clock, he was all kitted out, with a shabby black topper and a fraying black flag. The ladies and gents started to arrive, and as instructed, Stick looked terrible mournful, and kept his eyes on the ground. He helped to load in the coffins, and then took up his place at the back of the goods carriage, with the other boys, as the locomotive hissed and chugged its way to life.  The noise was deafening, and the motion rattled his knobbly and obtrusive skeleton. He was hungry and his behind was hurting sitting on the splintered wooden boards, so he was quite glad when the train seemed to slow, and quieten, and the boys all began to jump up.

“Ere!” one of them exclaimed, “look at this!”

And at once, Gideon knew the cause of his excitement and alarm, for the whole of the outside world was shrouded in a dense white mist. The boys went crashing through the door, on to the small balcony, and their fear seemed to mount then.

“It’s a proper pea-souper and no mistake!” one soul bravely exclaimed, as the white swirling air trailed slowly past them. And Gideon knew he was wrong, for they all knew a pea-souper, that yellow, lamplight, London fog. This felt different. The train seemed to be sliding along the tracks now, almost silently, its brakes hissing and its chugs slowing til they sounded like an old man breathing. The boys went quiet too. The same thought was troubling them, but not one dared speak it aloud, for fear of making it true. Finally, the liveliest of the lot piped up,

“Well, we’d better find the driver, see what’s to do.”

Well, this caused an awful stir. There was much pushing and shoving, and muttered not likelies. Then Gideon said angrily,

“I’ll do it, if it’ll shut you lot’s yammering.”

And to the amazement of the others, he slipped over the edge as lightly as a bird, and disappeared into the vapour.

As Gideon’s feet hit the ground he knew something queer was going on. The ground felt wet and marshy, and he could feel the water starting to seep into his shoes. Holding up his hand in front of him, he confirmed that he could not see more than a few inches beyond his nose. But Gideon was used to slipping through pitch-black alleyways and, undeterred, he gripped the side of the train and started to feel his way along.

As his spindly fingers crawled like white spiders on the windows, they cleared the condensation, leaving little wet tracks. He peered into one of the carriages, and could only make out the bulk of three coffins, one atop t’other. He crept squelchily onwards. Just whiteness, as far as he could see, and if white had a sound, it would be this eerie still silence that filled his ears. Gideon was not afraid of the dead. He had seen many bodies in his short life, and they held no horror for him. Still he could not help but feel that he was now the only living thing- the only sounds were his shoes swishing through the bog, and his fingers squeaking along the carriages, and this made him a little disconcerted. He continued, thinking he would reach the locomotive and the driver and crew soon. However, the swamp beneath him was getting deeper and deeper, until he was up to his knees in water. He started to feel the beginnings of panic needling him, blindly thrashing through the stream.

“Ello?” he called out, into the mist. “Ello?!”

His voice seemed to be swallowed, as if by a large wet mouth.  

Soon the water was up to his chest, and it was all he could do to keep wading blindly. He could not swim, but there was no point turning back. He tried to keep his feet on the boggy bottom, gasping for air in the white shroud that enveloped everything.

Then it was helpless, and the tide seemed to rush over his head. He shut his eyes and fiercely urged things to change, for this was a situation most desperate. Just as he was about to float up goggle-eyed, lungs full of water and hair across his face, two firm and pinching arms pulled him from the river. Stick felt himself heaved onto something hard (the roof of the train?)He spluttered and gasped great bucketfuls of air, before opening up his eyes to see just where on earth he was.

An old man, dressed in sort of swaddling rags, was looking down at him. One hand grasped a long pole, and the other he held out at Stick, like a beggar down the backstreets of Bermondsey. He looked expectant, and Stick saw that his flashing eyes were the same grey as his own, and his thin frame creaked just like his own, and he didn’t understand one little bit. The old man’s hand trembled violently, and he held it nearer, cupped, waiting.

“I don’t have no money” Stick said miserably, and at that, the old man turned and walked away. The mist seemed to part for him. Stick watched him for a minute, shivering, and saw him lean into the windows of first class. He pulled a body up from the silk-lined coffin, heaving it on top of the train. It was a lady, buttoned up in a black lace dress. He knelt down, causing Stick to crane his neck to see what would happen next. Then he reached inside her mouth and pulled out- was that? Gideon Black had eyes that were sharp for a shilling wherever he might be. And that was most definitely a shilling shining in the old man’s hand.

This was repeated several times, and then the old man picked them Ladies and Gents up as if they were old sacks, slinging them dead-eyed into his boat which bobbed in the water beside them.

Gideon Black finally understood. But was he to make this crossing? He didn’t have the pennies, and besides… he wasn’t dead. Was he? He clutched at his scrawny limbs and they felt like (not much) flesh and (mostly) bone.

“I’m not going” he said aloud, to no-one in particular, and at once the mist all seemed to rush away, and he felt himself falling, falling into the depths of the river, reeds and grasses smothering his face. His face. His face was hot and wet and being licked. Licked? Gideon opened his eyes and felt the warm breath of a dog on him. He pushed the creature off, weakly. He was in the hearth in the Star and Eagle.

The Landlord’s guttural laughter echoed round the eaves.

“Dream you was with a nice young lady, did yer?”

Gideon stared at him, his grey eyes almost black with fear and anger.

“What’s up with you my boy? Look like you’ve seen a ghost. Well, they do say this place is- ere! Where you going? I ain’t told you the address yet! Oi! Come back!”

And as the waif clattered out of the door, he turned and spoke to the dog.

“Some folks eh? You try an’ set them right, set them up a nice little- well. That’s gratitude for you, in’t’it?”

And he sighed, watching Stick disappear into the dawn. 

To view the whole issue: http://readhorse.morekasia.co.uk/?cat=41

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