Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Chapters II and III


As evening came and the sky moved from grey to purple, it occurred to Reverend Dalrymple that he had not slept since he had entered the Bubble. He sat (though there was nothing physical to support his haunches) in the centre of the sphere of air and looked to his left and right, above him and below him. Everywhere there was hubbub: people swimming through the air, learning how to move again, trying to relocate their possessions, or their wives, husbands, children and parents. Reverend Dalrymple felt like he was on an early evening train, watching people who had just begun their journeys settle down before night. The Reverend had only brought the clothes he wore into the Bubble with him: these and the Bubble itself were his only possessions. He found it relaxing watching others rush about and it made him feel tired. As the Bubble rolled through Crewkerne and Yeovil, scarfing up more towns and villages on the way, the Reverend realised he didn’t need to steer it anymore. It would roll on through the night all by itself. He fell asleep, knowing they would be in London by morning.

That night the Reverend Dalrymple had a dream. It was Sunday and he was in St. Mary’s church. The choir had led a boisterous rendition of Joy to the World and now the hymn had come to an end. Reverend Dalrymple got up to the pulpit and began his sermon, which this week was a topical one, reassuring any doubters that the stories they may have heard from London of revolutionaries plotting the end of civilisation were false and that any such plots would never succeed and that God’s will alone would lead the righteous man into the kingdom of heaven. He believed not a word of what he preached, but he was under orders from the Bishop to perpetuate anti-insurgency messages, and so this he did.

Yet as he preached his message, designed to deter any latent radicals and placate Joanna and her more standpat brethren, he began to notice that the attention of his audience was waning. While their heads still faced him their eyes pointed upwards so that their eyeballs sunk into their skulls with only the whites showing. He continued with the sermon, for it was good one, full of mild menace, but it was clear that nobody, not even his faithful Joanna, was listening. Feeling a cold breeze on the top of his head he looked upwards. The high gabled roof of the church had opened up, as if on hinges, so that a ceiling of blue cloudless sky covered them. The Reverend persisted with his address but a mind-numbing metallic noise had started loudly and suddenly. It sounded like a thousand sharp fingernails shrieking down a blackboard and it soon flooded the church. Sometimes for a few seconds the roar stopped and a strange melody would take its place. It sounded like three saxophones having a fight with a petrified piano tinkling behind a mad grandmother. Then the wall of sound would return, sounding like a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs. The noise was unbearable to the Reverend but his congregation all looked upwards with passion and zeal, as though what they heard was the sound of salvation. The Reverend, whose words were evaporating into the air, stopped his sermon and looked up at the sky. In precisely the middle of his field of vision he saw what looked like a bird, a roughly circular object with indistinct edges, high overhead. The bird grew larger as it fell closer to the church. The Reverend realised that the bird was the source of the machine-like noise and when it fell to within fifty feet of the church, the Reverend realised that it was not a bird but a man with a parachute. The man fell delicately to the stone floor near the altar and untangled himself from the fabric of the parachute. When the man’s mouth moved the Reverend could only hear those strange, awful melodies, and when the mouth stopped moving he could only hear white noise.

But his congregation (who, the sleeping priest decided, must be true believers) heard what the man had to say. While the Reverend heard the dreadful squall of noise, they heard a choir – four men and three boys – singing the most heavenly prayer they had ever heard. Their voices merged together in perfect harmony. The men sang with the wisdom of a hundred years and the boys with lustral simplicity. The hymn brought tears to the eyes of its audience and seemed to summon the man to the ground. When he hit the ground, he read out a lesson which Reverend Dalrymple did not hear. And with that he pointed to Joanna in the front row and demanded she accompany him to her house and cook him a large breakfast of sausages, bacon, eggs, tomatoes and fried bread. The congregation followed the couple and the Reverend realised that his part in the dream was over and that he did not exist anymore.


It was widely known that London, Manchester, Birmingham and the other big cities were no places to raise a child. No boy went to school, except those that had been turned into factories. The alleyways in which William Blackstock’s children once played had been colonized by rats. Where once Mrs Blackstock stood in her modest kitchen teaching her little ones the ABC while she roasted a joint, now there was an empty larder and a sunken child upstairs in bed with a towel on its forehead, drenched in noxious sweat. Laughter had given way to sobbing. Skin and gristle clung to people’s bones like seaweed on a shipwreck. Poverty had been removed because now everyone was poor.

The winter had been heavy and grey. The world had stayed multi-coloured, but it did not seem like it. The grass was the same colour as they sky. The faces of men had less spirit than the faces of buildings. Today was the same as yesterday and tomorrow would be the same as today. In the towns and cities life was especially harsh. The government had been in power for years – too many years – but since no one knew how to get rid of it, it went on ruling.

For a while the men in the Cabinet had worried that its people would rise up. Rebel groups of workers had tried to revolt against their bosses every other week and pubs all over Southwark and Wapping hosted lock-ins after closing time. The pubs, if caught, pled guilt to the charge of furnishing their nocturnal punters with illicit alcohol, on the grounds that willing submission and subsequent penance would deter the authorities from the real raison d’être of these groups: dissent, revolution and the denial of God. At this time there were a number of more official working men’s clubs in London into which one paid a nominal weekly subscription. In becoming a member of such a group, a man would come as close as he possibly could to fulfilling his birthright through democratic legitimacy. Because of this, because they made a man feel like the ruler of his kingdom within, these groups were often very popular with local working men. They were much less often influential, however, and the police would frequently carry out night-time raids, arresting a brace of dissidents with a charge of treason or some such. To claim dominion of one’s kingdom within, let alone the kingdom without, was deemed by those in charge to be tantamount to anarchy, and so dissidents were treated harshly. In such a climate of fear, revolution was never really possible. The more level-headed and quietist workers knew that, while they could not forego the liberties that were their birthright, now was not the time for insurrection. Nowadays, most people were too weak and stupid to fight. They could barely raise the energy to get up and go to work in the morning.

Every sensible person knew that such inhumanity could not persist. But for each person who recognised this there was a different solution. Many saw salvation in God. There was Joanna and her lot; Moravians from central Europe; there were Quakers and Methodists and Anabaptists and all strains of faith in between. Others thought the cure to England’s illness was to be found abroad. From there came tales – urban legends most likely – of riots and revolts and mutinies against tyrants and despots. These stories travelled to London in the most fancy prose, and differed depending on whom you talked to. Some people pointed to Europe and made it known that every man had a vote or that every man earned enough money to feed his family. But others (most actually) said that the stories were made up or that the revolutionaries were un-Christian or that it was God’s will that some are rich and some are poor.

William Blackstock was brighter than anybody else he knew. He had received some education as a child – not much, but enough to persuade him that his enquiring mind was not the loathsome and perverted thing that some people suspected it was. He was also, somehow, less poor than almost anybody else he knew. True, the Blackstocks were poor. They lived on the breadline. But a small inheritance from William’s mother, a trifling salary from the factory and a certain hard-nosed enterprise meant that they were not disgustingly poor. They would always somehow, by fair means or foul, be clothed, sheltered, fed and watered. In this respect the Blackstocks were a rare breed indeed.

William was a rebel at heart but his sons’ school had closed down and even if he could afford to buy anything there were no shops. It was as much as he could do to get up in the morning, earn his measly wage, and enjoy the escape that sleep afforded him.

He worked in a factory which produced armaments. These were intended for use if there was an insurgency or a war and lay piled in warehouses or underground. The factory also produced some domestic items for export. They were very useful things, factories, because they let their owners get very rich a long way away from the public’s gaze. They also kept unemployment figures down. William was paid what his bosses considered enough for a four-week period. This was paid to him in vouchers on the first day of each calendar month.

“William, that wage of yours just won’t do,” his wife Kate said to him over and over. “We can’t stretch it across the four of us. Not for another month. What about the children?”

“It’s a good wage!” thundered William, knowing full well it was not. “What am I supposed to do? It’s our money. I’ve earned it. It’s hopeless but it’s ours. I earned it.” But William knew his boys would get no new clothes unless they stole, which they did. They were sent on errands by their mother and father to get loaves or potatoes from wherever they could. They did this with skill and zeal. Because of these sins, the church had an irresistible pull. It is a quirk of the human thirst for religion that God becomes most popular at times when He appears least interested. So while Charlie and Tom scavenged for food, William and Kate would pray forgiveness for their crimes. Their prayers rarely got a response.

“Well done, William,” the priest would say as they left. “Well done, Kate. Will I see you next week?”

“Can’t see why not.” With that, William and Kate would walk back home to look at their children’s spoils. And returning to find his cupboard bare, William would go to the pub and dilute his misery with cheap ale which he bought on credit. After a while – three or four pints, perhaps – the topic of conversation would always turn to violence. Blowing things up or blowing people up or bludgeoning their bosses or the government to death. Tonight the quarry was the royal family. There had been a story in the paper about increased protection to Her Majesty the Queen. Extra police were to guard the Palace or Palaces which were deemed by the government to be most vulnerable. The extra police would be mounted on horses and would stand outside the Palace or Palaces around-the-clock, weekdays and weekends, indefinitely, whether a member of the family was in residence or not.

“Horses!” cried Mickey Pabey, on his fifth pint. “Horses! As if your constabulary wasn’t bad enough, they bring in bloody great horses!”

“Appealing to your sympathetic side, Mickey.”


“You’d never shoot your way through a horse, would you, or blow one up. You’d blow up a policeman, but you’d never blow up a horse.”

“Never. But where will they get them? Farmers? Knacker’s yards? Racecourses and paddocks more like, racecourses and paddocks! Does that woman want to take any more of the few pleasures in life away from me?”

“Ah, you poor thing,” said Frank Boatwright without sympathy. “No horses for you to waste your money on.”

“You’ll have to go back to wasting it on women, Mickey.”

“Waste? It’s no waste. It’s my money to waste how I like.”

“There could be fame in it for them, Mickey. Heroic horses!” said Olin Bucarem, a second-generation Venezuelan who had recently returned to London from an extended five-year holiday in Ireland, and had been taken to heart by the boys for his prodigious drinking and aberrant sense of humour.

“Those horses don’t do anybody any good anyway. May as well give them a break.”

“Give them a break?” blared Mickey Pabey. “Give them a break he says! Since when has standing stock-still in a busy London street with some fat-arsed copper sitting on your back kicking your tits with his hobnail boots been a break?” William laughed. Frank Boatwright had just put his fourth pint in front of him. Ought to get a move on with this one now. Don’t want to lag behind. And they’re the ones doing all the talking. How do they do that? Good drinkers. Strong bladders too. Best store it up for now, until you really need it. Feel the full force of it gushing out. Proper oomph against the porcelain. And noisy too, like torrential rain or a waterfall. Thinking about it makes you want to go. Better go.

“’Scuse me lads. Call of nature.” William climbed out from the table and sauntered to the bathroom.

“Look – imagine you were a horse. Frank – all your life you’ve worked in parks. You walk the parks, pick up litter, mow the lawn. In the summer you look out for the girls with no tops on, the sunbathers. In the winter you sit in your cabin and dream of the summer. And then suddenly, some bastard comes along and tells you you’re going to be the man who stands between some psycho with a hand grenade and the queen. Yes, yes, it’s a break. It’s fame alright. Front of all the papers on Tuesday, your name in lights! It’s a load of bollocks. What’s she done for me? Tell me that.”

Henly’s was the ideal place for these sort of arguments, filled as it was with poets, mutineers, fraudsters, armaments workers, painters, faceless bureaucrats, runaways, freaks, and any other group of outcasts with nothing to live for. The punters at Henly’s had nothing in common and they had everything in common. They spoke different languages but all contained the same feeling that their spirits were stifled, their natural fervour kept at bay by a need to plod the dreary path that had been prepared for them. Henly’s allowed them a space where anything could happen at any moment: an opportunity to live out the fantasies that each knew should be their reality. By the window sat Son McLanahan, sometimes with a comrade or two, sometimes left alone (but never isolated), gazing up at the stars through wet, woozy eyes, concocting delirious designs to blow up the queen, and take the rest of society with her, so that human history could finally begin.

While Son dreamed and barked instructions to himself – and we will hear more of them later – the others would watch some cabaret artiste that the landlord had put on to titillate the lads after church. They all hated her, but what could they do? She would sing some well-known songs that all of them sang numbly along with, and then she would tease one of them. She would go from being a person to an artiste to an arrangement of flesh and suggestions – a moving object. The lads would get horny and feel like they were powerful. Sometimes they fought over her. They all thought they could fuck her if they wanted to, but when the landlord called time and the cabaret artiste got up off the floor and went backstage to change in the loo, the lads joked with each other and called her a slag or a whore or an easy lay and fantasised what they could have done to her had time been on their side. After this, William would return home, his belly too full of beer to yearn for food, his mind too fuddled to wish for a better life. “Do you love me?” said William thickly to his wife as he got into bed. But she was asleep and did not reply. Next morning he would awake to more clouds and smoke and fog and joyless, thrashing labour.



Blogger minifig said...

"It sounded like three saxophones having a fight with a petrified piano tinkling behind a mad grandmother" and "sounding like a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs" are both wonderful similes.

Did you get the word "lustral" from the popular anti-depressant?

Do you mean "quietist", as in followers of quietism, or quietest, as in the most quiet in the third paragraph of the third chapter?

7:59 AM  

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