Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Sweet Thames Flow Softly

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of the author. 
Copyright © 1993 by Peter Damien Murphy

I had not been in London since 74. It had not changed so much except for the superficial, the comings and goings of people, and the changes they bring. When cities are this old a decade passes like a season. Here in the heart of it all one can still hear the pulse that drove the Empire. Trophies are everywhere among the lions and stone demons. It was never my city but for a while it was my world. I stood by the river, across from the Tower, near the great spice warehouses, and looked back at the City.

She was to meet me in Greenwich and I had time to walk. I found the path that wends along the south bank, through the little used docks and forgotten storage and never far from the river. On the other side, St Catherine's Dock had become a monument to urban renewal with its upscale flats and trendy little markets, a far cry from transports low with the cargo of fettered miscreants bound for Tasmania. So much of London is like that, splendour rising over the bones of repression.

In Greenwich I could always find the fine line that ran between my revulsion and admiration. Here, the grass was splendid and the river was wide. Here, the entire greatness that was Britain paid homage to simple nature. It was here that we first met.

John Murphy & Sons had the contract for laying paving stone along the pathway and I needed work. We paved until we got to the next of many pubs that line the river. We idled until the foremen grew tired of the barmaids and had us strike out for the next. That's were I lost the tip of my finger. I was too drunk to let go as the heavy slab slid into place. With a renewed sense of mortality I began to take my lunch under the oaks among the grasses. I read in those days and was a comical sight. Large dusty boots, long dusty hair, huge brown bags of bread and meat and Heinrich Boll.

We began with the ritual of look and look away, look again and look away. We could have gone on forever, as I could not find the courage to talk to her. She would sit beneath her tree and I 'neath mine. She would paint and I would read. It was the perfect relationship, unspoiled by names and the complexities that follow. As the summer passed we worked our way slowly eastward and she would always be there. Then I knew, it was me! Sometimes I feared that she might prefer the company of trees. At night, after scrubbing the day from my pores, I would fondle myself with her image burned upon my mind's eye.

By the time we got to Woolwich we would smile at each other but always from underneath our trees. Autumn was in the mornings and the job was nearly over. She waited for me one evening after work. 

            " Hello, " I said, wishing that my voice would not quiver.

" Oh! Hello, " she answered.

I could not take the disinterest in her voice. As long as we had not spoken she could be mine but now her reality would shatter my dreams. I fumbled by as quickly as I could but she followed.

" Oh! I am sorry, you are the Bohl lover. I did not recognise you without your brown paper bags. "

I hurried on before she might see me cry.

" Wait! Let me walk with you. "

" Let me alone, will ya? "

" Oh! You are Irish. My name is Janice. I didn't mean to make fun of you, its just you are so predictable. Everyday, the same big boots and the same brown bag and the book, always a book. I didn't know navvies could read. "

My anger welled as great tears behind my eyes and I searched for something to say. Something that would slash her heart as she had slashed mine.

" If I had known, I mean, well I got other shoes too! "

When she laughed I was crushed. I could not run but I would walk all the way to Deptford.

" Wait, " she called running after me, " I have something to show you. "

I was afraid to trust my voice but I turned. She was holding a painting. In a clown costume, with great dusty boots, I stood looking back at myself.

" Like it? "

" Did you do that? "

" Yes, do you like it? "

" I don't know anything about painting. "

" Do you like it? "

" I think so. "

" Everyone's a critic. What's wrong with it? "

" Nothing, I mean it's very good, I think. "

" Where are you going? "

" Home. "

I wrote to her all winter. It helped to pass the idle days and the long nights. She was back at University, in Leeds, and I was back on the dole in Dublin. I spent my days in the Art Gallery or the Library except for the times when I, and all the unwanted youths of Ireland would exchange our names for a few pound with the mustached ladies at the unemployment office. In the spring there would be work in London and I was content. We grew to know each other in our letters and while her face became unclear her handwriting was vivid.

When my mother died I wrote to her twice a day. Dublin was empty to me now and my next emigration would be my last.  I would visit Leeds on my way.

She met me at the station and I was embarrassed by her affection. She kissed my lips and pressed her body into mine. Her friends were watching and I did not know where to put my hands.

The bar was teeming with the university crowds who were oblivious to the struggling band in the corner. We filed in around the bar and I was soon lost in the introductions.

" This is where all my friends hang out, you'll like it. "

Her friends frightened me. Everyone spoke of politics and while they lacked passion they compensated with beery conviction.

" We all support the Troops Out, " they assured me.

" We believe that England has no place in Ireland. "

" It's the fucking Tories. "

" Bastards. "

Rather than offer offence I smiled at them. My feelings on the North were second hand. My father, with drink, was the backbone of the Republican Movement. I was confused and saddened. I thought that people could live together.

With no answers and distrust for my father, I held no opinion.

Janice lived in an old house with an undetermined number of people. With the ever changing sleeping arrangements everyone had lost count. She shared a room with a girl from Glasgow who was not expected home that night.

When we were finally alone she dimmed the lights and kissed me. Through the raging nights of puberty I had yearned for this moment but now that it was here I was afraid. When she grew tired of fumbling she held me close to her face.

" You have never done it before, have you? "

I wanted to lie but could not trust my voice. She disrobed me with an expertise that I did not like and straddled me. When I slid inside all that was new became at once familiar. The streetlights fell upon her naked breasts, the urgency in her breathing and in moments I had a sensation that was pleasure and panic. When she rolled off me I held her to my chest so that she could not see my tears. All night I held her as I stared at the ceiling. I had reached manhood. I dressed before she woke and watched her sleep. I wanted to wake her and ask if we had done it right. 

I stayed with her in that room. I found work here and there and we were happy. I spent my evenings with her friends. I supplied the beer and listened to them talk. It was all they ever did. Talk and drink, drink and talk and on occasion pass around the pot.

By the time we moved to London I had grown to occupy the life I led. She painted and I worked. In time we would buy a place in Devon with her paintings and I could spend my days making love to her body.

" You can never have my mind, it is where I translate this greyness into colour. "

I was hurt by the exclusion but in bed she became one with me. A oneness that made me grateful. Life was a gentle river. I worked and we dreamed. When we made love she was kind and never spoke of that night in Leeds.

It had been on the News all day. The IRA had claimed responsibility for the bomb at Piccadilly. At these times the Irish became invisible, as retribution was swift and indiscriminate.  When we gathered we heard stories of police interrogations forced confessions and unmerciful beatings. We lived in fear at those times.

The Deptford Rose was the worst pub in London. McGuire drank there because no one would look for him. He owed money. We worked together and I had to stand him a few. Ordering two more I moved towards the toilets and when he turned his back bolted for the door. Outside, the street was darkening and glistened with the recent rain. I raised my collar and put my head down. When the car drew along side me I continued to walk for no one knew me here.

As I ran I knew at once what would happen. The bastards were on a fishing trip. The car swung across the pavement before me and the doors burst open. Men with guns were shouting and pointing.

As if in a dream I realised that they were shouting and pointing at me.  Before I could think I was thrown to the ground.

" Now Paddy, take it easy and you wont get hurt. "

" Will you come quietly? "

Without waiting for my answer they bundled me inside.

At the station I got time to think.

" They got me, oh Jesus, they'll kick the shit outa me. "

I had heard the story so many times. I promised myself that I would not let them see me suffer. I would take their shit and in the morning they would have to let me go. I sat on the bench with my head down. I knew better than to look at the bastards. No faces, no identification, no complaints, it was a simple game.

" Cigarette Paddy? "

As I shook my head he kicked me. His boot connected with my nose and I wondered at the sound of cartilage cracking.

" Look at me when I speak. "

I clutched my head in my hands and stared at the ground. One of them kicked me in the ribs and when my hands dropped their fists were all around my head. There were four of them and they were in good form. When I lay on my back they stomped on my chest and when I turned they pounded my back. My blood was in my eyes and still they beat me. When they tired I crawled beneath the bench and vomited.

" The fuckin' bastard pukin' on our floor. "

" Well he's going to have to clean it up. "

When they dragged me out I was passed feeling. In time they stopped and I lay on the floor. As they left the room I heard screams from the hallway. Had I screamed? I hoped I hadn't.

" Paddy? "

" Paddy, wake up. "

" It's okay Paddy, we made a mistake. Wake up. "

" Get someone in here to clean him up. "

The cold water felt good on my face but I could not open my eyes. My lips were swollen and I could not feel the cigarette he had placed there.

" It's okay now Paddy, We made a mistake. You are going to be all right. "

" We are going to let you out. We are going to let you go home."

" Would you like that Paddy? "

I nodded. Christ it all seemed so reasonable. They had made a mistake and they were going to let me out. Christ what a relief.

" Paddy, I got a couple of forms here that you got to sign and then we'll drive you home. Do you want to go home Paddy? "

Home? Home and Janice. Away from here?

I nodded.

" Paddy, there's two forms, just formalities, will you sign them and then we can drive you home? "

He held the pen in my hand and guided me to the paper.

" Good man, Paddy. Just one more. "

The judge held my signed confessions away from his face.

" You know they stink, you lying bastard, " I thought to myself.

" The evidence is conclusive . . . Verdict of the Court . . . Twenty years . . .  "

" Twenty fucking Years! Ya lying Bastards. I didn't do it! "

I heard no more as the blood in my ears was pounding. From a distance I saw myself led below and out to the yard. As I fell down the stairs they all took turns. The last one to kick me was a woman and for some reason that seemed shocking. In the back of the van I crouched in the corner. There were four of us. Four of us who committed the ultimate crime. We were Irish at a time when British indignation demanded blood.

" Don't take it personal lads, they'll let you out when the fuss has died down. "

We all turned and stared at the guard by the door.

" My mother was Irish, he said passing around the cigarettes, I know what's going on. "

In a dark corner of England we began our time. For a while she came on visiting day but I could not go down to see her. What would I say? She wrote to me and re-assured me of her belief in my innocence and I hated her for that. My innocence was above re-affirmation, I was guilty by race and we must be punished. We are all the same in the eyes of the law, the unseeing eyes peeping from the blindfold, and someone had to pay.

I paid with nightly beatings, I paid with my dignity when, in plain view of the guards I was sodomized, I paid with my mind. For my reluctance to embrace their verdict I was confined to solitary.

Here, at least, I was spared the rapes and the beatings. I stared at the West wall for a week before turning to east. Next week I would enjoy the North. The window was high but in time I could see the outside by the noises that filtered in. That great wide space with no walls and no guards, wind and sun and trees, and Janice waiting. My only enemy here was time. No matter what I would do it would pass. It was my time, my life, and it was taken away from me. There was nothing I could do but sit and watch the suns rise. Someday the door would open. Someday they could take nothing else from me. I read George Jackson and thanked Christ that I was not a black man in the American prison system. Those poor bastards never got out alive. The British are so civilised. Even in revenge they were bound by that code of fairness that allowed them take my time, my dignity and my life but they would never end my life. Even Irish lives had some value.

            We had refused to wear convict uniforms. We had refused to take part in the life they offered us. We did not take our exercise periods or empty our stinking buckets. At first the guards would take them but in time they took to serving our meals smeared with our own excrement. Like the men in the Maze we had to spread it on our walls. Every morning one of the faceless bastards would walk the length of my cell staring at the wall.

" Hey Paddy, I know nothing about art but I know shit when I see it."

Late, when even the night watch was sleeping, we could call out to each other. We would talk of the efforts to re-open our case. We knew the world was watching and that thousands walked the streets decrying this great miscarriage. But as the years mounted we knew that we were forgotten. We had been sacrificed.

Outside the heat was breaking. It seemed forever since we had fresh air. Thunder rolled across the moor and when the lightening crashed the filth of this jail was lain bare. The old grey walls trembled and the door rattled. A fresh wind blew in.

The journalists were on us by the time we reached the courtyard. The others had something to say but I kept walking. Perhaps they would not notice me. I longed for the shelter of my walls.

The path by the river was narrow. At times I could reach out and touch both walls. I took her letter from my pocket and re-read it. The American stamp was bold and vivid.

" Three thirty by King Henry's tree. "

She had picked up the lingo but was still a romantic at heart. I hurried because I ached to hold her. I hoped that she would wear white. She never did but every time I imagined this moment she would.  

During all that time two things had kept me alive, this and the appointment I would keep with a certain Mr Wainwright, now retired from the Bench. Each night I would savour first one then the other as passion flooded through my icy veins. I had years of love and hate to spend.

I was walking by the warehouses. Many stood empty, their original purpose redundant, and watched me pass. They waited for someone to decide their future.

I would hold her in my arms until they ached. I would hold him by the throat. I would begin kissing her mouth and down her neck, across her bare shoulder and down the gentle curve on the outside of her breast. I would smash my forehead down across his bulbous nose and again over each eye. I would spend my love, I would spend my hate.

She would moan as I nuzzled her breasts and ran my tongue across her flat stomach. He would groan as I ground my heels into his broken hands.

Among the older building decay was beyond repair. Roofs had collapsed and windows had fallen in. Here and there entire sections of ancient brick work had come crashing down.

It had begun to rain and the city turned grey. Gentle but pervasive, it reached inside the mind and dimmed hope.

She stood by the tree with the rain in her hair running across her face and into the salt tears by her eyes. When she ran towards me the years were peeled away. Yes, she had aged but to my eyes she was perfect. Her hair was more controlled, perhaps it was the rain, and her body was fuller. But it was her eyes that I noticed most of all. They were deeper, years of waiting, years of questions, years of years. She cried for me and I for her and then we cried for all the years stolen from our time together. Her hand was like a chain around my wrist and her arms held me like a cell.

" Don't ever ask about it ", I said as the cab inched towards the hotel. " Don't ever mention it again. "

In the morning I stood naked by the open window. She slept but her scent filled the room. I could smell her on my arms and down my belly. My mind smelled of her.

London slept later than Dartmouth and I was glad of the time alone. I dressed without showering. I wanted to keep her smell forever. In time it would overcome the stench that I carried deep inside me. My own shit on my fingers, another man's sperm in my rectum, the blood on my lips and the fear. Fear has a smell but outside the wind takes it. Inside it has nowhere to go.

I stood by the end of the bed watching her sleep. Some where else Wainwright was sleeping. I approached and kissed her on the mouth. Without looking back I left and walked the grey streets before life began again.