Tuesday, December 6, 2011

King's Road

Sarah knew that Jack would not agree; he had made his opinions clear and their dispute had settled as a new distance between them.  She regretted this, regretted the loss of his friendship more than his bed; sex had never been a strength of their marriage; but this regret was not enough to keep her at home.  Having eaten a simple tea, therefore, she dressed in her most sedate of costumes, left word with the maid that she would be late, and set off on foot for Whitechapel.
A young woman alone at night brought glances and occasional remarks from the men who gathered beneath the gaslights.  Sarah hardened herself against these, pleased that her plain outfit added to the dowdiness of her slight form.  She continued on her way, maintaining her steady, determined steps as she turned from Whitechapel Road unto dingier, narrow streets behind.  The air was thick with smoke and smell, adding to the feel of decay.  She looked about for Jessica’s building.
Seventeen was no different to the others.  It rose to four floors, set back from the pavement with a basement showing beneath; the heavy, worn door opened at her touch and she climbed in the dark.  Jessica’s flat was on the second floor to the rear; she had two rooms, one a clutter of curtained beds, the other slightly larger, set out as a kitchen and living room.  Jessica’s daughter made her welcome, responding to her attention; her son observed.  Mr Clarke sat by the stove with his paper.
            “There’ll be no time for tea,” Jessica commented, “though yeh’d be welcome if yeh wanted one.”
            “No, thank you,” Sarah responded; “we’d better be going.  The meeting starts at eight, and I promised Mrs Lowndes we wouldn’t be late.”
            “Right yeh are, Sarah.”
Whilst Jessica fetched her hat and coat, similar in style to Sarah’s, yet less expensive, Sarah took the opportunity to look around.  The room was tidy, its spare furniture scrubbed and neatly arranged, and the only evidence of the squalor suggested by the building was a slight odour of damp.  It felt homely, lived in with care.  Jessica clearly noticed her study.
            “It’s not much,” she said.
            “It’s lovely.”
            “No, Sarah.  It’s a slum, and we’d get out of it if we could.  But we can’t for now, so we’ll make do.”
            “Of course.”
            “Now, Billy;” Sarah turned to her husband, raising her voice so that he knew he was included; “are yeh up for it?”
            “Do I have a choice?”
            “Then I’ll do me best.”
            “Just you do it well, Billy.”
Jessica followed these words by leaning in to the man.  Their kiss was brief, tender and full.  Sarah could not see the touch of lips, but she sensed the pleasure of the sound; it told her of the passion the couple shared.  She thought of her own chaste marriage; though they had been friends she had never desired Jack and she wondered what it would be like.  The image seemed wrong, his stiffness and reserve unappealing.
            “Just you remember us, Mrs Knightley,” Billy said, standing from his chair, “when yeh get the vote.  If Jess here is to be associatin’ with you new women I’ll not have her thinkin’ she can leave me in this shite-hole every night.”
            “Watch yehr language, Billy; Sarah’s a guest.”
This rebuke, accompanied by a slap, showed no offence despite its tone.  Sarah was tempted to offer a further defence, she knew how hard Jessica worked at the hospital, but the words that suggested themselves were too strong.  She held her tongue as Jessica completed her preparations, smiling briefly at the husband then following her friend as Jessica gave final instruction to her two children.  The boy resisted the offer of a public kiss.
            “We’ll be off now, Mr Clarke”, she said, in an attempt to compensate for her silence.
            “Good night now, Mrs Knightley.  And don’t you be too long, Jess.”
            “No, Billy.”
The District Route would take them straight to Sloane Square.  In an arrangement neither of the women bothered to question Sarah paid for the two-penny tickets and the pair made their way down to the crowded carriage.  Jessica undid her coat as she entered the warmth, and showed no surprise when a young man stood up, tipped his hat and offered her his vacant seat.  She simply smiled, slightly coquettish, and accepted the offer, settling into the comfort.
The man’s friend, also a student Sarah guessed, then followed suit.  He became immediately unsure, however, when Sarah refused the offer; she too smiled, but her look said that she was happy to stand.  She found a place where she could wait, upright, her gloved hand keeping her steady as the electric train began its way across the city.  She kept her eyes neutral, refusing to stare, and noticed, despite herself that Jessica had started to chat to her new neighbour.
The pleasure of her conversation caused Jessica to laugh repeatedly, a low laugh barely audible beyond the chair on which she sat.  As she did so wisps of untamed, russet-brown hair leaked from beneath her hat.  She forced these back into place, the movement adding to the attraction she was already claiming.  Sarah, whose own appearance, was designed for the opposite effect, was surprised as usual by the indifference of her friend; such behaviour seemed natural to Jessica.
In this manner they continued their journey.  When seats became available Jessica offered quick apologies to her companion, and beckoned for Sarah to join her.  The attention brought a blush to Sarah’s pale features, but she took her place, straightening her coat and long skirt as she did so.  She said nothing to Jessica’s attempts at further conversation, and her friend got the message, though she kept her head high and her expression open, her looks returning any that came her way.
“I don’t know how you do it”, Sarah confided as they reached the square.
“You show no shame at all.”
Jessica held Sarah beneath the elbow, guiding her through the traffic onto the pavement of King’s Road.  Though she liked control, determining her own thoughts and actions, Sarah knew that she did not possess this extraverted display.  She was unsurprised at the defence Jessica gave for her actions.  Her friend had leaned into her shoulder in an intimate exchange.
            “Why should I show shame, Sarah?” Jessica said; “the men stare so I stare.  It’s not as if I’m gonna give ‘em anything.”
            “I’m not.  I’m married to a man who keeps me more than happy.  Too happy sometimes for the cotton wool.”
Despite the crudeness Sarah laughed, though she had only read of such contraceptives.  This encouraged Jessica to continue.
“And you, Miss Prissy, might have been left to stand for forty minutes if I hadn’t found yeh a seat.  All because it was offered by a young man.  Yeh’re failin’ to make the most of the gifts that God gave yeh.”
            “I’d prefer men to see me as an equal.”
            “And that they won’t, Sarah.  Men look because it’s in their nature, ours too.  And yeh can have some fun sometimes, havin’ a look back.”
            “And Mr Clarke?”
            “Billy’s not the jealous type; he’s no need.”
            “I see.”
            “Yeh don’t Sarah.  Do yeh?”
Jessica was right, and the squeeze she gave to Sarah’s arm told Sarah that she knew.  This brought a new embarrassment.  Despite her university education it was Sarah who was naive.  She would have minded admitting it in other company.
“No you’re right, Jessica; I know little of men.”
“I know.”
“But I know what should be ours.”
The women progressed thus down King’s Road.  As they approached the Palace of Varieties Sarah noticed the waiting crowds, mostly men, and made to cross unto the other side.  Jessica held her firm, though it was clear they were being watched.
“You hold yehr head high,” she whispered; “yeh’re a pretty woman.”
“Evening ladies.”
“How would you know,” Jessica replied; “I’ve never met yeh”.
“And would you want to?”
“Not likely.”
The other men laughed and no further words were offered.  Sarah was uncertain how to feel; the put-down had given her a momentary thrill, yet it also felt uncomfortable sizing up to strangers in that way.  She was pleased when they turned off the road into a lane leading to the studio at the rear of a residential house.
“It’s Billy that taught me to be so bold,” Jessica said; “he says I’m not to hang me head for any man or woman.  And I’ll not.”
In demonstration of this, though Jessica was a guest, Jessica knocked whilst Sarah was still confirming the number of the door.  The door opened immediately, a woman Sarah recognised as Mrs Hampton, and Sarah watched her pause, studying Jessica with a quaint disregard.  Jessica showed her usual indifference, offering a confident hand and smiling.
            “Jessica Clarke”, she said.
            “Mrs Hampton, Mrs Clarke.”
            “Yeh’re one of them, then.”
©2011 Padraig De Brún

To read Chapter 1 click here.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Commentarium Porcinus

            “And you insist that the Protocols were composed by pigs?”
“Animals domesticated in China?”
“And these pigs wrote in Chinese?”
            “The symbols of jia-gu wen to be precise.  They worked with shells and bones.  The compilation of the Protocols came later, the translation I am about to give you much later still.”
Jack accepted the thin, leather-bound volume that Arthur held out to him.  It was supple, much worn, the pages clean yet showing the effect of many readers.  Jack’s reasoning, naturally sceptical, told him to return it at once, that the world he was being invited to enter was too bizarre; and yet the pleasure of a secret book was delicious.  He weighed it familiarly in his hand, turning it over; then he could not resist flicking through the script that he was told would be of Latin and Church Slavonic. 
            “You’ll not regret it, Jack.”
            “Are you sure?”
            “Certain.  This will shake the Society to its core.”
            “So you say.”
            “I do, Jack.”
Arthur turned round, his practiced, genteel movements no more pronounced than those of the many men gathered in the hall to discuss that evening’s presentation.  Despite this caution, Jack thought he caught a look from Symms, but it was quickly gone and he gave his attention to the friend standing in front of him.
“Jack”, Arthur said in a low voice; “this book is not for me.  I joined the Society to meet like-minded people, perhaps gain some influence or power.  I thought with my education that there might be some scope for me to make a contribution, however humble, to an otherwise indifferent world. 
You know I have never been a true student, I lack the patience and time, yet even one with an intellect as limited as mine can recognise an important find.”
“Which is why you stole it.”
“Borrowed it;” the undergraduate grin returned.  “I took it from a museum that regarded the Protocols as a quaint, Russian artefact.  It is more important than that.”
            “And why me?”
            “Because, Jack; you are practically a mystic yourself.  Despite that prune of a wife.”
Jack said nothing.
“Nothing would please you more than to immerse yourself in a text written six thousand years ago.  You would be bringing the Protocols to the whole, English-speaking world.”
Arthur shifted once more, his manner casual, public.  He spoke as though discussing an indifferent supper.
“And you must forgive me for what I say about Sarah.  She might indeed be a great medic, despite her sex; but she is obsessed with this women’s issue.  Votes mean nothing to the Society.  We want to get the order right, not who chooses it.”
Jack flicked again.  The print was spare, each protocol, a verse of prose, occupying a single page; there were twenty-four in all.  Again he felt an urge to return the book, but he resisted.  The face of his friend told him that Arthur believed, and this certainty intrigued him.  He thought of the Russian priest, disappeared by the Okhrana in the 1860s; this popular story was well-known, the arrest giving a mythic status to the man.  It seemed strange that he should be holding the priest’s book.
            “What do you know of this man?” he asked.
            “Only what you do.  He was a mystic, of wealthy parents.  He worked among the peasants of his father’s lands, believing they should take control of their own lives.  He is an example of an agrarian socialist, if you will, which is why he has come to the attention of so many important people.”
            “And his arrest?”
            “He was arrested shortly after this book went to print.  The secret police seized and destroyed any copies they could find.  That is why we are so lucky that this made it to the British Museum.”
            “And you don’t think it is strange?”
            “I think it providential, Jack.  This book means more than the journey of Gilgamesh; it makes a trifle of the Bible.  And Fr Sergius knew exactly what he was on to.  When you read these protocols you will see that they have a perfect understanding of our society.  We have a duty to act.”
“Do we?”
“Yes.  And now you must make up your mind, Jack.  Either you return the book and forget it; or you put it in your pocket and read it later.”
The urgency of Arthur’s voice forced him to act, and though Jack might have questioned more, he opted to keep the book for now.  When it was hidden he looked up and was taken aback by the Secretary’s stare.  The man no longer bothered to disguise his actions; he was at home in the hall, Logan Place, and he showed all the importance of his position as he advanced across the room of solid, unostentatious expense.  Arthur, noticing him as well, nodded at the man’s approach.
“Mr Downing.”
            “Mr Symms.”
            “I think you should circulate, Mr Downing.  I’m sure Mr Knightley here is already familiar with your opinions.”
Jack made to move away with Arthur.  He paused as Symms raised his hand, indicating that he should wait.  The Secretary smiled warm eyes from behind his lenses; he seemed easy, gentle, caring, though this manner brought a hint of threat.
            “Mr Downing tells me you will be of use to us,” Symms began.
            “He did?” Jack asked.
The eyes flashed a quick study, the soft features briefly keen; then the face relaxed, benign and wizened once more.  As with Arthur he seemed at once unhurried, yet intense, and Jack wondered what he knew.  He chose to say nothing. 
            “Some people find our ways difficult to accept,” Symms began again after their pause.
            “They are different.”
            “Yes; I suppose they are at first.  And yet this difference is not sufficient to keep you away, Mr Knightley.  This is your fourth visit.”
            “It is.”
There was a new pause, an explanation was required, and Symms was waiting.  Jack obliged.
            “I am intrigued,” he said.
            “I see.”
            “I would scarcely..........”
            “........have credited your ignorance of the world, Mr Knightley.”
            “If you say so.”
            “I do.”
A further look, this time studying the invisible bulge beneath his jacket, and Jack was certain that Symms was considering the book, questioning Arthur’s recommendation.  Whether Symms resolved his doubts, or not was unclear; the man said nothing of his thoughts, nor did he long continue his study.  He turned rather, lightly, to the rest of the room, where the groups of men continued their earnest conversations.  Symms was choosing his next move carefully.
            “And now I too must circulate, Mr Knightley.”
            “You will do your best.”
            “I always do.”
            “I look forward to reading it.”
That was it, Symms had said it, but the Secretary showed no sign of his deceit; nor was their embarrassment in the acknowledgement that he, a respectable public figure, was supporting the theft of public property.  If anything, the disclosure added to the Secretary’s ease.
            “There are many men,” he said, “who would gladly have taken on the translation.”
            “I suppose there are.”
            “But Arthur thought that your literary style would add to its appeal.”
“Thank you.”
“Not yet, Mr Knightley.  We want the book to be read, so you have been chosen.”
“I have not made up my mind.”
“There is that.  And I have told Arthur that you will make up your mind before I see you next.”
Symms moved off in the direction Arthur had taken.  Alone again Jack felt doubtful, a sceptic among believers.  He watched the groups in their busy chat; there was some familiar humour, though the conversations were mostly absorbed and serious.  He wondered if he should join them, it was the pursuit of such intense discussion that had motivated him to come along with Arthur in the first place; then he thought about the book, he was at once confused and intrigued, and he chose to leave quietly.
Outside, the cool of the January air, the sharp winter’s breeze, cleared his mind.  He was in the east end, surrounded by slums; and conscious of the danger, he lifted his collar, dropped his head and walked quickly.  It took him an hour to reach the quieter suburb of Bow.  There he found that Sarah had not returned, and he retired to the small study at the rear of their terraced house.  He placed the book on the desk, his high Russian returning, but struggled as Sergius slipped occasionally into dialect.
            Men gather in their cities, the book began, too populous to survive on the patches of earth that they allow for their homes.  This removal from the natural world is their weakness, and with this contradiction comes the inevitability of their downfall. 
Men cannot hope to organise the living they create, it is built upon subjugation and disorder, and though they parade as Masters, certain will be their collapse. 
That brothers and sisters is our future; as long as men think to raise pigs our survival is secure.  We then must domesticate men to rely upon our order, and when their world crumbles ours will grow.  Such rule is coming.
            “Absurd”, Jack said aloud; “completely absurd”. 

2011 Padraig De Brún

To read Chapter 2 click here.