Into The Light

‘They’re angry because they’re frightened. They don’t know what else to do.’

The silver-haired man in the patched and faded jeans is speaking up close to Sarah’s ear. He is careful not to look at her face but instead stares over her shoulder so that his gaze skims over the frail old lady who is restlessly waving stick. It comes to rest, finally, on the face of her companion, slightly younger and vaguely androgynous. Every so often, she bends over her friend, smoothing the confusion of her hair.

There are no young people here. The mean age is probably seventy. But most of those who appear to be younger bear the outward signs of illness or handicap. Some people are confined to wheelchairs, others are partially-sighted; there are those who can barely breathe and some who are crippled and wasted. The effects of osteoporosis and vitamin deficiency are also much in evidence. People do not eat like they used to now the cost of foodstuffs has soared.
Fuel, too, has gone up and up so people have to make choices. It is better to be hungry than to perish from the cold.

The unvarnished truth is that, like it or not, there are just too many people. All of them are uncomfortable and some of them are utterly bemused. Probably, they would be mill about if they only had the space to do so. One can tell from their faces that they are both frightened and confused. As it is, they are pressed back to back and fragile shoulder to shoulder, crammed together in this tiny space for hours at a time.

It is impossible to guess whose turn will come next. There is no discernible system. There is nothing for it but to watch and wait and hope for the best.
First thing every morning, the noise is oppressive. Everyone is talking very loudly. There is pushing and shoving; sometimes screaming. People fall over in the crush. Eventually, however, the hubbub subsides and settles down to a kind of hum. Occasionally, someone coughs or farts or, worse, somebody weeps.

The air is thick with the stink of fear, rank BO, and urine. Sarah tries not to think about this. She knows she will need to go soon. How long, she wonders, can she cross her legs before the strain of it is just too much for her? The last time she wet herself she was eleven years old. It was half-way through evensong in the church of St Michael and St Andrew. It was winter time and the unheated church was unbelievably cold. She should have gone before she left home. Her mother was always reminding her. Such was her anguish and humiliation she hid behind a grave stone. Later, she sat in a shallow bath and sobbed till she thought her chest would burst.

Sarah doesn’t know the man at her side but his voice is reassuring. Once or twice, he has reached out his hand on her arm and laid it down lightly on her arm. It is an odd feeling, a man’s hand, those pale, slender fingers. Connor’s hands were big and strong. It seems to her a long time ago.

‘I know,’ she whispers, ‘and they’re all so young. Part of me wants to feel sorry for them.’

She does not turn towards the man but stares steadily ahead. ‘Look at that one over there by the fence. She can’t be more than twenty. What makes a pretty girl like that get involved in something like this?’

The man smiles a quick, tight smile and raises one overgrown eyebrow. Why does the fact that the girl is so pretty somehow make it worse? Sarah doesn’t know but it does make it worse – and then she is suddenly exhausted. She wants nothing so much as to rest her cheek against this stranger’s chest.

‘What is your name? ’ she asks him softly.

She turns her face towards him. His grey eyes seem to glow with kindness and the smallest hint of a smile. This, she thinks, may be the last time, the very last time she does this. But, just as she thinks it, the barricade lifts and she hears the tell-tale click.

‘You, you, you and you.’

The words come spitting like bullets. The speaker is blond with the kind of beard a young man grows because he can. Sarah feels the bolt-t nuzzle her ribs, persuading her nearer her comforter. It seems that, after all, the time has passed for the giving and receiving of names.

Too late, she thinks. It is always too late.But she takes the trembling hand he offers. The years fall away like flesh from the bone as she follows him into the light.

(First published by Word Gumbo in October, 2011


A Ceremonial Occasion

I planned it, of course I did, and the devil was always in the detail. Doing such things on the spur of the moment must is the province of the young. Not that that the elderly can’t be impulsive but, let’s face it, the odds are against it.  Most of us, hidebound by caution, grow old before our time.  Not that there are many that would make it a choice to be staid and predictable: the sad truth is that, little by little, we lose the strength to resist.  


Anyway, speaking for myself, I do like to do things properly. And something like this, well, I’d mapped it all out – let me see – oh, a long time ago.


A state funeral, in case you’ve never seen one, is ever so much more than a spectacle.  Though, of course, it is spectacular, there’s no getting away from that. How could it not be with so much history behind it, all that pomp and ceremony, all the trappings of wealth and power?  There are your bright-eyed sailor boys, smart as new paint and proud to be doing their duty. I do like to see their well-scrubbed faces shining in the sun.  Then there are the horses, sleek and strong, but always so patient and so gentle; and the stern faced policemen who loiter on corners, keeping an eye on the crowds.


But a state funeral is also a very solemn occasion.  The whole nation seems to march to the beat of a single muffled drum.  You might argue, I suppose, that it isn’t about grief, especially if you’re watching on television.  Believe me, though, if you’re there in the flesh, it’s a very different thing.  Standing by the roadside as part of the crowd, you can’t help but feel the atmosphere. Oh, you can feel it alright, right down in your boots.


I was in the crowd in 1965, on the morning of 30th January.  Everything about that day is sharp and crystal clear.  I was eighteen years old and, the evening before, we went up on a Green-line bus.  We got off at Aldgate East and walked the rest of the way.  I remember I went with Ma, her sister, and a friend of mine from the factory. We all slept on the floor that night downstairs at Grandpa Clive’s.   But, before it was light, we were up and dressed and sitting down to our breakfast.  There was ice on the inside of the windows, it was that bloody cold.   


Anyway, we filled a flask and Ma made a whole loaf of sandwiches.  Cheese and pickle, egg and tomato, and corned beef with sauce. I remember those sandwiches.  We waited for hours so, without them, we wouldn’t have made it.   We laced our flask with a good nip of brandy and that was all the food we had.


Ma had been worried we’d get there too late to be able to see what was happening.  Somehow, though, we were lucky enough to find ourselves right at the front.  We found a place outside the Tower, a stone’s throw from the entrance.  If we’d been been camped on the pavement all night we couldn’t have got a better view.  


Everywhere you looked, on both sides, there were hundreds of people just waiting, huddled together in patient rows that mostly went four or five deep. Despite the weather, there were more than a few children and one daft cow had brought her poodle.  It sat in her shopping bag wrapped in a shawl and I remember it made Ma laugh.


I remember the soldiers that lined the whole route, very smart and handsome.  They stood stock still, like statues, with their rifles turned upside down. They kept their heads bowed down so low, and no one moved even a muscle, except that one boy seemed about to faint and had to be helped back to his feet. Then there was a silver band whose drums were draped in black fabric.  It gave the beat a muffled note that sounded very solemn and sad.  I remember how, when the coffin passed by, there was suddenly no more music.  The cortege went on its way to the rhythm of a single slow drum. 


It was eerie then how the silence grew.  You could have heard a pin drop.  Where the guns had been booming all the way from St Paul’s, now there was the silence of the grave.  Then they dipped all the cranes right along Hayes Wharf, and the sight of that just hammered it home.  It was as if, when those monsters bowed their long necks, they somehow spoke for all of us.  Ma turned to me and her eyes were rimmed red and her cheeks were wet with her tears.


The Havengore was just setting off on its voyage up the Thames. Ma squared her shoulders and bowed her head and hissed to us to do the same.


‘That man saved our hides.’ she said. ‘He was the saviour of this country.  When the rest of them would have given up, it’s because of him we’re free.’


I’m sorry.  I’m rambling on.  That’s not what you’re here for, is it? You want me to tell you what’s going on today. But memory is a funny thing and it’s odd how these details come back to you.  How can the world be so much the same and yet so very much changed? Mr Churchill now, say what you like, he was a proper national hero. Someone who deserved a bit of a send-off. You don’t begrudge it for a man like him.


            A cup of tea?  That’s kind of you, dear. I am a bit shaky.  No, no, honestly, I’ll be alright. I just need to catch my breath.  Do you know, duckie, when I come to think of it, you have a look of our Ryan about you.  He’s going to be a fireman, you know.  We’re all very proud.


I like a man in uniform.  I expect your wife does too.


Of course, I’m not sorry, not in the least.   I meant all those nasty things I shouted.   I would have said a good deal more but I’m afraid your young policemen shut me up.  The balloons were a good idea, though, all those beautiful colours.  It took me all night but I wrote on every one:

                                        Remember the Belgrano Dead?