Friday 16 December 2011

Nicely Pink In The Middle, Part 2

Went The Day Well?

Pevensey Beach, East Sussex, 1975. Lose My Body, Lose My Mind.

Their longship a submarine they had beached it as good raiders should. An old 40s vintage U-Boat it leaned where it’s stern had ground up the pebbly beach. They jumped into the water, wading ashore, hair unbound, many bare to the waist and with their flared denims and striped loon pants dragging at the land as might have their ancestor’s cloaks. They were the Mighty Battling Finns and from wide belts heavy with brass were hung swords and pistols. There was already something of a crowd gathering along the dunes. Though it was early the Mighty Battling Finns had bickered to be the first ashore and two of them were still fighting, oblivious that that now made them the last.
            The only man in uniform amongst the dozen that now stared upon them was a postman. With his trousers caught in cycling clips he was clearly an enemy. The Finns tall, robustly healthy and very proud gathered together, shoulder-to-shoulder. They had no leaders, or they were all leaders, which meant they argued a lot as they did now until Kull deciding the issue stepped away from the shouting to call out a challenge. No one answered, indeed the locals looked bewildered. He turned about, “Akka, old woman, what are they saying?”
            Akka (who at forty both disliked being called old but assumed a certain gravitas and wisdom because of it) stomped up to join him. She called out, “La ou sommes nous?”
            “Is it rag week?” said the postman.
            Akka turned to Kull, “He speaks English.”
            “I knew that,” said Kull. Like all the Mighty Battling Finns he had learned passable English from years of Led Zeppelin and Hawkwind. They especially liked Hawkwind because the bassist was named for the great god Lemminkainen. Lemmy a hero of the Kalevala, warrior, hunter and almost certainly an inspiration for Tolkien was one of their favourites. But Hawkwind had not prepared them for this. Hawkwind rarely asked for directions. “Ask them where in France we are,” he said. “In English.”
            Shortly Akka was able to reply, “He says England.”
            “Is that in France?”
            “It is in England.”
            “Hum,” said Kull. He put away his broadsword. It started to snow. The sky white and the sea faded away Kull took it as a good sign, an omen. Most likely to dig out the jumpers, and the Afghans. “Ask him where we can get a drink?”
            The pubs weren’t open till lunchtime but there was a cafe, and not far.
            They were the Mighty Battling Finns. They had come together because of shared experiences. They had never heard of the scratch but they knew of the Tuonela, the underworld of their ancestors. They had each been beset by it, they were each survivors. They had grown strong fighting it, eating well and exercising, fighting and learning and making themselves warriors again. Warriors on the edge of time. They had learned of who had brought the Tuonela as they saw it, from where, and that had been France albeit nearly a century and a half before. If they were in England then they were in England. They would eat in a greasy spoon like Ma Kellys and they would seek help.
Probably from John Bonham.

Chalon Sur-Saone, 1826. Autres Temps, Autres Moeurs.

They had survived the Terror, even Bonaparte and here gathered once again in their temple the Chevalier de Dames Blanche raised a glass to reason. Most were old and each of some renown. The young were amongst the new dandies that here in Chalon sur-Saone drew the notice of the sour south-Burgundians. The Prefect of their order was Joseph Nicephore Niepce inventor and creator amongst other things of the Pyreolophore, an infernal engine whose internal combustion had carried him along the river by barge to be here. They were men that scoffed at superstition though had taken the name of France’s mythological white ladies for it suited their wish for a little mystery, a little fear, though they would have claimed it was wit not hubris that had so motivated their last Prefect and founder, Dominique Vivant.
            Their temple was a museum for the unlikely found true. They were men of science in an age when science was the theory of what had yet to be proven. That on certain apparatus they had captured the sounds of the dead was a matter for discussion, rather than debate. Just as now matters turned to Niepce’s success with the capturing of images upon plates of polished pewter covered with bitumen of Judea. But before even that and the images that were still developing even as others vanished, they had to turn to the matter of Mme. Roux.

Interlude, Tolly Maw. Being Surreal.

“Stop,” I say. The children at school, the washing up done I am enjoying my first peaceful cup of tea of the day. Mme Roux having proven as unpopular with the sprouts as she is in any reasonable company is happier now without their questions. She’s not a great deal happier with mine. “I thought you couldn’t go back much further than the beginning of the twentieth-century?”
            “I can’t even do that. I don’t travel in time. Not in the way you mean anyway. And no I’ve never been there, well, there yes – then, no, as we’ll come to in good time. There will be chases over rooftops, confusion and where many come together hunting the great Maguffin.”
            “Then why are these French... cultists, may I use that word?”
            “You’re the writer,” she says. “Well,” referring to how much is written, earned but not particularly published, “more of a busker really.”
            “Then how did they come to raise the topic of you?”
            She waves away the matter as if of supreme unimportance. When I persist she admits, “It’s a fair assumption. Why would they not want to talk about me? I talk about me all the time. Look they met, they talked about me. Then they came to the matter of the captured images. But hardly captured really. The process was not fixed until Louis Daguerre in Paris when later Joseph bequeathed his work to the fellow. Silver nitrate? I’m not much of a chemist. Before Daguerre they tried other processes. But they only served to scratch the mirrors they made. There now, all caught up? You said you only had a little time. You hate all this info-dumping but honestly unless you care to make a novel of it people want to get to the point.”
            “Well okay,” I say. “But it’s things like this that mean I get described as ‘surreal’.”
            “Who describes your work in such a way?”
            “Other writers actually.”
            “Oh, them. Now, anyway, the Blitz.”
            “What about these cultists? I quite like it that they’re not skulking about in robes, nor seeking to conjure dark gods that will devour the world. I mean, why would you?”
            “It’s a sex-thing. I’ll come back to them another time,” she says. “You can’t imagine how...”

King's Cross, London, 1941. You All Did Jolly Well.

...dark it is in a city without lights. The buildings made canyons that rationed the sky. The bombs dropped in the docks made the buildings that blocked the east glow about the roof. Chief Petty Officer Hardy squinted to pick out the headlines under the grill of the newsstand by the searchlight spill. German paratroopers had landed in Bramley End, ambushed the local Home Guard only to be repulsed by the fierce stand of the villagers themselves. CPO Hardy was on shore leave after his ship, the Torrin, had limped back from Norway to undergo repairs. CPO Hardy held a letter many times folded that informed him of the death of his wife and mother-in-law from Luftwaffe bombing. CPO Hardy an angry man has been in the world three hours and two of those he holds responsible are already dead.
            He can hear the sound of the Stukas attacking the Torrence. He can see the planes that attack his life raft in the year to come, when the Torrence is finally sunk and Captain Kinross is cajoling them all not to be beastly to the Germans. It’s happened twice a night and once for matinees and if CPO Hardy can save the wife and her mother before it happens, then he can save the ship that sinks three times a day, once on Sunday, four times every Saturday. The ARP Wardens should have saved his family, somehow, when they die, which according to the letter is not till next year. It all makes perfect sense to Chief Petty Officer Hardy who stepped from the screen three hours ago when one rogue bomb fell on the Scala Cinema.
            CPO Hardy killed the two ARP men, the second with a very-pistol when he ran, the flare igniting to spark and flounder even as he left. He was wet, stiff with the cold of the channel opposite Dunkirk.
            “You bastard!”
            Hardy doesn’t get to turn before he is coshed to the ground. Boots go in and he fights to protect his face out of habits he has never really learned. He tries to get up but only allowed to when heaved to his feet and forced against the newsstand, almost toppling it.
“You bloody bastard!” says a man in another ARP uniform. “Who the fuck are you to go around killing my boys? These are my boys, my stepsons, my lovely boys. And they don’t like being killed do you boys?”
There is a chorus of righteous agreement from the stepsons, “No Mr Bittersweet!”, “Not ‘alf Charlie!”, a half dozen, four of them deserters and two that ducked it entirely, with one watching the street. Then, “He’s all wet, Mr Bittersweet. Wringing, and he stinks.”
“You hear that, sailor-boy, you stink.”
CPO Hardy doesn’t feel a thing. There’s a plane approaching and the sea is cruel. It machineguns the nearest life raft, in King’s Cross three of the stepsons drop. In King’s Cross there is no plane and no sound of machine guns. Hardy pulls the nearest one towards him with a jerk. Off balance he stumbles and the next cuts him with a straight-razor but there is no blood. Then there is the flat bang of a revolver and the heavy old grain of the .455 knocks Hardy back, but it doesn’t hurt. Someone is running and the tallest of them, Charlie Bittersweet with the stolen Webley backs off too, firing again until empty. Hardy on one knee is kicked, knocked and this time when he rises it is to wrestle, knees and heads and elbows. Everything works, nothing hurts.
“Bastard,” says Charlie and struggling forces Hardy down. Wrestling still the dago-type CPO Hardy almost has the taller man but Charlie Bittersweet trips him and they fall together, Charlie on top. There is shouting and more footsteps hurry towards them. Hardy struggles but is held. Frustrated, for the first time he tries to shout but his mouth is too dry from too little rationed water.
He sees a boot, a low heel, a woman’s foot. “Drown him, Charlie,” she says.
“Do what?”
“Drown him you imbecile!”
Hardy is dragged across the street. The slush in the puddle is cold and it isn’t deep, but deep enough. There are two, three now on top of him and once he turns his head to gasp but not for long and only to be smothered and to freeze again. In the North Sea HMS Torrin limps home but this time CPO Hardy sinks below that cruel sea and is still.   

Part Three tomorrow: Wir Fahren Nach Berlin


  1. "Went the Day Well" is a propaganda film about a German invasion being foiled by plucky English villagers. Jack Higgins pretty much stole the concept for "The Eagle has Landed" (but adding the assassinate Churchill concept). The Cruel Sea sells us a dummy, but In Which We Serve (starring Mr Bridger) yields up the Torrin. It's also a film my mum was forbidden to see by her dad because of the "crude navy language".

  2. In Which We Serve, indeed. CPO Hardy is the main character. There're all sorts of references and at some point I might find the time to go through and list 'em!