I served the wine on their brainwash holidays and I would have spat in their faces as I leaned in with the bottle if I’d had the guts to do it. If strength brings joy then their joy would bring nothing but hurt, to everyone, especially to those men left behind in Bastogne and on Sword Beach and by the Arnhem windmills. No, I wasn’t strong, but I was in love, and that brought joy and strength enough for me, as they darted across the decks in their ugly iron crosses and olive green overcoats, and all the while the sweet sound of Tilbury rang around my head in shifts and patterns of eight ‘till twelve.
The Norwegian coast was visible from Monte Rosa’s quarterdeck as I wiped my oil stained hands on my overalls after a morning in the boiler room. Major Eisenberg ran towards me, thrust a rifle into my hands, and told me to fire at the smoke on the shoreline, and I did a couple of times, but then I ran to my cabin and feigned an injury from an awkwardly taken recoil. This wasn’t my cause, but I had nowhere else to go.
We took them to the camps, and I knew where they were going and I couldn’t look them in the eyes. On the third trip I lost the will to take it any longer and as the gathered party looked on, stars sowed into their pyjamas with jagged brown thread, I dived into the icy fjord, a million tiny icicles with their diamond tips chiseling into my torso as I did so. And as I sank the water became warmer and turned to blue cloth marked with embroidered stars, not Stars of David or figures of planets from journals of astrology, but tangible and accurate representations of undiscovered astral bodies in cross stitch and crochet.
Down by the Pool of London, I awoke, just another one of the rabble, sitting on a large iron cleat counting the coal barges tied together in rows like convicts in a chain gang as they made their way up the river, the flapping tarpaulin revealing black mountains with fugitives, French cigarettes and cocaine stashed between the bricks.
In the distance, a man wearing a flat cap waved at me, it was Dunbar, my fellow descamisado from Tilbury, a cream scarf tied around his neck, he slapped his hand on my back in welcome when he approached.
“Cirencester soothes my soul, forget sex or cigarettes or whiskey,” Dunbar said, “It’s Cirencester for me, every time!”
Staying still, keeping my eyes on the river, I barely acknowledged him, before I said, suddenly, “What’s so good about Cirencester?”
He laughed, “The sex, cigarettes and whiskey, for sure!”
With a wink I passed the revolver, from bare hands to gloved, and slid the white scarf from over my mouth downwards as I knelt at the safe lock and molded the gelignite. I felt the engraving, “Marx, Clark and Jackson,” as an unfamiliar voice yelled behind me, “Stop, here, this is no place for roughhousing, stop, please, to good lads this is madness!”
I jumped to my feet, steadying myself on the dusty green safe top as flashing lights fell across my vision. “I’m dangerous,” shouted Dunbar to the stranger, “get by the door, get by the corner door, you do I say and get on the floor!”
I grabbed the satchel off the tiles and the man yelled, “I know you’re demobbed from your billet, you may be demobbed from your senses for all I know, but get out of my way, I’m the governor here!”
Shots followed and a scuffle too and I remember the distress in Dunbar’s voice as he ran across the vault floor shouting, “I’m wishin’ for you fella’ I’m prayin’ for you fella’!”
Twisting through the crowds cheering the races, the catawampus coats of brown and blue at White City, I was laughing uncontrollably as I ran, and I wasn’t the only one. The White City Dogs with their flip knives and fedoras were standing by the floodlights waiting for the Muscat Gangsters and wondering why all the attention was focusing on something other than themselves. The police were helped through the crowds, but I was obstructed at every turn by have-a-go-heroes and unfulfilled egos with their eyes on the morning papers, tugging at my overcoat, spitting on me and wishing me harm. And I hated crowds, a reoccurring image in my bad dreams at night, along with those pearly whites in the darkness, sugar cane swaying in the sunshine and smashed light-bulbs in a room full of snakes.
The door swung open and I dived headfirst into the car, sitting up and shoving my hand into the glove compartment for the revolver I found nothing but a pile of cheap pocket watches, as the vehicle cartwheeled by the box office and made for the gates. We came to a sudden full stop on Commonwealth Avenue and as my head shot forward I felt my vocabulary come lose, leaving a mess of words rattling around my cranium like dice around a tin tankard. “I’ll thank you not to stop at the traffic lights,” I whispered through gritted teeth, “everything goes out of the window at this time on a Wednesday.”
I thought of Dunbar captured and sitting in a green tiled cell in Hackney Marshes police station, Dunbar in front of the regal beak at the Old Bailey a week on Tuesday and Dunbar cracking a joke to Albert Pierrepoint as the trapdoor opened. As we drove I spied the wooden skeletal outlines of a great industrial future laid out in the form of a concert hall and a silver dome on the bank-side, I saw the moon reflected in London’s only lifeline, the shot tower of the Lambeth Lead Works, Hungerford Bridge, Waterloo Station, all hazy in the lamp-lit background, and suddenly there she was, right on time, no longer serving darkness but serving light, no longer Monte Rosa, but Windrush.
I slipped a bank note into my passport on the dock, but Captain John Dowland still wanted to know why I had broken my contract with the German Marine Pool before he let me on board, and I mumbled something about “personal circumstances.”
“The war, or the police after you?” he asked, turning the passport pages and sliding the money into his reefer jacket pocket with an elegance that betrayed a lifetime of chicanery.
“The war, of course,” I answered, my tone suggesting that it couldn’t possibly be anything else, “I mean, what with circumstances being so rough and tumble for everyone these days.”
“Yes, and I used to date the girl in the Casa Rosada,” Dowland whispered, caustically, under his breath, as he waved me through the barrier while turning to his subordinate and shouting, ” you keep your eye on that one, it’s no crime for officers to do as they please, but you should never give a thief…,” Dowland paused to check the money from my passport was still in his pocket.
“Enough rope, Sir?” the petty officer interrupted.
“Enough rope, Sir, exactly, Sir, enough rope,” Dowland consented, as he inked my name onto the ship’s roll.
Bound for Australia and then home again by ways of Kingston, Jamaica, I had my old job back, toiling in the kitchens and working in the boiler room for a pittance of pennies. Windrush passed Tilbury on her way down the Thames and I was wistful and filled with memories, but I didn’t cry, “tears kill the heart” wrote the poet, but I never seemed to have any tears to shed, so my heart was always lively and free.
Steaming into open water, off Margate, the ships company saw Lord Louis Mountbatten perched on the prow of the Royal Yacht atop a set of wooden step ladders with a metal loud hailer in his hand, calling on a revue of dreadnoughts and cruisers to “draw up closer together and kick up the spray!” Everyone rushed to the rails to view the spectacle, but I shielded my eyes and hoped for peace.
Fifty seven miles from Kingston I overheard Cornelius Tightrope James, a midshipman from Hyde, spreading tall tales of daggers, wooden cudgels and blood in Cirencester, hearsay from my days on the prowl with Dunbar. So I tied him up and gagged him and threw him overboard and I thought no one had turned an eye. He used to speak of a woman called Myra he would sell nylons to and exchange letters with once in a while, and I guess she never heard from him again.
Two days later I was accused. “Killer,” was shouted at me, “killer, where’s James eh, where’s James, too many loose words around here gets you a slap in the face, not a one way trip to Pithole City!”
I turned on my heels, it was a young midshipman whom James had taken under his wing for protection. “You want to watch your mouth boyo,” I shouted down the deck to him, pointing my finger right between his eyes, “don’t you slander no poisonous words in my direction, James jumped, we all know that.”
The boy shouted, “Fuck you,” and charged me, but was dragged back by some of his shipmates.
Taking me by the elbow, a man teased me out of the confrontation and introduced himself as “Kitch Roberts,” before tipping his trilby in salute and placing a battered guitar case he had held in his left hand on the deck. He was one of a proud and exciting band of young men we had picked up in Kingston, men who had boarded in store bought suits with tie clips and buttoned shirt cuffs carrying brown pack cases. Labourers, tradesmen and musicians, who had answered an advert for cheap passage to England.
“You got trouble?” Roberts asked, placing his hands on his hips and looking directly into my eyes. “Come on,” he said, “we’re kindred spirits, you and I, we’ve both got a mother country in common!”
I smiled at his enthusiasm and eyed his fine woolen suit, complete with white and pink pocket square in his top jacket pocket. “You know,” I said, “I believe in you, I believe in what you’re doing, a man has to do what he has to do to make some scratch, I just hope you’re going to send something back for your mother.”
Kitch nodded and introduced his associate, “Mr Austin,” before they told me of Trenchtown and all the Vin Lawrence burlesque and Yardie fistfights, and I sat rapt by their stories. ”But, that’s all gone now,” Kitch concluded. And I mentioned Tilbury with its rip-roaring tides and willowy riversides and how I hadn’t been back for years.
Austin asked, “Why?”
“Trouble,” I said, “I’ve got trouble here and there, and a woman I can’t face, the type who thought I was a saint, but I’m filthy to the core.”
Austin was a man of religious conviction and he spoke in weighty tones which seemed to echo even on the open sea, as if his words refused to drift into the waves or be dissolved by the salty air.
“Forgiveness, when sought, is easier to find than you might think,” Austin preached.
I rolled my eyes at the thought, even if I understood the virtues of putting in a good word now and again, and I said, “That might be the case in the chapel, but it’s not so easy in the terraces.”
“Any terrace, any bedroom, any street is a chapel, if you pray,” he replied.
I told him I wasn’t really a praying man, and in response Austin appeared to offer a prayer up for me, ending, “May the blessings of Jesus Christ go with you now and forever.”
I whispered, “Amen,” without thinking or even really wanting to, like the word had been placed on my tongue by a long dead ancestor, who had closed my mouth, placed a thumb on my pursed lips, and told me to swallow for the sake of doing myself some good, and for a second I thought this “Amen” ever so elicit and dirty, yet it seemed to warm me from the inside out, like a sip of whiskey will.
With a few steps, some jumping over gangplank rails and trolleys piled high with leather cases, the Kingston men fanned out to Somerleyton Road and Coldharbour Lane and further still to Tiger Bay and Winson Green. I was below decks when we docked at Tilbury and I stayed there, getting to London just as the trouble started.
“I’m not usually one to rush in like this,” I overheard a man fresh from Windrush say to a white girl in a blue polkadot dress under the canopy of the Victorian bandstand in Ruskin Park while I was sitting on the steps, “and i’m not talking about a couple of nights here and there, I’m talking, like I,” he paused to kiss her, “I’m not immune, Emma, I’m talking like, I need you, for good, for keeps.”
I saw bright confetti burst across the front of a terraced house, as the rain-coated spivs and rejected Spitfire heroes gathered in the darkness while the raucous wedding music played. Rocks in hands, they whispered falsehoods and fabricated misdeeds of “those black boys and their girls on the game,” in quiet rhythmic chorus. Hell broke loose, as one said to the other, “Fuck them and fuck the ones that brought them here.” And the rocks flew and glass brushed across my shoulder as I turned and saw Mr Austin running towards the front lines at Notting Hill. He saluted as he saw me and shouted, “We’re not going anywhere! You will be tired of seeing my face!” And I laughed, and smiled and I threw off my pack and I ran with him.
No one will ever wear a poppy for me and I wouldn’t want them to, I wasn’t one of The Few, and no matter how many times they rub their heroics in my face, I will never claim to have been. I ran out most of my war in the London back-streets clambering over barrows, pockets full of Wings and nylons and a box knife between my teeth, trying to make a living.
“All this life could simply be comprised of is flashes in the cerebellum, but I’ve seen models and pencil sketches of spheres which spin in orbit around a never ending space, right above your Sunbeam-Talbot.” I saw those words scrawled on an advertising hoarding strung across a bombed out school house, and I stood there, for hours, just staring at them, while children sailed their matchstick boats with tissue paper sails on the rain water pooled in the craters. Austin’s prayer might be the most important thing that I’ve ever been given by another person, but with or without his blessing, white scarf over my face, I still have to finish what’s been started, and then, at least, I’ll make it through, even if I can’t make it home.