Authors: Ramsey Campbell
for Jenny, with all my love—my dream come true
“Behold the Pool, where Neptune’s kin doth dream Of antic life in marsh and secret stream…”
Description of Liverpool
“Long too has Mersey rolled her golden tide, And seen proud vessels in her harbour ride; Oft on her banks the Muse’s sons would roam, And wish to settle there a certain home…”
—George Colman the Elder,
Prologue for the Opening of the Theatre Royal, Liverpool
“The great damp cut between Lime Street and Edge Hill stations: lime-enough green the moss on the rock. Edging out beyond Edge Hill the tracks angle across the rows of houses, raised above them like a writer vis-à-vis his material?…
When am I out of it?
Turner: ‘When the “threshold” is protracted and becomes a “tunnel”, when the “liminal” becomes the “cunicular”…’”
—John O. Thompson,
“In this delightful place We gain a special treat—We see reflected woman’s face, And little fishes eat.”
—Anonymous verse on the Ranelagh Gardens in Liverpool, c. 1750
We’ve rowed out of the Mersey and under the first bridge across the Pool that gives the town its name. Against a sky that would be as black as the water except for countless stars, a figure wobbles over the unenclosed bridge from the Heath into Litherpool. Perhaps he’s returning from the deer park north of Lytherpol. He may have gone in search of country air, away from the outbreak of plague in Chapel-street, unless he wanted to escape the presence of so many animals, most of them alive, in the seven narrow thoroughfares of Liuerpul. Now he’s heading towards the Castle, where a sentry transforms the end of a yawn into a challenge all the sterner for its unauthoritative genesis. Beyond the Castle the streets are unlit except for a lantern at the stone cross beside the stocks on the ridge where Castle-street meets Juggler-street, and a second lantern in front of the cross at the far end of the latter. The villagers who attended church beside the upper reaches of the Pool have gone home to Everton, and the winding line of fitful lights has vanished from the slope, although others flicker above the marsh around the Pool. He may be able to keep his bearings by the squeals of pigs in the churchyard at the foot of Chapel-street, or the challenge of the watch at the end of each street, if they aren’t too busy fighting one another. Perhaps they’ll behave themselves for the bellman when he calls ten o’clock. By then the wanderer should be in his house and cursing as he tries to wield a flint and steel. But we’re in the Pool, where we ought to be careful not to snag the oars on fragments of the wrecked ship that lodged in its marshy bed.
We aren’t, of course. The Pool was drained long before any of us was born. We’re walking where it used to be, along Frog Lane or, if you feel more old-fashioned, Frog’s-lane, alongside which the ribs of half-built ships would once have loomed over us. They weren’t the only reminders of the Pool. Local people dread storms at high tide, because the cellars flood. Behind us in Paradise Street where the bridge was, the muddy road is often blocked by families driven out of their subterranean accommodations together with their beds and other furniture. The swamp alongside Frog Lane has been drained, and dark twisted streets lead to the Theatre Royal. Even if animals are no longer slaughtered in the streets, the ways to the theatre reek of refuse from the market that occupies the square in front of it. Perhaps we can hear ducks squabbling in the square, though at this time of night the uproar may belong to crowds of young delinquents. Even if they’re penniless, they’re eager to watch the show. Fights seem to have been taken for granted, since the newspapers seldom named—
“Why are you calling it Frog Lane? It’s Whitechapel.”
“Jack the Ripper did his women in Whitechapel.”
“That’s the one in London. I’m asking the feller what’s this got to do with frogs.”
“The atrocities,” says someone else.
I’ve opened my mouth to answer the original question, which came from a large woman who looks as if she would be more at home with knitting and bingo, when I’m distracted by the comment. “Which atrocities are those?” I wonder aloud.
The tour party gaze at me, and I can’t identify who made the reference. Was he behind one of the barriers surrounding roadworks in Whitechapel? As a puddle ripples in the cracked uneven pavement outside a pizza joint someone says “Don’t you ever talk about anything nice?”
He’s even more American than the pizza place, where a girl behind the counter is reading
The Drowned World.
wide face topped by a bristling hint of reddish hair looks clenched with earnestness, which has reduced his nose to a disproportionate stub. Most of his mouth is playing straight to less than an inch of wry grin. Despite or because of the steely glare of the streetlamps, his pale eyes are muddily introverted. “Are you on the wrong walk, son?” says the talkative woman, who outdoes him for ruddiness and bulk of face and hair. “We signed up for murders. It’s called the Liverghoul Tour.”
“Don’t you think there’s more to your history than that?”
“Plenty. More than, no offence, you Yanks are ever going to catch up with.”
“We don’t like people putting Scousers down,” says her companion, rubbing the small of her large back, though he seems too young by several decades to be her husband or anything along those lines. “Enough of your lot make a living out of murders,” he tells the American.
“Jack came first,” the woman insists. “He’s a legend, and maybe he was a Scouser.”
The rest of the party are staying clear of the argument. They’re an average assortment—a couple who constantly lag behind, a handful who seem to think they need to impress me with their willingness to learn, a man who produces yet another vaguely relevant question whenever I pause for breath—but even he is resting his attention on the sluggish ripples in the puddle presumably left by this morning’s summer downpour. “We’ll come to the Ripper,” I promise.
I lead everybody to the end of Whitechapel once buses of various competitive companies have finished swinging uphill on Roe Street across our path. St John’s Lane climbs past gardens where a churchyard used to be and meets Roe Street once more at the site of the Fall-well, a name that acquired a different significance once the stone surround crumbled and children sent onto the Great Heath to fetch water fell in. Opposite the junction, behind the Royal Court Theatre, a Holiday Inn raises its brow signed in green
handwriting. As I wait for the last of the party to catch up there’s a thunder of luggage, and a trainload of commuters begin to descend the steps from Lime Street Station. Some can’t elude the woman whose boyfriend has always left her short of money for the train home. The blurred hollow voice of a busker in the subway to the trains beneath St George’s Hall is singing about the sea. The Hall was where Virginia Woolf’s uncle went mad while trying Florence Maybrick for the poisoning of her husband. After the judge found her guilty, a mob a thousand strong chased his carriage up the hill to Everton. Presumably none of them could have known that a hundred years later James Maybrick would be identified as Jack the Ripper, and I’m about to tell my audience how this happened when the Beatles commence singing about the town where I was born.
At least, my mobile does, having made itself felt in my breast pocket. The caller isn’t owning up to a number. “Gavin Meadows,” I say. “Liverghoul Tours.”
“I’m hoping you’re somewhere close.”
“Just the far side of the gardens, Lucinda. Why?”
She hasn’t answered when a voice more distant than hers reveals the nature of the problem. “Don’t tell me,” I say and return the mobile to my pocket. “Next stop the library,” I announce.
Neither the American nor the homicide enthusiast seems to care for the prospect. “We didn’t join up to read books,” she protests. “We like walking, us.”
“Maybe he wants to check his facts,” says the American.
I won’t bother to respond to that. I lead the way behind St George’s Hall, which towers above us like a white whale. In the middle of the broad path greenish dignitaries gesture from plinths higher than our heads. A breeze mounts the slope of the gardens, twitching raindrops out of shrubs and awakening a shoal of shadows to swarm over a drunk or an addict who’s beached on a bench under a tree. Beyond the gardens William Brown Street is massively classical except
for scraps of modern architecture patched in among the columned porticoes. Straight ahead, between the art gallery and the museum, a bicycle is chained like a suffragette to the railings outside the library. As we cross the street I read the slogan along the horizontal bar,
LEAVE LIVERPOOL ALIVE
! I’m all too aware that the legend on the other side is www. ruinedcity.com. “Someone’s been getting some exercise,” the loquacious woman remarks.
The door to the library slides aside to admit me and my unwelcome American sidekick. The others follow us into the lobby, and I indicate the fiction library with an upturned hand. “Seats for everyone, or if you want to browse while I leave you for just a few minutes…”
I might as well not have spoken. A voice can be heard down the main staircase from four floors up. As the murder fan makes for it the doors back away from her and stand wide enough to be inviting everyone else to join her at the foot of the stairs. By the time I do they’re listening to the impassioned monologue with the kind of shocked amusement they might have expected my tour to provide. “What’s up with him?” says the woman who led the detour. “Where’d they let him out of?”
“Nowhere,” I say. “He’s my father.”
I should have asked the members of the tour to wait downstairs. Once the American starts after me and the others straggle in pursuit I’m wary of directing them in case I run out of politeness. We’re still two floors short of the ranting when I feel driven to intervene. “What’s the problem?” I shout.
My father leans over the banister. His face resembles a beginner’s sketch of mine—large eyes set wide for surveying whatever’s to be seen, flat blunt nose more equine than my own, not quite enough mouth to go with the other features, lower lip drooping as if to compensate. I’ve the edge in terms of hair, however unkempt his passion has rendered the remnants of his, bristling like a jagged black halo above his high forehead. “She’s sent for the heavies,” he declares, having adopted a Cockney accent. “You’ll never take me alive, copper.”
I’ve lost count of the voices he put on when he used to tell me about our local history, not that he has finished doing either. I can’t allow myself to be amused even when he produces his apologetic grin. “What have you been making a fuss about?” I need to learn.
“Your girlfriend’s saying they haven’t got some papers. I know they have. I’ve seen them.”
“Excuse me,” the American says, “but maybe you should keep it down. Remember where you are.”
My father peers at him, and I’m dismayed to be able to predict but not prevent the style of response. “Howdy, pardner. Where’d you mosey in from? Left your mule outside?”
As the American emits a sound too dry for a laugh I say “Wait there. I’m coming up.”
That doesn’t halt my party. As I reach my father and they troop after me, Lucinda emerges from Local History. She succeeds in looking professionally efficient despite having to backhand a lock of blonde hair out of her eyes, but her small almost elfin sharp-chinned face risks softening to greet me. “Here’s more trouble,” my father says in his ordinary voice. “All right, love, you’ve got me put in charge. I’ll go quietly.”
Lucinda seems to doubt this. “Mr Meadows—”
“If you and Gav are as close as I’m guessing you are you’d better call me Deryck.”
“I was going to say we’ve checked the stacks, and there’s no trace of the material you were asking about, not even a space on the shelf. You saw it wasn’t in the catalogue.”
His answer seems completely random. “Where do you live?”
He has always been eccentric—one of his charms, my mother thinks, and so does he. “You said you were leaving, dad,” I remind him. “I’m in the middle of a tour.”
As he tramps towards the stairs while the tour party eyes him with various degrees of interest or apprehension, I give Lucinda’s hand a quick squeeze. “Sorry about whatever happened,” I murmur. “See you later?”
“I’ll tell you about it then.”
I hurry after the tour, which is now led by my father, and catch up with him as he’s unchaining his bicycle. “I’ll call you, shall I? We need to talk.”
“Can’t I tag along? I’ve never been on any of your outings.”
We’ve already delayed the tour long enough. “So long as you don’t distract people,” I murmur.
“I’ll try not to show you up.”
He’s silent while he wheels the bicycle to the foot of William Brown Street, close to the edge of the original town. Ahead on Byrom Street cars race three abreast under concrete walkways and mostly vanish into the mouth of a road
tunnel where the Haymarket used to be. Traffic lights dam the flood of vehicles barely long enough for all my customers to cross. A nondescript concrete lane smudged with shadows of foliage brings us to Great Crosshall Street, but there’s no sign of a cross among the apartment buildings that box up students from one of the Liverpool universities. As I talk about the area—behind the apartments Addison Street used to be Deadman’s Lane, under which plague victims were buried and still are, according to the tradition that some were sunk too deep in the mud to be moved elsewhere—my father paces me on the wrong side of the road. He pedals across Vauxhall Road and bumps his wheels over the kerb to wait outside the John Moores campus building for my next anecdote.